What’s a dual-fuel refrigerator worth?

If you could purchase a propane-only refrigerator and save $200 or $300 off the price of a dual-fuel one, would it be worth it? Or, if your refrigerator stops working on electrical power but still works great on propane, what’s it worth to make the refrigerator work on both fuels again? We assumed the cost was worthwhile to restore our fridge to work on either but, after careful analysis, we’re not so sure. It depends upon whether you pay for electrical energy (not everyone does), your energy costs (propane and electricity), and your cost to buy or repair the dual-fuel capability.

We replaced, finally, the refrigerator’s power control board last month. Our fridge operated only on propane for four months, August through November. It wasn’t too much a problem since it still worked so well but we felt it should work the way it was designed, on either fuel. And, we were waiting for the other shoe to drop and we might lose use of the refrigerator completely.

Also we so often get our electric included in site rental costs, we thought we could benefit from selecting between gas and electric. What’s more expensive, operating an appliance designed for propane on propane only, or paying for the electric heater to operate the gas cycle in your refrigerator? We’ll get back to this.

The refrigerator worked fabulously on propane. At $120 for a control board we might save enough propane by using free electric (where we get it) to pay the control board cost. Oh, but we paid $75 in Balzac, Alberta at Bucars RV to have them tell us there is nothing wrong with our refrigerator and we paid another $75 to have Camping World in Boise, Idaho tell us we needed this control board. We knew one repair service was wrong, and thought the other was right. We’d already sunk $150 in diagnostic charges, and figured we might as well buy the board too. How long will it take to save $270 worth of propane?

This sounds a lot like the gas – diesel comparison we used to discuss. Funny, we haven’t heard people talking about this as much in the past year or so. Do you suppose it’s because diesel price just won’t come down and stay down below regular gasoline price? And you pay a lot more for the diesel powerplant and drivetrain (and might mind the noise and smell of Detroit diesels in your campsite). Then there’s the maintenance costs. Diesel only pays if you must have the torque. I’ll try not to talk about this later.

Back to the subject, if you could choose to have a propane-only refrigerator versus paying an additional $300 to obtain a dual fuel propane/electric refrigerator, are you sure the latter is worth the extra dough? I decided to work on this the way we did at work years ago. And, after working on the calculations all evening, I could probably have come to this answer in the first place. The answer is, it depends.

The most important variable is whether you pay for electrical energy (not everyone does), or for what percentage of your RVing months you pay for electrical use. The relative energy costs (propane and electricity) matter greatly, if you pay for electrical some or all of the year. Finally, what is your cost to buy or repair the dual-fuel capability?

If your electrical supply is included the price the campgrounds charge you for a site, then your refrigerator will run at no cost to you whenever your trailer is plugged into campground power (Psst — don’t tell your friends whose house you courtesy park at about this, okay?). If your electrical supply is metered, as ours sometimes is, then you won’t see such high savings from electrical power for your refrigerator.

The next most important variable is the cost of the two energy inputs, propane and electricity. Small changes can have large impacts, if you are paying for all your electrical usage. For example, if electricity costs you 12 cents per kwh (Florida’s average residential rate for 2009) and the current local price for propane is $3.85, electricity is much cheaper to run. At these prices, we could save a modest $17 per year by paying for electricity instead of propane for the refrigerator. The December 2009 prices in Mesa, Arizona, would save us $32 per year burning propane instead of paying for electricity for the refrigerator.

The picture changes completely if electrical service is provided, at no extra charge, with your campsite. Every time you run the refrigerator on free electricity, you save money, and your savings might be $120 per year if you use your refrigerator year around like we do. That’s worth it, for sure!

Propane is very rarely free to RVers. But electricity is provided, in many campgrounds, at no added cost. A dual-fuel refrigerator saves money whenever the electricity is provided at no additional cost. But if you are paying for your electrical service and for your propane, it might be worthwhile to compare the relative costs and burn the better priced energy.

Is a dual fuel refrigerator worth a few hundred extra bucks (for first cost or cost to restore capability)? The short answer is, it depends. We’re glad we fixed our refrigerator to run either propane or electricity. And, going forward, we’ll pay more attention to the local energy rates before we decide which fuel to use for the refrigerator. It may be worth watching the local energy prices, if you want to control your costs.

Jim and Debbie
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©2010 Dreamstreamr, Jim Cocke

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13 responses to “What’s a dual-fuel refrigerator worth?

  1. Jim, you have way too much time on your hands. Go play some tennis or golf. (But please keep writing! We enjoy all your observations, thoughts, and tangents.)

    • Richard, This exercise is tantamount to doing brain exercises on a DS-Lite, or doing the daily sudokus. Except we WILL save money with the propane/electric price comparison, and the only money the later two activities might save is from avoiding doing something like shopping.

