Thermoelectric coolers are one of the best-kept secrets of vanlifers, RV’ers, and other road warriors of every description. They’re versatile, reliable, consume next to no energy, are environmentally friendly, and can be surprisingly affordable as well.
We’ve been fans of these handy high-grade coolers for road trips and outdoor hangouts alike for a while, but most people aren’t familiar with the technology. In the article below, we’ll give you a primer on what thermoelectric coolers are, what they do, and where to find some of the best deals on a thermoelectric cooler of your own.
What Is A Thermoelectric Cooler?
A thermoelectric cooler is a type of cooler that uses a simple electric heat exchange process to keep food cold. Why is that important, you ask? Well, most importantly is the fact that thermoelectric coolers are ice-free coolers. No more stopping to fill or refill your cooler to keep it cold. No more messing with meltwater, soggy food labels, or (everyone’s favorite) wet meat. Gross.
It’s also worth mentioning here that because thermoelectric coolers opt for a simplified cooling system (typically consisting of little more than a heat exchanger and an electric fan), that they tend to be (a) significantly less expensive than premium ice chests or compressor coolers and (b) extremely robust and long-lasting.
Like anything else, thermoelectric coolers come with their own benefits and drawbacks though, so let’s take a quick look at those while we’re here.
Our Favorite Thermoelectric Coolers Right Now
Now that you’ve got an idea of why thermoelectric coolers are a great addition to your adventure gear, we’ve got a few examples we recommend checking out. Here are our picks listed from largest to smallest thermoelectric coolers.
Igloo Iceless 40: 40 Quart Capacity
Looking for a full-size cooler that doubles as a mini-fridge? Look no further.
That’s because the Igloo Iceless cooler can either be left on its bottom and used as a traditional ice chest or flipped up on its side and used as a swing-door mini-fridge. Heck, this thing is larger than some of the dorm room fridges we had in college. You’ll also find an adjustable divider inside the Igloo, which allows you to better organize your food in “ice chest” mode, or to add a shelf when used as a refrigerator.
A simple 12-volt DC adaptor makes the Igloo an ideal companion for long car trips or solar-powered boondocking, but like many of the coolers on this list, it’s also compatible with any 110V outlet, so it will double as an extra drink fridge at your next backyard BBQ.
Dometic Tropicool TC35: 35 Quart Capacity
When you talk about coolers for vanlifers, overlanders, or anyone else spending some serious time off the grid, Dometic brand products always come up. Dometic’s coolers are known for their reliability and build quality, but unfortunately, they’re also known for their high price tags. Enter the Dometic Tropicool TC35: A thermoelectric model from folks that know a thing or two about making coolers.
Where your average Dometic cooler of this size would run you somewhere between $800-$1000, this one slides under the radar at less than $250. As an added bonus, it takes full advantage of thermoelectric technology, allowing you to choose between heating or cooling the contents inside. Cold drinks in the summer, hot food in the winter? We’ll take it.
Kool Kaddy Electric Cooler: 36 Quart Capacity
Although we’d happily pay Dometic’s asking price for the TC35 above, folks looking for a similar capacity thermoelectric cooler on a smaller budget should check out the Koolatron Kool Kaddy. While it isn’t winning any points for style and we would only refer to it by name if held at gunpoint, there’s a lot to love about the Koolatron, especially at this price.
Just like the Dometic above, the Kool Kaddy both cools and heats as needed, packs plenty of capacity, and is happy to run on 12 volts or a wall outlet all day (although the AC adapter is sold separately). As a bonus, this cooler is also intended to be used either as an ice chest or a refrigerator, just like the Igloo model above. And, believe it or not, this Koolatron is actually made in North America (Canada, to be specific).
Ozark Trail Highline: 26 Quart Capacity
While we don’t often recommend buying serious outdoor gear from your neighborhood Walmart (Ozark Trail is their “in-house” outdoors brand), the Ozark Trail Highline has a dirty little secret: It isn’t an Ozark Trail product.
What you see here is actually a rebranded Koolatron Fun Kool, which normally retails for over $100 at places like Home Depot. Slap the Ozark Trail badge on the front and $40 miraculously falls off the price tag, making the Highline one of the best buys for an iceless cooler this size.
Rest assured, it’s the exact same product with all the same features, including that “made in America” stamp that’s so hard to come by at this price point.
United Pacific Da CoolBox: 23 Quart Capacity
If you haven’t heard of United Pacific before, that’s OK, most people haven’t. In fact, the only folks who are likely familiar with the name would be classic car enthusiasts. That’s because about 99% of UP’s catalog is made up of restoration parts for classic Ford and Chevrolet cars and trucks. Needless to say, we were plenty surprised to see them offering their own line of thermoelectric coolers.
However, as you might expect from an automotive-focused company, the United Pacific cooler holds a special place in our lineup: It’s designed to replace the center console in your vehicle.
It’s shaped like a center console, opens like a center console, and runs on both a standard 110 volt A/C plug or a 12-volt D/C adaptor for your car, so it’ll plug right into your dash or use existing power ports in your current console. Naturally, the capacity is the lowest on this list due to size constraints (aka fitting between your front seats) but if you’re looking for the perfect little cooler to keep your road sodas ice-cold, this is your ticket.
Benefits Of Thermoelectric Coolers
In terms of benefits, there are a few stand-out features that make thermoelectric coolers special. As we mentioned earlier, these coolers use electricity rather than ice to keep their contents cold. Most are made to simply plug straight into your vehicle’s 12V outlet, but will also include adaptors for a standard wall outlet. It’s also a popular option to run them off of battery power from something like a Goal Zero Yeti rechargeable system.
And although thermoelectric coolers do use electricity, they have the added benefit of being more environmentally friendly than your typical electric cooler as well. That’s because TECs don’t rely on traditional refrigerants, which can have a negative environmental impact and contribute to global warming.
The final benefit we’ll point out here is that a thermoelectric cooler is the least expensive electric cooler money can buy. That’s largely due to their simple yet robust design, which foregoes expensive compressors and refrigerant technology for a simplified heat exchange mechanism that should last decades. Essentially the only moving parts of these coolers are their electric fans, which are plentiful and typically inexpensive to replace.
Compared to a comparable compressor-powered electric cooler, a thermoelectric cooler costs between one-half and one-third of the price. If you’re looking to get into an ice-free cooler, there’s no cheaper way to do it.
Drawbacks Of Thermoelectric Coolers
Honestly, the drawbacks of thermoelectric coolers are pretty straightforward: In hotter weather, they don’t get quite as cold as other electric coolers or even well-insulated ice chests. Because the cooling power of a TEC is limited by the temperature outside the cooler (they use what is called a Peltier device to achieve their goal), how cold your beer/sandwich meat/water stays may be a few degrees warmer than you’re used to. Even so, these coolers are still more than capable of keeping your perishable goods below the 40-degree threshold required to prevent bacterial growth in anything but the hottest conditions.
While following the usual “cooler best practices” like pre-cooling before use (and only putting pre-cooled goods inside), you can drastically increase the performance of a thermoelectric cooler. If that’s not an option (say the only canned drinks you had were room temperature), just know it will take a thermoelectric cooler longer to get warm
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