Whether you’re planning to live in a van or RV, or just want a camping fridge to take in your car on some road trips, keeping your food cold is a necessary task for a drive. Unfortunately you can’t just use any fridge in your van or car, you’ll need a 12v refrigerator.
What is a 12v fridge? How do 12 volt fridges work?
A 12v fridge is a portable cooler, which means you can set the temperature and it will keep the food cool, just like your fridge in your house. These 12volt units serve as portable refrigerator freezers. If you want to keep food cold for days at a time, you need a compressor style portable fridge. While compressor fridges are not cheap, they are worth it. 12 volt fridges work just like regular refrigerators, connecting to DC or AC power, and with adjustable temperature settings.
Different types of 12 v fridge
There are three different types of powered portable refrigerators: compression, thermoelectric, and portable absorption. Since we are focused on portable refrigerators for vans and RV’s, we’re only going to compare compression type fridges. But here are some pros and cons of each type.
- minimal power consumption
- allows you to set the temperature
- can be used as a fridge or a freezer
- they cycle on and off to help regulate the temperature inside
- tends to be the best bang for your buck
- more expensive than the other types
- super energy efficient, using less than 1amp/hour
If you plan on running a compressor fridge a lot, like in a campervan or RV, it needs to have a separate battery that can be recharged, either from solar or a generator.
- mostly used for keeping food cold for short period
- not good in high temps
- uses a lot of battery power
- best for day trips
Portable absorption fridge
- run off of three types of power: AC, DC or LP gas
- efficient when running on propane
- cannot set temperature
- can only cool to 30 degrees below ambient temperature
- uses 10x the power of the compressor fridge
- tend to be bigger than others, so not so great for the car or van
For a portable absorption fridge, you must have a separate battery and a way to charge that battery.
12 volt fridge comparison
Here is a comparison of the best 12v fridges
Chest style vs upright fridge – what is best?
There are 2 types of 12V DC refrigerators: upright fridges that open from the front and chest style fridges that open from the top. While it matters what fits your van layout best, there are also a couple of differences between the two to think about.
- Chest fridges hold more. Even though the chest fridges take up smaller space, you can pack more stuff in and eliminate the wasted space that comes with the upright fridge.
- Chest fridges are portable and look just like a cooler. Most chest fridges have handles, meaning you can carry it around, and in case of emergencies can throw some ice in like a cooler.
- Chest fridges are more efficient. Since the door is at the top, and cold air naturally sinks, the cool air won’t escape whenever you open the fridge. Upright fridges have to run longer to keep the food cold, which means using more electricity.
- Upright fridges generally fit better in a van, since it takes up less floor space. Also since it is upright, it’s easier to get things in and out of, and similar to a typical refrigerator.
- Upright fridges are generally cheaper than chest fridges.
What to Look for in a Portable 12V Fridge
When trying to choose which portable 12V refrigerator is the best for you, there are a few things to consider:
- Cooling capacity – how quickly can the fridge cool, without zapping all electricity
- Durability – you don’t want to spend a ton of money on a fridge that isn’t going to last on the road. Is the fridge able to withstand lots of use, bumpy roads, and not break down when your boondocking for a week?
- Power usage – Although it’s easy to want to get a cheaper fridge, you run the risk of buying a fridge that uses more energy. If you are in a van or RV with limited electricity, making sure your fridge and other appliances are energy-efficient is super important. By finding a fridge that is well insulated, you’ll be able to use less energy.
- Storage capacity – How much space do you need? Is there just one person living in the van or are there 2? Think about how much stuff you’ll be having and make sure it has enough room for what you need.
- Price – 12 volt fridges can be expensive (mostly because they are more energy-effiecient), so if you are willing to spend a lot for a fridge, make sure it is reliable and efficient. If you plan to be in your van a lot, spending a little more upfront on a good fridge can actually save you money in the long-run.
- Size – If you already have your van layout decided, make sure your fridge fits where you want it.
