Powered Coolers

Coolers that run on electricity, and yet don’t use a normal compressor or refrigerant are somewhat new on the market, having been developed in the last twenty years or so. They are called “thermo-electric” coolers which used a process called the “Peltier effect”. For our minivan camper conversion, we use two of them. We have one larger 40-quart Igloo Kool Mate 40 that we use for our main food supply, and a smaller Rubbermaid console cooler in the front between the seats. That way we always have cold snacks and drinks for on the road, and then our “meal food” in the larger cooler in the back. The ones shown below are only a small representation of the thousands of models available through Amazon. They have small portable ones for hiking, “between the seats” console units, chest types, upright types, specialty types, and everything in between. As always, if you are looking for something that we haven’t shown, just go to the  Amazon site through our links and search for what you want. Believe me… they will have it!


One of our readers, (L.H.) said he was dismayed that I would suggest a “Peltier” type cooler (thermo-electric) over a compressor model that cools much better, so I did some investigating. The last time I had used a compressor type refrigerator was in an early  van conversion that we had bought from a dealer. It was a 1971 model Dodge, with a fiberglass extended top and worked quite well, but we soon discovered that the refrigerator used a lot of current on 12 volts, and ran our battery down more than once! That’s why I have steered away from them.

However, after doing some research on what “L.H.” had told me, I found that the newer units, such as the Waeco/Dometic CoolMatic CF025 actually use about the same current as the thermoelectric type units. I was pleasantly surprised, and I am glad to pass on this information to our readers. But there IS a downside.

The compressor type units are also about four times the cost of the thermo-electric types. We bought our little console cooler at Wal Mart, on sale, for about $55. Retail price is more like $80. But all of the console coolers that I saw that used a compressor were starting at about $400 or more!  Is it worth the extra money? Only you can be the judge, based on your finances, how you use the cooler, and what climate you live in. If you’re anywhere in the upper half of the country or the northwest, then you should be able to get by with the less expensive unit. But if you live in the south or southwest, then it might be worth the money to get the compressor type.

However, you don’t have to pay big bucks for a specialty RV style unit. You can buy several different small refrigerators for “under counter” use at places like Wal Mart (there’s a link at the bottom of this page). We have one of those little refrigerators and it cost less than $100 and only draws about 1.25 amps… AND it has a freezer compartment. So don’t get carried away with expensive units that you only have work longer to pay for! Think about this… if you have even one little freezer compartment that you can freeze bottles of ice in… and then put those in the other coolers that you have, to help them cool better with or without thermo-electric power, then why spend hundreds of dollars more if you don’t need to?  Think FREEDOM! You don’t want to work any longer than necessary to pay for things that you don’t need!

There is a trend in the larger RV’s right now, that some units are being fitted from the factory with normal household refrigerators, rather than those expensive dual voltage or three-way gas/electric units that were so common in the past. And when the original  RV refrigerator goes bad in used RV’s they are changing them to household refrigerators. Why? Because of several things…

(1) many of those RV’s are also being fitted with solar panels and larger battery systems, so that they can run those electric refrigerators indefinitely without being hooked to shore power!

(2) the cost of solar panels and systems have come down considerably from what they used to be!

(3) the efficiency of the compressors in the new refrigerators have gotten much better in recent years, allowing smaller current draw and making it possible to run them from battery systems!

(4) the cost of buying them!  The dual voltage and three-way refrigerators are usually more than double the cost of a home refrigerator!

(5) cost and convenience of ownership. We’ve all heard stories of expensive  RV refrigerator circuit boards going bad, or pilot lights blowing out, not working because of leveling problems, or worse yet, explosions at gas pumps because someone forgot to kill the pilot light before they filled up. BOOM! NONE of that applies to normal household refrigerators! Also, if a normal refrigerator goes bad, some of them are cheap enough to just go buy another one rather than having them repaired, and since they aren’t “built in” with all the connections that the normal RV refrigerators have, they are much easier to change out, even if the overall size isn’t exactly perfect. All they have to do is “un-anchor it”, pull the plug and wheel it out. No big deal or expense!

The only catch is that you have to have them fitted with… well… a “catch”… so that the door doesn’t fly open when you go around a corner! But there is regular hardware you can buy  that is used for that purpose.

What cooler you choose is up to personal preference. There are many sizes and styles of powered coolers available, and any search will reveal dozens of them. There is one important thing to keep in mind, though.  The thermoelectric types of units are only capable of cooling ambient outside temperatures about 40 degrees.  That means that they aren’t called “refrigerators” or “freezers” for a very good reason.  The process is only capable of so much, regardless of how big or small the cooler is.

In warm climates, I would suggest augmenting it with some ice. The manufacturer suggests not “open ice” (blocks) or “loose ice”. In other words, it should be in a sealed container, like a freezer pack, or put it in a container of some kind. Freezing water in bottles is good, or if you have to supplement with bagged ice, put it in a storage container, like  Tupperware. The manufacturers say that the humidity from “open ice” can corrode the cooling unit. Also, don’t let anything get into the cooling unit. Using ice packs along with it serves two purposes. (1) The ice will help keep the unit colder than it could do on its own, and let the unit work more efficiently, and (2) having the unit running will make the ice last longer, so they benefit each other.

There are many small  portable icemakers on the market. The one below is only an example of several hundred available through Amazon. If all you need to do is create ice to keep several other coolers or ice chests topped off, then keep these in mind. AND REMEMBER… you don’t have to supply a water line to them to make ice (although you can). They will still freeze anything you put in them, including bottles of water, juices, or even  Tupperware containers filled with water, which you can then add to your coolers without diluting everything with melted water!

A trick that one of our friends did that worked well is to find a used icemaker from a larger RV at one of the salvage yards or on eBay. Even a built-in unit is fine. You can set it on the floor and power any of these icemakers from an inverter. Again, you don’t have to run water to them, although you could. They will freeze anything you put in them.

Another trick in extremely warm climates, to make any cooler or refrigeration unit work better, is to drape a wet towel over the cooler. The evaporation of the water in the towel will help cool the unit on the outside, so it doesn’t have to work so hard inside. And obviously, ALWAYS keep them in the shade and as cool as possible. NEVER set them in direct sunlight!

Of course, if you really want the cooling power of a refrigerator or freezer, it usually comes at a price, especially if it’s a 12-volt model or a specialty RV product. You can only get true refrigeration and freezing with compressor type units, and those can be much more expensive unless you stick to “home use” units. Most of them can be run from either 12-volt power or 120-volt with an adapter, but with any cooler, you don’t want to let them run for more than a couple of hours (at the most) from your  car battery. Even as little as 3 amps will wear your battery down before you realize it. Unless you have an auxiliary battery system, your use of a refrigeration unit will be limited to the times when you are on the road and recharging the batteries as you go. For overnight parking always switch everything over to 120-volt power if it’s available, otherwise just shut it off.  If you are using extra ice, it will stay cool enough overnight.

The one thing to keep in mind, is don’t get carried away with “wanting” things that you don’t need. That $600 refrigeration unit would be nice, but how many hours are you going to have to work to pay for it? If having to work to pay for it, or to take money from your traveling funds, think about how many bags of ice you could buy… one bag at a time for a buck… and how long they would last. An ice chest is cheap, and sometimes even free, if you happen to know someone who orders from places like  Omaha Steaks on a regular basis. In other words, stop the habit of always “wanting” stuff that you can get by without! If you have money coming in, and cost is not an issue, then fine… get the luxury stuff. But if you have to make a choice between freedom to travel, and working to pay for more stuff… I know what I would do! Throw me the keys and enough blankets, and I can get by just fine for everything else!

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