Portable fridge compressor

Portable fridge compressor DEFAULT

There’s nothing like having a refrigerator in your van to really bring the comforts of home on the road.

Refrigeration means you can store fresh food and other cold items – like vegetables, dairy, meat, “booch,” and beer. It means you don’t have to fuss with a cooler full of ice and water-logged food. And even though campervan refrigerators aren’t cheap, having one means saving money (and eating healthier) by cooking your own meals.

A good 12V fridge is one of the biggest investments you’ll make when building your van. And you need to know that the fridge you’re getting will meet your needs and hold up to the daily grind of life on the road, all while staying within your budget.

The world of 12V fridges has grown quite confusing, with newer budget players like Iceco, Alpicool, and Costway entering the market, and major brands like Dometic and ARB getting more and more expensive.

In this post, we help you wade through all the vanlife refrigeration options, from cheap to top-of-the-line to DIY. We go over the pros and cons of the best 12V refrigerator models. We discuss whether those expensive fridges are really worth the cost, and what you may be giving up with the cheaper units.

So read on and discover the best refrigeration solution for your rig!

The Best 12V Refrigerators

After extensive research and testing, we’ve narrowed the huge list of vanlife refrigerators down to a handful of fridges that we recommend. Below are our top picks for best overall value, best high end/upgrade fridge, and best budget 12V refrigerator (we recommend additional options in each category further down in this post).

Best Overall Value

ICECO VL-Series 12V Fridges
ICECO VL-Series 12V Fridges

Sporting the ultra-efficient Danfoss SECOP compressor and stainless steel construction, these fridges have everything you need for life on the road for about half the cost of higher end units.

Available in sizes from 45 to 74 liters, and both single and dual zone.

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In our opinion, Iceco refrigerators are the best overall value for portable refrigerators in the vanlife space. They offer an excellent combination of top quality components, rugged construction, performance on par with higher end fridges, and affordable pricing that’s tough to beat. They come in a variety of sizes to fit any need, from smaller single-zone to large dual-zone, and offer different form factors in their JP-series.

Upgrade Pick #1

Dometic CFX3 12V Fridges
Dometic CFX3 12V Fridges

Featuring best-in-class energy efficiency, cutting edge technology, rugged build quality, and overall reliability, CFX3 fridges are the top choice of many vanlifers for good reason.

Available in sizes from 24 to 99 liters, and in both single and dual zone.

Use coupon code Gnomad for 5% off + free shipping at Dometic.com.

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The Dometic CFX3-series represents the top of the line when it comes to vanlife refrigerators. These fridges are extremely energy efficient, packed with advanced digital features, and come from Dometic’s well-known pedigree of producing rugged and innovative and mobile living appliances. The only real downside is higher cost, but that may be worth it to you if you want the best of the best for your rig.

Budget Pick #1

BougeRV 12V Refrigerators
BougeRV 12V Refrigerators

Solid and inexpensive 12V vanlife refrigerators. Available in a range of sizes from 30 quart (28L) up to 53 quart (50L).

Coupon Codes

  • Use Gnomad90 for $90 off the 53-Qt fridge.
  • Use Gnomad15 for 15% off all other refrigerators.
  • Use Gnomad10 for 10% off sitewide.
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BougeRV portable refrigerators offer incredible bang for your buck. They are well made, highly efficient DC refrigerators with all the basic features, and they’re less than 1/3 the cost of the high end brands (with discounts). And unlike some other cheap 12V fridges, this fridge has a brand behind it that’s committed to the product and the vanlife space. If you want refrigeration in your van without breaking your budget, BougeRV is a great option.

Read on for a guide on what to look for when selecting a refrigerator for your van. There is a lot of good info here that we advise checking out. Or, if you prefer, you can skip to our list of recommendations.

Jump to detailed 12V fridge comparison>>>

Different Types of Vanlife Refrigeration

different vanlife fridges @captainelsewhere

There are a few different options for keeping food cold in your van. Here’s a breakdown:

12V Compressor Fridges (best overall option for full-timers)

Dometic CFX 50W 12v Electric Powered Portable Cooler, Fridge Freezer

Compressor fridges are the most common type of fridge you’ll see on the road, and for good reason. These fridges are often designed for use in 4×4 vehicles and boats, and they’re built with durability and efficiency in mind – two things you really need in an off-grid adventure vehicle.

12V compressor fridges have highly efficient, variable speed compressors that draw very little power, they can be used as either a fridge or a freezer, they come in a variety of configurations – including chest-style, upright, and dual-zone fridge/freezers – and they typically have the ability to run while at an incline of up to 30 degrees (other types of fridges need to be kept perfectly level when running). This combination of features makes these fridges perfect for vanlife.

Even though compressor fridges are awesome, they do have a downside – cost. Portable 12V fridges are more expensive than other options, and that’s before you factor in the need to add auxiliary batteries and a means to charge them (like solar panels or a battery isolator).

But if your goal is to turn your van into a comfy, off-grid mobile dwelling, investing in a high quality 12V compressor fridge is totally worth the cost.

Build Your Own Inexpensive Fridge (best option for DIY-ers on a budget)

Midea MRC04M3AWW Single Door Chest Freezer, 3.5 Cubic Feet, White

If you’re DIY-oriented – and let’s face it, if you’re reading this blog, you probably are – then you can build your own fairly efficient fridge out of a chest freezer. Freezers tend to have thicker insulation than fridges, which means that your DIY fridge will be more efficient than a standard mini-fridge.

The general idea is to take a chest freezer, plug it into a small inverter, and wire it to a thermostat that you set to fridge temperatures. The thermostat is connected to a relay that kicks the inverter on and off as needed. When the temperature inside the fridge rises above our target, the relay turns the inverter on. Once the fridge reaches the low temperature you set, the relay turns off the inverter. This prevents it from cooling too much, and also prevents power drain from leaving the inverter on all the time.

The big benefit here is cost – you can make a real, working refrigerator for a fraction of the cost of a purpose-built 12V portable unit. But as with anything, there are drawbacks. These fridges may not be quite as efficient as 12V fridges, and you’ll have to sink some time into building this setup.

Chest freezers tend to be quite large, and many of the smaller ones are – we couldn’t find many smaller than 3.5 cubic feet, which is twice the size of a 50 L portable fridge – so if you need something smaller for your van, you’ll have to go with an upright freezer instead. But the same general idea applies for converting it to a DIY vanlife fridge.

Here are some tutorials we’ve found detailing a DIY fridge conversion:

Standard Coolers (Best for Shoestring Budgets)

Engel ENG65 High Performance Cooler - Tan, Engel 65 High Performance Hard Cooler and Ice Box

If you’re just beginning your vanlife journey and don’t want to throw down for an expensive fridge and electrical system right away, then a good cooler can get you started for a minimal cost. Many high performance coolers can hold ice for 5-10 days, giving you plenty of time off in the wilderness before you need to restock.

Coolers do have many drawbacks that make them less than ideal for full time living. The cost of ice adds up, not to mention all the time and effort it takes to hunt down ice when you need it, periodically dump out any ice melt, and deal with potentially water-logged food.

But if you’re a weekender, or if you’re just testing out this whole vanlife thing, or if you’re on a shoestring budget – then a good cooler is a greatoption for keeping your food cold on the cheap. Remember, you can always upgrade your van down the road as your needs and budget change.

Thermoelectric Coolers (Fine for Roadtrippers, Not Recommended for Van Living)

Coleman Cooler| 40-Quart Portable Cooler | Iceless Electric Cooler with cooling technology up to 40°F  for Picnics, BBQs, camping, tailgates and Outdoors

Thermoelectric coolers plug into a 12V power source, and have the ability to chill their contents without ice. But they’re just not ideal for living in a van.

Thermoelectric coolers only have the ability to cool 40° or less below ambient temperature – which is fine if you spend all of your time in cool weather, but if the outside temperature is above 78° you probably won’t want to store meat or dairy in one. They also draw much more power than 12V compressor fridges, making them difficult to run on an off grid electrical system.

If all you want is something to keep drinks or snacks cold during road trips, then a thermoelectric cooler just might fit your needs. But if you want refrigeration for camping or boondocking, then an actual 12V fridge or standard cooler are far better choices.

3-Way Absorption Fridges (Not Recommended for Vanlife)

Smad Small Propane Fridge 3 Way Refrigerator for RV Outdoor Camper Gas 110V 12V,1.4 Cu.ft.

3-way absorption fridges are more commonly found in RVs, and in our opinion don’t make much sense for vanlife. These types of fridges can run on 12V DC, 110V AC, or propane, giving you a variety of options to keep your food cold. But they’re wildly inefficient on 12V DC power, running them all the time on 110V AC means additional drain from your inverter, and running them on propane means you have more fuel lines to deal with (and you’ll have to vent the fridge to the outside).

Another huge drawback is that absorption fridges need to be completely level to function properly – and unless you spend all your time in RV parks, perfectly level ground can be difficult to find. When you’re living in a van, you really need a go-anywhere fridge that’s also energy efficient, and 3-way absorption fridges just don’t fit the bill.

Chest-style vs. Upright Fridges: What’s Best for Your Build?

chest fridge in layout original @wildwheelswander

In the world of 12V DC compressor fridges, there are two broad styles: top-opening chest fridges, and front-opening upright fridges.

Many upright fridges run the exact same compressors as their chest-style cousins, so you would think that choosing between the two is simply a matter of how you prefer to access and organize your refrigerated food. But chest-style fridges have some big advantages over upright fridges that in our opinion makes chest fridges the best choice for off-grid campervans.

Chest Fridges are More Energy Efficient.

When you’re boondocking in the wilderness with your batteries and solar panels as your only power source, energy efficiency is a prime consideration. And chest fridges are generally more energy efficient than upright fridges.

Why is this the case? Part of the reason is that cold air naturally sinks. With chest fridges, the door is at the top, which means that cold air will pool at the bottom of the fridge where it has nowhere to escape. But with upright fridges you’re relying on the insulation seal around the door to keep cold air in when the door is shut, and any accumulated cold air will spill out whenever the door is opened.

Since food has a higher thermal density than air, most of the cold in any fridge is actually “stored” in the food (or beer) inside the fridge, so fridges that are packed full are much easier to keep cool than fridges with a lot of empty space. And with the interior shelf arrangement of upright-style fridges, it’s likely that you’ll end up with wasted empty space on top of your food items.

All of this means that upright fridges have to run longer to keep your food cold, which equals a bigger drain on your batteries.

Chest Fridges Hold More and are Easier to Organize

If you’re used to a standard front-open refrigerator in your house or apartment, then this may come as a surprise. How can a front-open fridge with shelves and drawers be tougher to organize than a chest fridge that forces you to stack items on top of each other?

The front-open fridges in stationary dwellings are huge, and give you plenty of space to spread out and organize your food items. But in a smaller van fridge, empty space is wasted space that just makes your fridge’s compressor work harder (and draw more power). Even with shelving, you still need to stack items on top of each other and you still need to shift items around to get to others. And you’ll likely end up with a ton of empty air between the top of your food and the bottom of the next shelf. All of this means wasted space without any real gains in organization.

The top-down layout of chest fridges allows you to tightly pack them to fit more stuff and eliminate any wasted space. Most chest-style fridges also come with dividers and dairy compartments, which help a lot with organization.

And if your food shifts around inside the fridge while you’re bouncing down those gnarly backroads, with a chest fridge you won’t have to worry about your eggs flying out at you when you get to your campsite and open the fridge to grab a cold one.

Chest Fridges Are Portable and Can Double as Coolers in Emergencies

Chest fridges are shaped and configured like coolers, and include handles for easy portability. This allows you to move your fridge around your van, bring it inside and plug it into 110V AC if you’re stationary somewhere, or stow it outside in cool weather for greater energy efficiency. All of this is more difficult with an upright fridge.

Many chest fridges also feature drain plugs at the bottom. These plugs make cleaning easier, but they also allow your fridge to double as a cooler if for some reason you lose electricity. Just dump ice in your fridge like you would a standard cooler, and pull the drain plug as needed to remove ice melt. This is something you just can’t do with a front-opening upright fridge.

Which One is Better for Your Layout? It’s All About Preference

Upright fridge in van @h2ovanagon

One big reason some vanlifers choose upright fridges over chest fridges is their layout. Upright fridges have a smaller footprint, which can make them easier to incorporate into a floor plan. Since they open from the front, you don’t need to make sure there’s enough overhead space to open the lid, like you do with chest fridges (to make this less of an issue, you can buy a fridge slide or make your own).

But there are some things to consider when incorporating an upright fridge into your layout. First, it will likely need to be permanently mounted, whereas chest fridges are portable and can be easily moved. Also, you may have to get down on your hands and knees to see inside an upright, unless you mount it on a cabinet a few feet off the floor. With chest fridges, it’s easy to look straight down and see all the contents.

We think chest fridges are the way to go, but the best 12V compressor fridge for you ultimately comes down to your needs and preferences. Here’s a quick overview of pros and cons to help you decide:

Chest Fridges

Upright Fridges

How Much Electrical Capacity Do You Need to Run a Fridge?

electrical capacity for fridge

Running a 12V fridge in your van requires an electrical setup that consists of (at a minimum) a 12V outlet connected to an auxiliary battery (not your starting battery), and a means to charge it. But how much battery capacity do you need?

Determining Your Battery Capacity

To calculate how much battery capacity you need to reliably run your fridge, first find your fridge’s average power draw.

As an example, let’s assume our fridge draws an average of 2.0 Amps per hour.

Over the course of one day (24 hours), a fridge drawing 2.0 Amps per hour will drain 48 Ah from your battery.

When sizing your battery bank, you also need to consider the type of battery you have. Lead-acid, AGM, and gel batteries can only be discharged 50% before you start to damage them, so you always want to double your energy usage number to determine your battery capacity. In this example, you would want a minimum battery capacity of 100 Ah – plus additional capacity for your other electrical loads.

LiFePO4 batteries (lithium iron phosphate, or LFP), on the other hand, can be discharged 100%. So in this example, a 48ah LFP battery should be able to keep up with your fridge. However, you would need a bigger battery to accommodate your other electrical loads, and we always recommend building in some wiggle room if you can.

Recommended Battery

Battle Born 100Ah LiFePO4 12V Battery
Battle Born 100Ah LiFePO4 12V Battery

Lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries are THE best choice for modern camper vans.They last much longer, charge faster, and can be fully discharged without damage. Battle Born batteries are made in the US, and designed specifically for mobile living and off-grid dwellings.

Our #1 recommended battery choice.

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Charging Your Batteries

If your budget allows, adding solar to your van will allow you to stay off grid while keeping your batteries charged up (we recommend mounting them to your roof, or you can build a portable mount). We have detailed information on system sizing, installation, and just about everything else you need to know in our epic electrical post.

Recommended Solar Kit

Renogy Premium Solar Kits
Renogy Premium Solar Kits

Everything you need to add solar to your van. Including solar panels, mounting brackets, MPPT charge controller, fuses, and wiring.

Enter coupon code GnomadHome for 10% off at Renogy.com

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In addition to solar, it’s a good idea to install a battery isolator or DC-DC charger, which allows you to charge up your batteries from your alternator while driving. This is a great way to keep your batteries topped off when you’re in the woods or in cloudy environments. And if you’re on a budget, you may be able to meet most of your charging needs with just a battery isolator. You can always add solar as your budget and your needs evolve.

Best DC-DC Charger

Renogy 20A/40A DC-DC Charger
Renogy 20A/40A DC-DC Charger

3-stage charger for optimal battery charging. Works with all battery types (lithium, AGM, etc) and alternator outputs. Pair with the BT-2 Bluetooth module for monitoring from your phone. Available in 20A and 40A. Renogy also makes a 60A DC-DC charger.

Enter coupon code GnomadHome for 10% off at Renogy.com

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Portable Power Stations

If installing your own electrical system sounds intimidating (it’s not that bad – promise!), then another option is to go with a portable power station like the Jackery Explorer 1000, or competing products from Goal Zero or Bluetti. The big advantage to power stations is convenience and ease of use, but you will pay a bit of a premium for that.

Jackery Explorer 1000 Power Station
Jackery Explorer 1000 Power Station

With a 1002Wh lithium battery, 1000W pure sine inverter, and the ability to charge via solar, the Explorer 1000 is a top notch solar generator for basic power needs.

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You can also buy the Jackery bundled with their Solar Saga 100W foldable panels.

The Jackery Explorer 1000 has enough juice to run a fridge and other vanlife necessities, but you will need to be proactive about seeking out sunny weather to keep it charged. The upcoming Jackery Explorer 1500 and Explorer 2000 will be even more capable of powering full time vanlife.

What to Look for in a Portable 12V Compressor Fridge

what to look for in a portable 12v fridge @therustyrambler

Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for when evaluating fridge choices for your van:

Pricing (and your budget)

12V compressor fridges can be pretty expensive in general, but there’s quite the range of prices between high-end brands and budget brands. If your budget doesn’t allow for a higher-end fridge (and you don’t want to use a cooler while you save your pennies), then you might want to take a hard look at less expensive brands.

Higher end fridges have been getting more and more expensive over the past few years – and while top brands like Dometic, ARB, Engel, etc., make excellent units, the value may not be there for a lot of people. There has also been a proliferation of budget brands using quality components like Danfoss SECOP compressors that are worth looking at. You may be making some tradeoffs in terms of reliability and efficiency with some of these units, but you’ll also be spending way less money. Plus, there are now fridge brands like Iceco that can go toe-to-toe with higher end units in many respects.

If you’re a full-timer, we think a fridge is an area of your van build where it’s worth investing in quality, and buying a top-of-the-line fridge is a worthy expense. But if you don’t have that kind of money to spend, there are some great values out there as well.

Interior Capacity and Freezer Capabilities

How much fridge space do you need? Buying a camper fridge that’s too big means spending more than you need to, and giving up more space in your van. Likewise, having a fridge that’s too small means shopping for groceries more frequently. Needs vary from person to person, but our 50-Qt fridge has enough space for a week’s worth of fresh food for both of us, plus a few kombuchas and a couple of six packs.

Most 12V compressor fridges have the ability to function as a fridge or a freezer. But if you need both at the same time, some brands offer dual-zone fridge/freezers that have separate compartments for each.

Here are some good general rules of thumb:

  • If you’re a couple, you will be best served with a fridge that is at least 45-Qt.
  • If you’re solo, you may be just fine with a smaller fridge in the 30-Qt range.
  • Larger families and people who need a freezer should look at larger dual-zone fridges.

Energy Efficiency and Compressor

When you’re living off-grid, energy efficiency is a huge concern. Batteries and solar are expensive, and the more energy efficient your appliances are, the more money you can save in capacity (or the more time you can spend off-grid while still powering everything you need).

Most 12V portable refrigerators on the market use the exact same highly efficient Danfoss SECOP variable speed compressor, although some brands (including Dometic/Waeco, Engel, and Whynter/Edgestar use their own units).

All of the fridges we look at here are generally efficient, but some brands are able to achieve greater energy efficiency due to better insulation, configuration, and compressor controls. We list all available data on the average power draw of various fridges below.

Exterior Dimensions and Weight

If you’ve already got a designated spot where you plan to put your fridge, you’ll want to make sure all the options you’re considering will fit. Some brands have a bigger footprint but are squatter, while others are taller with a smaller footprint. At the end of the day, whether a certain fridge will fit your van’s configuration can be the deciding factor. Weight could also be a factor in your decision if you need to move the fridge around regularly or if you’re trying to stay under a certain weight limit. We list dimensions and weights for all the fridges we looked at below.

Direction the Lid Opens

This may seem like a minor consideration, but it can make a big difference in your van set up. Some fridges have lids that hinge from the back, while others have side-hinged lids.

what direction fridge lid opens

Lids that hinge from the side need less overhead clearance to fully open, and since you’re facing the fridge from the longer side it may be easier to view and reach the contents. In our van, we have our rear-hinged ARB fridge between the front seats – so having the hinge at the rear actually makes it easier for us to access everything. But every van is different, and the best lid direction for you will depend on your specific setup.

Standard Features and Extra Features

Most portable 12V fridges have the following standard features:

  • Ability to operate at up to a 30° incline.
  • LED lighting inside the fridge.
  • Floor drain plug for easy cleaning.
  • Low voltage cut off to protect your batteries.
  • Dividers and lift-out organizer baskets.
  • Separate dairy compartment.

Some fridges include more advanced features like digital controls, remote readouts, wifi apps, and additional accessories.

Warranty and Reliability

Factory warranties give you a degree of security in case something goes wrong and needs to be fixed or replaced. However, we don’t want to overstate the importance of warranties.

While a fridge advertising a 3-year or 5-year warranty is awesome, the big question is how easy it will be to get warranty servicing. If you have an issue with your fridge, you may be on the hook for shipping costs to send it back to the manufacturer. Or you may have to take it an authorized service center who will examine it for warranty eligibility. In any case, you may be without your fridge for weeks or longer.

Reputation is also a factor here. The big brands like Dometic, ARB, and Engel generally have good reputations for reliability. Danfoss compressors are known to be reliable, so budget fridges with this compressor are usually a safer bet. You will roll the fewest dice if you stick with major brands or fridges with Danfoss compressors.

Epic Comparison of the Top 12V Fridges for Vanlife

In our quest to find the best refrigerator for vanlife, we analyzed fridge models from the most popular adventure fridge manufacturers. We compiled data on average power draw, warranty, interior capacity, exterior dimensions, weight, noise level, features, accessories, and more. Below are our thoughts on the different options out there.

Scroll down or use the links below to jump to a section.

Top Pick and Best Overall Value

Top Pick: Iceco 12V Fridges (various models)

Best Overall Value

ICECO VL-Series 12V Fridges
ICECO VL-Series 12V Fridges

Sporting the ultra-efficient Danfoss SECOP compressor and stainless steel construction, these fridges have everything you need for life on the road for about half the cost of higher end units.

Available in sizes from 45 to 74 liters, and both single and dual zone.

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ICECO JP-Series Fridges
ICECO JP-Series Fridges

Danfoss SECOP compressor and Iceco quality with durable ABS construction and a front-opening lid. An excellent value for life on the road.

Available in sizes from 30L to 50L.

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What do you get when you take a Danfoss SECOP compressor with a 5-year warranty, bulletproof construction, performance and efficiency worthy of a Dometic or ARB, and wrap it in a package that’s nearly half the price of the high end fridge brands? Well, you get an Iceco.

In our opinion, Iceco refrigerators offer the best overall value out there in the portable refrigerator market. Not the cheapest nor the most expensive fridges, they sit in a Goldilocks sweet spot of top notch components, efficient performance, and affordable pricing.

Plus, they come in a multitude of sizes from 30L up to 74L, both single zone and dual zone, and different form factors, so you can easily find a fridge to suit your needs.

Energy Efficiency

Based on our research, Iceco fridges in general are extremely energy efficient – pretty close to on par with big names like Dometic and ARB.

During independent testing of the VL45 single zone fridge’s power consumption, it drew an average of 0.72A per hour, which is excellent. Similar testing of the VL-60 dual zone fridge revealed average power consumption of 1.77A per hour in max mode, and 1.27A per hour in eco mode. This is highly efficient for a dual zone fridge that’s also running a freezer compartment. Users report similarly efficient numbers.

Price and Overall Value

In our opinion, Iceco refrigerators offer the best overall value in the vanlife refrigerator space. They are nearly half the cost of some higher end brands, yet they are close to on par in terms of efficiency, components, durability, and important features.

Warranty and Reliability

Iceco offers a 5-year warrant on the super-reliable Danfoss SECOP compressor that they use in their fridges. They only offer a 1-year warranty on all other parts, which is lower than most other refrigerator brands. However, we have not heard of any reliability issues with these fridges.

Features and Accessories

Iceco refrigerators offer all the basic features that we’ve come to expect in 12V refrigerators, including battery protection and eco/max cooling modes. They don’t have a whole lot of bells and whistles such as digital features, but that’s not a selling point for many. As far as accessories, Iceco offers a slide mount and an insulated cover, both of which work for many of their fridge models.

Bottom Line

Iceco fridges offer an excellent value that’s tough to beat. They are rugged and well made, include top quality components like Danfoss SECOP compressors, and they are among the most efficient fridges out there. All for a price that makes more sense for more people than what some of the high end brands charge.

Upgrade Picks

Upgrade Pick #1: Dometic CFX3-Series 12V Refrigerators

Upgrade Pick #1

Dometic CFX3 12V Fridges
Dometic CFX3 12V Fridges

Featuring best-in-class energy efficiency, cutting edge technology, rugged build quality, and overall reliability, CFX3 fridges are the top choice of many vanlifers for good reason.

Available in sizes from 24 to 99 liters, and in both single and dual zone.

Use coupon code Gnomad for 5% off + free shipping at Dometic.com.

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We think the Dometic CFX3 line of portable 12V fridge/freezers are the top high-end choice for a vanlife fridge. Dometic (or Waeco, as they’re also known) has always made solid fridges, but their newest models are setting the bar for portable refrigeration.

CFX fridges are highly efficient and use very little power. They’re built to be rugged and durable, with solid construction, stainless steel hinges, and reinforced corners. They have advanced features, like the ability to control the temperature through a wifi app.

The most popular version of this fridge is the CFX3 45-L, but Dometic also offers CFX fridges in a variety of sizes, including double-zoned fridge/freezers. So no matter what your refrigeration needs are, Dometic makes a CFX fridge to fit.

Energy Efficiency

Based on our research, Dometic CFX3 fridges are the most efficient that we’ve found. We were not able to find any publicly available data online, so we called Dometic directly and asked them what they had. According to Dometic’s own testing, the CFX3 45L draws an insanely low 0.68A per hour on average (90°F ambient temperature with the fridge set to 39°F).

Owners of this fridge generally report power consumption at less than 1A per hour, which is consistent with Dometic’s numbers, so it’s safe to say that this is a very efficient fridge.

Price and Overall Value

Dometic CFX fridges aren’t cheap, that’s for sure. They’re among the most expensive vanlife fridges you can buy. But you do get what you pay for, including best-in-class energy efficiency, durability, and a slew of advanced features. CFX3 fridges may not be the best “value”, but they are excellent products that are worth the cost to some.

Warranty and Reliability

In the US, Dometic offers a standard 2-year factory warranty on their products, withe option to purchase an extended warranty for up to 3 years. They offer a longer standard warranty in Australia. Dometic also has a solid reputation for reliability and support.

Features and Accessories

Dometic CFX fridges are packed with features. They include more advanced features than any other fridge on this list, including a reversible side-opening lid, the ability to control the fridge settings from the comfort of a wifi app, and a usb port for charging devices. The CFX line also includes all the standard portable fridge features like low voltage cutoff, digital controls, an interior light, and a drain plug. As far as accessories, Dometic makes a fridge slide and an insulated cover for CFX fridges.

Bottom Line

We highly recommend Dometic CFX3 refrigerators. They are the most efficient out there, they offer the most advanced features of any fridge, and Dometic is well-known for producing top quality 4×4 and mobile living components. The CFX3 is not cheap, but if that’s not a priority for you then it’s an excellent choice for your van.

Upgrade Pick #2: ARB 12V Refrigerators (various models)

ARB Zero 12V Fridges
ARB Zero 12V Fridges

Built for overlanding expeditions in the Australian outback, ARB fridges are insanely rugged and durable. The ARB Zero includes modern upgrades and easily competes with Dometic's offerings.

Available in sizes from 38 to 101 quarts, and both single and dual zone.

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ARB Series II 50 qt Fridge Freezer
ARB Series II 50 qt Fridge Freezer

Reboot of the time-tested classic ARB 50-qt overlanding refrigerator, with upgraded features including Bluetooth.

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ARB Elements Weatherproof 12V Fridge
ARB Elements Weatherproof 12V Fridge

The most rugged fridge ARB makes. This 63-qt fridge features 304 stainless steel weatherpoof construction, and an electronic locking keypad.

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Designed for 4×4 expeditions in the Australian outback, ARB portable fridge/freezers are known for their durability and ruggedness. They feature strong powder-coated zinc steel construction, and their very low power usage will help you keep your food cold on an off-grid solar setup. We use the 50-Qt model daily in our van, and we can personally attest to its quality and reliability. The lid on these fridges hinges from the back, making the ARB our top choice overall if you need a rear-hinged lid.

The downside to these fridges is cost – they’re a bit pricier than many other 12V fridges out there. The quality certainly is there to back up the price and we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this fridge, but this isn’t exactly a budget choice.

Energy Efficiency

ARB Fridges are very energy efficient, trailing only the Dometic CFX fridges (based on our research). ARB is one of the few manufacturers that makes power consumption test data readily available. According to ARB, the 50-Qt model draws a very low 0.87A per hour on average (based on a 27-hour test in 86°F ambient temperature, with the fridge set to 37°F). In a comparison test with an Engel fridge at 90°F ambient temperature (fridge set at 37°F), the ARB drew a low 1.35A per hour.

We personally own the ARB 50-Qt fridge, and we can attest to its very low power draw. During an extended power draw test we conducted, we measured the ARB’s average power draw at around 0.95A per hour over nearly two weeks. This test was conducted with daytime ambient temperatures in the high 70’s, and nighttime temps in the high 60’s.

Price and Overall Value

ARB fridges are some of the most expensive we looked at. You can save a bit of money with other brands, but ARB makes top quality, rugged, and efficient fridges. You really do get what you pay for with these.

Warranty and Reliability

ARB offers an excellent 3-year warranty, so you can be comfortable knowing that they stand by their products. We haven’t heard of any reliability issues with ARB fridges, and we’ve had zero problems with ours.

Features and Accessories

ARB fridges include all the features you expect, like low voltage cutoff, digital display, interior lighting, removable lid, and drain plug. They also have a ton of accessories available, including fridge slides, tie down straps, a transit bag, and a remote display. The accessories aren’t cheap, though!

Bottom Line

ARB fridges offer excellent durability and power efficiency – two top priorities when you live in a van. They also stand behind their products with a 3-year warranty and highly-rated customer support. They do cost a bit more than other options, but they’re well worth the price and we don’t hesitate to recommend them (our own ARB fridge has been a kickass addition to our van).

Budget Picks

Budget Pick #1: BougeRV 12V Refrigerators

Budget Pick #1

BougeRV 12V Refrigerators
BougeRV 12V Refrigerators

Solid and inexpensive 12V vanlife refrigerators. Available in a range of sizes from 30 quart (28L) up to 53 quart (50L).

Coupon Codes

  • Use Gnomad90 for $90 off the 53-Qt fridge.
  • Use Gnomad15 for 15% off all other refrigerators.
  • Use Gnomad10 for 10% off sitewide.
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BougeRV sells the best among the slew of inexpensive Chinese mass-produced 12V refrigerators that are now all over Amazon and elsewhere. But the big differentiator between BougeRV refrigerators and all those others is that BougeRV seems committed to becoming a real, reputable brand in the vanlife, RV, and adventure space. This is an important indicator of reliability and support, as well as future expansion of the product line.

BougeRV’s portable refrigerators are extremely cheap, but they perform nearly as well as high end brands, and include all the basic features you would expect in a 4×4 fridge. It comes in sizes ranging from 30-qt up to 53-qt. We extensively tested their 53-qt model, and we were generally impressed with its quality and performance.

If you don’t have a lot to spend on a vanlife refrigerator (or if you just don’t want to shell out the equivalent of a month’s rent for one appliance), then BougeRV deserves a hard look.

Energy Efficiency

BougeRV makes very efficient refrigerators. They use Wancool compressors, which are cheaper rebranded versions of the highly-efficient and reliable Danfoss compressor.

During our own hands on testing, we measured the 24-hour average power draw of the 53-qt model at 0.97A per hour on Eco mode, and 1.33A per hour on Max mode. These tests were conducted with ambient temperatures ranging from the upper 70s to the upper 60s.

Price and Overall Value

BougeRV refrigerators offer a tremendous value, and the best bang for your buck that we’ve found. With discounts, you can get a BougeRV fridge for less than 1/3 the cost of our high end picks. This is an insanely cheap way to add refrigeration to your van.

BougeRV fridge discount codes: Use Gnomad90 for $90 off the 53-qt model. Use Gnomad15 for 15% off all other fridges).

Warranty and Reliability

BougeRV offers a standard 2-year warranty, which you can extend to 3 years by registering your product. Since this fridge is newer on the scene there’s scant information on long term reliability. However, the product appears solid and BougeRV seems committed to becoming a reputable brand, all of which bodes well.

