Van Life Refrigerator

A complete guide to choosing the best fridge for your van.

Whether you are living in your van full time or part time, one of the biggest choices you face is how to store your cold food items, and this guide will help you choose the right van life refrigerator.

If you are at all like us, most articles leave you wishing they would just get to the point.  So, we will start with our conclusions for anyone that just wants to know what our opinion is.  Following this, we will have a lot more information and resources for those that like to know the prevailing opinions out there yet want to do their own deeper study of the issue.


 

Here are the decisions we faced:

1.  Power Source:  We opted to have a 12v DC fridge that can switch to 110 AC when we are plugged into power.  This allows us to also plug into battery pack with solar when the day comes.  We did purchase a Goal Zero Yeti portable power station (battery) that turned out to be a huge mistake.  I will link here when I finish my writeup on that.   

2.  Is it well reviewed? :  This can be tricky to navigate all the reasons people rate different products, but we spent hours pouring over reviews to see if someone actually had a valid point to make or if they simply said something sucked without any idea why.  Thoughtful reviews can be extremely informative about things you might never have thought of.

3.  Energy Efficiency:  Because we wanted a fridge that could tie in to the van battery, it was important to us that it would not draw too much power.  This is also part of why we chose a top load fridge.  Since colder air drops you have less loss when opening a top load versus a front load.  When you open a front load you lose more cold air as it spills out. 

4.  Quality & Durability:  Unlike a fridge in a house that just sits there, a fridge for your van life will be subject to a lot of vibration as well as jolts when hitting unexpected bumps/potholes.  While we would be a long way away from "offroading", we liked the idea of fridges that were designed for the 4-wheeling community.  We believed that  a highly rated fridge for offroading would be even more likely to hold up during our travels across decently maintained roads.

5.  Simplicity:  For us, this probably should be at the top of the list in terms of importance.  If you have spent any time researching van buildouts that include power options, fridges, and all the options of self-contained units like Goal Zero versus building it out piece by piece, you will find a lot of complicated information along with multiple warnings of what could go wrong.  Maybe you have more knowledge in these areas, but looking at different diagrams and all the componenets were enough to make our heads spin.  We wanted simple!  If you can combine quality with plug-and-play then that is something we would gladly pay a premium for.

6.  Space, layout, and accessability:  Since our fridge choice was made later in the process of buildout, it did give us some issues that we could have otherwise avoided.  Given our size van (mid length Sprinter) and the kitchenette we designed, the fridge was going to need to be under our bed platform.  Unfortunately, as we didn't know what the dimensions would be, I had to pull out our bed platform and raise it higher with 4x4s.  Without going back and raising the bed platform even more, the slide had to be mounted so that the fridge actually pokes our a bit from under our bed so that the lid can be fully opened.  Also, it allows the lid to lean back so it stays open on its own.  One thing I love about where we placed our fridge is that it is easily accessed outside the van when wanting to grab a quick item from it.

7.  Size:  This is something that each must decide for themselves on what they need.  However, I can share a few thoughts we considered.  Obviously the straight up capacity needs to be considered.  We went with a 50 Qt.  In the years that we have used our fridge we have learned the biggest considerations should be a) what do you generally need kept cold that you regularly consume, for me I like to have enough cold beer!  and b) how flexible is the interior space of the fridge.  In other words, can the space inside be altered according to need?  I will share some photos of our setup below to illustrate what I mean. 

8.  Noise:  This is a area that we really paid attention to when reading the reviews.  We were lucky that the reviews were spot on for us as this is a really subjective opinion.  In fact, when the fridge is running it is like a nice white noise, but it does not constantly run so we also like to run a white noise app on our phones to help our sleep.

 9.  Freezer or No Freezer:  This is another hugely personal decision to make.  While it would obviously be nice to have the ability to make ice or have the odd frozen item or two, we decided it just didn't make sense.   We didn't want to have space dedicated to items that wouldn't be regularly needed.

 10.  Cost:  This is a challenging topic in itself.  Obviously cost matters more to people who have a lower starting budget, but we should all want to get what we pay for.  Given that our van fridge was going to be one of the most expensive aspects of our buildout, it was important to us that it would run well and last.  While we wanted to keep this cost as low as made sense, we would have preferred to pay more if that is what it took to meet our expectations.


