When Rissy and I were building out our new van conversion (read more about our build here), one of the many decisions we had to make was in regards to the fridge and whether we would go the compressor fridge or 3-way fridge route!
Before we started on our van build journey, we thought simply (and a bit naively I guess) that a fridge, was a fridge, was a fridge. But, as it turns out, there are a few different types of fridges to choose from.
The 2 main types of van life fridges to choose from are
> Compressor fridges
> 3-way fridges
This article will explain the fridge choice we made, and our reasoning. Remember, this is our opinion only, but hopefully we can offer our experience of living full time in our van and it will help you to make a well rounded decision for your van build.
After a lot of research we ultimately decided to go with a …drum roll please…. Compressor fridge.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of our choice, let’s do a dive into the two different types of fridges, how they work and what the benefits of each are. If you’re after kitchen inspiration and what layout works best for different fridges, check out our kitchen inspiration article here, and kitchen storage ideas here.
Pros and cons of a a 3-way fridge
3 way fridges are a really popular option on the road and the reason is very simple. They are super convenient because they can run off 3 different sources of power. These being:
- Mains power
- 12/24 volt power
A three way unit uses a gas flow exchange system to cool the fridge, whereas a compressor fridge uses, well a… compressor. The main difference between the two is that a gas flow heat exchange system removes heat from the internal fridge environment, whereas a compressor fridge creates cold and introduces it to that environment.
The main benefits to choosing a 3-way fridge over a compressor fridge are as follows.
Allow you to go off grid for longer.
When you’re staying way out in national parks or exploring somewhere remote, bottled gas is a really efficient way to run your fridge. A 9kg bottle (20lb) can power a 3-way fridge for roughly 2-3 weeks, depending on the climate and size of fridge. A compressor fridge on the other hand is limited to the electrical system you have in your van, and the system’s ability to replenish its power.
Can run off of mains power.
If you are like most van lifers, you want to get lost out among the great outdoors. But, the reality is that you will likely find yourself utilising RV/caravan parks a fair amount. 3-way fridges allow you to run your fridge off of mains 120/240v power. This means less depletion of your van system, as well as no gas consumption while using mains power.
Can also run off 12v power.
While you are driving from destination to destination, mains and gas power are not able to be utilised. But, that’s ok because a 3-way fridge also has one more source of power. 12 volt. A 3-way fridge can run of 12volt when you are driving, and then when you stop and set up at your destination, you simply switch the power over to mains or gas and you’re good to go. You can also leave it on 12v power if you like, though you will be running your precious power down.
Quiet as a mouse.
A 3 way fridge uses a gas flow heat exchange system, this means that it absorbs the hot air from the internal fridge environment, as opposed to a compressor that pushes cold air in. Because of this fact, a 3 way fridge has less moving parts and is whisper quiet. This is vital as you really are likely going to be sleeping above or right next to your fridge.
Low maintenance due to less moving parts.
Because of the absorption technology 3-way fridges utilise, they have less moving parts. Less moving parts = less maintenance. Once your fridge is installed, they should be hassle and maintenance free.
Will last up to 20 years.
Again, because of the low maintenance factor, you can rest assured that a 3-way fridge from a top brand like Thetford or Dometic will last the distance. These fridges are designed to take everything that life on the road can throw at them, and more. A 3-way fridge will likely only need replacing after about 20 years. To put that into perspective, you can expect to replace your compressor fridge in less than 10 years.
Just make sure you stick to a reputable brand like Dometic where you get more support and spare parts access if something does happen to go wrong.
What are the negatives of buying a 3-way fridge for your van?
Must be installed by licensed gas-fitter.
Because these fridges run on LPG. They need to be, at least in Australia where I am writing this from, installed by a licenced gas-fitter. This gas-fitter will then certify the installation making it legal. If it is DIY installed then not only does it void any sort of warranty but it could pose a significant risk to the safety of you and your travel companions.
Don’t handle the heat as well.
Put simply, 3-way fridges just don’t handle the heat as well as compressor style fridges. In hotter temperatures, a 3-way fridges can’t get down to the same low temperatures it can in more temperate conditions.
They are 3-way but really they prefer to run on gas.
The 3-way fridge is called so because of how it can be powered by 3 different sources of power. This is great as it is convenient and gives you more flexibility in what sort of adventures you can take your van on and still have the ability to use refrigeration. However. A 3-way fridge is really best run on gas. It is the ideal method, and gets the best, most consistent internal temperature out of all of the power input methods.
Must be run for 12 hours before use.
You have to run a 3-way fridge for 12 hours before being able to store any food or drinks in the fridge. Also, most companies instruction manuals will actually tell you to make sure the contents you are putting into the fridge are actually cool before you do so. This is an impossibility on the road, and anyway, that should be the fridges job shouldn’t it!
Has to be level in order to work.
An absorption style fridge needs to be level in order to work. If it is even off by a few degrees the fridge can stop working altogether. This isn’t such a bad thing as typically when you stop you will level your van to make it liveable. But, there may be circumstances where you are not able to (such as stealth camping on a steep street).
The reason they need to be level is because the 3-way fridge utilises gravity to help it to cool. This is why the less level it is, the less efficient the fridge becomes.
These fridges don’t have to be level when you are driving however as the natural rolling and pitching motion that is caused by driving will pass either side of level. This will keep the liquid ammonia from proliferating in the evaporator tubing of the absorption design.
Pros and cons of a compressor fridge
Now that we’ve looked in depth at 3-way fridges, let’s see how condenser fridges stack up against them.
Can run off mains power or 12v
A compressor fridge is very similar to your fridge at home. It gets its name from the small compressor unit that is usually installed at the back of the fridge unit. This compressor generates the fridges’ cooling power. They are sometimes called 2-way fridges, as most models are able to either get their power through 12v or from mains 240/120v.
