Camper van fridge – 10 things to consider before buying

These 10 considerations will help you determine what van fridge is best for you from. Then you can have fresh food and cold beer wherever you go!
isotherm fridge in mark the green van

Updated June 11, 2020.

A fridge is one of those creature comforts most folks want in their van. However, some folks do opt for a regular cooler full of ice instead of powering a fridge. If you’re short on cash, already have a cooler and are itching to move into your van, go for it! On the other hand, if you have room in your budget, I recommend buying a fridge. Finding and buying ice for a cooler takes both time and money.

Although you can buy any ole fridge and stick it in your van, not all fridges are created equal. So, we’ll go over ten different things to consider before buying a van fridge.

Contents

  1. Efficiency
  2. Insulation
  3. DC vs AC
  4. Van fridge style
  5. Fridge only or dual zone
  6. Portable vs permanently installed
  7. Van fridge type
  8. Size
  9. Weight
  10. Ventilation

1. Efficiency

battery monitor
An efficient fridge helps conserve battery power.

Many of the things we’ll go over below affect efficiency. So then why does efficiency have its own section? Because it’s that important. Your leisure battery will likely power your fridge. That battery has a finite amount of power. Sure, you can charge it via solar or your van’s alternator. But if you use more power than you can put back in, you’ll run out of power sooner or later.

When checking out different fridges, look for the power or energy consumption. Some will give the consumption in watts, others in amps. For instance, our fridge’s power consumption is 360W/24hr. That means it uses 360W of power every 24 hours. But we care more about amps than we do about watts. So, it’s time to do a little math. Power (P) = current (I) x voltage (V). Our battery is 12V and the fridge uses 360W. If we plug in those numbers and solve for current, we get 30A. That’s efficient for a fridge!

Now on to the other nine things to consider before buying a van fridge!

2. Insulation

side view of van fridge door
It’s not easy to see, but the profile view of our van fridge door has two inches of insulation to keep the cold in.

You’ve likely never paid attention to how insulated your residential fridge is. Why should you? If the fridge keeps your stuff cold, there’s no reason to think about it. But from an efficiency standpoint, insulation is a big deal. A residential fridge doesn’t need to be super-efficient. It’s plugged into the grid and has a seemingly endless power supply. The fridge can work harder to keep your stuff cool without you batting an eyelash. But not a van fridge!

We already talked about how important efficiency is. Therefore, I do not recommend using a residential fridge in your van. Not even a small dorm fridge. Instead, look for a marine or camper specific fridge. These bad boys have more insulation to make them more efficient. Additionally, they’re more rugged and can withstand the rattling of the road. However, they are a lot more expensive, but trust me, they are worth it. Popular brands to look at are:

Using a camper/marine fridge over a residential one is the easiest and biggest way to save amps. But that’s not all! How you power your fridge also plays a big part

3. DC vs AC

renogy 170ah lithium iron phosphate battery
Running a fridge on DC is much more efficient than AC.

All marine and camper specific fridges come in 12 VDC. It’s more efficient to run any load straight off the battery than off an inverter. That’s because you lose power in the conversion process when using an inverter. And there’s no point in wasting power if you don’t have to. But some van fridges can also run on 110 VAC. Now the question is whether to buy one that runs on both DC and AC. The answer is complicated.

Both DC and AC

If you have a DC fridge, it runs on DC. If you have an AC fridge it runs on AC. Makes sense, right? However, when a fridge can use both DC and AC, it’s still either a DC or an AC fridge. Huh? For example, our fridge runs on either, but it’s a DC fridge. This means that the fridge itself has an inverter that converts AC to DC. So, it only uses DC to operate. They call this a DC native fridge, and it is most efficient when running on DC. Whereas ones that only use AC are AC native and most efficient when running on AC. Now that we know how DC/AC fridges work, why would you want one that could run off both?

Jeremy and I have two shore power connections. One charges the battery. The other is for a 110 VAC power strip. So, when we’re parked at a place we can plug in, our fridge uses shore power instead of the battery. As a result, our battery cycles less and will last longer. However, when we’re cruising around the fridge uses DC. We get the efficiency of DC when traveling (DC native fridge) and the convenience of AC when we’re parked. But if you buy an AC native fridge, it might be more efficient to run the inverter to power it even when you’re on the road.

Moving on

Okay, we’ve made it through the two biggest things that affect efficiency. So, as we go through the next six considerations, feel free to take the efficiency stuff with a grain of salt. Other than ventilation the differences in efficiency might not matter to you. Let’s be honest, we’re talking a few amps a day. Like the difference between paying $2.29 or $2.28 per gallon of gas. However, the next six considerations cover more than just efficiency.

4. Van fridge style

Before we get into the three different styles, let’s talk about one reason why the style of van fridge matters. You guessed it! Efficiency. Once the items in the fridge are cool, the fridge works only to keep the air inside it cool. But when you open the door, some or all of that cold air escapes. As a result, the fridge must work harder to cool the air.

