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The Van Conversion Series: Camping Fridges

Monday 16th December 2019
By Ely Power
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By Ely Power

Keep Food Fresh On Your Van Life Adventures



Is there anything better than kicking back and cracking open an ice-cold beer after you set up camp? 

To make this a reality, you’ll need to make sure that all of your food and drink stays refrigerated 24/7 - especially when camping in that strong Aussie sunshine!

Having a 12V fridge in your van is a no-brainer. It creates extra storage space for your breakfast essentials, BBQ ingredients and midnight snacks. It keeps food fresh and tasty; drinks chilled and refreshing. All without the fuss of filling a cooler with ice every few hours. 

‘I don’t mind replenishing the ice every so often. Why can’t I just throw in an Esky?’ You ask. Trust us when we say that the cost of ice adds up fast

While van fridges are a significant investment, you’ll likely end up saving money in the long-term, as you can cook your own meals and skip those restaurant bills. 

A 12V fridge will probably one of the most expensive purchases for your van conversion. That’s why you need to do your research before you buy, finding a fridge that will meet your daily requirements on the road.

But with a vast range of fridges suitable for all sorts of van conversions, it’s difficult to choose the right type for your adventures on the road. Here, we take a look at the most popular 12V camping fridges, highlighting the pros and cons of each one so that you can make a confident decision!

As a van owner, you can earn over $10,000 each year by hiring it out on Camplify. As a holidaymaker, Camplify helps you to find the perfect rental so that you can experience the joys of van life without having to own one yourself. 

Interested? Learn more about Camplify here.

Finding The Best Camping Fridge For Your Van Conversion


Budget

If you’re planning to become a full-time van lifer, you’ll need a quality 12V fridge that’s worth pushing the upper limit of your budget for. At the other end of the scale, perhaps you’re only looking for a cheap camping fridge to cover occasional weekend getaways. 

Basically, you can build a refrigeration setup at a range of price points (anywhere from around $100-$3,000!). Just note that a lower price tag usually means less reliability and efficiency. When it comes to your refrigeration setup, you reap what you sow. 

Design: Upright Vs. Chest Vs. Drawer

There are two main styles of 12V fridge: the chest fridge and the upright fridge. 

While an upright fridge will generally be mounted to your wall, chest fridges are usually designed just like coolers, often including handles for easy transport. That means you can place your portable fridge wherever suits the situation, even bringing it outside for a barbie! 

And as it opens from the top, you don’t need to get on your knees to see what’s on the menu (which is often the case with an upright fridge) or worry about items falling out when you drive.

That said, many van lifers opt for upright fridges because they take up less floor space. Easier to fit into a floor plan, you won’t have to change much - if anything - to the rest of your van’s layout. 

A third and increasingly more popular design is the drawer fridge. A huge space saver, these compact cabinet-style refrigerators can slot in under your counter and even stacked on top of each other (you’ll probably only need one, but it’s nice to know that you can tailor your needs!). 

Compared to a front-opening door, a pull-out drawer is super easy to stock and organise. And as the fridge opens from above, items will be kept in place when you hit the gas! Essentially, you can experience the joys of a chest fridge but with extra counter space on top. 

However, drawer fridges tend to be more expensive than other styles. They also run the risk of losing lots of their cold air when opened (read on to learn why), so might not be as efficient as the two classic fridges above.

Size And Capacity

Buying a small 12V fridge will have you making extra visits to the supermarket when all you want to do is enjoy the great outdoors, uninterrupted. On the flip side, if you buy too large a fridge, you’ll spend more money and lose more interior space than necessary. 

When determining the right size for your van conversion, consider the following points:
  • Your cooking style  - Do you prepare dishes from scratch or favour ready-made meals?
  • The duration of your camping trip - How long will you be staying off-grid?
  • Your usual groceries - Do you tend to buy items that take up a lot of room in the fridge?
  • Your organisation preferences - Would you rather store food in a box or on a shelf?

Efficiency

The last thing you want when you’re deep in the wilderness is to run out of power, so energy efficiency is a key consideration when choosing your fridge. Batteries and solar panels aren’t cheap so the more efficient your refrigeration, the more dollars you can save in capacity and the longer you can camp off-grid. We recommend keeping an eye out for fridges with compressors from SECOP (Danfoss), Sawa, Fuji or Waeco.

This is another aspect where fridge design ties in, with the chest fridge coming out superior. As it opens at the top, cold air pooled at the bottom cannot escape. In contrast, an upright fridge loses cold air whenever you open its door.

Bonus Features

Camping fridges can come with all kinds of extra technology and finishing touches that add to their utility. It’s up to you to decide which ones you value.

Below are just some of the features you can find:
  • Temperature control through a mobile app
  • Insulated and protective covers
  • Low voltage protection to curb battery use
  • Freezer compartments
  • Removable baskets
  • Drain plugs for easy cleaning
  • Light displays
  • Interior LED lighting

Types Of 12V Fridges


12V Compressor Fridge

Compressor fridges are the most popular type of refrigeration you’ll come across, and it’s no surprise given their many benefits! Often designed specifically to fit in vans, they still function like your fridge at home - refrigerant vapour is compressed back into liquid form to maintain the cooling cycle. 

These fridges run on 12V, 24V or 240V, but we recommend a 12V model for any campervan conversion.

Pros:
  • Durable and efficient – two things you need in an off-grid adventure vehicle
  • Great cooling power even in hot destinations
  • Low power consumption (ideal for off-grid)
  • Simple to install, as they don’t require any ventilation
  • Simple to run, as they don’t require a DC-to-AC inverter
  • Available in many shapes and sizes to fit in all kinds of vans
  • Run effectively when you’re driving or parked on uneven ground

Cons: 
  • Expensive to purchase
  • You’ll have to set up an electrical or solar system if you plan to camp off-grid
  • The compressor hum might get a little irritating

Recommended For:
  • Full-Time vanlife
  • Overlanding, adventures and part-time vanlife
  • If you're serious about your post-ride beer


12V Thermoelectric Cooler

A thermoelectric fridge transfers heat between two different conductors to either lower or higher its internal temperature. This is achieved with electricity, so you’ll never have to fill it with ice! 

Pros:
  • Budget-friendly, often costing under $200
  • Small yet spacious
  • Don’t have to be level to function properly
  • Can also remove cold air to create warmth

Cons: 
  • Not very energy efficient, using about 4 – 5 amps per hour
  • Can only reach 20–30 degrees below the outside temperature
  • No temperature control
  • Can get noisy
  • Must be wired to your electrical system

Recommended For:
  • Short road trips


3-Way Fridge

3-way or absorption fridges utilise a gas flow heat exchange system to remove hot air and create a cooling effect. This type of fridge are able to run on gas, 12V or 240V power.

Pros:
  • Last a few weeks on one 9kg gas bottle, so are great for off grid camping
  • Long lifespan of about 20 years
  • AES (Automatic Energy Selection) can control power consumption
  • A fridge switch can automatically turn off its power when the van stops
  • Totally silent, as there are no moving bits

Cons: 
  • Must be completely level to function effectively – and flat ground can be hard to find outside of caravan parks
  • Poor efficiency when running on 12V, so will drain your battery quickly
  • Slower cooling process, which is hindered even further in hot weather
  • Must have proper ventilation for heat and gas extraction
  • Safety hazard if any gas enters your living space
  • Paying for gas will add to your long-term costs

Recommended For:
  • Large motorhomes, rather than campervans
  • If you don’t want to recharge your battery or install solar panels

Our Pick: Dometic RM 2356

To find out how Camplify can work with you and your RV, register today here.

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