Features and Accessories

BougeRV refrigerators include all the basic features you would expect in a 12V refrigerator, including Eco mode, dual compartment interior with removable basket, interior LED light, and battery protection. They do not have more advanced digital features, such as Bluetooth.

Bottom Line

BougeRV refrigerators are great choices for frugal vanlifers or vandwellers on a budget. They are efficient, perform well, and include all the basic features you would expect in a modern 12V compressor fridge – all for a fraction of the price of higher end brands.

Budget Pick #2: Alpicool CF-Series 12V Fridges

Alpicool CF 12V Fridges
Alpicool CF 12V Fridges

The OEM for many generic 12V fridge brands. Features LG compressors, solid performance, and affordability for valifers on a budget.

Available in 48 and 58 quart sizes, single zone only.

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We’re working on adding this section – more details coming soon!

Other Options

Time-Tested Reliability: Engel MR040 12V Refrigerator

ENGEL MR040F 40-Qt Portable Fridge/Freezer
ENGEL MR040F 40-Qt Portable Fridge/Freezer

Featuring the bulletproof Sawafuji swing compressor, the Engel MR040F is legendary for reliability. It's a bit less efficient than our top picks, but will likely last for decades.

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Engel fridges are legendary for their reliability and longevity – in fact, their motto is “A Legend in Reliability” – and they certainly stand up to their reputation. Engel fridges use the rock solid Sawafuji Swing Motor compressor, and many owners have run the same fridge for decades.

Engel fridges draw a bit more power than our top choice Dometic and ARB fridges, but they are still very efficient. They do skimp on some features that come standard on other fridges, most notably digital temperature controls. If you buy an Engel, you’ll be using a manual control knob instead of buttons and a digital display (although, some people actually prefer this). Another downside is cost – Engel fridges are in the same high price range as ARB units, but generally have a lower capacity per dollar.

We think the 40 Liter Engel MR040 is the best option for vanlife. Designed specifically for marine use, the MR040 features durable plastic construction that can weather the stresses of life on the road.

Energy Efficiency

The Engel MR040 is an efficient fridge, though not as efficient as the offerings from Dometic and ARB. According to Engel’s own performance data, the MR040 draws about 1.5A per hour in 95°F ambient temperature with the control knob set to “1” (the lowest refrigeration setting).

In their product descriptions for this fridge, Engel states that the MR040 “typically draws 1-2 Amps per hour,” and a comparison test run by ARB showed this fridge drawing 1.67A per hour in 90°F temps. We also found another test report indicating that the Engel draws just over 1.6A in 91°F temps, helping to confirm that this fridge reliably draws give or take 1.5A per hour in summer conditions.

Price and Overall Value

Engel fridges are on the high end in terms of price, so this is not a budget buy. And these fridges lack some features that come standard on other fridges. But, Engels are renowned for their overall quality and reliability, so even though the price is hefty it’s safe to say that this is a good long-term investment.

Warranty and Reliability

Engel offers a 3-year warranty on their fridges, like you’d expect from a top brand. But where Engels really stand out is reliability and longevity – these fridges are legendary for lasting decades without any issues.

Features and Accessories

Engel fridges are not the most feature-packed. They use a manual control knob instead of digital controls (some actually prefer this), and they do not have an automatic low voltage shut off (although the Sawafuji compressor supposedly adjusts its power draw when battery voltage is low). There are a variety of accessories available, including slides, remote displays, and tie downs.

Bottom Line

You really can’t go wrong with an Engel, especially if you want a reliable fridge that you know will last for many, many years. But Engels lack a few modern features like digital controls and low voltage shut off, and are getting left behind in terms of tech.

Decent Fridge and Good Value: Whynter FM-Series 12V Fridges

Whynter (also known as Edgestar) fridges are a popular choice among budget-conscious vanlifers. The Whynter FM-Series offers portable refrigeration at a fraction of the cost of the big name brands, and with many of the same basic features.

Whynter fridges tend to be inconsistent. If you get a good one, it can be a great companion for you on the road. But there are many tales of units that break down after a few months, and of owners having difficulty getting support from the manufacturer. And while Whynter fridges are energy efficient, power draw tests and user reports tend to be all over the map, further suggesting that there may be some quality control issues with this brand.

Whynter fridges also don’t use Danfoss compressors (instead, they use a proprietary knockoff), adding more reliability concerns. Many vanlifers do use Whynter/Edgestar fridges with success, and they can be a good option if you’re on a budget. But there are some question marks to be aware of here.

Energy Efficiency

Whynter portable fridges are efficient, but they may be a bit inconsistent. According to Whynter’s own data, their 43L FM-45G draws a low 1.10A per hour at 90°F ambient temperatures with the fridge set to 39.2°F. However, this test report indicates that the Whynter edges 3A per hour to maintain a set temperature in similar conditions. Reports from owners of this fridge are similarly inconsistent, although most users state that it draws around 1A per hour.

Price and Overall Value

The Whynter FM-series fridges are among the least expensive that we looked at, and they offer an incredible value. If you’re on a really tight budget, you’re getting great bang for your buck here. Just be aware that there are consistency and reliability questions with this brand.

Warranty and Reliability

Whynter offers a short 1-year warranty on their fridges, and there are some real questions as far as consistency and long term reliability. Some owners have reported difficulty getting their fridges repaired or replaced if issues pop up. If you buy a Whynter, be sure to get it from somewhere with a robust return policy, just in case.

Features and Accessories

Like most fridges on this list, Whynter’s units include all the basic features, such as low voltage shut off, interior lighting, digital controls, and a drain plug. There are few accessories available, but they do offer a transit bag.

Bottom Line

Whynter makes a decent budget fridge, especially if you need a dual-zone model and don’t want to throw down for a Dometic or an ARB (or even an Iceco). But there are some questions around reliability, consistency, and support, so beware. But this is no more of a dice roll than any other ultra-budget refrigerator.

Conclusion

Portable 12V fridges are not cheap, and it’s important to know that the fridge you’re getting will fit your needs. We hope all the information we’ve presented here has been helpful – but please let us know in the comments if you have a question or you think we left something out.

Even though having a 12V fridge in your van makes vanlife a whole lot easier, don’t let not having a fridge stop you from hitting the road! Plenty of vanlifers make it work with a basic cooler, and you can always upgrade later. Ultimately, vanlife is not about gadgets and HGTV interiors – it’s about enjoying the freedom to create your own life. So get out there and start exploring!

Sours: https://gnomadhome.com/best-12v-portable-refrigerators-for-vanlife/

7 Best 12-Volt Refrigerators For Van Life and Camping

The best 12 volt portable refrigerators of 2019

A 12 volt refrigerator is most likely one of the most important investments you’ll make for your vehicle. With a portable 12v fridge, you’ll be able to escape for days at a time without relying on ice.

12-volt refrigerators work just like the fridge in your house, using a compressor. They are rugged, have a low amp draw and keep food and drinks chilled even in the hottest of outdoor temperatures.

We’ve found our ARB 12v fridge to be a game-changer for van life in our Chevy Astro van. It’s powered using two 50-watt flexible solar panels, which means we can go off-grid for days and have cold food and drinks.

12 volt refrigerators are also popular among car campers, RVers and truck drivers. The convenience of not needing ice every couple of days is truly incredible.

While buying a 12 volt fridge may seem like a large investment upfront, they’ll be worth it if you’re going to be spending more than one or two days on the road.

Why picking the best 12-volt refrigerator can be confusing

It’s easy to get confused when looking online for the best 12 volt refrigerator. A quick search on Amazon reveals a bunch of lookalikes.

There are three types of 12-volt fridges out there: thermoelectric, absorption and compressor.

12-volt refrigerators are energy efficient and mimic the fridge you have at home, with compressors specially built to be powered from a DC outlet (cigarette lighter).

Here are the three most common types of portable refrigerators:

  1. Thermoelectric refrigerators
  2. Absorption refrigerators
  3. Compressor refrigerators

We’re going to explain these three types of portable fridges so you know why we’re focusing on 12 volt compressor refrigerators only.

Thermoelectric portable 12-volt refrigerators

A thermoelectric cooler is way different from a portable refrigerator. and uses the ambient temperature to determine internal cooling
  • Thermoelectric refrigerators look like 12-volt compressor refrigerators, but cost way less. Price is your first indication you’re not looking at a true compression fridge.
  • They run off a very different, less efficient technology than 12 volt compressor fridge
  • Thermoelectric units are not temperature-controlled, and instead, use the outside air to determine their interior temperature. They cool to about 36-40 degrees less than the ambient air. So, if its 90 degrees outside, your food is going to be kept at 50-54 degrees.
  • These coolers are fine if you’re going on a road trip and don’t need to keep food cold for long periods of time, or if you’re not in a hot climate

Want to see our favorite coolers? Check out the best 5 coolers for van life.

Absorption portable refrigerators

This absorption fridge can run using three types of power - gas, AC or DC. It doesn't get as cold as a 12v compressor fridge.
  • The typical absorption refrigerator can run off three types of power sources: gas, AC or DC, but are most efficient when using propane
  • They only cool to 30 degrees below the ambient temperature and are not temperature-controlled
  • Absorption fridges have to be completely level to operate correctly
  • They pull way more power plugged into a DC outlet than a portable compression refrigerator
  • You’ll typically see these refrigerators built into RV units, and they’re the size of a college mini-refrigerator, so not truly a portable option

Compressor 12-volt fridges

  • The coldest portable 12-v fridge you’ll find
  • Uses less power than an absorption fridge, but more than a thermoelectric cooler
  • Runs off the same compressor technology as your household fridge
  • Temperature controlled, with both refrigeration and freezer technology
  • They’re operational up to 30 degrees off level, and also keep working when jostled about if you’re off-roading
  • They come in a variety of sizes but are typically small and manageable
  • Way more expensive than thermoelectric or absorption refrigerators

Things to think about before buying the best 12v refrigerator

So, now that I’ve shown you why compressor 12-volt refrigerators are the way to go, we’ll talk about the different types and styles.

There are top-loading refrigerators that resemble your typical cooler and front-loading fridges that look like a mini-fridge.

1. Top door vs side door 12v fridge

Woman inspects top loading 12 volt refrigerator in her trunk

A top door 12-volt refrigerator is the most energy-efficient of them all.

The best 12v fridges require you to stack food, but also retains cold air better than a front-loader. That’s because not as much air escapes when you’re opening this box-style 12v fridge from the top because cold air usually lingers down at the bottom.

Top door 12v fridges are compact, some can be used as a seat, and they’re easy to install. This 12-volt refrigerator can fit between the two front seats of your vehicle, and all you have to do is pop open the top to grab a cold drink.

Some people do like the side door fridge because it fits better with their particular campervan or RV design. It’s easier to grab food and drinks than with a top-door 12v fridge.

Usually, a side door compressor fridge works well if you have a bit more space for opening and closing the door.

2. What size 12-volt fridge do you need?

The best 12-volt refrigerators come in all sorts of sizes, so it’s important to measure the spot in your vehicle where you plan on putting your fridge. Also, it’s good to consider the quantity of food and drinks you’ll need to keep cool.

