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Refrigerator 1 - cooler

Trials and tribulations of replacing an RV refrigerator

Our Holiday Rambler Class A diesel pusher lost its refrigerator. It was a sad day. We had just got home from a long day trip and found the Norcold 1200 refrigerator displaying the message “No Co,” which meant it was not communicating with the cooling unit. Since it was late, we just reset the fridge and went to bed. When we woke up, the fridge had no power going to it.

So, we knew that meant living out of a cooler. Since it took two bags of ice and 20 miles to retrieve it, we were motivated to find a solution. (Note: A three-day cooler keeps ice cubes about 18 hours with an ambient temperature of 75 degrees, but a block ice will last a couple of days. The cooler will keep things cool about three time longer with a quilt draped over the top.)

I went outside and opened the cover and found the recall switch was in the cut out position. It also smelled like mom mopping the floor in the early 70s. My nostrils started burning and my eyes felt like they get when I spend the day chopping onions. This, my friend, is most unpleasant. Turns out the cooling unit was shot.

We called a local mobile service to look at it and see if they were interested in processing an extended warranty. They said they would, but they needed $85 for travel and $185 an hour to look at it and do the paper work. They were not thrilled with “Performance Care Extended Warranty” as they had never heard of it.

The next three dealers all reacted the same way to the warranty. Knowing the cooling unit was gone, and realizing that during peak season for RV work we would be on our own if we wanted refrigeration any time soon, we decided to research our options and compare costs on a spreadsheet.

The old Norcold refrigerator

State of the refrigerator hinges on love and money

The wires to the control box have seen better days. Then we discovered the seals were out on the doors, and Norcold believes there is no reason to sell the gaskets separate from the doors. Click here to see what I mean.

Our cost on replacing the doors would be $1,800, and the cost of the control board would be $200. Lastly, a new cooling unit would cost us an installed price of $2,000 for a total of $4,000 to repair an old fridge that we love.

We were left debating the question, “Is it worth it? Does love have a price?”

We called around to find out what it would take to get things back to normal and realized we had a myriad of possibilities, all requiring time and lots of cash!

My favorite option was the Norcold 1200 helium cooling unit, a four-door model that sold for $1,295.

However, a standard 1200LR Norcold brand new cooling unit, built by the Amish, cost $1,045.

We also looked at having a new cooling units installed at the factory in Shipshewana, Ind., at a cost of $1,495.

However, an entirely new fridge would cost $2,995 plus about $200 for door panels. But at nearly $3,500.00 plus shipping and a 30-day lead time, we ruled out Camping World right away. Big Country RV in Bend, Ore., would sell us a non-disclosed brand cooling unit for $1,495 plus $1,000 to install and test. They only needed 30-days lead time. Awesome RV in Chehalis, Wash., offered us a new unnamed unit for $1,895 and about a $1,000 to install, with approximately six weeks from first look to completion.

Norcold would supply a factory original for about $1,500, but why would I want a recalled unit that though new, is the same unit that just tried to claim the rig? These are a mix of hydrogen and sodium chromide which, if it comes in contact with a spark as it leaks out, could be rig’s last day in the form of an RV. Can you say char-broiled?

If you are like me and an RV fire spooks you $295 will buy you some rest, in the form of a halon unit.

All but the dealer options would require shipment to a terminal somewhere near us and require some undisclosed about of time to get there. We can’t work in a maybe/maybe not world, we are full-timers always looking for that next IT contract. Nor are we wealthy enough to be in any one location more than three weeks at a time due to our camping club rules. There had to be another way.

That’s when residential refrigerators moved to the center of our investigation. But, we had many questions and requirements for those, such as:

  • What will fit in our cabinet? We figured we could go 25 inches deep, 33 inches wide and a maximum of 71 inches high with some serious floor-to-ceiling renovation due to a furnace that we did not wish to remove under the existing fridge.
  • Power consumption must be as little as possible, because we boondock from time-to-time and like cold food out there, too.
  • It must work on a modified sine wave inverter since we don’t have the money to buy a luxury such as pure sine inverter. Luckily for us, it is a luxury, as we have no CPAP or other medical devices.
  • It must weigh close to or less than the Norcold 1200 LRIM.
  • We really wanted the color black, so it would not be front and center in our house.
  • We did not want to remove a window or otherwise disassemble the rig to get it inside.

With this set of requirements, the search was on! Two weeks into the search and we were ready to buy a Frigidaire side-by-side from Lowes for $798. It fit one our criteria, it was black and as a bonus it was cheap. We would however need to concede and take out the driver’s window, and modify the cabinet depth. That would add about $400 in tools and pieces to complete the project; placing the project cost at $1,200.

