Best 12-Volt Refrigerators, Coolers, and Freezers: Tested & Reviewed

Disclaimer:  This article contains an honest review based on some knowledge and personal experience. I am not in any way, being paid to advertise products mentioned herein.

Planning your next great adventure?  While you’re probably into exploring the outdoors along with your RV, or maybe you’re someone that likes to live off-grid, you still don’t want to sacrifice some of your creature comforts by any means.  

Perhaps the last time had you realize that your cooler was not any good at storing your food for more than a day, leaving them less than frozen, with all the ice melted.  Worse, they don’t seem edible anymore as a result.

You need a reliable portable storage freezer and cooler to keep your meats and dairy fresh while camped out in the middle of nowhere.  

And besides, your family of 6 could definitely use homestyle cooked meals, which will not be possible if you don’t have decent cold storage to begin with.

But first, you have to learn about portable refrigerators, yes, they do exist, and they are very useful.  To be exact, a 12-volt compression refrigerator is worth considering. Coolers remain an option and work just fine.  However, it really depends on your specific needs, plus how much you’re willing to spend.

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RV Compressor-type true portable refrigerators vs thermoelectric coolers

Let’s take a look at refrigeration that comes in a convenient portable size, but is also powerful enough to get the job done.  A 12-volt fridge that uses a compressor can be quite expensive, but in hindsight is still cheaper compared to any of your primary kitchen appliances.  

After all, if you want a device that will work as if you brought your own home refrigerator with you, then getting one is worth your money.  And what’s truly amazing is it runs on very low power at 12 volts.

Such type of refrigeration can be operated using your RV’s starter battery or through solar panels.  You can also stick the plug of some models into the cigarette lighter receptacle to power it on. These portable refrigerators can also withstand the rough travel ahead without breaking or stalling.

Thermoelectric coolers, on the other hand, have a compressor-less design.  It has an upper hand when it comes to the price; it is more affordable than a true portable refrigerator.

However, it can only maintain a certain temperature that’s dependent on the outer climate.

If you have an RV refrigerator, a freezer even,  and it can keep your dairy cold at about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, then it is a compressor-type, and electrically assisted.  While it is certainly not cheap, it will make your life on the road a lot more comfortable.

After a long trip, you sure don’t want to find spoiled food, which you’ve meticulously stored because you thought a thermoelectric cooler will cut it.

Top 3 choices for 12-volt RV refrigerators

I have picked out the following (with specs):

Dometic CFX

  • Quart capacity: 27 to 49
  • Cooling application: compressor
  • Power capacity: 12 to 24 volts
  • 120V AC
  • Temperature range: -8 degrees to 50 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Highest outer temperature: 90 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Other features: accurate temperature control, battery protection

Dometic CFX (Dual zone)

  • Quart capacity: 56 to 90
  • Cooling application: compressor
  • Power capacity: 12 to 24 volts
  • 120V AC
  • Temperature range: -8 degrees to 50 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Highest outer temperature: 90 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Other features: accurate temperature control, battery protection, dual zone

Dometic Tropicool

  • Quart capacity: 15 to 35
  • Cooling application: thermoelectric
  • Power capacity: 12 to 24 volts
  • 120V AC
  • Temperature range: -8 degrees to 50 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Highest outer temperature: 77 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Other features: battery protection

I have categorized the choices into three, namely: top overall portable refrigerator (Dometic CFX), top dual zone refrigerator (Dometic CFX dual zone), and top cooler (Dometic Tropicool).  You’ll be assured that anyone’s needs will correspond to at least one of these categories.

You might wonder why I have chosen products from a single brand.  Again, this article is not a paid endorsement by Dometic. If you are an RV owner,  you must have items bearing this ubiquitous brand name. Dometic is an industry leader in the US when it comes to innovative RV appliances.  Their range of products does not only include refrigerators and freezers, but also air conditioners, heat pumps, toilets, awnings, etc.

Dometic 12 volt refs have many features that set them apart from other brands.  The portable freezer from their CFX line is perhaps the best I’ve seen. How many others can boast of a temperature of -8 degrees Fahrenheit in a compact size that can be powered by 12 volts? There are portable freezers that can only go as low as zero degree temperature.  And that’s just miles apart when it comes down to comparison.

