Van life air conditioning: The challenge of cooling your van
It can be a struggle to find the best campervan air conditioners when designing, building and improving your van.
Especially considering that there’s no way to seriously lower high temps without burning a lot of watts.
To clarify that last statement, I’m talking about dropping from 90 ℉+ (32 ℃) to a comfort zone around 75 ℉ (24 ℃).
Yes, you can move air with fans and create a more comfortable feeling space, but actually dropping the temperature of the interior of your van burns serious wattage.
Vanlife air conditioning can be complex and confusing
Installations can require duct work with holes cut in the exterior, control panel installation, wiring and other technical work.
Our goal with this resource guide is to educate you so you can choose the best 110 or 12 volt air conditioner van life.
This article will help you decide which system is right for your van, according to your travel area, style and campervan build.
And of course I’ll be recommending the most trusted, cost effective and durable products.
This article will not make you an expert on the vast science of heating and cooling. For that, I’ve researched and included some great links from experts in the field. Read on for that…
Table of Contents
How do I keep my campervan cool in the summer?
Before going all in on an a van air conditioner, you should start with the basics.
Here are our tips to keep your camper van cool in the summer.
- Curtains for campervan temperature control: Reflective window coverings and window tint can drop the internal temperature of your van by up to twenty degrees!
- Fans and roof vents for camper van cooling and air quality are perhaps the most effective non-AC approach to keeping your campervan cool in the summer.
- Insulating a campervan to keep the heat out and the cool in is a must. It might be time to revisit the insulation materials and design in your van.
- Shade is under rated. Park in the shade to avoid direct sunlight on your van. You can also create your own with the right awning for campervan shade.
- Spend as little time in the van during the day as you possibly can.
- You can lower your body temperature by staying hydrated and drinking cold water. It’ helps to have a good 12 volt fridge freezer stocked with ice and cold beverages.
These basic steps will give you a foundation for a cool van in the summer and will help your van AC run more efficiently.
The Struggle is Real
I have to chuckle when I see an air conditioning unit made for residential interiors (aka “window shaker”) hanging off the side or back of a van.
The thought process goes something like this; “I’m sick of roasting and I’m not spending a fortune on a Van specific system!”
And more power (quite literally) to those road warriors.
I don’t mean to make light of the necessity and even urgency involved in having a good campervan air conditioner.
Extreme heat and financial realities can make solutions like this seem like the only option.
But issues like long term costs, efficiency, space savings, weight, durability and noise are also very real, and I believe that through education and planning, cooler heads can prevail.
Can you use a portable air conditioner in a camper van?
There are many advantages to Air Conditioning units build specifically for Campervans and other RVs.
In this episode of The Campervan Podcast, I go over the pros and cons of using a portable air conditioner in a Campervan.
Please listen and subscribe to the show for more insightful Vanlife Audio.
The Campervan Podcast is a daily audio program featuring ideas for design and building, cooking, organization, gear and more for a better overall Vanlife experience.
Hey, thanks for tuning in to the camper van podcast. Once again, I'm glad you're listening. Another question about air conditioning. Can you use a portable air conditioner in a camper van?
So can you use a portable air conditioner and camper van? You, you absolutely can. There are advantages and disadvantages.
The biggest advantage is that there's no installation. You simply go buy a 110 or 240 volt portable air conditioner, the freestanding kind that you see in people's homes and offices and shops, et cetera.
And you stand it up in the van, you plug it in, you run the vent hose that comes with your freestanding, portable air conditioner out through a window or a hole cut in the side of the van. And now you're cooling down at 5,000 BTU's or 7,500 or 10,000 BTUs, depending on how powerful your portable AC unit is.
Another advantage of using a portable air conditioner in a camper van or RV is they're reasonably priced.
There are also several disadvantages. The number one disadvantage is the power consumption. They're not built to be as efficient as the RV , camper and campervan specific AC units that are available such as the ones that Mount to your roof, or the Marine style that mount in cabinets and are vented through the hull or side of your van.
What I mean by that is, the fans and the motors in the RV and Camper van specific air conditioning systems are balanced, lighter weight, they tend to be better insulated and they're designed to withstand the vibration of a motor vehicle such as an RV or Campervan.
