Van life air conditioning: The challenge of cooling your van
It can be a struggle to find the best campervan air conditioner for your van build.
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.
Van life 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…
Where to start with van life air conditioning
It’s also crucial to have a van that’s well insulated and for that you can read our guide on insulating a campervan.
Each of these van build issues will help make your AC unit run efficiently. Once all that is covered, you’ll be ready to total air temperature control.
The Struggle is Real
I have to chuckle when I see a 110 volt 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and quality
A noisy air conditioner can be a sign of poor quality. 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 Conditioning
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.
From Wikipedia: “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 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
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, 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 Air Conditioning and Heat Pump Units for Camper Vans
Details about the Coleman Airxcel 08-0079 Mach 3 Plus Campervan Air Conditioners
One of the greatest values available in the world of Campervan AC units is the Coleman Mach 3 Plus.
All-copper tubing and gas-flux brazed joints guarantee a long lifespan for your van air conditioner.
You can definitely count on it with its huge evaporator and condenser coil that releases heat into the outdoor air.
With 13,500 nominal cooling capacity, it can deliver 320 CFM (cubic feet per minute) airflow.
For cooler climates, you have an option to add the Heater Assembly and you’ll get 5,600 BTU’s of heat.
You can use it in any outlet since it has a standard electrical rating of 115 VAC, 60 HZ.
It’s not only a powerful camper van air conditioner but it’s also eco-friendly.
It’s no wonder they call it the “America’s over-the-road bestseller.”
Details about the Coleman Mach 8 Plus Camper van Air Conditioner
The Coleman Mach 8 Plus Van Air Conditioner has an ultra-low profile that’s designed to reduce wind drag when you’re on the move.
It includes a fiberglass base pan that makes it lightweight and provides outstanding strength.
The airflow operates quietly at low speed, (noise reduction of 5+ decibels) pulling off noise-free AC for nighttime comfort.
The Mach 8 Plus has two motors, so it can deliver the same amount of BTU’s for both high and low speeds.
With 15,000 BTU cooling or heating capacity, it has an evaporator air delivery of 300 cubic feet per minute.
This model is also compatible with the previous Mach 8 unit, so if you’re planning to upgrade, you can still use your old accessories and other components.
Please note, it requires a ceiling assembly unit which is sold separately for first-time installations.
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 Atwood 15026 Non-Ducted Campervan Air Conditioners
The Atwood 15026 Non-ducted A/C Unit is basically designed to cope with troubles connected to harsh weather.
It’s heavy-duty campervan AC that promises to deliver the coolest air to your mobile home.
This unit offers 15,000-BTU capacity and is equipped with a heat pump to keep you warm during chilly winter nights.
It’s known for its maximum performance dual motor design that cools down your camper van quickly
Either for continuous or a non-continuous use, you’ll get an ultra-quiet experience with this unit without consuming too much power.
Its lightweight design comes to only 88-pounds, so you can install and uninstall it by yourself.
It delivers air with an output of 360 cubic feet per minute and comes with digital thermostat and remote control.
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 air conditioner for van life
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.
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.