How To Choose the Best 12-Volt Refrigerator for Your RV

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Conner Lund

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Backpacking Ozark Trail

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Bowling Green, KY

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Winnebago Revel

About Contributor

Conner Lund is a Technical Content Writer. He has both hands-on experience and real-world knowledge. He’s an avid outdoorsman: camping, hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, kayaking, hunting, and fishing are all things he enjoys that you could find him doing on any given weekend. He loves to travel and see new places. He does most of his exploring and camping out of his overlanding truck with a rooftop tent.

RV owners who are replacing, adding, or updating a refrigerator should consider a 12-volt RV refrigerator, especially those who want an improved off-grid camping experience. Unlike propane and gas fridges, a 12-volt allows you to keep food and drinks cool on battery power, reducing your reliance on shore power or a portable generator.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about 12-volt DC refrigerators, including the different types, additional 12V refrigerator benefits, how long they can run, and how to choose the proper fridge size for your RV.

Camco portable RV refrigerator
Photo by Camping World

Many people are attracted to van life because it offers freedom from traditional, crowded campgrounds. But Class B campers aren’t the only kinds of RVs that can be used for extended off-grid camping. 

Whatever RV you choose for boondocking, 12-volt refrigerators are great because they don’t require you to plug into power. You also reduce propane consumption, retaining that resource for your stovetop, oven, water heater, and any other propane-based appliances in your RV. If you’re using solar to charge your batteries, you can keep your refrigerator powered for much longer stays. 

Is a Compressor or Absorption 12-volt Refrigerator Better?

There are two different types of 12-volt camper refrigerators: absorption and compressor. We cover all the basics here, but let’s give you a brief overview. 

Absorption refrigerators typically have multiple power sources: propane, 110/120V AC, and 12VDC. They are commonly referred to as 2-way or 3-way refrigerators. 

However, if you plan to be off-grid and use your battery to power the refrigerator, you’ll want to choose a compressor-style refrigerator because it is much more efficient. You’ll also enjoy more space inside the fridge and a faster cooling time. Unlike absorption-style refrigerators, you don’t have to worry about being perfectly level for them to work properly, either. 

12V Absorption Refrigerators12V Compressor Refrigerators
ProsMultiple Power SourcesBetter Efficiency 
Energy Saver
More Install Options
Cools Quickly
ConsRV Must Be Level
Limited Space Inside
Takes Longer to Cool
Less Efficient
Requires External Venting
Expensive
Smaller Selection

Types of 12-Volt RV Refrigerators

Camco electric RV fridge
Photo by Camco

For compressor-style 12-volt DC refrigerators, you can choose from upright and chest. Let’s review which might suit you best.

Upright

The most common 12V RV refrigerator style is upright, just like the one in your home and the gas-absorption refrigerators found in most modern RVs. Many prefer this style due to its organization. Once you open the door, you can see all your items for a quick selection. However, there is a downside to this style: You lose a lot of cold air each time you open the door.

Chest

This style resembles a traditional cooler, but unlike your standard roll-behind cooler, it has power, also known as an electric cooler. They are increasingly popular due to their convenient shape and added portability, giving you more layout options. 

The one major disadvantage of a chest style is convenience. You can’t always see everything inside from the top, leading to rifling through groceries to find what you need.

What Type of Fridge is Best for Camping?

technician fixing RV fridge
Photo by Getty Image

There isn’t one style that is best for everyone. Yes, the upright style is more organized, but the chest style is also more efficient. Your particular setup and what works best with your layout should be the deciding factor. 

If you’re replacing a gas-absorption refrigerator and want the same organization options, an upright 12-volt refrigerator is your best choice. If you have a camper van with limited space, you might like the mounting options a chest-style 12-volt refrigerator offers.

Does My Refrigerator Need to Be RV Rated?

Yes, you’ll need to be sure the refrigerator you’re using is specifically rated for RVs. You don’t want to use a standard refrigerator because it likely isn’t built to handle life on the road. RV refrigerators are built differently. They have much greater shock absorption, which helps them manage the rough ride and will ultimately last longer. 

Standard home refrigerators will still work inside an RV if you’re willing to rely on AC power from a generator or shore connection. However, these refrigerators don’t have the extra protection for the road, so longevity will always be a concern. This is another reason why RV fridges are typically more expensive. 

Factors for Choosing a 12-Volt Fridge

RV fridge full of energy drinks
Photo by Camping World

If you’ve decided a compressor-style 12-volt RV mini fridge suits you, you’ll have some choices regarding size and layout. Let’s go over these in more detail to get the right one. 

Size and Storage

One of the first questions many people have when looking at refrigerators is size. What size do I need? The answer to this question varies, but factors such as how many people will use it and how long you want to stay off-grid are relevant. 

We all have different eating habits and preferences, but for a general guide, one person will need around 70 liters, and two will need around 100 liters. Chest-style refrigerators offer more space, so you can size down a bit.

If you’re replacing or upgrading an RV refrigerator, you’ll need to match your replacement to the dimensions of your current refrigerator unless you want to embark on a larger DIY conversion project. In this guide’s final section, we’ll highlight other RV refrigerator replacement tips. 

Freezer Space

If you’re unfamiliar with RV refrigerators, you may be disappointed in the lacklusterness of the RV fridge freezer. Yes, they are small but what’s most annoying is that they don’t get very cold, enough to store meat but not enough to keep ice cream from melting. In other words, if you have a sweet tooth, you’ll want to look for a unit with a separate adjustable freezer section. 

Energy Consumption

Chances are, if you’re considering a 12-volt RV refrigerator, you’re doing so because of its efficiency. But how do you determine which one is the most efficient? The best way is to find the manufacturer’s specified amp rating. For example, if the refrigerator has a 10 amp rating, you know you can run that refrigerator for about 10 hours with a 100 amp battery. If only the wattage rating is provided, simply divide the watt rating by the volts to get amps. 

Choosing a brand can be difficult, especially if you are unfamiliar with the product. You want something affordable, well-made, and durable. If there are any issues, you want to be able to get them fixed in a timely manner. Let’s review some popular choices.

Dometic

Dometic fridge
Photo by Camping World

The most well-known manufacturer of RV refrigerators, Dometic, has a longstanding reputation as the leader in the industry. They offer multiple options, both upright and chest style.

Everchill

everchill fridge
Photo by Camping World

Everchill is a brand owned by Lippert, which is one of the leading RV suppliers in North America. They have a wide range of upright options.

GE

GE fridge
Photo by Camping World

GE is a very popular appliance manufacturer that has been around for a long time. They offer upright refrigerators in various sizes. 

Norcold

Norcold fridge
Photo by Camping World

A small company specializing in RV refrigerators, Norcold offers some great options and a warranty to back them up.

How Long Can You Run a 12-Volt Fridge?

12-volt RV refrigerators are extremely efficient, which is part of the reason they are so popular. With a properly equipped energy storage and management system in your RV, you can run them all day and through the night. However, variables such as the size of your battery bank and the unit’s power demands will impact just how long you can run a 12V RV refrigerator.

Let’s say your fridge draws around seven amps. To run this fridge for 24 hours, you would need about 168 amp hours (Ah). Most off-grid RVs have a battery capacity of at least 200 Ah, leaving some power for other necessities. Add a solar panel to the mix, and you’ll have even more power to spare. 

Do 12-Volt RV Refrigerators Require a Vent?

12-volt RV refrigerators must be vented for proper operation. However, compressor 12-volt refrigerators don’t require an external vent like absorption-style refrigerators. 

Instead, you’ll simply need to ensure adequate space around the fridge as specified in the owner’s manual. This means no additional holes in the outside of your RV, which can become access points for critters and pests.

Keeping Your 12-Volt Refrigerator Running

Empty RV fridge in camper van
Photo by Getty Image

It doesn’t matter how efficient your refrigerator is; if you don’t have a way to replenish your battery bank, you’ll eventually be left with warm and spoiled food. There are a few options for keeping your batteries charged. If you’re at a campground, you can simply plug into shore power.

However, if you are boondocking, you’ll need to use a generator, solar power, or a mix of the two. Solar is the best option since it’s sustainable and renewable but you may also need a generator for cloudy days, or for powering larger appliances like your microwave and air conditioner. 

What is the Life Expectancy of a 12-volt Refrigerator?

It’s difficult to determine the life expectancy of a 12-volt refrigerator because it is a newer technology in the RV industry. Residential compressor-style refrigerators have proven reliable, but the same cannot yet be said for 12-volt RV refrigerators. 

On the other hand, absorption-style RV refrigerators have proven their durability, with an average life expectancy of 10-15 years. It’s not uncommon to hear of some still kicking even after 25 years of service. 

If reliability is what you value most, you may want to stick with the tried-and-true absorption-style RV refrigerator. However, if you value efficiency most and the ability to use battery power for your refrigerator, it’s worth taking the dive into a 12-volt RV refrigerator. 

Installing an RV Replacement Refrigerator 

replacement-best-12-volt-rv-refrigerator-04-2024 Photo by Camping World
Photo by Camping World

If you’ve decided on a 12-volt RV refrigerator replacement, there are some things you’ll need to know. For starters, you’ll want to measure the rough opening to ensure the fridge selected either matches or is less than its length, width, and depth. Because compressor-style refrigerators don’t require an external vent, you’ll also need space around the refrigerator for ventilation. It’s also a good idea to close and seal any existing exterior vents that are no longer used. 

If you have space for your new refrigerator, you can begin by removing the old one. Hopefully, it fits through the doorway, and you don’t have to remove a door or window, but be prepared for this, as it has happened before. To determine the best removal method, measure your doorway and the existing refrigerator. You’re good to go if the refrigerator is smaller than the doorway. Otherwise, you’ll need to begin removing a window or door. This is best left to a professional at one of our service centers.  

Once you have the old fridge removed and the new one in place, you’ll need to route wires from the fridge to the battery. The size of the wire and circuit protection you use is important, so be sure to reference the owner’s manual for this.


There are many benefits of adding a 12-volt refrigerator. Whether you’re looking to replace an old, non-working fridge or upgrade to a more efficient model, we hope you found this guide helpful. If a 12-volt DC refrigerator is not a good fit for you, there are plenty of other options to consider.  

Let us know in the comments below which style of RV refrigerator you prefer!

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