12V Refrigerator for Camper Van & RV – 12 Volt Fridge Guide

12V Refrigerator for Camper Van & RV – 12 Volt Fridge Guide

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12V refrigerators have been around for a while, but the latest tech advancements in batteries, solar power, and 12 volt fridges make them better and more accessible than ever. So having a fridge in your camper van or RV is a no brainer! There are still a few questions to answer though: chest-style (cooler) or upright (front-loading)? 12V or propane? What size? Grab a (cold) drink and read on!

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1- Top vs Front Loading 12V Refrigerator

Dometic CFX75DZW 12v Fridge Freezer Cooler Portable Vanlife
Top Loading. See on Amazon.
12v refrigerator upright (Vitrifrigo)
Front-Loading. See on Campervan-HQ.com.

1.1- Efficiency of 12v refrigerator

Common sense (and most reviews) tell us that the chest-style 12v refrigerators are more efficient because less cold can “escape” when opening the door (since the door is on top and colder air is at the bottom).

  • We’re OK with this logic, but it doesn’t take into account the thermal mass: all the stuff in the fridge “accumulates” cold, and opening the door of an almost-full fridge isn’t as bad as it seems.
  • But let’s suppose an upright fridge “loses” more cold than a chest fridge… is that really significant? The fact that people are now going for induction cooktops, desktop gaming computers, Vitamix, etc. in their van is a pretty good testimony that off-the-grid power is not as scarce as it used to be!

Therefore, we don’t think that efficiency of chest VS upright is a decisive factor. 

1.2- Organization

What really matters here is your SANITY! Do you prefer to access/organize all your food in a “box” (from top, chest-style) or in a proper 12 volt fridge (front-loading, upright)? If you plan on living full-time in your van, ask yourself: Would you live in a house where your fridge is a big box? Yes, you can stuff more food in a chest fridge, but then it can get irritating to manage. So our common sense tells us that for small needs, a chest refrigerator is the way to go; for larger needs, an upright refrigerator is better.

1.3- Layout

Maybe a chest 12v refrigerator will fit much better in your camper van layout? Can’t argue with that! That’s a perfectly valid reason to get one!

Faroutride Kitchen 3
We enjoy our upright 12v refrigerator for our full-time Vanlife.

We’re glad we went with an upright 12 volt fridge. But many people out there are perfectly happy with their chest fridge. Only YOU know! 🙂

2- Refrigerator Technologies

2.1- 12V Refrigerator

Battery, solar, and refrigerator technologies have come a looooong way, so it’s now totally possible to power a fridge exclusively from the sun! In fact, 12 volt fridges have become the preferred type for people living off the grid. Because it operates at 12V DC, there is no efficiency loss associated with conversion to 120V AC. There are two types of 12V refrigerator: Compressor and Thermoelectric.

2.1.1- Compressor 12v Refrigerator

Have you ever noticed how a propane tank becomes very cold if it is emptied rapidly? A 12v refrigerator uses the same principle:

  1. The refrigerant (a gas) is compressed by the compressor: its pressure and temperature increase.
  2. The refrigerant then circulates through the coils in the back of the fridge: its temperature lowers (heat is evacuated from inside the fridge’s cabinet) and the gas turns into a liquid.
  3. The refrigerant then circulates through the coils inside the fridge: as pressure lowers and the liquid evaporates into a gas, heat is absorbed by the refrigerant (cooling down the air in the fridge). Just like the propane tank analogy!
  4. The refrigerant goes back to the compressor and the cycle starts all over again.

In other words, heat is absorbed from inside the fridge and is released externally in to the cabinet housing the unit; that’s why proper ventilation in your cabinet is so important for your 12 volt fridge efficiency!