You may think an eight-degree difference is not much of a big deal.  After all, at zero degrees, it’s enough to keep your chicken and other meats frozen.  Well, I have two words for you: ice cream! It’s a delight to know you can bring frozen treats on your trip, which can be as good as being bought from the store.  Aside from ice cream, you can also bring ice to cool your drinks anytime you want.

Portable RV Refrigerator and Freezer in one

Then there’s the dual zone type of 12-volt portable refrigerators.  Dometic CFX-95DZW is the real deal.  It has both a ref compartment and a separate freezer area.  You can set either compartment as both a fridge or a freezer with its adjustable temperature control.  

There’s also a smaller yet efficient version with Dometic CFX-65DZ, among other brands.  What happens is, the cold air emanating from the freezer section provides the chill for the ref portion.  Given this design, the ref temperature is limited but should be enough for food items that need only light refrigeration.

And if you want a simpler option, but durable nonetheless, Dometic’s coolers will provide you just that.  Interestingly, they are quite unique because they don’t act as a cooler alone. They can also serve as a food warmer of sorts that can provide heat up to 149 degrees Fahrenheit.   You can’t find this feature in other portable coolers. Dometic units have 7 different settings, boosting its versatile function.

Given the variety of intelligent cooling units Dometic offers, many RV enthusiasts including me, favor them over brands such as ARB and Whynter.  These 2 other companies sell 12 volt RV refrigerators as well. In my opinion, however, they don’t hold a candle to Dometic’s superb quality and innovation, not to mention the price.  Yes, these brands are even more expensive, yet their cooling capacity is inferior compared to Dometic’s. It can’t be helped to extol Dometic portable refs and freezers any RV fanatic will surely love to have.

Top pick for Portable RV 12-volt Refrigerator and Freezer

Dometic CFX Refrigerator / Freezer

You will love these features:

  • almost the same as your refrigerator at home by using a compressor
  • powered by as little as 12 volts
  • LED lights on the interior
  • Tough, high-grade plastic exterior with insulation
  • detachable handles and lids
  • USB port
  • temperature memory
  • battery protection that prevents your vehicle’s own battery from draining
  • digital temperature reading
  • silent operation
  • comes with a wifi app for monitoring the battery and temperature

You might not want the Dometic CFX Refrigerator / Freezer because:

  • it is pricey compared to regular thermoelectric coolers

Summary for Dometic CFX Ref/ Freezer

The Dometic CFX is perfect not only for an RV or motorhome, but it is also suitable for a semi truck or sedan car.  You’ll rest in the fact that your stored food will stay cold, which you can use to cook fresh meals later on.

This fridge, which consists of a single compartment, can give you a deep freeze at -8 degrees Fahrenheit. Its adjustability makes it a versatile device, going from cooling to freezing your food items.  This innovative technology combined with its lightweight size, add to the great features of the product. The CFX line has many quart sizes that cater to various preferences.

Top pick for Portable 12-volt Dual Zone Refrigerator and Freezer

Dometic CFX-65DZ/ 95DZW

You will love these features:

  • Separate compartments for ref and freezer
  • Turbo cooling capability
  • Silent compressor like a regular-sized home fridge
  • powered by as little as 12 volts
  • Tough high-grade plastic exterior with insulation
  • detachable handles and lids
  • LED lights on the interior
  • battery protection available in 3 stages
  • digital temperature reading
  • comes with a wifi app for monitoring the battery and temperature

You might not want the Dometic CFX-DZ/ 95DZW Ref/ Freezer because:

  • CFX-65DZ variant uses cold air emanating from freezer to chill ref

Summary for Dometic CFX-65DZ/ 95DZW

This dual zone variant of Dometic CFX series has similar characteristics with the rest of the models.  The main difference lies in the separation of the fridge and freezer sections.

The CFX-65DZ model allows temperature adjustment only on the freezer because excess cold air is cascaded to the ref compartment.  The premium unit is the CFX-95DZW which has 2 temperature controls for the ref and freezer, respectively. The cooling effect will still be somehow affected, however, on any dual zone ref and freezer, by the exterior temperature.  In other words, when it is above 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside, you cannot keep it at its lowest possible temperature of -8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Top pick for Portable 12-volt Cooler

Dometic Tropicool

You will love these features:

  • Has both cooling and heating capabilities
  • Thermoelectric source of power
  • Multiple temperature settings
  • powered by as little as 12 volts
  • Economy mode option when low power is preferred

You might not want the Dometic Tropicool because:

  • Short of refrigerator features
  • Interior is highly affected by temperature outside
  • Specific temperature cannot be set

Summary for Dometic Tropicool

If you require minimal cooling, the Dometic Tropicool will be just right for you.  It provides a decent amount of cold to your drinks and snacks, which are not reliant so much on lower temps.  It is ideal for short road trips and can be good for those with a limited budget.

