Best 12V Battery Powered Air Conditioner for Van Life

12 Volt air conditioners are enjoying a vigorous surge in popularity. They are especially popular in off-grid Van lifers that didn’t have a roof top air conditioner installed, as well as RVs that need to be able to keep the interior cool when camping without hook-ups.

If this sounds like what you need, then we are here to help you dig a little deeper into the key details you need to know to find the best 12 Volt portable air conditioner for your camper.

The good news is, there are several high-quality 12 volt battery powered air conditioners on the market today.

This includes the DOMETIC COOLAIR 2000 RTX 12V and the Fresair 12 Volt Air Cooling Unit. Though this is one of those times when the devil is definitely in the details. 

What Is The Difference Between 12 Volt and 120 Volt Air Conditioners?

The typical 120 Volt RV rooftop air conditioners the electrical current is coming from either the RV park’s shore power connection or the inverter connected to your RVs house batteries.

This can be roughly 10 to 15% less efficient than if the unit was powered directly from a 12 volt DC power source, which can a serious issue when you are boondocking off the grid.

With a 12 Volt DC air conditioner, the electricity is coming from a battery bank or a generator and goes directly to the unit.

This translates to more efficient use of energy. It is also handy for smaller travel trailers, teardrop trailers, and popup campers.

How Does a 12 Volt RV Air Conditioner Work?

How Does a 12 Volt RV Air Conditioner Work

12 Volt RV air conditioners are sometimes referred to as “Swamp Cooler” as they are evaporative coolers.

They work by blowing hot, dry air through a moistened cooling pad. The wet pad absorbs the heat causing the water to evaporate and cool your RV.

This means you will occasionally need to refill the reservoir to keep it operating correctly.

The Pros & Cons Of A Traditional 120 Volt Air Conditioner

There are a few pros and cons when it comes to deciding between cooling your RV with a traditional 120 Volt AC-powered air conditioner and a 12 Volt DC portable air conditioner. 

120 Volt Air Conditioner Pros

  • Accessibility – A lot of people who use a 120 Volt AC air conditioner to cool down their camper will simply repurpose a residential window air conditioner. 
  • Cost – Depending on the BTU output, you can usually find them for a little cheaper than a newer DC air conditioner. 

Cons Of A 120 Volt Air Conditioner

  • Installation – A lot of teardrop campers, popup campers, and small travel trailers don’t have windows or ports for an air conditioner. This might mean making a hole in a wall or reinforcing a window to be able to support a 120 Volt air conditioner.
  • Inverter – If you only have a DC battery bank in your camper, then you will need an inverter to run an AC 120 Volt air conditioner from a 12 Volt DC source. This will reduce the output efficiency of your battery source.
  • Power Drain – The power consumption of running a 120 Volt air conditioner in your camper can significantly drain your RV’s house batteries. This can even damage lead-acid 12 Volt batteries if they are routinely drained below 50%.

The Pros & Cons Of A 12 Volt Battery Powered Air Conditioner

At the same time, there are a few pros and cons to taking into account with 12 Volt DC air conditioners. 

The Pros Of A 12 Volt Air Conditioner

  • Efficiency – Since you don’t need an inverter to run it, you tend to get superior efficiency and performance out of a 12 Volt DC air conditioner compared to running 120 Volt air conditioners off the same power source. 
  • Portability – Some 12 Volt air conditioners are designed to be portable. This means you can put them on your camper for taking a vacation, then repurpose them to help cool your work shed when you get back home. 
  • Installation – Depending on the model, the installation can be a pro or a con. If you are simply looking to replace your old rooftop air conditioner, then you might be able to find a 12-volt model that will drop right in. Otherwise, you might have to make some modifications to a window or a wall port. You might also need to update the existing wiring in an older camper. 

The Cons Of A 12 Volt Air Conditioner

  • Availability – They are a relatively new technology at the consumer level, which means they aren’t the sort of thing you can just find at an automotive shop. You typically have to order them online, which can potentially affect shipping time and costs. 
  • Cost – While the price is starting to come down a little, most DC air conditioners will cost more than a 120-volt air conditioner. 
  • Weight – Depending on the model you choose, a 12 Volt DC-powered air conditioner might be heavier than the same BTU output of a 120 Volt AC model. This can be a factor in installation, as well as shipping costs.

Running 12 Volt Air Conditioner On A Generator vs Battery Power

Running 12 Volt Air Conditioner On A Generator vs Battery Power

A lot of RV adventurers who like to boondock off the grid will bring a generator with them to supply electricity on demand.

So it only seems like a simple reach of logic to use it to power a traditional 120 Volt residential air conditioner. 

The Drawbacks of Running An Air Conditioner Off A Generator

The problem is, even the quietest generator is still going to be loud, to the point that most people don’t necessarily want to sleep with one running just to enjoy the coolness of a 12 Volt DC air conditioner in their camper.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that even if you are content to live with the noise of a generator running, and you want to use a standard residential air conditioner, you will need an inverter.

This decreases efficiency, in regards to the output performance of the generator, while also adding in the cost of the inverter.

If anything happens to the inverter, then the generator won’t be able to power the 120 Volt AC air conditioner.

The Benefits & Drawbacks Of Running A 12 Volt Air Conditioner Off Battery Power

When we take a closer look at DC-powered air conditioners and running them off a battery, there are some benefits.

Right off the bat, it is much quieter than even the best-engineered generator.

You also don’t need to worry about using an inverter, as these specially designed portable RV air conditioners are designed to run on DC electricity.

This also translates into better efficiency, as nothing is lost to the inverter and the associated technology.

