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Portable fridge aficionados - help shape our test

Are you a keen 4x4 enthusiast, camper, caravanner, boatie, or just someone with an interest in portable fridges? Are you already a proud portable fridge owner, or are fishing for information on your first fridge?

We’d love to hear what’s important to you in choosing a fridge to help us shape our upcoming portable fridge test.
To be clear, we’re talking about portable but powered fridges that can run of a 12 volt power supply, not coolers or ice chests.

  • What are we interested in?

  • What do you use your fridge for? Is it for short trips away, long term touring, keeping the crew’s lunches cold when you’re working out on site, or even just getting the groceries home from the shops

  • Where is your fridge? Is it in your car, boat, caravan, or in your garage?

  • What sort of temperature ranges does your fridge typically experience?

  • What do you put in it? Is it fresh food or frozen? Cold drinks only, or even your fresh-caught fish?

  • Is your fridge always on, or do you just use it when you need it?

  • How do you power your fridge? Do you primarily run your fridge of 12 volt power in a vehicle or mains power?

And is there anything else you’d like us to look for in the fridges we’ll be testing? Please tell us in the comments below.

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I have two Waeco fridges, one in my Ford Mondeo wagon, the other smaller model in a VW Polo commuter boot. They’re used to keep cold shopping cold and sometimes used to transport refrigerated contents over distances. I have both set at about 3 Celsius but they can also freeze. Both have proven reliable and completely effective.

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Is it only 12V or are you also looking at say 3-way power (12V, 240V and LPG). 3-way provides greater flexibility in use as can be used as a backup fridge in the home and also can be removed and used outside the vehicle when traveling (if run on gas). Our family has a 3-way fridge we use when camping or taking on holidays. I wouldn’t buy a 12V unless it n is mounted permanently in a vehicle (e.g. work vehicle used remotely)…as it takes up a lot of cargo space.

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I have a fridge/freezer that is interchangeable: 12/240V.
It runs 24/7 off a second set of batteries that powers the house part of my campervan.
It holds fresh foods (mostly produce, some milk and meat), and leftovers.
I live in south-east Queensland, so it doesn’t get too cold or too hot.

Edit: The fridge is $500 and by Stirling, ALDI’s rebrand of the Primus fridge with a Danfoss compressor.

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Thanks @phb, you raise an important point - 3-way fridges certainly give you more flexibility, which is an important consideration for what can be an expensive purchase. And you make a good point about taking up space.

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We have an Engel and a Waeco. Over our time we have had 3 Engels, one Waeco and a Chescold 3 way fridge. We would never go with a 3 way fridge again as when travelling in hot areas it does not maintain its temperature. We have been 4WDriving and camping for over 30 years and camping for longer where we used an esky. Our current caravan has a fixed compressor fridge.

The Waeco has been running permanently at home as an overflow fridge and the Engel is in the rear of the 4WD. We generally use it to hold drinks when away in the van, but if we are camping then we take both. One is used as a freezer and the other is used for food and drink.

We want a fridge that is well insulated,is a frugal user of power and maintains temperature. It means that we also take solar panels for extra charge if needed.

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I’ve had an Engel for years and very happy with it - lives in the 'cruiser when travelling/camping and lives in the kitchen as overflow/beer when not. I have friends with both Engel and Waeco and while the debate is amusing around the campfire, all our beer seems to be pleasingly cold and food keeps well - they both seem to be good brands. In remote areas (where I am) the Engel seems to be preferred for robustness and reliability, but I wonder if that is due to perception and time in the market?

I’m not a fan of the three way fridge - gas isn’t something I typically use when camping or travelling remote, but that’s me for my situation … for a motorhome or caravan maybe …

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I have a 40litre ARB badged Engel 12volt fridge. I have a transformer to run it off 240 volts. On long trips I run this as a freezer with pre-prepared meals. I freeze ice packs on a daily basis and use this to keep a cooler cold for milk, drinks and food.
On short trips of just a few days, I run it as a fridge only.
When in the car, it runs from an extra deep cycle 12 volt battery. This is kept charged by running the car and by Solar panels. If I stay in a Caravan park, I run the fridge off the 240vol to 12v transformer. The battery can run the fridge for about 2 days without charging the battery.
As a freezer it will run at about -15 degrees. As a fridge I run it at 2-4 degrees.

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Thanks everyone for your responses, they’ll be a great help in shaping our test and defining what’s important for us to look at. Of course, if there’s anything else specific that you’d like to see us cover then let us know and we’ll see how we can cover it.

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Possibly the only thing is the fridge capacity verses the volume of the whole fridge. This can be important when travelling to minimise wasted volume (of the outer casing).

Dimensions and manoeuvrability are also useful especially if one has limited space in a vehicle.

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There is a important consideration that many 4x4 and other users forget, that is weight of the portable fridge.
Many sedans, SUV’s and dedicated 4x4’s have a relatively small load capacity.
That is the difference between the vehicles empty kerb weight and its GMV.
On many modern cars, SUV and 4X4 wagons is often only around 500-600kgs, so you put 5 big blokes in one, some overnight supplies a full fridge and that 500kg’s is easily surpassed then if you slap on the camper with its 150-250kg towbar down force and you are well over GVM. Remember also that many SUV’s and 4X4’s have bulbars and other weighty accessories added post purchase for that big adventure.