This being thermoelectric, it does not make use of a compressor unlike the variants in the Dometic CFX series.  It observes an 86 degrees Fahrenheit of the difference in temperatures between the interior and exterior. As such, cooling is limited to 34 degrees Fahrenheit, which means, your outer temperature is about 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you intend to use it as a warmer, the inner temperature can go as high as 150 degrees Fahrenheit. You can find this among the 7 settings on the unit.  It also has an ECO option, which is automatically set once the temperature for the interior has been achieved.

Why compressor-type portable refrigerators are the best option

  • Offers true cooling properties that will help preserve food items for a long time
  • The compact size will not take up so much space yet offers you home ref-like refrigeration
  • Has adjustable precise temperature controls which thermoelectric coolers like the Dometic Tropicool do not have

Many Dometic RV cooling options

As mentioned. the Dometic CFX line of portable refrigerators that provide cooling on your precious food, while traveling on the road, are truly must-haves.  This line of 12-volt refs is suitable for those looking at storing large amounts of food items for days.

Not everyone though needs a big ref, especially if you’re planning to get one for an average-sized car.  And besides, you may a be a budget-conscious buyer who is always looking to purchase products that give more bang for your buck.  As such, Dometic’s CF series will be perfect for your money constraints and compact needs. They are also powered by only 12 volts, which you can simply plug into the socket of your cigarette lighter.  

The CF series include Dometic CDF-11, CF-18, and CF-25, all of which are narrower and smaller in size yet possess the compressor power that’s just the same as your typical home refrigerator.  They also allow precise temperature adjustments like their bigger Dometic counterparts, with the lowest setting of zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Dometic CDF 11

  • Capacity in cubic feet: 0.4
  • Capacity in quarts: 10
  • Capacity in liters: 11
  • Dimensions: 9.4 inches (W)
  • 14.1 inches (H)
  • 21.6 inches (D)
  • Weight in pounds: 19
  • Electricity rating: 2.5 amps/ 12 volts

Dometic CF 18

  • Capacity in cubic feet: 0.7
  • Capacity in quarts: 19
  • Capacity in liters: 18
  • Dimensions: 11.8 inches (W)
  • 16.3 inches (H)
  • 18.3 inches (D)
  • Weight in pounds: 25
  • Electricity rating: 3.1 amps/ 12 volts

Dometic CF 25

  • Capacity in cubic feet: 0.8
  • Capacity in quarts: 19
  • Capacity in liters: 18
  • Dimensions: 10.2 inches (W)
  • 16.7 inches (H)
  • 21.7 inches (D)
  • Weight in pounds: 28
  • Electricity rating: 3.1 amps/ 12 volts

Features of Dometic CF series:

  • Portable refrigerator and freezer using compressor technology identical to a regular household fridge
  • Interior temperature, which can be set from 0 degrees Fahrenheit to 50 degrees Fahrenheit is independent of ambient temperature
  • Power rating is from 12 volts to 24 volts, or 120V AC
  • Exterior high grade, impact-resistant plastic in two-tone gray cabinet
  • Digital temperature display using electronic thermostat
  • A battery monitoring system using 3 stages
  • Has a safety belt for easy fastening to any type of vehicle
  • Lightweight and comes with a shoulder strap for easy manual transport
  • Has double cup holders
  • Has a DC connection cable
  • Has a 2-year warranty

More info about portable 12V refrigerators

To enable you to bring more food and to keep them fresh like it came out from your home ref, buying a real portable fridge makes a lot of sense.  Their source of power will make quite a big difference in terms of how cold your interior temperature will be, which most meat and dairy require to preserve their quality and nutrients.  

Portable refs could be compressor-type, absorption, and thermoelectric.  When you know each one’s takeaways and tradeoffs, you will be better equipped to decide which type of portable fridge is most effective for your needs.

