Refrigerators for Small and Mobile Spaces
There are two kinds of refrigerators used in small and mobile spaces: compressor and absorption. Compressor fridges, like household fridges, are powerful and efficient, but can have relatively high current draws to run the compressor, so they're not always practical for mobile applications. Absorption fridges are less powerful and less efficient, but can cool by using propane directly to drive the absorption cooling cycle without a motor, which can make them convenient for off-grid applications where there is very limited electricity available.
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Household Compressor Refrigerators
By far, the most popular solution for on-grid homes with a cheap reliable power supply are 120V compressor fridges. They're efficient, powerful, and come in various sizes and styles.
For many tiny houses, built-in fridges will provide the best use of space. Built-in fridges include accommodation for venting to the front of the appliance, so that they can be fully enclosed without sacrificing performance.
Propane Electric Refrigerators
Most absorption refrigerators that can run on propane also have the option to run on 120V AC power, or sometimes 12V DC power. These models are popular for RV use, since they can use propane for off-grid cooling, but can conserve fuel by using shore power for cooling when it's available. Absorption refrigerators are power hogs when run on electric, so they're not a great option for running on solar off-grid.
Propane absorption refrigerators come in all sizes, from small under-counter models about the size of a dorm fridge to enormous 4-door models that approach household refrigerators in size. We use a Dometic RM3762 in our personal RV, which is a fairly good size for full time living with a small family. Most RV fridges don't come with exterior door panels, so you'll need to purchase them separately for a finished look.
Since propane absorption fridges burn propane to drive the refrigeration cycle, they need to be properly vented to the outside. The ideal venting configuration is an intake through the floor and a vent out the roof, but some RVs use less efficient wall vent configurations. Often, a wall vent configuration uses small 12v fans (like computer case fans) to help with air circulation.
Absorption fridges tend to generate frost on the cooling fins, and they can have warm spots since they don't do a great job of circulating cold air inside the refrigerator. If you're using an absorption fridge, adding a fan like the FridgeCool Fan or Fridge Fix can help. Keeping air moving across the cooling fins prevents frost from forming, and gives you more even temperatures in all parts of your fridge.
DC Compressor Refrigerators
For off-grid homes with enough solar and battery capacity, a DC compressor fridge may be the best option. Since it runs directly on DC power, there are no losses associated with running an inverter constantly. And since it uses a more efficient compressor cycle instead of an absorption cycle, it takes far less electricity to run than a 2-way or 3-way absorption fridge on electric.
The downside to a DC compressor fridge is that since it's all electric, if you run out of solar power, your fridge will stop working. If that happens, a small backup generator might be good to keep around for emergencies.
Virtrifrigo offers both upright and drawer style DC compressor refrigerators for RV use, but as with most mobile appliances, their nicer stuff is marketed toward yachts and boats. Other brands such as Nova Kool and Norcold also offer DC only and AC/DC fridges designed for RV use.
Norcold makes a 12v/120v ice box conversion kit that will turn any small insulated space into a 12v/120v refrigerator. Those devices are popular for updating vintage RVs with ice boxes, but they can be useful for other custom applications as well.
For very small spaces like vans, a small under-counter DC compressor fridge like the Dometic Coolmatic CRX-50 or the Dometic CRX-1110E can fit in a small kitchenette, and keep your food cool without draining your batteries too much.
Portable AC/DC Refrigerators
For spaces without room for a built-in model, a cooler style AC/DC compressor fridge is the most popular choice. Dometic offers various sizes of cooler style DC fridges to fit your space, along with accessories like additional insulation and a slide mount to keep your fridge accessible when stored under a cabinet.
Higher Voltage DC Refrigerators
For off-grid homes using 24 or 48 volt power storage, there are some appliance options for using higher voltage DC power directly. Even if you run your inverter all day to power your other appliances, since your refrigerator needs to run 24/7, having it connected directly to your battery system might allow you to save power by turning your inverter off at night.
24-volt DC refrigerators and chest freezers are the easiest to find in the higher voltage range, but 48 volt refrigerators do exist. Alternatively, you could use a DC to DC converter and a 12 volt DC appliance, which would be somewhat less efficient than using an appliance with voltage matched to your batteries, but could save power versus running the inverter 24/7.
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