Vanagon Fridge Syndrome -- won't run on LP

Capt. Mike

The following is a transfer from the TIPS archives.

7/31/99 (6:06 PM)

After many posts and dozens of personal e-mails about the dreaded "My fridge won't run on LP", I've tried to gather all of the little hints to combat this Westy Fridge Syndrome.

There are no magic cures, words or incantations, although it helps to hold your mouth right. The VW fridge is a Dometic, and notoriously finicky when it comes to restarting after a long layoff. If you go back to the site and into the archives, you'll find lots of info. Another source of general working knowledge is a private site, (Now obsolete – see later post.)

What appears to be a Westy Fridge Syndrome is the system becomes sluggish or inert after lying idle for a long time. We don't know the causes, though I've some personal suspicions. I suspect the refrigerant coils get dirty and covered with a film and/or that the refrigerant itself, an ammonia based compound (not freon) gets thick and develops a slow flow characteristic or inertia.

Don't ask me to make sense, but have you ever seen a sluggish thermostat? The mercury inside a sealed tube decides it won't be as liquid as it used to be and it takes a good jolt to break the inertia. Then the thermostat works fine for weeks or months.

First, I assume you have an owner's manual and are doing the start sequence right -- doing the pump up, holding the start button, etc.? Have the controls set to LP and the thermostat set to full on? LP tank valve wide open. (Don’t cut an LP valve back 1/4 turn like you would with a water valve – it can cause a leak at the valve bonnet.

Next, I would hope you have a cover for the flue, and it has been ON during all the idle periods. I know a lot of people hate the cost -- about $11-20 last I heard -- and they only last a couple of years, BUT . . . they are essential to fridge health. It only takes a little spider or mud dauber to shut down the system. Rain, dust, pollen and dirt don’t help either. Of course the cover is removed during operation, and I personally don't bother recovering during the driving day when we're camping. But am religious about it when not camping. I, too, got tired of the 2-3 years I was getting out of the plastic OE cap, so if you go to the main page, click on my pics link, and look at my Westy Accessory pics on that board, you'll see what I did about it -- a thumbscrew attached, all aluminum cover.

There is a drain, the little brass cap & chain thingy sticking out the grill under the fridge inside -- to drain moisture out the flue chamber. Remove that cap and run a little compressed air -- not 90 PSI either! -- through it. Be sure you feel flow coming out the flue outside.

Now, it will never be easy starting. For some reason, they seem to require you to put them on AC and do a complete pre-cool. Although overnight is normal, some report success only after a 24-36 hour run if it's been idle for a real long time. Per my unscientific theories, this gets the system hot and burns off any film or dust on the heat sink fins. It also gets the refrigerant hot enough to flow clean, if that's what the problem is.

Second, you need to burn out any air in the system by running the burners for a few minutes. I often leave one running while I'm lighting the fridge just so there is constant fresh LP flow while I'm doing it.

Then it's just a matter of doing the light procedure maybe 10 or 20 times. When you finally get it fired, keep your start button depressed another 30 seconds or so. It sometimes seems to help prevent dieing back out. There is a little flame viewing optic inside the fridge, bottom left rear corner.

There is a bright side! Once it's started, it will refire easily for the rest of the trip. Even if not used for a couple of days, it fires right back up. It seems to take a couple of weeks or more of that idle time to develop the Fridge Syndrome curse. I've even started doing a precautionary round with mine during the winter months, much like you're supposed to run the A/C every week for a few minutes. Well, I run the fridge overnight and then do an hour or so on LP about once a month when I can remember it.

If in doubt have a pro LP man run through the system to eliminate things like a bad regulator. There is a second regulator up under the burner top but that for the burners only and is after the fridge tap off.

Hope these ideas help.

Capt. Mike

Dometic has their own site,

An excellent site on Dometic fridges is

Capt. Mike
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Capt. Mike

RV Mobile Inc. in Everette WA has an excellent web site with considerable tech & troubleshooting info. Their site is . Below, with their permission are some of the troubleshooting tips.

