Van Air Conditioning: Best Options to Stay Cool in Your Campervan
Inconsistent weather is a common problem for many van owners; when you’re constantly moving around, you need to be prepared for changing climates. Fortunately, you can stay cool and comfortable by investing in a campervan AC.
In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about van air conditioning, from choosing a model to installing an AC unit in a van. By the end, you’ll have all the information you need to pick the best AC for van life!
Do You Need Air Conditioning in a Campervan?
While van heating and air conditioning may seem like necessities, not everyone has them. Thus, before you go ahead and purchase a brand new campervan AC system, it’s important to ensure you actually need one. Let’s go over the benefits (and drawbacks) of using AC.
Benefits of Having AC in Your Van
Here are the main advantages of owning a camper van with air conditioning:
- Comfort: When it’s 100 degrees outside and you’re sitting in your van wondering if van life is actually a terrible idea… an AC will keep you comfortable.
- Safety: Not having air conditioning can be a safety hazard in hot climates (especially if you have pets or small children).
- Improved air quality: AC promotes the circulation of air, which improves air quality while reducing the risk of asthma attacks.
- Reduced humidity: If you don’t have a van life air conditioning system, you may be subjected to higher humidity levels.
- Fewer insects: Air conditioning discourages insects and parasites (which is helpful if you’re traveling in forest areas).
Ultimately, campervan ACs promote your comfort and well-being while also offering unique health benefits.
Who Should Get Camper Van Air Conditioning?
Air conditioning is a good idea if you meet any of the following criteria:
- You’re a full-time van lifer: If you’re spending extensive periods of time in your van, comfort should be a top priority.
- You have pets: Many household pets cannot tolerate hot temperatures.
- You often park in hot regions: Those who travel in warm climates will have a greater need for AC.
- You have trouble sleeping in the heat: It’s generally easier to fall asleep in cool rooms than hot ones.
- You’re susceptible to allergies: Since AC promotes fresh air, not having it may trigger your allergies.
Drawbacks of Having AC in Your Van
Here are a few disadvantages to owning a camper van with an AC unit:
- Difficult to install: Depending on the type of AC you choose, you may have to undergo a difficult installation process which includes wiring the ac to your power system.
- Consumes power: The typical 12v air conditioning unit for vans can use up to 1,500 watts. Unfortunately, no matter how powerful your van life solar setup is, you won’t be able to offset the power draw from most AC units.
- Expensive: While there are affordable campervan AC units available, a high-quality model will set you back anywhere from $1,500 to over $4,000.
- Noise pollution: Some air conditioning systems emit noise while in operation.
- Maintenance: Most AC units for van life need to be regularly cleaned and maintained. Otherwise, they’ll accumulate dust and negatively impact air quality.
For some van owners, the electricity, installation and maintenance costs are simply not worth it.
Who Should Not Get Campervan AC?
AC may not be necessary for your van if you meet the following conditions:
- You stay in temperate regions: Those who travel in temperate or cool climates typically don’t need the cooling powers of an air conditioner.
- You use your van part-time: If you only use your van for the occasional road trip, an AC system may not be worth the effort or costs.
- You don’t have pets: Pets typically need AC more than humans do. If you don’t have pets and are willing to deal with hot temperatures, you can probably go without one.
How Do I Get an AC for Van Conversion?
While not every van owner requires AC, the majority will benefit from having a cooling system. Most people choose between the following van life AC options:
- Van roof air conditioner
- Portable air conditioner
- Residential window air conditioner
Each one comes with its own unique pros and cons — what works for some van owners may not work for others. Let’s take a more in-depth look at each model.
Roof Air Conditioners for Vans
A van roof AC is a lightweight cooling unit installed on the roof of a campervan. It resembles a miniature version of the bulky, box-like AC units typically found on the roofs of commercial buildings (such as malls and cinemas).
This air conditioner can be installed at the front, center or back of the roof. Most are made up of two parts: an exterior unit that houses the functional components, and an interior part situated inside the van. As the van interior gets warm, the fan will draw in hot air and let cold, conditioned air sink in from the ceiling.
