How to choose your next 12V fridge

By Dex Fulton 12 Min Read

Ask any experienced 4X4 tourer which accessory had the most impact on how they travelled and the majority will likely give a nod towards their 12V fridge. Sure, lockers will get you further up the hard tracks. And that fancy rooftop tent sure is a step up (literally) from the old moth-eaten swag. But in terms of convenience, comfort and all-round enjoyment of the Aussie bush, not much beats having a quality fridge along for the trip. 

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There are more options, designs and configurations for fridges on the market today than ever before. So we thought it was high time we dived in and had a look at which means of keeping the drinks chilly, and keeping the leftover brisket from developing salmonella, will be right for you. 

Are you ready to join the cool kids with an upright? or are you all about the practicality of the tried-and-true chest fridge? What about getting sporty with a modern drawer unit? Or have you been running a 3-way since the old days and they’ll have to pry it from your gas-powered refrigerated dead hands? Let’s take a look at them to see which one should be your next accessory. 

A quick note on 12V requirements

It probably goes without saying but if you’re planning on running a fridge while camping an auxiliary battery is almost a necessity. There is no shortage of different set-ups which I won’t go into here. But if the budget extends – go for a lithium system. Preferably incorporate enough solar wattage to run your fridge nearly indefinitely. Especially if you’re not driving the vehicle for an extended period of time. AKA if you’re pulling up to camp and hanging out in one spot for a few days/weeks at a time. 

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Using Anderson, merit or Engel plugs as your fridge lead is another hot tip. The common cigarette-style plugs can often come loose over rough roads and you’re left wondering why you get to your destination and your fridge could double as a Scandinavian sauna.

Fridge design 101

12V fridges use a compressor to pump refrigerant through the fridge’s cooling system, overseen by a thermostat which is set by the operator. Some fridges have two compartments. One of which is usually used as a freezer. These are called dual-zone or (gasp!) fridge-freezers. 

3-ways can also use gas absorption method of cooling. But it’s largely irrelevant here so I won’t bother going into it. In a nutshell, that’s how all 12V fridges do their thing. However, not all fridges are created equal, and there are a few factors that will impact any fridge’s performance. 

Ventilation

Counterintuitively, a fridge can give off a fair amount of heat when operating. Particularly when under load on a hot day. If there isn’t enough airflow around the compressor area, then the thermal overload can cause inefficiencies in the cooling. Making your fridge work unnecessarily hard and increasing the current draw on your batteries. Ensure there’s enough room around the compressor section and top of your fridge to keep it happy.  

Insulation

One of the easiest ways for a fridge manufacturer to cut costs is to lower the amount of insulation a fridge has. By using thinner panels between the interior and exterior of the fridge, it becomes less thermally efficient. It also has a higher power draw and likely won’t last as long. You may pay a little more for a quality item like, for example, an Engel, but there’s a reason they’re popular… Because they’re built to last. 

Power draw 

Remedial physics 101: when trying to move a large object, say a boulder, it’s a lot easier to keep it rolling if it’s already moving. Or push starting your car. It’s a bugger to get moving, but once she’s off it gets progressively less strenuous. 

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It’s the same for your fridge. If you throw it in the back of the fourby on a summer’s day, plug it in and set the thermostat to zero it’s going to have to work hard to get to that point. Here are a couple of quick tips that’ll make life easier: Plug it into 240V before leaving and cool it down on household power; the hard work is done by the grid rather than your battery. Freeze a 2L bottle of water (or a couple of them) and leave it in your fridge to help keep things cool and ease power draw. And finally, keep the fridge full. Without getting into detailed thermodynamics, if you keep the fridge stocked up there’s less air that needs to be cooled down. Which makes life easier on the equipment. 

There’s a reason almost everybody has run a chest fridge at some stage of their off-road career: They work. It’s a design that’s been around forever. They are essentially an insulated box that has a compressor strapped to the side to pump refrigerant around the internal cavity. Many modern fridges use a twin-compartment arrangement that allows you to run one or both compartments as a fridge or freezer. This offers a huge amount of versatility. 

They come in almost every size you can imagine. They’re energy-efficient. And quality units can last for decades with no more maintenance than a clean-out after your trip. They can also handle riding in the back of a wagon over rough roads (presuming they’re strapped down effectively) without drama. 

Access can be an issue, particularly for shorter folks or when they’re mounted in lifted vehicles. In some cases, it can be tricky to see what’s even in the fridge, let alone grab the item you’re looking for out of it. If this is the case, then you’ll need a fridge slide. Clearview (for example) have a couple of beaut options that’ll allow you to slide the fridge out, drop the fridge down to a manageable height, or even do all of the above electrically at the push of a button. The future is now. 

The other drawback is weight. A chest fridge, especially when coupled with a slide, is a hefty proposition. If weight is an issue with your vehicle, then you may need to look at other options.

Uprights – not just for caravans 

12V upright fridges are the newer, lighter and arguably better player in the game. They lose out to chest fridges in a few criteria but offer a few key advantages as well. The big one is accessibility. Having an upright in the back of the wagon or canopy makes grabbing something out of the fridge an absolute breeze. No slides to operate, no rummaging for the good tins at the bottom of the pile, just open the door and it’s all there in front of you. 

They’re not as thermally efficient – when you open the door, the denser cool air falls out – so you need to make sure your battery system is on point. They also aren’t really designed for being exposed to the elements, so are limited to caravans, wagons or canopies only (although there are enclosures available aftermarket). 

For those who have an upright in their 4X4, very few would say they’d go back to a chest fridge. They’re a lot more organised and the ease-of-use is something else. If you can accommodate one into your set-up, they really are the cat’s meow. But as always, it comes down to using the right product for your individual needs. 

12V Drawers Fridges – can good things come in small packages?

Relatively new to the market are drawer fridges. As the name implies, they’re a chest fridge that pulls out in a drawer configuration. These are absolutely fantastic for tins and other shorter foodstuffs. And can be incorporated into a storage set-up fairly easily. A popular trend is to have one pull-out drawer for your camping and recovery gear then a drawer fridge on the other side of your rig. 

Advantages include a relatively slimline set of dimensions and ease of access. Disadvantages really come back to the size, or rather depth, of the fridge. They’re only really tall enough to fit a can upright in there, forget about a 2L milk bottle. 

With that said, if you’re asking about the ideal set-up, I reckon a drawer fridge for drinks, an upright for food and a chest fridge as a freezer would be about the best of all worlds, if not a little impractical for most people’s use. 

3-way fridges – are they still relevant?

The other fridges in this yarn are what you call 2-way. As in, they can run on 12V (when in the 4X4) or off 240V (when in the office being used as a beer fridge. Allegedly). A 3-way goes one better and adds the capacity (3 ways in total, hence the name) to run off LPG.

3-way fridges are popular among caravaners and people who won’t be straying too far off the beaten track. However, they’re not without their limitations for off-road use. Namely, they have to be kept level to run correctly. Long story short, if you’re doing a big lap in the LC300 with a van in tow and keeping to the blacktop, a 3-way is a viable option. If you’re more of the type of person who’s intimately familiar and has firsthand experience with their vehicle’s exact centre of gravity, then maybe stick to the slightly more bounce-happy 2-way units. 


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