1. The unit has to be level: All ammonia absorption refrigerators (RV refrigerators) have to be level, when stationary and turned on to any heat source, period. Not doing so will permanently damage the cooling unit. If stationary, on, and out of level, liquids in the cooling unit pool in places they shouldn't and cause the boiler to overheat and plug or crack.

2. The unit has to have adequate ventilation: The venting of an RV gas/electric refrigerator should be designed to not only provide a place for the warm air from the cooling unit to escape, but designed to actually create a draft that will remove expelled heat as efficiently as possible. Poor venting can cause the cooling unit to overheat and damage the cooling unit.

When the cooling unit gives off heat, it causes air around it to warm. Warm air rises causing cooler air from the lower vent to enter the area and to extract more heat from the cooling unit and also rise. The greater the difference in temperature between the warmer air and the cooler air, the faster the air will rise. Narrowing the path of the air flow forces the cooler air through the cooling unit coils as it rises.

Fans: Theoretically, perfect venting will create a draft that will remove heat from the cooling unit in even the warmest conditions. However, perfect venting isn't always that easy to achieve. The purchase of an add-on fan can solve a lot of problems in border line venting, but is not a cure all for terrible venting. The important thing to remember is that the fan should be installed above the cooling unit, preferably right at the roof vent. The purpose of the fan is to improve the draft, not to blow air onto the cooling unit.

3. The cooling unit needs the CORRECT HEAT: This page is more for emphasis than actual fact. The key word here is "correct". The cooling unit needs a precise, CORRECT heat to operate, not just any heat. Too high of a heat will permanently damage the cooling unit. Too low of a heat will cause the cooling unit not to function properly or not to function at all.

4. The cooling unit has to be correctly installed: This isn’t a problem with the original factory installation, but has to be considered if the fridge has ever been removed. It’s all too easy for mechanics to break or lose the foam blocks, bend brackets or have parts of the fridge system contacting where it shouldn’t. Installation requires the use of thermal mastic, a heat transfer compound, at critical places. The average auto shop probably doesn’t have it, or know how to use it, so anything that has disturbed your original installation becomes suspect.

Summary: If the three above requirements are provided to the cooling unit, it should work and should work well. If it doesn't work well, then it is a bad cooling unit. It's really that simple. (Also, failure to meet the three requirements above when the refrigerator is in operation can cause permanent damage to the cooling unit.) Of course, don't overlook mitigating circumstances such as a main door that seals very poorly, which would cause a good cooling unit to look bad because of warm air continuously entering the box.

Also, if the cooling unit seems to work poorly only during warm weather, it's possible that one of the requirements above is in a border line state. In other words, the venting, for example, may be adequate for mild weather, but not adequate for warm weather. A cooling unit could also be border line, but it would be prudent to look elsewhere first.
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Capt. Mike

How do I know if my cooling unit works?

From RV Mobile comes these troubleshooting tips:

First of all, if the cooling unit cools properly on one heat source (i.e. gas or electric) and not the other, then the cooling unit, with only a few exceptions, is good and the problem lies in the heat source that is not functioning properly.
Secondly, there are obvious signs of a bad cooling unit.

:( If you smell ammonia in or around the refrigerator, and you haven't recently used ammonia for cleaning, the cooling unit is bad. No further testing is necessary.

:( If sodium chromate is present on the outside of the cooling unit, the cooling unit is bad. Sodium chromate is a yellowish-greenish powder in solution inside the cooling unit. If sodium chromate is outside the cooling unit, the cooling unit has a hole in it.

:( If you hear a relatively loud gurgling or percolating sound when the refrigerator is in operation (being heated), it is a sign of a bad cooling unit. The key words here are "relatively loud". A good cooling unit percolates when in operation, and if you get close enough and listen carefully enough, you can hear it percolate. However, if you hear noise a few feet away, it is a sign that the cooling unit has lost pressure and is bad.