The fridge we ultimately chose for our van:

The ARB 10800472 50 Qt Fridge/Freezer

While this model is no longer available we would definitely replace with the latest comparable model by ARB.  We have had zero complaints or issues beyond the layout issues mentioned which has nothing to do with the ARB itself.  We just didn't know what we didn't know. 

We purchased our ARB fridge on 11/5/2018 and chose to go also purchase a wiring kit, a slide, and tie downs on Amazon from ARB as well.

At the time, our cost was $877.80 for the fridge, $43 for the wiring kit, $350.55 for the slide, and $28.49 for the tie downs.

While we have seen many clever ways people have installed their van fridges without purchasing a slide, as stated earlier we love simple, and same for the wiring kit (there will be plenty of photos below).

The beauty of having a highly efficient fridge like the ARB that ties into your van battery is that it reduces your battery/solar needs.

A few times now our van has been in off the grid situations where hookup was not an option (4 day music festival).  In those cases the fridge continued to run almost the complete time (once shutting off at the end of the last day to save the battery).

It has a shutoff feature when it detects the battery is getting low so your vehicle can still start.  This came in very handy for another extended visit where the van had been plugged in to power, but unknown to us we had knocked the power cable out at the back of the fridge (hasn't happened since).  

Additionally, we have found the adjustable basket in the fridge useful with its 4 different configurations to accommodate for different storage needs.


If we had to replace our van fridge, here is what we would purchase today:

 

The ARB 10801472 Series II Fridge/Freezer 

Click on image or button see see current pricing from Amazon (where we purchase our fridge).  We have found that shopping on Amazon helps guarantee service where Amazon has requirements from sellers and will often step in if needed.

* These are Amazon affiliate links

TIP:  Get an Amazon credit card to save 5% on all purchases.

 

Check current price on Amazon

ARB 10900027 ARB Fridge Freezer Wiring Kit And Threaded Socket Mount

 

 

 

Check current price on Amazon

ARB 10900021 37/50 Quart Fridge Freezer Slide

 

 

Check current price on Amazon

ARB 10900010 Fridge Freezer Tie Down System

 

Check current price on Amazon

* Technically, all we would need to purchase would be the fridge as we likely would not need to replace the other three items. 

Click HERE to access entire ARB Store on Amazon

Top Brands

Here is a list of the top brands as noted from first page Google search of "van life refrigerator" in alphabetical order.

Depending on where you are located you may find some brands easier to get than others.

While ARB is our first choice, a Dometic would definitely be our second choice for a van refrigerator.  However, based on availability and your preferred style or van layout you may easily opt for another brand.

Alpicool (China) 
Website: https://www.alpicool.com/
Alpicool store on Amazon (US):  https://www.amazon.com/stores/Alpicool/page/140FD2A0-90AE-4E30-A545-009FF8734FE5?ref_=ast_bln&_encoding=UTF8&tag=tcl06d-20&linkCode=ur2&linkId=0615a50329bf440a98788e002ba78482&camp=1789&creative=9325
They have both front load and top load compact fridges in their product line.


ARB (Australia)   OUR #1 CHOICE FOR TOP LOAD.
Website:  https://arbusa.com/portable-fridge-freezers/
ARB store on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/stores/ARB+4x4+Accessories/page/0BC52634-A4A0-4900-A255-D99F7EF9B804?ref_=ast_bln&_encoding=UTF8&tag=tcl06d-20&linkCode=ur2&linkId=7711da824246763a764505fc2c802736&camp=1789&creative=9325
Product line of top loading fridges of varying size and 3 styles, including a dual zone model.  Their dual zone has 2 lids so that you are not opening the entire fridge to access just one side.  Both zones can be either fridge or freezer and can be either on or off.  Consume enough food that you only need one side running, just turn off the other side to save energy.


