Choosing the Best Thermoelectric Coolers: A Comprehensive Buyer's Guide and Comparison
Electric coolers, also known as thermoelectric coolers, are an innovative and convenient way to keep your beverages and perishables chilled on the go. Whether you're headed to the beach or embarking on a road trip, these compact coolers utilize advanced technology to maintain optimal temperature and ensure that your food and drinks stay fresh. In this article, we will explore the pros and cons of electric coolers, compare them to traditional ice chests and refrigerators, and discuss important features to consider when shopping for a new thermoelectric cooler. Additionally, we will delve into how thermoelectric coolers work, popular brands in the market, and tips on using them effectively. So, if you're in the market for a top thermoelectric cooler or simply want to learn more about this innovative cooling technology, keep reading.
What is an electric cooler?
An electric cooler is a type of cooler similar to traditional insulated ice chest coolers. However, it operates differently by using a thermoelectric “Peltier” device to transfer heat out of the cooler rather than relying on ice to absorb heat.
The thermoelectric device functions by transporting heat from one side of a semiconductor pad to the other through the use of electricity. Interestingly, if you reverse the polarity of the power cable, these coolers can also function as heaters.
These coolers are often advertised as “ice-free” because they don't require ice to cool. However, it is possible to enhance their cooling capabilities by adding sealed gel ice packs. It is important to note that using regular ice can cause electrical shorts and is not recommended.
Limitations of electric coolers
There are two main factors that limit the effectiveness of electric coolers: the thermoelectric mechanism itself and the insulation. The size of the device and the amount of current passing through it determine its ability to move heat. Most thermoelectric systems can only change the temperature on one side by 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another challenge is dissipating the heat generated by the cooler. The models we tested use an aluminum heatsink and fan to release the heat outside the cooler. To achieve better performance, more advanced heat-dissipation systems would be necessary.
Coolers used for drinks and snacks face an additional hurdle. Even with good insulation, constant opening of the lid leads to decreased efficiency due to the heat rushing in.
Power draw of electric coolers
The electric coolers we tested are designed to consume only 5 amps of 12-volt power, which is equivalent to the power drawn by a single headlight. This power consumption is low enough to avoid significantly draining your vehicle's battery during short stops. For instance, our tester’s Honda Odyssey minivan has a battery with a two-hour reserve capacity at 25 amps. This means that the cooler can run for approximately 8 hours before the battery reaches the bottom quarter of its reserve life. However, it is not advisable to drain the battery to such a low level when using it to start your vehicle.
For extended use, a dedicated deep-cycle battery would be more appropriate. Nonetheless, most people do not have one of these batteries in their car. Therefore, these coolers are primarily designed for active cooling while driving or when there is access to a 120-volt AC outlet. To operate at 120 volts, a separate adapter is required and is not typically included with most electric coolers.
Pros and cons of electric coolers
- Electric coolers eliminate the need for ice to keep food and drinks cool or hot while driving.
- They prevent water from soaking into your lunch by eliminating the use of ice.
- Thermoelectric coolers are more affordable compared to compressor-type refrigerators.
- They have fewer moving parts, making them potentially more reliable and easier to repair than traditional refrigerators.
- Electric coolers are not capable of cooling enough to safely store raw meat on hot days.
- Cleaning some models can be more challenging than cleaning traditional ice chest coolers.
- Thermoelectric coolers have higher power consumption since they need to run constantly, resulting in faster battery drain when parked compared to 12-volt compact fridges.
Ice chests vs. electric coolers
Manufacturer ratings indicate that the coolers we tested can lower the temperature inside the cooler by up to 40 degrees compared to the temperature outside the cooler. However, this rating assumes certain conditions.
If the goal is to keep perishable items below 40 degrees, using ice in a traditional cooler is more effective. With ice, perishables can remain safe from heat for two to three days. Even if the ice melts, as long as the food is in a waterproof container, it will typically stay at safe temperatures for an additional day.
On the other hand, if you only need to chill drinks or transport items like medication that can tolerate room temperature, an electric cooler offers convenience by eliminating the need for ice restocking.