It matters now because it is safety related and the police are starting to do spot checks of tow vehicles ( in Vic at least ) and insurance companies are advising they may not honour policies if the vehicle is found to have excessive GVM post accident.
So the lightest portable fridge is important.

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This response came in via email, adding it the list:

What do you use your fridge for?
I am Diabetic. Medication and Ready Use Insulin must be kept below 25 Degrees C in the summer months. (Insulin for use more than a month away must be at 3-4 Degrees C.) I use an Engel Fridge/Freezer which is mounted in the back of a Discovery 4. In addition, it is used to carry food and beverages on trips. Whatever needs to be chilled goes into it. I also use it to transport food etc from the Supermarket to home in hot months like February. The Fridge is dual 12V/240V powered. When it is time to defrost the house Freezers, the Engel is used to store Frozen food for the duration. Ditto in the event of a prolonged power failure.

Where is your fridge?
4WD and House.

What sort of temperature ranges does your fridge typically experience?
The Engel manual, from memory, says that it can handle up to 60 Degrees C when running. Mine is in an enclosed vehicle and could see those sorts of temperatures while parked. On the move the cabin temperature is regulated by the vehicle Air Conditioning.

What do you put in it?
Medication, Food and Drinks. (It is too small to accommodate dead bodies!)
Is your fridge always on, or do you just use it when you need it? When needed. Too much power draw if left on all the time and frequent short city trips undertaken. It is fired up a few hours before going away.

How do you power your fridge?
As mentioned above, it can be powered by 240V mains supply. When in the vehicle, it is powered from 12V Hella Type Power Outlets. (Cigarette Lighter type sockets are prone to overheat when in constant high draw use.) As it may be necessary to leave the fridge running overnight when on trips, the vehicle has been set up with an Auxiliary Deep Cycle Battery and associated Charging System. This preserves the Starting Battery at high charge levels for when needed to get going the next day. Deep Cycle Batteries are designed to be run almost completely flat. Such use destroys Starting Batteries. The Dual Charging System protects the Aux Battery when it gets really low and shuts off the power. It will only connect to the charging system when the vehicle has started and the Starting Battery reaches 75%. After a Day’s driving, it should be ready for the next shut down period. The Accessory Power Sockets that are standard in the vehicle shut off a few minutes after the vehicle is stopped. They are no use overnight.

What features are desirable?

  • Dual 12V/240V power is certainly necessary. For example, the full Fridge could be carried into a Holiday House and plugged in. This avoids having to lug stuff from the car multiple times. Some models also have a third power source - L.P. Gas. I can see this as a boon for people staying off the beaten track for lengthy periods. In my case, I could not justify the extra cost.

  • Rugged Exterior. My Engel is metal and is quite robust. I can’t say the same for the thin paint job. It is too easily scratched. Some cheaper Fridges have plastic casings.

  • Tie Downs are very necessary. The Engel employs the handles as Tie Down Points. I have installed a Draw System in the 4WD which included Tie Down Rings in the Fridge Slide that forms the top of one of the Draws. Accessory Tie Down straps were purchased to connect the Fridge to the Slide. The Fridge still has a tendency to slide a little from side to side when on the road. It is very important to be able secure what could become a missile inside vehicles. I have also added a Cargo Barrier for safety.

  • Heating - some Fridges in the market also have a Food Warming capability. Not for me but could be useful for some people.

  • Lid Opening. The Engel has slide pins on the hinges to enable the lid to be slid to the side. In my case, the lid hinges up and hits the roof when inside the vehicle. I otherwise have to pull the slide out to at he contents.

  • Plenty of vents. When inside a packed vehicle, care must be taken not to block the cooling vents of the fridge. Having them on several sides helps.

  • Most Fridges have internal baskets. Internals that can be easily cleaned are important. If not packed well, things can fall over and leak due to vehicle movement. Multiple partitions would be nice to have. A feature that the Engel does not have, but would be handy is a drain plug like some Esky’s are fitted with. You mentioned transported of freshly caught fish - I imagine that the inside would get quite messy.

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I’ve wondered why these portable fridges don’t have drainage features like some esky’s do. I assumed one reason could be due to the drainage system being an excellent place for heat to enter into the fridge, if not designed properly.

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I have a WAECO CF35AC about 5-6 years old that is used as a portable fridge in the back of the AWD. Only seeing occasional use it has not failed me thus far. I also use it with a portable battery pack of my own design, deep cycle AGM, 12 volt at around 50Ah, giving around 2-3 days of use when free camping. The fridge is also used as backup for keeping cans of drink cold at home during special events. Being able to run from both 240 volts and 12 volts DC is important to me. Aside from this I have a camper van with a 3 way fridge which runs well from 240 volts or LPG gas, but is very inefficient on 12 volts, requiring about 10 Amps to run in contrast with the WAECO which uses about 2.5 - 3 amps when the compressor is running. Needless to say I would not use the 3 way on 12 volts because it chews battery power.