Though, it seems to be getting more common that compressor fridge models will only allow 12v power, and will then sell an adaptor separately that allows them to run off mains power.
Can operate on a flat or incline.
A compressor fridge can operate efficiently on any type of terrain, no matter whether it is flat or on an incline. This is unlike a 3-way fridge, which has to be completely level in order to have any chance of working effectively.
Consistent temperature no matter the weather.
Because of their powerful compressor motors, compressor fridges are able to consistently cool to lower temperatures, and keep the temperature there. They are able to do so through all types of external temperature conditions. Your van space can be hot as hell and your compressor fridge will still be able to work well.
A 3-way fridge on the other hand struggles with any temperature above 30C / 86F.
Compressors make it possible to freeze!
The strong motors of a compressor fridge make freezing possible. This is a game changer, especially for meat storage.
What are the negatives of buying a compressor fridge for your van?
Noise, especially at night.
The powerful compressor units, that give this style of fridge it’s name, can actually be quite noisy. Modern fridges are now getting quieter and quieter with every release, but there is still a definite noise when the compressor unit is running. This noise can range from completely bearable to hell on earth. That being said, we barely heard our compressor turn on on our unit, which is impressive, considering our fridge unit was directly below our bed.
May need power assistance to continue running.
Unlike a 3-way fridge that has the option of running off gas, a compressor fridge needs a 12v power source. This means that your ability to refrigerate your food and drinks is literally determined by the electrical system you are installing in your van. If you are looking to spend more than a few days off grid, then you will need to make sure your electrical system has the ability to store and generate enough power (either by solar or vehicle alternator) to keep the lights on and the beers cold.
Which Type of refrigerator will suit you, your van and your adventure the best?
Now that you know the pros and cons of each, it’s time to decide which of these fridge types is best suited to your van and your adventures. You need to weigh up various different factors, such as the type of travel you are undertaking, the climates you are planning on visiting, the terrain you will be parking on, and the electrical system you will be running in your van.
Compressor style fridges are a great choice for:
Van lifers who want things consistently cold
If you are someone who wants your fridge on the road to operate just like your fridge at home, then you really need to go with the compressor option. They simply offer a more consistent cooling in all sorts of climates, regardless of the outdoor ambient temps. This is due to their powerful compressors.
If you are looking to freeze things.
If you are planning on freezing produce on the road, then you’ll really only achieve this by going the compressor route.
This was one of the main reasons we went with a compressor fridge/freezer (the Vitrifrigo c115L).
If you plan on going off-road.
If you are taking your ride off road and into the great unknown, then you may well be better off with a compressor fridge as these fridges do not need the ground to be level in order to work properly. So if you think you’ll be riding all day on uneven terrain, and more importantly, setting up camp on uneven terrain, then a compressor fridge is for you.
You have an electrical system powerful enough to run the fridge for multiple days.
If your van isn’t specced up electrically, with solar panels and battery storage, then you really should forget about the compressor option.
You definitely don’t need to be a moving solar farm on wheels, but you do need to do the figures and make sure you have enough power storage and creation capability (solar or alternator) to be able to run the fridge for at least a few days. Otherwise, if you do run out of power, you could find yourself spoiling all of your food.
You don’t mind a little bit of noise.
Compressor fridges are definitely noisier than 3-way fridges. This is due to the compressor. Modern compressor fridges by reputable brands tend to be pretty darn quiet though. Our Vitrifrigo c155L is whisper quiet and we never had a problem sleeping with it in our van – and the fridge was literally under our bed!
Compressor style fridges are a great choice for:
Van lifers trying to get completely off grid for long periods of time.
A 3-way fridge can run on LPG, and a 9L bottle will typically last about 3 weeks. So if you are looking to get right out there and disconnect, then 3-way is the way to go.
Vans that don’t have any renewable power setup.
Going with the 3-way option would also mean you wouldn’t need a big power system in your van, as the electrical system wouldn’t be responsible for running the fridge 24/7. This can be a huge saving in itself, saving you having to spend on batteries, solar panels, wiring and solar charge controllers. These savings would definitely help to offset the cost of the fridge.
Travellers who don’t need arctic freezing capability in their van
You’re never going to achieve an adequate freezing capability with a 3-way refrigerator. So if you plan to have a lot of perishable items on hand when you travel, a 3-way option isn’t for you.
Van lifers who plan to keep it smooth and flat.
If you are planning to stay on smooth roads, and camp on flat surfaces then a 3-way fridge remains an option for you. If you plan to be constantly on rugged terrain and sleeping on undulating, uneven terrain then you will get much better performance out of a compressor fridge vs a 3-way fridge. This is because a 3-way fridge becomes very inefficient as soon as it is positioned on any sort of lean.
Our thoughts on our compressor fridge after full time van living.
In the time we were living full time in our van, we absolutely loved our compressor fridge. Now, it is worth noting that we have never owned a 3-way refrigerator to compare it against, so for all we know we may have loved a 3-way fridge even more, but I highly doubt it.
The Vitrifrigo took everything we threw at it. We had it stocked chockers with food most times, and still my beers would be ice cold.
The only real negatives we faced with the fridge was the initial price (over 1300 AUD = 950 USD) which we thought was incredibly exorbitant considering you could get a 500L kitchen fridge for ½ that cost! We realised though, that it was build to be transportable, and the Vitrifrigo C115L definitely handled everything we threw at it.
We would also have to ice it every month or two as the freezer would have frozen completely shut. This was a bit of a pain as you could imagine. Every three months I can understand, but once a month!?
Aside from those two negatives, the whole process of installing and then travelling with the Vitrifrigo has been pretty smooth sailing.
If we were to build our dream van tomorrow (again) we would not hesitate to go down this road again.