Keep your cool

Look after your fridge and it will look after you. Check out Sammy Faircloth’s guide to operating and caring for your on-board appliance

There are two types of refrigerators in leisure vehicles: absorption (or three-way) fridges; and compressor fridges. 

Similar to those found in the home, a leisure vehicle compressor fridge operates by circulating refrigerant chemicals around a maze of pipes mounted on the rear of the casing. It runs on a 12V supply from the leisure battery, requires no external vents or routine servicing, and is easy to install. However, it can be a little noisy and will drain your leisure battery quickly.

Have your fridge serviced regularly and keep it clean

Absorption fridges are a little different. A power source is used to create heat, which then circulates the refrigerative chemicals round the cooling unit. The power source is either gas, 12V when the towcar or motorhome engine is running, or 230V when attached to a mains supply (hence the reason these fridges are known as ‘three-way’).

As compressor fridges require limited maintenance, in this article I will be focusing on absorption fridges.

Operating your fridge

Fit winter covers to fridge vents to prevent over-cooling during cold weather

To get the best from a fridge, you need to be aware of a few issues.

Pre-cooling: If you are able to do so, it is recommended that you run the fridge for three or four hours from the mains supply prior to setting off on a trip. During this time it should only contain non-perishable items such as cans of drink. You should transfer food that can go off (eg meat) from the household fridge only when the tourer’s fridge is sufficiently cool.

Connecting to 230V: Prior to departure, use the domestic 230V supply to conserve your gas. You will need an adaptor to couple your caravan’s mains lead into a 13A socket plus a portable residual current device (RCD) safety unit to protect the cable running from your house to your ’van (if your house’s mains consumer unit already has an RCD incorporated, this should provide sufficient protection).

Storage: While a fridge is running, packing items too tightly prevents air from circulating – so avoid overfilling. Don’t cover the silver ‘fins’ inside the fridge as their job is to extract heat. The exception is if you need the fridge to stay cool for as long as possible when not running - perhaps during a ferry crossing - then filling it as full as possible can help. 

Door catches: Before you set off, make sure the door catch on the fridge is securely in place. Bumpy roads can impose considerable stress on the furniture inside your van, and a loose catch can cause food to tumble out.

Turn off gas when towing: When towing, select 12V operation and turn off the gas cylinders. You should never tow when running a refrigerator on gas, and under no circumstances enter a filling station if a naked flame is alight (that’s why we have the 12V operating mode).

Common problems

Select the 12V option when towing, but remember it only works when the engine is running

As long as your refrigerator has been correctly installed and you ensure it is serviced routinely, it shouldn’t cause you any problems. Here are some pointers if you do run into difficulties…

Gas failure

Check your gas cylinder isn’t empty.

Check that the gas valve serving the refrigerator is open.

If the burner doesn’t light after repeated attempts, call in a trained service specialist.

If the flame doesn’t stay alight, call in a fridge specialist.

12V failure

Check that the 12S or 13-pin plug is correctly connected to the tow car’s socket.

Check the electrical panel, which includes a fuse for the refrigerator’s fascia controls and 12V operation.

Make sure the 12V switch on the control panel of the fridge is selected.

Remember that the car engine must be running when in 12V mode.

230V failure

Check that the appliance’s 230V fascia switch is turned on.

If the fridge is coupled to the caravan’s mains circuit using a 13A plug, check the fuse in this plug.

Check that the miniature circuit-breaker controlling the fridge on the caravan’s mains consumer unit hasn’t tripped out.

Poor performance

Avoid covering the heat extractor fins

In hot conditions on busy sites, especially abroad, a high number of users can cause the supply to fall to 195V or lower. Try the appliance on gas instead: its cooling performance will often improve.

Overcooling is another problem in cold conditions (look out for frozen cucumbers!). Winter covers clip onto the external vents to prevent this; they should be fitted when outside temperatures fall roughly below 8˚C.

If the fridge is cooling more than you’d expect on the selected control setting, check that the temperature sensor (often clipped to the cooling fins) hasn’t become dislodged.


Keep the fridge interior clean, but avoid using abrasive cleaners intended for general household appliances. Thetford recommends using its own Bathroom Cleaner inside the food compartment, but you could also make up a cleaning compound using a teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda added to half a litre of warm water, which is not only cheaper, but better for the environment.

Final thoughts

A refrigerator is expensive to replace if it fails. Make sure that you have it serviced according to the manufacturer’s instructions as the consequences of not doing so could be serious. Note that a standard leisure vehicle habitation service will usually only check the fridge for functionality and safety – it will not specifically service the fridge itself. Look after your fridge and it will  continue to keep your beer cold and salad fresh!

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