How to Install a Roof Air Conditioner in a Van
Many people prefer having a professional install their AC for campervans. However, if you have carpentry skills and some free time on your hands, you can cut installation costs by handing this part yourself. Here are the general installation steps:
- Choose a location: Decide where you will install the van rooftop AC unit. This will depend heavily on your vehicle type as well as the location of your roof vent(s) roof rack & storage, or other roof mounted components.
- Measure the unit: Measure your AC unit (most will be around 14″ x14″). Then, trace the outline onto the roof.
- Cut out a hole: Drill the four corners of your traced square, then cut out the square using a jigsaw. To prevent corrosion, file the edges and paint them.
- Lift the AC unit: Lift your roof air conditioner up to the hole. If the unit is heavy or your roof is high, use a ramp to accomplish this.
- Connect the AC: Align the unit with the hole in the roof, then screw it into position. Complete the installation by sealing it (which make the unit watertight).
- Connect power: Before you can enjoy your air conditioner, you must connect it to a power source. Many people use a 12v van AC, which can be powered by your 12v inverter.
Once your unit is fully installed, you can sit back and enjoy the luxury of cool, conditioned air.
Pros and Cons of Roof Air Conditioners
If you’re unsure whether a rooftop AC unit for vans is right for you, consider these pros and cons.
Here are the advantages of roof ACs:
- Highly efficient (average BTU rating of 15,000)
- Conserves space
- Does not require additional air ducts
- Durable (can last up to 15 years)
Here are the disadvantages of roof ACs:
- Can be expensive
- Complex installation
- Adds weight to your van (around 100 lbs)
- Requires regular maintenance
Who Should Get a Roof AC for Vans?
A roof AC for van life is a powerful cooling solution that will save space and last for several years. Due to the benefits (and high costs), it’s best for people who live in their vans full-time. However, be sure your van can support its weight before investing in one.
What Is the Best Rooftop AC Unit?
Are you interested in a van roof AC unit? Here are a few of our favorite brands.
Dometic Penguin II
Dometic is a popular manufacturer of van conversion accessories. One of its top sellers is the Dometic Penguin II AC unit, a small rooftop AC for vans that has a cooling capacity of 13,500 BTU. Top features include:
- Sleek design that improves aerodynamics and reduces drag
- Low profile (29 cm high)
- Compatible with single and multi-zone thermostats
- Sturdy build that can withstand harsh weather conditions
- Supports ducted and non-ducted cooling
You can get your hands on this air conditioner for about $1,250.
Nomadic Cooling 3000 (24V)
The Nomadic Cooling 3000 24V ac unit for vans is a silent, battery-powered appliance with a respectable cooling capacity of 12,480 BTU. It’s available in two colors: white or black. Top features include:
- Three different cooling modes (Fan Mode, Eco Mode and Powerful Mode)
- Low sound rating of 60DbA
- Built-in protection features (including motor temperature protection, motor over-current and pressure alarm)
- Non-polluting properties
- Remote control
On the downside, this 24 volt AC unit for vans is a very expensive — it costs $5,599.00.
The FresAir S6 is a lightweight yet powerful roof mounted AC for vans that can cool small spaces by up to 40º Fahrenheit. It achieves this while minimizing power consumption — the unit runs at less than 10A/h (even when it’s on full blast). Top features include:
- Easy maintenance
- Adjustable ceiling vents
- Light weight (25 lbs) and low profile (3.8″)
- Can be used in retrofit projects
Best of all, it’s reasonably priced at just under $1,500.
Portable Air Conditioners for Vans
A van life portable AC is a small unit that can be easily transported around your van. Most come with caster wheels, which makes it easy to move the appliance around. You can mount it before traveling to a warm destination, then remove and store it away in cold climates. Although they can be installed anywhere, it’s recommended to place portable ACs near a window (for discharging hot gases) and a power source.
