5 Things You Need to Know About Portable 12v Fridge/Freezers

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We're four years into ownership of a 12v refrigerator, specifically an Engel MT35, and there's no shortage of questions about it from our readers who've never seen such a critter. The majority, of course, wonder what the downsides are. Is it really worth while for camping and adventure road trips? Won't it kill your battery? What's wrong with a cooler and ice? Can it really keep popsicles frozen?

Unquestionably, a good fridge/freezer is going to cost you close to $1000, maybe less, maybe more. I know, I know. It's as painful as a root canal. Few people are prepared to spend that much on keeping food cold when the alternative is $5.00 worth of bagged ice that'll do the job for three days. So, yes, there's a chance that fridge ownership makes you the equivalent of a hipster scrambling to keep up with the cool kids. But that's on the surface. We bought ours because we were spending more time in far reaches of Mexico for extended periods, and were taking longer road trips so the fridge seemed like a good idea. And it was.

So, let's get to what you came for:

1. Fridges need less power than you think, and they don't kill your battery

Of course, each brand and model comes with their own performance nuances. Taking from the results of a test performed by Graham Jackson of Overland Journal (Summer 2010 issue), the four significant brands out there (Whynter, ARB, Engel, and National Luna) consume between .83 amps (ARB, National Luna) and 3.33 amps (Whynter). Keep in mind that a fridge doesn't run at all times, either. That means, for example, your 55 amp hour Optima yellow top battery will power the worst performer (Whynter) for about 16 hours with your engine off if the fridge ran non-stop. And it won't run non-stop. The ARB and National Luna will stay alive for over 60 hours, same conditions. Sure, that's not the whole story, but why bore the crud out of you with windy blather about amps and wire gauge and all that jazz?

Additionally, these fridges won't just keep things cool. No way, you paid dearly for one and it'll hold up its end of the bargain. You can keep popsicles frozen so solid they'll stick to your tongue on the first lick, even on a beach in Mexico in June. You won't be saying that about an $80 electric cooler.

About Battery Connection and Battery Protection -
Simple. They connect through a standard cigarette lighter style plug. Relieved? They're easy. And smart: don't worry about killing your battery.  Fridges from ARB and National Luna just shut off when they sense the battery is getting too low, and you can adjust that setting yourself if you want.

And the good ones also come with a cord that lets you plug into a 110v socket in your home.  Having a little bash at the house?  Pack the little fridge with Capri Suns for the kids, or jello shots Coke Zeros for your buds. Or popsicles. Or whatever.

2. Yes, you can remove a fridge and put it back in with ease

And it doesn't take a fleet of tools to do so. Since the electrical connection is through a standard automotive power outlet, which most modern cars, SUVs and minivans have in the rear cargo area, it's a piece of cake. Fridges weigh over 40 lbs, though. While I built a custom cabinet in the bed of our truck for our fridge, that's only what made sense for us at the time. Putting a fridge in your car doesn't need to be a weekend project; just put it in the back and plug it in.

3. Fridges are far better today than they were 5 years ago

When we bought our Engel four years ago, it was the best one money could buy on the U.S. market. But times have changed. New models from ARB and National Luna (for example) crank up the competition with simple features like digital temperature setting, integrated thermometer readings, and internal LED lights. The old Engel we have uses a 5-point dial for setting the temperature, which is just a scale of cold, not an actual temperature setting.  As in, if you have a nice new ARB or National Luna, you tell the unit you want it maintain a temperature of 30 degrees, or 45 degrees, or whatever makes your popsicle hard you happy. On our four year old model, we just choose a setting between one and five. Five being the coldest. Get it? For what it's worth, we've never cranked this baby beyond 3.

You'd think that insulation would have improved, but again, according to the test performed by Overland Journal, the old Engel unit held in the cold the most efficiently during the shut down test.

4. Fridges are useful for everyday life
  1. Picture yourself going to the grocery store to buy ice cream. Oh, and then you want to go see a movie after. Go ahead, it won't melt.
  2. Birthday bash at the house: use the cooler and ice for Cokes and juices, but use your 110v power cord on your snazzy fridge to keep a bunch of popsicles on the back patio.
  3. Anyone still pumping breast milk? Here's a solution to keeping it chilled if you pump away from home, or need to bring some along.
  4. You know how you usually throw away food that's been soaked in your cooler-o-ice at the end of a trip? Those days are over. Food stays much cleaner and fresher in a fridge.
5. What's the difference between a fridge and a (much cheaper) Coleman PowerChill?

