Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

On the Level

The offending party.

The offending party.

The Dometic refrigerator/freezer has always been marginal in operation, rolling from too-cold to too-warm at the toss of a coin. The “thermostat” doesn’t hold set temperatures – it only asks for colder or warmer in some generic way. This is aggravated by all these types of fridges having a weak cooling system that takes a long time to overcome placing new, warm items inside, or being able to deal with being lightly loaded. It’s the nature of the beast. This one also shuts down now and then, requiring an alert eye to prevent excessive warming up before restarting it. Fortunately, it has never failed to start right up…so far.

When I stayed overnight at Bluewater Lake State Park, I noticed that the refrigerator was suddenly unable to maintain minimum temperatures, even at full throttle. I attributed it to high winds or bad luck. It improved a little when the winds died off at night. The problem got a little better in transit, and then worse again once I parked in the Cibola National Forest. Watching food spoil while parked miles from the nearest town is not the best.

Now, a failing fridge is not something you want unless you’re Daddy Warbucks. Repair is always possible, but the cost to disembowel an existing unit often exceeds the outright replacement cost. I looked at the options, just in case bad news came my way.

A new replacement, the only model that will fit within my cabinetry, is the 6.3 cubic foot Dometic RM2620 Classic, coming in at around $1,100 not including truck freight or installation, neither of which are cheap. This model, like nearly all RV fridges, runs on propane and 120VAC power (when available). A few models run on 12VDC power too, but these models are all far too big and power hungry for the Innsbruck.

A few specialty manufacturers offer super-efficient off-grid units, though the majority of these are top-opening portable tubs that resemble ice chests. Just one offers a 4 cubic foot front-opening model that would fit my application, but it costs twice as much as the propane Dometic I have. On the plus side, it can easily be plumbed into and powered by the house batteries and solar system, and has no issues at all with tilt.

See, propane fridges have no moving parts like pumps or compressors to wear out, but can only operate when the trailer is relatively level. Really level, in fact. Efficiency nosedives otherwise, and if the tilt is bad enough, they can be permanently damaged. The general guide is that if the camper is tilted enough to make walking uncomfortable or make you feel awkward, the fridge won’t operate properly.

Apparently, my perception of what’s uncomfortably tilted is off-calibration. I went out and looked at the OEM leveling gauges on the trailer, and saw that side-to-side tilt was somewhat off. There are no numbers or degrees on the gauges – it’s pretty much by guess and by golly. So with considerable effort, I found several flattish rocks to put under the low side, and moved the trailer enough with the Ford to get the tires up on top of the rocks. Result: better. Not perfect by the gauges, but the bathroom and cabinet doors no longer wanted to swing toward the low side. Okay.

Now, several hours later, I’m having to throttle-down the fridge a lot to avoid freezing the food. That prompts the question – just how touchy are these refrigerators? How much tilt is unacceptable? The manual doesn’t say, and most of the values on the Internet give the tilt limits for the improved, newer units. I finally found the info for my fridge in a video: 2 degrees front-to-back, and four degrees side-to-side (relating to the trailer). That ain’t much. I don’t have a leveling gauge that’s calibrated to anything, so how would I know when I’m parked within these limits?

This is how the Clinometer app looks on an iPod when laid flat on its back.

This is how the Clinometer app looks on an iPod when laid flat on its back.

iPad to the rescue. There’s a free app called Clinometer HD, which allows you to use the iPad’s built-in tilt-measuring device. The readout is in tenths of a degree, and it can measure when set on its edge along a surface, or I can just lay the iPad on its back on the floor to get both readings at the same time. Sweet! I still need to position the trailer using the vague exterior gages, but then I can confirm exactly how she’s sitting with the iPad, like 0.6 side-to-side and 1.7 front-to back today. It’ll be quite a challenge to level the trailer within the specs, especially considering the kinds of places I park, but it’ll just have to be done.

With the fridge suddenly happy, I can now stop researching repair and replacement costs. Yea!

UPDATE: I can almost stop… It seems that the intermittent turning off of the fridge is most likely due to a failing controller board, which is replaceable with a more robust version. Now I have to look into just how gruesome a swap that is, at a cost of about $100 for the board itself. Ow.

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6 thoughts on “On the Level

  1. Wow you just answered a riddle I had been trying to figure out about the frig in my camper, Doug. 2 or 3 degrees???? I think the camper is more than that off just sitting in the bed of my truck. I’m going to have to think about leveling it front to back or always placing a couple inches of lifts under the front tires when I park. Thanks for the info!

    • John,
      Well, those limits are for ancient units of something like 6 and 8 cubic feet, like mine. The newer ones claim to be better, and are said to be listed in manuals. New ones can generally do 3 degrees F-B and 6 degrees S-S. If I were rich, I’d tear this Dometic out and go solar electric for tilt, accuracy, and reliability. As things are, I’ll have to get serious and expand my collection of 2x4s to include some 2x6s for leveling purposes. Equipping a truck camper with a tilt-sensitive fridge seems like kind of a contradiction of purposes, doesn’t it?

  2. Be aware that front/back applies to the fridge not the vehicle. Most RV refrigerators are installed sideways.

    • Thanks, Linda. If I’ve done it correctly – and that’s a big if – I’ve already translated it to the trailer. So front-to-back in my post means the trailer orientation, not the fridge itself. That assumes the guy in the video was correct…

  3. kerry on said:

    Two thoughts here. First, don’t guess about a bad circuit board, pull it out and get it tested at a dealer. I had a dead one in my furnace, and the local dealer checked it for free. I takes a moment, they just plug it into a proprietary tester that all authorized service places should have. If it’s toast, it is probably a bad soldier joint on the board itself, the factory boards are crap. The solution is a Dinosaur brand board. They build a much cheaper, yet far more robust product to replace most delicate POS control boards on RVs. Second before you even think of dumping the fridge, check out “Amish cooling unit” on Google. Some Midwestern Amish outfit makes really high quality cooling units that are direct DIY replacements for the Dometic and Norcold parts. They are cheaper, tougher and well worth the trouble.

    • Kerry, now that’s helpful advice. Just before I went out of range of email, I ordered a dinosaur board and it’s waiting for me at my “home” mailing address. I will check out Midwestern Amish vendor, though. Thank you.

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