It was bound to happen some day. The dreaded Norcold refrigerator replacement job.
Our Norcold 821 RV fridge died a couple of weeks ago when we were moochdocking in Northern California. And of course that beast left us scrambling for a fix, just as brutally hot temperatures started searing everyone and everything around us like eggs in a frying pan.
We should have seen it coming.
Food hadn’t been as cold as usual. Our popsicles melted almost as soon as we pulled off the wrappers. Something felt off, but we convinced ourselves that mediocre refrigerator performance was normal during triple digit temperatures. As any RVer knows, RV absorption refrigerators aren’t known for working well during the hottest part of summer.
Then one morning, I opened the door and reached for our dog’s breakfast. It felt as if the container was left out overnight. At the exact same time, I caught the distinct whiff of food starting to spoil. That’s when I knew exactly what happened between dinner and breakfast. Lucky for us, we were at Jim’s brother’s place, and he had a working RV refrigerator parked just across the yard. And even luckier was that we were just 75 miles from Redding, California, the largest city between Portland and Sacramento. We hastily transferred our food over, and got to work.
A Norcold refrigerator replacement, or repair?
I searched RVer Forums, and the Norcold Guy website too. All of the options to repair or replace sucked, and they all cost a lot of money. For example, replacing the cooling unit (about $1,000) was one option. But there was no guarantee a new cooling unit would do the trick.
Then one RV service rep tried to sell me on converting our existing Norcold to an all-electric system. “It only costs a little bit more than a new cooling unit!” he explained. But it quickly became clear what he was after, once I explained that love boondocking, and our solar power system and house batteries aren’t robust enough to handle an electric RV refrigerator and all our needs. He immediately chimed in with “I’m a Battle Born Batteries dealer!”
Did he think I just fell off the turnip truck? One RV refrigerator conversion plus all new RV batteries at his shop would end up costing the same as a new Norcold!
With costs in one hand, and our lack of extra time to troubleshoot the problem in the other, we had to decide if we would ditch the dead Norcold and buy a new one, or spend who knows how long troubleshooting it in the searing heat. I didn’t know what we should do, so I texted our full-timing friend, Larry and asked:
How Long Do RV Refrigerators Last for Full-Time RVers?
Larry has been RVing for close to 25 years. I knew he’d been in our shoes at least once. Turns out, he’s been through two dead RV refrigerators! When I asked him how long his units lasted, he reported back with 10-12 years. And with that, we were convinced that a replacement was the way to go. Forget troubleshooting that bastard in the blazing hot sun. Our 12 year old Norcold was headed to the graveyard, and we were headed to the poorhouse.
The shocking cost of a new Norcold refrigerator
There was no getting around it. We needed a fridge, and it needed to be done before our Bizz Johnson Marathon on Labor Day weekend. I called several dealers and the only one who could do it in time was Blue Dog RV in Redding. Brace yourself for the cost: for a basic 8 cubic foot fridge like ours that fits perfectly into our compartment, a comparable, new Norcold NA8LXR dinged us close to $3,000 for the unit and labor.
As much as paying for the refrigerator was a huge financial hit, I’m relieved that the Blue Dog team did it on time, and correctly. Was the repair process perfect? No. We had to settle with what They had in stock, which was a bare bones fridge that lacked a faceplate. So instead of pretty stainless steel or black panels, we got this ugly beast installed. We can order new ones if we want, or live with this ugly look.
And when the techs were done with the job, they left a bunch of crap on the floor, and our old faceplates tossed inside the rig. They were sloppy, but we were grateful the fridge was installed correctly, and in those brutally hot temperatures. I sure couldn’t have done a better job myself.
It’s nice to have cold food again. But it’s stunning that after all these years, RV absorption refrigerators are still poorly designed units that don’t stack up to a residential refrigerator.
Do we regret not doing a refrigerator conversion? Not a chance. We love boondocking too much to rely on a refrigerator that always needs to be plugged in, or sucking up our precious amperage to keep cold. Since we aren’t in the mood or financial place for another solar power system upgrade, just replacing the damn thing was the best way for us to go.
One last word of warning on RV repairs
I feel sorry for anyone who has to rely on an RV service center these days. Thanks to my mechanically inclined husband, we haven’t needed to go to a shop for many years. So much about the industry has changed lately and here’s what we’ve discovered: labor is short, parts are expensive, and customers grow old waiting for getting any kind of shop work to get done. RV technicians and service center staff are abused by angry customers every day on the job, and it’s clear that they aren’t happy to be there. I wouldn’t be either.
It’s not pretty out there, people. So stay on top of your RV maintenance, and put money aside for the inevitable financial hits of the full-time RVing lifestyle.