Troubleshooting Your Airstream's Absorption Refrigerator

Updated on January 17, 2019
Randy Godwin profile image

Randy is a lifelong lover of the outdoors and especially camping. His articles are intended to help the RVer save money and time on repairs.


Airstream Refrigerator Maintenance

Keeping your Airstream absorption refrigerator in peak operating condition is normally an easy task. The Airstream RV absorption refrigerator, which normally comes standard in the unit, uses an ammonia solution that can be heated by alternative power sources: 12-volt DC current, 110-volt AC current, or the liquid propane (LP) gas supply.

These reliable refrigerators can last for many years if properly maintained on an annual basis. Unlike ordinary 110 volt AC house-type refrigerators, these absorption refrigerators are very versatile, especially if a normal 110 volt AC power supply is unavailable.

Using 12-volt DC or LP gas to power the Airstream refrigerator allows the unit to operate while the travel trailer or motorhome is being towed or driven to the next camping site. This keeps the food inside of the refrigerator cold during this travel time.

This article describes some problems you can troubleshoot yourself to help you keep your RV refrigerator in top working condition.

A standard absorption RV fridge.
A standard absorption RV fridge. | Source

How the Airstream RV Refrigerator Works

Without going into complete detail about RV absorption refrigerators, I can tell you the process is fairly simple. This type of refrigerator has no moving parts to replace outside of the switches involved in changing the unit from 12 volt DC to 110 volt AC or LP gas. Many of the newer refrigerators do this switching automatically, with no manual adjustment.

These wonderful absorption refrigerators use heat to make cold temperatures. The ammonia solution is cycled over and over, being heated and circulated through separate capillary sections, with the heat going in one direction and the cold in another. The cold solution is concentrated in the proper area of the refrigerator to complete the process and then recycled.

Most of these refrigerators are made by the Dometic company which also makes ice makers and air conditioners. You may get replacement parts for many of these units from Dometic or other RV parts suppliers online.

There are several reasons why your refrigerator might not be not performing properly. These issues are simple to check and repair, if needed.

Absorption Refrigerator Issues to Check

1. Is Your Refrigerator Level?

2. Is Your Heat Vent or Vent Pipe Blocked?

3. Are the Heating Elements Bad?

4. Is the Pilot Light or Electronic Ignition Working?

5. Are All Your Switches Working Correctly?

1. Is Your Refrigerator Level?

Because the RV refrigerator uses gravity to circulate the ammonia solution, it is very important to keep the unit as level as possible. A refrigerator which is not level may not work properly or at all. A tilted campsite often causes an absorption refrigerator to stop cooling properly.

Check the level on your unit before beginning the maintenance check. Get your Airstream travel trailer as level as possible and then check in half an hour to see if this solves the problem.

Some owners use small stick-on level indicators to make sure the refrigerator is properly situated. By placing a stick-on level on the front of the absorption refrigerator unit, and on the side of the wall adjacent to the unit, you can see how the unit must be situated in comparison to the Airstream level indicators on the chassis.

2. Is Your Heat Vent or Vent Pipe Blocked?

Another common problem with RV absorption refrigerators problem is a blockage of the heat dispersal system. Airstream travel trailers and motorhomes use a vent pipe to allow the heat from the ammonia solution to disperse into the air. Often, birds' nests or wasp nests may block these vent pipes and cause the RV refrigerator to not perform properly.

There is also a vented door located behind the absorption refrigerator on the outside of your Airstream travel trailer or motorhome, and these vents also may also be blocked by insects' or birds' nests. These vents is easy to check from the outside of the Airstream travel trailer.

Annual cleaning of these heat dispersal devices will ensure proper ventilation and circulation of the ammonia-based solution. Cleaning the refrigerator vent pipe may be easier from the roof of the Airstream travel trailer or motorhome.

Accessing the Airstream Refrigerator Vent Pipe

Use care when cleaning the RV fridge vent pipe to avoid roof damage.
Use care when cleaning the RV fridge vent pipe to avoid roof damage.

3. Are the Heating Elements Bad?

The 12-volt DC and 110-volt AC heating elements can go bad over a period of time. This a fairly common problem in Dometic RV absorption refrigerators, as well as other RV refrigerator brands.