  • Low power consumption (ideal for off-grid)
  • Highly efficient (cold!)
  • No need to be level (real-world proofed)
  • No DC-to-AC inverter required
  • Expensive to buy
Use for:
  • Full-Time VanLife
  • Overlanding, Adventures, and Part-Time VanLife
  • If you’re serious about your post-ride beer
Good to know:

Compressors: Most 12v refrigerators (Vitrifrigo, NovaKool, IsoTherm, Norcold, ARB, TruckFridge) use the same SECOP/Danfoss 12V variable speed compressor. They’re the benchmark in the industry and are known for their high-efficiency, high-quality products. On the other hand, Dometic uses their own compressors (which are fine too).

12V/120V: Most 12 volt fridges can also be powered from 120V AC. This is possible because they have a built-in inverter that converts 120V AC to 12V DC. In other words, even if plugged in to 120V, the fridge still works with 12V DC. As you know, using an inverter is not very efficient, so power your fridge from 12V DC when off the grid (instead of using your inverter).

Power Consumption: A compressor fridge doesn’t run constantly; it cycles as needed. A refrigerator generally runs between 30%-40% of the time, depending. For example, if a fridge pulls 4 amps and has 35% cycle, the power consumption is (4A x 24h x 0.35=) 33.6Ah daily.

Top Loading 12V Compressor Refrigerators:
High End
Dometic CFX 12V Compressor Fridge Vanlife Cooler Chest Type
Dometic Portable 12v Fridge/Freezer (CFX3 Series)
Alpicool 12v cooler
Alpicool Portable 12v Portable Fridge
Front Loading 12V Refrigerators:
That’s what we personally have in our van:
Novakool R5810 12v Fridge 12V RV Campervan
Novakool R5810 12v refrigerator.
Other Quality Brands To Consider:

(TruckFridge is a reasonably priced, good quality option!)

2.1.2- Thermoelectric 12v Refrigerator

A thermoelectric 12v refrigerator relies on the Peltier effect; it creates a temperature difference by transferring heat between two different materials by applying electrical current to them.

  • DC Powered (such as 12V socket in your car)
  • No need to be level
  • Cheaper to buy
  • Not so efficient
  • Not cold enough
Use for:
  • Keeping your food cool in your car (12V socket) during transport
  • Occasional Picnics
Igloo Thermoelectric 12 volt Cooler 26 Qt
Igloo Thermoelectric Cooler, 26 QT (0.87CF)
Coleman Thermoelectric 12 volt Fridge
Coleman Portable Thermoelectric Fridge, 40 QT (1.34CF)

2.2- 120V Refrigerator

Can I just buy a 120V dorm-style mini fridge and use it my van?” That’s a question that constantly re-surfaces on forums… let’s see:

  • Cheap
  • Cold enough
  • High power consumption
  • A DC-to-AC inverter must be used at all times, which means efficiency loss (wasted power)
  • Might not pass the test of time (they’re not made to withstand high vibrations)
Use for:
  • Because it’s too inefficient for true off-grid applications, we don’t recommend it. We acknowledge possible exceptions for low budgets or if you are plugged in to shore most of the time.
Danby 4_4 Cu Ft Fridge 120V
Danby 4.4 cu.ft 12v refrigerator


2.3- Absorption Fridge, a.k.a. Two-way /Three-Way (Propane, 120V AC, 12V DC)

As the name suggests, a 3-way fridge can be used with either propane (LPG), 120V AC or 12V DC. A 2-way fridge normally uses propane & AC.

Propane: A propane flame heats a chamber holding a solution of water and ammonia until the liquid boils. The ammonia gas rises to another chamber, the condenser, where it cools back into a liquid.

AC/DC (absorption): Absorption fridges do not use a compressor on AC/DC. Absorption refrigerators change the gas into a liquid by employing only heat with no moving parts other than the refrigerant gas, which goes around in a circle of tubes.

  • Cold enough while working from propane
  • Must be level to operate (within approx. 3°, check your manual)
  • Not very cold or efficient in absorption mode (AC or DC)
Use for:
  • If solar is not an option for you and propane is your main energy source.
Dometic 3 Way Fridge
Dometic 3 cu.ft 3-Way 12v Fridge
Norcold 3 Way Fridge (12v, 120v, propane)
Nordcold 3.7 cu.ft. 3-Way 12v Fridge


3- What size of 12v Refrigerator?