RV air conditioners are built to be more quiet and run more efficiently because the manufacturers know that you have less power at your disposal because oftentimes if you're running off battery and solar,
Also, you need the thing to be quiet because it's right above your head in the camper or RV when you're sleeping. So there's another disadvantage of DC powered portable air conditioners. they're going to be louder.
Another disadvantage aside from the power consumption and the noise is that they take up more space. They stand in the middle of the room and, and I don't know about you, but I don't have room for one of those.
That's why so often air conditioning systems are mounted to the roof of campervans because they need to be up and out of the way.
That also solves the venting issue because it's not even in the van. It's outside of the van. So the venting takes care of itself with a camper van air conditioner.
Another issue with regard to portable air conditioners is that they are not durable since they're made for homes, they aren't made to be joggled around In the rolling earthquake that is the back of your camper van.
So aside from the fact that they take up a ton of space, the thing's going to fall apart over time or quickly.
Now, granted, you could set it up on the mattress every time you're driving and make sure that it doesn't get moved around too much. But now you've got the tank that has to be emptied before you do that…
But, you know what, here's something that I understand very clearly:
And that is that not all of us have the cash right now in the moment to go have the best possible camper van air conditioner installed in the roof of our van to solve our cooling problem.
So, you know what, if you need to go grab one of these things off the shelf at Costco or Walmart, or home Depot and stick it in your van and go plug in somewhere. That's great.
And it will keep you alive and cool and allow you to sleep at night, if you can stand the noise. I'm not saying it's a terrible idea.
I'm just here to tell you what the pros and cons are. Moving on…
Would I use one and when would I use it?
In order for me personally to use a portable air conditioner in a camper van I'd have to have lots of room, first of all.
Second of all, I'd have to have a 110 hookup all the time, every night, to plug the DC portable air conditioner in.
Now you can solve that with a portable generator, but that's more noise and more expense.
By the time you buy a portable air conditioner and a portable generator, well, now you can just about a roof top AC unit installed and buy a few hundred amp hours batteries.
There are two categories of portable air conditioner: Free standing and ”window shaker”, or window mounted.
Free standing are the easiest; just stand it up and run a vent hose out and plug it in and away you go. You're cooling down with a coolant and compressor unit and it's beautiful. Everything's getting cool
But another kind of portable air conditioner is the window shaker or window mounted.
These mount in windows or a hole cut in the wall. yes, I've seen them mounted in vans as well.
I would not do that, for a number of reasons, some of which I've already mentioned: Power consumption. not durable, not power efficient. Uh, so, so if you're trying to use batteries, forget it, those things will eat your battery power very quickly.
You have to cut a massive hole in the side of the van in order for it to and work properly.
Maybe your van already has a great big window that you can prop a window mounted portable air conditioner up in or build a wood-frame to hold one in place.
If you, if you spend a lot of time parked with DC 110/240 and you don't have to cut a massive hole in the side of your van, you can make one work, I suppose.
The way it's designed, the outside perimeter of a window shaker, that, that kind of portable air conditioning unit, it needs to be sealed against itself or around the wall.
And by sealed, I don't mean with caulk, I just mean that you need to have less than a half an inch of gap around the unit.
And they all come with little wings that you can expand. So that it will fit in an up-sliding window and they come with various accessories to make them fit house windows, this window shaker style.
You can't just set a portable air conditioner in the open doorway of the van.
If you don't seal off the vent, it won't work. So you can have a couple of windows cracked, but otherwise the doors have to be closed. so that the only air entering the van is the air that's been processed by the air conditioner and therefore cooled down.
And what that air conditioner is doing is it's actually pulling warm air out of the van and converting it into cool air.
It's also pushing warm air created by the fan motor and compressor outside, and that's why the unit needs to sealed off.
So if you just set the thing in the open doorway, nothing will happen. You might get a cool breeze for a couple of feet in front of the air conditioner, but otherwise your van won't cool down. Whereas if it were in a window and that was sealed, as I said, loosely sealed around it, then. your van would get cool
Even a full-size sprinter with a 5,000 BTU window shaker is going to get cool. Trust me, because that space is very small. That portable window mounted or free standing AC unit is made to cool, at least twice that much space.
