Home Life on the Road Bus Projects

Project Dominoes – Refrigerator Replacement

There is an exhilarating yet exhausting game that every bus owner, RV owner, boat owner, and home owner will probably play at some point.

Project Dominoes.

In case you aren’t immediately familiar with the game, let me describe for you a recent relatively epic project dominoes tournament of ours.

First, you start with a single simple project…

Vitrifrigo DP2600

Project: Swap out the old Dometic propane fridge in our bus for a new energy efficient all-electric Vitrifrigo DP2600, purchased and shipped on sale from marine outfitter Defender.

Ok – maybe this isn’t strictly a “simple” project since the new fridge is slightly shorter than the old one, and thus reconfiguring our bus’s fridge cabinet we knew would require a bit of carpentry work.

And since the original converter is long deceased – we did not know if the fridge was built into place, or (sensibly) installed after the cabinetry work was completed. The measurements were tight, and there was a distinct possibility that the fridge might not even fit down the bus aisle or out the front door.

But fortunately my general contractor uncle in the Tampa area who had helped us with our kitchen and bath remodel was available for more work, so we set aside a few days to swing by and handle the project before leaving Florida.

Why replace the fridge?

With so much uncertainty and hundreds (literally!) of other projects waiting on our bus conversion projects to-do list, why replace a working refrigerator?

Our old Dometic 2-way (propane/electric) cooled quite well, but it had a broken thermostat – meaning that it was either always on (and thus freezing our veggies), or off (and thus thawing our fruits). We had to constantly keep an eye on the fridge, and toggle it off/on as needed. Annoying, especially when we had to leave for a few days and the entire contents of the fridge would end up freezing.

We could have gotten the thermostat fixed, but since we’re aiming to be Propane Free, we knew we wanted to replace the old fridge anyway with an electric compressor fridge optimized for running off our battery bank. We did extensive research into every possible refrigeration option for the space available, selected our top contenders (NovaKool and Vitrfrigo – both Danfross compressors), and when the opportunity presented itself to get the project handled we ordered a new fridge and dove in.

It seemed like a relatively simple and self-contained project. Right?

And the Dominoes Fall

The fridge project should have been a simple install taking just a day or two – leaving us a lot of time to use my uncle’s skills and tools to tackle some other smaller carpentry projects in the bus – perhaps a shoe rack, drawers in our desk, etc.

Here is how the fridge project ended up going down:

Step #1: Transfer all the contents of the old fridge into a big cooler filled with ice. This should keep our stuff from spoiling during the day or two we are without modern refrigeration.

Step #2: Take out old fridge. It requires removing a propane line, the fridge doors, the cabinet doors across from the fridge, and the grab-handle in the entrance of the bus to make enough clearance to get the fridge out, with only millimeters to spare. But overall it was a lot less work than I feared – I had been afraid that we might need to take the windshield out too!

And then before we even get to step #3, the unplanned for (but in the moment irresistible) dominoes begin to fall.

You can keep score by counting the number of unplanned for new tasks that get intermixed into the original project…

