Electric coolers are incredibly convenient. They are simply portable refrigerators or freezers that keep perishables and drinks cold even on the hottest days. And the best part is you will never have to chase down ice or save your food from swimming in an ice water slurry. Everything stays cold and dry.
This article will unpack some of these advantages and disadvantages as well as some options within the realm of sizes and features available in these kinds of portable electric coolers.
Before delving into justifying the cost it’s useful to understand electric coolers are going to be smaller than similar useful capacity ice coolers. Meaning, most ice cooler manufacturers recommend a 2:1 ratio of ice to items to be kept cold. So, a 90-liter ice cooler needs 60 liters of ice and only has 30 liters of volume left for food and drinks. That means a 90-liter ice cooler holds about the same amount of food and drink as a 30-liter electric cooler.
Granted, there is a bit of a fudge factor here considering either cooler type will need some space between the items being cooled so the cooling medium (air in the electric cooler, ice, and water in the ice cooler) can circulate. This happens naturally since the items being cooled usually come in various shapes and sizes to cause gaps between the items.
A major advantage here is the electric cooler will take up less room packed in a vehicle than a comparable ice cooler. That’s important for travelers with small to medium size vehicles where space is a premium.
These coolers are pricey and require a serious weighing of convenience versus cost for most budgets. The smallest of Dometic’s CFX3 series is the CFX3 35 with 36 liters of capacity—that’s enough room for around 50 standard drink cans (12 US fluid ounces each).
While the value of the convenience of an eclectic cooler will change from user to user, some quick math can help put the difference in cost from an ice cooler in perspective. Considering the size difference example above between a 90-liter ice cooler and a 35-liter eclectic cooler some quick math with some rough estimates to determine how much ice needs to be purchased to make up the cost difference between the less expensive ice cooler and more expensive electric cooler comes to about 30 long weekend camping trips. If the electric cooler gets used more often than just on camping trips, say for road trips or even for grocery shopping (i.e. don’t let the ice cream melt on the drive home), then that cost delta shrinks even more. Each user should use more specific numbers on their intended use of coolers to see what it means for them. Some factors to consider: quality of the ice cooler (premium or standard), amount of ice needed per trip (how hot is it going to be?), and the logistics of refreshing ice on trips.
Durability and longevity are not a problem with electric coolers. Some models have been bouncing around in the back of Australian utility trucks for nearly twenty years. Odds are, an investment in an electric cooler will be for the long term. In fact, Dometic has such confidence in the longevity they offer a five-year limited warranty with their CFX3 series.
For any vehicle-based activities like road trips, van life, overlanding, and even car camping to some degree, power from the vehicle is the ideal source for keeping the cooler running. The trick is the vehicle needs to be started up and running fairly regularly to keep the vehicle’s batteries charged—easy on road trips. But for any extended base camp type of situation, other power sources will be needed.
Since the compressors in these coolers run on 12 to 24 volts, the most efficient source is going to be a battery within that voltage range. For that reason, Dometic has made the PLB40, a portable 40 amp-hour Lithium battery. This extra cost is going to significantly change the cost delta between the electric cooler and ice cooler equation, but it has use beyond just powering the cooler to diffuse that cost.
The first question most people ask is, “how long will it last?” Unfortunately, the answer is: it depends. But broadly speaking, the PLB40 can power a Dometic CFX3 cooler for a weekend in a mild climate. If power is needed beyond that timeframe, then other power options need to be sourced—either more batteries, solar panels or a gas generator.
Sizes and Features
The Dometic CFX3 series provides a wide range of sizes and features to choose from. Constant across the series are some great features like being able to run the coolers on AC or DC power, freezing down to -7 degrees Fahrenheit (-22ºC), low voltage monitoring and automatic shutoff, rugged metal and plastic weatherproof construction, internal wire basket divider organization options, a USB port to charge phones or other small electronics, and wireless remote controlling and monitoring on a smart device via the Dometic app. Here’s where the sizes differ:
As mentioned above, the smallest and simplest is the CFX3 35. This is a great size for multi-day road trips for groups up to about six people or overnight campouts for four.
My family of four uses the CFX3 45 for long weekend campouts and it has the same footprint as the CFX3 35, but just stands a few inches taller for that extra volume.
The next major feature upgrade comes with the CFX3 55IM. The IM stands for Ice Maker which is built into the unit. This makes small cube cocktail ice—a little something to keep drinks in hand cold a little longer. It is not going to make enough ice to fill another cooler. This is the only model with the built-in ice maker.
Topping off the size options is the CFX3 100. This model goes back to a single compartment and offers the most storage space possible in the CFX3 series.
Making the Choice
Investing in an electric cooler is a big decision. I can honestly say, we love ours and find the convenience and space savings in our medium-sized SUV (which still gets packed to the gills, even with a cargo box on the roof) has proven to be incredible. Not only do we use it on camping trips, but it’s extremely useful on road trips. With young kids, we love being able to have fresh food and cold drinks when we stop at city parks or out in the middle of nowhere for lunch breaks. The kids need to run around and the last thing we want to do is coop them up in a restaurant. And, that is another long term cost savings an electric cooler affords us: we’re not paying restaurant lunch prices on our trips, we’re bringing groceries along and enjoying family time in the great outdoors.