How to keep your cool

“You appear to have the worst luck with refrigerators,” said my friend Tom from Huntsville, yesterday.

Our trip southwest has been good despite being plagued with a few technological failures. First it was little things, like clearance light bulbs.  Our Airstream is a 2005 so it doesn’t have LED clearance lights, and after a decade the bulbs are all starting to blow.  I have replaced two in the last week with new bulbs from my spares kit, and it’s clear that I should just replace all of them at the next opportunity to borrow a ladder.

Then Eleanor’s iPhone suddenly stopped receiving email.  Then her laptop stopped being able to connect to our Verizon MiFi. While navigating down I-65, the car GPS suddenly couldn’t find itself.  The batteries in the tire pressure sensors ran down. One of our walkie-talkies stopped working. The O-rings in the kitchen faucet started to leak. I started to feel the cold breath of a wizard’s curse on my neck.

All of those problems were eventually corrected, but the whammy came at Mammoth Cave National Park when Eleanor announced that the refrigerator seemed unusually warm. Sure enough, the next morning it was unmistakable: the fridge was no longer cooling.

This is our third refrigerator in ten years.  The sad history of our refrigerators stems primarily from the infamous Dometic recall that doomed nearly a million refrigerators to early death because of welding problems in the cooling tubes. Fridge #1 died July 2008, fridge #2 died February 2015, and the replacement cooling unit that I installed in April 2015 died this week.

Aha, you say—doesn’t it have a warranty?  Yes indeed it does, a shiny “Lifetime Warranty” provided by Arcticold, the manufacturer of the cooling unit. And Arcticold goes further, promising technicians on duty “seven days a week, 9 to 9 Eastern”. A classic case of over-promising and under-delivering.  I called twice on Friday, four times on Saturday, and left messages each day. No answers except a voicemail message that says they’ll call back in 1-2 hours.

When I installed this cooling unit back in April I noted in this blog that I’d identify the supplier after I knew that they were OK, because the RV refrigeration cooling unit industry seems to be replete with scam artists and cheesy organizations.  So now I’m identifying them.  Arcticold, you failed me when I needed help.

Fortunately I have more reliable friends, and (sadly) a fair bit of prior experience about what to do when the refrigerator stops cooling.

The first step is always the same in any circumstance:  don’t panic.  There may be quite a bit to panic about, but try not to panic anyway. It won’t help. Look at our situation: 2,000 miles from home and enjoying the fall weather in a lovely national park. If we just freaked out and started driving home in a rush we’d ruin the rest of our trip.

So keeping perspective helps. Yes, we have no refrigeration and a freezer full of expensive defrosting food. But we still have an Airstream complete with every other possible comfort of home. Our beds haven’t caught fire, our health is still good, the weather is fine … why ruin a trip for a failure of just one part?

Step 2 is to do some diagnosis. Maybe the problem isn’t severe, and can be fixed on the road. It happens that the Winter 2015 issue of Airstream Life will have an article by Terry Halstead (AKA Super Terry) on refrigerator maintenance and basic diagnosis. That will be in your mailbox in November, but since I’m the publisher I have a copy on my computer and I pulled it up to run through the diagnostic steps.

Alas, in our case the fridge’s two heat sources (electric heating element and gas burner) were both working perfectly, and there was no sign of a leak anywhere, which left only one conclusion I know of: the cooling unit had developed an internal blockage. If so, this is not repairable and it means the cooling unit is done.

This shouldn’t have happened after only six months. A cooling unit can last for decades. The original fridge from our 1968 Airstream Caravel is still running up in Colin Hyde’s shop in Plattsburgh NY (they use it as a drink cooler).

Running a refrigerator off-level can cause it to form a blockage but we’ve never done that. It has spent the last four months running perfectly level in Vermont.   I can only conclude that this failure is the result of a manufacturing defect in the replacement cooling unit.

Step 3: mitigate the damage. Eleanor keeps the freezer packed completely, which helps keep it cold, but it’s packed with filet mignon, sockeye salmon, premium ice cream, and various hard-to-find ingredients for the classically trained chef. We don’t want to give up on all that stuff unless we must.

So our strategy was three-pronged: (a) don’t open the freezer until we have to; (b) figure out what we can eat and/or cook first; (c) get some dry ice. We were in Huntsville AL by the time we had a chance to really get serious about this, parked at the US Space and Rocket Center campground.

[If the fridge failure had not happened you’d probably be reading a couple of blog entries about Mammoth Cave and the Space & Rocket Center, but I’ve been too distracted with this problem. Let me just say that we had a wonderful time at both places and highly recommend them.]

It’s also useful to have a good wireless digital thermometer inside the refrigerator to monitor the temperature without opening the door. I found one at Wal-Mart for $10.

Dry ice came from Publix in this case ($23 for two slabs of it, one for the freezer and one for the refrigerator). It only lasts about 24 hours but it works great. It kept the refrigerator compartment at 42 degrees, and keeps the smaller freezer compartment frozen solid. Before we found the dry ice we just grabbed a 10-lb bag of regular ice at the Mammoth Cave camp store, which bought us some time but only got the refrigerator compartment down to 52 degrees. You can also find dry ice at some Wal-Marts, Krogers, and Airgas (Penguin brand) locations.

Eleanor spent Saturday morning cooking things while Emma and I visited the US Space & Rocket Center. We came back to a smorgasbord of delectables, which wasn’t bad at all. Our diet for the next few days may be a little weird as Eleanor finds ways to combine what we have into meals.

Step 4 is to make a plan, and in this case we have decided to press on with our trip regardless of refrigeration. We’ll keep buying dry ice daily when we can find it, and use the refrigerator as an icebox. Later today or Monday Eleanor will stock the trailer with replacement foods that don’t require refrigeration.

I have contacted friends along our westward route to work on getting a new cooling unit or an entirely new refrigerator. That’s still in process. With luck, we’ll have the problem fixed in a week or so.  In the meantime, we’re going to keep having fun. Next stop, the beach!


  1. says

    Great storytelling about your experience and turning it into a huge life-lesson. Thanks for helping me put the flat tire on our TV into perspective.

  2. says

    While in Huntsville, did you get to Redstone Arsenal? Redstone is where I lived during last 2 H-school years at Huntsville High. My dad worked with Von Brown on Saturn rocket. The area offers lots of interesting stories, some of which I can even share. Been enjoying your travels!

    • RichLuhr says

      No, we were nearby but didn’t have time on this visit. Had I known it was Bert Gildart home I’m sure we would have stayed longer. That’s right up there with an Abraham Lincoln historical site in my book!