We found out about the Samsung 197 on the iRV2 forums, and even though it was officially discontinued, we located one in stock at Standard TV and Appliance in Portland, Ore. However, it was sold out though before we could get it. So we researched all the like models.

Bingo! We found it at Standard TV and Appliance in Portland. Wish they would have told us about this when they told us the other one was gone.

This Samsung refrigerator pictured below accomplished five of our six goals. We thought it was six of six, until they walked it up the front steps. Oh, geometry never was my thing!

Samsung refrigerator in black -- ideal!
Samsung refrigerator in black — ideal!

Going to work

We have to drive to Portland, Ore., from Chehalis, Wash., to Standard TV and Appliance, a firm we found that had the refrigerator in stock. No one else actually stocked the unit and the firms wanted us to wait a month for it to come to the RV park that we would likely no longer be staying. So, it was a 220-mile round trip, but we did it.

The next afternoon, we unboxed the fridge and took one last set of measurements. The fridge weighed in at 253 pounds with its packaging, which is the same as the Norcold. The firm used to make a nice fridge, which rivals the Sub Zero built-ins, and the price is about the same, too. Plus, everything was wood. But, there’s no time for weeping. We have to yank out the old refrigerator and send it to the happy hunting grounds in the Centralia Transfer station.

No time for weeping now however, there is work to be done. It was time to grab a 5/16th inch Phillips screwdriver and rip the doors off. Tip: We found it better to unscrew the top hinge first.

Remove the hinges top to bottom and the doors will drop into your arms instead of on your head if you go the other direction. Once they are out of the way it is time to remove the black molding on the sides, the bottom and the top of the refrigerator.  The bottom and top molding is held on by screws for on each end. These front screws are what hold the Norcold in place.

Refrigerator 3 - screwdriver

Hint: A drill gun like this can be a day’s salvation. My husband has a muscular issue, so turning a screwdriver more than a few turns is a day’s work. This baby will drive the project home. He loves his drill. I sure wish they still made this model, because I’d by another one for a rainy day.

It is now time to go outside and remove the outdoor section of the fridge cover. Here is what you will find:

Refrigerator 4 - diagram

We see the black box that turned off the refrigerator when its vapors escaped. Had the box tripped prematurely, the fridge could have been restarted by placing a magnet on the box just above the red light for five seconds. This cooling unit has already been declared dead by me, so no magnets are required.

The water line needs to come off the blue box, so make sure to turn the water off first! My valve was by the furnace near the front of the fridge. Then unscrew the clear hose retaining the nut that is near the blue box. You will need it for your new fridge, if it has a water feature.

The gas line requires someone with a good grip and good dexterity to remove. In our case, that would be me. I turned off the propane at the tank and returned with a channel lock pliers that was placed over the gas valve assembly and a crescent wrench placed over the brass nut. The picture in the lower right shows how it was done. Once the nut is off, it is time to cap the line with a brass plug Watts A-159 for a 3/8-inch flare. We found ours in the copper fittings section at Home Depot. Don’t forget to use thread tape when you cap the line, and use dish soap to test for leaks. If bubbles are present, something is leaking.

Now it is time to remove the last two screws holding this refrigerator in place. We’re sure glad we have never been in an accident! I fear Mr. Norcold could have sent us to heaven with this kind of workmanship. Screw one was under the gas valve and screw two was under the burner.

Two screws to maintain safety in motion. I’m impressed.

We remove the last screw, and wonder how to pull this bad boy out of here. Can we do it?

Refrigerator 5 - removing the old

We pulled the Norcold 1200 straight out of the box it was in, and it was extremely easy. We used a plastic stool from the kitchen that not only allowed the fridge to slide out, but it also prevented us from having to lift it. The flooring was so slick; we were able to slide the fridge anywhere where needed it.

Next, we wanted to remove the cooling unit. People said if we were of average mechanical aptitude, then it could be done. I guess we have a little more growing to do in order to make us “average.”

Once it was out, we tied the entry door back to the mirror, which left us with 26 inches of space to pass this thing through. The fridge is 24.5 inches with the cooling unit in place. After trying to find all the bolts holding the cooling unit on and watching the clock tick, we decided we had better things to do — like take out the fridge cabinet so the new one will fit.

The new fridge is counter depth (24 inches) which is close to the existing closet depth. The width is just under 33 inches, so it should fit like a glove. The height is 71 inches, but the cabinet is only 63 inches. So, this is where we went to work on the next step.