By using an electrical multimeter to check the voltage of these two elements you can find out if the right voltage is reaching each heating element.

If one or the other of these heating elements do not work when the correct current is indicated, you can easily order a replacement from a Dometic RV refrigerator parts supply or other available RV parts distributors. Usually, ordering online is the most economical way. Be sure to use the model and serial number from your refrigerator when ordering a new element.

Make sure all electrical current is off before trying to replace either element.

4. Is the Pilot Light or Electronic Ignition Working?

In some cases the pilot light or electronic ignition system on Dometic RV refrigerators, and other makes and models, may be at fault when the LP gas option is required.

Older refrigerators may use a traditional pilot light to ignite the flame which furnishes the heat to the ammonia solution. Carbon buildup may cause the pilot light to go out unless it is removed.

Using compressed air to clean out the pilot light is usually the best procedure to follow. After turning off the LP gas, remove the gas line from the RV refrigerator and blow compressed air through the connection. The higher air pressure usually will clear the blocked pilot light orifice.

The newer Dometic RV refrigerators use an electric spark to ignite the LP gas heating flame. You can usually hear or see the spark when the switch is activated. If there is no spark from the igniter, replacing the igniter will often solve this problem.

New igniters may be found at several RV parts suppliers or from a Dometic refrigerator parts supplier.

In rare cases, the control circuit board may need to be replaced. Once again, an electric multimeter comes in handy for checking out this refrigerator component. These replacement circuit boards are quite expensive so before buying one, be sure this part is at fault. Check the model and serial number of your fridge to ensure ordering the correct part.

As always, disconnect the electrical supply, both 12-volt and 110-volt, and turn off the LP gas before doing maintenance on the absorption refrigerator.

5. Are All Your Switches Working Correctly?

Using the multimeter again, check to see if all switches are working correctly. These switches, whether used on a Dometic RV refrigerator or any other type of absorption refrigerator, will malfunction over time.

Replacing these switches is a simple job and may just solve your problem. Order them from Dometic or other RV parts suppliers. Be sure to check the model and serial number of your Airstream refrigerator to ensure you replace it with the proper type.

Replacing Your Refrigerator

If all else fails, you may wish to replace your refrigerator with a new absorption refrigerator or perhaps a small home-type unit instead. A regular home-type unit is much cheaper to buy than a new absorption model. Unless you plan to camp in the wilderness, this type of refrigerator will work just fine.

Proper maintenance will ensure that your Airstream refrigerator will give you many years of satisfying results and a worry-free camping experience. Good luck with the repair and maintenance of your Airstream RV refrigerator.

Inexpensive RV Refrigerator Replacement

The absorption fridge in this Airstream Sovereign was replaced by a $200 110-volt AC model.
The absorption fridge in this Airstream Sovereign was replaced by a $200 110-volt AC model.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


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    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      5 months ago from Southern Georgia

      Randy, you may be able to make your own gasket if you can't find a replacement. Check online for fridge gasket kits.


    • profile image

      Randy Pickens 

      5 months ago

      Thanks for the hub. We have just acquired a 1972 airstream sovereign 31'. The only problem we are having is our factory fridge gasket is hard and the door will not close, the previous owner kept the door closed at all times and we think that was the problem, so we tried to find the factory gasket but haven't had any luck. Thought you might could help before we replaced the unit. Thanks again.

    • Randy Godwin profile imageAUTHOR

      Randy Godwin 

      9 years ago from Southern Georgia

      @6hotfingers-Yes, Airstream travel trailers take all the "rough" out of roughing it when camping. LOL! It is getting a bit easier to find replacement and repair parts for them but most seldom need major repairs if maintained well.

      Thanks for the comments and for checking out my article.


    • 6hotfingers3 profile image


      9 years ago

      Great hub! Using the airstream travel trailer is the closes I would come to camping. Knowledge of how to keep things running smoothly adds to the enjoyment of the travel adventure. I appreciate the fact that the replacement parts are made by domestic companies. That is encouraging. Thank you for the useful information.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Very informative and well detailed Hub you have here Randy.I had to check it out because I've always had a fascination with Air Stream campers, they just look so darn cool.Someday I hope to own one and I'll have to revisit this Hub as refrigeration is something I've never been good at I believe because of my lack of patience in repairing things. Rating you up and useful on this one for sure!


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