Testing the cooling unit is simply insuring that the three necessary requirements for the operation of a cooling unit (level, ventilation, correct heat) are met. Do whatever it takes to meet these requirements. If you suspect a venting problem, pull the refrigerator and set it on the floor. In fact, pulling the refrigerator and setting it on a level floor meets two of the requirements and leaves only one, correct heat, to worry about. Always test the refrigerator on the electric heat source, unless you are unable to because you have a gas only refrigerator. The reason for testing on the electric side is if the electric heat element gets hot, you can be better than 95% sure that you have correct heat, whereas even a poor gas flame will produce heat. For additional notes & tests, see their web site at .

After you have provided the cooling unit with its three requirements, allow plenty of time for the cooling unit to function. You should see signs of cooling in the freezer after about two hours. Allow six to eight hours, or even over night, for an empty refrigerator to come down to temperature.

The ammonia absorption style of refrigeration is slower than the compressor style in terms of initially bringing the refrigerator down to temperature. However, once the desired temperature is reached, there should be no problem in maintaining that temperature.

If you have done everything in this section up to this point and the cooling unit does not work or does not work well, the cooling unit is bad and will need to be rebuilt or replaced.

Thanks RV Mobile. You may be saving our readers from expensive repairs at a less-than-qualified shop!
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Roger Westfalia

New member
Model V182woR Dometic Fridge in a 1990 Westfalia. I'm pretty sure it's an original installation.

Electronic/piezo ignitor won't work most of the time unless I remove the access screen on the back, left of the cabinet, reach in and unplug the high tension ignitor wire from the block behind the AC/DC/GAS selector switch.

If I pull the wire and then push the ignitor switch, it will start making the audible clicking noise. I then shut if off, reconnect the wire and the ignitor works again.

I don't know if the wire is bad or the block behind the switch is bad or neither.

I do know the fridge lights very easily if it's allowed to run on AC for 2-3 hours (overnight preferably), and then switched to LP. Once lit, it runs wonderfully.

Let me know of any more info on this. Thanks

Capt. Mike

Transferred from another post to consolidate same subject topics:

Those darned icebox's

kksteve, Junior Member, 10-31-2000 11:29 PM


Brand new 1990 westy, even from this very sites classified's. Four days in my possesion now and it seems the dreaded fridge bug is affecting me. Works well on AC. The jury is still out on the DC. After two solid days of precool on AC I am still unable to get the LP pilot going... Hummm... So from here ? Trobleshooting, does the ignitor work ? The airpump ? The manual shows a modifacation to the air pump, but fails to mention why one would need to be modified ? I've read every line of info I can and suspect I'll be pulling the fridge out, but I hope I'll know what to do then ?
Thanks all, Kelly

Ed Pullen, Junior Member, 11-01-2000 12:15 AM

Steve: I had a similar problem with a literally brand new (in 1988) camper. I could not get the pilot to light, especially in hot weather, so I went to my dealer on return, and he got it going. Upshot: some maintenance folks have confronted this problem so many times that they can try little "tricks" that get results. Good luck.
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New member
This is an idiot story: I tried every which way to get my fridge to work on LP in my recently purchased '87 Westy. I read the manual and all the posts on this subject and still had no luck. I finally took it in to get serviced...they cleaned it up and said it now worked fine. I got it home and tried again and again. No luck. Took it back to shop and technician tried. No luck. Finally, after 15 minutes of trying, he saw the pilot light. It turns out that in order to see the pilot light, you had to get right down on the floor for a straight on look into the peep hole. And I mean chin practically on the floor. Other Westys' fridges I had looked at had been easy to see the pilot light on from a normal position. So I had assumed that mine was not working. In any case, I am happy to report that it actually lights right up. Poor thing..."I'm lit already, wouldya stop clickin' me?" The bad news is this was a very expensive lesson, since the RV shop charged me $226 for 3 hours of labor pulling it out, diagnosing it and cleaning it up. (The technician said there was a lot of scale built up and that it had not lit up for him before he started the job. But by the looks of the trouble he had seeing the pilot light himself when I took it back....I dunno. I do know, however, that it had worked when I bought it 3 weeks ago, so it would seem that I'm the fool). Just thought this story might help any other newby Westy owners with the "I don't see the pilot light so it must not be working" issues. :rolleyes:


New member
Well if its any consolation I did the same with my 90 Westy.

