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What type of refrigerator to choose to equip your van?

When you buy a van and inspect the refrigerator, you usually stop at its capacity. This is obviously a determining factor, but we have to take into account the modes of operation. There are two, but several technical terms blur the tracks (compression, absorption, Trimixte, AES, SES…). Here’s how to make it clearer to make the right choice.

Choosing a fridge is like a mattress. There are many possibilities, each one defends itself and responds to a particular need. Contrary to what one might imagine, a refrigerator does not create cold, but works like air conditioning: a gas that is relaxed cools, and it heats up if compressed.

The cold is achieved by a change of state of a fluid that passes from liquid to gas and vice versa. The now cold and partially vaporized refrigerant circulates in a heat exchanger (evaporator) in the refrigerator. The ambient air on contact with the evaporator will cool. Before choosing your type of refrigerator, it is necessary to determine its volume… but it all depends on your needs, your habits and the ease you will have to replenish your travels.

With 40 liters, we’re self-sufficient on a weekend for two. If you’re going away for a week, you have to think bigger or do some shopping on the road. Finally, for families, the developers have since switched to large fridges (up to 160 litres). Note that the average is around 80 litres.

The compression refrigerators for the van

Compression refrigerators are a minority on recreational vehicles, but remain preferred on many vans because they operate solely on electricity and reduce gas range to a single small bottle. They behave exactly like domestic models with a fluid (called refrigerant) that navigates the cooling system to absorb the heat released by the food. When heated, the fluid forms a gas that is then compressed (hence the name of this family of refrigerators) which increases its temperature.

In the condenser, the gas then returns to its liquid form and releases heat outwards. At the end of the cycle, the refrigerant passes through the regulator and its compression drops, causing the temperature to drop. Changes in physical condition allow these refrigerators to keep a precise and constant cold. They are perfectly suited for compact vans (often with liftable roofs), but have limited capacity. The reason? Since they operate solely on electricity, their volume must remain reasonable for measured consumption.

The compression refrigerator, however, shines with its simplicity of use and is easily forgotten. In the evening, you don’t have to have the ground perfectly level (it even works sloping), or to dig your head out to choose the energy source to use. Finally, there is no gas to leave open (unless you have the heating that doesn’t run on fuel), worried travelers will be reassured. In addition, the cold remains stable and is provided up to an outside temperature of 45 degrees (ideal for travel to hot countries).

The compression fridge is also highly reliable, works like a home refrigerator (no need for outward ventilation) and only the thermostat can break down after a few years. Rest assured, change remains easy. While there are many advantages, there are still two black spots. The first is consumption. Admittedly, it allows for greater gas autonomy, but it is greedy for electricity (around 30 Ah/day for a 60-litre model). It is therefore imperative to take stock of your energy needs before you leave.

Consider adding a second auxiliary battery, a solar panel for easy charging. If you need a large fridge, turn to absorption models that use all energy sources. The second defect of the compression refrigerator is noise. Even if the engine is small and manufacturers have made significant progress, this can inconvenience the occupants of a small van.

The pros

  • Reliability
  • Simplicity
  • Efficiency

The cons

  • Powered by electricity
  • Noisy
  • Often associated with a small volume

The absorbing refrigerators for the van

They are found in the majority of recreational vehicles and they allow to have a beautiful volume (more than 80 liters). Their particularity is to operate in 12V, 220V and gas (hence their name Trimixte which has become widespread). Like compression refrigerators, they provide cold by converting a liquid into gas that absorbs heat from the fridge. But unlike the compression model (which uses a mechanical process), here the method is more complicated, but does not use any engine.

There are two fluids instead of one: the refrigerant (often ammonia) and the absorber (hence the name of this type of fridge) which acts as a chemical compressor. The cycle consists of 4 steps. Initially liquid ammonia is vaporized and turns into gas by absorbing heat. This is then absorbed and forms a concentrated solution that is heated to 180 degrees. The result is an evaporation of the ammonia while the solution depletes and regenerates the ammonia at low concentrations. All these reactions allow to form a cycle of cold necessary for the proper operation of the equipment. Because these refrigerators run without an engine, they are perfectly quiet.

Although their use was once complicated, it is now facilitated by many automated systems (AES – cf frame). The refrigerator uses the 12V when the van rolls, switches to gas at the stop and at 230V when there is a connection. If it seems perfectly suited to travel, it has a main flaw, it is ineffective in hot weather. Above a temperature of 32 degrees, it will have a hard time keeping the cold. If you are planning to leave only in very hot areas, you will need to organize yourself.

Moreover, it only works if the vehicle is perfectly flat. In the evening, if the ground is sloping, it is imperative to catch up with wedges so that the system can work properly. Its gas operation can also frighten, but if the circuit is in good condition and the ventilation grids are not obstructed, there is no real danger. Note that the refrigerator exit grates should never be facing the wind. When the refrigerator runs on gas, the burner flame may go out. Finally, several ferry companies prohibit vans from operating their absorption refrigerators during the crossing.

The pros

  • Choosing energy
  • Possibility of large volume
  • No noise

The cons

  • Difficult operation in hot regions
  • Needs to park perfectly flat

Some health rules to observe

In a van as at home, a fridge doesn’t fit any way. A few reflexes must be adopted to best conserve perishable foodstuffs and maximize the action of cooling. Be aware that the cold zone is at the bottom and the hot area at the top. Sensitive foods must therefore find their place on the lower shelf (meat, fish) and the vegetables are to be stored at the top. The middle part is reserved for dairy products, the door to condiments and drinks. In all cases, the food should not be too tight so that the cold circulates as well as possible.

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