What’s the best 12 Volt Fridge for Van life?
One of the best energy-efficient 12 volt ultra low power consumption using AC or DC means its great for solar setups or other off-grid applications. The Dometic 12v fridge is a great fridge for vans or RVs as they are super energy-efficient but also super great at temperature regulation. This fridge is excellent with temperature adjustments even in hot climates. This fridge also includes a small removable wire basket inside. Handles on the side if you want to pick it up and move it around. The lid opens from the side, and the lid can actually be flipped depending on which side you want it to open from.
- weight: 45 pounds
- volume: 46 quarts
- can control the temperature with wifi
- 2 year warranty
- power consumption 0.77 Ah/h
- 28.5 x 17.9 x 18.5 in
- lowest temp: -7 F
- operates on 12/24v or 120v (both cords included)
- lid opens on the side (can open either direction)
negative – pricier than most but seems to be worth the investment
ARB fridge freezers come equipped with robust Danfoss compressors to provide powerful refrigeration that can actually cool your food and drinks down–and then keeps them cold. This fridge has a low power draw and separate compartments for things such as dairy and fruit.
- weight: 3 pounds
- volume: 50 quarts
- 27.75″L x 14.96″W x 20″H
- lowest temp: 0F
- 0.87 Amp hours
- operates on 12/24V or 120V (both cords included)
- 3 year warranty
- danfoss compressor
With LCD display and digitized temperature adjustment, included built-in LED light and internal basket. 3 stage car battery protection system to prevent the car battery run down. The Aplicool has portable handles make it easy to move. High efficiency compressor with adjustable ECO and HH modes
- weight: 30 pounds
- volume: 48 Quarts
- lowest temp: -4F
One of the cheaper compressor refrigerators out there. The Costway adopts compressor cooling technology, it ensures 30-minute fast cooling from 90°F to 32°F. Made with shockproof design which makes it incredibly sturdy and durable. 3 levels of battery protection.
- weight: 36 pounds
- volume: 54 quarts
- 27 x 13.5 x 21 in
- low noise
The Iceco portable fridge is durable and reliable. It has two different modes, Max and Eco, allows you to adjust for the necessary cooling temperatures.
- weight: 37.5 pounds
- volume: 53 quarts
- lowest temperature: -7F
- 23 x 14 x 21 inches
- operates on 12/24V or 120V (both cords included)
- 5 year warranty
- Danfoss compressor
A 2-in-1 Portable 12v refrigerator freezer combination. The Norcold has heavy-duty removal handles, and removable hinge allows the door to the fridge to be opened either way.
- weight: 44 pounds
- volume: 45 quarts
- can hold 64 12 oz cans
- 25.5 x 15.7 x 16.9 inches
- The exterior is made of strong, corrosion-proof plastic, ensuring its durability
A great option if you’re looking fo an upright portable fridge. The Smeta fridge has reversible door hinges to fit the layout of your van. It also has a door to lock when driving. This fridge plugs into 12V car cigarette lighter or an outlet.
- 110V 12V electric single door
- small refrigerator with lock
- only goes down to 32 F
- automatic defrost
- compact size
negative – not able to fit a ton in this fridge
A small upright fridge and freezer combo that cools quickly. The fridge can cool from 32 degrees F to 50 degrees F. The costway fridge even has a separate freezer.
- weight: 44lbs
- 20’’ (L) x 17.5’’ (D) x 34’’(H)
- 2.2 cubic feet fridge plus 1 cubic feet of freezer space
- Temperature Setting Range: 32℉-50℉
- separate fridge and freezer compartments
- adjustable racks and shelves
negative – small storage capacity
Portable 12V fridges are not cheap, but picking the right one for your van can make all the difference. It’s important to think about what is important to you in choosing the best 12v fridge. Some people choose to spend a little bit more money on the more efficient fridges, like Dometic or ARB, and others choose to go with a cheaper option that is not as efficient in power.
Make sure to check out our other posts on our van build: