Buying a camping refrigerator? – It’s a hot topic!

Packing the portable refrigerator and getting away on a camping weekend or for touring weeks at a time is almost part of everyone’s preparation, but it’s becoming a hot topic and more confusing than ever to choose the right mobile fridge or freezer.

Every fridge manufacturer is showering the average punter with glossy brochures, endless adverts, gimmicky give-aways and special never to be repeated offers. You’d think you just walked into a polling booth. They are all correct on one point, not all fridges are equal, and they never will be because each maker uses their own methods to deliver to you the information they want you to read and see.

fridgeMost 4WDers and tourers choose a portable fridge around 50L as this size suits most travelling couples or families. Unless of course you happen to be married to my wife who requires 80L of fridge and freezer space, plus another 35L of cold drinks space for a weekend camp.

Anyway, the point being if we look at the most popular average size we will get a whole variety of offers, variations, performance figures and warranties. Some people will swear by the age old brand of Engel because its been around for eons. True, but so has the incandescent bulb in driving lights and these have clearly been left behind by advancements in technology.


Others may choose the latest in technology from Waeco, but are the new Chinese made compressors a proven replacement for the Danfoss compressor they dropped. The jury is still out on that one. Many manufacturers still use the Danfoss, to their credit in my view, and simply fit to their own design cases and packages. This is where the variances start to show, because the insulation and cabinet is crucial to the fridge’s performance. Unfortunately some manufacturers ‘dance around’ the actual performance figures to claim theirs works best.

So how do they do it?

By using their own operating environment to obtain the desired figures. It’s a bit like the fuel economy figures of a new car, most people rarely obtain the rated figures manufacturers do because they can’t replicate the clinical environment used to achieve them. Some fridge manufacturers may use a 25degC ambient environment, some more practical thinking makers use 32degC. The outcomes can vary greatly. The cabinet temperature used to test can be 5degC, again some choose a lower temperature to give a more realistic result. They then run the fridge over a 24 hour period and measure the current draw using an amp-hour accumulator which gives a reading on consumed power. The desired figures then go into the sales brochure, stating figures like 0.77Ah/h for example.

Unfortunately the real use of a fridge will find the ambient temperature quite warm in the back of a 4WD, and as we know dogs and children can suffer terribly or die if left in a car even in the shade. This is where your fridge is. So using 25degC or even 32degC is being a little conservative. We then have the kids, or even adults seeking refreshment in an amber glass, lifting the lid often and this constantly changes the cabinet temperature therefore demanding more work by the compressor.

All of a sudden that 0.77Ah/h rated figure is just not achievable.

So where does that leave the average buyer trying to figure out what suits best. Well its almost impossible to offer a guide without knowing all your circumstances, but here’s a few tips.

Work out how much space you think you will need for food stuffs. Remember beer is important, but not a survival necessity. In most cases. So allow for food that needs chilling and water. Don’t buy bigger than you really need as it becomes in-efficient.

Look at where you are going to use it or fit it in your vehicle, camper, etc. Some are poorly designed with difficult to access controls, wasted space around the compressor unit, or even poor lid access. If you can’t situate it easily and efficiently space-wise in your vehicle, or access controls or lid of the cabinet easily, every time you use it will just waste energy, yours and the power sources.

Pack a fridge full as air is very hard to chill and wastes energy. If only going away for a weekend with a couple of steaks and a six pack, fill the rest of the fridge with chilled water bottles or similar. It becomes a far more efficient fridge.

Prepare meals or products beforehand and chill them in advance. If cooking prepared meals to freeze, freeze them in a bag within a container or similar that sets a shape that is easy to store. Ad-hoc shapes of frozen meat or meals wastes space, so freeze it square and it will pack better.

If you can or if available, add an insulating bag. But make sure the fridge compressor system can breathe.

Limit the amount of opening and closing of the lid. Plan what you need, dive in and grab it and shut the lid properly.

When driving and using the alternator system to run the fridge as such, drop the temperature down low. Don’t freeze your cheese, but simply make the most of the drive time. When you stop, simply bump the temp back up to normal. This makes best use of your available energy and saves battery power when parked.

Most importantly, make sure your battery and electrical system is the best it can be.
The amount of times we have seen as Service Agents in the past, fridges that are perfectly OK but the wiring is dismal at best. Voltage drop over poor connections, inadequate cabling and technically poor systems will limit the operating time of your fridge and can sap power faster than it should.

Take note of these tips, and maybe add a few of your own, and all of a sudden the task of choosing between a fridge with 0.77Ah/h or 0.85Ah/h becomes a non-issue, as you can make the fridge that suits your needs work the best for you.

See you Outback. Chris Blakemore





Note: Chris and his team were warranty Service Agents for most portable fridge manufacturers for many years. Frustration with some makers and direction with their product sourcing led to the decision to step away from servicing fridges.

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