Portable Refrigerators (compressor type)

Advantages:

  • Efficient by using low battery power
  • Temperature can be set precisely
  • Can chill to lower temps, regardless of ambient temperature
  • Operates effectively on uneven terrain
  • Can serve either as a fridge or a freezer
  • Most preferred than absorption type and thermoelectric refs

Real cooling

Among the three types of portable refs, the compression ref is the only unit you can consider that will offer real cooling.  They function like your big home fridge with its compressor technology, only it is smaller, and operates on 12 volts. Its ability to adjust the temperature accurately, ranging from 0 degrees Fahrenheit to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, allows you to set it according to the contents you intend to cool.

If you have the dual zone type of portable fridge,  you have two partitions. One is for the freeze function, and the other to provide just the right amount of refrigeration so that your food doesn’t spoil fast.

The temperature of the interior typically remains unaffected by the exterior climate.  So whenever you adjust the temperature using the digital controls, you will get a precise cold output.  However, an extremely high temperature outside may still impact the coldness of your interior despite the adjustable settings.

Battery efficient

Compressor type portable refs use DC power, which you can harness using your vehicle’s battery.  With its battery efficiency, you can be assured that it consumes very low power. You have to remember though that during hot summer months, your ref will be forced to keep the interior temp cold by working up your battery.  As such, you will consume more battery when it’s always used in warmer climates.

Nonetheless, compression refs usually use lower than 1 amp per hour, proving its energy efficiency.  As you may experience with your very own home ref, the compressor unit is not always powered on and instead, runs in cycles to maintain its required interior temperature.

Most, if not all cooling devices, have a built-in sensor that will trigger once the desired temperature is reached.  This way you don’t use your battery power wastefully. Should you intend to use your portable ref more often, you must think of getting another battery to power it up so you don’t end up draining your car’s battery in the process.

Continuous operation regardless of inclined position

You know that a normal house ref that uses a compressor should have a leveled position.  The portable 12V ref is special in such a way that even if your RV roughs it up on an incline or drive steadily on the road, it will function without a hitch.  This is something an absorption cooler cannot do because it has to be placed on a flat surface.

The best type of portable RV refrigerator

It is for the above-mentioned reasons and more, why the compressor type 12V portable ref is the best there is, with its high-quality cooling being its primary asset.  This kind of refrigeration is necessary, especially if you are looking at storing your meats and other food items for more than 24 hours.

Disadvantages of Portable Refrigerators (compressor type)

Compression Refrigerators are expensive

When you go to warmer climates for your trips frequently, you will utilize more amps per hour to keep the cold inside. In this regard, it will be best for you to purchase a separate battery so that you don’t drain your vehicle’s own.  You should only consider this if you almost always have to use it during months of extremely high temperatures.

If you actually decide to buy a dedicated battery,  you will need a source that will enable it to be recharged.  You have two options then, you can harness solar power to recharge your battery, or, you can do so with the help of a portable generator.  Both options are costly and unfortunately, there’s no other way around it.

Compression Refrigerators emit a slight noise

This is not really much of a disadvantage.   After all, you must already be familiar with the compressor noise of your household fridge when it runs to maintain the cold temp inside.  You know this is normal and unavoidable, in fact, it’s not as noisy compared to a regular ref. And besides, they only emit noise during the first few minutes of operation, and will usually subside thereafter.

Portable Refrigerators (absorption type)

Advantages:

  • Flexibility in terms of power sources
  • Highly efficient if gas is utilized

Disadvantages:

  • Will only operate on leveled ground
  • Static temperature
  • Lowest temperature possible is 30 degrees Fahrenheit
  • High electric consumption at ten times more than its portable counterparts

Also known as a 3-way ref, an absorption type portable ref utilizes heat energy to provide cooling.  The “3-way” label refers to power sources such as LPG, 12 volts DC power from either battery, or solar energy, and 240 volts AC power output.

It consumes a lot of electrical power equivalent to ten times more than a 12-volt compressor type portable ref.   As such, hooking it up with your vehicle’s battery is not a viable option because it will most likely drain it in no time.

If you plan to get this type of portable ref, it’s almost imperative to get a separate battery that’s catered solely to your unit.  Or, if it’s also possible for you to have a means of recharging the battery, otherwise, you have to pick out another power source for your portable device.  And for this reason, you might as well turn to use an LPG.

Absorption type portable refs use gas in the most efficient manner.  Users, however, should keep it in a place with good ventilation and open space.   When traveling on the road, you should bring enough gas supply, or remember to refill it at any gas station.