Of course, the concern here is that you have to worry about a limited supply of power.

If you are connected directly to your RV’s house batteries then you also need to worry about draining down the power you would otherwise be used for other things.

This can also be an issue if your camper’s house batteries are lead-acid, as they can be damaged when drained below 50%. So, it’s only advisable to run a 12 Volt DC air conditioner off lithium-ion batteries. 

Best Off Grid 12 Volt Air Conditioners For Your Camper Van

When reviewing 12 Volt Air Conditioners we tried to keep an eye out for models that best cater to campers and RV travelers.

This means weeding out some of the very heavy models in favor of more portable 12 Volt air conditioners that were engineered with campers and small travel trailers in mind.

1. The DOMETIC COOLAIR 2000 RTX 12V

DOMETIC COOLAIR 2000
  • Weight 72.6 lbs. 
  • Battery requirement: 180 Ah or more
  • 6,824 BTU
  • MSRP: $3,000

The Dometic Coolair 2000 RTX was designed to be roof mounted as either a replacement for an outdated RV rooftop air conditioner or a new install in a truck camper, popup camper or teardrop travel trailer.

This spares you from having to worry about window or wall mounting the air conditioner, which would be an issue with a 120 Volt air conditioner.

It only uses 19 amps of energy in eco mode power consumption and ranges between 10 amps to 58 amps.

It is best suited for managing ambient temperatures between 41 and 126 degrees Fahrenheit. The Dometic Coolair 2000 RTX CoolAir was also engineered to be very quiet.

This is thanks in part to the two-cylinder compressor. It also features a large, high-contrast display that shows the individually adjustable air distribution, the four operating modes as well as the adaptive automatic mode of the air conditioner.

Pros

  • Designed for roof mounting
  • Temperature range from 41 to 126 F
  • Quiet operation
  • Eco-mode

Cons

  • Only designed for a rooftop mount
  • Power requirements push limits of modest battery banks

2. The NOMADIC COOLING 2000

NOMADIC COOLING 2000 12V
  • 9553 BTU
  • Designed for camper vans & campers with robust roofs
  • Quiet operation
  • Fits a 14” X 14” opening
  • Maximum temp 90 degrees F

Right off the bat, the 9,553 BTU output of the Nomadic Cooling 2000 is impressive.

This is more than enough to cool any teardrop camper or large popup camper. 9,000 BTUs will even do a good job of cooling a small travel trailer in the 16-to-18-foot range or smaller.

Though it is admittedly designed to be used as a replacement rooftop air conditioner in a Class B camper van.

While the Nomadic Cooling 2000 will work when connected to 12 Volt power, you will get the best performance out of powering it with a 24 Volt system.

Though this might be prohibitive for a smaller camper. Still at 65 Amps with 12 Volt DC in the Max Cool setting it is rated to handle up to 85-degrees Fahrenheit.

Pros

  • Quiet operation
  • 9,000 BTU output
  • Runs on 12 Volt or 24 Volt
  • Remote included

Cons

  • Not designed for temps over 90 F
  • Needs a robust roof structure to mount
  • No eco setting
  • Only 1-year warranty

3. The Fresair 12 Volt Air Cooling Unit

The Fresair 12 Volt Air Cooling Unit
  • 6,824 BTU
  • Low 12v 10A (max) power consumption
  • 25 lbs. 
  • Stealth mode for quiet operation


The Fresair cooling unit was designed to be an easy-to-install retrofit 12-volt air conditioner.

Its 14” X 14” footprint makes it easy to install in existing RV roof vents or as a replacement for a small outdated rooftop air conditioner.

The Fresair cooling unit is rated at 6,824 BTUs which is more than sufficient for most campervans, teardrop campers, and small travel trailers.

Best of all, it only weighs 25-pounds, which makes this 12 Volt RV air conditioner a great option for retrofit campers that might have limited roof structure to support a heavier unit. 

Pros

  • Lightweight 15 pounds
  • Low profile aerodynamics
  • 18-liter reservoir for boondocking
  • Quiet “Stealth Mode”

Cons

  • BTUs are for smaller campers
  • No eco setting
  • Only rated to perform up to 85-degrees

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Use A Battery Power Stations To Run A DC Air Conditioner?

Recent advancements in battery technology have made Portable Power Stations or battery banks more accessible than ever before.

They can store an impressive amount of power for charging devices and running DC appliances.

Though most will only be able to run a portable DC air conditioner for 2 to 4 hours. 

Are 12 Volt RV Air Conditioners Easy To Install?

Compared to rooftop models 12 Volt RV air conditioners tend to be relatively easy to install.

A lot of them have dimensions that will fit into a typical 14” X 14” roof vent or small skylight.

Since they run on 12 Volt DC electricity the wiring also tends to be straight forward and you don’t have to mess with an inverter. 

Conclusion

12 volt RV air conditioning technology continues to evolve, which brings new and interesting models into the marketplace.

Several factors might influence which model is best for your camper or RV. 

If you are installing it into a teardrop trailer or popup camper where you don’t have a lot of reinforced roof structure to support it, then the Fresair 12 Volt Air Cooling Unit might be the best 12 Volt RV air conditioner for your rig. It only weighs 25-pounds and will still fit into any 14” X 14” opening. 

If you frequently travel in hot areas such as the deserts of the Southwestern United States where you need cooling performance that can handle extreme heat then the DOMETIC COOLAIR 2000 RTX 12V might be the best 12 Volt RV air conditioner for your rig.

It has a BTU rating of over 9,000 and can perform in temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

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