Portable fridges has been one of those topics that I knew I needed to know about, but I wasn’t exactly keen on researching and spending time figuring out the nitty gritty of it all.
How do portable fridges work, what do you need to do differently compared to your house refrigerator, what do I need to be careful about etc etc.
I didn’t want to be bamboozled by a salesman nor did I want to have to do all my research once we got to Australia, so I’ve prepped myself by learning all I can beforehand.
Now I realise that most motorhomes/caravans already come with the fridge installed, but what if you need to buy a new one or you’re converting a van? What are your options and which one is the best for you?
In this post I’m going to cover the four main types of portable fridges:
- Absorption fridge
- Compressor fridge
- Thermoelectric fridge
But I think you’ll find that the compressor fridge and esky are the most common options in Australia.
How does a portable fridge work?
Understanding how a portable fridge works, will probably help you to decide which is best for you. There are four main types of portable fridges and we’ll look at each of them here.
Before we get started though, another big piece of the portable fridge puzzle (for me) is the power source, and to be honest, that’s the more confusing part to me. If you need a beginners guide to the difference between mains power and battery power, car battery or deep cycle battery, solar, Anderson plugs and all those other terms, I’ve written about that here.
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Okay, so the four different types of fridges work differently, here’s the main gist:
1. Absorption / 3-Way fridge
An absorption fridge uses a gas flow heat exchange system which can be powered three different ways:
- 240v (being plugged into the campground power),
- 12v (using power from your car or secondary battery) or
- Gas (LPG/propane)
Benefits of the Absorption Refrigerator
- Since they have no moving parts they are quiet
- Long lasting. When looked after these could last 20 years before needing to be replaced
- Very efficient on gas usage
- Newer fridges are clever enough to switch between the different power sources automatically
- Good for off-grid camping as you have three power sources and the gas lasts well
Limitations of the Absorption Refrigerator
- Must be level when operating
- Must be properly ventilated
- Are not as efficient as compressor fridges, when using 12v (battery) power
- Struggle to get cold when the ambient temperature is high (i.e anywhere in the northern half of Australia)
Absorption / 3-Way Fridges
2. Compressor / 2-Way Refrigerator
The compressor refrigerator works in much the same way as your fridge at home but mobile home / portable fridges are designed to be run on either:
- 240v (being plugged into the campground power),
- 12v (using power from your car or secondary battery)
If you want to know more of the nitty gritty of how a compressor fridge works, then this short article and diagram here might be useful for you.
Compressor fridges come as regular (side) door opening fridges or chest type that have a top opening lid. The good thing about the chest type is that the cool air mostly stays in the fridge when you open it whereas the cold air comes rushing out the bottom of the refrigerator in the door opening type.
Benefits of a Compressor Refrigerator
- Efficient power usage when on 12v battery power
- Come in heaps of different sizes
- Can be dual zone (fridge and freezer) or single zone (either fridge or freezer)
- Good for use in really hot climates
Limitations of a Compressor Refrigerator
- They have a motor in them so they are not silent
3. Thermoelectric Cooler
A thermoelectric cooler uses the Peltier effect whereby … you know what, I don’t know how to explain how it works. I’ve read through a dozen different explanations and while I understand the concept I wouldn’t have a clue how to put it into my own words, so I’m just going to use the Wikipedia definition:
Thermoelectric cooling uses the Peltier effect to create a heat flux between the junction of two different types of materials. A Peltier cooler, heater, or thermoelectric heat pump is a solid-state active heat pump which transfers heat from one side of the device to the other, with consumption of electrical energy, depending on the direction of the current.
Like the absorption and compressor refrigerators they can be run on:
- 240V (being plugged into the campground power),
- 12V (using power from your car or secondary battery)
But they are heavy consumers of battery power so would not be good for camping off-grid for very long.
Benefits of the Thermoelectric Cooler
- Reliable and long lasting – since they have no moving parts they continue to work well for many years
Limitations of the Thermoelectric Cooler
- Can only cool up to 20°C below the ambient temperature (so not particularly useful in really hot climates)
- Uses a lot of battery power
- Only comes in small sizes
Thermoelectric coolers are a perfect fridge truck drivers, picnics and short camping trips. But they can’t be relied on for longer trips where you’re not driving a lot or don’t have access to mains power.
4. Esky / Chilly Bin / Ice box
Yeah, I know this isn’t what you’d call a fridge… but it’s still a viable option for this trip as it’s the cheapest and most common way of keeping food cool. I’m sure it doesn’t need any explanation from me about how these work. Put some ice, ice packs, frozen water bottles or other icey items in the esky and they’ll help to keep everything else in there (like milk, cheese, vegetables) cool. Even though they’re well insulated, the ice will of course melt, and then the food will start warming up.
Benefits of the Esky / Chilly Bin / Ice box
- Don’t require a power source
Limitations of the Esky / Chilly Bin / Ice box
- Need to find ice regularly
- No temperature control (except by putting in more or less ice)
- Water EVERYWHERE as the ice melts making everything soggy and annoying
I’ve only ever bought cheap chilly bins (yep, that’s the kiwi in me) and within 24 hours the ice is already starting to melt all over the place and just be a nuisance. I’ve seen though, that there are much better insulated coolers though that can keep the ice going for at least a few days.
What is the best portable refrigerator?
For our trip around Australia, I think our best option would be a compressor refrigerator, but because of the cost of these fridges (and the associated battery and solar set-up we’ll need) I’m seriously considering just starting out with one of the good quality, well insulated iceboxes and seeing how we go.
If your budget allows you to get a compressor fridge (and the associated battery set-up) then I would recommend that as the best portable fridge to get for your road trip around Australia.
Whichever portable fridge you choose, the main thing is to get out on the road and start enjoying this great country of ours. If that means chucking an esky in the boot and having to stop for ice every couple of days, then so be it!