Adding frozen gel packs to an electric cooler can help bridge the gap in cooling capabilities between electric and traditional coolers, but this still requires access to a freezer.
Electric coolers vs refrigerators
The primary advantage of a 12-volt refrigerator, such as the Dometic 50-watt model, over a thermoelectric cooler is its ability to keep food cold even in extreme conditions.
Refrigerators rely on the use of coolants, like R-22, to efficiently remove heat from the fridge. The coolant changes from a liquid to a gas in a coiled metal tube, effectively transferring heat out of the fridge. A compressor compresses the gas back into liquid form for the process to repeat. This phase-change system enables refrigerators to move a significant amount of heat.
In comparison, a 12-volt fridge is more expensive than a thermoelectric cooler due to its complex system of moving parts. While thermoelectric coolers can cool drinks and maintain cold temperatures while your vehicle's AC is on, they require a constant power supply.
12-volt fridges are more efficient at keeping items cold, especially in hot weather, but they still require additional battery capacity to function optimally. Another notable difference between electric fridges and thermoelectric coolers is the presence of a built-in thermostat. Fridges cool in short bursts to maintain a consistent average temperature, whereas thermoelectric coolers need to run constantly and may not reach 40 degrees Fahrenheit on hot days.
Top Thermoelectric Cooler Brands
In the world of thermoelectric coolers, there are numerous brands that stand out. Some of these brands are well-known for their traditional coolers, while others may be unfamiliar to you. Below, we will take a closer look at the major brands in this industry.
Koolatron Thermoelectric Coolers
Koolatron is a well-established brand in the electric cooler industry. While they do offer traditional coolers, their expertise lies in their powered products. They have a wide range of electric coolers to choose from, starting from their D25 Soft Bag Cooler and Travel Tote, all the way up to their larger and more robust Koolatron P85 Krusader. They even have wheeled options, such as the W65 and W75 Kool Wheeler Coolers, which are essentially wheeled versions of their popular P65 and P75 series.
Most of their coolers are capable of maintaining a temperature 40 degrees below the ambient temperature. In other words, if it is 60 degrees outside, they can cool the interior to around 20 degrees. With a simple flip of the power cord, these units can also function as warmers.
Typically, these coolers can reach maximum temperatures of 135 to 145 degrees Fahrenheit, making them ideal for road trips. It's important to note that these coolers do not come with a thermostat. Our top picks from Koolatron are the P75, P20, and P27. The P75, in particular, strikes a great balance between size, performance, and portability, and the asking prices for these products are reasonably affordable.
Igloo Thermoelectric Coolers
Igloo is a highly recognized brand known for their coolers, and they also offer iceless coolers along with their traditional models. While they have made several changes and improvements over the years, their top thermoelectric coolers are the Breeze 28 and the Powerchill 40.
As the names suggest, the Breeze 28 has 28 quarts of storage capacity, while the Powerchill 40 offers 40 quarts. These sizes are perfect for portable use, especially considering that you don't have to factor in the space occupied by ice.
In terms of performance, the Breeze 28 can cool the interior by 36 degrees, while the Powerchill 40 can achieve a drop in temperature of 38 degrees. These coolers can be plugged into any standard 12V outlet and can also be used with a 110V adapter. The asking prices for these coolers are quite reasonable, and while the lids could be sturdier, they are still reliable and offer great value for the price. If we had to choose one, we would recommend the Powerchill 40 for its larger storage volume and slightly better performance.
Coleman Thermoelectric Coolers
Coleman is a well-known brand among cooler enthusiasts. Although they have fewer thermoelectric cooler options, they offer two models based on a 40-quart structure. The Coleman Powerchill comes in both cooling-only and cooling/heating versions.
The Coleman Powerchill Thermoelectric cooler can achieve a 40-degree drop in internal temperature. If you opt for the heating version, you can expect a potential increase in internal temperature of 40 degrees as well. The temperature range of 80 degrees is impressive and among the highest in the market.
We also appreciate the stylish design of the Coleman Powerchill series, making the coolers visually appealing and suitable for permanent installations in cars or RVs. The coolers can be powered by standard 12V outlets and come at a competitive asking price, considering their excellent performance, large storage size, and attractive aesthetics.
