Spend any amount of time camping (or in a campervan) and you’ll soon realise that having chilled, refrigerated food is a massive plus. Add a wife and two hungry kids to the mix, and a hot summer’s day, and a fridge becomes a non-negotiable. The dilemma is what to go for. In this article we’re going to take a look specifically at the electric cooler which has grown in popularity over recent years thanks to some really competitive models entering the market.
What is an electric cooler?
Electric coolers, sometimes referred to as electric or thermoelectric cool boxes, are just like normal coolers (i.e. rectangular boxes on wheels) with one key difference: you can plug them in. Hooking them up to power gives you uninterrupted, worry-free refrigeration for your food and drink.
When they said “you can’t take it with you when you go” they obviously weren’t aware of the electric cooler. The biggest advantage for any owner of an electric cooler is the ability to take your fridge with you. Usually, fridges are static, bulky things. With an electric cooler you carry or pull it wherever you like, which is perfect for outdoor parties of any description. Equally, electric coolers are great for long haul car journeys to keep sandwiches and drinks in, especially for kids who are the first to complain about ‘warm’ sandwiches.
Most will be familiar (if not already own) a ‘normal’ coolbox. The plastic box with a lid variety. These are all well and good, but they need ice packs or loose ice to keep the produce inside them sufficiently chilled. When you’re on the road, campsite, beach, roadside or somewhere in between, refreezing your ice packs isn’t an option and ice isn’t always easy to come by. Even if it is, the daily cost soon mounts up. Ramming ice into one of these basic coolboxes usually takes up precious space you want to use for food and drink. The electric cooler overcomes this by offering refrigeration at the push of a button.
Many who travel in campervans, RVs, or those who just prefer to camp, long to live ‘off grid’ – away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. That usually means no access to electricity. That’s great and all, but you still need your creature comforts and chilled food and drink falls into that bracket. With an electric cooler you can hook it up to solar panels that power your cooler, free of charge. Meaning you can be in the arse end of nowhere and still enjoy a nice cool beer. That sounds like progress to me.
Typical features of an electric cooler
Most of the time, electric coolers are:
- Highly portable with handle and wheels
- Typically 12 volt DC, with additional plug in options (including solar power)
- Usually rectangular in size, and narrow enough to stow away in the back seat footwell of a car
- Higher end coolers often have freezer compartments
- Some models come with warmers too (I have no idea why)
As super premium models go, the Dometic CFX-35 takes some beating. Dometic have been around since 1968 so they’re basically the grand-daddy of mobile refrigeration. That doesn’t make them the best necessarily, but a bit of heritage is usually a good sign. Dometic trade under the name Waeco outside the US, but apart from the name the models are very similar.
So what makes this cooler so good? First up, the build quality of these machines is solid. They’re rugged and made for the road. In terms of bells and whistles, the CFX range is hard to compete with: digital thermostat with LED temperature display, a quick-chill / turbo function, fold away side handles. This cooler even has a virtual memory that remembers the temperature even when its turned off and on again.
It’s major selling point however is the freezer compartment. Many of the cheaper alternatives can perform the fridge duties pretty well, but none of the cheaper models do freezers. The inclusion of a freeze to me means one, earth shatteringly good thing: ice cubes. That means gin and tonics, rum and cokes, mojitos and a treasure trove of other cocktails that are normally the preserve of the house. The inclusion of a freezer turns you’re campervan, RV or tent into a veritable party shack.
The only snag with this product is the price tag. It will give you years of service and probably outlive the life of two cheaper models have the price, so the economics stacks up if you can afford it. The CFX range is broad and caters for a few different sizes, so be sure to check out the other sizes available.
ARB Fridge Freezer
Staying in the premium range, our second cooler is the ARB fridge freezer. So how does this stand up to the Dometic CFX-35 then? Pretty well actually. At a similar price point, the ARB matches up to it in terms of functionality but also has a couple of nifty little features.
For a start, it includes the quintessential freezer compartment. In addition, the ARB boasts the ability to maintain below 0 degrees performance regardless of the outside temperature. That’s some statement. Their advanced cooling technology, all thanks to their Danfoss compressor (no, hadn’t heard of that either) lets the ARB do this.
One very big drawback of using electric coolboxes is the fear of running down your battery. If you’re in a campervan, you’ll no doubt be using a leisure battery, but all the same you don’t want to run a battery flat. With the ARB fridge freezer, it cuts out if there’s a risk of sucking your battery dry. This automatic battery protection system is unique to the ARB. I don’t honestly know if this is a gimmick or actually very useful, but it sounds like it could potentially get you out of a jam. Never a bad thing.
In terms of build quality, the ARB is top notch as you’d expert. But like the Dometic CFX-35 model, the cost of the ARB will be prohibitive to many buyers.
Knox Electric Cooler
Unless you’re planning to get serious and go with one of the premium options above, you’ll want something that still does the trick, looks the part but won’t force you to remortgage your house to afford it.
Enter the Knox electric cooler. The Knox looks similar in size to the Dometic CFX-35, and includes features such as removable compartments. Sadly, that’s where the comparison ends. The first thing you’ll notice when comparing to the Dometic CFX-35 models is the build quality. The Knox isn’t a patch on it, but then at the price (it’s almost a third of the price) it’s understandable – some trade off had to be made.
The Knox suits the budget conscious buyer. If your idea of bliss is gin and tonics after the kids are asleep (I hear ya!) then this Knox cooler won’t cut it – there’s no freezer I’m afraid. But for the price, it’s not a bad shout.
Pros:- Excellent price for what you get- Decent size (45 Litre)- Foldaway plugs are a nice touch
Cons:- No ice compartment- Build quality can’t compete with the premium models
Igloo Iceless Thermoelectric Cooler
If cost is your primary concern then a good option would be this one from Igloo. The size of this (small at 24 litres or 28 litres) makes it a good choice for a day trip, picnic or long haul car journey. The metallic appearance of the Igloo says NASA circa 1980 to me, but you wouldn’t look altogether ridiculous rocking up to a picnic with it. The carry along handle is ergonomic and pretty neat too. It goes without saying, no freezer on this one, but then none of the budget ones do.
It’s compact size means you won’t look like that guy lugging a coolbox across the beach in 40 degree heat, and it’s plenty big enough for a day’s worth of snacks for a small family. It’s unlikely going to cut it as your main fridge if you’re going away for a few days. In the two sizes (24 and 28 litres) you’re going to be short on space.
Wagan 12V Cooler
If you thought the Igloo was a bit on the pricey side for it’s size, the final on our list is the the super affordable Wagan. Don’t expect wonders with this product for the price, but customer feedback suggests it’s downright amazing value for money – especially when you consider the Igloo is almost double the price.
It’s important to keep expectations in check. As one customer put it, the cooler will struggle to chill something that’s at room temperature already, but it will do a great job of keeping cooled items cool. That’s not a bad trade off for the cost saving.