This is the part that gets subjective and debatable. There is no “right” size, it depends on:

  • Your cooking habits (do you prepare everything from basic ingredients or do you eat transformed food?)
  • How long you want to be autonomous (no trip to the grocery store)?
  • Do you buy large-size items?
  • etc.

We personally owns a Novakool R5810: 5.8 cubic feet (including a small freezer). We live full time in the van, and we wouldn’t want anything smaller than this. We (to be read as “Isabelle”) prepare almost everything from scratch (no transformed food), so we like to have all the basic ingredients available in the fridge. Indeed, with our Atwood Range (faroutride.com/wedgewood-vision-range-review) and decent countertop space, we didn’t “downsize” our cooking. We still eat the same as when we lived in a house.

That being said, most of the full-timers we meet have a smaller fridge and seem fine. Once again, there is not a single correct answer!

4- The Ice Cream Gate

Let’s talk freezers. The recommended freezer temperature is 0F (-18°C).

The freezer’s temperature in a “regular” household fridge can be adjusted independently from the fridge zone; that’s not the case with most RV fridges as there is only one set of coils inside the fridge. These coils are located in the freezer, so, in fact, the freezer is just a “colder zone” than the fridge.

For example, if we adjust our NovaKool fridge to 36F (2°C), the freezer temperature will be at around 28F (-2°C). If we were to adjust the cold setting to get the freezer down to 0F, the fridge would be below freezing temperature…

It means we can keep frozen food (meat, veggies, etc.) in our van, but we can’t “deep-freeze” them for long-term conservation (months). Ice cream freezes at 20F (-6.7°C), so no ice cream treats for us.

If that’s important to you, get a fridge/freezer with a “true” freezer compartment (such as the Dometic CFX3).

Ice Cream Melted

5- Installing a 12v Refrigerator

5.1- Cabinet

Now that we understand how a 12v refrigerator works, no need to say that proper ventilation is the key to efficiency, so make sure to plan for it when building your cabinet. How much ventilation? If you bought a good quality fridge, it should have recommendations in the owner’s manual; read it! We went for hole-in-the-floor design (but “regular” ventilation is just fine as well):

Height: If your layout allows for installation of your 12 volt fridge higher (i.e. not directly on the floor), go for it! It can get irritating having to bend each time to reach for food.

5.2- Wiring your 12v Refrigerator

If you opt for a 12V fridge, you’ll obviously have to wire it to your electrical system. We have a comprehensive guide about designing your electrical system (solar power, alternator & shore power, sizing the components, making safe connections, etc.) and a wiring diagram for download:

Design Your Electrical System

1- Build Your Knowledge
  1. In A Nutshell
  2. Battery Bank
  3. Charge Sources
  4. 12V DC Loads
  5. 120V AC Loads
  6. System Monitoring
  7. Electrical Wiring
  8. Fuses and Breakers
  9. Short/Long Term Storage
  10. Power “Generators”
  11. Real World Data
  12. If We Had To Start Over
  13. And More!
2- Size Your System
Size your system (battery, solar, etc) to your needs (12V & 120V loads, etc) and generate your items list.
3- Follow Your Wiring Diagram
Interactive-Wiring-Diagram-High-Power (V1-REV-A) with Victron Multiplus
Customizable Wiring Diagram with built-in calculators: wire gauge, fuses/breakers, wire lengths, terminal counts, etc!


While choosing the type and the size of a 12v refrigerator is a personal matter and can be debated, there’s no doubt that 12V DC compressor fridges are much more efficient and we, therefore, highly recommend them for true off-the-grid living.

That’s it folks!

Thanks for reading 🙂

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About us



Hello! We’re Isabelle and Antoine 🙂 In 2017, we sold our house (and everything in it), quit our engineering careers, and moved into our self-built campervan. Every day is an opportunity for a new adventure... We’re chasing our dreams, and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!

Heads Up: Exclusive Deals!

Thanks to all of you, we managed to negociate group discount on these. Strength in numbers!

