Recreational vehicles are - in essence - tiny homes. They are smaller and more compact than their stick and brick counterparts. Bathroom sinks are smaller, there are less burners on the stove, even an RV king mattress is a few inches narrower than its residential cousin. But what stands out for a lot people is the difference between an RV refrigerator and a residential fridge.
For the majority of RV history, the sort of refrigerator you would see in a travel trailer was akin to the chill chests commonly found in college dorm rooms. "The main difference is size, referring to box capacity," says Ron Scarberry, East Coast Team Lead for Heartland RVs Customer Service Department. "Your standard RV refrigerator was designed to fit in a condensed version of a home, just like many other appliances and components, however, even they have come a long way in size."
Indeed, RV fridges have been narrowing the gap between their residential counterparts. Some have French doors. Some even have built-in ice makers with through-the-door water and ice dispensers. You can now find RV fridges with storage capacity that rivals, if not exceeds, that of a residential refrigerator. The biggest I found while researching this article was the Norcold 2118 PolarMax, which advertises 18.3 cu. ft. of storage. Heartland currently offers these big guys in Cyclone toy haulers and Bighorn luxury fifth wheels.
While RV refrigerators have grown larger and coopted more features from residential fridges, residential refrigerators have found their way into RVs. "Residential refrigerators have been used for the past five to six years due to popular feedback for more capacity," Scarberry says. Heartland currently offers residential refrigerator options in its Luxury Fifth Wheel, Full Profile, Luxury Toy Hauler, and Destination brands.
Refrigerator Power - Let's Count the Ways
"The other main difference is power source," says Scarberry. "A standard RV refrigerator will operate on liquid propane or 110 volt, whereas your residential refrigerator will be strictly 110v. A residential-style refrigerator operates off a compressor, and an RV refrigerator uses absorption refrigeration along with proper ventilation."
Rather than try to explain absorption refrigeration, just watch this short video:
If you do a little googling of RV fridges, you will quickly find that they come in 2-way and even 3-way varieties. "A 2-way refrigerator is one of the more commonly used setups which operates off 110v or LP," explains Scarberry. "A 3-way - which I have never seen in a Heartland product - will operate off 110v, LP, or 12v. A 3-way does have the advantage of utilizing 12v power source over the 2-way, I just don't see them being used." So there is some versatility in how to power an RV fridge, which is not available in residential fridges.
Is Your Refrigerator Running...
Another thing to keep in mind: maintenance. "RV refrigerators were designed with the thought of the recreational vehicle moving down the road," says Scarberry. "The installation process provides a very secure placement but tend to be heavier, if comparing similar size to a residential."
"There will be minimal maintenance on a residential-style refrigerator in comparison to an RV refrigerator, and, of course, will depend on usage/storage," Scarberry says. "I would encourage anyone to follow the respective manufacturer's maintenance guidelines."
What's the Fridge for You?
On the one hand, there are multiple ways to power an RV fridge, and RV fridges are designed to take the bounces and bumps of life on the road. On the other hand, residential fridges offer more space for storage and less maintenance woes, but it only has the one power source and requires an inverter to run on 12v power. Having enough juice to keep a residential refrigerator running in dry camping situations may also be a concern. A big residential fridge can be a power hog, for sure, but Scarberry says with today's battery banks, solar options, and generators, power consumption isn't a major factor.
So, you understand the big differences between a residential fridge and an RV fridge, but you're still trying to decide which to get with your next RV. Ask yourself, "how do I plan to use my RV?"
Are you picking up a travel trailer for weekend camping trips? Are you going to be living in your RV for extended periods of time? Are their a lot of mouths to feed in your camper? Will you be camping with full hook-ups or do you plan to go off the grid?
"Generally, your residential refrigerator will offer more capacity which would be great for full-timers, whereas your RV refrigerators would be sufficient for weekend warriors," Scarberry advises. "Also residential refrigerators will consistently cool better in comparison to RV refrigerators due to environmental changes and power source. For most-of-the-timers and full-timers, a residential set-up would be ideal as it will allow more capacity." And, if you're more concerned with power consumption but need ample storage, seek out a floorplan that offers a larger RV fridge. Heartland's Elkridge, Big Country with the Elite Package, Bighorn Traveler, Torque toy hauler currently offer a 12 cu. ft. fridge option, for example.
Before we wrap this up, I want to address those uber handy DIYers out there who may want to replace their RV fridge with a residential fridge. It can be done, but it's not the easiest modification. Scarberry advises, "Most residential refrigerators are going to be larger than an RV refrigerator, which will require a restructure of the RV cabinet and surroundings. Along with this, generally you will want some type of alternate power source when you do not have access to shore power. We install inverters with our residential set-ups which convert 12v into 110v." He goes on to say such a modification will take "time, money, and the know-how." Proceed at your own risk.