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.
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 refrigerators 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 into 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.
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. Portability, reliability, interior fridge space, defrosting, and efficiency are all benfits you’ll see in 12-volt RV refrigerators vs. propane RV refrigerators. Let’s take a look.
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.
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.
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.
No Flame or Propane
Unlike in a propane RV refrigerator, 12-volt RV fridges do not have flames to run their cooling process. This makes them safer, as propane fridges are one of the leading causes of RV fires. Additionally, you don’t have to worry about turning off the fridge while driving. As long as you have enough house RV battery power to run the fridge, you can keep a 12-volt RV refrigerator on while driving without issue.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 various 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.
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.
Are 12 Volt RV Fridges Worth It?
Whether a 12-volt RV fridge is worth it 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 much battery capacity may also find their batteries running low more quickly.
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.
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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