From time to time, I get asked by our guests what are my opinions on the best fridges for caravans, motorhomes and campervans? Sometimes, its a question of which I think is better Dometic, Electrolux or Thetford? However, its mainly the question of which is best, a 2-way compressor fridge or a 3-way absorption fridge? My answer is, it depends. Both 2-way and 3-way fridges have their advantages and disadvantages. Which is the best option depends on where the caravan, motorhome or campervan will be used. For instance, do you only use campsites with hookup power or do you like to go wild-camping off-grid? This question and others discussed below need to be considered before you can choose the best fridge option for your particular leisure vehicle. In some cases, a portable fridge/cool box may be either a suitable alternative or a complementing accessory.
Below I’m going to start with an introduction on the differences between 2-way compressor fridges and 3-way absorption fridges. I’ll cover how they each work and their individual pros and cons. I’ll also discuss how you can improve the performance of a 3-way absorption fridge depending on weather conditions. The information below could be very useful when choosing a new caravan, motorhome or campervan or changing from one leisure vehicle to another. For instance, many campervans and smaller motorhomes come with a 2-way compressor fridge. Whereas most caravans and larger motorhomes will come with a 3-way absorption fridge. But why? Well below I hope to explain why that’s generally true, but its not a fixed rule.
2-Way Compressor Fridges vs 3-Way Absorption Fridges
When I write these ‘best’ posts on our blog I’m not trying to push people towards a particular brand or product. I’m trying to direct people towards the best type of product to suit their needs. In this case, helping you to determine if either a 2-way compressor fridge or 3-way absorption fridge is going to best suit your needs. While I like to try and provide as much information and detail as possible, I also appreciate we are all busy people. Therefore, I do like to add into my posts good videos when I find them to provide as much information as quickly as possible. Therefore, below is a video from Practical Motorhome within which the difference between 2-way and 3-way fridges are discussed:
As the video states above, 2-way compressor fridges are typically found in campervans and panel van motorhome. Whereas 3-way absorption fridges are typically found A-Class motorhomes and also caravans. Both 2-way and 3-way fridges can work on 12V power. However, 2-way fridges are more efficient (use less power) on 12V than a 3-way fridge. Though a 3-way fridge provides the additional option to run on LPG.
These are the brief highlights on the differences and can give an insight into which would be best for you. However, in reality from discussing fridge options with our guests I know there is a lot more to it. Therefore below I’m going to go into more detail on the pros and cons of 2-way and 3-way fridges for caravans, motorhomes and campervans.
2-Way Compressor Fridges
You have a compressor fridge in your kitchen at home. However, that compressor fridge can only run on 230V mains power. A 2-way compressor fridge typically found in campervans and small panel van motorhomes can run on either 230V AC mains power or 12V DC power from a leisure battery or 12V coming directly from a vehicle’s alternator.
A typical example of a 40L 2-Way fridge which can run on 12V DC power and 230V AC Mains power: Image – Amazon
Advantages of a 2-Way Fridge
Below I’ll discuss some of the benefits of a 2-way compressor fridge over a 3-way absorption fridge. Whether a 2-way fridge will be the best option for you will depend on a couple of factors. Such as how many leisure batteries does your vehicle have, do you have a solar panel fitted? Etc.
As referenced in the video above, a 2-way compressor fridge is typically more energy efficient than a 3-way fridge. It is also worth noting that the efficiency difference is more evident in warmer ambient temperatures. Hence, on a hot summers day, a 2-way compressor fridge will be using less power than a 3-way fridge.
Campervans and smaller motorhomes are more likely to be used off-grid and for wild camping. Therefore, when it comes to running a fridge on 12V power from a leisure battery a 2-way compressor fridge is the best option. However, as discussed in my post on campervans vs caravans, with a 2-way compressor fridge to you may want to consider more than 1 leisure battery.
While a 2-way compressor fridge is more efficient on 12V power than a 3-way absorption fridge it will still draw a fair amount of power. Its not uncommon to find a 2-way fridge pulling 5A while on 12V. Therefore, many campervan and small motorhome owners with 2-way fridges operating on 12V are not only opting for multiple leisure batteries but a motorhome solar panel set up as well.
No Need To Level
In my posts on how to level a caravan and how to level a motorhome, I state that being level is important for the fridge to operate properly. Well, in fact, that only really applies to 3-way absorption fridges and not 2-way compressor fridges. Hence, the benefit of a 2-way compressor fridge is it can operate in a vehicle on uneven ground. Again, this is more applicable to the typical use of campervans and small motorhomes. If you are wild-camping/stopping at the side of the road its likely the ground is not level in all directions. If you are making frequent one night stops you don’t really want to be playing around with levelling ramps. Hence, why a 2-way compressor fridge for shortstop wild camping can be the best option.
3-Way Absorption Fridges
As discussed earlier in the post, a 3-way fridge works on a different principle to a 2-way fridge. A 2-way compressor fridge works by cooling inside the fridge where a 3-way fridge is pulling heat from inside the fridge and transferring that energy into the outside environment through evaporation. Obviously a big difference between the two types of fridge is the ability of a 3-way fridge to work on LPG gas.