Portable coolers (thermoelectric)

Advantages:

  • Offers a cheaper alternative for once in a while usage
  • Capacity to chill and warm food items

Disadvantages:

  • Will offer no cooling when the ambient temperature is more than 77 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Emits a distracting noise
  • Consumes more battery power unlike a portable compressor type ref

More reasons why someone who is always on the road will need a 12V portable fridge

Let’s get one thing straight, a portable 12V ref is not only highly recommended for RV and motorhomes.  Anybody who is often on the road and relies on his vehicle, whether it’s a hatchback or a pickup truck as his home away from home, should consider getting this type of cooling device.   And even for someone who wants to have it in his home, may it be in a small room, or an individual who rents a cozy apartment with limited space can always count on a portable fridge to deliver.  In other words, its multi-purpose functionality is undeniable.

Here are some of its popular uses:

Have one handy during camping trips

You could be a solo adventurer or be part of a wolf pack with your family and friends; you can definitely use a portable ref to feed you or your entire group during breaks from your outdoor exploration.  A 12-volt mini fridge can stay in your vehicle or nearby while camped out in the wilderness.

Sustain your nutrition while on the road

You’re visiting from one state to another, embarking on a long road trip to visit relatives you haven’t seen for the longest time.  You decide to bring them food as your potluck for your homecoming of sorts. Thanks to your portable ref, you can preserve the integrity and quality of your food despite the long travel.

Beat the trucker blues

A trucker’s life can be lonely and difficult at the same time.  You can pull off an all-nighter if you at least manage to feed yourself with healthy food items, which can only be preserved when you store it in a compact ref that fits in your vehicle.  Plus, a cold drink or soda would be nice to have in between hours of driving.

Use for cold storage in a log cabin

And because you only stay in your rustic cabin every other weekend, it’s not too practical to place a regular ref inside it.  Instead, you can bring with you your 12-volt mini ref and take it inside. This way, you can cook meals from your stored raw ingredients without much hassle and maintenance.

Price points

If there’s one thing that separates 12-volt portable refrigerators from coolers, that is the price.  A thermoelectric cooler typically ranges from 100 to 300 dollars. On the other hand, portable refs with compressor technology will set you back at least 500 dollars, which can run up to a thousand bucks depending on the brand.  It’s really important to determine your usage to get the most out of our cooling unit.

Accessories to complement your portable RV 12V refrigerator

So you have finally decided to buy your very own Dometic portable ref for use in your vehicle,  it’s time to jazz it up some more. While your Dometic cooling equipment may be sufficient for your needs, you can up the ante by adding insulation and protection for your device.  The Dometic CFX line also includes insulation covers and slides that facilitate access to the fridge when placed in limited spaces.

Dometic CFX Insulation

This insulated cover from Dometic CFX line works to improve the efficiency of your ref’s compressor with its premium nylon material.  It also adjusts to extreme heat from the outside by lowering power to save on battery consumption.

The cover itself protects your unit against superficial damage, which can be quite common if you leave it as is. When you need to open your fridge, you can easily lift the flaps on the top surface to get the contents.  Each of the CFX refs has a tailor-fitted cover. When you buy them online at Amazon, simply click on the model of your Dometic portable fridge to get the right size.

Dometic CFX Ref Slide

If you have limited space on your vehicle such that your portable ref has to be stowed behind tight areas, then getting a ref slide is recommended.  It will provide you with utmost convenience by sliding out your ref from the dark using rollers so that you can load and unload items much easier. The slide, which can accommodate up to 220 pounds of load, also keeps your fridge secure during travel with its powder-coated steel material.

The Dometic slide is suitable to two different CFX portable ref sizes.  For example, CFX-SLD3540 slide can fit either a Dometic CFX-35 or CFX-40 refrigerator.   Same goes for CFX-SLD5065 and CFX-SLD95100 slides, which would cater to CFX-50/ CFX-65 ref, and CFX-95/ CFX-100, respectively.

Final word

We have reached the conclusion of this article.  Having a portable fridge is perhaps one of the biggest investments if you want to enjoy the coolest comforts of a home on the road or, living off-grid.  However, an RV lifestyle is not just about having the most advanced gadgets to make everything easy for you. You should instead relish in the freedom of creating an adventure-filled life and exploration to treasure for a lifetime.  But it doesn’t hurt to have a dependable cooling device, like a 12V portable ref and freezer at your disposal, to keep you fed and happy during your journey.

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