Ice Chest or 12 Volt Compressor Fridge: Refrigeration for VanDwellers
While I love living in a van, in the beginning there were lots of little problems I had to solve; one problem I had to solve right away was eating. I moved into my van in such a rush I had no stove to cook with, no water to wash with and no cooler to keep food in. Because of that, I found myself spending a lot of time and money in restaurants, or even worse eating fast food.
I’d moved into the van to save money and if I ate all my meals out that would significantly cut into my savings—I needed a solution.
I’ve been a camper and backpacker all my life and I knew all about cooking on propane stoves so I bought a Coleman 1-burner propane stove and a 20 pound refillable propane bottle with adapter hose to cook on. To do dishes I bought a 5 gallon Coleman water jug (get it from Amazon here: Coleman Water Carrier (5-Gallon)) and a simple plastic wash basin. I already had all the pots and pans and silverware I needed so I was all set. It worked great! I put all the cooking stuff in a Rubbermaid tote and sat the stove on top of it to cook on and I could easily carry it in or out to cook in the van or outside. Get the Coleman stove I own from Amazon here: Coleman 1 Burner Propane Stove and the adapter hose to make it work off a bulk bottle here: Coleman Bulk Tank Hose & Adapter
But I still needed a way to keep food cold so I bought an ice chest. Having lived in Alaska all my life I was extremely aware of the importance of insulation, so I added layers of Styrofoam all around it. I used that cooler for the next 6 years while I lived in the van and it worked really well. Then I made one of the worst mistakes of my life and moved back into a house—which I hated to the very core of my being!! After 4 years of enduring the misery of 4 walls I moved back into a pickup and I used that very same cooler for another 2 years. I got my moneys worth out of that cooler!!
Back in 2009 I was tired of the high cost of buying ice, having to make special trips to town just to get ice and spoiling food by getting it full of ice-water. I’d recently become aware of 12 volt compressor fridges and decided it was time to save myself some time, money and aggravation by retiring the ice chest and getting one.
I found a Dometic CF25 online for $400 and ordered it. It was small but adequate (barely). I’m convinced that it paid for itself in a year in savings on ice, gas to get ice and food I had to throw away after it floated in ice water. You can get it from Amazon for $433 here: Dometic CF-025 Portable Compressor Freezer/Refrigerator
I used the Dometic for the next 4 years when I bought a bigger Whytner 65 quart 12 volt compressor fridge and moved it into the trailer and the Dometic went into the van to be used in the summers on long trips, for example, it went to Alaska with Judy and me. Its small size was a big advantage then! I highly recommend the Whynter 65 quart, you can get it from Amazon here for $504: Whynter 65-Quart Portable Compressor Refrigerator/Freezer,
Last April when I was getting ready to leave on my summer travels I was moving everything over into the van and getting the trailer ready to go into storage so I turned the Dometic on to cool down and transfer my food from the Whynter into it. Unfortunately the Dometic wouldn’t come on. I tried everything I knew to get it to run but it wouldn’t. Because it was the very last minute I just didn’t have time to call Dometic and see if they could help me. I’d also had a friend whose Dometic had died and he wrote and emailed Dometic customer service repeatedly, and they never responded. So I decided that since it was the last minute I would just go to Walmart and buy an ice chest and put up with that for the summer.
This post is a report on which ice chest I bought, how I added extra insulation, and how it has worked out for me after 5 months of use. Here is what I bought and links to get them from Amazon:
Igloo Maxcold Quantum Cooler, 52 quart
Group 24-31 Snap-Top Battery Box for Marine, and RV Batteries
Wenzel Aluminum Camp Pad (Silver/Blue)
Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag
Dometic CF-025 Portable Compressor Freezer/Refrigerator
Whynter 65-Quart Portable Compressor Refrigerator/Freezer,
The captions to the photos tell most of the story. The Igloo Quantum cooler worked very well and I could go 5 days with one bag and one block of ice, or even longer with two blocks and one bag of ice, but that didn’t leave much room for food so I rarely did it. The battery box also worked well but it’s such a tight fit it was hard to lift out of the cooler with water in it. I solved that problem by drilling holes at the top of the box and used rope to make handles. Once you have the handles, it was very easy to lift out to dump the water.
