Campervan Fridges

Compressor, 3-way or plug-in cool-box? Camper refrigeration.

There is no one “ideal”, all-encompassing fridge. On the bright side, with the advantages and disadvantages laid out below, it shouldn’t be too difficult to discover on which side you fall in the great Compressor vs 3 Way divide.

Though it’s often overlooked, we also consider the 3 Way Cool Box a strong contender. With assets like reduced price and portability, it’s worth considering if you aren’t set on having fitted kitchen units.

Compressor/12v/ 2 Way Fridge

We use: Webasto Cruise 49L (with ice/freezer box)

The most frequently fitted of the camper refrigerators, this many-named fridge comes in a number of sizes (up to 90L while still fitting in the conventional layout). “Compressor”, refers to the small unit with which it generates its cooling power; drawing heat from within, compressing it into a high-pressured gas before releasing it through the condenser on the back. In a camper there are 2 methods of powering this unit; 12v battery power or 240v mains hook-up (provided you have a charging system) hence the label “2 Way”.

A firm favourite with converters for its ease of installation, the compressor fridge is also popular with campers for its simplicity. It’s built with 12v operation in mind, running efficiently on battery power (compared with a battery draining 3 Way) and cutting out before flattening your leisure battery, so that the lights never go out on you.

Pros

  • Cost-effective. Economical if kept near EHU & after initial outlay requires no cost to run
  • Variety of size and shape
  • Self-reliant. Will run uninterrupted in conjunction with a solar panel
  • Unaffected by inclines. The motor pays no mind to the gradient of the van, so you don’t have to run in fear of hills

Cons

  • Noise. Some noise when the compressor is running, similar to a home fridge but at your bedside
  • Reliability. With a fan motor and compressor pump, moving parts inevitably have a given lifespan
  • Initial expense of extra equipment. You’ll need a solar panel (for charging the battery) or a back-up battery if you intend to stray off the grid and away from mains for any amount of time.If you plan on doing so for more than a few days and aren’t keen on the expense of a solar panel, you’ll probably find the 3 Way a better fit.

3 Way Fridge

We use: Dometic 60L fridge RM 5310 piezo ignition

Travellers who spend lots of time away from power are the first customers of the flexible 3 Way fridge, named for its 3 means of power: 12v battery power, 240v mains power, and LPG Gas.

These fridges trade compressor units for a gas flow heat exchange system, burning a small flame and emitting CO/2 which requires an exhaust through the side of the van.

With typical use, connected to a 2.9kg Campingaz butane bottle, a 3 Way fridge will stay frosty for around 2 weeks when used together with your cooker - ten times longer than a 85Ahr battery could ever power a compressor fridge on a single charge. These are commonly found in old campers and caravans, still working smoothly 20 - 30 years down the line. While units are themselves more expensive to buy and install than smaller 12v fridges, they can work out more economically than a compressor/solar combo if you already have a gas system in place.

3 Way fridges tend to be terribly inefficient when run on 12v power so are generally wired only to run on 12v whilst driving. They can be run on 12v for a few hours at a time if needed, but the heating element must have a min voltage of 11.8.v to operate, so your leisure battery will need to be fully charged.
Cooling capacity: refrigerator +7°C, freezer compartment down to –12°C at ambient temperatures up to 32°C

Pros

  • Battery saving. Plugging into gas, saves battery for lights, heaters and gadgets when there’s no EHU.
  • Simple. Will run for weeks at a time on a single bottle.
  • Completely silent. You won’t hear a whistle out of it.
  • Low maintenance. No moving parts to go wrong, just need to clean the pilot light during gas service.

Cons

  • Having to switch power sources. Forgetting to switch between 240V, 12V and gas will interrupt cooling.
  • Slopes. Will only work on fairly level ground due to the gas flow cooling system.
  • Affected by temperature. Said to be more heavily affected by surrounding temperatures, but we have found they easily make ice in 30 degrees
  • Needs space. Because they’re mostly run on Gas, you’ll need to ensure you’re parked in an area with good ventilation before you run them.

Cool box

We use: Dometic RC2200 3 Way Cool box

It’s amazing that the cool box provides practically the same fridge capacity as a 3 Way or compressor, is handily portable, and yet so much kinder to the budget. Standing by with ice-creams under the awning or a steady supply of cold beers out on the beach, it also frees up valuable cabin space when it’s out and about. We like to pair these with our Cambee “Pod” unit for a great outdoor kitchen, just the setup for big groups and families.

These use the same versatile technology as the 3 Way fridge, plugging into the 12v (while you’re driving), 240v (on hookup) and gas (the rest of the time outdoors).

“But cool boxes are so power hungry!” critics say. It’s actually only when a cool box is poorly insulated that it needs to wolf down your Campingaz to maintain a steady temperature. We know for a fact that a Dometic RC2200 can last for around 2 weeks on one 2.9kg bottle.

Pros

  • Flexibility. Yours will follow you anywhere and run on anything.
  • Price The cheapest of the refrigeration options.
  • Space. Opens up plenty of cabin space when removed.
  • Function. Great companion to your outdoor kitchen

Cons

  • Size. Only 39l version is practical.
  • Aesthetic. less homelike than a front-opening fridge
  • Access. Cannot be opened when slotted into unit

We liked the portability of the cool box so much, we designed the Cambee trolley to take any effort out of transporting it. Once you’ve unloaded the unit, the sides of the trolley fold down to provide a handy table for cups, plates and board games.

Whichever fridge you plug for, for optimum performance try to incorporate the following pointers into your regimen: - Matt

1. The day before travelling, give your fridge a hand getting started by plugging it into the mains electricity at home.
2. At least for load 1, try to fill it with food and drink you’ve pre-chilled.
3. Avoid loading lots of items for cooling all at once.
4. Keep a few freezer packs in the freezer and move them into the bottom of the fridge when out and about and parked on a slope.
5. Be strict with door opening!

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