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inside the 12v refrigerator

How does a 12V refrigerator work?

Updated April 11, 2023

When talking about RV equipment, a 12V refrigerator is at the top of the must-have list, especially during the summer months. In the sea of possible choices regarding refrigeration, such as inverters, portable fridges, and RV fridges, it’s really difficult to determine which works best for you. Some of the solutions may not even work and some of them may not be so durable.

But first things first, what is a 12V refrigerator?

Unlike the refrigerator that we use at home, which runs on a 120V alternating current, a portable 12V refrigerator uses only a portion of that energy and still helps in maintaining your food fresh, clean, and frozen.

Ok, but how does a 12V refrigerator work?

In almost every refrigerator, we will find three components: a compressor, a chemical refrigerant, and the tubing. The chemical refrigerant is a gas (usually it’s freon) which turns to liquid as the temperature drops. The compressor provides the pressure needed for the refrigerant’s change of state, from gas to liquid. If you’ve ever put a hand on the back side of your home refrigerator, you must have felt the warmth.

That was the compressor heating a refrigerant from gas to liquid. When it turns into liquid, it moves through a lot of pipes and tubes that are located on the walls of the fridge. The tubing cools it down and transforms it again into a gas state (cool). This process of refrigeration could be simplified like this: your refrigerator isn’t cooling the space, it’s sucking the warmth out of it.

12v refrigerator filled with food

Types of 12V refrigerators

When it comes to 12V refrigerators, there are a few types, based on the technology and its purpose.

  • Electrically assisted cooler

This type of 12V refrigerator is very inexpensive, but it’s not very efficient. It’s a great solution for a one-day trip or a weekend getaway, but not for long.

  • Thermoelectric cooler

A lot more efficient than electrically assisted coolers, but still they can’t keep things frozen for a longer period of time. Great for short trips.

12V Compression refrigerator

The best choice in terms of power efficiency and cooling abilities, but also the most expensive one. However, this refrigerator checks all the boxes: sturdy frame, it is really efficient, and has a great support system in terms of battery protection. If you want a great, sturdy, efficient, portable refrigerator, we suggest you invest a little extra money and buy one. It will keep your food frozen and fresh, and it is an optimal choice for both short and long trips.

Pros/Cons of 12V refrigerators


Pros                                                    Cons

Portable                                               12V Power Source

Reliable cooling                                  Expensive

No propane

Doesn’t need ventilation

Can be powered by solar

As you can see, the list of advantages heavily outweighs the list of disadvantages regarding the use of 12V refrigerators in your RV. With good solar power, you can run your refrigerator indefinitely.

cold drinks inside the 12v refrigerator

Do it yourself

If you have a chest freezer to spare, and you’re good with electricity, you can build your own 12V refrigerator and save a lot of money. How to do that? You’ll take your chest freezer, plug it into a small inverter and connect it to a thermostat. The thermostat is connected to a relay that turns on or off the inverter. The relay keeps the temperature inside the fridge at the desired level. If the temperature rises, the relay turns the inverter on. If the temperature drops, the relay turns the inverter off.

However, we do not recommend doing that unless you’re really skilled and have the time to build one. Also, chest freezers are twice as big as a regular 12V refrigerator, so if you need something smaller for your van or an RV, a chest freezer just won’t do the job.


Buying a 12V portable refrigerator should be an important and well-researched decision. After conducting 10 hours of research on 20 portable RV refrigerators, we were able to identify the top 6 best portable RV refrigerators.

We’re hoping our article will help you in your decision and save a lot of hours browsing and reading reviews. Just bear in mind that when you’re choosing a 12V portable refrigerator, you should pick the one that has the most advanced and energy-efficient technology.


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