  1. Well… While the fridge is out, it exposes the space behind, underneath the roof fridge vent. We might as well take advantage of this opportunity to run a conduit here so that when we eventually do solar, we won’t have to pull the fridge out again to run wires between the utility bay and the roof.
  2. Over our past year of ownership, we have discovered that while the craftsman who did such a great job with our bus’s original conversion was a master carpenter, he was unfortunately not much of an electrician. One of his mistakes – when he did the conversion, rather than running conduit, he routed wires through the walls and inside the roof, and then filled this space with foam insulation – making it impossible to ever upgrade, repair, or replace the wiring. Making matters worse, we discovered that he had used the wrong type of wire for safely carrying high currents through foam-filled walls. Though most of our loads are low-amperage, the roof air conditioners are of course not. Worse still – our friend and bus-guru Sean discovered last year that the wire to the front air conditioning had actually been long ago damaged (probably by a stray screw or nail nicking it) and the neutral line was bridged to the bus frame, causing any GFCI we plugged into to instantly trip. Because of this, we had been planning to run new wires to the roof AC units when we installed solar, so if we are running one DC conduit to the roof for solar we might as well run a second for these future AC lines…
  3. Why stop running conduit at the top of the roof vent? If we are going that far, we might as well run it to a junction box, and then T and secure conduit all along the top of the roof of the bus (in a position that would not be noticeable from the ground, but still left plenty of room for solar panels), all the way to each air conditioning unit.
  4. If we are going that far, why not disassemble the roof AC’s and work out a way to route the new power lines into the air conditioning units from above (not how they were ever originally designed). If we do that, we can actually fully replace the substandard original wiring sooner rather than later – and feel safe going into the heat of the summer (did we mention we’re heading to Texas?).
  5. Hey – now we are actually pulling new wires, and not just running conduit. Get out the fish tape, and crack open the breaker box!
  6. Meanwhile, since the air conditioner shrouds are off, the coils sure need a major cleaning. There is twenty years of Arizona dirt caked on!
  7. And hey – while the coils are drying, why not repaint the old yellowed plastic exterior shrouds? Shiny silver will be spiffier!
  8. Woah – they look great! While the AC is disassembled from below for pulling the new power lines, let’s paint the yellowed inside shrouds as well!
  9. We’ve now made major unplanned for improvements in how the roof of the bus looks from ground level, but the old very weathered MaxxAir rain shroud over the bathroom vent sticks out like a sore thumb now. Let’s get rid of it.
  10. Uhoh – the bathroom vent lid underneath is severely cracked. Amazon Prime to the rescue – a new replacement lid can be here overnight!
  11. The new lid is lower profile than the old lid – it won’t fully close over the top of the fan motor. The bathroom exhaust fan sounds like a screaming banshee, so we never use it anyway. Let’s disassemble it and remove it.
  12. Back to the wiring – if we are replacing wiring, why not also run a new dedicated circuit for the fridge that allows the fridge to run on AC only when on shore power, and DC otherwise. This way the fridge is never inefficiently powered via the inverter.
  13. And since we are doing that circuit – how about running a new wire to the kitchen counter outlets too, replacing the old non-ideal wires. Sure this means convoluted drilling through foamed walls and partially disassembling the kitchen window to route the wires, but it is worth it to be sure the wires we use daily for cooking (our stovetop is an induction cooktop, after all) are up to the task.
  14. Since we are now redoing so much of the AC wiring and the circuit breaker box is all pulled apart, let’s also rewire the shore power cable to give it a more solid and safer connection.
  15. While the breaker box is out, let’s also put better strain relief connectors where needed, and bolt it more solidly to the bulkhead.
  16. Oh, what the hell – let’s keep going and re-run all the AC circuits that we can reach and which might conceivably carry a high-amp load. Like the water heater. And a new dedicated circuit for the microwave!
  17. The other high-amp load we occasionally have is our electric space heater – sometime used in the bedroom, sometime in the front of the bus. But the existing wiring to the wall outlets in each place is essentially impossible to upgrade. It would be a shame to have all the high-current loads other than the heater on new safer wiring… So – why not put in an entirely new 20A outlet in the bedroom, and one in the living room?
  18. Hey – let’s give all the upgraded outlets a special color faceplate so it is easy and obvious to know which circuits have the hefty wires and 20A breakers! Now they’re all a classy modern black.
  19. Speaking of breakers… Let’s put in a dedicated GFCI breaker for the kitchen outlets.
  20. Back to the fridge (fridge? what fridge? oh – yeah! There’s two of them sitting outside the bus we keep tripping over) – removing the old fridge revealed some water damage to the floor and walls under the roof vent. Let’s treat the wood and reseal it.
  21. Let’s also redesign the fridge vent with some additional sheet metal to make it even harder for future driving rain to get in.
  22. Years of rain and condensation had gotten under the old fridge, and had slightly rotted some wood. One of those pieces of wood behind the fridge that needed to be removed had the DC wiring for the kitchen cabinet lights and living room lights running through it, and these wires needed to be cut to get the wood out. Let’s use cutting those undersized wires as an excuse to run heftier new wires, with dedicated grounds so that we can start moving away from all the bus DC circuits being grounded only through the chassis.
  23. The old DC fuse block is an ungainly home-brew affair with old-style glass fuses, and doesn’t even have a ground bus. Now is a good time to pull that big box out and replace it with a pair of Blue Sea Fuse Blocks, using blade-style fuses.
  24. While we are rewiring the DC – we need a new dedicated DC circuit for the fridge too. It will be pulling 5A’s DC often now and should have a heavy-gauge wire with its own ground.
  25. If we are going to run some new DC wires – let’s also run a new DC circuit back to the TV cabinet in the bedroom so that we can power our Top Signal cell booster and WiFiRanger WiFi Range Extender.
  26. Wait – what?!? Aren’t the booster and WiFiRanger mounted in the front cabinet over the driver?!?   Yeah – but that cabinet gets roasting hot and summer is coming. And if we relocate the electronics to the cool interior TV cabinet, we can (relatively) easily route wires for the antennas up through the fridge vent to the roof, instead of the tacky looking current wire running out the driver’s window.
  27. Easily? While the fridge (wait, we have a fridge?) is out, maybe. But once the new one is installed it will be very hard to run new wires. And the odds of Technomads getting new wireless tech to try is pretty high. We would also have to empty the two intermediary closet cabinets every time to even begin to get access for running new antennas from the TV cabinet to the roof!
  28. Great point – let’s run some open 1″ conduit from the TV cabinet to the space right under the fridge vent to make wiring new antennas easy.
  29. Ah – and let’s also run another conduit down into the utility bay and across to the other side of the bus, so we can run some dedicated ethernet from the WiFiRanger to our office desks!
  30. Now that the conduit is in place – let’s mount the cell and WiFi antennas nicely on the roof, but using a semi-permanent adhesive and zip-ties so that the tech can be easily changed, and no new holes need go into the roof.
  31. The TV cabinet is partially on display – open to the bedroom, and easy to show off to tech-curious guests. If the booster and WiFi Ranger are going to be there now, let’s mount them to the wall and carefully run the wires to make the “Museum of Connectivity” look spiffy. (Look for a blog post about all the gear in this setup soon…)
  32. Ah – but the blinken lights on all the electronics might keep Cherie up at night. Let’s use putty to carefully cover over all but the error LED on the booster. Why do electronics need so many blnken lights anyway? And why so bright?!?!
  33. Hey… How long has this cooler been filled with warm brackish water? What day of the week is it, anyway? What ever happened to our plan to get a new fridge? Oh… I guess we actually better get started on installing that new fridge one of these days, huh?

