Getting a car cooler is a great investment for anyone who spends a good chunk of their time in their vehicle. This car accessory will keep your food and beverages cool for as long as the engine is running—and then some!
Whether you’re planning a trip to the beach, a road trip, or just want to keep your lunch cool on your way to work, there’s no denying this is a super handy and convenient gadget.
To help you pick out the best car cooler for you, we’ve put together this article. Here, you’ll find the top 10 products in the market reviewed by us. Then, you’ll come across a buying guide, which will help you identify which coolers are worth the price and which aren’t. Lastly, we’ve answered some of the most common questions about this topic, from how they work to how to use them.
Why Get a Car Cooler?
There are so many reasons why getting a car cooler is a great investment.
First of all, if you frequently go on long trips, you won’t ever have to take a sip of warm Coke again. Is there anything worse than that?
Secondly, since with a cooler you can pack a lunch and snack, you’ll save precious money on pitstops. Not to mention that if you pack a healthy lunch, you’re less likely to buy junk food and unhealthy snacks at a gas station.
Thirdly, if you’re traveling with children, having delicious food and drinks on hand will make everything easier. You won’t need to plan as many stops since you’ll have satisfying snacks on hand.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, a car cooler ensures your food stays safe for consumption. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says you should keep meat, fish, and dairy at a chilly 40ºF. Otherwise, it will likely build up bacteria that can get you sick. As you can guess, packing a ham sandwich and leaving it in a hot car is less than ideal. With a cooler, you ensure the meat is stored safely.
How Does a 12V Car Cooler Work?
A 12V car cooler has a thermoelectric plate with a fan mounted on it. When you plug it into your car’s 12-volt outlet, it converts electricity into cold air. Then, the fan starts moving to distribute that chilly air evenly through the entire cooler box.
That’s the practical answer to how a car cooler works. There’s more in the specifics, such as knowing how a thermoelectric plate runs, but we won’t go into it.
Do Coolers Work When the Vehicle’s Engine Is Off?
When you turn off the engine, you want to make sure the cooler has also turned off. Otherwise, if it keeps running, it could drain your vehicle’s battery.
Even when it’s turned off, it will still keep things cool for a while. How long your food will stay cold after you’ve unplugged the cooler depends on the product you got. Some can keep things chilly for up to 10 hours, while others barely keep them refrigerated for one hour.
Car Cooler Buying Guide: Which Should I Get?
If none of the car coolers we’ve picked are what you’re looking for, you can find one on your own. To prevent you from getting lost in your search, here are some factors you should consider before making a purchase.
How many items do you want to fit inside the cooler? This will be the first elimination factor when it comes to getting a car cooler. If you’re traveling with your family, we recommend getting one that has at least 25 quarts capacity.
If you tend to travel solo or with another person, you don’t need to get a cooler that big. Something between 6 and 10 quarts should be enough. Especially for quick trips that don’t last longer than a weekend.
Ease of Use
Also, take into consideration how easy it is to use the 12V cooler. Can you lock it and open it easily? Would it be a hassle to install it into your car every time you need to take it with you?
Our favorite coolers are the ones that have a detachable lid. That makes it easy to clean them, but more on that later. Moreover, we like it when they come with straps or sturdy handles.
Power Supply and Usage
All 12-volt coolers have a DC plug adaptor. This can be hooked up to the cigarette lighter, for instance, and that’s that: your cooler will start working.
Others also have a 110-volt AC plug adaptor. You can use it to connect it to a power outlet at home. This has a big advantage: when you check into a hotel, you can plug it in to keep cooling down your food overnight. This way it won’t drain your car’s battery or compromise the quality of your food.
If the cooler you have your heart set on doesn’t have an AC power cord, you can always purchase it separately. Yet, it’s more convenient to have it come with your cooler.
Before choosing a cooler, read the specifications. How cold and hot can it get? The average car cooler will only cool things down to 40ºF below room temperature. That’s not bad if you’re traveling with the AC on, but not that impressive if you’re not.
The most expensive coolers for cars can lower the temperature much more than that. Some models can cool things down to below-zero temperatures. Those are true car refrigerators, which is also why they’re pricier.
It all comes down to how important it is for you to have ice-cold drinks on hand. If you want to have a mini-fridge in your vehicle, go for it—spend the big bucks!
We’ve alluded to this point earlier in the article, but we can’t stress this enough. The best car cooler will have a decent insulation system.
When you unplug the cooler, you want the contents to still be fresh for hours to come. Especially if you’re planning a quick picnic on the beach or long road-side stops. That’s true energy-efficiency.
Some models come with a warranty plan. This should make you more confident about investing your hard-earned money into a good gadget. Contact the seller to ask for their warranty plans if they don’t mention it on the product’s website or Amazon page.
How to Keep a Car Cooler Brand New?
To ensure your car cooler stays in great shape, you need to look after it. Regular dusting is a good place to start. You don’t want the fan or the thermoelectric plate building up dust and grime. This could make them overheat and stop working in the long run. You should do this once every six months, just to be sure everything is in order.
You should also bring it indoors when you’re not using it. Some models aren’t built to withstand extreme temperatures. So, before a blizzard or heatwave, bring the cooling box indoors and stow it somewhere safe.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do coolers keep food and drinks cold?
They have a thermoelectric plate and fan inside. This mechanism converts electrical energy into a cold airflow, which the fan then distributes inside the box. The electricity comes from your car’s 12-volt output plug, which gets it from the vehicle’s battery.
Do coolers suck up a car’s battery?
Yes, they go. The least energy-efficient models are quick the energy guzzler. That’s why it’s important to take precautions so you don’t end up with a drained battery.
Can a cooler drain a car’s battery?
Definitely. To avoid that problem, make sure the model you’re getting is energy-efficient. More often than not, there will be an “ECO” setting that can be turned on to save on energy. Some coolers will even turn off when your vehicle’s battery reaches a dangerously low level. Alternatively, you can always (and should, just to be safe) unplug the cooler from the car to ensure it won’t drain it.
How expensive is a 12V cooler?
Prices fluctuate quite a bit. They can be as cheap as $50, which is a steal, or as expensive as $1,200. It all depends on what features you think are important. Large coolers are more expensive than small, compact ones. Furthermore, coolers that can lower the temperature to near 0ºF will be much pricier, too.
Do coolers work on hotter days?
Yes, they do. How well they work is up for debate, though. Most 12V car coolers can only lower the temperature 40ºF below the ambient temperature. That means that on a hot 90ºF day, in a car without the AC running, your food and drinks will be at around 50ºF. That’s not desirable if you want to take a sip of ice-cold water. This is where car refrigerators come in handy. They effectively lower its inside temperature considerably even on the hottest days. For instance, it can be 90ºF outside and your food and drinks will still be kept at 20ºF.
How much can a cooler fit?
As you can see from the products we’ve reviewed, that varies a lot. The smallest car cooler we’ve mentioned can only fit 9 12-ounce cans (6 quarts). The largest, however, can fit an astounding 72 12-ounce cans (50 quarts).
How to clean a car refrigerator?
You’ll have to be gentle when cleaning the inside of your portable mini-fridge. With a damp towel, wipe down the sides and bottom of the box without applying much pressure. Then, apply some anti-grease, anti-bacterial cleaning gel or spray to the inside of the cooler. Again, with a clean damp towel wipe it all down gently.
Can I put ice inside my thermoelectric cooler?
Never add ice to your thermoelectric cooler. It can spill on the thermoelectric plate and ruin it. The same goes for any poorly stored liquid. If there’s a chance it will spill, don’t store it in the cooling box.