BougeRV
Website:  https://www.bougerv.com/
BougeRV store on Amazon (US):  https://www.amazon.com/stores/page/A45984DF-8431-4998-A888-6317B5E0B8B7?ingress=2&visitId=310aa533-b0d4-431d-b50e-54ccade57478&ref_=ast_bln&_encoding=UTF8&tag=tcl06d-20&linkCode=ur2&linkId=3189739a141b4362274728051d0e9190&camp=1789&creative=9325
They offer a variety of sizes of top loading chest fridges.  If you are looking for a dual zone fridge you may want to check this brand out.


Costway  (Ontario, CA, USA)

More research needed, but they appear to sell relabeled goods versus manufacturing.

Website:  https:www.costway.com/


Danby
Website:  https://www.danby.com/en-us/product-categories/compact-refrigerators-en-us/ 
Danby store on Amazon (US):  https://www.amazon.com/stores/page/5844D781-30FD-40B5-A79A-19427D485F0C?ingress=2&visitId=80e74941-e584-45fd-a2e7-90e37494b36a&ref_=ast_bln&_encoding=UTF8&tag=tcl06d-20&linkCode=ur2&linkId=767cb2d2c87a306f10b55c72e2c640da&camp=1789&creative=9325


Dometic (Sweden)     OUR #2 CHOICE FOR TOP LOAD.
Website:  https://www.dometic.com/en-nz/outdoor/nz/products/food-and-beverage/portable-refrigeration/fridge-freezers-and-coolers
Dometic store on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.com/stores/Dometic/page/D6B01F8B-6A5A-4CE2-86FA-1D638919263A?ref_=ast_bln


Engel (Australia)
Website:  https://engelcoolers.com/collections/powered-fridge-freezers 
I found a few Engel products on Amazon (US), but I did not find an Engel store setup like many brands have.


Iceco  (St. Paul, MN, USA)
Website:  https://icecofreezer.com/ 
Iceco store on Amazon (US):  https://www.amazon.com/stores/ICECO/page/02A4D9C4-F253-49A0-8194-881A4DD4725D?ref_=ast_bln&_encoding=UTF8&tag=tcl06d-20&linkCode=ur2&linkId=d444db09ea0f3330f17cfc1a5fb4fbd7&camp=1789&creative=9325


Isotherm (Italy)  a.k.a. Indel Webasto Marine
Website:  https://www.indelwebastomarine.com/us/ 
Didn't find Isotherm fridges on Amazon (US).


Norcold (Sidney, OH, USA)
Website:  https://norcold.com/
Norcold store on Amazon:
  https://www.amazon.com/stores/Norcold+Inc./page/F6438EE1-21D6-40D2-A52B-5D29BB47ECBF?ref_=ast_bln&_encoding=UTF8&tag=tcl06d-20&linkCode=ur2&linkId=f36f57ee49dae7c5e764e5784d535807&camp=1789&creative=9325


Nova Kool (Vancouver, BC, Canada)
Website:  https://www.novakool.com/
Didn't find Nova Kool fridges on Amazon (US), just a replacement door latch. 


TruckFridge (KY, USA)
Website:  https://truckfridge.com/ 
Didn't find TruckFridge fridges on Amazon (US).


Vitrifrigo (Italy)
Website:  https://www.vitrifrigo.com/us/us/ 
Didn't find Vitrifrigo fridges on Amazon (US).


Whynter (China)
Website:  https://www.whynter.com/ 
Whynter store on Amazon (US):  https://www.amazon.com/stores/page/EF630838-3092-478E-954C-27C9C971E8D9?ingress=2&visitId=9b74806e-0895-47f1-894e-a63e7086f0d8&ref_=ast_bln&_encoding=UTF8&tag=tcl06d-20&linkCode=ur2&linkId=fcd9f6ab3d26c0984daddb8e5db49a1e&camp=1789&creative=9325

How do you power a fridge in a van?

... Why we chose our ARB fridge for our van based on power considerations

There are plenty of reviews and articles written on van life refrigerators, and the more complicated you wish to make your energy sources for your van the more likely you should visit many of them to make the best decision.

We took another path... we wanted easier power choices and proceeded from there.

The ARB fridge we chose offers 3 simple power sources that can all be on the table simultaneously...

1.  12 Volt:  We really wanted to be able to be off the grid without the need for solar, so this made using 12 volt from the van battery a top choice for us.
The fridge can be run off of the van battery knowing that it will sense when the battery is getting low and shut itself off.
We have personal experience with the fridge running 3-4 days at a festival... shut itself down later on day 4... and the van started with no problem.