A couple of things I would suggest when reviewing fridges: 1) For 12 volt users, the average running current is the most important figure but is difficult for the average user to translate into hours of running from a battery. I feel it would be most beneficial (to me anyway) to express the average consumption in Ampere Hours per day. This means that if a user has say a 110 Ampere Hour (Ah) battery (a fairly common size), that Ampere Hours per day can be directly related to days of running. For example, if a fridge consumes 50 Ah in a day (~2.08 Amps for 24 hours), then you could expect around two days of running from the 110 Ah battery. This way you don’t have to convert Amps of consumption in 24 hours into Ampere Hours to do the calculation. 2) The second point I would make is that of correct terminology. Many people use the terms Amps and Ampere Hours interchangeably, ie “I have a 110 Amp battery” where it should be said "I have a 110 Ampere Hour (or Amp Hour) battery. Amps is a measure of the magnitude of current flow, whereas Ampere Hours relates to the capacity of a battery almost exclusively. In the case of a 110 Ampere Hour battery, theoretically, it can supply 110 amps for one hour, 11 amps for ten hours, 5.5 Amps for 20 hours and so on, being the 110 Amp Hour capacity divided by the current drawn. It is also worth a mention that battery capacity in Ah is specified at a particular discharge rate, the most common being the 10 and 20 hour rates. The reason that this is important to note, is that the battery capacity is not linear. It may be 110 Ah at the 20 hour rate (5.5Amps), but if the battery is discharged at a higher current, the Ah capacity will drop. So I guess what I am saying is that a ‘primer’ on batteries may also be useful as an adjunct to a fridge review. The 12 volt scene is awash with myths and anecdotes on batteries and 12 volt power. Anyway, I hope that my rant makes some sense.

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I have 3 fridges, a 40L Engel, a 47L ARB and a 60L Chescold three way.
I have them always turned on, and use them at home for drink fridges on 240v. The ARB & Engel are set at -3 deg and the Chescold set at 1 deg, but being a duel compartment it also holds the ice.
When on the road/camping I take the Engel as a beer fridge and also have vac-packed meat and meals and set it at -3 deg. The ARB is set at 3 deg and is full of fresh food. These are run off 12v when driving and a 100w solar panel keeps up with them when camping.
I haven’t used the Chescold camping since getting the solar panel.
What i would like to see on tests is total power consumption over 24 hrs or even a few days. The Engel draws less amps but seems to cycle more often.
I have the covers on them which help and when driving/camping always keep a towel or pillow on top of them which helps even more.

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Hi Choice.
My last portable fridge was a Waco. It was great at the start but started playing up after a couple of years and just went down hill from there. I have just purchased an Engel and have only used it a couple of times. We have it on 24/7 as a drinks fridge and then take it away in the car when caravaning.
I think the following features would be suitable for one of your tests: Internal Volume; Weight; Outside Dimensions; Power Consumption @ 12 Volts AND 240 Volts; Insulation Properties (with out a transit bag and with a transit bag); Internal Light; Controls (easy to see, easy to set, accurate); Internal Storage Basket/s; Strength of Carry Handles (to attach tie down straps to); Noise Generation; Heat Generation; Cost; Warranty; Lid Ease of Opening and Closing; Availability of Agents Around Australia; Robustness (for off road travel); Remote Temperature Sensing; Power Cutout at Low Battery Voltages.
I’m sure that other readers can add to this list. Thanks for your great work. Cheers to all and travel safe.

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I am old school and can camp in summer with waterbag and hard tack. But camping companion likes the sunset single malt on ice. I like to duck off in the motor to check out the country. Companion likes to sit in the shade and read or stitch, keeping an eye on the birds and reptiles wandering through the camp. So the great debate is about the best fridge for a static camp, independent of the motorcar. 3-way on a gas cylinder, or 12 volt with solar panel and battery? And not needing a Hiab to lift it from the motorcar to the camp. So how about testing for the fridge that cools itself at the campsite when the mothership motorcar is elsewhere deployed?.

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Heresy! :wink:

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Phil, these “gentlemen” have never been in the Australian Outback when it’s 40 degrees C at sunset, hardly Scottish or Irish city slicker ambient bar temperature. And one doesn’t put ice in the whisky, one pours the whisky over a small iceblock. "Put one or two cubes in your whisky, it will chill it slightly, melt into water, and then help release all these wonderful aromas and flavours” as the Glenlivet ambassador says. My camping companion can discriminate all the flavours in a malt, so I’ll trust her judgement. Of course in winter when it’s heading to zero a whisky at armpit temperature is most warming. Having settled that matter, sticking to the subject, do you have any advice on how Choice should test car fridges for keeping single malt at perfect temperature? Cheers, or “slainte chugat” as my great-grandmother might have declaimed.

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I never put ice (or anything else) in my malt whisky, but living in ‘the Outback’ the real concern is loss through evaporation :wink:

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