Refrigerator 6 - floor

Because of the furnace, water lines, and gas lines, we were unable to use my handy dandy reciprocating saw to remove the floor. The tool of choice was a long shank standard screw driver used as a pry-bar. The Norcold’s ice maker let us down several times over the last few years and left some endearing water features along the way. This made for some pretty yellow fungus plants and a very rotten shelf. The wood was so soft, that we no longer felt the power tools were even a benefit.

One  of our other helpers used a carpet knife to cut a rubbery gum substance away from the floor and the outside wall. Our only guess is that it is a moisture barrier of some kind.

Now that the floor is out, we must be sure to steer clear of the furnace, water lines, power, and gas line.

Refrigerator 7 - new floor

An intermission for cleanup

Cleaning up helps us know the condition of the newly exposed floor. Once that is known, we will measure down from the ceiling to determine what the maximum distance to furnace is, keeping in mind that the Atwood furnace needs 1 inch of space for air flow. Without that space, carbon monoxide build up can be a problem. We were lucky and discovered we have plenty of room, probably even an inch to spare.

We took our measurements down to Home Depot, bought the wood and they cut it to size at no charge. We screwed down the new floor which is just over a half-inch thick, then glued the legs in place, and secured the floor with “L” brackets to the back wall.

We prepped the rig for removal of the old refrigerator. We are still wondering how the three of us will get this thing out. With my back recovering from an injury and my husband’s balance and coordination being unreliable at best, that left our daughter as the only one left with any gumption. We decide to press on in spite of reason.

Now that it was all ready to go, we called it a night. I messaged Kimberly Travaglino, founder of Fulltime Families, and a wonderful friend to tell her of our lunacy. She puts puts out an all points bulletin to see if any other members are in the Chehalis, Wash., area. The next thing we know, there are several Fulltime Families members at our doorstep the next morning who have to be crazier than we are. It’s not their fridge and it’s really not their problem, but they dropped everything and came anyway.

Refrigerator 15 - in car

The men carry the fridge out to the car for us and it is all bound up tight for its journey to the appliance graveyard in Centrailia, Wash. I think it is less than a graveyard and more like purgatory as this is not the final resting place of spent appliances. I wonder, just where do they go when they die?

We learned a few things about taking a fridge out the front door. First, it’s important to take the cooling unit off the old Norcold fridge because it saves time. Since I failed to do this, expect another article in the near future on how to repair a vinyl dashboard. Also removing the driver’s seat may have given us more room to make the corner to the stairwell.

Using a bungee cord, I secured the refrigerator door as tightly as I could to prevent it flopping open when the guys were moving it. That was a bad idea! I should have used a longer cord and a cloth between the camera and the mirror. This would have prevented chipping of the fiberglass door.

I feel a little like Mater when he forgot to attach Lightening McQueen to Bessie before unstrapping the boot in the movie Cars. I should have known, but in the excitement of it all, it slipped my mind. The lesson here is to keep the tempo low and slow.

Refrigerator 9 -- getting the new unit in

Bringing in the new refrigerator

This is the moment we have all been looking forward to — it’s time to bring the new refrigerator into the rig. We have the fridge and we have a ready and willing crew. But I can see something is wrong. Only part of one blue digit is working, and it just blinks. I figured the fridge just was not up to temperature, and it would light up right when good and ready. After 20 minutes, the fridge was cold, but the lights were still not working in the control panel. So I unplugged it and everything looked good after I plugged it back in. No big deal, I figured, electronics are like that.

Then the guys started looking at the fridge and the clouds rolled in and it began to rain on our parade.

First, we noticed the controller board on the top of the refrigerator is sheared off, which explains the lights.

That’s not good, but we can live with it since it was only the top of the refrigerator.

If this is all that was damaged during the process, we can live with it. So, we taped the controller board in place. Who needs screws when you have duct tape?

Then, the guys notice the entire bottom is crushed. They are guessing a wayward forklift had its way with our $1,400 refrigerator. I figure it shouldn’t matter because the fridge will be encased in wood. But, that was not the case.

We determined the unit had been dropped or hit so hard the bottom bent upward into the unit breaking pretty much everything. The cooling fan was history. So, the guys decided that the patient is dead. What are we going to do with two dead refrigerators  the old one and the brand new unit that was destroyed somewhere between Standard TV and Appliance and its maker.

We called Standard TV and Appliance confident they would help us. I was skeptical, but it could not hurt to ask. Several phone calls were made, and finally we got someone on the line. They said it happens and we can just return it for a full refund or call a salesperson who could exchange it out for another. We wanted them to exchange it for the same model, but all they had in stock was a stainless steel refrigerator, not black. What should we do now? Wait another month?