This was all during the span of a dizzying few days last month.

But that’s how the game is of project dominoes is played, and once they start to fall there is sometimes just no stopping them.

We eventually got back on track, got the new fridge installed, and the cabinetry modified around it. We even managed to get some help from my uncle with a few other pending carpentry tasks, like partially redoing the front door, and building a passenger accessible iPad & laptop holder which doubles as a pull-handle on the door. (And we even discovered the original ‘Watch Your Step’ sign underneath the old rotting wood.)

There were a lot of the other tasks we actually planned on getting done that week, but the unexpected twists and turns (rewiring half the bus!) kept them on the back burner.  Overall, we’re thrilled to have taken care of some very major projects on the bus and massively improved our electrical safety.

One thing is for sure, we doubt we’ll ever run out of projects on this bus!

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18 Comments - Still Plenty of Room for Yours!

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  1. Hi Chris and Cherie. We are getting a new, rig and for several reasons don’t want a propane
    fridge. We can’t decide if we want the residential fridge ( don’t need all that space and power draw) or replace the propane unit with a 12 volt unit. We hope to do a fair amount of boondocking. Just want to know how you like your Vitrifrigo (just looked at the same one yesterday). Although we don’t need much room, we were concerned about the top two door shelves, they seem too narrow to be useful. Also do you have a sense of average Ah draw?
    Thanks for being such a good resource and I love your book.

    • We do like our Vitrifrigo – but if you go the electric route, make sure you have enough power capacity for off grid to handle it. We estimate that 300-400 watts of our solar capacity is needed to keep it going when off grid. We included power measurements from it in our energy audit, published at https://www.technomadia.com/solar (I don’t have the numbers off hand.). We find the space completely usable – but then again, we came from a fridge half the size in our former trailer.

  2. Ever look at the Engel line of refrigerators? They can cost $600-$1,000, but do a great job of keeping things cold on minimal amps! As a van-dweller working mainly off 100 watts of solar, I rely on low-amp stuff. Engel rocks it.

    Cheers,
    -Matthew-

  3. Oh my! This sounds like about every project I get into- except my ideas and skill level don’t match up quite as well. 🙂 When the projects starts “Domino -ing,” we laugh and quote Merle Haggard, “It’s like a Snowball headed for hell!” -that’s me!

    So, are all wires standard in the ceiling? If I was to hire an electrician, should they be RV specific?

    The reality of opening a wall is what else you’ll find in there AND THEN what you CAN or should do while inside the wall. I bet it feels good to have all that, that you never expected to do, done. Sweet.

    • If you hire an electrician, it’s probably a good idea that they have familiarity with RVs… but all and all, code is code. And that’s the important part. But most house electricians aren’t going to as familiar with the combo of 12v and 110 that most RVs have going through them.

  4. I sympithize with the dominos, but you forgot to mention the chinese puzzel getting things out and tetris getting things back. I’ve got a large project I’m trying to decide if it can get done before I have a commitment.

  5. I’m glad to hear you got the Danfoss fridge installed. I bet you will be pleased. I love mine! While much smaller than yours I’ve started blogging measurement data as part of my overarching solar project.

  6. Yup. Been there. Done that. Only with a “sticks and bricks”. Roughly two years of a kitchen/dining room/living room remodel. (and it didn’t stop there…)
    It so happened my wife was living in another country during the week, so that sort of “helped”? There’s still more to do.
    You’ll see.
    It’s still heaps of fun though I find, isn’t it?

  7. Sounds like the way my projects go. I call it Mission Creep. But I think your’s galloped on this one. But as you say, it makes it much better in the end. You’ll be thanking your self for all that conduit every time you do something electrical. I just installed my new marine fridge in my van – a one day job took the better part of 2 weeks due to rust abatement. I rewired last year … (Bought my fridge from the same place – awesome service from Defender.)

    • Sounds like the rewiring of my 1966 boat! Every bit of minor maintenance seemed to expose three “must fix now” or it will burn or sink items!

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