April 1, 2016 – The more I research about Norcold refrigerator failures and fires despite the numerous recall retrofit fixes, the more convinced I am that I must share this information with other RVers. This page is about the Amish built alternative cooling units. See all pages I’ve done on this issue:
When my four year old Norcold refrigerator quit cooling and needed a new cooling unit (the most expensive thing you can replace – over $1,000), I discovered how many different recalls over many years Norcold has done on several different models of these refrigerators and how ineffective they have been. It was obvious the units kept failing, kept catching fire but Norcold continued with their cheap bandaids instead of spending what was necessary to completely redesign the units with stronger materials that would resist leaking under normal usage.
I read about cooling units made by the Amish on RV forums and saw how many respected RV service people and safety experts insisted they would use nothing else. I saw other positive feedback about them and that’s just further proof to me that these things can be built better, but Norcold opts not to.
At first, the RV service that had been working on mine was hesitant since the Amish units were not within their normal experience and an earlier model had problems. And when the Service Manager called Norcold, she was told no way, shape or form are they ok with the Amish units and that if it was put into a Norcold refrigerator, they won’t warranty anything else on that refrigerator. She said Dometic told her the same thing. Well, of course they would say that since they want to keep selling their own products, but I think it may be illegal for Norcold to try to enforce that warranty threat. In any case, from the extensive research I did, I’d rather take my chances with the better quality Amish built cooling unit since that’s the most expensive component and the one that keeps failing when made by Norcold, no matter how many retrofits they did to it. Like my tech savy friend, Tab, told me, it’s a no-brainer decision and if the control box or thermistor went out, they are not expensive or hard to replace.
My friend, Marcus, an RVIA Certified Master Tech I have come to trust, told me that if I had any say in the matter, I would opt for a new Amish built cooling unit. His experience has shown they are much better quality than the Norcold and they cool much better.
Good Question? He said the one question you need to ask is why would you purchase a Norcold made cooling unit when 100% of all their built coils have a recall, and the Amish units have zero recalls. Also look at the differences in warranty offered.
Warranty differences: The Amish cooling unit would have a 3 year replacement and a 5 year pro-rated for leaks. The Norcold cooling unit would only be a one year replacement warranty. Both labor warranty is for 90 days.
Installation: The change out for the Amish units and the Norcold is done the same. We make notes to have the foam pack sealed with the spray foam we ship with the cooling unit so it’s confirmed to be sealed. Norcold uses thermal mastic to seal with, which is not made for sealing; it’s for cold transfer. We send foil back tape to give a finished look around the backer same as Norcold. The fans have a pre-made mounting rather than clamped to the coils of older style.
Technical: I reviewed the info in the Original Petition in a still-pending class action lawsuit (Etter vs. Thetford), that explains a lot about the technology and where the problems stem from. Apparently the steel tubing used in the Norcold cooling units is not adequate to endure the stresses during normal operation. Cracks happen causing flammable ammonia and hydrogen gas under high pressure to leak, resulting in fires.
The consensus I’ve gathered is that the Amish made units use stronger material that withstands these pressures better.
So I was determined that I would not accept another Norcold product if I could help it. See the installation process and pictures of both the old Norcold and new Amish made cooling units here: My Amish Built Cooling Unit Install.
If I hadn’t been convinced before, I certainly was after talking with Mac The Fire Guy, a nationally known and respected RV fire safety expert. He said you might as well refer to them as Norburns – it’s not a matter of if it will burn, but when. His own Norcold failed four times before the final fail and he and another friend recommended Leon Herschberger in Shipshewana, IN. I talked to Leon, but since that was not at all a convenient location for me to travel, he gave me the following information about sources for the Amish built units:
Sources for Amish Cooling Units:
JC Refrigeration actually builds the units at their warehouse in Shipshewana, IN and you can buy factory direct and have it installed there. I talked to JR and he said they started manufacturing refrigerators, gas fired fridges and freezers for the Amish community in 1994.
In 2004, Larry at Pines RV Refrigeration took over the refrigeration part. They started building the RV cooling units in 2008 due to so many failures and fires caused by the Norcold models since the 90s. One of the improvements they made was using thicker boiler tubing that withstands the pressures of operation better without rupturing and leaking.
JR said they are still a small company and not a huge robotic production line organization. All units are individually tested and tried in a heat room before they leave the factory. He said there were some issues in the first models, but mostly to do with mounting issues and not fitting in some spaces right. The biggest failure rate is still when it is not installed correctly, despite the detailed information they send. They started doing installs at the factory in 2010 to put their superior hands-on experience to good use.
Since they sell direct to the customer from the factory and can ship anywhere in the U.S. and Canada, this would be my first choice to contact. They welcome people to call and discuss their options and I’ve always found JR to be extremely helpful and willing to take the time to answer any questions. They also welcome people to the factory in Indiana and will install there for those who don’t want to do it themselves.
Pines RV Refrigeration is the distributor who sells only to dealers and wholesalers. Larry (who is JR’s brother in law) answered the following questions:
Q: Did they start making these after seeing how defective the manufacturer brands were and how did they figure out what to do different than Norcold?
A: We were uncomfortable to rebuild the Norcold 1200 because we thought the unit wasn’t big enough to start with, then we also started making other models.
Q: How are Norcold problems different from Dometic?
A: From what we can see both Norcold and Dometic have the same issues anymore, mostly leaking in the boiler area.
Q: Price difference between Norcold cooling unit and what needed to replace with Amish (parts, labor estimate).
A: It’s kinda hard to judge that because they are such big companies they can get their materials a lot cheaper. They have robots to do a lot of their work and we don’t.
(My note: From everything I’ve seen, the Amish made units are less expensive than the original manufacturer. To me, that reflects even more badly on Norcold.)
Below is info from dealers and service centers who install them. Here’s the info on my installation.
National RV Refrigeration – Leon Herschberger was recommended to me by a couple of RV friends. He is a local install guy also in Shipshewana, IN, but basically all units come from Pines RV Refrigeration. Leon said the Amish built units are so well made, that 90% of the issue is about how it is installed and if not done correctly, it would not cool properly. Most important that it’s level and no air can be drawn into the box. He said it’s all about the contacts and getting it seated and sealed properly. He said that if any installer is careful about these matters and reads the instructions, there would be no problems. He did say it’s a little different since when replacing with Norcold, the holes are in the same place, pre-drilled, etc., but that’s about it. And of course, what you’re getting there is another product made by Norcold that seems to be designed or at least destined to fail.
RV Cooling Unit Warehouse (RVCoolingUnit.com) – David Force doesn’t install, but is their online sales and customer service rep. I used to hear that he was very helpful, but based on more recent feedback I’ve gotten from friends and readers, I just no longer feel comfortable recommending him. As mentioned above, I’d contact the factory directly.
More Info on Amish Cooling Unit:
Our Norcold to Amish Built Cooling Unit Change-Out (10 min. YouTube slide show detailing the process) – These RVers replaced their Norcold Model 1200 series themselves with an Amish built one from David Force. Has pictures of yet undiscovered charring in the upper cabinet from the old burner flue exhaust and heat/condensation damage. Related forum post from them with more info. Their comments: This was the second Norcold cooling unit in our fridge and this one could have not only burned our coach down but killed my wife while she was sleeping in the back of the coach! Then all the recall inconveniences and Norcold just says “Shut your unit off immediately” until the new or latest recall is performed, like that is easy/convenient. After multiple recalls and a near fire, I just don’t trust them! We are full-timers. Not that this can’t happen with the Amish unit but at least it’s a different design, heavier duty, and has a standard 5 year warranty. We are willing to take the chance on them. So far, I haven’t heard of them causing one fire.
The Only Real Cure for a Norcold RV Refrigerator Problem – IRV2 forum post with YouTube slide show on installation of an Amish made unit.
IRV2 forum post: My Norcold 1200’s cooling unit failed about two months ago. I installed an Amish cooling unit and could not be happier. I did the install myself … It was actually pretty easy to do. The cost was a little over a grand. If you want to keep your absorption fridge this is a viable option.
Another Norcold Warning (IRV2 forum) – Talks about the installation process and how important seating and sealing is. Conclusion: Knowing what I know today – would I do it again? Yes I would. Especially since I don’t have to worry about leaks any more, but also because the performance of both the freezer and the fridge has improved substantially.
Why Cooling Units Fail (RVRefrigerator.net) – Has detailed pictures of Norcold boiler that overheated, showing the sodium chromate leaking from a fatigue crack in the boiler tube. He says the Amish built units are not only heavier, but designed better.
Malia’s 2 Cents: I’m so glad that my extended warranty company (XtraRide a/k/a Protective Asset Protection) approved the replacement of the failed unit with an Amish made one instead of insisting I go with Norcold factory made. But many others are at the mercy of Norcold if they can’t afford to pay out of pocket and feel they must accept the Norcold bandaid when they’re on the recall list.
All Malia’s Miles Norcold pages: