50 years with the 40 Litre Engel Fridge
Engel Fridges

Pressing business on the other side of the country demanded a quick, cross-country trip, from the cattle country of North West Queensland to the South West of Western Australia.

Mid January 2013, the height of summer, in a year that saw ten percent of the country break temperature records on a single day. Sydney had peaked near 46°C and the southeast of the country, including Tasmania, battled hundreds of bush fires while northern cyclones would soon bring critical flooding for the third year in a row. Not really the best time to plan a diagonal crossing of the continent that would run right through the red centre, past Uluru and across the Great Victorian, Gibson, Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts.

Next problem was the Trusty Troop Carrier had been on-sold and the 80 litre Waeco Fridge/Freezer along with it. Refrigeration was going to be crucial. The trip was planned as a quick hit-and-run affair, no time for sightseeing and detours, cramming in as much driving as possible with minimum camp time. That meant pre-prepared frozen meals were the order of the day fleshed out with plenty of fluids. As it turned out we averaged a litre and a half of drinking water per hour between two people on the return trip. And this was in an air-conditioned cab.

The Choice

We decided on the gold, 50th Anniversary, 40 litre Engel fridge/freezer. The Waeco had been a combination unit with separate compartments for the fridge, freezer and dairy, meaning different zones in the chest held different temperatures. Engel makes similar models. This 40 litre Engel on the other hand, can only be run as a fridge or freezer, with temperature variations made via a rotary dial. In reality car fridges in the 80 to 110 litre range are big units and run a lot harder to keep the big cabinet chilled. We've found that 40 litres and some careful planning and packing is great compromise for two people.

Why didn't we go Waeco again? Simple - price. We got offered a great deal on the Engel MT45FG 50th Anniversary Gold fridge/freezer and we snapped it up. We didn't really want the gold model, just like we don't have stickers of texas long-horn bulls on the back window, but hey, at the price we weren't arguing.

The Gold MT45FG Engel is the same fridge as the enduring 40 litre, MT45FP Platinum model, with a couple of extras. An additional $250 buys you the gold paint but thankfully you get a transit bag which is mostly black with matching gold trim. Black's not a great colour for something that is supposed to act as protector as well as an insulator but a couple of thousand kilometres through Australia's central deserts should see it rendered a nice dusty red. It also comes with what Engel calls 'auto-switching' - the ability to select the voltage at which the Engel disengages itself from drawing power from the battery. It's a nice touch and important if you're running the fridge solely from your starting battery. It's an inbuilt safety factor that helps to prevent the fridge from completely draining your battery and consequently ending up stuck. We don't know why Engel make such a fuss about the auto-switching and the interior light, Waeco have included these features as standard on the bulk of their products for years.

At the end of the day the choice between an Engel, Waeco, ARB, National Luna or any of the other market leaders in the portable refrigeration market didn't matter to us. We've used lots of them and the've all been good. The MT45FG Engel retails for $1549, much the same as a quality domestic refrigerator, and at this sort of money if a product fails consistently then the manufacturer goes out of business pretty quickly.

The Power Setup

We elected to go for a dual battery system using a RedArc battery controller to handle the voltage to the fridge. Why? They're cheap, simple and they just keep on working. We racked up 200,000km on the last RedArc and it never gave a hiccup. It's an automatic smart solenoid that controls charging between both batteries. It's aim is to always preserve the alternator charge to the starting battery, only delivering charge to the fridge battery once the voltage is above 12.5V. A momentary switch can be wired into the circuit which will deliver all available current from both batteries to the starting battery - if the need ever arises. It's a well thought out touch that we've had call to use on many occasions, usually after leaving an interior light or radio on in the 4WD.

We used a 'Deep Cycle' battery to provide power to the 40 litre Engel. Deep Cycle batteries are much more adept at handling the large discharging and recharging cycles demanded by 4WD fridges but don't have the same cranking power as regular starting batteries. The fridge battery was located in it's own steel under-tray locker that mounts below the deck of the Nissan ute. Wiring between batteries and the RedArc isolator was done with chunky 32mm cable. Rubber Grommets were installed wherever the cable penetrated a metal barrier in order to prevent rubbing and subsequent shorting. Fuses were all blade fuses of the appropriate size to maintain some continuity between the dual battery system and the rest of the Nissan's electronics. It means only having to carry one type of fuse although the Engel has it's own glass fuse as well.