I thought from the instructions I was supposed to see the red light turn permanently red but in fact when the piolot light is on it turns off (no clicking) and the green glow light on the panel brightens up (the bottom one of the four).

Of course you have to turn the PANEL LIGHT SWITCH ON to see any lights! Ths is obvious to veteran Westy owners, but not to a new owner. This was my mistake during many initial attempts at starting in LP.

Now my LP mode works each and every time and is one of the most reliable systems on the beast.


New member
Great sight, learned lots of stuff. I do have a problem that I have not solved yet though, so here is my first post. I have an 87 westy, with the 182 fridge. AC works great, DC works as good as it does, and Propane works great too....when it stays on. I have no problem lighting it everytime, but it decides when it is done working. When I bought the van in June, it would not light. I tore apart the burner, and ran compressed air through all the pipes and orifices. It now starts up everytime.

The problem is keeping it going. It ran all night in July. Two days ago, it ran for 2 hours before it shut down and it had got the cabinet down to 50 degrees, the coils where at about 44 (i bought an indoor outdoor digital thermometer from radioshack...very handy.) I then could not keep it lit for anymore than 5 minutes.

I started it today and it ran for about 10 minutes before it shut off. It always shuts itself off eventually. I did have it running for about 1.5 hours today before it quit on me. Its really random. Any advice? Everything I have read has been on getting it started which is not my problem.

Also, is it normal for the green indicator to cycle on and off, on and off, continually on propane mode? Tonight I discovered that the flame cycles as well. Through the peep hole, one can see that the flame goes from bright to dim to bright continually (in sequence with the green LED)....until eventually it clicks and goes out! Agh!!


Capt. Mike

The indicator light going on & off indicates your LP pilot light is going on & off (well almost off) -- it should be on continuously whenever LP is going. Thus it appears your pilot is not staying lit. Obviously, once it dies, the fridge will not refire except manually. Besides the pilot lite and supply itself, it is quite dependent upon the airflow through the flue. The flue is both the supply and exhaust (double wall), thus a loss of seal can change the air flow and cause the pilot lite to fluctuate. See the tech bulletin from Dometic posted on the tech drawings link from the home page before pulling the fridge.


New member
Well, you were right about the pilot light airflow problem. I accidently discovered that when I remove the flu vent cover, the gurgling stops and it runs perfectly. I theorize that the cover was causing some exhaust to get sucked into the intake causing the unsteady gurgling burn as there is nothing separating the 2 ports. It runs perfectly now, but I have even less protection from the elements, and I don't have a cover for the cover either. I left the gasket on and the plate that holds the assembly to the body on but am running with no cover.

I have seen on a Eurovan Camper an additional plate that has a hole where the exhaust port pokes through but not the intake port thereby seperating the 2 ports better. Was mine supposed to come with this extra plate?

Where could I get a plate like this? If I order a new flue vent cover assembly for $160 from the Dealership, will it come with this plate that I saw on the new style?



Capt. Mike

Not likely; th Eurovan used a different fridge and wouldn't have the same flue system, nor is it likely VW would 'upgrade' from the Vanagons since they were supplied by an outside vendor.

The original flues worked very well -- if you had a leak or a broken seal, that should be repairable. The tech bulletin refered to above talked about correcting the seal problem.

Capt. Mike

Transferred to consolidate same topic.[/]

samanthacrown Junior Member posted March 31, 2003 03:42 PM

I have an 1982 Diesel Westy and the fridge has worked for a year just fine with LP. Within days of it working fine I fired it up. All indications seemed OK, Pilot light on, indicator light on, the flue was warm. LP tank 3/4 full, wide open, but the fins never cooled to lower than 10 degrees below the ambient air temp, which was about 70. I ran it for hours, then a day. With A/C it works fine. I fired it up at least 10 times over 2 weeks and the same problem persisted. I know this is just another fridge issue, but I did not see a posting with this problem. Any ideas??

icarus Member posted March 31, 2003 04:25 PM

LP fridge

I have never had trouble with the fridge in my syncro, but the dometics in my cabins are very prone to rust in the burners. If it is getting cold on a.c and not on lp I would take it out and clean the burner. There should be a very crisp blue flame. If there is any orange in it it won't get cold. Also make sure it is level, but if it is in the car it shoudl be level enough. (Instead of taking it all our, yo might try to blow compressed air down the flue or down the air intake and see if you can blow the crud out)
good luck.