You can also choose to run the van to charge up the battery or a short drive now and then easily tops up your battery.

One of the best things you can do before you consider solar is to reduce your power needs.  The ability to tap into your van battery can dramatically reduce your needs.

2.  AC Power (the good old standard outlet):  We have a number of destinations where we can easily plug our van into their power.  What is easier or cheaper than just plugging in when power is readily available.  Whether we are visiting friends and family or most campgrounds we go to, we love having the option of plugging in.

When plugged in to AC power, the fridge senses it and no longer draws power from the van battery.

3.  Solar and battery (sometimes referred to as a power station):  We will soon have a page specifically focused on such products, but for now we would have you understand at least the mistake we made.  You see, it is terribly difficult when you do a lot of research and yet fail to learn the most important questions.

We started by choosing what we thought was a great power station (a Goal Zero Yeti) that stored a decent amount of power and is ready for solar panels to be plugged in.  Since the battery could also be charged by plugging in this provided us additional power when off grid until the day we made our solar panel decisions.

What we didn't know was that when the internal battery died and we looked to the manual to replace, Goal Zero expects you to ship the entire unit back to them to have the lithium battery replaced and then back to you.  Given how often this would need to be done, we made a very poor choice in buying the Goal Zero.

We are hoping to look into alternate options for replacing said battery or we will have to go back to square one and look for another power station source.  When we revisit this decision we will have a page based on the new research.  For the time being all we have to offer on this front is our warning.

Our Goal Zero Yeti 1000 (A big mistake)

The image to the right shows what our Goal Zero Yeti 1000 looks like from the front.  Basically it is housing for a battery that makes it useful in terms of various ways to use the power as well as charge the station.

NOTE 12/22/21:  Just spoke with Batteries Plus as a possible solution to wanting to avoid the cost of shipping it back to Goal Zero for battery replacement and it was a no go.

How to easily install/wire an ARB fridge using their wiring kit

With an affordable wiring kit, ARB makes hooking your fridge up to your van battery a simple process.

ARB 10900027 ARB Fridge Freezer Wiring Kit And Threaded Socket Mount

Check current price on Amazon

Step 1:  Connect to battery and run into driver side of van

Wire connects to battery both positive and negative (see photo arrows 1 and 2); however, we chose to start by anchoring wire with zip ties and run/install the rest of the wire before hooking to the battery (see photo arrow 3).  We then ran the wire into the cab (see photo arrow 4).

Step 2a:  Begin running wire under floor mat and trim

Photo arrow 1 inside the cab corresponds with arrow 4 from Step 1.  We brought the wire down and tucked under flooring and around edge as noted in photo by white lines after insertion point noted by arrow 2.

Step 2b:  Continue running wire around trim and into area behind driver's seat

We continued to run the wire following the path of the white lines in the photo until we ran it behind our kitchen counter where the arrow is located.

Step 3:  Mount wire and threaded socket mount

We drilled a hole in the 4x4 to allow the wire to slide through.  Next, we wired to the socket mount and mounted to the 4x4.  The ARB fridge then plugs into the 12v socket.  The fridge also has AC plug that we plugged into power strip wired into the van for when we are able to plug in at some locations.

Summary of install

The beauty of the ARB fridge is the ability to tie directly to the van battery with ease.  The fridge (if on) will first look to see if it has power provided by the AC plug.  If so, it will override the 12v plug and will not draw power from your van battery.
If there is no power provided by the AC plug it will then look to your 12v power source (your van battery).  If the van battery becomes low on charge, the ARB fridge will turn itself off at the chosen preset level that you choose when setting up the fridge.  This is done to protect the capability of starting your van.  We have encountered a couple instances where it did just that and the van started without problem.

NOTE:  This is only provided to share what we did to install our ARB fridge.  When it comes to wiring anything in your van you will have to decide for yourself how much of a DIY person you are or what type of professional help you should seek.  We have seen stories where vans have caught fire and burned completely out.  This is also a reason that I highly recommend using ARB's wiring kit as there should be no questions as to it's compatibility.