During operation, the front side of the AC continually discharges cool air into the van, while the back side discharges hot air. This hot air exits through a flexible exhaust tube mounted on the window. Inside the unit is a tray or bucket that collects water (which condenses as air cools). Some portable ACs for camper vans require manually removing and emptying the tray, while others offer a convenient drain hose.
How to Install a Portable AC in a Van
One of the best things about owning a portable AC unit for van life is that there’s no burdensome installation process. Here are the simple steps needed for installation:
- Choose a location: Position your AC in the desired place, then secure it using a strap.
- Connect drains: To ensure functionality, you’ll need to hook up the drains and the exhaust pipe. You can do this by using a “Y” hose.
- Plug in your unit: Connect the campervan AC unit to a power source.
Once everything is in place, turn on the air conditioning and enjoy a light, cool breeze.
Pros and Cons of Portable Air Conditioning for Vans
Portable van life AC units aren’t for everyone. Before making a decision, consider these pros and cons.
Here are a few reasons why people like using portable AC units for camper vans.
- Speedy cooling process
- Relatively affordable
- Easy to move around
- Efficient (some models can produce up to 2,300 BTU)
Here are a few things people don’t like about portable campervan ACs:
- May be noisy during operation
- Uses lots of electricity
- Some models require regular emptying
Who Should Get a Portable AC for Van Camping?
A portable campervan AC is most suitable for people who live in their vans part-time and are looking for a quick, efficient cooling solution to use every now and then. If you travel more frequently, you should consider installing a permanent van air conditioning unit instead.
What Is the Best Portable AC for Van?
When it comes to portable air conditioning for van life, there’s one stand-out model: the Zero Breeze Mark 2. Let’s take a closer look at why this model is so special.
Zero Breeze Mark 2
The Zero Breeze Mark 2 is the undisputed champion of portable van air conditioning. The Mark 2 features a self-contained rechargeable battery powered unit to cool enclosed environments. Not only does this eliminate difficult installation requirements, but it also cost much less than fixed AC units.
In addition to its environmental benefits, this battery-powered AC for vans has incredible cooling capabilities. It employs micro compressor technology to cool down areas of up to 40 square feet. Best of all, it’s easily transportable and has a weight of just 16.5 lbs. Top features include:
- Long-lasting (can last between 3-5 hours on a single battery charge)
- High-quality (up to 40% higher cooling efficiency than competing models)
- Quick speeds (can lower temperatures by 20º Fahrenheit in 5 minutes)
Compared to other portable campervan ACs, this one is a bit expensive at nearly $1,500. However, it makes up for the price with its exceptional features.
Residential Window Air Conditioners for Vans
A residential window air conditioner is a self-contained heating and cooling unit that’s generally placed inside a window or through the walls of a residential property. Lately, the concept has made its way to the van conversion industry. It’s typically not a top option for most van owners — however, there are some people who swear by it.
Most residential ACs for campervans are installed on either a side window or the rear van door. The bulk of the unit is located inside the van, while a tiny portion protrudes on the outer side. When in operation, the interior side uses a fan to draw hot air in the van. This hot air is then blown over an evaporator to cool it — finally, the external unit blows the cooled air back into the van.
How to Install a Residential Window Air Conditioner in a Van
Installing a residential window air conditioner is a bit of a chore, but completely doable if you’re willing to put in the time and effort. Here are the steps involved:
- Pick a location: Start by deciding where the unit will be placed.
- Remove the glass: Remove the glass panes from the window, then build a temporary wooden platform around it. This will help you get the camper van AC unit into place.
- Position the unit: Lift the AC onto the platform, then position it so that the ventilation is outside the van. Make sure the unit does not protrude out too much (otherwise, water may get into it).
- Build a metal frame: Construct a metal frame around the air conditioner, then attach the frame to the window.
- Connect it to power: Connect the air conditioner to your campervan battery system. Most people use a 12V AC for vans, which can be easily attached to a 12v inverter.
