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12 Volt RV Refrigerator: Fridge Fad or the Real Deal?

12 Volt RV Refrigerator: Fridge Fad or the Real Deal?

Two of our favorite reasons for traveling in an RV is having a bathroom and fresh food and cold drinks on hand at all times. And while a 12 volt RV refrigerator may not be the most common option, it can still provide this benefit. And keep your ice cream rock solid!

Chill out with us as we explore this very cool choice for your rig’s kitchen.

What Is A 12 Volt RV Refrigerator? 

A 12 volt RV refrigerator runs primarily on the 12-volt DC power from your rig’s house batteries (or potentially your car or truck’s starter battery). These refrigerators operate solely on electricity, as opposed to absorption or two-way RV refrigerators that can burn propane to power their cooling system. 

12 volt RV fridge
A 12V Dometic fridge in our RV

How Does A 12 Volt RV Fridge Work? 

These fridges cool via a more traditional compressor and condenser system instead of the complex propane-reliant cooling system used by absorption-style RV fridges.

Need a refresher? Read How Does An RV Refrigerator Work? It’s Pretty Cool!

Because they are 12V they draw power from your rig’s house battery electrical system. Some models can also run directly from the cigarette lighter of your car or truck. If you are plugged into shore power these fridges will still operate on 12V DC, but the converter or battery charger will power the fridge.

These 12 volt RV fridges cool your items using a refrigerant that’s first pressurized. The pressurized refrigerant gets hot and is then cooled in a set of fins where it condenses into a liquid. The liquid is then passed through a small office and vaporizes back to a gas. This vaporization process makes the refrigerant very cold. This gas draws the heat from your refrigerator compartment, cooling it to the appropriate temperature. The newly-warmed refrigerant then heads back to the compressor to begin the cycle all over again. 

vapor compression rv refrigerator

Benefits of a 12 Volt RV Fridge

There are some significant benefits to a 12 volt RV fridge model for those currently using a propane or residential fridge. Let’s take a look.

Portable

Your 12 volt RV refrigerator can generally work wherever you need it because it can run on batteries. All you’ll need is 12V electric power. This is a huge bonus for those on the go. Even larger models that resemble traditional refrigerators are more portable than a propane RV refrigerator unit. They can be moved around your rig or removed without rerouting the propane system.

portable 12V dometic cooler
The Dometic CFX line are portable 12V fridge/Freezer units

Reliable Cooling

You can generally rest a little easier knowing your food is cool and safe using a 12-volt model. Many of these fridges can operate their freezer well below zero degrees and hold the refrigerator at a safe 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

This means your ice cream WILL stay hard!

Because they operate on the same principle as a residential fridge, many have active airflow in the fridge to better distribute the cool. Basically, they can operate as well as your fridge at home, just run on 12V instead of 120V AC.

A 12 volt RV refrigerator can also cool just as well regardless of the temperature outside the fridge. In contrast, RV fridges that cool via absorption.

Absorption-style RV fridges reject their heat outside and are somewhat dependent on ambient temperature. If it’s too hot the fridge may warm. If it’s too cold it may not function properly either.

rv 12v fridge cooling control panel

Propane-based fridges also can malfunction if you’re not parked on a completely level surface. There are no such issues with 12-volt fridges.

Additionally, you’ll never have to worry about your food going bad if you run out of propane without realizing it. Since your 12-volt fridge is running on the same power as many of your lights and outlets, you’ll know about power issues immediately. 

More Space

Many 12V RV fridges actually offer more interior space than their propane absorption counterpart. This is because the cooling unit takes up less space and more can be used for storage.

Auto Defrost

Most 12V DC rv refrigerators have active cooling similar to what you see in residential fridges. This allows them to build in auto defrost for the fridge and freezer. This is a huge benefit for fulltime RV users who know the hassle of having to defrost the fridge every few months.

absorption fridge fin defrost
Propane Absorption fridges commonly have this problem.

Highly Efficient and Can Be Powered by Solar

Compared to a propane absorption fridge operating on electric shore power a 12V model typically operates about eight times more efficiently. If you needed to run a residential fridge off batteries you would need an inverter as well that will incur electrical losses.

Because no inverter is needed, the 12V RV refrigerator can run directly off solar power and will be the most efficient electrical fridge option for an RV.

Solar powered 12V RV fridge
Our fridge runs on the sun!

Cons

Like many choices in RV gear, there are also some drawbacks to choosing a 12-volt fridge. They can be small and expensive, which puts some RVers off.

12V Power Source

While the 12V power source is its main benefit, it can also be its main drawback. The fridge will operate well on your RV battery power. However, you will need an external power source to run the fridge when off-grid for an extended period of time.

If your RV batteries die, so does your fridge. While you might only get a few days fridge run-time out of a battery a propane fridge could run for weeks.

Expensive

Unfortunately, the versatility and performance offered by a 12 volt fridge aren’t cheap. That is especially true if you consider the price relative to the required storage space.

While you’ll save on propane over the long run, you’ll need to fork over the extra cash to purchase the 12-volt model upfront. Many owners will also want to consider upgrading their 12V electrical system and possibly include lithium batteries which are more costly upfront.

