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My RV Fridge Sprung a Leak! Now What?

RV - Recreational Vehicle

In Gas Refrigerator Basics, I discussed how gas refrigerator cooling units fail. In this article, I'll discuss your options for dealing with this mess.

Now, suppose that your RV (gas) refrigerator stops working and you determine that the problem is definitely in the cooling unit. Maybe (and most commonly), you opened the refrigerator door one day and were knocked back by the pungent smell of ammonia. Or, using the techniques I described last month, you determine that the cooling unit is plugged. What do you do now? Your three options, in order of decreasing cost, are 1) buy a whole new refrigerator, 2) buy a new cooling unit only, keeping your old cabinet, or 3) buy a repaired cooling unit or have your cooling unit repaired. This month, I'll walk you through each option, looking at the advantages and pitfalls of each, and give you some information that will help you make the best decision for your particular situation.

Buying a New Refrigerator

If your old refrigerator is plagued by nagging, recurring control problems, or has a badly splitting or cracking interior lining in the food compartment, and is over 20 years old, buying a new refrigerator is probably your best option. You'll get a fresh start with a new refrigerator that is covered by a manufacturer's warranty (typically one year on the cooling unit and five years on the controls) and that sports the latest control gadgetry. But all these benefits come with a stiff price tag ranging from $1,100 to $1,800. If your refrigerator is less than 20 years old and runs reasonably well otherwise, you should seriously consider either buying just a new cooling unit or having your cooling unit repaired. If you do buy a new refrigerator, don't write off your old refrigerator as worthless junk. You should be able to get about at least a $50 trade-in value from the dealer you're buying the new refrigerator from. The unit will either be cannibalized for parts or someone will try to repair it and sell it for use in hunting camps (a significant market in the state of Maine).

Buying a New Cooling Unit

Since most of the cost of a gas refrigerator is in the cooling unit, it's not surprising to find that buying a new cooling unit is still an expensive option, although usually less than or equal to buying a whole new refrigerator. Depending on the make and model of your refrigerator, you can expect to pay anywhere from $800 to $1,200 for a new, replacement cooling unit for your refrigerator. The dealer or shop you are working with may or may not charge removal and installation fees on top of this, which can be as much as $300. For this reason, by the time you add up the costs of buying a new cooling unit and having it installed, it usually makes sense to pitch in a few more dollars and get a whole new refrigerator. You can buy a new cooling unit here. If you want to replace it yourself, this page will help you.

Buying a new cooling unit is a good option if 1) you are absolutely in love with your refrigerator cabinet and want to keep it at any cost and 2) you do not have convenient access to a competent gas refrigerator repair shop.

Having Your Cooling Unit Repaired

Having your cooling unit repaired is the least expensive option and, if you do not know what constitutes a reliable repair, can be the most frustrating option if the cooling unit fails again shortly after having it "repaired." However, having your cooling unit properly and competently repaired, or rebuilt, can save you hundreds of dollars and provide you with many years of trouble-free service. Also, you should realize that RV dealers never do cooling unit work in-house-they always send it off to a gas refrigerator specialty shop and tack on a markup to the repair cost. In most cases, you can save money and get faster service if you deal directly with the repair shop itself.

But you need to know what to look for in a repair shop, realizing that all repairs are not equal and they come in two flavors -- 1) leak repair and -- 2) rebuild.

Avoid the infamous "leak repair" which consists of nothing more than locating and repairing the leak and recharging the cooling unit. The cooling unit is not rust proofed or treated for corrosion in any way. This virtually guarantees that your cooling unit will develop another leak sometime down the road, maybe a week, maybe a year if you're lucky.

Most cooling units fail due to corrosion. The name of the game for a reliable cooling unit repair, called a rebuild, is surface treatment of the steel to prevent or substantially thwart the development of rust. A proper cooling unit rebuild consists of thoroughly sandblasting the cooling unit to remove all rust and scale, applying several coats of rust inhibiting compounds and enamels, repairing the leak, replacing corroded liquid lines as needed, recharging the cooling unit, and then applying more surface coatings to the cooling unit.

Cooling unit rebuilds are very reliable. Further, you will usually be pleasantly surprised to find that rebuilds cost about the same as a leak repair if you deal directly with the repair shop. Depending on the size of your refrigerator, the price for a cooling unit rebuild ranges from about $300 to $550 for most models. Any reputable repair shop will totally guarantee its rebuilt cooling units against leaks for one year with options for extended warranties.

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