Do You Need an Inverter to Run a 12v RV Fridge?
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Prospective boondockers and those pining for a life off the grid are often curious as to whether or not you need an inverter to run a 12v RV fridge. After all, inverters are synonymous with RVs, capable of converting DC to AC for the appliances that need it.
If you’re looking to disappear over the far horizon and get away from it all, you’re in luck. You won’t need an inverter to run a 12v RV fridge because it will run on batteries just fine. In fact, with the right setup, you may get well over a hundred hours on a single charge.
That “right setup” thing is key, however, because batteries are unfortunately finite. There are no miraculous Tesla coils here, just good old-fashioned solar power or a solid, reliable generator. This is enough to keep you off the grid indefinitely if that’s what you’re looking for.
What is a 12v RV Fridge?
A 12v RV fridge is an appliance that doesn’t require an inverter because it doesn’t need the AC conversion and the 120v power source. It also doesn’t need propane. At a minimum, it needs a lead-acid battery (lithium is highly preferable) and something to keep the juice topped off.
We’re not talking about the portable 12v varieties here either, though they are growing in popularity and are small enough to serve as a functional backup. The RV fridges in this discussion are the built-in version in RVs with a mind for boondocking or unplugging from society for a while.
These are compression refrigerators, not the absorption kind that can run on propane and their power needs are not as substantial. The batteries can get quite expensive, especially if you opt for lithium, but it’s more than worth the cost.
How Does a 12v RV Fridge Work?
A 12v RV fridge is a compressor-type and it cools by, well, compression. Diving into the compressor and condenser process will make you wonder why there’s no need for an inverter to run a 12v RV fridge.
It sounds way more complicated than it is and it’s actually less complicated than larger variations and absorption types. Broken down the process looks like this:
- The compressor places immense pressure on the refrigerant, converting it into high-temp steam
- The condenser takes the high-temp steam and separates the heat via a fan, converting the refrigerant from steam/vapor back to a high-pressure liquid
- The expansion valve then takes the refrigerant and expands it while maintaining the pressure, rapidly cooling it, before lowering the pressure again
- The evaporator then removes heat from the fridge, using it to bring the refrigerant back to a boil and force it back into the cycle
That’s about as simplified as it can get without making a refrigerator expert scratch their head in bewilderment. Suffice it to say, it cools your food and we don’t want to run the risk of putting you to sleep with more details.
The amazing part is the fact that this entire process is capable of running on a car or marine battery for hours on end. If you’re rocking a series of batteries and some solar panels, now you’re cooking with gas. Or, you’re refrigerating with batteries. Nevermind.
Do You Need an Inverter to Run a 12v RV Fridge?
No, you do not need an inverter to run a 12v RV fridge, which is the entire point and benefit of having one. These types of refrigerators are manufactured with boondocking in mind. Perfect for the off-grid minimalist who prefers a less crowded way of life.
It’s hard to do either without appliances that can function as portable or semi-portable devices. At its most basic, an inverter simply takes Direct Current and converts it to AC voltage for the appliances that need it. A 12v fridge doesn’t need it.
Interestingly enough, a converter is a good thing to have while living off-grid. While an inverter can only convert DC to AC, a converter can do the same and the opposite (Rectifier). It can also convert different levels of AC to AC (Voltage Regulator) and DC to DC (chopper).
Converters are fantastic for battery charging systems (think solar power, generators, and a large battery series) and are capable of converting shore power to 12v DC if you ever need it. So, while inverters are completely unnecessary, converters may find a place in your rig.
Pros of 12v RV Fridges
Now we come to the pros and cons of 12v RV fridges. Everything has its ups and downs, benefits and drawbacks and a 12v fridge is no exception to the rule. For those who are into a specific type of camping or living, there’s a lot to appreciate about 12v refrigerators, however.
- No 120v required
- Perfect for going off-grid
- Safer with no need for propane
- 12v fridges are not affected by ambient temperature
- Excellent for running with a solar setup
The highlight of a 12v fridge is the fact that it doesn’t require AC and, therefore, no inverter. It runs off of batteries only. When you think of two-way and three-way refrigerators that come with RVs these days, it’s nice to appreciate the simplicity of a 12v.
Thanks to its independence from 120, a 12v fridge is the obvious choice for off-grid living. So long as you have an efficient setup, which should include both solar and generator charging capabilities.
While absorption fridges are affected by high ambient temperatures, 12v compression/condenser fridges are not. This is another preferable benefit off the grid or boondocking.
Cons of 12v RV Fridges
There’s no denying that 12v RV fridges have their drawbacks. This is especially true if you plan on boondocking with a large family or you have guests over frequently. It also requires your eyeballs from time to time because you have to keep an eye on those charging systems and the efficiency of the process.
