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Our budget fridge journey: 3 affordable options for vanlife coolers

Photo by John O'Nolan on Unsplash

Our budget fridge journey: 3 affordable options for vanlife coolers

Our campervan conversion was an iterative journey during which we’ve already tried a number of refrigeration solutions. Here are the three “fridges” we’ve had over the past year and the reasons why we bought them (and the reasons we moved on to the next!)

Fridge 1: standard coolbox (the cheapest option)

Cost: about £20 ($30 USD) for a budget hard coolbox– you can get better!
Lasts: With frozen ice packs and everything already cold, it covered us for 1-2 days. Northern Ireland is not a warm place though — it wouldn’t last as long in Mexico! Note that ambient temperatures, temperatures of contents, quantity of contents, how frequently you open etc will all have an impact on any type of “fridge”.
Best used for: Keeping drinks cool at festivals or for short camping trips. Not for storing anything risky eg chicken.
Why buy it?  It’s cheap and requires zero electric. If you’re only doing short trips in an average climate, it might fit your needs. Really only OK for keeping drinks cool a few days and/or keeping food cool for a few hours / a day before you consume. If you kept topping it up with ice or had the ability to re-freeze the ice packs then it could be worth considering for longer trips.
Why we bought it: It was cheap and good enough for festivals and the short trips when we were starting out ie. early-on in our van conversion, in a low-climate and when we didn't even have a leisure batteries/power setup. Also, it’s handy for other non-van uses eg picnics, ice-bucket in the garden.

A basic cool box did the job for weekends and day trips.

Fridge 2: thermo-electric 12v coolbox (low-mid price)

Cost: We paid £160 for the Mobicool MT48W from Amazon (a special offer/deal).
Lasts: Ok, so this is where campervan electrics combine with all the aforementioned aspects…ie there is no absolute answer to how long it will operate effectively.
Onsite – Easy; so long as you have it plugged in, it will work indefinitely! So this might be perfect if you are planning to stay on sites with electric hookups regularly AND you are not in a warm-hot environment ie. 20C or greater (because it cools to 16C below ambient).
Off-grid – It will only last for as long as you have enough in your leisure batteries to power it….which depends on your batteries, power-generation and other power usage; ie it could be as little as hours, or as ‘good’ as several days / indefinitely.
Why buy it? You don’t have to worry about using ice-packs. It maintains a temperature of 16C below ambient temperature (the temperature around it). It is more reliable at keeping your food and drinks cold than a basic cool box and it’s fairly inexpensive.
Why we bought it: We had installed 2 x 130Ah AGM leisure batteries in our van for the purpose of being able to be off-grid for t least a few days and keep our food and drinks cool, even in the “hot” weather (remember; UK/Ireland “hot” is very different to Mexico “hot”). Our Mobicool was the perfect size for us, we could fit all our fresh produce as well as our drinks (#cough; yes, it was actually a glorified wine cooler!).

However after a several trips spent doing a lot more ‘offgrid’ than ‘onsite’, it became apparent that whilst the thermo-electric coolbox was a good match for our climate (ie 16C below ambient is usually OK), it was using up a lot of our leisure battery capacity, especially when we added our other consumption (laptops!), lack of sunshine (ie very little being generated from our solar) AND being static for more than a few days.

Lets do some crude Maths…

We had 2 AGM batteries, 130Ah each, but you can only drain them to 50%, therefore only 130Ah usable.

Our Mobicool MT48 requires 48 Watts of power, which at 12V means that it uses 4 amps which means it would drain our capacity in roughly 32 hours – so, around 1.3 days.

Tip: turn the box off at night if temperature is fairly cool and you are not storing anything sensitive such as chicken.

But bear in mind we also use our battery to power other things; our lights, charge our phones, power our water pump, laptops etc.

And, we had grand plans to go to sunny Spain.

It was time to upgrade…

But the next level up would involve a big jump in price and it took a fair bit of research to get a good balance between cost and efficiency.

Fridge 3: compressor fridge (mid-high price)

Cost: We paid £300 for the Alpicool T50 (LG edition) from Amazon, again at a ‘deal' price, and one of the cheapest on the market.

In terms of compressor fridges, the sky is the limit— we felt this was the best price-performance balance for our needs. This is a dual zone, top-loading compressor fridge – you can set the temperature of each zone, one of which could be a freezer, which can also be controlled from a nifty app!
Lasts: Our Alpicool T50 requires 60 Watts of power, which at 12V means that it uses 5 amps which means it would drain our capacity in 26 hours…..if it was running constantly. However, this is a compressor fridge and cools to maintain the temperature set. So, the calculations can’t be done exactly as it depends on various factors e.g. the ambient temperature of its surrounding, how full it is, the temperature(s) you’ve set it at etc, etc. 
In ‘testing’: Using a voltage battery monitor, we’ve found the fridge used about 25 amps per day during our first two weeks in Spain (around 20C daytime, but as low as 7C at night – excluding Sierra Nevada!), therefore theoretically under the ‘test’ #cough conditions and assuming there was nothing else drawing power from or charging the battery, and excluding us generating any extra power, it could last around 4 days before the battery would go flat.

In a nutshell; the electrical efficiency of a fridge makes a big difference when you’re off-grid and have no other power source (alternator/solar) for a few days or more, and is highly beneficial in warmer climates.

With the Spanish winter sun, our Alpicool is easily powered by our budget 200W solar panel setup, even when we didn’t move for several days. With lights and a few other bits of power consumption, the thermoelectric coolbox would have died within a couple of days….and may not have cooled enough to store sensitive items such as chicken safely for more than a few hours..

And, as an added bonus, this beast of a box also serves as a sturdy step-up to our raise bedd 👍😀.

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Disclaimer: As with everything on this site, this article is for informational purposes only and is not advice of any kind. I simply share my experiences and my opinions for information. I am not a financial adviser and I am not providing investment advice or financial or legal advice of any kind. Cryptocurrencies (and most business opportunities) are very high risk. Many of the opportunities I discuss exist in new, high risk and unregulated markets. Some methods require significant investment of time and/or relevant skills. Please do your own research (DYOR) and due diligence; do not blindly follow anyone!

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