So it'll work just fine, but it's not efficient, It's not durable. It won't last and I would never permanently mount one and I would never cut a hole for one.
I would save my pennies and buy a rooftop mounted unit and go that route. I'd get an RV/camper van designed air conditioning unit.
Thanks for listening to the Campervan Podcast.
Campervan Air Conditioners: Beyond comfort
Have you ever spent a night, a weekend or longer in a climate that’s so extremely cold or hot that it’s all you remember about the trip? I certainly have.
Campervan travel can be full of challenges, and it’s important to have some control over our environment for sleep and driving comfort.
Some people adjust easily to higher temps, so a cool sleeping space might not be a big deal. But most of us don’t get much rest when it’s too hot at bed time.
Personally, I also want to be able to escape the heat during the day when it’s very hot.
If you’re traveling with pets, a cool van can be an absolute necessity when you have to leave them alone for any length of time.
So while the initial cost of a quality campervan air conditioning system might seem high on paper, the value of a comfortable living space can mean the difference between fun, memorable travel, and miserable, sweaty, even dangerous misadventures.
Quality & design of campervan air conditioners
There are many issues to consider when choosing an AC system for your van. Three of the major considerations are power usage, durability and noise.
RV AC unit efficiency
If you’re only using shore power and have no plans to camp off grid, you won’t need to worry as much about power usage for your AC unit.
For those who will be more self sufficient, power efficiency is a major priority. A full compressor or heat pump unit will burn lots of power, so you’ll want to maximize your on board power, while minimizing AC and Heat use, when possible.
Durability of your campervan air conditioner
It’s important to take durability seriously, as campervan air conditioners experience vibration and jostling that home units don’t. This is why I don’t recommend a “window shaker” or other residential type unit for your van.
Fortunately there are several brands and models that have been on the market for a while, so durability tends to be part of product ratings by consumers.
Keep in mind that most air conditioning units cost enough that you’ll want replacement and repair parts to be available. We’ve done our best to locate those units for our reviews, below.
How quiet are campervan air conditioners?
Noise can be a serious concern. After a long day of driving, the last thing you want is a noisy machine kicking on, humming, buzzing… You want a nice quiet space to rest, enjoy a meal, sleep…
Scanning the reviews of most campervan related machinery, you’ll find noise related comments.
If you sleep like a log, quiet will be of less concern, but even the heavy sleepers can be annoyed by persistent machine noise during the day.
Noise as it relates to AC unit quality
Noisy campervan air conditioners can be a sign of poor quality, mechanical or electrical problems.
In HVAC equipment, quiet is achieved by fan blade balancing, insulation, proper fit of mounting and other hardware, as well as build quality of motors and compressors.
So when looking for air conditioning products to recommend to our readers, quiet is a major factor.
The Vansage Top Pick for LiFeP04 Batteries
Types of Campervan Air Conditioners technologies
In recent years virtually every available A/C technology has been adopted specifically for RV and Campervan space and voltage needs.
Below I’ve outlined the three major types of air conditioning.
Compressor Type Air Conditioning
Compressor air conditioning systems are the most effective way to lower air temperature. They also use the most energy. Fortunately, there are many options for compressor A/C units, in multiple sizes and price ranges, for campervans.
“In the refrigeration cycle, heat is transported from a colder location to a hotter area. As heat would naturally flow in the opposite direction, work is required to achieve this. A refrigerator is an example of such a system, as it transports the heat out of the interior and into its environment. The refrigerant is used as the medium which absorbs and removes heat from the space to be cooled and subsequently ejects that heat elsewhere.”
Alternating between cooling with a compressor unit and circulating air with a roof vent fan is a highly effective way to reduce internal van heat in any climate.
But to go this route for cooling, you’ll need to plan for high energy use. This may include installing a generator, comparatively massive battery banks, or driving a few extra miles for a shore power hook up if the heat is really bad.
Swamp or Evaporative type Cooler
Again, I’ll rely on Wikipedia to get us started on evaporative cooling details.