- 12v fridges tend to be a deal smaller than their counterparts
- If your battery dies, your 12v goes with it
- Requires dependable, external charging sources for extensive periods
- Get pricey when you start throwing in lithium batteries, solar panels, and generators
A 12v fridge may be problematic if you have large gatherings or are traveling with more than a couple because they tend to be smaller. Sure, you can cram them but that reduces efficiency. Shore power is advantageous because once you’re hooked up, the ‘set it and forget it’ mindset kicks in.
Not so with a 12v. You have to keep those batteries juiced up and that means solar charging or charging with a backup generator (which can be solar as well). If you have a series of batteries, that’s just more maintenance and upkeep.
Lastly, the most efficient portable, long-lasting power setup requires lithium batteries, some of which are capable of running a 12v fridge for 100 hours on a charge.
Mike and Susan at RVBlogger use Battle Born Batteries and highly recommend them. And you can buy them right off of Amazon and have your new batteries in a couple days.
Batteries have a finite cycle and lithium offers the most. The trade-off is the expense. Lithium batteries are seriously pricey, especially if you need several.
How Much Do 12v RV Fridges Cost?
Since you don’t need an inverter to run a 12v RV fridge, that knocks off some of the overall expense in the short run. However, the batteries can make up for it quickly.
The built-in variety is generally on the smaller side but you can get much larger ones if you are willing to bear the expense.
Anything over 10 ft³ can easily run you north of $2k and it’s difficult to find one that will meet your off-grid or consistent boondocking needs for south of $1k. That is, unless you’re going for the little, mini-fridges with 3 to 4 ft³ of space. The minis will run anywhere between $400 and $900.
The benefits of a mini-fridge, however, make sense if we’re talking about a small teardrop. If you go with a mini-fridge, you may have to consider a separate, portable freezer as well. Fortunately, those also come in 12v. Bundle the two together and you’re back over $1k again.
As indicated in the ‘Cons’ section, you also need battery power and a charging source. Granted, both of those will serve more than just your fridge but it’s all part of the circle of appliances. Add it all together and the price isn’t quite as attractive as it sounds.
What Type of RV Refrigerator is Best?
The type of RV refrigerator that’s best is entirely based on your needs in your RV. If you’re rocking a teardrop, a 16 ft³ monster that requires shore power or a propane tank is probably not the answer.
It may be the most efficient and powerful refrigerator on earth but, if it doesn’t work for you, it may as well sit in a landfill.
Absorption RV Fridge
This is the most common of the bunch and is usually what RVers refer to when they say the word, ‘fridge.’ These fridges use an ammonia-based refrigerant that uses temperature to conduct the aforementioned refrigerant conversion process back and forth.
While these come in both 120v and 12v types, they are often run on propane (for boondocking and off-grid) since they come in two-way and three-way varieties. The three-way variation includes the 12v option, as well as the 120v and propane. The two-way is propane or 120v.
Pros and Cons
|Comes in three variations||Don’t cool as well as compression fridges|
|Absorption fridges are often well-insulated||Absorption fridges require a level RV|
|The most versatile of all the RV fridges|
|Typically designed with locking mechanisms and security for travel|
120v Residential-Style RV Fridge
While this isn’t the most common type of fridge found in an RV, it’s the most common style for most people, period. After all, this is the fridge everyone has in their residential homes.
Everything about these fridges should be instantly familiar to those that use them and they operate well in an RV, albeit with a few caveats.
They’re also quite sizeable and make sense in very large travel trailers, fifth-wheel juggernauts, and Class A (some Class C) motorhomes.
Pros and Cons
|These fridges tend to be much larger than traditional RV fridges||Lacks the locking and security mechanisms of traditional RV fridges|
|A perfect option for large families||Has substantial and ongoing power requirements|
|Residential-style RV fridges are frost-free|
|They are highly efficient at cooling|
Outside of a 12v compressor fridge, these are your other options. While the pickings seem slim at first, remember there are multiple types of absorption fridges to choose from. Depending on your power and size needs, there will be options for you.
Final Thoughts On Needing an Inverter to Run a 12v RV Fridge
Fortunately, for those rocking a shiny new 12v RV fridge, an inverter is not required. A converter is a nice addition and adds some convenient versatility, though you don’t “need” it either.
A 12v fridge is the best choice to make if you don’t prefer campgrounds. For example, if you have a membership with Boondockers Welcome.
There’s a wonderful sort of freedom about cutting all the cables that tether us to a specific place. With a solid solar system and lithium batteries, you can head off into the horizon with all of your
About the Author:
Thomas Godwin is a full-time freelance writer with a BFA in Creative Writing, a U.S. Marine, and an avid outdoorsman.
When he’s not writing, he’s raising chickens and Appleyard ducks. Thomas also constructs teardrop campers (attempting to anyway) and kayaks the Blackwater River with his wife, two daughters, and his Dobermans.