If you have a can of soda in the fridge, there’s a lot of air volume that can escape. Therefore, there’s a lot of air volume your fridge needs to cool when you open and shut the door. However, when you pack a fridge full of stuff it displaces the air. That means there’s less air volume to escape. And that means the fridge doesn’t work as hard when you open and shut the door. In other words, the more food in the fridge, more efficient it is.

But the fridge style also matters because of:

  • The direction the door/lid opens
  • Ease of access
  • Organizing your food and beverages

Chest

dometic chest van fridge exploded view
Dometic has many chest fridges to choose from. (image credit)

A chest fridge opens from the top like a cooler but with power. In case you didn’t know, cold air sinks. As a result, chest fridges do a great job of keeping cold air in when you open them, making them more efficient. Another plus is you can use a chest fridge like a regular cooler in a pinch. Add ice and you’re good to go!

Many come with dividers and/or baskets to help with organizing food and drinks. Folks love chest fridges because you can cram them full of food. Thus, resulting in higher efficiency. On the other hand, other folks dislike large chest fridges because they think it’s harder to keep food organized. They feel like you spend too much time rooting around in the fridge looking for what you need.

Now for the main disadvantage. Because it opens from the top, you need enough room above the fridge to open it. Depending on the brand, the lid can hinge from the side or the back. Since most chest fridges are rectangular, a side hinge requires less space above it open. However, there are two ways to work around this and still maximize space. One, build a pull-out sliding shelf or drawer for the chest fridge (aka fridge slide). This gives you access without sacrificing space above it. Two, put the fridge in a spot where you wouldn’t put anything above it anyway. For example, between the seats in the cab.

Upright

small fridge in the van
We love our Isotherm CR 65.

An upright fridge gives your van more of a “home” feel because it’s reminiscent of a residential fridge. There are door shelves and a moveable shelf or shelves in the main compartment. However, an upright van fridge also has a door latch to keep it closed while moving.

Some folks find it easier to access food in an upright vice a chest fridge. This is because the food isn’t stacked on top of each other as much. But other folks think it’s harder. Many folks put their uprights on the ground. So, it isn’t as easy to look or rummage around in the fridge without being on your hands and knees. Therefore, Jeremy and I put our upright fridge up on a shelf. Problem solved. 

Now, let’s talk about our favorite topic – efficiency. Some claim it’s harder to cram an upright full of food to maximize efficiency. Or that cramming an upright full makes it harder to access the food vice a chest fridge. Jeremy and I never cram our upright full of food. And even if we had a chest fridge, that wouldn’t change. So, it didn’t matter to us. Lastly, more cool air can escape from an upright when you open the door. Therefore, it’s a little less efficient than a chest fridge.

Drawer

isotherm drawer fridge
The Isotherm drawer fridge looks just like a regular upright, but with a drawer instead! OMG! (image credit)

A drawer fridge looks like an upright, but instead of the door swinging out, it’s like the face of a big drawer. Like a chest fridge, the drawer fridge has baskets and compartments to organize your food and beverages. And because the drawer pulls out, it gives you the easy access of a chest but with the space savings of an upright. Whoop whoop! Best of both worlds! However, as far as efficiency goes, the drawer fridge is like the upright. More cold air can escape when opened, making it little less efficient than chest fridge. Guess you can’t win ‘em all.

But the big kick in the pants is that the same size drawer fridge will cost you twice as much as its upright cousin. WTF?! Yeah. I wanted one until I saw the price. These efficient little van fridges are expensive enough. As much as I like the design, the price tag wasn’t worth it.

5. Fridge only or dual zone

small freezer compartment in van fridge
Our itty bitty freezer doesn’t hold much!

Other than ice and ice cream, I don’t see why anyone living in a van needs more than a fridge. Maybe pizza rolls… However, those are good enough reasons on their own to have a freezer. Our Isotherm has an itty-bitty freezer compartment. And it came with an itty-bitty ice cube tray too. The point is, we can have ice, ice cream and pizza rolls. Okay, maybe not a pint of ice cream and pizza rolls at the same time, but I’ll take what I can get.

What’s sad is not all freezer compartments get cold enough to freeze. I know, what’s the point then, right? So, if a freezer is important to you, do your research before you buy. If you’re looking for something bigger than our tiny four-liter freezer, check out Dometic. Their dual zone chest fridges have two separately cooled compartments. And they’re capable of freezing down to -7°F.

6. Portable vs permanently installed

A big advantage of a chest fridge is portability. Want to move it outside so you can have cold beer by the campfire? Do it! Additionally, if it’s cold outside you can put your chest fridge out there for greater efficiency. I’d say the only real advantage of a permanently installed fridge is it’s harder to steal if someone breaks in your van.

7. Van fridge types

Alright, this is another big one. There’s only one type of fridge recommended for van life – a compressor fridge. And once you read through all three types, you’ll see why.

Compressor

our isotherm van fridge before install
Our Isotherm is a compressor fridge.

