12 Volt Van Refrigerators for Van Life Ultimate Guide
When life gets stressful, most of us dream of hitting the open road and driving wherever it takes us. Now, more and more people are turning that dream into reality by embracing van life. In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that about 140,000 people lived in recreational vehicles, and that number is only increasing.
If you want to take an extended trip, you’re going to have to invest in a few amenities. Along with a place to sleep and supplies to help you manage, you might want to get a fridge. After all, you can’t survive on takeout and delivery the whole trip. While there are many suitable fridges available, most people agree that 12 volt refrigerators are best for vanlife due to their low energy requirements. Here’s everything you need to know about choosing a fridge for your build.
Types of Fridges
As you begin the hunt for a van fridge, you’ll notice that there’s no shortage of options out there. Here are some of the most popular types of fridges and how they measure up against each other.
A chest fridge gets its name from its rectangular shape, which resembles a large box or chest. The fridge has a hinged lid that opens upwards, meaning you don’t have to kneel down to remove any food items stored inside. As an added bonus, it offers baskets that divide the space inside.
- No risk of stored items falling out during an incline
- Easy to retrieve items
- Strong organization capabilities
- Takes up more floor space than an upright fridge
- Prone to inconsistent temperatures (as it does not have a fan)
A 12v mini fridge for vans is a small, stand-alone refrigerator. It features a compressed refrigerant that uses a closed-circuit system of coil — the refrigerant absorbs heat from the cooling unit and then releases it to the outside via the condenser coils. The compact size makes it a great travel fridge.
- Can be charged quickly without draining your car battery
- Light and convenient to carry around
- Comes with its own charger and cords (making it easy to connect to your car battery or main power supply)
- Small battery capacity
- Higher costs
The 12v refrigerator compressor, also known as the 12v or 2-way fridge, is one of the most popular van refrigerators. It has a compressor unit that generates the cooling power in the fridge — this power draws the heat within the fridge, compresses it and then releases it as high-pressured gas.
A 12 volt compressor fridge can be powered by a 12v battery or a 240v main electric power supply — hence the name “2-way fridge.” These feature is super convenient as you can run on your 12v battery bank system while off-grid and then connect to a regular ac plug when you have access to AC power without needing to use a power inverter.
- Strong cooling power
- Easy to install
- Available in a variety of sizes and shapes
- Can withstand different terrains and gradients
- Can be noisy when the compressor is in operation
- Movable parts (like the compressor and fan motor) are subject to wear and tear
- Higher costs
A portable or mobile fridge uses either a compressor unit, an absorption unit or a thermoelectric cooler to control the internal temperature inside the refrigerator unit. The fridge itself can run on three power sources, including a 240v main power supply, a 12v battery or LPG gas.
- Can be powered by a solar panel, a household AC power or a 12v battery
- Provides precise temperature control
- Unaffected by terrain and can function well on an incline
- Expensive to purchase and maintain
- Difficult to clean
- Can be difficult to operate
- High noise levels
This device is a portable fridge cooler that uses cooling ice to create a chilled internal temperature. Most van cooler fridges let you store food and drinks for about a week. In exchange for the limited capabilities, you get a highly portable and convenient freezing appliance.
- Initial purchase and maintenance costs are low
- Portable and durable
- Easy to clean
- No freezing option
- Requires ice cubes to work effectively
- Limited temperature control
Car Fridge Freezer
A car fridge freezer is a small portable fridge unit that operates by taking power from your car’s 12v accessory outlet or cigarette lighter. The 12v car fridge uses a compressor unit to draw out the hot air in the storage unit.
- Small in size and consumes little floor space
- Can efficiently run on the 12v battery of your car without draining it
- Precise temperature control
- Has lower efficiency compared to other fridge types
- Limited lifespan
- Can be difficult to clean
3-Way Camping Fridge
Three-way camping fridges get their name from the ability to run on three different fuel sources. These 12v camping fridges can be powered by a 240v main electrical supply, a 12v battery or LPG gas. They use a gas flow heat exchange system (absorption technology) to suck out the hot air on the inside and create a cooling effect. Due to their ability to connect to multiple power supplies, they’re widely recognized as one of the best camping fridges available.
- Available in large sizes
- Can be completely silent while running on gas
- Durable and can last up to 20 years
- Cannot function effectively on an uneven terrain
- Lower efficiency when running on 12v
- Potential safety hazard (if there is a gas leak)
Dual Zone Fridge Freezer
The dual zone fridge freezer has two compartments and can be used as a fridge and freezer at the same time. In most 12v dual zone fridge freezers, the internal divider can be removed to convert the whole unit into either a freezer or fridge. It utilizes compressor technology to create a cooling effect.
