Comparing Smart, Compressor, and Propane RV Fridges

When outfitting your RV, one of the most important decisions you’ll make is which type of fridge to install. The fridge is crucial for keeping food fresh on the road. There are three main options on the market today: smart fridges, compressor fridges, and propane absorption fridges. Each has its own set of pros and cons when it comes to space, power consumption, and reliability. In this article, we’ll break down how these three types of RV fridges compare to help you choose the right one for your needs.

Overview of the Main RV Fridge Types

Before diving into the details, here’s a quick overview of the three main types of RV fridges:

  • Smart fridges – These use a compressor like a regular household fridge but also come with “smart” wifi connectivity features. You can adjust temperatures and settings from an app.
  • Compressor fridges – These work just like a normal fridge you’d have in your home, using a compressor and fan to cool food.
  • Propane absorption fridges – Also called “ammonia fridges,” these use heat from propane combustion and evaporating ammonia to absorb heat from the fridge interior. No electricity required!

Now, let’s explore how these fridge types compare in some key categories:

Power Consumption and Electrical Needs

When it comes to power usage, the different RV fridge types vary quite a bit:

  • Smart fridges have the highest electricity demand, requiring continuous AC power or large battery banks. Without consistent power, smart fridges won’t work.
  • Compressor fridges also need a constant power source but are a bit more flexible. They can run on AC, 12V DC from your RV battery, or propane.
  • Propane absorption fridges require no electricity at all! They run entirely off the heat from an LP gas flame. This makes them ideal for off-grid camping.

I once spent a weekend with friends dry camping in the New Mexico desert. With no hookups or generator, we had to rely solely on our RV batteries for power. The propane fridge was clutch – it kept our food cold without draining our batteries like the compressor fridge in my parent’s trailer did. Gotta love that off-grid reliability!

Cooling Effectiveness

Some types of RV fridges cool more quickly and evenly than others:

  • Smart fridges have top-notch cooling performance, just like you’d expect from a high-end household fridge. Their advanced compressors and fans maintain a consistent temperature.
  • Compressor fridges also offer excellent cooling, significantly better than absorption fridges. Food cools faster, reducing spoilage risk.
  • Propane absorption fridges are slow to cool down initially and the temperature fluctuates more than with compressor cooling. You have to plan ahead to give your propane fridge time to get cold.

I once made the mistake of putting warm groceries in my propane RV fridge and just expecting them to be cold in a few hours. Boy was I wrong! The milk and veggies partially spoiled. Now I know to pre-chill food in a cooler first before putting in the propane fridge. Lesson learned!

Reliability and Durability

The more complex the technology, the more prone RVs are to breakdowns. Here’s how fridge types compare:

  • Smart fridges have the most electronics and moving parts, increasing likelihood of malfunctions. Plus if WiFi signal is lost, you lose fridge control!
  • Compressor fridges are time-tested and generally pretty reliable, comparable to household models. But compressors do eventually wear out.
  • Propane absorption fridges have been used for decades and their simple construction makes them very dependable with minimal maintenance.

My aunt and uncle full time RV’d for 5 years with a propane fridge and never once had an issue with it! No expensive repairs like you often see with compressor models that break down after a few years. That simplicity and durability gives real peace of mind.

Noise Levels

An annoyingly loud fridge can make it hard to sleep in your RV. Here’s how the types compare:

  • Smart fridges may have quieter compressors than standard models, but most still operate around 45 db.
  • Compressor fridges generate the most noise due to their fans and compressors cycling on and off. Expect noise levels around 42-48 db.
  • Propane absorption fridges have no moving parts, so produce almost no noise during operation, typically under 38 db.

My neighbor growing up had an old camper trailer with a rickety compressor fridge that drove me nuts whenever they visited with its loud cycling. I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep next to that monster! My propane RV fridge now is practically silent in comparison.

Cost and Affordability

RV fridge prices can range from a few hundred bucks into the thousands! Here’s how they generally compare:

  • Smart fridges are the priciest options, starting around $1400 and ranging up to $3000+ for large residential-style models. All the wifi electronics really drive up costs.
  • Compressor fridges are mid-range in price, starting around $700 for smaller models and going up to around $2000 for the biggest sizes.
  • Propane absorption fridges are consistently the most affordable, with even large models rarely over $1500. You can buy basic models for under $700.

When outfitting my first travel trailer, I was on a tight budget, so the affordability of the propane fridge was a lifesaver. I was able to get a solid, stainless steel propane fridge under $1000 – saving a ton versus the smart or compressor options.