“An evaporative cooler (also swamp cooler, desert cooler and wet air cooler) is a device that cools air through the evaporation of water. Evaporative cooling differs from typical air conditioning systems, which use vapor-compression or absorption refrigeration cycles.”
A while back I was considering a swamp cooler and the MightyKool 12-volt model K2 was clearly a great option.
I checked out the FAQ section on the MightyKool site and found this at the top of the page:
Question: Will the Model K2 cool an entire Camper, Sleeper, Boat, Vehicle, Tent, etc.?
Answer from MightyKool: No, as that would take an Air Conditioner and there is no such thing in the World as a self-contained 12-volt A/C. The 12-volt model K2 Evaporative Cooler will however cool People or Pets IN a Camper, Sleeper, Vehicle, Boat, tent etc. with Proper Ventilation.
There’s a lot to unpack in this short bit of Q & A.
By “self contained 12-volt A/C”, he means an A/C unit with it’s own power source that does not require outside ventilation or drainage.
Some might debate this statement, but I tend to agree with it, as all these things are required for a compressor/evaporation A/C unit to function and they can be considered external to the unit.
Nonetheless, many van dwellers use and even prefer swamp coolers over other types.
As swamp coolers don’t cool interiors, but only cool the person or animal they’re directed at, they might leave you wanting more if you’re traveling in very hot climates.
But, again, lots of van and RV dwellers are okay with that and prefer the simplicity and relatively low power use of an evaporative cooler.
Mini-Split Heat Pump Air Conditioning technology
Heat pumps work similarly to compressor type AC, but they can heat as well as cool the air. It’s complicated, so here’s a Youtube video that does a great job of simplifying how heat pumps work and why they’re so efficient.
For example, in mid March of 2018, I was parked on BLM land in Joshua Tree, California. The daytime temps were in the upper eighties.
That’s fine if you’re out and about, but might result in some roasting inside the van during the day.
At night, however, with a steady desert wind blowing, we experienced lows in the mid 40’s.
So, on this trip I ran the Mini Split for about 30 minutes during a daytime nap and then again for part of the night to get the temp above 60 as we hadn’t packed much for blankets or lower temp sleeping bags.
The built in thermostat on the unit kept the van between 75 and 80 degrees under any conditions and only kicked on a few times, so power use was minimal.
Of course in hotter/colder situations, power use will be higher.
Heat pump technology has come a long way in the last decade, making smaller RV and Campervan “mini split” units durable, efficient and more affordable.
Are there any portable air conditioners that don’t need to be vented?
There are some products available that make magical claims of cooling that go against the laws of physics. In this episode of The Campervan Podcast, we dispel the mystery of whether or not there are any portable air conditioners that don’t need to be vented.
Please take a few minutes to listen or read.
The Campervan Podcast is a daily audio program featuring ideas for design and building, cooking, organization, gear and more for a better overall Vanlife experience.
Air conditioners are not magic.
Well, it's that time of year again. No, I don't mean Christmas. I mean, when our camper van air conditioner articles and questions and traffic goes crazy, many more people are much hotter than they normally would be.
So, yeah, I thought I'd answer a couple of common questions. And specifically this one, are there any portable air conditioners that don't need to be vented?
The answer to that question is no. What do I mean by that? Why am I so cursory? Why am I cutting to the chase like that? The answer is no. Well, because when a compressor style air conditioner goes through its compression process and all the other stuff that it does to make warm air cold, it generates heat and that heated air has to go somewhere doesn't it?
The idea that you can plop an air conditioner in the middle of a van or a room without having a vent going outside… What that would mean is that the hot air would just be going back into the room, canceling out the cold air that's being generated at the cost of a lot of power usage.
Therefore, I completely disagree with these small portable compressor units, and I won't name any names other than to say that we don't promote them on Vansage.com.
We're not interested in reviewing them or talking about them. We could make a lot of money from that if we did, because so many people are so excited about a little portable air conditioning unit that you just set on the picnic table and magically it cools down the entire park.
I'm being a little bit glib about that, but. Is that how the marketing is for some of these portable, unvented units where it shows an air conditioner sitting on a table outside.