- Dual function
- Movable divider
- Can be moved without affecting the temperature settings
- Can be difficult to clean
- Cannot independently control the temperature of each compartment
Battery Powered Refrigerator
A battery powered refrigerator is a rechargeable, portable fridge that draws its power from a 12v battery (usually a deep cycle AGM, lithium or Flooded Lead Acid battery). Depending on the size of the battery, the fridge can run for 20 to 40 hours before it needs to be recharged. 12 volt car refrigerators are arguably the most popular option for van enthusiasts and are some of the best portable refrigerators available.
- Long battery life
- Generally light and portable
- Easy to find
- Safe to use
- Good for boondocking
- High energy consumption
- Can draw on the battery even while on standby mode
How to Run a 12-Volt Refrigerator
For your 12v refrigerator/freezer to run, you need to supply power to the compressor. Sometimes called the “heart” of the refrigerator, this tool heats up a substance called refrigerant. The refrigerant is cooled by a condenser and then converted to gas by an evaporator, ultimately cooling down food items. You can power your 12-volt refrigerator using the following methods:
- Starting battery: You can connect a wire from your refrigerator to your car’s battery to power it. However, this method is not advisable because it takes power from your truck and can be dangerous.
- Generators: Generators are powered by gas and can create electricity to support your refrigerator. They’re a good option if you’re planning to stay off the grid for a bit. However, they tend to be bulky.
- Solar power: Van solar panels let you power your fridge’s battery using the sun. However, your powering abilities are dependent on the weather.
- Dual battery system: Many van owners opt for a dual battery system, which comes with two or more batteries. These separate “house batteries” can be wired up to your 12v fridge and other powered accessories.
If you’re looking for a cost-effective, portable and safe powering option for your refrigerator, then a battery is your best bet. Be sure to go with a high-quality, long-lasting battery, such as a Deep Cycle 12v.
Should I Run My 12v Fridge for Vans on Eco?
Some refrigerators come with an “eco” mode. When activated, the temperature of the fridge is adjusted to reduce the amount of energy being consumed. This is a great option if you’re trying to use less power or save on energy costs.
How Much Power Does a 12 Volt Van Life Fridge Use?
On average, a 12 volt van fridge can consume as much as 50 amps a day. The amount of power it uses depends on a couple of factors:
- Size of the fridge: Small fridges consume less power than large ones
- Temperature: Higher outdoor temperatures will force your fridge to use more power
To calculate how much power your 12v fridge uses, you’ll have to divide the number of watts (unit of power) by the volts (unit of measure for electrical voltage). This gives you the amps amount, which is used to define electricity. For example, a small 12 volt, 110 watts refrigerator uses about 9 amps while the motor is running. If you’re concerned about using too much energy, you’ll want a refrigerator that consumes a low amount of amps per hour.
How Long Will a 12 Volt Battery Run a Refrigerator?
There’s no straight answer to the question of how long a 12 volt battery can run a van refrigerator. It depends on several factors, including:
- The size of the battery (or how many amps per hour it supports)
- The type of battery (such as lithium ion or lead acid)
- The fridge volume
- How often the fridge door is opened
- The external temperature
The more amps the battery uses per hour, the longer it can run. It’s also worth noting that a lithium ion battery usually lasts longer than a lead acid battery. In general, a 12 volt fridge that’s running on a 12v, 100 amps per hour lithium ion battery can last anywhere from 25 to 50 hours. You can also run it for longer by using two batteries.
How to Install a 12 Volt Refrigerator in a van
If you have a 12v freezer cooler, you don’t have to worry about installation. However, for a larger fridge, you’ll want to make sure it’s properly secured in your van. The last thing you want is for your refrigerator to fall and cause damage.
Proper installation involves the following:
- Conducting measurements: Measure the door of your van, as well as the space where you plan to put your fridge. Most van owners choose to mount their refrigerators in cabinet space.
- Uninstalling your old refrigerator: If you already have a refrigerator in place, you’ll need to remove it before installing the replacement. Be sure to disconnect it from its power source first.
- Secure the refrigerator: To prevent the refrigerator from falling, you should secure it in place with hand carts, straps and fasteners if necessary.
If you’re worried about the installation process, consider contacting a professional to help you.
How to Test Your Fridge’s Evaporator Fan and Heating Element
All refrigerators use both a fan and a heat element. The evaporator fan helps keep air circulating constantly, which allows the refrigerant to absorb heat and keep the interior cold. The heat element is used to prevent condensation from forming on the outside of the fridge.
If either of these parts breaks down, your refrigerator may start to defrost, which could ruin the food inside. Fortunately, you can follow these simple steps to test their abilities.
Testing The Evaporator Fan
The evaporator fan is usually located in the back of the 12v freezer. To test it, do the following:
- Open your freezer door
- Look for a light in the freezer
- Use your hand to feel for cold air
If you suspect your evaporator coil isn’t working, you might be able to fix it by hitting a switch located by the frame of the freezer door. This switch is responsible for turning the fan on and off. If this doesn’t work, you can try unscrewing the panel in the back of the freezer and examining the fan firsthand.
Testing the Heat Element
To test the heating portion of your van refrigerator, you’ll need to examine the defrost heater. This is located near the evaporator fan, which is beneath the evaporator coils, so you can test both parts at the same time. There are three types of defrost heaters that a fridge might have:
- Exposed metal rod
- Metal rod covered with aluminum tape
- Wire coil inside a glass tube
You can detach the heater from your refrigerator by removing the wires in the back. You will need to have a device called a multi-tester to test the function of your heater.
Do 12 Volt Refrigerators for Van Life Work Well in Boondocking?
A common question when it comes to van refrigerators is: can I use one for boondocking? Put simply, boondocking refers to going off the grid and not relying on any water, sewer or electrical connections. You can use a 12v van fridge when boondocking as long as you have the right power supply.
When boondocking, most van experts would recommend using a deep cycle battery, as these batteries are designed to run for long periods of time. You may want to invest in two if you plan to be off the grid for a while.
How to Make a 12 Volt Refrigerator
If you want to save money, you can make your own 12v car refrigerator by obtaining separate parts and then assembling them. Creating your own fridge can cut costs by over one-fourth — possibly more if you rely on used parts.
How to Buy a 12 Volt Van Refrigerator
If you’re not experienced with crafting, your best bet is to simply buy a 12 volt refrigerator. As a popular van life appliance, these fridges are in abundant supply. Here are some of the leading 12 volt refrigerator brands and their respective pros and cons.
Dometic Fridge Freezer
Dometic is an industry leader when it comes to technologically advanced 12 volt portable refrigerators. Along with a high level of functionality, Dometic is known for its top open fridges, which utilize top-opening doors to make loading and unloading easier.
- The brand has a range of smart WiFi enabled fridges that can be controlled remotely via the Domestic App.
- Its CFX series has powerful, deep freeze capabilities which can reach -8°F.
- It offers multiple models, including the Dometic 12v fridge freezer, Dometic 12v portable refrigerator freezer, Dometic 12v cooler fridge, Dometic compressor fridges, Dometic chest fridges and small Dometic fridge.
- It’s more expensive than other brands.
- Dometic 12 volt refrigerators are difficult to repair.
For over 15 years, Iceco has created high-quality, portable 12v van fridge units and travel refrigerators for people to bring on the road. The company owns over 100 technology patents and is constantly innovating and improving its brands.
- The fridges are fitted with German-made Danfoss compressors to reduce noise.
- These fridges automatically enter energy-saving mode when the desired temperature is reached.
- They are more affordable compared to other premium brands.
- The fridges have poor insulation that can result in power losses.
- The fridges can take time to reach the desired temperature.
GE is known for its large supply of kitchen appliances, including refrigerators. It offers a wide range of 12 volt refrigerator freezers that are available in different styles and models. As a company that’s been in business for over 100 years, it prides itself on offering some of the best van life fridges.
- It provides lower space consumption compared to most fridge brands.
- It provides special features, such as temperature-controlled drawers and digital water dispenser readouts.
- The fridges are prone to reliability issues.
- Buyers report that GE has poor customer service and delayed repairs.
ARB 12v Fridges
ARB is an Australian-based company known for making accessories for 4×4 vehicles. Its refrigerators are widely recognized for their iconic, removable lids. As a brand that focuses on vehicles, it offers efficient and well-insulated 12 volt compressor refrigerators (car refrigerators with compressors).
- The 12v compressor fridges are fitted with battery monitors to keep track of energy consumption.
- The fridges are well insulated and can remain cold even when unplugged for several hours.
- Users enjoy removable lids, as well as a removable wire basket and divider for organization purposes.
- The fridges cannot freeze and refrigerate food at the same time.
- They are more expensive than many other brands.
Since 1959, Norcold has labeled itself as America’s leading provider of gas and electric absorption refrigerators for RVs and vans. The key characteristics it bases its fridges off of include quietness, dependability and longevity. It supplies some of the highest quality portable fridges available.
- The dairy compartment (found in newer models) prevents your food from freezing.
- The refrigerators are fitted with food baskets to keep items away from moisture.
- Norcold refrigerators are easy to clean.
- The refrigerator’s power cord takes up extra space.
- Replacement parts, such as the power cord, can be difficult to find.
- Norcold 12v portable refrigerators only run on DC power, meaning they need an adapter to run on the main van electrical supply.
Choosing The Best 12 Volt Camper Van Refrigerator
When it comes to finding the best fridge for van life, it’s safe to say that a 12 volt refrigerator is the ideal choice. It offers everything you’d need out of a van refrigerator: durability, longevity, easy installation and simple charging. And with plenty of brands to choose from, you won’t have any trouble finding one that offers this model.
As you move forward on your van life journey, it’s common to have questions or concerns about what to do. Whether you want to learn more about Iceco versus Dometic fridges or need help finding the best 12v fridge for your needs, our team is here for you. We’re committed to helping van lifers have the best journeys possible. Contact us today to learn more!