A typical example of a 3-Way absorption fridge which can work on 12V DC, 230V AV and LPG: Image – Amazon
As a 3-way absorption fridge works on a different principle, it just wants a source of heat for the evaporation process to work. Hence that can be an electrical element or a flame. I’ve included another video below from Practical Motorhome about absorption fridges and the servicing of the gas burner that’s required. However, I would recommend your service center carries out this work for you. Checks on a 3-way fridge may be included as part of motorhome habitation checks, but don’t presume that’s the case.
3-Way Fridge Vents and Winter Covers
As Dave states in the video above, if you’re curious if you have a 2-way or 3-way fridge in your caravan, motorhome or campervan look for the external fridge vents. Now, almost every caravan that visits us here at Horton Common has a 3-way fridge and vents. However, some manufacturers do produce units with 2-way fridges, so don’t presume every caravan has a 3-way fridge. As shown in the video there are also winter covers for the vents. If you’re interested to learn more I’ve written a separate post on fridge vents. Within that post, I discuss when and why you may want to fit winter covers and how to improve the performance of a 3-way fridge in the warmer summer months.
If you are unsure of when and why to use 3-way fridge vent covers I would encourage you to click the link above to my other post: Image – Amazon
Advantages of a 3-Way Fridge
I’ll now discuss some of the advantages of a 3-way fridge and why it may be the best option for you over a 2-way fridge. Something I do want to note is that while a 2-way fridge is more efficient a higher ambient temperatures it is possible to upgrade the ventilation around a 3-way fridge heat exchanger to improve efficiency. I discuss that more in my fridge vents post link above.
Energy Flexibility – The Option to Use LPG
One of the main benefits of a 3-way fridge over a 2-way fridge is the ability to use LPG as a source of energy. Now, the first video above states that smaller campervans/motorhomes may not have sufficient space for LPG bottles found in larger motorhomes and campervan. Hence, running a 3-way on LPG may not be practical. However, the use of refillable LPG bottles needs to be considered.
Refillable LPG bottles can make it viable to operate a 3-way fridge even in small campervans and motorhomes: Image – Amazon
I seeing more and more of our guests returning to visit us with refillable LPG bottle upgrades. Some of which are underbody LPG tanks suspended on the chassis of the vehicle. Hence, if there isn’t sufficient space within a small campervan/motorhome for a removable LPG bottle an underbody refillable tank may still be an option. With a refillable LPG bottle its also significantly cheaper per litre of gas. Though you do obviously have to consider the upfront cost of the refillable LPG installation. My main point is, don’t discount the option of a 3-way fridge running on LPG in a campervan or small motorhome.
The ability to run a 3-way fridge on LPG is a nice option to have, even if its only a backup. Let’s say for instance you only want to use sites with a mains 230V hook-up. Or you like to go camping off-grid and use your leisure battery/solar panels to provide sufficient 12V power. These may be your prefered and potentially cheapest/free power options. However, grids can go down and batteries may fail. In that scenario, having the ability to switch the fridge to run on LPG will stop all your food going off.
The Quiet Choice – A Betters Nights Sleep?
A 3-way absorption free has no mechanical moving parts, hence produces less noise than a 2-way compressor fridge. I’m sure when you’re at home you have heard the compressor in your kitchen fridge switch on. As I’m sure you’ll agree that humming noise can be a bit annoying. Well, in a campervan or motorhome with a 2-way fridge you could be sleeping just a few feet from that compressor. Hence, depending on if your a light or heavy sleeper, that compressor clicking on maybe a big problem. Now I’m sure the amount of noise generated by the compressor depends on the specific make/model of 2-way fridge. However, the general point being, a 2-way fridge generates more noise than a 3-way fridge.
Ice Boxes, Coolers and Portable Fridges
Another alternative/complementary appliances are iceboxes, coolers and portable fridges. Say you want to go out for the day and take food/drink with you which you want to keep cool. Alternatively, I have guests with large families who have 12V coolers and portable fridges running in their awnings because their built-in fridge is simply not big enough.
Ice Box Pros and Cons
The cheapest option to keep your food/drink cool is an icebox. No 12V required, just load it up with ice or some ice packs and your good to go. A pro is their price, you can typically pick one up for below £20. Another pro is you are not relying on a source of 12V power. However, a con is you are going to need to keep topping up with ice. Also, in terms of storing food in an icebox, unless your sandwiches are well wrapped up, they’re going to get wet. While you can use ice packs, actually filling the container with ice will provide a lower temperature for a longer period of time.
The cheapest option to keep your food and drink cool on the go is an icebox, but it does have notable downsides for prolonged use: Image – Amazon
While you can purchase a cheap icebox such as that above, not all iceboxes are equal. An icebox is only as good as its insulation. Hence, if you want the ice to stay as ice for longer you want an icebox with better/thicker insulation than that fitted to the budget products. The Dometic icebox is an example of a more premium/better-insulated icebox.
12V Thermoelectric Cooler Pros and Cons
Many coolers appear very similar to a basic icebox. The difference being they require 12V power to run a thermoelectric cooler. As stated in the first video above this technology was developed in the 19th century by Jean Peltier and the cooling process is therefore known as the Peltier Effect. Its a form of a solid-state heat pump. Passing electricity through the heat exchanger made of two different materials you can either cool or heat. That’s why with many 12V cooler boxes you will see a switch for cooling or heating. Therefore a pro of a 12V cooler box is its flexibility. Furthermore, while more expensive than a basic icebox they are still reasonably affordable.
A Typical example of a 40L 12V Thermoelectric Cooler: Image – Amazon
A significant con with thermoelectric cool boxes is how much power they consume. Unlike a fridge with a compressor which will run intermittently, when on a thermoelectric cool box is consuming power constantly. Pulling 4A at 12V can put a lot of strain on a leisure battery or vehicle starter battery. Hence, a thermoelectric cool box such as this turned on in the back of your car when it isn’t running may cause you problems later when you try and start the car. Hence, the best option with a cool box such as this is to place a couple of ice packs in the bottom. That will help to keep the food/drink cool when you don’t have access to 12V power.
12V/230V Portable Fridges Pros and Cons
The final option you could consider is a full-on portable fridge. These appliances will not just cool your food and drink, if you wanted to they can actually freeze it! So a significant pro with portable compressor fridges is their ability to chill and freeze food to the same temperatures a built-in fridge can achieve. However, a big con is their price, you will have to spend significantly more on a portable compressor fridge than a thermo-electric coolbox.
There is a brand of portable compressor fridge/freezers which appears to be growing in popularity called Ice CUBE: Image – Amazon
What about a portable 3-way absorption fridge? Are there portable fridge/freezers you can run on LPG? Yes, there are but portable absorption fridges are sometimes only referred to as coolers and not fridges. Furthermore, I’ve not come across any portable 3-way absorption fridge which can freeze. Therefore, if you need a portable freezer you will need a compressor model.
Something else to note with many of the portable 3-way absorption fridges is they don’t make it clear what type of gas supply they can use. Dometic offers some (but not all) of their portable 3-way absorption fridges with the ability to run from a 400ml camping gas canister. This option obviously makes the fridge even more portable. However, other units just have an LPG connection and rely on a separate LPG bottle. Its also important to remember with a portable absorption free it needs to be level to operate properly.
This Royal portable 3-way absorption fridge which can run on LPG appears to be a popular example: Image – Amazon
Conclusions on the Best Fridges for Caravans, Motorhomes and Campervans
Hopefully, the information above has made it clear that the best fridge option for your caravan, motorhome or campervan depends on how and where you want to use it. It also depends on your available sources of energy. For instance, if you are wild camping off-grid in a campervan/motorhome and you have multiple leisure batteries and solar panels you should be able to get on quite happily with a 2-way compressor fridge. A 3-way absorption fridge can make sense in a campervan if you want the ability to run on LPG, and especially if you have a refillable LPG bottle. You do have to always remember though with a 3-way fridge, your vehicle needs to be level for it to work properly.
While a 3-way fridge is not as efficient as a 2-way fridge in most instances they will be fitted in a leisure vehicle which commonly uses 230V mains hookup. Most campsites don’t provide a metered connection, its just included in the pitch fee. Hence, you won’t notice the increased electric consumption running a 3-way fridge over a 2-way fridge. The reduced noise output with a 3-way fridge compared to a 2-way fridge with a compressor can be significant. Therefore, you are typically going to get a better nights sleep with a 3-way absorption fridge.
Finally, there are options with relation to portable fridges, coolers and iceboxes. With regards to portable 2-way and 3-way fridges, the same pros and cons apply as with the built-in units. Therefore I would like to note as someone who has spent nights sleeping in a caravan awning please remember that a portable 2-way compressor fridge is going to generate some noise.
That’s it, thanks for reading, I hope you did find the above useful/interesting. I also hope in the near future you consider coming to visit us here at Horton Common Campsite to experience our fully serviced pitches. 🙂
Someone once asked me would it be possible to use a small 230V domestic fridge in a motorhome from their leisure battery with a 12V to 230V inverter. While technically possible provided you had a sufficient sized leisure battery and suitably powered inverter its not an ideal option. With even the best quality inverters you are losing energy in the conversion from 12V to 230V. With 230V appliances that you run occasionally its not so much of a problem. Take a microwave, for instance, you could run that appliance through an inverter and then turn the inverter off once the microwave is finished. However a fridge runs all the time, hence the inverter is running all the time. Therefore, a proper 12V/230V two-way compressor fridge is still the best option.
This issue was something one of our guests mentioned to me with regards to cars with EURO 6 engines not sending sufficient 12V power to the fridge while towing. So I did a bit more research into it and I produced this post on 12V fridge problems.