The Vanagon Westfalia Camper refrigerator is convenient and efficient; here’s how to use it.
No camper-van kitchen is complete without the ability to keep your food cold to preserve it and prevent spoilage. And the value of a cold beer or soft drink at the end of a long hot day of road tripping requires no explanation …
The Vanagon Westy Dometic RM182 refrigerator is located in the lower kitchen cabinet, immediately below the stove. At 1.5 cubic feet (45 liters) of interior volume, it’s a little smaller than a dorm-room mini-fridge, so smart packing is required.
Generally speaking, when the original Dometic is in good working order, it is capable of keeping food about 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit (or 20-25 degrees Celsius) below ambient air temperature. It will struggle to keep food at safe temperatures when temps inside the van exceed 90-100˚F (32-38˚C).
The refrigerator interior features two moveable shelves, and two additional compartments on the inside of the door for small food items, bottles, or cans.
In the upper-rear of the fridge interior is the evaporator core, or cooling element. When ice occasionally forms on this evaporator, turn the fridge off to defrost and allow the ice to melt.
The Westy refrigerator is operated by one of three power sources:
To use this, connect an extension cord from a nearby power outlet to the van’s external power inlet on the side panel near the other utility hookups. The fridge is very effective when powered this way, keeping food quite cold.
12-volt DC (alternator or auxiliary battery)
In stock form, Westfalia Campers were equipped with a relay to allow the fridge to be powered by the alternator whenever the engine is running. It automatically cuts all power to the fridge when the engine is stopped, to prevent draining the starting battery.
Some owners add a second, auxiliary battery to their van and wire it through a relay or other circuits in order to power the fridge via 12V for longer periods.
The fridge can also be fueled by the same external LP tank as the Westfalia stove. Just after the main shutoff valve and two-stage LP regulator attached to the tank, the supply splits into two copper lines: one feeds the stove, and the other the fridge.
The fridge is also very efficient when powered this way, with a full LP tank supplying the fridge 24/7 for at least a full month before requiring a refill.
See below for more info on starting and operating the fridge on LP.
As for temperatures, the Dometic fridge will attain its coldest temps when powered by (in order):
- 120-volt AC
- Liquid Propane
- 12-volt DC
Controls & Operation
The Dometic controls are located inside the fridge door, just above the main compartment.
The Fridge Routine
As outlined in “The Routine,” here’s a brief synopsis of running your fridge during a typical trip:
Pre-Trip Preparation, often the day prior to departure
- Ensure that LP (liquid propane) tank is sufficiently full, and that main shutoff valve on tank is closed
- Pre-chill refrigerator overnight on 120V AC shore power; add cold beverages to provide thermal mass
Hitting the Road, the day of departure
- Load any remaining cold food into pre-chilled refrigerator
- Disconnect refrigerator from 120V AC shore power, switch to 12V DC, or open main LP valve and light for driving
Arrive in camp:
- Park van using parking brake and, if necessary, RV levelers
- Open main shutoff valve on LP tank to operate refrigerator on liquid propane, switch refrigerator control to LP, and light
- If 120V AC power is available, you can optionally power the fridge with this; use extension cord to connect campsite shore power station to camper hookup; switch refrigerator to 120V AC
- Disconnect 120V AC shore power and water hookups
- Close main shutoff valve on LP tank, switch refrigerator to 12V DC or LP for driving
- Turn refrigerator off; remove remaining food and wipe clean
Tips & Tricks
In addition, here are some insights gained from many years of operating these compact, convenient, efficient, but sometimes fretful fridges.
Pre-Chill on 120VAC Shore Power
The Dometic fridge does well at maintaining cool temps, but benefits from a head start. A few hours before using your fridge, plug it into shore power to pre-chill it. The thermal mass of a cold six-pack inside will further aid pre-chilling, and help make the fridge easier to light on LP later.
Pack it Cold
When loading foodstuffs in the fridge, try to use pre-chilled food whenever possible, so the fridge needn’t struggle to get/stay cold.
Check It Out
As mentioned in the Owner’s Manual instructions, the Flame Indicator Light will tell you the fridge’s LP chamber is still burning. But you can also easily confirm the fridge’s continued operation from outside the van by feeling the exterior vent with your hand: a bit of warmth here indicates the fridge’s LP chamber is still burning.
A small clip-on RV fridge thermometer lets you monitor your fridge’s interior temps; a simple analog model requires you open the fridge door to have a peek (losing some of your precious cold air), while a wireless version works remotely.
Stay on the Level
When parked, the Dometic fridge must always be kept somewhat level; the Owner’s Manual specifies no more than +/- 8 degrees on incline, to prevent overheating and permanent damage to the heating element. A set of RV levelers and level indicators will help you find a suitable parking spot.
Made in the Shade
To help the fridge keep your cucumbers cool, choose a parking spot or camp site out of direct sunlight, and if possible open a couple of windows an inch or so to keep the van interior cooler.
Though usually very trouble-free, the Westfalia’s Dometic fridge may sometimes be difficult to light, or fail to keep your food cold. Here are some ideas to try before removing the fridge for DIY service.
Suck It Up
The fridge’s exterior vent houses two conduits: air intake and exhaust vent. These can become plugged with debris which can make its way down to the burner chamber: leaves and seeds, dead bugs, spider webs, etc.. Remove the outer vent cover to expose the two conduits, and alternately apply the end of a shop vac to each one to clean out any accumulated junk.
Clear the Air
Igniting the LP burner requires a bit of fresh air in the burn chamber, usually provided by the tiny pump built into the ignitor knob. But over time this pump can begin to fail, making ignition difficult. If you’re having problems, remove the cap from the small condensation drain pipe below the fridge and attach a bicycle pump. Give it several strokes of fresh air, and try igniting the fridge again.