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RV Refrigerators: More Bad News

Whether you know it or not, many of you have a Dometic/Norcold refrigerator in your existing RV –or will probably have one in the RV you are considering. They’ve provided the lion’s share of RV refrigerators for years now.

RV Fire1As we’ve mentioned in previous articles, there has been a long running rumor that something is amiss with some of their products, resulting in a “propensity for the refrigerator’s cooling unit boiler tube to corrode, crack and expel hydrogen gas at high pressure, which can spontaneously combust, or reach other ignition sources, causing a fire”. Since the issue has affected both Norcold and Dometic refrigerators, we think this is a gas absorption refrigerator issue as opposed to an issue related to one manufacturer. To their benefit, both companies issued several recalls in the past, each one expanding on units and years involved, but now it appears this problem may be far more wide reaching than first thought and the manufacturers’ response woefully inadequate.

Apparently there have been enough recent issues that a new lawsuit was filed against Dometic in April of this year on behalf of a group of RV owners. The latest lawsuit claims that the defective refrigerators have caused or contributed to at least 3,000 fires since 1997, resulting in more than $100 million in property damage and personal injury claims. Yikes. To make matters worse, the new suit alleges “that every gas absorption refrigerator manufactured by Dometic since 1997 shares common technology and common defects, including the risk of the unit’s boiler tube corroding and expelling hydrogen gas that can cause a fast-spreading fire or explosion.” Double yikes.

Ordinarily this is the part of the article where we would propose how to address this issue and who to contact for assistance, but, frankly, we’re not sure how an affected owner should proceed –and affected owners are now assumed to be the majority of RV owners. Remember, we think this is more of a gas absorption refrigerator issue, as opposed to a Dometic or Norcold issue, meaning we’re not even comfortable recommending a manufacturer other than the two currently embroiled in litigation.

In the past we proposed checking the recall list on the relevant manufacturers’ website and seeking a replacement if applicable, but the new lawsuit clearly contends this issue is not isolated to specific years –and, according to some sources, the newer updated refrigerators may be even more prone to combustion than the older versions. An article in Consumer Affairs reports that Dometic continues to receive new fire claims “at an alarming rate”, with some estimating 2-3 new claims per week. The lawsuit also claims that “defendants have used and manipulated the recall process to conceal the true dangers and safety risks inherent in their defective gas absorption refrigerators from both federal regulators and consumers.” This implies that the recall fix that we have promoted in the past is more of a Band-Aid than a cure, and not a very good Band-Aid at that.

A simple Google search will provide more hair raising tales of fast moving fires from affected owners than you’d ever want to read, as well as countless articles from wide ranging news sources, endless pictures of RVs engulfed in flames and lots and lots of ads from eager lawyers offering toRV Fire2 assist you in seeking compensation for your own fire. None of this bodes well for anyone involved. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the grim scene currently going on in the conference rooms at Norcold/Dometic. If judgement determines there is proof of a known congenital issue, and that the manufacturers’ involved attempted to minimize the seriousness of the problem to protect their bottom line, these companies will soon be swamped in new litigation.

We are aware of some after-market fixes that claim to address the issue but haven’t been able to determine if they are legitimate. We’ve also been advised that an after-market fix on the behalf of an owner may void any existing warranty and absolve the refrigerator manufacturer if a fire does ensue.

So now what? Sadly, we’re not sure. We’d still propose checking the serial/model number of your refrigerator against the recall list at the relevant manufacturers’ website. We can’t wholly endorse an all-out replacement since it now appears the new unit may be even more problematic than the old one. Accusations and denials continue to fly from both camps, leaving bewildered RV owners in the middle, unsure which way to jump.

Until we feel we’ve heard a definitive answer on what is actually going on we at are suggesting increased diligence on the part of all affected RV owners.  This begins with a good fire extinguisher on board at all times, in an easily accessible location known by all occupants. If you have one already, check the expiration date to insure that it is still current. Fire extinguishers do expire when the seal on the neck weakens and allows compressed gas to escape. Extinguishers that have lost much of their

pressure will not operate when you need them. Pressure within an extinguisher can be conveniently checked through a pressure gauge. “ABC” class extinguishers (ammonium phosphate) have the tendency to fail due to solidification of the chemical in the canister base. RV (and home and boat) owners and inspectors can delay this process by periodically shaking the extinguisher. Expensive extinguishers that have expired, especially those designed for commercial use, can be refilled and resealed by companies who specialize in this service. Dated inexpensive models should be disposed and replaced.

A good smoke alarm (with new batteries) is also recommended, as is a thorough understanding of your electrical system. Memorize the steps necessary to quickly cut the power to your refrigerator in the case of a fire, as well how to cut power to all electrical systems. Do this before your next trip and make sure all occupants clearly understand the process, as well. From what we’ve read, these fires are fast moving and leave little time for indecision. Don’t wait for an emergency situation to start rooting around in drawers and cupboards for your owner’s manual.

Chances are your RV has some Emergency Egress windows. These are your escape route if a sudden conflagration blocks your access to the door. Do you know where they are and how to use them? If not, while you still have your owner’s manual on your lap, educate yourself and your fellow travelers. Pay special attention to the steps required to pop out or open the emergency egress windows. These can be tricky and, again, an urgent situation is not the time to be figuring out a previously unused feature of your RV, especially when you can’t find your reading glasses.

Lastly –and most importantly- if you find yourself dealing with a sudden blaze (or even unexplained smoke), don’t be a hero. An onboard fire will almost certainly produce toxic fumes that could quickly overwhelm anyone within range. If you can’t contain the fire almost instantly with your fire extinguisher and the shutting down of electrical systems, get out. Further, if the fire is explosive or fast moving (remember, if the fire has originated from your refrigerator you could be dealing with hydrogen gas –or soon will be), don’t even bother with the firefighting routine. Aside from the obvious explosive properties of hydrogen, chances are your RV will also be carrying propane tanks, lighter fluid, gasoline and/or diesel fuel. If one happens to ignite the other, you really won’t want to be anywhere in the vicinity when the fireworks start. Ideally, you and your family (and any nearby neighbors that you’ve alerted with a shout or a quick pound on the door) are standing a significant distance away while you contact 1.) the local fire department and 2.) your insurance agent, whose name and phone number you’re now going to add to the contacts in your phone. Do it now. We’ll wait.

That’s enough for this time. Don’t you think? We’ll keep you updated about any breaking news regarding this issue as we hear of it and would appreciate any info or suggestions our readers care to share. We’ll be sure to pass it on to the community at large.

Make sure and check those tire pressures –and fire extinguishers and smoke alarm batteries- before hitting the road.

Happy Travels,

The Team