As the most popular recreational activity in the United States, it’s no surprise that many RV owners spend days on end in their vehicles, and therefore, need a place to keep their food.
If you’re a casual camper, road tripper, or trucker, chances are you’re looking at a 12v cooler for your car.
Is a portable electric cooler worth it?
We should start by saying that you should not expect incredible cooling power from any of the cheaper options. Electric coolers in this category are generally designed for truckers and daily commuters who are constantly driving, and simply need a place to keep their groceries or drinks cold.
So if your van adventure is more of a sustained road trip, in which you’re on the road daily, then a constant energy draw is no big deal when your engine is running so often. Alternatively, if you rarely need to cool food/drinks, a 12v cooler might seem attractive (although, a simple ice chest might provide a better result, with no electricity needed).
I still want one, which should I choose?
If you don’t need the electric cooler to get down to very cold temperatures, and you have the space in your van, car, etc., there’s a few key things to look out for in these little 12 volt electric coolers.
The three major factors you’ll want to consider when looking for an electric cooler for your car are durability, capacity, energy draw, and overall purpose. Are you looking for something to just keep drinks cool? Or do you need a large capacity option for perishable food? Do you need something that’s easy to maneuver and very portable, or are after something that can take some abuse? Let’s dive in:
Affordable, Space-saving Electric Cooler
For tight spaces and casual cool-ness:
To put it frankly, a lot of the inexpensive electric car coolers are crap. It’s as simple as that, so don’t waste your money on something that is just going to keep your drinks a few degrees below room temperature.
That being said, this K-Box Electric Cooler is probably the bare minimum of what we’d recommend. What like is the dimensions of the cooler. It’s vertically-oriented and pretty compact, meaning it would fit nicely behind a seat or between the driver/passenger seat. It’s also a good pick for versatility – as it can be powered by 12v or 110V. It’s volume is large enough to hold a good amount of food & drink, and won’t break the bank at a little under $100.
Mid-level ThermoElectric Coolers
Performance on a budget:
A good middle-of-the-road option is this Wagan Electric Cooler & Warmer. What we like is that you can use this portable electric cooler just like an “analog” cooler and fill it with ice. It’s more of an all-purpose cooler than a car cooler.
12V coolers like this are appropriate for certain applications – if you just want to have a few drinks cooled down, you don’t necessarily need to go buy a bag of ice. An eight foot power cord allows for flexibility, while the vertically-oriented 24L capacity is perfect for a variety of uses, and is tall enough to fit wine bottles standing up. What’s the catch? This blue devil draws 5amps when running, which is crazy high. But if you unplug it when you’re not driving, you’ll be good to go.
You crave portability:
If you plan on using a cooler mostly for casual affairs, like day trip picnics, a lighter weight and ergonomic design like the Igloo Thermoelectric Cooler might be your best bet. Convection cooling features a quiet fan that can cool up to 36 degrees below outside temperatures. An 8 foot cord is also included in this 26 quart capacity cooler, so fairly less room than the Coleman above. With the carry handle and decreased capacity, this is less of a “stationary” unit, and more of a portable 12V cooler to plug in on the way to an event, and then carry to it’s final destination.
You want something that will last:
If you don’t mind spending a little extra for something that is higher quality and built to last, the Joytutus electric cooler is your best bet. Unlike the coolers above, this item doubles as a freezer if you so desire – which shows how capable it’s cooling power is. For the higher price tag, you’ll get additional important features, like a 3-stage battery protection that prevents your car battery from running down and protects the cooler itself. This will promote a longer lifespan, and prevents the internal electronics from struggling to put up with non-optimal voltage.
The Joytutus has a fancy LED control panel, allowing you to completely dial in exactly what temperature you want to keep the contents. Better yet, this takes just 15 minutes from turning on to get from 77F down to 32F. If you have the space for this 26Qt cooler, this is hands down our top pick for the money.
High-end Electric Fridge/Freezers
For smaller/narrower spaces:
If you continue reading, you’ll learn that Dometic and ARB are the two main players when it comes to top-tier quality and low power consumption for 12v refrigerators/freezers. They come at a significantly higher price tag compared to the more “basic” 12v coolers above, but many are willing to pay more for something that will last many years.
This smaller Dometic Coolfreez is not quite as expensive because it is smaller, and meant to fit in a narrow space. It is FAR more efficient when it comes to energy consumption, which is worth noting if you’ll be running this off of a battery bank or if you aren’t running your vehicle as often. It will comfortably hold some drinks and a couple lunch items.
For ultimate temperature control:
An ARB Fridge is one of the sturdiest and most powerful choices for a 12V “cooler”, although this is more of a legitimate fride/freezer combo. The compression-based fridge is multipurpose, and unlike other coolers, it’s not dependent on ambient temperature– meaning it can hold temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the ARB fridge gets down to temperature, it pulls about 1.8amps at 55W, which isn’t bad (although the Dometic below is even more efficient).
Other features include an adjustable battery protection system and heavy-duty insulation. However, this is by far the most expensive on the list. While you might still save money and/or space compared to a full 3-way fridge, these tend to be the priciest type of 12V coolers. If you’re building on a budget, you might consider a YETI cooler, which is half the price and can keep ice for 4-5 days. The drawback, however, is less usable space within the cooler (with the ice added).
A quality, durable, cool:
Again, if you’ve got the budget, the Dometic 12V fridge/cooler/freezer is among the best you can purchase. Like the ARB above, with the high price tag comes excellent reliability (although the dometic is almost $200 less than the ARB). It sips energy at just 0.77 Amp hours per hour (for the smaller 34 qt. cooler), pulling around 50W, making this a great choice if you have a solar setup on your van or RV. This is our preferred choice on the list because it cools quickly, is QUIET, and doesn’t seem to show any signs of quitting on us. Note: be sure to keep the vents of this cooler un-obstructed to avoid overheating and damage to the electronics.
We hope this list of electric coolers for your car fully-explained the different use cases and potential pitfalls to watch out for. When it comes to any electronic devices that involves creating heat or cold (such as 12v air conditioners), don’t go cheap. These are “buy once, cry once” type items, and only quality components will likely deliver the cooling power you’re looking for. Happy travels, and stay cool out there!