Car and 4WD Fridges

If you plan on really using your car fridge then it’s a buying decision you need to get right the first time. The appliance responsible for keeping your stores cold or your medicines safe or your drinks chilled needs to work all day, every day in any environment.

Failure to do so may mean the shortening of a week’s fishing trip or the loss of considerable investment in food. It may mean living on roadhouse food while you are touring, or buying ice and missing out on an interesting detour because you have suddenly ceased being self-sufficient.

range of different car fridges
Types of Portable Fridges

There are basically three types of mobile cooling units used today.

  1. Thermoelectric. These smaller console style units costing anywhere from $50 and up to $200 or $300. They mostly run on only 12 volt power and are commonly known as ‘thermoelectric’ coolers. These units, very basically, use electricity to produce a transfer of heat or cooling between dissimilar metals. All very complex but it essentially means that it’s a very clever idea that doesn’t work very well when things get above 25 degrees. Not hard to achieve in a vehicle on an Australian road. These types of coolers typically cool to a temperature about 20 degrees C below the ambient environment. They probably make better food warmers (an optional function) than serious chillers.
  2. Gas Absorption. Gas fired fridges are the oldest type of mobile refrigeration and useful for extended trips where electricity is unavailable. Most require a heat source either supplied by 12 volt, 240 volt or most commonly by burning gas. Cooling is achieved by the cooling and evaporation effect of ammonia. These units need to be level to work and require a supply of LPG to function independently of electricity. As new portable refrigeration improves this style of cooling is becoming rarer.
  3. Compressor Refrigeration. The most common and efficient type of portable cooling used today these units operate identically to your standard household fridge. These are what we’ll discuss in this article.
Which Brand to Buy?

At this point someone from the Engel or Waeco brigade usually stands up and begins waving the flag in support of their favoured brand. In Australia, Engel and Waeco are currently the ‘Big 2’ as far as car fridges go. There are a host of alternatives from the likes of ARB, Explorer, Bushman etc. it just happens that Engel and Waeco have been around for a long time, have built a reputation for reliability and have had successful advertising campaigns.

Much like the eternal 4WD debate over whether Toyota or Nissan make the best four wheel drives, personal loyalties are often used to defend a particular buying choice rather than to fairly compare differing models.

Buying a fridge should be more about what makes the box operate rather than what the box is constructed from.

Danfoss Compressor
The Compressor

The compressor is the heart of any fridge. The most common make of compressor used in quality fridges today is the German Danfoss range or in the case of Engel the Japanese ‘Sawafuji Swing Motor’.

These units are purpose built for mobile refrigeration and have been used for years. The can operate on the reasonable angles likely to be encountered on the road and seem pretty resilient about taking a bit of a battering and copping some dust.

Danfoss and Sawafuji both understand that most of their products will operate on the 12 volt electrics of a car and design their compressors to be as energy efficient as possible, essential when operating from a car battery.

Most manufacturers using Danfoss compressors warranty their units for between 1 - 5 years. Engel have a 3 year warranty. The warranty a manufacturer offers is generally a fair indication of their confidence in the durability of their own product.

Research and investigation into the type of compressor should be the first concern when buying a new fridge.

The Box

Injection moulded plastic, aluminium, steel, fibreglass – a plethora of choice. Part of the human psyche insists that steel is stronger than anything else and this is largely true. Pound for pound, in comparison with many other products, steel does offer better resilience to wear and damage. We do however, live in the 21st century and modern design and manufacturing techniques mean that many of the newer plastics and resins can provide a genuine alternative to steel. I would put issues like size and configuration ahead of box construction in the search for a new car fridge. Rust, particularly in hinges, can be a factor for steel units, depending on the intended use, while injection moulded plastics can separate after time.

Check for effective sealing around the lid. This one area has the greatest potential for losing cold air.

Looking at factors such as compartments, weight, sharp edges, finish and whether or not you can sit on the thing are, perhaps, more important than the material used for construction.

Companies with a solid reputation in mobile refrigeration have worked out how to make their particular units durable and strong.

Service

This is a big one and easy to overlook in the quest to save a few cents. If you are touring with your fridge and if that fridge is destined to break down – then it will break down at the most inconvenient time and place. No contest, no doubt. It is a natural law. This means that you will be scouring a tiny outback town, with a population of three, in the hope of finding a refrigeration mechanic.

A busted fridge on the road is always going to be a headache but the chances of finding an authorized dealer or agent for a name brand, are far greater in more remote regions.

Saying this, there is no good reason a quality unit should break down. There are some great fridges being made by Australians using quality components who can probably offer a more personalised service, if needed, than the big names.

Extras

Any decent fridge should offer the option to run on either 12 volt or 240 volt household power. Don’t consider anything that doesn’t. The flexibility to use your fridge inside a holiday unit or to drag an extension cord out to the car is invaluable. Car fridges can draw massive amounts of power to maintain especially as the temperature rises. The ability to preserve your car batteries is important.

Our experience with insulated covers for portable refrigerators is that generally - covers make better fridge protectors than fridge insulators. Ventilating your fridge and keeping in the coolest place possible (especially out of direct sun) is far more beneficial for cooling than using a cover alone.

Likewise, special power packs, thermometers, baskets, fancy locks, battery monitors etc. are all very nice but everything a fridge requires should be included when you buy it. The cords supplied with the unit should be sufficient to get you up and running.

Again, serious longer term cooling requirements really need a dedicated power supply in the car which we’ll reserve for another article

Our current car fridge is a Waeco 8o litre using a Danfoss compressor. It is a combined fridge /freezer and it runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and it hasn’t missed a beat. The box is injection moulded plastic with plastic hinges and we received a free cover when we purchased it.

Physical size was the biggest deciding factor after compressor make. We needed to fit this fridge in a particular hole. It runs from a dedicated dual battery circuit along a heavy duty custom wired line.

Conditions for our unit are less than ideal. We spend large amounts of time travelling in hot places, sometimes nearing 50 decrees Celsius. It is jammed in a tight spot with fairly ordinary ventilation and an absolute minimum of headroom and space to the sides. We belt the car over atrocious 4WD tracks and often no tracks at all. The interior of the car suffers from a constant deluge of red dust and consequently the fridge cops it as well. It is generally packed to the brim and is expected to keep frozen stuff frozen and the fridge stuff cold.

It has spent about 18 months in these conditions and hasn’t complained once. That is the sort of performance we were looking for in a car fridge.

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