Keep in mind the 12v fridge will need enough space around it for the vent fan to run properly, and for you to extend the handles to lift the fridge.

Most people who live or travel in campervans like to get 40-50L 12 volt refrigerators. We have a 37-quart, and it works fine for about 5-7 days off-grid.

3. Check the type of compressor in the 12v fridge

The best type of compressor for a 12-volt refrigerator is a Danfoss compressor. This is the leading compressor in the fridge industry, and with good cause.

According to the Danfoss website, these compressors have an electronic control unit with built-in speed control, thermostat signal, thermal protection, and a turn-off switch that prevents the compressor from damaging a battery. They also have an electronic thermostat, fan speed control and are highly energy efficient.

However, we have read reviews of other 12 volt fridges, like the Alpicool, that use a different, cheaper compressor but also work quite well.

4. Calculate the power draw of the best 12v refrigerators

Each best 12 volt refrigerator has a different amount of power it will draw from a battery, more when the fridge is first cooling down, then less to maintain that temperature. The average power draw of a compressor fridge is anywhere between 1 and 5 amps per hour.

We’ve noticed that when our ARB fridge is on, it draws 4-5 amps for about 10-15 minutes. Then it shuts down for maybe 45 minutes. This depends on the outside temperature, of course.

Most people who have a 12v fridge in their campervans run it off an external battery, which is either powered by solar panels, or connected to the van’s alternator via a battery isolator.

Our ARB 12v fridge connects to our solar setup via a DC outlet in the rear of our campervan. We run it off two 50-watt flexible solar panels and its plenty to keep our 12-volt fridge super cold.

Keep in mind that some van lifers say a fridge wreaks havoc on your alternator, and it’s better to power the fridge off rooftop solar panels.

Another option is to keep your 12 volt refrigerator connected to your start battery when driving, then use either a portable solar generator like the Jackery Explorer 500 to keep it cool during the day.

5. Decide if you want a dual-zone 12 volt refrigerator or a single-zone

Some of the best 12-volt refrigerators come with two compartments that act as separate refrigerators and freezers, and some don’t. So just be sure to decide whether you need a dual-zone fridge or not before you buy.

We think the new Dometic Cooler + Icemaker is really awesome if you want ice cubes at a remote campsite. Keep in mind the ice making function will take more power than regular cooling.

We’ve used a single zone fridge for a couple years now and think that’s just fine.

6. Make sure to research the warranty and find the best for your compressor fridge

High-end 12 volt compressor refrigerators usually come with a warranty, but some are better than others. I’ve seen anywhere from a 1-year to a 3-year warranty.

Looking into warranty information is important because it can be tricky to find someone to work on your portable 12v fridge.

The best 12-volt refrigerators we could find

There are several best 12v fridge manufacturers out there, and what you choose will largely depend on your setup, the amount of money you’re willing to fork over, and the warranty information.

We’ve found a great budget option as well if you want to spend less than $400 on a 12v fridge.

The 12 volt refrigerators we recommend all have excellent reviews and a solid history of making good quality products.

All eight best 12 volt refrigerators share these traits in common:

  • They run on both AC and DC power
  • Operate on a very low power draw
  • Interior drain plugs
  • Rugged and well-built
  • An integrated battery protection system

QUICK TIP: Keep in mind that often these 12 volt refrigerators have a variable temperature at the top and the bottom, which depends on how tightly they’re packed with food and drinks. Many campers recommend using your own thermometer to determine the temperature and adjust accordingly.

The best 12v refrigerators we recommend do have a few key differences, but all of these refrigerators are high-quality and recommended among van lifers, RVers, truckers and campers.

Dometic CFX3 55IM Powered Cooler + Icemaker

  • Can make ice!
  • Heavy-duty yet lightweight ExoFrame construction
  • 3-stage battery protection system
  • Includes two removable ice trays with snap-on silicone lid
  • Refrigerates and deep-freezes to -7°F
  • Low power draw
  • App for monitoring fridge from far away
  • Expensive
  • Some say ice tray is too small

This newest offering from Dometic is as cool as it gets. The Dometic CFX3 55IM powered cooler + icemaker produces ice in hours, but keep in mind it will draw more power when set to ice-making mode.

The rugged Dometic 12v fridge has a generous 52-liter storage capacity, which can fit up to 83 cans. You can stuff it full of drinks and food to last for days off-grid.

Use the free app to monitor your 12 volt refrigerator while you’re out on a hike or bike ride, and readjust the temperature as needed to create ice for a cold drink after a sweaty day on the trail.

The Dometic CFX3 offers a user-friendly interface, is easy to carry and has flexible power options. Charge it using a 12-volt outlet or a standard household AC outlet.

The rapid freeze-plate and accompanying silicon ice trays make ice in just hours, although one reviewer says it doesn’t really make enough ice at a time.

A removable wire divider less you arrange food and drinks as you like.

We love this 12-volt fridges ability to make ice and haven’t found a comparable fridge on the market yet.

ARB Zero Portable Fridge/Freezer

  • Rugged, built for off-roading
  • Available in dual-zone, single-zone and four sizes
  • Reaches cold temperatures quickly
  • Easy-to-navigate display
  • Charges using both AC and DC
  • Battery protective technology
  • Expensive
  • Some say app is bad
  • Dual zone fridges come in only large sizes, meaning you’ll need a bigger rig

ARB’s latest line of best 12-volt refrigerators, the Zero fridge models, are rugged and meant for off-roading.

ARB got its start making 12v fridges for 4×4 adventures in the Australian outback, so you can expect a high level of durability. ARB refrigerators use a patented hinge system with a top-opening, detachable lid, so you can reach your food and beverages even in a smaller vehicle.

The ARB Zero line of refrigerators comes in both dual-zone and single-zone options.

The dual-zone refrigerators are only available in 73qt and a 101qt, making them quite large and suitable for a larger vehicle or RV. The dual-zone fridges offer both refrigeration and freezing, and have two separate compartments with their own temperatures controls and lids.

Single zone ARB Zero 12-volt refrigerators come in popular 47qt and 63qt sizes, ideal for a smaller campervan, SUV, or car. The 47qt model has a front-facing lid, while the 63qt features a reversible, side-opening lid.

The ARB Zero refrigerators have an easy-to-read display and a mobile app where you can monitor the fridge’s vitals from afar. However, one reviewer said the app isn’t very good.

You can install a slide or tie-down system to keep your ARB 12v fridge stable when on rough dirt roads.

ARB has a reputation for being high-quality and durable, which is why many people choose this brand. The 12 volt compressor refrigerators get excellent reviews online and in van life forums.

We have an ARB fridge in our campervan and have had a very positive experience so far. Check out my full review of the ARB 367 quart fridge here.

Whynter 45 Quart Portable Refrigerator

  • Tough and solid outer powder-coated steel housing
  • Works even at a 30-degree angle
  • Cheaper than Dometic and ARB
  • Low power draw
  • “Fast Freeze” mode rapidly cools to -6°F
  • Comes with two removable wire baskets
  • Bad customer service
  • No app for remote monitoring
  • Single zone only

Man van lifers, including one I know personally, rave about the Whynter 12-volt refrigerator. This best 12v fridge is about half the price of similar-sized Dometic and ARB fridges.

Whynter’s claim to fame is its “fast freeze” mode, which rapidly cools food down to  -6°F. The main issue with this fridge is that some reviewers say its unreliable and Whynter has bad customer service.

This best 12-volt refrigerator features a low power indicator and works even when tipped at a 30-degree angle, great for off-roading.

It also has a solid outer powder-coated steel housing, a drain plug for easy cleaning, two removable baskets and stainless steel side handles for easy carrying.

Like other best 12 volt refrigerators on our list, the Whynter fridge charges using either an AC or DC outlet.

The fridge only operates on a single-zone capacity, which means you can either refrigerate or freeze, but not both.

ENGEL Portable Tri-Voltage Fridge/Freezer

  • Highly Efficient Engel Swing Motor – Low Amp Draws (even at start-up)
  • Incline Operation up to 30° off level
  • Corrosion-resistant exterior
  • Removable handles
  • Long-lasting
  • Some complain about customer service
  • Warranty issues
  • A little noisy 
  • No digital display

The Engel 12 volt fridge’sclaim to fame is that its own brand of compressor – the Engel swing motor compressor – which the company claims is the most vibration-resistant compressor on the market.

The Engel compressor has only one moving part, so some reviewers say it’s less likely to break and has a lower amp draw than other best 12 volt refrigerators.

Engel started designing its 12v fridge/freezers in 1962, and is a trusted, well-liked brand.

This particular Engel refrigerator is made out of plastic, which is meant to be less corrosive than stainless steel. It includes a wire basket, both AC and DC cords and a removable handle.

The Engle 12v fridge works at a 30-degree angle, another solid choice for off-roading.

However, it only operates within 80 degrees of the ambient temperature, so it won’t be able to dip way below freezing in 100-degree desert heat.

  • Inexpensive, yet functional compressor
  • Cheaper than ARB, Dometic and Engle
  • Durable design
  • Digital temperature display
  • Maintains a temperature of 0 degrees, although some say it goes much lower
  • 1-year warranty
  • Considerably higher power draw than other 12-v fridges on the market

The Truck Fridge is the cheapest 12v fridge using the Danfoss compressor we could find. This company specializes in refrigerators made for semi-trucks, commercial trucks, vans and campers.

Their best 12 volt refrigerators feature an energy-saving function, a turbo cooling function and a multi-function electronic thermostat. Like the other 12v fridges reviewed here, it can plug into either AC or DC power with battery protection.

You can pick from a variety of sizes if you decide to go with the Truck Fridge.

This is a popular choice among van lifers thanks to the affordable price tag.

Alpicool Portable Refrigerator/Freezer

  • Gets down to -4°F
  • Very affordable
  • 3 levels of battery protection
  • High-density foam insulation
  • LCD display and digital temp adjustments
  • Runs at a 45-degree angle, great for off-roading
  • Low amp draw
  • Not available in California
  • Latch isn’t durable
  • Made of cheap plastic
  • Some say its noisy

A lot of van lifers who don’t want to shell out big bucks for the best 12 volt refrigerator with a Danfoss compressor often go for the Alpicool 12v fridge.

This budget 12v fridge has a trolley design, so you can roll it around your campsite with ease. They are small, portable, and get good reviews on Amazon and in van life forums.

However, with a cheaper price tag you have to expect a cheaper quality. Some reviewers claim the latch broke off after a few uses thanks to low-quality plastic.

Like the other best 12-volt refrigerators, the Alpicool fridge has a built-in LCD control panel which makes it easy to change the temperature. It’s vibration-resistant and operates at a 45-degree angle, making it great for off-roading.

At a weight of only 30 pounds, this is also one of the lightest 12v fridges we could find.

The Alpicool portable fridge comes in a variety of sizes so you can pick the one that best suits your needs.