A Narva weatherproof accessory socket was used to handle the connection from the Engel to the second battery. We've used them before and they hang on to fridge plugs and keep out the dust and water. Another product that simply 'works'.

Finally the checker plate tray of the Nissan was drilled out and with the aid of some longer hi-tensile bolts and spring washers, the fridge was solidly coupled to the vehicle through the rubber feet. A lockable cable was added for the impression of security.

The Mission

9300km in 11 days beginning in cowboy country, Queensland, with three days in the Southwest of Western Australian followed by a haul up to the Pilbara and then cutting across the top through the Northern Territory and back into Queensland. It was elected not to shortcut to the Plenty Highway from Urandangi because of an impending cyclone. Tropical thunderstorms out there can mean catching the Mail Plane out of a station and returning for your vehicle a month later when things have dried up.

The route included the requirement to get permits from the Central Land Council and Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority for transit through the indigenous Anangu Pitjantjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra lands. The only good thing about this is the avoidance of a $1000 fine and the avoidance of paying another $25 park fee to drive past Ayers Rock. Oops, Uluru. The trip would also include 2000km on dirt - endless corrugated and potholed bush tracks in the heart of Australia, during the hottest summer on record.

The Performance

The Engel was chilled to -18° via the supplied 240 volt power lead and 5 frozen meals for one, a litre of milk and 24 x 600ml bottles of spring water were loaded into the fridge. Sleeping arrangements were taken care of by a single camp stretcher and pillow, no need for blankets. Nighttime beverages were taken care of in the form of a bottle of Chicago's finest.

The rotary temperature dial on the 40L Engel is a bit of a distraction and I find the push button selectability of the ARB and Waeco products a better proposition. In practise the rotary knob didn't move and it didn't get accidentally smashed, but we can see the potential. The temperature was adjusted to -4°C, the aim being to keep the meals on the bottom of the MT45FG frozen solid and have the water and milk in a state of liquid ice and in it worked perfectly. Bottles were refilled from a water tank in the mornings and the dial set to maximum in the heat of day, allowing the water to semi-freeze. At night the dial was backed off to -4 to give the fridge and electrical system some time off.

Understand the Engel was mounted on the back of a steel ute, in a black bag exposed directly to daytime sunlight with temperatures in excess of 45°C.

One fifth of the time was spent in a stream of red dirt from the gutted roads of the interior. Northern Territory highway speed limits are 130kph which is amusing as the N.T. has the worst highways in Australia.

The wide open dirt tracks that make up the Great Central Road and parts of the Buntine and Buchanan Highways mean these sorts of speeds are achievable on the dirt once tyre pressures are sorted out and a technique to dodge potholes and river crossings has been established. There's not a lot of traffic on these roads at the height of summer and at one 24 hour stage not a living thing was sighted except the occasional camel and bush turkey. Not a crow, eagle or kangaroo - nothing.

First contact on entering Western Australia was with a local indigenous group who had been to a 'funeral'. They'd run out of fuel the night before. Standard practise for hailing down help by the locals is for the whole mob to jump into the middle of the track and start lots of arm waving. My standard practise for dealing with such situations is to pull up well short and have the first conversation at some distance, waiting to see who else pops out of the bush. 30 litres of fuel and 15 bottles of iced water later and I was on my way again.

The 40L Engel performed flawlessly including some steep sand dune work getting some long distance shots of Uluru and two nights of intermittent rain directly onto the unit. It's probably not the sort of treatment Engel recommends but it's the sort of treatment 4WD fridges often get.

We couldn't be happier with the Engel fridge. It does exactly what it's supposed to do. With some owners achieving working lives in excess of 20 years and the backing of a three year warranty, the Engel promises to be a durable performer.


Note: We got a great deal on our fridge via a dealer, not from Engel Australia and Engel has in no way endorsed or encouraged us to promote their product. If it was junk then that's what we'd be telling you.


Further reading on buying a 4WD fridge can be found at - Car and 4WD Fridges

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