That's madness. There's no way that can have any impact on you personally, maybe if it's pointed right at your face. And that's what I've heard actually, is that the very low BTU compressor style air conditioners really do need to be within a few inches of one single person for them to work at all.
But I would argue that again, the heat that's generated from producing that small amount of cold air is making the entire van warmer at the same time. Your air conditioner needs to be vented outside so that the hot air doesn't get recirculated back in the room.
Again, they take up so much energy. They require so much power to do their job, that it pays to do air conditioning properly. It really does to an air conditioner that's built for your particular camper van or RV, and make sure that it's set up right with proper venting or it's just mounted on the roof.
Now, there are some really cool Marine style air conditioning units that are mounted inside. Up against the hall of the boat or the outside wall of the van or the floor of the van. And they go in a cabinet and they are vented directly out.
And then you can point the cool air wherever you want, including through what would normally be your heating ducts.
They're expensive for a 5,000 BTU plus unit to really do its job and cool down a very hot van. And oftentimes they are also 240V.
They are kind of pricey, but at some point we plan to review some of those. And kind of create more access because they're a great solution for camper vans. If you have the skill and know how to install them and to maintain them, and you want really high quality air conditioning that isn't sticking out of the roof of your van.
Now, all that to say there are some wonderful roof. AC units and I will of course link to in show notes to our camper van air conditioning article, where we have reviewed and listed some of the best that are available for your van. I don't want to belabor this as far as this simple question; ”Are there any portable air conditioners that don't need to be vented?”
I hear some people arguing, what about a swamp cooler, otherwise known as evaporative coolers.
Okay. Well, first of all, they are only for individuals nad they don't lower the temperature in the space, even a small camper van.
What they do is mist your bare skin or very thin clothing or sheet so that you are cooler by virtue of the presence of higher humidity. Well, if you're pumping a bunch of humidity into your vehicle or distributing moisture in the form of mist, even a very, very fine mist, which the best type of evaporative coolers.
Do you need to vent that out of the vehicle? You need to have windows open and ceiling vents and whatnot so that you don't have an extremely high level of, of humidity in your vehicle.
That's going to cause mold and mildew and condensation and all that stuff in the future. Again, every air conditioning unit needs some kind of ventilation, whether it is the compressor type with a coolant inside that's processing air, removing heat and, generating cool air or an evaporative cooler that's distributing a mist.
And one of the finest evaporative coolers available is called Mighty Kool. The availability of it is spotty because they are a small company doing one-off manufacturer of the Mighty Kool 12 volt, K2.
It's interesting because the manufacturer over it his notes on Amazon, they're so careful to make sure that you understand that it's not an AC.
The title on Amazon is ”Mighty Kool. 12 volt. K2 is not AC”. And he goes on to say, ”do not order, unless you promise to read our emails so you receive the correct performance option for your pet.” it says.
And so they're promoting it to keep your dog cool. And also there's a photograph in their description of the mighty cool directed towards a child in a tent or an RV or Campervan.
And that's what it's for, pointing at an individual to cool them down when it's very hot, so they can sleep. It will not drop the temperature in your van and neither will any other evaporative cooler.
Maybe if you are going through 20 pounds of ice every two hours and doing that thing where you push air through a cooler… Those kinds of air conditioning units, you might manage to drop the temperature a little bit, but for the most part, a few bags of ice is no match for the heat inside of a campervan or RV.
The only thing that really works well is a compressor style unit and those need to be vented to work properly so that the hot air that is generated by compression, isn't being redistributed into the vehicle and raising the temp.
So, to answer the question, Are there any portable air conditioners that don't need to be vented?, the answer is no.
Product Recommendations for Campervan Air Conditioners
I wish there were a half dozen of each type of Air Conditioner for Campervans to recommend, but the field is pretty narrow for each type of AC.
The good news is that the products that are available are great.
If you’re not committed to diesel or propane gas, or other electrical heating for your Campervan, these mini split units are a great solution to all your heating and cooling needs.
Assuming you’ve got the solar, battery, a quiet generator and shore power gear to support the power use, a mini split makes heating and cooling so simple, you rarely have to think about it.