A world. The Engel, Whynter, ARB, and National Luna units are refrigerators and freezers that operate independently of the ambient temperature. The PowerChill is a powered chiller that will only handle 40 degrees cooler than the ambient temperature - on a 100 degree day, the best you can hope for is 60 degrees for your lunch meat, cheese, juice. No chance for those precious popsicles.

Chris Shontz and his Engel ARB National Luna fridge freezer 12 volt in a jeep
"After I pound these Cheeze-Its," he says, "I'm diving into the fridge for a tasty cold popsicle. They see me rollin' . . ." 
You know the rest.
(Photo courtesy Chris Shontz)

Comments   

 
Mark
+11 / -2
# Mark 2011-07-13 10:51
Couple more details just for fun.

Fridges also have interior baskets, so you're not dealing with a heap of food in a cavern. It's quite civilized:


Temperature controls on the units from ARB and National Luna are, truthfully, much more refined than that on the Engel 35, which is just a 1-5 knob:
 
 
CampervanCulture.com
+6 / 0
# CampervanCulture.com 2011-07-13 12:11
We have just fitted some compressor fridges to our 4x4 VW Campervans and I have got to say their is no way I am going back to an LPG powered one. -20 is good for me....

Jed
 
 
Bill
+4 / -1
# Bill 2011-07-14 09:47
Wow -20 is probably a little too much for me! LOL!!
 
 
Ernie Ruiz
+2 / -2
# Ernie Ruiz 2011-07-14 06:51
My cousin has had the ARB for a few months now and I am very impressed. I had a Coleman PowerChill and I was never happy with its performance. I think this is going to be an investment for me soon.

Ernie
incogneatus.blogspot.com
 
 
Mark Stephens
+8 / -4
# Mark Stephens 2011-07-14 09:45
The place to buy, by the way, is Sierra Expedtions in Tempe, Arizona. They have the four best brands in any model/size you could shake a popsicle at:

Engel fridges
National Luna fridge/freezers
ARB fridge/freezers
Whynter fridge/freezers
 
 
Wil
+6 / 0
# Wil 2011-07-14 15:26
As a parent, having owned the Engel, Whynter, and ARB fridges I would recommend the ARB due to the easy cleaning of the unit with the drain plug. There is nothing like trying to clean up after spilled milk... it made me cry. Yes, I cried over spilled milk ;-)

Here is a picture of the Engel in use just before the spilled milk...
 
 
Mark
+1 / 0
# Mark 2011-07-14 15:46
Wil, nice panda. Don't take that the wrong way.

I didn't know about the drain plug in the ARB units. That's great. Agreed about that spilled milk.
 
 
Tony DeSanto
+2 / -1
# Tony DeSanto 2011-07-16 12:34
The drain plug would have helped in Joshua Tree NP when we spilled about a 1/2 gallon of salsa in my Engel...good times.
 
 
Mark
+4 / -2
# Mark 2011-07-16 21:57
Um, HALF GALLON of salsa? I need to roll with you more often.
 
 
Tony
+5 / -1
# Tony 2013-01-15 14:38
Or salsa...lots of fresh salsa all over the place and in the middle of nowhere. That was a fun time :)
 
 
Colin Marson
+5 / 0
# Colin Marson 2011-07-14 17:36
I purchased an old style ARBMT45 a number of years ago. One of the best mods for my trips. Serves double duty as a beer fridge when not in the rig.
Taking out an ice cream bar in the middle of the desert... priceless.
Part of the " you don't have to suffer just because you are off road"....
 
 
Nathan
+7 / 0
# Nathan 2011-07-17 19:16
Couple more factoids about eFridges to consider:
1. No ice equals considerably more room for stuff!

2. Not good in bear country. You HAVE to pack your cooler in the bear locker if at an established camp in Bear Country (such as in the High Sierra's). And, because they try hard to make bear lockers bug proof, there's no way to run an extension cord to them. We have a newer ARB fridge, and its great for desert camping, but it stays at home when we venture to the mountains, and that's a same, but there's really no safe way around it.
 
 
Mark Stephens
+2 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2011-07-19 14:56
Thanks, Nathan. Hadn't thought about the bear country.
 
 
Michael
+3 / 0
# Michael 2012-07-20 15:25
12v Fridges in bear country are fine. Two ways to handle. 1. If you keep it inside your rig just make sure it's covered with a blanket or two and you won't have any worries. 2. Stick your fridge in the bear box along with a portable 12v power supply - this is more common than you might think - the small power supplies are like the ones you can use to start your car up and most of them have 12v outlets in them. They will last a good two days.