12 volt fridge information panel
investing in solar or lithium to power the fridge could add up

Does a 12 Volt RV Refrigerator Require Ventilation? 

Nope. Unlike two-way fridges that cool with propane, your 12 volt RV refrigerator will not need dedicated ventilation to operate. This provides you with a variety of different options for where and how to install your fridge. 

Types of 12V Fridges

Most of the 12V fridges are designed to operate in moving vehicles so you typically find them in smaller sizes. There are two main design types you find in these fridges.

Drawer or Chest Style

One of the most common fridge types is designed like an electric cooler. These operate just like a normal fridge and keep cool when plugged in. These are great for many tight space applications and are frequently installed on slide-out trays. Sometimes they only have one cooling space, but others offer both fridge and freezer in one space. We personally use one of these as extra freezer space in our RV.

12V chest fridge
A chest style 12V Fridge/Freezer we use for extra storage

This type is a good option if you are power conservative as less cool is lost when it’s opened. Compared to an upright fridge less cold air spills out when it’s opened and it helps save energy.

Upright or Built-In

Upright fridges are the most standard in homes because of their convenience. Items are easy to access and do not get buried as they sit on shelves. For a more home-like experience, upright 12V fridges have become more popular. There are still fewer options for upright DC fridges however than their chest counterpart.

12v everchill
A 12V Everchill stand up model in an RV

Are 12 Volt RV Fridges Worth It? 

Whether a 12-volt RV fridge is worth it to you depends on your rig and camping style. Those who frequently camp in hot weather will love the extra cooling power compared to two-way fridges.

Off-grid boondocking enthusiasts with solar electric systems will love powering their fridges from the sun and not worrying about being level. And those who want to get creative with their rig’s layout will find some significant benefits in the lack of propane line and ventilation needed. 

However, they may not be the best option for those who need to store lots of food or RVers on a budget. Those without a lot of battery capacity may also find their batteries running low more quickly. 

installing a 12V RV fridge

Our 12V RV Fridge Journey

When our 2005 Dometic absorption fridge started to feel its age, we first attempted to convert it to a 12V compressor model. We did this by switching out the cooling unit with one made by JC Refrigeration.

This was a pretty strenuous DIY job, and it did work well for quite a few years. See our 6 Month Update Video here. However, the vacuum panels on the old fridge had begun to wear out, so it was time for another upgrade.

Converting our RV Fridge to a High Efficiency DC Compressor- 8x More Efficient! and Better Cooling!

Finally, we installed a Dometic 12V DMC4101 refrigerator in the summer of 2020. This fridge has performed flawlessly to keep our food cold and our power consumption down.

While our original retrofit worked well the Dometic 12V fridge feels and operates like a residential fridge. It has been exclusively powered by solar for over a year and we have been loving it.

What Will Your Next Fridge Be?

These 12 volt RV refrigerators may not work for everyone. However, they’re an essential option to know about when considering your next fridge. Their portability and reliability, mixed with their smaller size and higher price tag, provide a unique profile of advantages and drawbacks.

Ultimately, you’ll have to consider your own situation when weighing these pros and cons.

What do you think? Let us know if you’d swap out your absorption RV fridge for a 12V one in the comments below!

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Dan Brewer

Monday 18th of July 2022

Our Rockwood Mini Lite 2516S has a 12v fridge, and it cools great!

Kristy Nalder

Saturday 11th of June 2022

New to solar and 12 v fridge here. We bought a 2022 rockwood roo 233s. Standard equipment is 190 solar panel, 1000 w inverter, 2x 12 volt batteries and 12 v fridge. I assumed that the solar panels would power the fridge without fail. What our experience has been is a little different. I'm trying to figure out what my expectations should be. We have the fridge set to eco and freezer on the middle mode. Our fridge is out of battery power alarm goes off about 7am. We are being very conservative with light usage, no phones being charged, no music on, just fridge and pump for flushing as well as the furnace fan trying to keep it at 60 degrees over night. Then if we had an overcast day or parked under a tree, we would lose our fridge much sooner. How long should the fridge be able to run with this equipment on a normal circumstance day?

Renee

Saturday 11th of June 2022

We have a vitifrigo. It is an electric fridge that runs off our batteries. Most of the time we have enough sun to keep batteries charged. I love this fridge. Keeps a constant temp despite temp changes. I find this a plus over other fridges

Mortons on the Move

Wednesday 22nd of June 2022

Thanks for sharing! :)

Micah

Wednesday 1st of June 2022

Hello,

Wondering if you have any videos or pictures of the install of the Dometic DMC4101? I have that fridge in my new trailer and it works great on shore power, but when trying to run off the batteries (12v dc) the fridge turns on but the compressor tries, but won't turn on so it never cools down. I think it was wired incorrectly for 12v dc from the manufacturer, but I can't find anyone who has installed one. I'd even be willing to pay to help troubleshoot.

Thanks!

Cyrus Juliet

Sunday 29th of May 2022

The Dometic 12-volt Cooler is an outstanding product. This unit was purchased by my husband for use as a freezer in his tractor trailer. No trouble keeping food frozen.

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