  • Cheaper than other models 
  • Electronic temperature control panel
  • Fast cooling technology
  • Shockproof, durable design
  • Light at 36 pounds, but slightly heavier than Alpicool
  • Does not use a Danfoss compressor
  • We couldn’t find warranty information for this 12v fridge
  • Larger dimensions than some of the other fridges on the market

The Costway portable 12 v fridge gets the award for one of the cheapest compressor refrigerators on the market, competing with Alpicool.

Costway boasts a shockproof design that can hold up to the rigors of off-road use, and a fast cooling technology that goes from 90°F to 32°F in just 30 minutes.  This 12v refrigerator also features an Eco-Mode for energy saving.

Like other best 12v fridges, you’ll find an LCD display, both DC and AC adaptors, a dual zone design and three levels of battery protection.

Keep in mind the dual zone design doesn’t come with separate temperature controls like the Dometic icemaker fridge we talked about above.

As for battery-protection, Costway sets don’t set battery protection to “low” or it will drain your engine start battery.

Conclusion on the best 12-volt portable refrigerators

There are so many good-quality 12 volt compression refrigerators out there that it’s hard for us to say which is the absolute best for your lifestyle. The Dometic Cooler + Icemaker and ARB 12v refrigerators are our top two favorites, but if you’re looking for a budget option, you might want to go with the Alpicool 12v fridge.

Your decision will largely have to do with unit size, price and features – do you want an electronic display and a high-tech unit? Do you need a dual zone unit with both refrigeration and a freezer? Do you care if you have the Danfoss compressor?

Whatever you choose, one thing is clear: you won’t need to deal with slushy ice and the endless search for a convenience store again when you get a 12-volt refrigerator for your van or RV!

Other stories to check out:

Campervan GearVan Life

Sours: https://www.thewaywardhome.com/12-volt-refrigerator/
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The Best Portable 12-Volt Refrigerators For 2021

(Camp Addict does NOT accept payment from any company to review or endorse their products.)

Going on a road trip and want to keep your favorite beverages and food cold? Need to supplement that small refrigerator in your RV or van?

You need a portable 12-volt refrigerator! But which one??? And what should you look for in a portable refrigerator?

Read on to find which 12-volt fridge freezer is best for you.

Portable Refrigerator Guide

Do you need an electric cooler or an actual 12-volt portable refrigerator? Do you even know what the difference is? Read our Portable Refrigerator Guide today and learn all the things!

Why Only Dometic 12-Volt Portable Refrigerators?

If you own an RV, then you most likely have at least one Dometic product in it.

Dometic is a trusted RV appliance manufacturer, but that's not why we rank their portable refrigerator-freezers and their 12-volt coolers as the best.

We do so because, well, they ARE the best!

Here's our reasoning:
  • Dometic's CFX line of portable refrigerator-freezers is the only one that can go down to -8º Fahrenheit. Most competitors only go down to 0º F. Why is the extra 8 degrees of cooling important? It's all about the ice cream! Really. Ice cream gets truly hard below 0º Fahrenheit, so if you like hard ice cream, a Dometic CFX 12-volt portable freezer is what you need. Fine, yes there are other reasons you might want to cool below 0º F, but we think ice cream should rank at the top.
  • Dometic offers a true dual-zone portable refrigerator freezer with their CFX-95DZW. You can set each of the two compartments to their own temperatures. Either both can be used as refrigerator compartments, both as freezer compartments, or one as a fridge and one as a freezer compartment. Other portable 'dual-zone' fridge freezers (including Dometic's smaller CFX-65DZ) have one setting and the cool air from the freezer compartment 'bleed over' into the refrigerator compartment, giving you less control of the refrigerator section.
  • Dometic's line of 12-volt coolers is unique in that they have temperature controls for both the cool and hot functionality. With competitor's 12v coolers, they are either on or off. Dometic offers 7 different temperature steps, making their 12-volt coolers unique.

What about ARB fridge freezers, Engel refrigerator-freezers or Whynter 12-volt portable refrigerators?

These are three well-known brands in the portable 12-volt fridge market, so why not include them?

Simple.

Either they are (sometimes WAY) more expensive than the Dometic offerings, or they don't have the superior cooling capability of Dometic's CFX line of portable fridge freezers, or sometimes even both.

Dometic has positioned itself to be the leader in the small portable refrigerator marketplace and we see no reason to not go with the leader when they are the best!

12-Volt Portable Refrigerator Reviews

We broke down 12-volt refrigerators into a few different categories so you can find the one that will best meet your criteria.

These include the best overall 12-volt portable refrigerator-freezers, the best dual zone refrigerator-freezers, and the best 12-volt coolers.

Each of these serves a different need, so let's get to reading and find out which refrigerator review best suits your needs!

Best 12-Volt Portable Refrigerator/ Freezer

Dometic CFX Fridge / Freezers

Dometic CFX-50 12v fridge freezer open

Pros

  • Uses a compressor like a 'real' refrigerator
  • Low amperage draw (12-volt power)
  • 3-stage battery protection
  • Digital readout to precisely set temperature
  • Various capacities available
  • Quiet

Cons

  • Can only be set as a refrigerator OR a freezer at once
  • More expensive than a cooler, but features may be worth it

Dometic's CFX line of small portable refrigerators offers efficient compressor technology which means they function like a house refrigerator OR a freezer.

They are small and lightweight so you can take them on the go. 

Choose Your Capacity

Buy on Amazon

Continue Reading Dometic CFX Line of 12v Portable Refrigerator Freezers Review

If you are looking for a portable refrigerator for camping, this is your best bet.

Great as a 12-volt RV refrigerator, a refrigerator for semi-trucks, or a car refrigerator to take on an extended road trip, the Dometic CFX line of 12-volt refrigerator-freezers is worthy of a good, hard look.

They have a single compartment so they can only have a single interior temperature - set at EITHER refrigerator temperature or freezer temperature.

 If you want the ability to have both a refrigerated compartment and a freezer compartment at the same time, go with a Dometic CFX Dual Zone fridge freezer.

With the same compressor technology used in a 'real' fridge that you'd use in your house, these portable fridges don't mess around when it comes to keeping your food at the correct temperature.

Dometic CFX-50 12v fridge freezer open

Dometic CFX-50

Dometic CFX-50 12 volt refrigerator freezer

Dometic CFX-50

Ice Cream, Anyone?

If you need an excellent 12-volt portable freezer or refrigerator, the Dometic CFX line is for you.

Unlike the competition that only cools to 0º F, a CFX portable freezer will cool down to -8º F. Yes, the extra 8 degrees of cooling makes a difference.

 Why?

Well, for one, if you are an ice cream connoisseur you know that ice cream requires a sub-zero (Fahrenheit) temperature to get hard.

Yay!

Now you can have ice cream the way you want it when you are on the road (sure, there are other reasons to need a sub-zero temperature, but this is ice cream we are talking about!). 

Dometic CFX 12v refrigerator handle
Dometic CFX 12 volt refrigerator reinforced corner

Features

The CFX line of small portable refrigerator freezers come packed with features.

They have LED interior lights, handles that detach for small spaces, and removable lids for easy cleaning.

They even have a USB power port so you can charge your mobile device while keeping your food cold.

More cool stuff:

  • It remembers the temperature you had set even when the fridge isn't plugged in
  • It includes digital temperature display
  • It provides battery protection so the 12-volt fridge freezer won't drain your vehicle's battery

See the Features and Specs section further below for more details.

Dometic CFX 12 volt portable fridge freezer control panel
Dometic CFX portable fridge interior LED light

Electrical Requirements

These portable refrigerators can run off 12 volts, 24 volts or 120 volts.

They are made from impact-resistant plastic with reinforced corners, stainless steel hinges, and tough lid linings for long life.

The high-efficiency compressors and extra wall insulation mean that the Dometic CFX line of AC/DC refrigerators consumes minimal electrical power.

This is important when you are boondocking and don't want to drain your batteries.

Dometic CFX-65W Portable Fridge Freezer

You can purchase an optional insulated cover and/or a sliding tray to outfit your Dometic CFX portable refrigerator freezer.

See the accessories section below for more information.

Temps Above 90º F

  • If the ambient temperature is above 90º F (32º C) the minimum temperature (-8º F/-22º C) cannot be reached.
  • In other words, when the portable freezer is kept where it's really hot, it cannot maintain the rated low temperature. Understandable.
  • Download the Dometic CFX line of portable fridges manual here (PDF)
Dometic CFX-40 12 volt portable fridge freezer

Dometic CFX-40

Dometic CFX-28 12v fridge freezer open

Dometic CFX-28

Dometic CFX Line of 12-Volt Refrigerator Freezer Features and Specs:

Capacity (in cubic feet, quarts, liters) and Dimensions

Model

Capacity (cu ft/qts/liters)

Dimensions (W x H X D)

CFX-28

0.9/27/26

24.4" W x 16.7" H x 13.5" D

CFX-35

1.1/34/32

27.2" W x 16.2" H x 15.7" D

CFX-40

1.4/40/38

27.2" W x 18.1" H x 15.7" D

CFX-50

1.8/49/46

28.5" W x 18.5" H x 17.9" D

CFX-65

2.2/63/60

28.5" W x 22" H x 17.9" D

Weight, Compressor Noise (in decibels) and Power Usage

Model

Weight

Noise

Rated Current

Current Use*

CFX-28

29 lbs

34 dB

6.5 amps @ 12v

0.30Ah/0.58Ah

CFX-35

39 lbs

45 dB

7.0 Amps @ 12v

0.32Ah/0.60Ah

CFX-40

41 lbs

45 dB

7.0 Amps @ 12v

0.36Ah/0.64Ah

CFX-50

45 lbs

42 dB

7.8 Amps @ 12v

0.38Ah/0.68Ah

CFX-65

49 lbs

42 dB

8.2 Amps @ 12v

0.40AH/0.70Ah

*Current consumption (Amp-hours/hour) at 12 volts with ambient temperatures of 50º F (20º C) and 90º F (32º C) and with portable fridge interior temp of 41º F (5º C).

Specifications:

  • Available in capacities ranging from 27 quarts (26 liters) to 63 quarts (60 liters) - larger capacities available in the dual-zone models
  • Power source: 12/24 volts DC or 120 volts AC
  • Made from high-impact resistant plastic with extra thick insulation
  • Reinforced corners and stainless steel hinges
  • Interior temperature range: -8º to +50º Fahrenheit (-22º to +10º Celsius)
  • Digital display for precise temperature selection (2º F and 1º C increments)
  • High-performance compressor means these portable fridges function like a full-size refrigerator
  • Turbo cooling automatically boosts compressor speed to rapidly reach the set temperature
  • Quiet operation (ranges from 34 dB to 45 dB)
  • Lid is detachable and has a positive closing latch
  • Three-level battery monitor to prevent fridge from draining your vehicle's battery (you can choose at what battery voltage the fridge shuts off to prevent complete battery drain)
  • Memory function remembers set temperature when unplugged from a power source
  • Lid is detachable and has a positive closing latch
  • Interior LED light
  • Folding (detachable) handles
  • Removable wire basket(s)
  • USB port to charge mobile devices (5V, 500mA)
  • Uses R134a coolant
  • Can be tilted up to 30º and still operate
  • Portable refrigerator accessories available (see below)
  • Warranty: 2 years

Best Dual Zone 12-Volt Refrigerator/ Freezer

Dometic CFX-65DZ / 95DZW

Dometic CFX-95DZ dual zone portable refrigerator freezer open

Pros

  • DUAL ZONE! - you can have both a refrigerator and a freezer compartment
  • CFX-95DZW has true dual zones where you can set separate temperatures for each side
  • Uses a quiet compressor like a 'real' refrigerator
  • Low amperage draw (12-volt power)
  • 3-stage battery protection
  • Digital readout to precisely set temperature

Cons

  • CFX-65DZ doesn't have true dual zones - it uses air 'bleeding' over from freezer compartment to cool refrigerator section

Need to have both a refrigerator and a freezer compartment at the same time? 