I do both things - most recently a five day camp trip in sequoia at the dreaded 'dorst' camp site black bear country. Oh yes, and I sleep inside my rig next to the fridge. I do a lot of primitive camping as well - off roading you won't have any issues with the bears as long as you are smart. How many pop top campers with fridges do you read about getting broken into by bears?
 
 
jojo
+1 / -2
# jojo 2013-04-06 21:54
Quoting Michael:
12v Fridges in bear country are fine. Two ways to handle. 1. If you keep it inside your rig just make sure it's covered with a blanket or two and you won't have any worries.

I say: WERY BAD ADVICE!! Those critters can smell the food anyway! Those critters know where to look for food! They will remove the blanket!!

Quoting Michael:

I do both things - most recently a five day camp trip in sequoia at the dreaded 'dorst' camp site black bear country. Oh yes, and I sleep inside my rig next to the fridge. I do a lot of primitive camping as well - off roading you won't have any issues with the bears as long as you are smart. How many pop top campers with fridges do you read about getting broken into by bears?

Likewise: They break into cars! for gosh sake! They tear open trailers and bite and break every bos and can that was stored in the woode bench seat storage!!1
Yes, bears do also live in the back country, too!
 
 
Nate
+2 / -2
# Nate 2012-08-09 08:07
Theres an easy way around this problem. Just store it the same way as people do with bear bags up in the trees. Build a simple rope hoist pulley system that attaches to each handle and hoist the fridge up to hang from a tree overnight and run an extension cord to it.
 
 
Carl
+1 / 0
# Carl 2013-05-19 08:37
When you leave the fridge working inside a closed car in summer day... any problem about becoming too hot inside the car?
 
 
Mark Stephens
+1 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2013-05-19 10:46
In short no. That's one of the biggest advantages a fridge has over the cheaper thermoelectric coolers. A fridge operates independent of ambient temperature. But it does depend on a number of factors. The compressor or swing motor on the fridge, which is on the back side, needs ventilation. Don't have it rammed up against a pile of clothes or pillows or something. Of course in a hot car the fridge will work more to maintain the temperature inside the fridge, but it can still maintain as good as freezing temps if you need it.
 
 
Marina
+2 / -1
# Marina 2013-05-22 20:46
My guy just started trucking. We can't afford one of the expensive models right now. What would you suggest around the 100.00 to 150.00 mark? He really just wants to keep lunch meat and milk cold and things like yogurt. And help would be appreciated!
 
 
Mike
+3 / -1
# Mike 2013-06-07 15:29
The power chill works great in a big truck. Its inside the cab with him and the AC, which is always on, that gets ambient down to 70-80. Subtract 40 from that and its cool enough to fave a cold glass of milk or yogurt. Grocery shopping at Walmart and keeping in the power chill is what i did OTR. I also had a propane camping stove i used to cook up hot meals, cheaper and better than truck stops.
 
 
Jordan Mallory
+1 / 0
# Jordan Mallory 2013-06-27 06:46
I am taking a family vacation this summer and I need a big van for all of us to fit. Since I live in Georgia, my friends told me to research Commercial Vans Augusta because they have a great selection. I think a commercial van would be big enough I just do not know if they are pricey.
 
 
Jordan Mallory
0 / 0
# Jordan Mallory 2013-06-27 06:48
I am taking a family vacation this summer and I need a big van for all of us to fit. Since I live in Georgia, my friends told me to research Commercial Vans Augusta because they have a great selection. I think a commercial van would be big enough I just do not know if they are pricey.
 
 
carol
0 / 0
# carol 2013-06-29 19:09
Very helpful information
 
 
Northerner
+2 / 0
# Northerner 2013-07-12 21:57
What about fridge freezer combos? It seems as though you need to out your settings to one or the other....can I have my cake and eat it too.... Or ice cream, I mean?
 
 
Arlene
+1 / 0
# Arlene 2013-07-28 13:57
Very helpful info! I am looking for a small car frig or 12V cooler to accurately keep my meds and maybe a few small items...also, not looking to spend a lot for this...any ideas?
Thanks for any help!
 
 
Steve
0 / 0
# Steve 2013-08-23 00:50
I have an Engel MT-15 that I tote around in my Subby Outback. Bought it awhile ago, don't know if Engel still makes that model. Check out Engelusa.com for the latest info. They're all pretty steep in price but, well worth it. I have MT-45 for my camper as well, truthfully, both units have never let me down!!! Good luck!
 