A. Cooper Member posted March 31, 2003 06:46 PM

I'll concur with icarus; the 12VDC and 120VAC use an electric heating element while the LP uses -- no surprise -- a gas burner. That your problem only occurs with the gas suggests something amiss with the burner assembly.

First try emptying the little condensation drain pipe, located below the fridge door waaaay down near the floor and kinda tucked under the fridge cabinet. Just remove the screw-off cap and let it air dry or even give it a little toot of compressed air.

If this doesn't help, go outside and remove the stainless steel cover, plate, and rubber gasket from the fridge flue vent. Inside you'll see two corrugated metal tubes: one is the fridge air intake, the other the exhaust. Over the end of your shop-vac hose strip a white panty hose or other light-weave fabric. Turn on the vac and press the hose-end tightly against one of the metal tubes to suck any crud out. The white fabric may plainly reveal all manner dirt, rust particles, dead bugs, etc. pulled from the depths of your burner system. Repeat on the other metal tube until all is clean.

If these fail, you may have to remove and disassemble the burner assembly as icarus suggests, but try the easy fixes first.

Good luck!

Capt. Mike

Transferred to consolidate same topic.

ll Junior Member posted May 07, 2003 12:07 AM

Help, the propane ignitor on my fridge is dead. Is there another way to light it?

I have a '84 Westy

Bruce.T Junior Member posted May 07, 2003 07:14 PM

I just got mine running ('87) after sliding it out, doing an update repair on the air pump and making sure all of the gas lines were unobstructed. Additionally I checked to make sure the ignition was working. It really wasn't a tough job at all. Just make certain that the propane is shut off at the tank prior to starting the repair.


New member
Just want to say a big thank you to everybody who gave info re the fridge. I tried to light my 86 Vanagon, no pilot light, no inside/back corner sight hole light, and after 2 hours of following the manual intructions, and confusing the "I" and the "O" for on/off, I referred to the fridge thread, and voila! I got my bike pump out, and removed the flue cover and blew for all I was worth, phew, the stuff that came outa there! I gave up, left the LP on, and in the morning, felt the flue cover. It was warm!!! yay, the fridge was cold, and I flipped! I'm a 56 year old woman, and mechanicals is not me, but I am so damn proud. I have to say, I owe it you members. Thank you. Leester

don't have one


Having grown up in the bush with l/p fridges I know their quirks pretty well. The fridge in my syncro for all its other wonderful qualities is still a pain to light on l/p. If the fridge burner is warm, either from 12vts or a.c there is enough convection to give a draft to let the fridge light on l/p. The simplest way I have found to light it is to run it on 12 vts while driving, and as soon as I stop, I'll turn on the gas at the tank, light the stove burner for a minute or two to blead off any air, then change the fridge from 12 vt and light it with the air pump piezo. If the fridge has not been run for a while and the flue is cold, (I often park for long periods of time in the bush with no a.c power to pre cool, so I light it a day early to prcool on l/p) I have had to resort to blowing in the intake side of the vent with a piece of hose to induce enough draft to get it to light. (Once again, light a burner on the stove to blead out the gas lines)

I have heard about an electronic ignitor from dometic, (It is used on thier newer, bigger r/v fridges.) I understand that they can be installed on the existing fridge (after removing it) with little trouble and that atey are not very expensive. I also might install a second piezo so it is not dependant on the air pump one. Has any one done either of these things?



