Off-Grid Fridge for Vanlife: Understanding Technologies and Making the Right Choice
Off-grid refrigeration has been around for a while, but the latest tech advancements in batteries, solar power, and 12V DC fridges makes it better and more accessible than ever. So, having a fridge in your van 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- Chest vs Upright Fridge
Common sense (and most reviews) tells us that the chest-style fridges are more efficient because less cold can “escape” when opening the door (since the door is on top and colder air 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 “looses” more cold than a chest fridge… is that really significant? The fact that people are now going for induction cook top, 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 fridge is a decisive factor.
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 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 it. 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.
Maybe a chest fridge will fit much better in your van layout? Can’t argue with that! That’s a perfectly valid reason to get one!
We’re glad we went with an upright fridge. But many people out there are perfectly happy with their chest fridge. Only YOU know! 🙂
2- Refrigerator Technologies
2.1- 12V Fridge
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, 12V 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 fridge: Compressor and Thermoelectric.
2.1.1- 12V Compressor Fridge
The principle is exactly the same as a “regular” fridge:
In A Nutshell
Have you ever noticed how a propane tank becomes very cold if it is emptied rapidly? A refrigerator uses the same principle:
- The refrigerant (a gas) is compressed by the compressor: its pressure and temperature increase.
- The refrigerant then circulates through the coils in the back of the fridge: its temperature lowers (heat is evacuated inside the fridge’s cabinet) and the gas turn into a liquid.
- 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 of the fridge). Just like the propane tank analogy!
- The refrigerant goes back to the compressor and the cycle starts all over again.
Pros / Cons
Good to know:
Compressors: Most refrigerators (Vitrifrigo, NovaKool, IsoTherm, Norcold, ARB, TruckFridge) use the same SECOP/Danfoss 12V variable speed compressors. 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 12V DC 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.
Chest-Style (cooler) Fridge/Freezer (12V Compressor):
Upright (front-loading) Fridge/Freezer (12V Compressor):
2.1.2- 12V Thermoelectric Fridge
In A Nutshell
A thermoelectric refrigerator relies on the Peltier effect; it creates a temperature difference by transferring heat between two different materials by applying electrical current to them.
Pros / Cons
2.2- 120V Fridge
“Can I just buy a 120V dorm-style mini fridge and use it my van?” That’s a question that constantly re-surface on forums… let’s see:
In A Nutshell
Same principle as 12V compressor fridge (see above).
Pros / Cons
2.3- Absorption Fridge, a.k.a. Two-way /Three-Way (Propane, 120V AC, 12V DC)
As the name suggest, a 3-way fridge can be used with either propane (LPG), 120V AC or 12V DC. A 2-way fridge normally use propane & AC.
In A Nutshell
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.
Pros / Cons
3- What size?
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?
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 any 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 answer!
4- The Ice Cream Gate
Let’s talk freezers. The recommended freezer temperature is 0F (-18°C).
The freezer’s temperature of 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).
Now that we understand how a 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 to install your fridge higher (i.e. not directly on the floor), go for it! It can get irritating having to bend each times to reach for food.
If you go 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:
Going for a propane fridge? Yep, we have a guide and a diagram as well 🙂
While choosing the type and the size of a fridge 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 🙂
Nice To Meet You.
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. We’ve been on the road since then and every day is an opportunity for a new adventure; we’re chasing our dreams and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!