This is the first of two Technical Tips which will provide a viable option to converting an RV refrigerator from an absorption to a ‘residential’ refrigerator.
Our 2009 American Coach Allegiance came with a Norcold 1200 IMD refrigerator with a door front water dispenser and an ice maker as standard equipment. Over the years it has performed well, has had the Norcold recall module installed. In 2014, I participated in the field testing of the Absorption Refrigerator Protection (ARP) module and when the production model with fan control was introduced, I installed it along with two additional fans to improve air flow. (The Photo shows the lower section of the rear of the original Norcold Refrigerator, with the Recall Module in the upper left and the added fan to its right)
The Decision to Convert Process:
As our coach passed 10 years from February 2008, its date of production we knew that a fridge replacement would mean deciding between replacing the cooling unit with a more durable version (constructed of thicker gauge tubing), or one that used a non-flammable refrigerant (Helium) or converting to a residential model. Finding a residential refrigerator that would fit in the slideout, not obstruct the access to the rear of the coach when both slides were in, yet still be able to open the doors was difficult. Power draw was not too much of a concern given that our coach has a lithium battery. We frequently dry camp without services, however we’ve learned to manage our power very well. In addition, we recently had a windshield replaced in our coach and wanted to avoid going through that procedure again to bring a new refrigerator in, should it not fit through the side window.
When I read of another American Coach owner’s ’02 Eagle fire caused by his refrigerator that was equipped with the Norcold Recall module and the ARP module, I knew that we were also depending upon those same devices for our protection. Knowing that his smoke and CO detectors did not alert him to the fire until after the coach was evacuated was an even greater concern. I knew that it was simply a matter of time before we’d be facing the decision. What also complicates our situation is that we live in Canada, so getting a replacement unit or installing a residential fridge by knowledgeable people would be more challenging. While acknowledging the fire risk, otherwise we were satisfied with the Norcold refrigerator’s size capacity and features. One drawback of this refrigerator is its shiny black plastic doors which shows every fingerprint!
A New Option:
In March of 2018, on the American Coach Yahoogroup, I read about a new product introduced by JC Refrigeration, in Shipshewana, IN, that was immediately interesting. (www.jc-refrigeration.com) In a simple procedure of exchanging the absorption cooling unit, we could have a compressor driven (i.e. ‘residential’) cooling system installed in our existing refrigerator. We would retain the existing features and controls of the Norcold, not have any cabinet renovations, window or windshield removal and end up with a durable residential refrigerator, without significant risk of a fire.
I called them and talked to the owner’s son, Jeremy, who said he had the same refrigerator in his home which had been converted to this compressor system, two years earlier. He was very pleased with its performance. As many are aware, many Amish do not have regular utility power to their home. They rely on propane fuel, propane conversions and self generated electricity using solar power to charge a battery system with inverters for AC power.
I learned that the compressor used in the JC Refrigeration systems was the same as those in Samsung, Whirlpool or Frigidaire refrigerators. They are very energy efficient, requiring less than 1 amp of 120 VAC power. The system will operate on either a modified or a full sine wave inverter of 1000 Watts or more. The cooling fan(s) draw their power directly from the 12-volt coach battery that feeds the fridge. Conversions are available for Norcold and Dometic refrigerators and the existing control board is retained which means the operating controls remain as before the conversion.
All in all, we concluded this would be a viable option and the fact that this swap could be planned in, when we were going to a nearby FMCA Rally made it even better. The pricing is $899 for the unit plus $300 labor and taxes. While it may seem strange to make the exchange when the original cooling unit is fully functional, the risk of fire, failure at an inappropriate time and the issues of dealing with the exchange when we are using the coach balanced off the trade-off of removing the functioning unit before it failed.
We had the conversion done at the JC Refrigeration Shipshewana, IN plant by three qualified experts. Before beginning they covered the whole front of the coach and work area with blankets to protect the upholstery, cabinetry, fridge and floor.
The conversion involves completely emptying the contents of the fridge and turning it off, then removing the retaining screws around the exterior frame and rear floor area, disconnecting the gas, electric and 12-volt power and removing the water dispenser and ice maker bucket, then refrigerator icemaker and water line connections. After loosening and removing the cooling unit retaining bolts inside the fridge, it was pulled forward, out of the cabinet and carefully laid on its front panel. The tape around the heat exchanging portion of the original cooling unit was cut off, the water and icemaker lines were removed or moved out of the way and the original Norcold cooling unit was removed intact.
The whole rear of the fridge was thoroughly cleaned of old foam and tape, the wiring was relocated to where it needs to be before the new cooling unit was installed. The area where the cooling unit is mounted was prepared with cleaners, the proper adhesives applied then the new compressor containing cooling unit was fitted into place. The unit was foamed in place and new sealing tape applied around it. This is a very concise version of what takes place and in about 1.5 hours.
While that is being done, the interior of the cabinet, the insulation and the interior wood was examined for any damage or missing areas. The water lines were moved to the proper location, the additional fan and associated wiring was added (if required, ours was reused) and the area was prepared for the new unit. I had added an hour meter in the cabinet which was wired in parallel with the new compressor so that I could record the time that the compressor was running. The new compressor is controlled by the existing Norcold circuit board using the existing 120 VAC heater connections on it. The fan receives power from the existing 12 Volt fridge power source and uses a new thermo-switch mounted on the new condenser. The fans are wired in parallel so that both come on when the switch calls for fan forced air.
The compressor is mounted in the bottom, middle of the rear access grille and the area above is open, since far less condenser heat exchange coils are required. The lower fan is mounted above the compressor and below the coils. The existing drain pan was reinstalled near the hose from the interior plastic drip pan.
From the inside the cooling unit retaining bolts were reinstalled and the fridge was reattached to the rear floor and around the front panel. The final low voltage wiring connections were completed and tied for safety, the gas line was plugged and sealed then tested for leaks and moved out of the way. The water lines were reconnected to the source and all were checked for leaks and secured. Once everything was double checked and secured the AC line cord was inserted into the Inverter power source. There was a need to disable the warning beeper which signals for a number of reasons, including when the doors are not fully shut. With the conversion, the beeper warns when the AC Heater has failed since the new compressor draws far less power than the original heater resistance coils, (now the source of power for the compressor). It is designed to warn if the power consumed is less than three (3) amps which would indicate that the heater has failed.
Since compressor draws under one (1) amp it warns by beeping. With the beeper disabled, all is well, although the display will revert to that displayed warning every time the compressor turns on. There is a work around which I’ll mention later in this article. This whole process took about 2 hours with three people working very efficiently.
The fridge was turned on and left running for an hour with wireless thermometer sensors in both the freezer and the fridge compartment to ensure that it is cooling properly. After an hour, the thermometers indicate the fridge and freezer were operating and the fridge was refilled with the items previously removed from the refrigerator and freezer. We left for the Rally and the refrigerator worked well during the remainder of the week. We had some frost build-up on the metal fins which we attributed to the length of time the doors were open when we were reloading the fridge after the conversion. (To Be Continued in Part 2)