Rockpals Thermoelectric Coolers
Rockpals may not be as well-known as other cooler brands, but they offer one of the most popular and best-selling thermoelectric coolers on the market. Their 30 Quart wheeled cooler has garnered widespread acclaim for its performance and features.
With a 30-quart capacity, this cooler strikes a good balance between storage space and portability. The inclusion of wheels and an extending carrying handle makes it highly maneuverable compared to other electric coolers.
Rockpals claims that their cooler can achieve temperature drops of up to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, which is impressive and one of the best ratings we have encountered. Additionally, with a simple adjustment of the cord, you can convert this cooler into a heater, reaching a maximum internal temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. While it primarily operates on a standard 12V plug, there are conversion kits available to enable connection to other power sources.
While these coolers may be priced slightly higher than some competitors, the outstanding performance, added mobility, and superior build quality justify the slight increase in price.
Della Thermoelectric Coolers
Della is a brand with extensive experience in selling various appliances and home goods. They offer one popular product in their lineup: the 40 Quart 12V Cooler/Warmer.
This cooler possesses all the features we look for in an electric cooler: ample storage space, enhanced mobility with wheels, and both cooling and heating functions. The heating and cooling elements are powered by 40 Watts and 48 Watts respectively. With both options available, this cooler ensures efficient cooling and heating as per your needs.
One significant advantage of this product, apart from its appealing features, is its competitive asking price. For its size, it stands out as one of the most affordable electric coolers in the market. However, it's worth noting that there may be some minor quality issues common in products at this price point. Nonetheless, if you're on a tight budget, the Della Cooler/Warmer is definitely worth considering.
Wagan Tech Thermoelectric Coolers
Wagan Tech offers a diverse selection of electric coolers, ranging from a 46-quart cooler to a compact 6-liter model from their Wagan 2260 series. With various options available, they cater to different target consumers in terms of storage capacity and portability. The larger 46 Quart cooler remains mobile despite its size, thanks to the inclusion of wheels and a center carrying handle. On the other hand, the smaller coolers in the Wagan lineup are designed to hold a few cans and can fit snugly between car seats.
We were pleasantly surprised by the performance of the compact units in the series. They can cool as low as 35 degrees Fahrenheit and heat up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the effectiveness of cooling or heating will depend on the ambient temperature in which the cooler operates.
Power output fluctuates between 40 and 55 Watts, which is average for this type of product. The major concern with this brand is the quality control. Several users have reported issues with breakages shortly after making a purchase. Therefore, despite the competitive asking price, it's important to consider the potential need for a replacement unit sooner than expected.
Cooluli Thermoelectric Coolers
Cooluli is a brand that caught our attention due to its clever name. They offer four different models online: the 4 Liter, 10 Liter, 15 Liter, and 26 Liter coolers. While these coolers fall within the small to medium size range, they offer a good variety to suit different needs. These coolers provide more usable space compared to traditional coolers since you don't need to accommodate ice.
One standout feature of Cooluli Thermoelectric Coolers is their retro design, setting them apart from the competition. These coolers truly make a statement with their aesthetics and are among the few models that you might actually take pride in displaying.
Additionally, these coolers are incredibly user-friendly. Some models come with digital LED displays and easy-to-use push buttons for switching between hot and cold settings, eliminating the need to physically swap cords.
However, it's worth noting that their performance is not as impressive as that of some other models. While they can reach maximum cold temperatures of around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, their heating capability is limited to a highest temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Although this is still practical, it may not be the best on the market.
Among their range, we recommend the small 10-liter model. Its stylish design and convenient size make it highly portable, while still providing sufficient space for essential items.
Best of the Rest
If you are searching for a smaller and highly energy-efficient unit, the Engel Platinum Electric Cooler ($1,150) might be the perfect choice for you. This compact cooler is well-known for its exceptional energy efficiency, consuming about 40% less energy than a traditional compressor, according to the company.
One impressive feature of all Engel power systems is their ability to automatically switch between AC or DC power sources. The cooler can sense the difference and adjust the power input accordingly, eliminating the need for manual adjustments.