Then the Dometic CFX Dual-Zone portable refrigerator-freezers are just what you need.

 The CFX-95DZW offers true dual-zone capability in that you can set an individual temperature for each of the two compartments. 

However, the CFX-65DZ relies on air spilling over from the freezer compartment to cool the refrigerated section.

Continue Reading Dometic 12v Dual-Zone Portable Refrigerator Freezer Review

Dometic CFX Series

The Dometic CFX Dual Zone portable refrigerator freezers use the same compressor technology and share the same features with the rest of the Dometic CFX line.

The difference is that these dual zone 12-volt refrigerator-freezers have two separate compartments.

As a result, it can be used separately as a refrigerator and a freezer, so you don't have to choose between the two.

Dometic CFX-65DZ dual zone 12 volt refrigerator freezer open

Dometic CFX-65DZ

Dometic CFX-65DZ dual zone 12 volt refrigerator freezer

Dometic CFX-65DZ

With the CFX-65DZ you can only set one temperature, which is for the freezer compartment.

Cold air then 'spills' out into the refrigerated section to keep that area cool.

Therefore, you don't have precise control of the refrigerated compartment.

CFX-65DZ Dual Zone Use

The CFX-95DZW is the flagship of the Dometic CFX line.

It offers true dual zone functionality.

You can set a separate temperature for both sections of this portable fridge freezer.

And you can control the CFX-95DZW's interior temperatures via a mobile app for ridiculous convenience.

Dometic CFX-95DZ dual zone portable refrigerator freezer

Dometic CFX-95DZW

Dometic CFX-95DZ dual zone portable refrigerator freezer open

Dometic CFX-95DZW

You can purchase an optional insulated cover and/or a sliding tray to outfit your Dometic CFX portable refrigerator freezer.

See the accessories section below for more information.

Temps Above 90º F

  • If the ambient temperature is above 90º F (32º C) the minimum temperature (-8º F/-22º C) cannot be reached.
  • In other words, when the portable freezer is kept where it's really hot, it cannot maintain the rated low temperature. Understandable.
  • Download the Dometic CFX-65DZ portable fridge manual here (PDF)
  • Download the Dometic CFX-95DZW portable fridge manual here (PDF)
Dometic CFX-95DZ dual zone portable refrigerator freezer inside

CFX-95DZW

Dometic CFX-95 Dual Zone Portable Fridge Freezer

Dometic CFX-65 Dual Zone Portable Fridge Freezer

Dometic Dual Zone Portable Refrigerator Freezers Features and Specs:

Capacity (in cubic feet, quarts,liters) and Dimensions

Model

Capacity (cu ft/qts/liters)

Dimensions (W x H X D)

CFX-65DZ

2.2/56/53

28.5" W x 22" H x 17.9" D

CFX-95DZW

3.0/90/85

37.6" W x 18.6" x 20.8" D

Weight, Compressor Noise (in decibels) and Power Usage

Model

Weight

Noise

Rated Current

Current Use*

CFX-65DZ

51 lbs

42 dB

5.5 amps @ 12v

0.42Ah/0.76Ah

CFX-95DZW

70.5 lbs

37 dB

9.2 Amps @ 12v

0.75Ah/1.25Ah

*Current consumption (Amp hours/hour) at 12 volts with ambient temperatures of 50º F (20º C) and 90º F (32º C) and with portable fridge interior temp of 41º F (5º C).

Dometic CFX-95DZ dual zone portable refrigerator freezer control panel

CFX-95DZW

Specifications:

  • Available in two capacities: 56 and 90 quarts
  • Power source: 12/24 volts DC or 120 volts AC
  • Made from high-impact resistant plastic with extra thick insulation
  • Reinforced corners and stainless steel hinges
  • Interior temperature range: -8º to +50º Fahrenheit (-22º to +10º Celsius)
  • Digital display for precise temperature selection (2º F and 1º C increments)
  • High-performance compressor means these portable fridges function like a full-size refrigerator
  • Turbo cooling automatically boosts compressor speed to rapidly reach set temperature
  • Quiet operation (ranges from 37 dB to 42 dB)
  • Lid is detachable and has a positive closing latch
  • Three-level battery monitor to prevent fridge from draining your vehicle's battery (you can choose at what battery voltage the fridge shuts off to prevent complete battery drain)
  • Memory function remembers set temperature when unplugged from a power source
  • Interior LED light
  • Folding (detachable) handles
  • Removable wire basket(s)
  • USB port to charge mobile devices (5V, 500mA)
  • Uses R134a coolant
  • Can be tilted up to 30º and still operate
  • Portable refrigerator accessories available (see below)
  • Warranty: 2 years

Dometic Tropicool

Dometic TC-35 12v car refrigerator open

Pros

  • Thermoelectric cooling and heating element
  • Can either cool or heat interior
  • 7-stage temperature settings
  • Low amperage draw (12-volt power)
  • ECO mode for very low power use

Cons

  • Not a true refrigerator
  • Cannot set to a specific temperature
  • Hotter it is outside, the warmer the unit will be inside

The Dometic line of Tropicool 12-volt coolers are a great option if you are looking for cooling (and/or heating) capability without needing a true portable refrigerator.

This is a great option for short trips. 

Choose Your Capacity

Buy on Amazon

Continue Reading Dometic Tropicool Portable Electric Cooler Review

The Tropicool is a great portable electric cooler to take with you on short trips where you don't have access to a true refrigerator.

Made from high-impact plastic, the Dometic Tropicool line of portable electric coolers uses a thermoelectric system to cool (or heat) the interior.

Not A Real Refrigerator?

The Tropicool 12-volt coolers aren't true refrigerators. This means that they don't use a compressor like the CFX line of Dometic portable refrigerators do.

Therefore, you cannot set an exact temperature.

The 7 settings that the Tropicool has are based on a difference between ambient temperature and the temperature inside the electric cooler.

There can be up to an 86º Fahrenheit (30º C) difference between the inside of the Dometic Tropicool and the outside air temperature.

The minimum interior temperature is thermostatically limited to 34º F (1º C).

Dometic Tropicool 12 volt cooler control panel

Cooling And Warming Capabilities

Because these portable electrical coolers use thermoelectric technology, they can function both as an electric cooler and as an electric food warmer.

A simple press of a button switches between cooling and heating modes.

Lowest possible cooling temperature is 34º F and hottest possible interior temperature is 150º F.

You can adjust the interior temperature via a 7-stage LED light (not temperature indicating) control panel.

The Dometic Tropicool line of plug-in coolers doesn't have an actual temperature indicator as you cannot set an actual temperature.

You can only set a difference between the outside (ambient) temperature and what you want the interior temperature to be via a 7-stage control panel.

If you want the ability to set an actual temperature, you need to choose the Dometic CFX line of portable fridges.

Dometic Tropicool TC-14 plug in cooler

Dometic Tropicool TC-14

Dometic Tropicool electric cooler handle

ECO Mode

There is an ECO mode with the Tropicool 12v coolers.

You can manually set this by 'indicating' a single LED on the control panel, or the electric cooler will automatically go into ECO mode when the proper interior temperature has been reached.

Thus, ECO mode will maintain the interior temperature while using very little amperage.

The 77 Degree Rule

The coldest interior temperature possible of 34º F can only be obtained at ambient (outside) temperatures of 77º F and below.

Any hotter ambient temperature and the thermoelectric cooling system cannot maintain that low of an interior temperature.

Best Uses

The best use of the Dometic Tropicool line of portable electric coolers is a substitute for a traditional ice chest that you would use to transport food to the beach or  across town.

In other words, if you are looking for a 12-volt car cooler to use temporarily, then the Tropicool is a great option.

Therefore, if you are needing a true portable car refrigerator for longer-term use, then the Dometic CFX line is what you need.

Dometic TC-35 12v car refrigerator open

Dometic Tropicool TC-35

Dometic TC-35 plug in coller for car handle

Dometic Tropicool TC-35

Sours: https://campaddict.com/reviews/electrical/12-volt-portable-refrigerator/
Danfoss vs. Off Brand - 12v fridge comparison

Portable Refrigerator Guide: Find The Perfect Small Fridge

(Camp Addict does NOT accept payment from any company to review or endorse their products.)

There are many times that a portable refrigerator freezer could benefit your life. Off-roading, overloading, picnicking, and simply for extra space in your RV for perishables.

There are three different types of refrigerators in the way they are powered.

This page will teach you the differences between them:

  • a portable refrigerator (with a compressor)
  • a portable absorption refrigerator. (no compressor)
  • thermoelectric cooler
Portable Refrigerator Reviews

You will also find out which type of portable 12-volt refrigerator is best for your particular needs.

I.E. do you really need a true refrigerator or will an absorption cooler suffice?

Want to know which portable refrigerator is the best? Click the button below to read our portable refrigerator reviews.

Read The Reviews

Portable Refrigerator Guide

There's a bit to learn about portable fridges and freezers, including the three different kinds and what exactly is the difference between an electric cooler and a refrigerator.

So, let's get to the learning!

Is It A Cooler Or A Refrigerator?

RVers, Overlanders, and day-trippers have all benefitted from having a small portable refrigerator in their vehicles.

Let's make sure we all know this fact- the only type of TRUE portable 'refrigerator' is one that has a compressor. 

If it doesn't have a compressor, it is a 'cooler'. 

Sure, an ice cooler or a 12-volt cooler might do the job and a 12-volt refrigerator might be overkill.

It all depends on your needs.

There are absorption coolers and thermoelectric coolers that may 'act' like a refrigerator in that they also use an outside power source to work.

Dometic TC-14 Tropicool portable cooler plugs

However, the temperature inside the unit cannot be controlled like a true compressor portable refrigerator freezer can.

Perhaps you are going Overlanding with friends. 

Then you are looking for a portable refrigerator that can keep meat and other foods at refrigerator temperatures for days at a time.

These 12-volt units serve as portable refrigerator freezers which mean you can set the temperature and it will keep food cool (or frozen) for the duration.

They work just like your home refrigerator.

Some of these 12-volt refrigerator freezers (or coolers) come only with a DC plug (cigarette lighter style).