Compressor Campervan Air Conditioners
|Details about the ASA Electronics Advent Air 13,500 BTU Roof Top Campervan Air Conditioners |
This high quality 13,500 BTU Rooftop air-conditioning unit has been specifically engineered and designed from the ground up to withstand the challenges associated with the RV environment.
Our hands on Engineering Research and Development team builds quality into our products from the beginning by expertly designing each product from the ground up and validating all designs through extensive testing that is primarily conducted in our own on-site test lab.
Details about the Dometic Brisk II Polar Camper Van Air Conditioner
The Dometic Polar White Air Conditioner is one of the best sturdy and lightweight camper van air conditioners on the market.
Most Camper Van owners picked this AC because of its high-performance, reliability, great value.
With a cooling capacity 13,500 BTU’s per hour, it’s powerful enough to cool the entire camper van.
Unlike with the previous Dometic models, this one has a futuristic streamlined design that has larger air openings for cooler air flow.
This campervan AC has ducted or non-ducted application and you have an option to add a control kit or ADB if you want.
The housing is made of EPP foam which is a rubbery material that is light in weight and improves its cooling performance.
Another cool feature of this appliance is its laminated shroud is UV-protected, that means it’s durable, secure, and sturdy.
Dometic has been assisting NASA with lunar air conditioning for over 8 years now. With that said, you can definitely count on them.
|Details about Dometic 640315C Penguin II campervan air conditioners |
This top-tier, low-profile (9.5” high) camper van air conditioner has a smooth and glossy style that offers advanced aerodynamics and high-end comfort control.
You’ll be surprised with its supercharged motor and fan that delivers an excellent cooling capacity.
It’s not harmful to the environment since uses R410A refrigerant that releases heat more efficiently.
This camper van AC accommodates analog and electronic controls with an air distribution box (ADB).
The ADB is a good replacement to the air ducting used in some camper vans and it sends out the air in different directions to cool your entire van.
The Dometic Penguin II features a custom wrap-around shroud and ribbed base pan for improved strength and durability.
This compact AC is quieter than most RV AC units because it has integrated dampening brackets that minimize noise and vibration.
|Details about the Advent ACM150 camper van air conditioner |
Advent Rooftop Air Conditioners are known for its high-quality performance and effectiveness.
The installation process is pretty easy especially that it comes with a convenient non-ducted kit.
The straightforward instructions are detailed enough, yet even newbies can install it.
With a power of 15000 BTU’s cooling capacity, you can rely on it to cool your RV quickly without consuming too much power.
You can adjust the fan speed according to your preference; high, medium, and low settings.
The Advent ACM150 has been engineered to shield the unit from harsh elements and the rough ride most campervans endure.
It features a rigid metal frame and base pan that adds longevity to the product.
This unit features a premium water seal gasket with six dense foam support pads that reduce noise and vibration for quiet operation.
This product definitely gives you a more comfortable sleep at night in your camper van.
Swamp or Evaporative 12 volt campervan air conditioners
Unfortunately, there are not a lot of swamp coolers available on the market. This is due to the limited ability of these units to cool living space.
In order to get the most out of an evaporative cooler, the unit needs to directed at the person (or pet) they’re intended to cool.
This notice from the manufacturer of our top pick for evaporative coolers, the MightyKool K2, warns against the limited cooling capacity of their product:
“If your area is humid, email us before ordering the Model K2 to make certain it will work for you, as it uses water to produce cool air.”
This product is impressive in many ways, and, it’s admirable that the manufacturer is so forthright about its limitations.
So please, when considering this unit for your Campervan, give serious thought to whether a swamp type cooler will be enough for your cooling needs.
The MightyKool K2 runs on 12 volt power or 120 shore power.
The product includes a 120 to 12-volt converter.
Also includes 2 extra Smart Cooling Filters.
Further Reading about air conditioners for camper vans
If you want some simplified info on how air conditioning works, here’s a great post on “A/C for dummies”.
And if you want to go very deep into campervan air conditioner geekery, this article will do the trick.
How are you planning to stay cool in your van this summer? Please leave comments and questions, below and we’ll do our best to answer.
Thanks for reading.