Eating out at restaurants is nice and all, but after a while the bills can really rack up! A fridge is an absolute necessity for sustainable living in a campervan. But with so many fridges on the market, how do you know what fridge is the best choice for your camper van?
In this guide we will look at some of the very best campervan fridges, including 12v compressor fridges, 3-way fridges, and thermoelectric coolboxes.
I'm Shane, I've been teaching people to convert campervans for years; I'm the author of Roaming Home; The Comprehensive Guide for Converting Your Van Into a Campervan, writer of The Van Conversion Newsletter, instructor of The Van Conversion Course over at Udemy. And full-time vanlifer for 4 years!
Now let's jump in and look at 12v camper fridges!
This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click a product link and buy anything from the merchant (Amazon, eBay, etc.) we will receive a commission fee. The price you pay remains the same, affiliate link or not. By using these links, you are helping me to continue writing free educational content!
Note: Before we hop in, you will can to grab yourself a free wiring diagram by signing up to The Van Conversion Newsletter
3 Types of Campervan Fridges
There are three types of campervan fridges, they are;
The 12v compressor fridge
The absorption fridge
The thermoelectric coolbox
In the Roaming Home 2023 study we found that 82% of people have a fridge of some sort in their van.
Of these, 14% are absorption (gas), 86% are compressors.
Note: No matter which fridge you go for, I recommend installing it as low in the van as possible - somewhere dark and cool. This will make the fridge a lot more efficient. Indeed all food in a van should be stored as low down as possible.
These three fridges can easily fit into any campervan. Now let's have a look at these in more detail and find out the best campervan fridge in each category.
The 12V compressor fridge
AC compressor fridge
The compressor fridge is the most common fridge you will find in people’s homes - it is fully electric. In your house you will find a 110V/230V compressor fridge, and while you can use these in a campervan, most people opt not to as they must be run full-time through an inverter.
However, this is not to say that you shouldn’t use one. A common argument against using an AC fridge is that they are less efficient. One reason for this is that you lose some efficiency converting 12V to 110V/230V. However, many anecdotal articles/posts have shown them to actually be slightly more efficient in some cases, despite running through the inverter.
AC fridges are also a lot cheaper than their DC counterparts.
12V DC compressor fridge
In a campervan people more commonly use a 12V compressor fridge which can run directly from your leisure batteries or run through the inverter if you so choose. These fridges are known as 2-way fridges as they can run on either 12V or 110V / 230V.
A compressor fridge is quite economical; the compressor only turns on when the fridge temperature increases above a specified range that you choose with a dial on the fridge. Once the refrigerator cools to the desired temperature, the compressor turns off.
This means that the fridge only draws power from the batteries when the compressor is on for a short period of time.
Apart from being energy-efficient, here are the other benefits of using a compressor fridge:
It is easy to install
It is efficient
It is safe
It consumes low power. (You can use a solar panel or leisure batteries)
More compact than the absorption fridge
It is durable and needs little or no maintenance
It is easy to use
Some models can run on 12V or 110V / 230V (2-way compressor fridge)
Cheaper than absorption fridges
It doesn’t operate silently, it turns on and off throughout the night
Some brands are costly
Some models can use a lot of electricity, especially those with freezers
The two most popular brands of 12V compressor fridge are Dometic and Vitrifrigo.
Front-loading 12V compressor fridges
A front-loading fridge is a permanent installation. It’s very simple to install - a Positive and Negative wire runs straight from the fuse box (or switch panel) to the fridge and you’re good to go!
‘Front-loading’ simply means the front door swings open like a normal house fridge.
The Vitrifrigo C series and Dometic CRX series are the two go-to models.
I have a Vitrifrigo C50i in my van - it’s truly a great fridge/freezer. However, I have found it to use a lot of energy. It’s the single biggest draw on my system by a long mile.
Large, front-loading fridges, with freezers can use a lot of electricity.
In terms of 12v compressor fridges, hands-down the best campervan fridge in this category is the Dometic CRX CoolMatic . It is a fridge / freezer that can also run on mains (230v).
Note: The Dometic CRX CoolMatic is considered one of the best 12v compressor fridges on the market. However, it is pricey. You can find cheaper 12v fridges on Amazon like this one.