Compared to other electric coolers with similar capacities, this unit is surprisingly heavy. The main reason for its weight is its durable stainless steel construction. However, it does not come with wheels, which can be a drawback for some people due to its heftiness.
Additionally, this cooler has thin metal handles that protrude far from its sides. These handles can make carrying the electric cooler uncomfortable and packing it efficiently into tight spaces more challenging.
One potential drawback of the Engel Platinum is its temperature range. It has the highest minimum temperature on this list by multiple degrees, so if you require a sub-zero freezer, you may need to consider other options. However, if energy consumption is a concern for you, this efficient electric cooler is an excellent choice.
- Size: 25.5″ x 14.3″ x 16″
- Capacity: 32 L
- Weight: 48 lbs.
- Temperature range: Minimum of 5.5 degrees F
- Exceptionally low power consumption
- Automatic switching between AC and DC power sources
- 3-year warranty
- Durable construction
- Relatively heavy for its size
- No sub-zero minimum temperatures
- Protruding handles
- Slightly expensive
While all of these devices can be powered by sustainable sources like solar panels and battery banks, none is more eco-friendly than the GoSun Chill Electric Cooler (9). This product is perfect for those who value modern luxury while maintaining a sustainable lifestyle.
This electric cooler can be charged using your car's battery, an AC adapter, or another power source. It can also be connected to the electric cooler's PowerBank, which can save a dead phone battery in emergencies.
On an 80-degree day, the PowerBank is powerful enough to maintain the internal temperature of the electric cooler at 40 degrees F for 10 hours or 10 degrees F for 6 hours.
Furthermore, you have the option to purchase a package deal that includes the GoSun Chill Electric Cooler along with either the Solar Table (a solar panel integrated into a table) or the Flexible Solar Panels. With these accessories, as long as there is some sunshine, you can keep your food and drinks cold from anywhere without worrying about draining your car battery.
Other notable features of this electric cooler are its stylish and fun design, as well as the helpful wheels and telescopic handle. If you like what GoSun has to offer but want a dual-zone option, consider the GoSun Chillest "Solar" Cooler with 45 L storage capacity divided between two fridge or freezer areas.
- Size: 23.5″ x 19″ x 16″
- Capacity: 40 L
- Weight: 30.2 lbs.
- Temperature range: -4 to 68 degrees F
- Excellent integration with solar table (not included)
- Most portable cooler on this list thanks to its handle and wheels
At its affordable price, the Whynter Portable Refrigerator ($595) offers exceptional performance and numerous features. It has an impressive temperature range, tying with the much more expensive ARB Zero for the lowest minimum temperature on this list. Not only is it the lowest minimum temperature, but it's also the coldest temperature achievable by an electric cooler.
The Whynter electric cooler has a "Fast Freeze" mode for quickly reducing the temperature. With a temperature control deviation of just 1.6 degrees F, it offers excellent temperature control compared to other coolers in its class.
Other notable features include its durable construction, removable storage baskets, and convenient drain plug for easy cleaning. While the handles may not be as comfortable-looking as those on other electric coolers, you can purchase the optional Transit Bag, which provides better handles and additional storage pockets. The portable refrigerator is also available in a camouflage design for hunters and outdoor enthusiasts.
- Size: 16.5″ x 23.5″ x 20.5″
- Capacity: 42 L
- Weight: 45 lbs.
- Temperature range: -8 to 50 degrees F
- Affordable price
- "Fast Freeze" mode
- Impressive minimum temperature and temperature control
- Smaller handles
- Not particularly stylish
If you prefer the idea of a dual-zone electric cooler but don't want to pay the higher prices of the Dometic or ARB options, the ICECO VL60 Dual Zone Portable Refrigerator (9) is a fantastic choice. ICECO is a well-regarded brand with overwhelmingly positive reviews for all of its electric coolers.
This spacious cooler has two zones, both capable of reaching any temperature within the cooler's range. The ICECO also offers two cooling modes, MAX and ECO, for fast freezing or energy efficiency depending on your needs.
We particularly appreciate the sturdy construction of ICECO's coolers. With thick walls, good seals, and steel fasteners, the metal shell provides excellent insulation.
The compressor comes with a 5-year warranty, giving you confidence in the durability of this electric cooler. Additionally, it comes with wired baskets for organizing your food and an interior LED light for easy visibility in the dark.
There are a few potential drawbacks to consider before purchasing this cooler. The handles may not be as wide and comfortable-looking as those on other models, which could be an issue due to its weight if you plan to carry it for long distances.
More importantly, with a minimum temperature of zero degrees F, this electric cooler does not reach sub-zero temperatures like some of our other recommendations. However, considering its price point, we must acknowledge the reliable and capable ICECO Dual Zone Portable Refrigerator.
- Size: 31.2″ x 19.4″ x 18.8″
- Capacity: 60 L
- Weight: 65.7 lbs.
- Temperature range: 0 to 50 degrees F
- Interior LED light
- MAX and ECO cooling modes
- Does not reach sub-zero temperatures
- Thin handles may be uncomfortable
Portable Electric Cooler Buyer's Guide
Consider What You Intend to Store
When choosing a portable electric cooler, consider what types of items you plan to store. Some coolers offer larger capacities and greater depth, which are ideal for storing larger items like wine bottles or odd cuts of meat.
Consider Your Carrying Capacity
Ensure that the portable electric cooler you choose is within your carrying capacity. Check the weight and dimensions to make sure it will be easy for you to carry and fit in your vehicle or camper.
Consider Your Camping Locations
Think about where you will be taking the portable electric cooler. If you plan on camping at sites that require a lot of carry-in, opt for a smaller and more lightweight cooler or one with wheels. Consider the convenience of transportation when choosing the right cooler for your needs.
Consider Your Power Source
Take into account the power sources available at your camping locations. Choose a portable electric cooler that matches your power source capabilities and energy needs. Some coolers are designed to run on a 12-volt car battery, while others may require more power.
Types of Electric Coolers
Thermoelectric coolers, also known as electric coolers, use an electric current to maintain a cool interior. These coolers draw power from an AC adapter or a DC power port. Some models can be powered by external batteries or solar-powered batteries.
Thermoelectric coolers don't use refrigerants and instead use fans to circulate air. While they may not keep items as cool as compressor coolers, they are suitable for car camping and can be shut off intermittently to conserve energy.
Compressor coolers work similarly to refrigerators and use refrigerant to maintain a constant temperature. These coolers require more energy consumption and may require external or auxiliary batteries if used overnight or continuously.
Many compressor models can be run using solar panels, and they can easily be plugged into a car's DC port while the car is running. However, they should be unplugged when the car is off to avoid draining the car's battery.
When selecting the ideal cooler for your specific requirements, it's important to keep a few additional factors in mind.
Thermoelectric coolers take longer to cool down compared to compressor coolers. Therefore, if you plan to store the cooler in a garage where the summer heat can reach 100° F or higher, it is crucial to allow the cooler to reach a cooler temperature indoors for a few hours before plugging it in and placing your food and drinks inside. Some users also recommend pre-chilling larger coolers with ice packs to optimize energy efficiency and temperature control.
Using melted ice as a means to regulate the interior temperature of an electric cooler is no longer considered the most effective solution. It is now recommended to use ice packs instead, as this eliminates the need to drain water from an ice chest or the cooler's drain plug.
Most coolers have an ambient temperature range of approximately 35-40° F above the external temperature. For example, if it is 100° F outside, the lowest temperature the cooler will reach is 60° F. In colder temperatures, it is capable of reaching temperatures as low as zero degrees. It is important to note that the minimum and maximum temperatures achievable by a cooler are always dependent on the external ambient temperature.
In conclusion, when it comes to keeping your drinks and food cold on the go, a thermoelectric cooler is an excellent option. With their compact and portable design, they are perfect for road trips, camping adventures, and even picnics. While there may be some drawbacks like limited cooling capacity and the need for a power source, the pros far outweigh the cons. When shopping for a new thermoelectric cooler, be sure to consider important features such as capacity, insulation, and power efficiency. Ultimately, finding the right cooler for your needs will ensure that you can enjoy refreshingly cool beverages and preserved food wherever your travels take you.
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