13 thoughts on “12V Refrigerator for Camper Van & RV – 12 Volt Fridge Guide”

  1. Hi guys,
    Big fan of your content and just finished building our van. Your blog was an immense help.

    We bought the same fridge and love it. One question though. The fan cycles on/off a lot and is a little distracting at night. I remember when I installed it, it said the fan was actually just an option and we could unplug it. I’m pretty hesitant to do that because I know fridges need ventilation but if it doesn’t cause additional wear and tear, I would do it.
    Have you had your fan connected throughout the years? Or have you heard of other full timers disconnecting their fan? Maybe I should just learn to live with it…
    Thanks, Robby

    • Hi,
      I doubt the fan can be / should be disconnect. It plays an essential role at dissipating the heat. I’d ask to the manufacturer before proceeding at least.
      We just learned to live with it, you get use to it 🙂

      Cheers, Antoine

  2. We just bought an old Jayco pop-up trailer, there Is no fridge in it. I am wondering what’s the best way to get one installed, or even it’s possible at all. On the other hand, we have power outlets in the camper that can get power from propane or battery. I am planning on running it on propane and plug something like alpi cool in the trailer. Would that work? Please help

  3. So I’m converting a retired Ambulance (type 2) into a mini 4×4 RV. It already has a good micro-inverter and a battery bank set up for 3 aux. batteries.

    Since I already have a beefy 120v system, would recommend in this circumstance to just go with a basic 120v compressor fridge?

  4. Well back in2004 we bought a shiny new camping trailer. It has an absorbsion fridge. It has been running non stop. Used it over the 4 of July weekend. On Monday following we bought a new trailer…
    It has a 12 volt compressor fridge.

    While the new one cools very well and quickly it uses up to battery in about a day and a half.

    The old rig will run for a month or two on a tank of propane. While it only archives about 5 F in the freezer it will keep ice cream just right for serving.

    The new one gets to -10F and ice cream is a pain to scoop.

    Both fridge sections seem to stay around 35 to 38F.

    I just hope the old one gives my daughter and hubby many more years….. and the new sees the lover and me on out. Both have a microwave so we will get the ice cream right for serving.

  5. Hi guys!
    You mention that «If your layout allows to install your fridge higher, go for it!» How would you then deal with the ventilation? I really think what you have done with the hole through the floor is a great way to ventilate, and I wouldn’t want to cut a hole in the side of the van 🙂

  6. As always, thanks for all the content. We just bought our Nova Kool yesterday. I noticed the compressor is variable speed via changing out a resistor. Have you ever experienced a need to run your compressor at medium or high speed? Our build will be similar to yours…..if we ever get the van. Supposed to be built May 11 but I’m certain that won’t happen due to factory shut down simce March 19…..but, we are gathering materials/tools and planning. All part of thr journey ‍♀️‍♂️

  7. Did you ever thought about a conversion of a standard 120/230v fridge to 12v
    I know Danfoss have diy kits.
    I found this guy have done a conversion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yK8X_8NXpcQ
    I think it would be cheaper and there is more to choose from, and also A+++ isolated fridges, calculated from the 120/230v compressor of course.

  8. Hi guys,

    Finally a decision. We are now going for a chest style fridge, probably the DOMETIC CF-50. I guess, bending down to peer up into a normal refrigerator seemed more painful than opening up the top and just looking down. Plus, a lifetime of using chest coolers while camping means we are sort of used to dealing with stuff on stuff. Usually, the stuff is on the same stuff below (beers on beers, cokes on cokes, mustard on mayo, opps, some memory needed). No ice will be a nice change.

    I am putting the refrigerator transverse (long axis side to side) on a slider under the bed, so we can leave there or pull it out for more intimate conversations. The switch for the water pump controls a light over the fridge, nice. The bed is high enuf that we can open with no problem.

    One thing, I had to regress the end of the stove cabinet to make room for the slider. Not sure my meaning is correct, but the refrigerator slider won’t fit in the aisle unless we make room. Does that make sense?

    Anyway, cheers, and a Happy Canadian New Year.


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