Different types of refrigerators used in RVs (including coolers and chillers) will have pros and cons. With so many options on the market, the key factors like size, capacity, reliability, temperature, and ease of use, and price are often interrelated. This is why the benefit of one option can outweigh another depending on your current RV space, budget, the number of people camping, and current RV camping lifestyle.
In general, the main pros of a compressor fridge are:
- Can consistently lower temperature
- Not affected by the ambient temperature
- Can double as a freezer
- Can work in uneven terrain
- Can run on DC while driving
- efficiently run on either AC or DC
The downside of this RV fridge type is that:
- The compressor motor can be noisy
- Can drain the battery fast (and would need a substantial solar power system setup if boondocking).
The advantage of absorption fridges is that most models:
- Can run efficiently on propane, making it very cost effective
- Are relatively quiet
A few cons of an absorption fridge is that:
- It requires to be on a level surface for it to work properly
- Requires ventilation to work efficiently
- The aluminum fins limit the fridge’s interior capacity for food/drink storage
- Is heavily affected by the ambient temperature
- Depending on the age, brand/model, it may not always run efficiently on DC power (if applicable).
What’s The Difference Between A Compressor And Absorption Fridge?
The main difference between a compressor and an absorption fridge is the cooling mechanism. As their name implies, a compressor fridge uses a compressor motor to circulate the HCFC or HFC refrigerant inside a closed system to raise the pressure so it can go into cooling coils.
Because of this, it can consistently maintain the desired temperature regardless of the ambient temperature. Compressor refrigerators need a consistent power source which is why they mostly come in AC &/or DC.
On the other hand, absorption refrigerators use heat to start a thermochemical reaction between the ammonia coolant to lower the temperature inside the fridge. This cooling mechanism is slower, requires pre-cooling before use, and can be influenced by ambient temperature. Depending on the brand and model available, it can work on either propane, AC, and/or DC. Having propane as a fuel source makes this option cheaper and boondocking easier (unless you have a solar power system in your RV).
These main differences mean that the care and maintenance would also be different. A more detailed breakdown of the mechanism of each one can be found in the article “What Kind of Fridge Is in an RV?”
How Does All The Different Types Of RV Refrigerators Compare?
Comparing the different RV fridges can be based on the different priorities of each type of camper. These priorities aren’t limited to just price, size, efficiency, durability, or safety. Understanding one’s actual refrigeration needs for the current camping lifestyle will influence which RV refrigerator type is better than another. The different makes and models, there will be one that will meet.
RV Fridges, Chillers & Coolers Comparison
The table below summarizes general key factors, including pros and cons between the RV fridges, including coolers and chillers. These are based on the most common RV user feedback and technical guides and troubleshooting steps. To understand the RV refrigerator you have, or one that you’re planning to buy, make sure to check the RVChronicle article How Does Your RV Refrigerator Work.
|Refrigerators||Refrigerators||Refrigerators||Refrigerators||Refrigerators||Refrigerators||Coolers||Coolers||Thermoelectric Chillers||Thermoelectric Chillers|
|RV||RV||RV||RV||Residential (Compressor)||Residential (Compressor)|
|Portable||Depends on brand/make/model||Depends on brand/make/model||Depends on brand/make/model||Depends on brand/make/model||No||–||Yes||–||Yes||–|
|Temp Regulation||Yes||Inconsistent||Yes||–||Yes||–||depends on the amount of ice||–||-40F of ambient only||No|
|Has to be level||–||Yes||No (up to 33* off level)||–||No||–||Not really (to prevent spillage)||–||No||–|
|Can be used while driving||–||No||Yes||–||–||No||Yes||–||Yes||–|
|Requires Pre-Cooling||Yes||Slow cooling||Yes (fast cooling)||–||Yes (fast cooling)||–||Yes||–||Yes||–|
|Can operate on Propane, AC, and or DC||Yes||–||Yes||–||–||AC Only||–||No||AC/DC||Can drain battery|
|Maintenance||Low-Med||Prone to leak||Low||–||Low-High (depends)||Low-High (depends)||Low||–||Low||–|
Which RV Refrigerator Is The Best?
Compressor refrigerators are often better since it cools faster and more consistently compared to absorption fridges. The temperature consistency helps prevent food spoilage, prolong perishable food and keep drinks cold.
Choosing the best refrigerator would be dependent on your current RV and camping style. If you’re a casual camper, who mostly goes camping during the summer weekends (based on the RVIA’s 2021 Go RVing RV Owner Demographic Profile survey), an absorption fridge in temperate weather would work fine since one only needs to store enough food and drinks to last 2-3 days.
Note that if the campsite is in a hot and humid place, a compressor fridge would be a more reliable option to ensure the food & drinks stay cold. If you’re an escapist, an avid RV-er, happy-, family-camper, or a full-time camper who goes on weeklong trips (or longer), either a good-sized absorption or compressor fridge will work fine since the best RV fridge would depend on what the most practical & convenient fuel/power source option (if you’ll be boondocking or be plugged in at a campsite), and if you plan to restock during the trip.
The chart below gives a general guide as to which refrigeration system may suit you based on your priorities and needs. This does not include size or price since, whether it’s purchased brand new or second hand, the brand make and model availability may differ per country.
The RV fridge size you will need will depend entirely on (1) what you want to store, (2) how much you need to store – which will be based on how many people, the duration of your trip, and if you’ll be plugged in or boondocking.
What Size Refrigerator Do I Need For An RV?
The RV fridge you can get should also be able to fit in your RV – so remember to consider your RV’s weight limit and how much space you have in your RV for a fridge and its accessories (propane tank or battery, converter, etc.). Norcold’s PolarMax™18 (USD$4,721.77) claims to be the largest 3-way absorption RV fridge with 18.3 ft3 (518L) storage, and depending on the model can weigh around 238-176lbs (108-125.2kg). Among the smallest fridges are Dometic’s CRX 50TFP3 (USD$995) and the CRX 50U (USD$1105) with 1.7 ft3 capacity.
In the event that you need to refrigerate more food and/or drinks, having an additional cooler or chiller can be an alternative. A reliable cooler (if filled with ice) can relatively last around 4days, is portable, and doesn’t require electricity. Some downsides of using a cooler are that you’ll need at least 1/3 of the compartment space for ice (which means less space for drinks/food) and any opened food may get waterlogged.
If budget isn’t an issue, Dometic’s CF11 (~USD$574.14) is an 11L portable compressor cooler (may not be available in all countries) has the advantage of having more storage space since no ice is needed (AC/DC powered), compact and weighs 8.5kg. Other chillers may have a cigarette lighter charger, but depending on the make and model, some may not have a temperature setting and may consume more electricity which would drain the battery faster.