If you want to plug into A/C power, you will have to buy a separate AC cord.

Which is Cheaper?

Know this- a compressor refrigerator is going to be much more expensive than an absorption refrigerator.

This is due to it having a compressor and having the ability to adjust the temperature to your exact specification.

No, compressor refrigerators are not cheap.

However, having one sure can enhance your camping or car trip by avoiding food getting ruined by an inferior type of cooling system.

Indeed, there are times when an ice cooler or an absorption cooler will suffice.

Three Types Of Cooling Systems

There are times when your food needs to be cooled for longer than an ice cooler can accommodate. In cases like these, you need a portable electric cooler or refrigerator.

When it comes to portable cooling systems, there are three basic types of powered portable units that you can choose from:

Knowing the difference between the three is the key to getting the right one for your needs.

Let's start with compressor refrigerators.

Portable Compressor Refrigerators

Dometic CF-25 portable car refrigerator

Portable compression refrigerators are different from any other type of portable 'cooler'.

How?  

They work exactly like your home refrigerator by using a compressor to control the temperature.

Pros and Cons of a Compression Refrigerator:

  • Minimal power consumption
  • Compressor allows you to put the temperature where you want it
  • Functions when level or on an incline
  • May be used as a fridge or a freezer
  • Works the best out of the three types

The Main Benefit of Compression Refrigerators

The portable compressor refrigerator is the only true refrigerator of this bunch.

You can set the temperature on these so they can act as a fridge OR a freezer.

After using it a few times, you can easily figure out how to keep food at the temperature you need.

By using a partition properly in a dual-zone 12-volt refrigerator freezer, you can set it to freezing but have the partition block enough cold to make the other side cool enough to keep foods from spoiling.

These compressor units are usually able to be set to a specific temperature and are not so affected by the outside temperature.

However, if the outside temperature changes, the temps inside your fridge CAN be affected.

Therefore, setting a temperature and leaving it can be problematic. 

Portable Fridge home page 3

Power Needs

These units run off of DC power, so you can run it off of your car or RV battery.

Similarly, they are pretty power efficient so they don't use a lot of battery power.

Of course, the hotter it is outside, the harder your fridge will have to work.

The harder it works, the more battery power it will use.

Even so, today's compressor units are very energy efficient.

They may consume less than 1 amp/hr.

Much like a home refrigerator, these compressor units don't run ALL the time.

They cycle on and off to regulate the temperature inside.

The hotter it is outside, the more they will have to run.

Therefore, if you are using it in warm areas, it might be a good idea to get its own dedicated battery to power it.

This will avoid draining your vehicle's battery.

If you will be using it a lot, a separate, dedicated battery for your refrigerator is almost a requirement. 

Know that most of today's units come with a sensor that will stop using power from a battery once it is reaching a certain low voltage level so you aren't left stranded. 

Dometic CFX-28 12v fridge freezer open

If you do get a separate battery, you need something to recharge it.

You could use solar, or recharge it using a generator (portable inverter generator reviews).

Either way, now you are looking at an even higher price point unless you already have the means to recharge the battery.

Noise

These units are a little noisy.

It's not bad but you will hear it when it's plugged in, similar to the way you would hear your fridge in your house, only quieter.

Usually, they fire up and you will hear the compressor for the first minute or two, then after that, they will quiet down.

No Need To Level

Another benefit of a portable compressor refrigerator is that it will function properly whether it is level or if it's on an incline.

An absorption cooler will NOT function properly unless it is totally level.

We highly recommend this type of refrigerator over any other type if you are needing refrigeration for over a day or two.

Want to know which portable refrigerator is the best? Click the button below to read our portable refrigerator reviews.

Read The Reviews

Portable Absorption Refrigerators

This type of fridge can run off of three types of power: AC, DC or LP gas.

You may think this is the ideal candidate, but before you jump, read on.

Pros and Cons of an Absorption Refrigerator:

  • Can run off of multiple power sources
  • Very efficient when running on propane
  • Will NOT function properly unless totally (or very close to) level 
  • Cannot set a temperature
  • Can only cool to about 30 degrees below ambient temperature
  • Uses ten times the electric power of other portable units

Power Needs

This type of refrigerator uses TEN TIMES the power than what a portable compressor refrigerator uses. 

If you are running this off of your vehicle battery, you might be in for a jump-start.

If you get this type, you will want to have a dual battery system so you can run it strictly off of a dedicated battery.

In this case, you must have a way to recharge this battery, so consider that as well.

That said, they DO run very efficiently on gas (propane). Remember, you either have to bring an ample supply of gas with you or make sure you can refill along your route.

This type of cooler must be vented if you are using it on gas. Make sure you have adequate space for this.

Dometic CF-50 portable refrigerator interior

Weather/Temperature concerns

Absorption refrigerators can only go as low as around 30 degrees below the outside temperature.

This is not so good in extreme heat- anything over 80 degrees. It's best to keep the unit in the shade on such days.

It Must Be Level

Additionally, this type of refrigerator needs to be level to function properly.

This means that when you arrive at your campsite if your unit is staying in your vehicle, it has to be totally level. 

However, that is not always possible.

We haven't found an absorption refrigerator on the market that is truly portable.

They tend to be sized like a college refrigerator. Therefore, we don't recommend this type as a 'portable' unit.

Many refrigerators that are built-in to RVs are absorption refrigerators.

Portable Thermoelectric Coolers

This kind of cooler is not a very good candidate for keeping food safe long-term.

It's best for keeping goods cold on the way home from the store or keeping a dish warm.

They just don't cool well enough and don't give you the best control over the temperature.

Pros and Cons of a Thermoelectric Cooler:

  • Good for one-off uses, one day total
  • They can cool AND warm. However, they cannot keep food heated at a high temperature, nor cool and warm at the same time.
  • Pretty worthless in temperatures over 77 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Noisy
  • Uses a lot of battery power
  • Unable to set a temperature/tends to be too cool or too warm for your needs

Many Downsides

This type of unit will create a major drain on your battery. On top of that, they are quite noisy.

During testing, they failed in keeping food adequately warm enough to store hot food safely.

Indeed, after reaching about 77 degrees outside, these units are unable to keep your food and liquids cool.

That said, it is not recommended to add ice to this type of cooler. So that's no workaround.

Keep in mind that this type of plugin cooler typically eats up 3-5 amps of power.

These 12-volt coolers are only able to cool to a certain amount of degrees below the outside air temperature.

Therefore the warmer it is outside, the warmer the inside of the cooler will be.

It will typically only be able to cool to their lowest temperature when the outside air temperature is below 77º Fahrenheit (25º C).

Because you cannot precisely control the temperature inside of a 12v cooler, they generally tend to be either too cold or too warm for your needs.

Cool Or Warm Foods

On a positive note, the thermoelectric cooler can also be 'reversed' so that it makes food warm.

Temperatures cannot get much higher than around 150-degrees, so it is not ideal for long-term storage of warm foods. 

This cooler is best for day trips when you don't need food to be cool for very long.

However, if you don't need to be able to keep food warm, a regular ice cooler usually does the same job just as well for less money. 

Who Needs a 12-Volt Portable Refrigerator?

A 12v refrigerator can have many different use scenarios, a few of which are shown below.

But, the best part of a portable mini fridge is that it doesn't have to be used just one way.

Use it in your house as an AC/DC refrigerator in the den.

Or, take it along on the occasional road trip. Bring your own food so you don't eat out so much.

As cliché as this sounds, the possibilities of how you can use a 12v mini-fridge are virtually endless.

  • Camping - You may be looking for a camping refrigerator to keep your food cool as you enjoy a bit of the outdoors. This can either be a supplemental 12v RV refrigerator or a portable mini fridge you keep in the car while you sleep in a tent.
  • Road Trip - A portable car refrigerator may be just what you are looking for to bring along with you on that great road trip across the country. Or, you may just need a car fridge to transport your contribution to the weekly pot luck at grandma's house across town.
  •  Trucking - You may be looking for a semi-truck refrigerator to store food as you criss-cross the country. A 12-volt refrigerator for trucks can mean bringing healthier foods along with you, or just a place to keep your favorite beverage cool.
  • Cabin - Need a battery-powered refrigerator for your little cabin in the woods where you spend the occasional weekend? A 12-volt mini-fridge may be exactly what you need to  bring along the necessary supplies for that perfect breakfast on the deck overlooking the lake. Sigh...

Price Ranges Between Portable Coolers & Refrigerators

Besides just the compressor aspect, there is one other big difference between 12-volt coolers and true compressor-style portable refrigerators.

Price.

A typical high-quality thermoelectric 12-volt cooler will only cost you around $100 – $300.

Stack of 100 dollar bills

Conversely, a good compressor-based 12V refrigerator can range from the mid-hundreds of dollars up to over a thousand dollars.

If you really need a 12V compressor refrigerator and not just a cooler, it's worth it for what you get.

If you only need a day's worth of cooling for some beverages and sandwiches for your picnic, a portable cooler is the way to go.

It's all about deciding what you mostly use your unit for.

Then, you can decide whether you really need a true portable refrigerator with a compressor, or if you can get by with a thermoelectric 12v cooler.

Want to know which portable refrigerator is the best? Click the button below to read our portable refrigerator reviews.

Read The Reviews

Conclusion

What is going to work best for you depends on your needs and habits. 

You now know the difference between having a compressor unit and an absorption unit and the pros and cons of each. 

A good cooler/refrigerator can make a wonderful addition to your RV life, Overlanding, or everyday lifestyle habits.

If you are looking to get one, you can read our 12-volt portable refrigerator reviews to find the best ones on the market.

Authors: Kelly Beasley & Marshall Wendler

Kelly Headshot

Kelly Beasley

He-llllo. I'm the co-founder of Camp Addict, which my biz partner and I launched in 2017. I frigging love the RVing lifestyle but in December of 2020, I converted to part-time RV life. Heck, I lived in my travel trailer for over 5.5 years, STRICTLY boondocking for pretty much all of it. Boondocking is a GREAT way to live, but it's not easy. Anyway, I'm passionate about animals, can't stand campgrounds, I hardly ever cook, and I love a good dance party. Currently, I can be found plotting and scheming whether or not to start collecting farm animals (or plotting my next RV trip!) at my beautiful new 'ranch' named 'Hotel Kellyfornia', in Southern Arizona.

Marshall Headshot

Marshall Wendler

Camp Addict co-founder Marshall Wendler brings his technical expertise to help explain RV products in an easy to understand fashion. Full-time RVing from April 2014 - December 2020 (now RVing about 50% of the time), Marshall loves sharing his knowledge of the RV lifestyle. Marshall spends the majority of his RVing life boondocking. He is the part of Camp Addict that knows 'all the things'. He's good at sharing his technical knowledge so you can benefit. 

Sours: https://campaddict.com/reviews/electrical/portable-refrigerator-freezer/

Compressor portable fridge

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12V Portable Fridge / Freezer For Your Car - ASTROAI 16 Quart (15 Liter)

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