Everyone had gone home by now, but we still needed to get the new unit into the car so it could be exchanged. We moved the refrigerator to the car, and a neighbor lady from Nebraska helped us pull it in.

We roll out, headed for Portland on another the 220-mile round trip. I had no hope that they would actually exchange the refrigerator since it is expensive for the firm to take back a product, especially if I can’t prove they damaged it.

Refrigerator 16 - replacement

However, Standard TV and Appliance really impressed me. They lived up to their word. We paid the stainless steel upgrade fee, and they took the old fridge out of our car and put the new one in. They also took the box off to show us the new one we were getting was indeed not involved in some kind of accident. The lesson here is to always inspect the goods before taking delivery even if the box shows no sign of stress. I can’t stress this advice enough!

When we got home, we took the seats down so the dash would be less in the way — a lesson learned during the removal of the Norcold.

After a little rest, we woke up the next day to learn that one of the new friends we made they day before came back to help with the replacement refrigerator.

As we begin to push the new fridge in place, we discover another problem. The stainless steel model will not clear the TV cabinet.

Fortunately, our daughter was dauntless and knew exactly what to do. As she begins to remove the TV cabinet, I’m envisioning the need to remove the driver’s side window and rent a materials lift to leverage the refrigerator into the motorhome.

Refrigerator 10 - removing tv cabinet

But, she turned out to be a real pro and we eventually got the new refrigerator in place. Even the kids are dancing with excitement. We just might live through this!

As we are heading for the final lap, and our daughter is busy assembling our house, we easily slide the new refrigerator into its new home.

Hot diggity dog! It fit like a glove! Now it’s time to secure it in place, put the handles and drawers back in, and trim it out with a reworked furnace vent and more “L” brackets to keep it from leaving us. Sure is huge!

Refrigerator 11 - sliding into place

Finishing touches

We added “L” brackets to the underside of the fridge shelf and screwed them to the caster holders on the fridge. It still has a little forward rocking movement, but the ceiling should stop a full exit from the cabinet.

The nut we saved from the Norcold water line fits the supplied hardware by Samsung perfectly.  Now the fridge has water to the ice maker once as soon as we opened the water valve.

We rebuild the TV cabinet — a three-hour job — and getting it lined up was probably the most frustrating part of this project.

The refrigerator is up and running on our modified sine wave without the laptops and other things runs. Still, it uses 9 amps with our other equipment running, which I can’t isolate at this time since it is running 18 amps DC. Our Norcold ran at 80 amps. This is a huge plus to us, we may not need to add solar to use it when boondocking.

When running on AC power, it draws about an amp. We can’t see the startups, it just runs at 1 amp. The noise is louder than the Norcold and we can hear the echo of the compressor in the refrigerator cabinet resonating through the bathroom wall. The noise is not a problem at all.

Refrigerator 13 - finished product

Lessons learned

If we had to do it over again, we would do the same thing, but I would get a lift and go through the driver’s side window or find a better way to protect the dash. If the door seals on the Norcold had not be shot, I would have opted for the helium non-flammable cooling unit. As it is, however, cash is king.

Our total project cost, including fuel and meals was about $1,600 as opposed to about $4000 if we had elected to keep the Norcold and fix it. We now have ice cream that is so hard that we have to leave it out a while in order to scoop it. The residential refrigerator is so big that it feels like we can play a solid game of hide and seek in there.

One last note. Removing the driver and passenger seats is real easy. Putting them back on the pedestal is nowhere nearly as easy. We removed the seats from their base plates, then put them in place on the pedestal first. We could then see the bolt, but the bolt had no desire to go through the hole in the plate. We don’t know how we got it in the hole, but it was a real struggle pulling and pushing, then giving up and kicking the plate while the other pulled finally caused the bolt to slip into place.

Putting the chairs on the plates was a very short exercise compared to getting them on to the pedestals. Avoid removing the chair, or find a better way to put them back.

Finally, think about how you are going to secure the fridge before putting it in. We are finding that it is much harder to do afterwards.

This project was full of tough decisions, unexpected turns, and an opportunity to learn. We also became friends with many great people.  The new people we met, and the fact we do not need to use a cooler anymore, made it all worthwhile.

About Athena Pantekoek

Athena Pantekoek and her husband, Darin, are parents of two teens . They have been traveling the country since 2010 in their Holiday Rambler Class A – “The Rolling Shoebox.” They have visited 44 states, learning America is so much more fascinating than they ever knew. They also have visited more than 40 of the Thousand Trails Campgrounds. Follow their adventures at www.rollingshoebox.com.

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