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’s nice 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 portable RV or 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.
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.
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.
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.