I was also extremely happy with the Wenzel Sleeping Pad. I thought maybe the aluminum foil would quickly peel off but it proved very durable. My van was pretty tight so it got kicked around a lot but it lasted the whole summer and looks like new. I used a big piece to wrap around the cooler, two pieces under the cooler and one glued to the top of the lid. I also cut a piece to the exact inside dimensions and pressed it in to the inside of the cooler before I closed the lid. I think that really helps by not allowing the cold air to circulate inside the box and confining the cold to where your food is. As the cooler empties out, the pad goes down with it. As it went down, I added a second piece of the insulation on top of the first. I needed two Wenzel pads to do all that.
It’s hard to find, in fact I’ve only found it at one store, so you’ll probably need to get it from Amazon here: Wenzel Aluminum Camp Pad (Silver/Blue)
I was not too pleased with the Sea to Summit dry bag. It turns out that they are not actually water proof. If it’s lashed to a kayak, your stuff will stay dry from spray and rain, but if the kayak rolls and the bag is submerged, it’ll soon be filled with water. It turns out that if you put ice water in it, and leave it on it’s side, the water leaks out the roll closure. If the closure stays at the top, it won’t, but I rarely had room to do that. It kept the ice confined and if I drained the water often it worked okay. I’d keep using it, but you can’t expect miracles. The little bags for food worked really well. I just kept the closure at the top and they always stayed dry. Get them from Amazon here: Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag
There is no doubt that ice chests work and if you don’t have the money or solar power for 12 volt compressor fridge they will get the job done, but in the long run they are much more expensive and very inconvenient:
- The ice water was a hassle: If I drained the Seat to Summit bag often, nearly all the water ended up in the battery box so all I had to do to empty it was to take all the food out, lift it out by the handles I made for it and dump it outside. Not bad, but still it took extra time and effort. If I was conscientious, I never lost any food. If I got lazy, I could lose a little.
- Extra trips to town: the ice would last 4 days but by the 5th day it would be almost all ice water with just a few small chips of ice left. I’ve gone for up to 7 days without buying ice and the food was still cold and I ate it without any problem, but I was uncomfortable with it getting that warm. Because it concerned me to get that warm, I always tried to get ice by the 4th day and always by the 5th day. That means that every 4 days I had to go into town whether I needed to or not. Several times I had too much ice to put more in so I went to camp and then 2 days later I was out of ice and heading to the store. All those extra trips were frustrating to me and cost me more in gas because I was always far from any towns. I could easily spend more in the gas I burned than the cost of the ice itself.
- Cost of the ice itself: I estimate I paid $6-$10 dollars a week for ice. If I was in a major town, I could get the ice for as little as $1.99 per bag and if I averaged 3 bags a week, that’s $6 (Walmart sells it for $1.43 a bag, but sometimes it was a 7 pound bag, and I rarely had a Walmart close by). But if I was far from town, which I usually was, I paid whatever they charged, usually $2.99 per bag and sometimes $3.99 a bag. Then, buying 3 bags a week costs $9-$10 a week, $500 a year. I always tried to get blocks, but every so often it simply wasn’t available.
Conclusion: there is no doubt in my mind that a 12 volt compressor fridge will pay for itself in 18 months (and possibly in one year) just in the cost of ice and extra gas spent getting the ice. Plus, inevitably some of your food will be ruined by the ice water. And then their is the convenience factor, ice chests are simply an extra hassle. Right now, you can get the Dometic CF25 for $433 and it should pay for itself in a year. A Renogy 100 watt solar system to run it will cost you less than $200 and a Walmart marine battery will be about $100. But solar power will make your life so much better in so many ways you want it whether you get a fridge or not. Get the Renogy 100 watt kit here: Renogy 100 Watts Complete Solar Starter Kit But, let me admit that 100 watts is a minimal amount of solar. It will run the compressor fridge and a few minor devices like your phone and LED lights, but not much more. If you are frugal with your power, it will work but with no extras.