Ever wonder how a residential fridge works? It uses a compressor and refrigerant. The compressor, well, it compresses the refrigerant and increases the pressure. Then the refrigerant, which is in gas form and hot, is pushed into the coils on the outside of the fridge. When the hot gas meets the cooler, ambient air, it turns into a high-pressure liquid. Next, the liquid refrigerant travels through the fridge and cools it down by absorbing heat. During this process it goes from liquid back to gas and returns to the compressor to do the whole thing over again.

Also, the compressor doesn’t run continuously. Instead, it cycles on and off as needed. As a result, compressor van fridges are efficient with low power use. Another advantage is they don’t need to be level to operate properly, unlike our next fridge type. Additionally, marine and camper specific compression fridges are available in 12 VDC.

Three-way absorption

absorption fridge in an airstream
Three-way absorption fridge in an Airstream.

These types of fridges are common in RVs. They run on AC, DC, and propane. However, they are only efficient when running on propane. They are downright inefficient when running on electricity. So, if you’re worried about power consumption, a three-way fridge might be for you. Keep in mind the cost of propane though.

But these are the fridges that need to be level to operate. That’s one of the reasons why you see RVers jacking up different corners of the rig to get it level. They’re not only doing it for comfort. It’s not easy to level out a van or always find level parking. Therefore, three-way absorption fridges aren’t recommended for camper van use.

Thermoelectric

dometic thermoelectric cooler
The Dometic thermoelectric cooler is good for road trips but not full-time van life. (image credit)

A thermoelectric fridge/cooler uses electricity to either heat or cool the inside of the “cooler.” They are DC powered and designed to plug into your vehicle’s 12V outlet. Remember when that outlet was a cigarette lighter? No? Am I showing my age? Anyway, I digress. Thermoelectric fridges/coolers also aren’t recommended for camper van use for two reasons. One, they are not efficient. Two, the most they can cool is 40°F below ambient temperature. That’s right, if it’s 90°F inside your van, a thermoelectric fridge can only get the fridge temperature down to 50°F. But, if you only plan on keeping some sodas and beer cold, this might be all you need!

8. Size

This is likely a master of the obvious one, but the larger the van fridge, the more power it uses. Duh. But that’s not the only reason size matters. How much food and/or beverages do you want to keep cool? A small fridge takes up less space and uses less power. But if you can only keep a dozen eggs and a six-pack of beer cold, is it even worth it? That’s up to you!

When I first started looking at van fridges, I was leaning towards a 35L fridge. Jeremy said there was no point in having a fridge if it’s so small we can’t put anything in it. The man had a point. Finally, we settled on a 65L fridge.

9. Weight

How much the fridge weighs isn’t super important when selecting one. Adding or saving 20 pounds by selecting one fridge over another likely doesn’t matter to you. But what should matter to you is where in the van that weight is going. I’m talking about weight distribution. Make sure to take that into account when designing the layout of your van.

10. Ventilation

van fridge in Mark with mesh ventilation on the side
Because of the location, we used mesh on the side of the middle of the cabinet to ensure adequate fridge ventilation.

Alright, the last important efficiency consideration – ventilation. Remember when we talked about how a compressor fridge works? The refrigerant transfers the heat from the fridge to the air outside the fridge. If your van fridge has poor ventilation, the air around the fridge gets hot. This means the fridge needs to work harder to keep the inside cool. That’s why residential fridges have extra space behind them. Additionally, most have a little gap all the way around the fridge that helps with ventilation.

When it comes to permanently installed van fridges, it’s a little trickier to ensure adequate ventilation. First, most permanently installed fridges are “built-in.” This means you build them into a cabinet with no gap around the sides. So, you don’t want to install your fridge into a fully enclosed cabinet space. To get around this, all you need is a vent from the cabinet to either inside or outside the van. Which one you choose likely depends on where you install the fridge.

For example, let’s say your fridge is under the kitchen counter along the wall of the van. It makes more sense to vent to the outside. Whereas we opted to put our fridge on its own shelf, so we put a screen on one side and called it good.

Ventilation for portable fridges is only a big concern if you put the fridge in a closed-up cabinet. For instance, you build a pull-out drawer for a chest fridge in your kitchen cabinet. Then it needs ventilation same as a permanently installed one. But if you put a portable chest fridge sitting between the seats, you pretty much good to go! As long as the fridge vents aren’t covered, that is.

Which van fridge works best for you?

Is a portable or permanently installed fridge more your style? Do you want a freezer or is a fridge enough? Or do you plan to use a cooler instead? Let us know in the comments!

Wondering which van fridge is best? An in-depth fridge comparison is coming at some point. There’s just so much to write about and so little time! Don’t want to miss out? Sign up for our newsletter down in the footer! 

Need help with your van layout? Check out our Camper Van Layout and Design guide!

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Christina

Christina

I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made vanlife an easy choice. The leap into vanlife and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to give you vanlife your way, and the highway.

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