inside a Vanagon fridge

A Tale of Dometic Bliss: The Lighting of Our Vanagon Refrigerator


Our 1987 Vanagon Westfalia has an original Dometic refrigerator that runs on propane, electric or battery.

While many Westie owners have given up their old fridges, we not only have kept ours but have ritualized its place in our family camping trips.

In order to roll down the road with beverages chilling between the front and back seats, we undertake a very specific series of steps that have become part of our camping routine. Steps that most people, granted, would think are crazy. But steps that, when followed religiously, keep something very special going.

Isn’t that really what having a Vanagon is all about? The satisfaction of keeping a relic of camping and automotive history alive and getting great times with friends and family in return.

Here are the steps we take before each camping trip. The official version is here in the VW Manual.

  1. The night before, plug the van into the garage to “pre cool” the fridge.
  2. The next morning, disconnect the power.
  3. Open the van’s propane valve.
  4. Turn on the indicator switch.
  5. Open the fridge.
  6. Turn the setting to flame.
  7. Set the thermostat to lowest temperature.
  8. Turn the gas flow dial on.
  9. Hold down the button that releases gas into the combustion chamber for about 20 seconds.
  10. Release the button.
  11. Pump the piston as many as 50 times to pump air into the combustion chamber.
  12. Say a prayer to the God of Volkswagen.
  13. Depress the button that puts gas into the chamber and click the piston dial in to ignite.
  14. Repeat steps 8 to 12 as much as needed and …

Voila! We have a working fridge in the van. A 10-hour presto.

With our fridge lit, it means our next adventure has officially begun. The starting pistol to the race out of the city has been fired.

Here are the reasons I’ve been told we’re crazy to keep the old fridge:

  1. It’s too small.
  2. It doesn’t get cold enough.
  3. Way too much hassle

These points are all true. The fridge is really more of a cooler. It doesn’t keep a constant temperature. Instead, it tends to chill food to about 40 degrees cooler than the temperature outside.

And the chilling is inconsistent. It’s colder at the top, where the “freezer” section is located. The “freezer” consists of a small shelf and a teensy tiny metal “ice” cube tray.

If filled with water, you can serve exactly one cocktail every 24 hours!

But rather than defend the fridge (I’ll have you know it can hold SIX cans up top, in the “freezer” section. Take that, YETI!), I’ll explain it this way:

There’s a Swedish word for which I’ve been told there’s no English equivalent: lagom.

Lagom means just right – not too much or too little. Not a very American way of thinking.

Our Westie fridge is lagom.

It’s not the best, the biggest or the easiest.

But it will do.

If I was up for the easy life, I probably wouldn’t own a Vanagon 🙂

6 thoughts on “A Tale of Dometic Bliss: The Lighting of Our Vanagon Refrigerator”

  1. My 1989 Westfalia original refrigerator will run on battery and electricity but it will not fire on propane. When I take the refrigerator out and put it on the work bench, it will fire up (propane) with no problem. When the refrigerator is hooked up in the van, you can hear that it’s getting propane but it will not ignite. Does anyone have any suggestions? I’ve owned the van for 30 years and have never had this problem.

  2. Loved the comments.. and logom. That Dometic is a part of the soul of the camper. My neighbor (pulled his out), and runs a new 12V fridge and needs a suitcase solar panel as a 50 amp/hour house battery will only run it for about 20 hrs. My ‘lagom’ fridge will sit somewhere for weeks without using up the LP tank (which includes making a lot of pots of coffee)

    These are off the grid machines, that when you think of what they could do 40+ years ago (mine is an 82′ diesel) and still do… they’re amazing..!!

    Lit mine today to check on it as the Memorial Day weekend sort of kicks off ‘the season’.

    1. Hi Bruce – yes! Thanks for reading, I love to hear about another Dometic diehard putting the fridge to good use. Vanagons are amazing and there’s still nothing like them. Wishing you a fantastic camping season.

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