Size and Storage Capacity

Space is always tight in RVs, so fridge dimensions are important to consider:

  • Smart fridges come in full residential sizes if you want maximum storage, but smaller smart models are available too. Dimensions can match compressor fridges.
  • Compressor fridges typically range from 1.7 – 12 cubic feet. The most common sizes in RVs are 3-5 cubic ft models. Offers a balance of capacity and footprint.
  • Propane absorption fridges tend to have smaller capacities than compressor models, usually in the 1.5 – 7 cubic foot range. Great for space savings but less total storage.

My first teardrop trailer had a tiny 1.6 cubic foot propane fridge. While it worked great, I was constantly having to replenish groceries since it held so little. When upgrading RVs, I opted for a larger compressor fridge to get more space. Worth the trade-off!

Energy Efficiency

Some RV fridges use significantly less energy over time than others:

  • Smart fridges tend to be the most energy efficient option due to advanced compressors, fans, and insulation. This saves on electrical/propane costs over time.
  • Compressor fridges are still reasonably efficient, consuming around 350-750 kWh annually based on size and settings. Newer models are improving.
  • Propane absorption fridges use 2-4 gallons of propane per week, making them much less efficient. But no electricity usage offsets costs somewhat.

Over a year of camping trips, I calculated that my propane absorption fridge used almost 3x the energy equivalent of my parent’s compressor model. The propane costs added up, making the compressor fridge more affordable long term.

Ventilation Requirements

Proper airflow is crucial for certain RV fridges:

  • Smart fridges have rear ventilation like standard household fridges. No roof venting needed but space around the rear is important.
  • Compressor fridges require roof vents or louvered exterior vents for intake and exhaust airflow to prevent overheating.
  • Propane absorption fridges need roof vents above the flue for combustion gasses to escape safely. No rear ventilation needed.

When remodeling our old camper, we accidentally blocked the lower rear vents for the compressor fridge. It kept overheating until we realized the issue and added a roof vent for proper airflow. Lesson learned on watching those ventilation requirements!

Off-Grid Power Suitability

If you love off-grid camping, the fridge you choose matters:

  • Smart fridges are the least suited for off-grid use since they require continuous AC power or massive battery banks. Not a great off-grid choice.
  • Compressor fridges can technically run off battery power, but still drain batteries much faster than propane models. Their efficiency helps but they’re still quite power hungry.
  • Propane absorption fridges are the gold standard for off-grid RV power. They can run indefinitely on just an LP gas supply without any electricity needed!

Some of my best camping memories are making delicious meals with fresh food while off the grid for weeks in national forests, all thanks to my trusty propane absorption fridge. It’s a complete game changer for extending stays off the power grid.

Automatic Operation

Self-regulating operation is important for convenience while camping:

  • Smart fridges use advanced electronic controls and sensors to self-regulate temperatures with no input needed. Just turn it on and enjoy!
  • Compressor fridges are also fully automatic once powered on and set, cycling on and off to hold temperature. Basic manual controls.
  • Propane absorption fridges require manually lighting, as well as regular adjustment of gas flame based on outside temperatures. More involved manual operation.

One night during a chilly fall camping trip I forgot to lower the gas flame on my absorption fridge overnight. By morning it had frozen everything solid inside from getting too cold! Now I make sure to adjust the flame properly when temps change. The automatic operation of compressor models is super convenient by comparison.

Unique Benefits and Drawbacks

Beyond the major factors above, each RV fridge type comes with a few unique benefits and drawbacks as well:

Smart Fridge Benefits:

  • Advanced features like touch screens and apps
  • Integrates with smart home and Alexa ecosystems
  • Can be serviced remotely through wifi

Smart Fridge Drawbacks:

  • Connectivity issues/dead zones disrupt operation
  • Electronics prone to faster obsolescence
  • Complex compressor systems are costly to repair

Compressor Fridge Benefits:

  • Time-tested cooling technology used for decades
  • Runs on various power sources
  • Parts are easy to obtain and service

Compressor Fridge Drawbacks:

  • Compressors wear out over time
  • Noisy cycling operation
  • Prone to vibration failures from road bumps

Propane Fridge Benefits:

  • Ultimate off-grid and dry camping reliability
  • Simple and extremely durable construction
  • Very affordable even in larger sizes

Propane Fridge Drawbacks:

  • Slow to initially cool down
  • Temperature fluctuations more likely
  • Requires proper roof venting

Key Takeaways – RV Fridge Comparison

To summarize the key differences:

  • Smart fridges shine for advanced features and superior energy efficiency, but high costs and power demands limit off-grid usefulness.
  • Compressor fridges offer excellent cooling performance and the ability to run on various power sources, though reliability issues can crop up.
  • Propane absorption fridges can’t be beaten for off-grid reliability with minimal power draw, though they come with some temperature regulation trade-offs.

For maximum versatility, many RVers choose compressor fridges since they balance Benefits and can be fitted with propane kits for running off-grid if needed. But propane absorption models still excel for off-grid simplicity and affordability.

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