 
Don_in_Odessa
0 / 0
# Don_in_Odessa 2013-08-04 12:42
I hooked up my 105AH AGM to 2000/4000 inverter and plugged in my outside 21cubic foot regular ole' but newer model 120V frig just to see how long it would take for the battery to get down to 50% charge. It took 2 Hours. I bought the stuff to run an aquaponics pump which it does just fine with. But I wanted to do something for the frig for power outages. I'm not a camper, just a non fanatic prepper. Living in Florida teaches you all about power outages. With the cost of these little ( well I was going to say little buggers 'til I looked up the word guess I'll just say little freezer/refrige rators instead), you all are talking about I'm wondering if it might be more efficient to buy a small ice maker of some kind for the old cooler. With that in mind, anyone have any experience with the small table top ice makers and the length of their operational life?

PS this is probably the last time I ever use that "little buggers" phrase. Sheesh! The things we learn after 62 years.
 
 
Craig
0 / 0
# Craig 2013-08-15 07:26
Mark,
I am in the market for a small one of these for an element/ecamper (poptop mod by ursa minor in san diego) so thanks for the useful information. So is it your opinion that a photovoltaic system is not needed to recharge the battery as long as the vehicle is started and run to recharge the battery each day? On average After running the frig all night how long does the vehicle have to be run to recharge the battery? Do you have any other emergency means of starting car just in case?
Thanks,
Craig
 
 
Jeep Grand Cherokee
0 / 0
# Jeep Grand Cherokee 2013-08-29 07:00
How do you make a site look this awesome. Email me if you can and share your wisdom. I’d be thankful.
 
 
kieran walsh
+1 / -1
# kieran walsh 2013-09-16 22:00
Well, after reading about those bear I have come up with a simple solution.
Get yourself a kiddie pool, fill it with water,add a ten pound bag of salt, stir well. Place cooler in water in center. Plug in a hot wire to the water and a ground wire around the pool. Quick zap, bear gone.
 
 
Mark Stephens
+1 / 0
# Mark Stephens 2013-09-17 08:40
Um... that's simple?
 
 
Daniel in central CA
0 / 0
# Daniel in central CA 2013-09-19 13:48
Quoting kieran walsh:
Well, after reading about those bear I have come up with a simple solution.
Get yourself a kiddie pool, fill it with water,add a ten pound bag of salt, stir well. Place cooler in water in center. Plug in a hot wire to the water and a ground wire around the pool. Quick zap, bear gone.


HAHAHAHAHAHA
 
 
garage doors
0 / -1
# garage doors 2013-10-10 04:36
4
 
 
Harry
+1 / -1
# Harry 2013-11-11 15:39
My friend in Northern CA brought me ten pint containers of crab meat in his portable fridge-freezer, as hard as a rock. He was in his motor home, powering the unit on a dc-ac converter on the road and on ac when parked in a RV park or at my house. I bought one next trip to AZ to carry frozen deer meat to my kid down there. Great item.
 
 
Karren Colstone
+1 / 0
# Karren Colstone 2013-11-13 22:26
Nice blog! Very informative. Myself, I also hire freezer and other trucks when I need them from onsitecaterers.co.nz/.../
 
 
Mr. Kirby
0 / -3
# Mr. Kirby 2014-01-03 18:43
In your pitch you write Get it? Well, no. I'd really like to read & understand the unit's true performance numbers. While I understand you're impressed with these units, The engineer in me would love to know whether I need to beef up my electrical system. Not too concerned about -20 degree popsicles...
 
 
Phil
0 / 0
# Phil 2014-01-21 14:12
have an ARB fridge/freezer and the check light keeps flashing. Are doing heaps of driving each day to charge dual battery system. Any ideas please?
 
 
Tom
0 / 0
# Tom 2014-02-03 11:24
Interesting but it seems like these portable freezers should be used for short camping trips or tailgating.
 
 
Danny
0 / 0
# Danny 2014-02-15 02:35
I have a 20year old Engel that has never failed me, Living in Queensland Australia, it has to work hard, last summer we were on Morton Island and the temps were 40deg (105deg in USA) and the fridge preformed faultlessly.
I have a 120amp second battery and a 120watt solar panel. This set up work well for the 10days we were there. I don't however use the fridge as a freezer, but love my beer and bourbon cold.
In the Australian Army we also used the Engel and they were mistreated but still did the job.
Danny
 
 
FRANK BROCKWAY
0 / 0
# FRANK BROCKWAY 2014-02-18 02:15
We are looking for a 12 volt refrigerator that can chill a 20 lire water tank with drinking bublers on it. so the customer can drink chilled water with out having to waste the last cupful of water that got warm
Frank Brockway 18-2-14
 

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