The last step is to turn on the unit, kick back and enjoy your new cooling system.
Pros and Cons of Residential Window Air Conditioning for Van Life
Like any appliance, residential campervan ACs have their pros and cons.
Advantages of residential AC units include:
- Quieter than other AC types
- Do not add height to RVs
Disadvantages of residential air conditioning units for vans include:
- Not aesthetically pleasing
- May block natural light
- Consume lots of power
- Complex installation process
Who Should Get a Residential Window AC?
Overall, residential window AC units are usually not the best choice. In addition to consuming lots of power, they detract from your van’s appearance. Not to mention, they can increase your electricity costs. However, it’s hard to beat the affordability — if you’re seeking a short-term, cost-effective solution, this AC type can work.
How to Stay Cool in a Van Without an Air Conditioner
There’s no denying the benefits of a campervan AC. With just the flick of a switch, you can enjoy instant, gratifying cool air. However, as mentioned earlier, not everyone can justify this investment. If you don’t want to buy a full air conditioning unit for vans, but still desire a chilled breeze, try using these methods to stay cool.
You can beat the heat naturally by simply adjusting the way you travel. When planning a road trip, try following these tips:
- Park under shade: When parking your van in warm climates, try to find a shady spot. This helps minimize the amount of sunlight that streams into your vehicle.
- Travel north in the summer: Plan your trips according to the weather. For example, try visiting warmer, southern regions during the winter and colder, northern regions during the summer.
- Drive in the evenings: If possible, drive in the evenings (when temperatures tend to be lower). Then, spend the hot days exploring neighborhoods and taking advantage of local, indoor facilities.
Before you start your trip, be sure you have plenty of water available. Warm weather can cause dehydration, which is the last thing you want to deal with while on the road.
Protect Your Windows
Your windows provide a prime spot for sunlight to infiltrate and heat the interior of your van. Fortunately, you can combat this by using the following:
- Reflectix: This thermal, insulating material can be applied directly to your van windows. It’s designed to prevent heat from coming in.
- Blinds: Consider investing in blinds to help block sunlight. Keep in mind that blinds can darken your van — thus, you’ll want to pair them with good interior van lighting.
- Insulation: Properly insulating your van is a great way to prevent hot and cold air from entering and exiting.
For the best results, try using a combination of these methods.
Get Some Fans
One of the easiest, most effective ways to stay cool (without buying an entire campervan AC system) is to get some fans. Even just one or two fans can go a long way in bringing down the temperature inside your vehicle. There are two main options available: roof vent and portable van fans.
Roof Vent fans
As hot air enters your van, it gradually rises to the top (while cool air is pushed to the bottom). Roof vent fans work by removing this heat, then drawing in and circulating the cold air underneath. You can amplify the cooling effects by opening a window or door, which helps create a constant air flow.
Roof vent fans are available for under $500 (which is extremely affordable when compared to roof mounted AC’s). One popular option are the lineup of MaxxAir campervan fans, which feature remote-controlled fans that offer the following features:
- 10-speed intake and exhaust
- Thermostat (for temperature control)
- Easy-to-use knob for opening/closing
You can find the Max Air on Amazon for under $350.
Portable Van Fans
A portable van fan is a battery or USB-powered van that can be plugged in anywhere within your camper van. Although they’re less powerful than roof
fans, they’re highly effective for cooling down small areas. Portable fans are especially helpful if you struggle to fall asleep when it’s hot; you can just put one right by your bedside.
When searching for portable van fans, you’ll come across a variety of models, from bulky, stand-alone fans to small, desktop fans. A favorite among van owners is this small, clip-on fan — you can attach it to a desk/table or let it stand on its own. As an added bonus, it’s highly affordable at under $20.
Stay Cool, Vanlifers!
A big part of living in your van is finding solutions to make your surroundings more comfortable. While you could probably manage without a campervan AC, installing air conditioning will make van life much more pleasant. If you have questions about cooling your van, our team is here to help. Contact us today with any questions!