The RV Refrigerator Battle: Propane vs Electric

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Before you thought about buying an RV, you probably didn’t know you could get a propane powered fridge. Propane fridges offer an interesting contrast from traditional electric powered fridges that are helpful for some RV owners.

We bet you are wondering what the difference is between propane and electric fridges. They produce similar results, but they certainly work differently, and for a reason.

Propane powered fridges use some science and chemistry to create a process that removes heat from a fridge. Electric fridges use a compressor and blower. The two fridges do basically the same thing in opposite ways.

How does a propane fridge work?

So here comes the fun part: propane fridges are powered by a propane source. The propane fridge has multiple tanks of liquid that are connected in a closed system.

The first tank contains water and ammonia. A propane flame heats this tank up and causes the mixture to turn into gas. When the mixture turns into gas, it’s moved to another tank, which causes the gas to turn back into a liquid. The liquid combination then moves into a condenser where it mixes with hydrogen gas.

The combination of hydrogen gas pulls heat from the fridge. When enough heat is pulled from the fridge to cause the hydrogen gas to warm, the gas returns to liquid form and the whole process repeats.

Why would you want a propane fridge in an RV?

The easiest answer is a lack of electricity. If you are planning on camping in a place with no power, propane is your next best bet. Propane fridges do not need electricity (there are propane electric combos too) to pull the heat from your fridge and create the cold necessary to keep your perishables good.

Propane is also readily stored in tanks and can be found at most gas stations and hardware stores.

Propane fridges also lack moving parts and can least a longer time than traditional fridges which use electricity and moving parts to cool the fridge down.  Propane fridges can have their ammonia or hydrogen gas leak, but it can be replenished and the leak fixed.

Propane powered fridges are also often lighter and are easier to move in and out of an RV.

How does a electric fridge work?

So you probably know this on some level, but we’ll give you the basics. An electric motor, compressor, cooler, and fan power an electric fridge. The compressor combines air and coolant to push the cooled air into the fridge chamber via a fan.

The electric fridge is also a closed system in many ways, as the coolant should not need to be replaced.

Why would you want an electric powered fridge in an RV?

Electric powered fridges are great especially when you are connected to shore power (at an RV park. For a variety of reasons we will go into below, if you are on shore power or have electrical available, you should use the electric part of your fridge.

Are there disadvantages to a propane powered fridge?

Yes, there are. Propane needs to be refilled. The average propane refill costs $20 to $25, and lasts a little under 2 weeks with regular use. This is fairly inexpensive when doing off the grid camping, but expensive compared to using regular electricity. We also assume you are paying for an RV parking spot.

A propane powered fridge is also relatively slow when compared to an electric fridge. While that water can boil quickly and start the process, it will take longer to cool a propane powered fridge down for proper use.

A propane powered fridge will require a little more planning and knowledge of where to find more propane when needed.

Propane powered fridges are also not a great idea if you have lots of guests or kids in the RV frequently. The air that is lost when the doors opens on a overly regular basis will require more propane and refilling.

Are there disadvantages to an electric fridge?

Electric fridges are the standard for most RVs and homes, especially for those always (except when driving) on generator power. The disadvantages are that they are more expensive to start with, can wear out earlier, and are heavier to move.

An electric fridge is not good for off the grid camping, especially for a significant amount of time. You’ll find yourself eating dry goods, searching for electric plug ins, or needing to run your fridge often. 

Which one should I get? Electric or propane

The good news here is that you don’t really have to compromise. Fridges are offered with both equipped, specifically for RVs. They do cost more, but that’s to be expected for having setups for two kinds of cooling.

If you are going to be on RV park power often, or live in your RV with amenities nearby, get an electric fridge. Propane will be a bigger hassle and less efficient because electrical power is widely available and generally cheaper. Also consider the cost of driving to get more propane.

Propane is a great addition when you plan to go places where electric isn’t readily available. If you aren’t the kind of person to use a traditional campground, or you just want to really unplug for a while, propane works well for those who don’t want to use electrical.


Propane fridges use some chemical and science magic to produce a similar effect to an electric fridge, without the need for a plug in. The use of one over the other depends more on your needs. 

Consider exploring both options when shopping for a fridge. If you don’t intend to go “off the grid” or there is a good chance young ones will be exploring the fridge on a regular basis, electric is the way to go. For other situations, the simplicity and long lasting hardware in an propane fridge is worth the need to pickup propane.

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