New member
I have a '91 Westy that has the ignitor in the fridge that you are describing. I know this because when I bought the rig (about 2 months ago) the automatic ignitor had failed. It is easy to replace (you have to pull the fridge) I would bet that an older fridge could be modified to use this ignitor. It cost me around $60.00 CAD. The RV parts guy told me that it is a generic ignitor that about three manufactures use. It works great as long as the fridge is pre cooled. I hope this helps.

91 Westy
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New member
Any hints out there regarding the thermostat on the LP system. I recently replaced the LP tank on my westy and now the fridge which formerly produced ice is only interested in producing a minimum of cool. The fridge seems to do ok on ac I've not had a chance to test things on battery, it lights right up without any problems and the pilot stays lite but it doesn't seem to fire up to a full cool level on lp.


New member
Howdy All,

I don't mean to duplicate what everyone else has said, but, I thought I would tell my story in case there is something in it that helps someone else with what seems to be a common problem.

We bought our 84 Westfalia 3 years ago from the second owners of the van. They told us that they had never used the fridge and that the original owners, their neighbours had rarely used the fridge as well. This didn't mean much to me at the time, but, now that I see the problems other people have had I see now that it should have been a heads up to problems to come.

It took me the better part of the first summer to even get the pilot lit. It would not stay lit. I lost a lot of hair over it.

The second summer I cleaned out the flue and intake, pulled the fridge out, cleaned the pilot assembly and put the fridge back in. When the fridge was out and I had pilot assembly open it would light like a dream and stay lit. When I put it back together it still wouldn't stay lit. I lost more hair.

Since then I have figured out some tricks about how to light it and keep it lit.

The pilot assembly has trouble getting enough air initially, so you don't want to fill it up with too much gas. It doesn't take much to do that. Two seconds on the gas before hitting the piezo has been too much. If you get too much gas you will hear a pop and see a flash in the window and then nothing. What has been working for me is pumping the air pump a good 20 times to fill the pilot chamber with air. Then press the gas for a second and then hit the piezo up to three times. If it doesn't light (it usually does) I pump more air in and try again. Once it is lit, it often goes out after about 15 seconds even if I am still holding the gas button. What I have found works is if I pump more air in while keeping the gas pressed if the pilot flame looks like it is dying. I have had to pump it two or three in this manner to keep it lit. After keeping it lit for a minute then I'm guessing the pilot assembly gets warm enough to create a vacuum and will draw air in on its own. My fridge will then stay lit consistently after that.

But, in my case precooling the fridge while driving is invaluable. As well, the fridge works better and better all the time now that it is being used. It didn't help that it was never lit for 5 years before that.

Hope this saves someone else a little trouble. My hair loss will not be in vain then.

Happy Camping

Capt. Mike

Thanks, nice analysis.

Not practicing what I preach, I was doing the 150K service on my Syncro last week and vowed to do the now overdue run on LP. I precooled on AC a day, then went the LP route. Start the stove to have gas flow & lines cleared, then the ordeal of starting on LP.

It took about 6 rounds -- basically your procedure -- before it would light off. And as I've found, I hold the gas button for a while until I'm sure it takes. 10-15 seconds. A day later, the fridge is still as cold as can be -- despite near 90° temps -- and I'll renew my vow to do it every couple of months, which I'll forget. I might have to put it on my oil-change service list!


New member
Ok, here's what might be an unusual problem. Doesn't seem to be covered by the above comments.

This is a Dometic fridge on a 1985 Westy. Flue and combustion chamber are nice and clean. I'm testing the unit out of the van, using a BBQ propane tank, with no electrical connection to the fridge at all (either 12v or 110 v).

I can get the pilot light to light with no trouble while I hold in the "start button". But as soon as I let go of the button, the flame dies. It doesn't matter if I hold the button for 2 solid minutes - the flame burns nice and blue as long as I am holding the start button, but then it dies as soon as I let it go.

Any insights?

I understood that no electrical connection was necessary for propane use of the fridge, and a BBQ tank would be fine as a test source of propane. But I suppose it may be that the propane valve on the top of the fridge won't remain open without electric power after you let go of the start button? Or... ?