Dometic also makes a CD series of fridge, which is a front loading fridge on runners. It’s a great option if you’re tight on space; though it’s smaller and doesn’t come with a freezer.
Top-loading 12V fridges
A top-loading compressor fridge is normally portable; it has a battery you can charge up in case you want to take your fridge out for some exercise. Top-loading fridges have become phenomenally popular in the campervan community; not least because they are a lot more energy efficient than their front-loading counterparts.
The most popular top-loading fridges are the Dometic CF series. The smaller models are fridge only, whilst the bigger models have a fridge and freezer.
Unfortunately, these fridges tend to be very expensive.
However in my opinion, a top-loading fridge freezer is the best option for an off-grid campervan.
Without a shadow of a doubt, the best campervan fridge in this category is the Dometic CFF 45L fridge.
My thoughts: In my opinion, The best campervan fridge is the 12V compressor fridge. And in most use cases will be the best choice! I particularly like the Dometic CFF 45L mentioned just above.
The Absorption fridge
The absorption fridge is also known as a 3-way fridge, so called because it can run on three different energy sources. You can either use LPG gas, a mains electric supply (240V), or the 12V (batteries).
The nifty thing about 3-way absorption fridges is that you can usually get them in bigger sizes than 12V compressor fridges or thermoelectric cool boxes - so if you have a big family it could be perfect for you!
One of the biggest pros of using the 3-way fridge is that it runs silently. This is because it runs on gas. The silent aspect of absorption fridges is not to be understated; to be honest, I have found the noise during the night of my compressor fridge to be a little annoying.
The Dometic RM series and the Vitrifrigo VTR series are the best on the market. They use propane, electricity (12V / 230V), and an electric / gas thermostat. SMAD and Norcold are two other well-known brands of absorption fridge.
It can run on 12V, 240V, and LPG gas
It runs silently
It comes in larger sizes
They are quite expensive to purchase
Must keep LPG topped up in the van (also costs money)
It needs more expert installation (gas)
It requires routine maintenance and servicing
It produces more heat than the 12V compressor fridge
It needs good ventilation and a flue to the outside
It sometimes experiences difficulty in hot weather
Safety: 3-way fridges run on gas. And this makes them very efficient and durable. On the other hand, gas comes with its risks. Gas installation is tricky. You must exercise great care while installing the gas components of the 3-way fridge. Any mistake or negligence can lead to gas leaks which exposes you to dangers like fire.
Absorption fridge installation
An absorption fridge is an LPG gas appliance; as such the utmost care must be taken during the installation (and ideally installed by a professional).
An absorption fridge requires a flue (exhaust for the LPG) and two vents: one at the bottom, and one at the top.
The thermoelectric coolbox is the best fridge if you are on a very tight budget.
The Dometic thermoelectric cooler is one of the best campervan coolers in this category.
Thermoelectric coolboxes work in a simple way. They keep your food cool by heat reduction. A thermoelectric coolbox uses electricity to remove any hot air from the inside of the coolbox. This makes the temperature in the coolbox up to 20°C cooler than the temperature or air outside in the campervan.
Because of this, it is the best campervan fridge if you are travelling for a short time, in a cool location and want to save money.
It is durable
It is environmentally friendly
It is easy to install
It runs silently
It comes in smaller sizes (are compact)
It runs on dual voltages; 12V and 240V
Not as efficient
Not good in warmer climates
The Dometic TCX series is the best cooler in this category.
Last up we have the coolbox. Just a plain old cooler; no electricity or gas. These are really not a long term solution - but can do the job for short stints in your van. Make sure you keep it in a cool and dark location in your van.
The best known brands are Yeti, Igloo, and Coleman.
Whatever fridge you end up getting, it should have these features;
Handle road vibrations sufficiently
And that's about it! Everything you should know about the best campervan fridges!
Don't forget to subscribe to The Van Conversion Newsletter for everything you need to get started with your own van conversion (I'll send you a free wiring diagram when you join).
If you're looking for some guidance with your van conversion, you might be interested in Roaming Home; The Comprehensive Guide for Converting Your Van Into a Campervan. In the 380-page book (or ebook), you'll learn directly from me how to convert a van into your dream home - no prior experience needed!
Until next time,