      Thanks for reading!

      Jim

    • Folks, We forgot to mention, if anyone wants a copy of the ms-excel worksheet we built, just send us an email and we will be glad to share it. Very simple and adaptable to local energy prices and percentage of time spent in metered/unmetered space.

      Jim

  2. Great post, Jim,

    You mention the cost of electrical is 12 cents per kwh, and the cost of propane is $3.85 (per gallon I assume). Did you calculate the refrig running time for a gallon of fuel? I would think a gallon of propane would last a refrigerator many, many hours, bringing the cost per hour more in line with elec.

    This is an intriguing post. As you say in one response, it keeps the brain cells firing!!

    • Barry, Cost of propane ($3.85) is today’s price (per gallon) in Okeechobee (we paid $2.19 in Mesa, Az). Cost of electricity ($0.1206) is Florida state’s average residential rate for 2009 (Arizona’s average residential rate is $0.1134).

      Average electric rates are easily available, or you can ask your seller (the local utility or your reseller if you are buying through a park). Propane prices appear only available anecdotally — I found no propane price lists available on the internet. Others may know a source for this.

      I’m interested if anyone has measured their RV refrigerator’s electrical consumption.

      I used a 650 btu/hr maximum rate for propane for 7cf RV refrigerators, a rate I found on internet. You can back into this from the fridge’s rating

      I used 50% of the max rate as assumption of average running time, just a swag. Propane contains approx 92,000 btu per gallon.

      Running time is approx = 0.5 X (92,000/650) = 70.7 hours per gallon

      Thanks for your question and interest —

      Jim

  3. Well, that was interesting. I’ll be eyeing our dualy for a while, until you give us something else to consider.

    The picture of the board you replaced made me think of the small manufacturing plant I worked in for a couple of years as a temp employee. The meeting rooms had boards, that they had made, as artwork on the walls. Some of them were huge and very interesting to look at. I walked past the end of the line for one of the more simple boards one day and mentioned to the worker sitting there that it looked like it had a little robot on it. He had never noticed that in all the time he’d been sitting there looking at them. Funny how the company couldn’t find a full-time position for me…

    Your blog is a joy. I’m looking forward to your next post.

  4. One must also remember the electric rates in a particular area are different than the state average. Mesa for instance is served by the Salt River Project as opposed to Az Public Service Co. The rates here are cheaper than the state average at around 7.5 cents per kwh probably because SRP is a Co-op.

    • Wow! Forget the propane, even at $2.19 per gallon, with electricity at 7.5 cents. I don’t have the worksheet up (it’s on the other computer) but am sure the electric is well cheaper to run. Gosh, you probably shouldn’t even use your gas oven in Mesa. Wait, you don’t have one, I forgot! Well heck, it wouldn’t be worth it anyway, at that cost delta.

      Jim

  5. I would be interested in the consumption as well. Especially in regard to tri-fuel systems that also use 12v. 12v systems tend to drain a lot of battery reserve to power a heating element. (for example, my small 12v heater which is one of the biggest 12v heaters available pulls about 10-15 amps and puts out less than 1/4 the BTUs of my 110v ceramic heater on the ‘low’ power setting)
    Even if you use a power inverter to bump up to 110v, you’ll still pull even a large deep cycle battery down pretty fast, and that even with a RV style dual/tri fuel fridge that uses a precipitating system as opposed to one with an active compressor and fan.
    One nice thing about 12v systems is you can supplement recharging with solar panels or even a small windmill, but you ultimately want to have a small generator handy to cover when the weather doesn’t make those methods workable to do your recharge. When you calculate the cost of gasoline for remote RV’ing, the cost for electricity is much higher.

    • @WildWebster,
      We ran ours as electric-only (from our trailer’s batteries, through the inverter)and we’re thankful the alternator kept the batteries sort of up while touring on the highways. The most we saw from the alternator was 18 amps, which was actually better than I expected. But less than the fridge draws.

      We couldn’t keep up with the battery draw, as you surmised, without pulling the batteries down too far. The 12vdc current (really 13.8vdc) was, I think, right at 30 amps peak for just the fridge. Problem was, it was July and the fridge seemed to pull that 30a load every time we checked the meter. Not sustainable except, as you say, with enough solar, and the alternator, and augmenting with genset when we stop.

  6. Hi Dreamstreamr,

    Thanks for sharing your experience,

    Could you be kind, and tell me where did you get the control board of the duel refrigerator, and how much you paid,

    I need exactly this one,

    our board is bed,

    thanks

    Reuven

    • Reuven, we bought the board from Dinosaur Electronics. Their customer service is unparalleled and we’ve had no problems with the board. Highly recommend this product.

      • thank you so much for the information,

        and sharing with all of use your journey,

        reuven

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