When people learn that we’ve lived out of our 72 sq. ft. vintage travel trailer for almost 9 years, they are usually quite surprised. But when we admit that for nearly all of those years we’ve kept our food cool with ice and the well-loved cooler we called “Big Red,” they are shocked. In our tiny space, we just don’t have room for modern refrigeration. We thought about installing a 3-way fridge to run off of propane, we looked at rotomolded coolers like Yeti, inexpensive 12V thermoelectric coolers, and even those high-end “vanlife” 12V portable fridges, but nothing seemed like the perfect solution for our space and our budget.
This forced us to stick with the tried and true habit of picking up 10 lbs of ice every 3 to 4 days. Planning ahead to avoid being somewhere far off the grid with a melting bag of cold water instead of a robust block of ice, just became part of our routine. Things only got really dicey in the summer, and so often we picked up seasonal jobs that offered a staff fridge/freezer or easy access to an ice machine. It worked, mostly. Before we knew it, we were back to fall temperatures when ice lasted a lot longer. During the winter, of course, the cooler simply kept our food from freezing. But we have to admit, the constant draining, cleaning, and filling of the old, leaky, “dry bag” we used for ice was simply getting old. It was time for something different.
The ICECO Cooler VL45 Fridge Freezer, with its simple design, efficient footlocker look, low-profile but durable handles, seemed to be the perfect solution for our situation. Many 12V fridge solutions were either too bulky, not powerful enough, or simply too large for the allocated area. Where we needed to store the fridge in the back of our truck, severely limited our options. And when your whole life fits into a 72 sq ft camper and the utility box of a truck, reallocating space is, well…complicated. But how could we run it 24/7 in all kinds of weather, without fully draining our truck’s battery?
We wanted to be able to run our fridge off solar power; and, it also seemed like a wasted opportunity to not take advantage of an engine charge while driving. The folks at Renogy thought so too, and created the Dual Input DC to DC Charger. We became aware of this product while installing a DC to DC charger between my parent’s towing vehicle and RV, and it really got us thinking that perhaps one of these could power our fridge solution.
This ingenious device takes an engine charge input (via the starting battery) as well as a solar panel input. It allows us to run a 12V fridge on a secondary battery and be able to charge that battery while driving, or with our portable 100W Folding Solar Suitcase while camping off-grid. We were planning to upgrade the 12V-50Ah Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePo) battery in our trailer with a 12V-100Ah Smart LiFePo battery so we could immediately repurpose the battery into this installation.
One extra feature of the dual input charger is that when connected to solar and the service battery is full, the charger will trickle charge the starting battery in the engine. So, no matter how far out you might be, or for how long, you won’t be stuck with a dead starting battery.
The installation was pretty straightforward, as you can see in our step-by-step video. We had to design some vehicle specific solutions for mounting and securing components, but with the truck bed topper providing a water-resistant shelter much of the challenge for this installation was already solved.
As of June 2021, we’ve lived with this new arrangement for 2 months. Here are our overall thoughts about the installation and products. Spoiler Alert: It’s pretty dang cool!
Simply put, we love this product. The novelty of being able to reach into the fridge and withdraw food or beverages that are at a uniform temperature has not worn off. Neither has the satisfaction of no longer needing to interrupt our adventures for the mandatory ice. We know lots of people take this feeling for granted, and perhaps we will again one day – but for now, the shine of this solution in our lives has not dulled, not even a little bit. Are we gushing too much? Probably.
But let’s get down to brass tacks. We keep this fridge set between 43-48 degrees Fahrenheit; since we’re both vegetarians we don’t need it to be at a meat saver setting. At this temperature and with the compressor setting at “minimum,” and the battery protection setting on "high," we have never seen the battery dip below 13.0V on our DC to DC Charger Monitor (RMS).
We’ve experienced a variety of temperatures as we traveled around the Southwest to the Midwest, from highs in the mid 90’s in the Arizona desert to lows in the 30’s in the Utah mountains. This ICECO fridge runs very efficiently, merely sipping at the power, and the 50Ah LiFePo battery easily handles the demands between charges. Nearly each time we go out to get the coffee creamer in the morning the battery reads between 13.2 to 13.4. This seems to be its happy place which is ideal for a Lithium Iron Phosphate battery, ranging from 70-99%.
We like that the VL45 is robust, solid, and well-built. We travel down a lot of bumpy and dirty roads, and so far, the fridge is staying in place, and performing well in all kinds of conditions. With the removable baskets, it’s simple enough to clean out. The two storage areas help keep things organized and easily accessible. Overall, this fridge/freezer has been a game changer for us and we simply cannot imagine going back to our old ways.
One small downside is that since we no longer have a ready supply of ice, we can’t steal a few cubes for cocktails. Here’s where planning ahead comes in. If we fill our insulated coffee mugs with ice from the drink machine at a gas station and then keep those mugs in the fridge, the ice will last for 3-4 days. When it’s time for cocktails, we still have ice! If you are the type that needs more ice or frozen foods, consider buying an ICECO dual zone fridge/freezer in which you can set the temperature of each zone separately.
We’ve been thrilled with the performance of this charger. Since it uses MPPT technology, the charger prioritizes the charge coming in from the panels and takes advantage of the higher voltage converting it into a higher charging current. We have been able to charge very quickly when hooked up to the solar panel.
At first, our charge was not significantly improved while driving, sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. While problem solving, we realized that the common “frame” ground we used to ground the charger, battery, and solar panel, wasn’t adequate to deliver an appropriate charge from the starting battery. Our solution was to simply install a secondary ground wire and take it all the way back to the starting battery. This solved the problem immediately. See installation video above for details. We also recommend using “welding wire” (available at many specialty hardware stores) to hook up the positive and negative leads to the charger. The increased flexibility of this wire allowed us to make the tight bends and turns necessary to run along the chassis and then up into the truck bed. It was super easy to use and has worked well.
Once grounded appropriately, we saw our 50Ah service battery go from 13.4 to 14.4 within a short 20-30 minute drive. If we are on the move, even driving the car every couple of days, we simply do not need to hook up the solar panel to the charger. So we only need to pull out the panel when we are sitting somewhere for 5+ days and the outside temps are over 85 degrees.
Our 50Ah LiFePo battery has been the workhorse of our solar powered system for the last 2 years. It is small, lightweight and provides plenty of watt hours to run most of our needs. In this new application, the battery has performed marvelously, and we expect to use it for the next 8 years.
The only concern we have about the location of the battery in the truck will be in sub-32 degree temperatures. While it will keep powering our cooler (discharging), the LFP battery cannot recharge until it is above freezing. Since the fridge will not need to run in temperatures that low, we’ll just turn it off and it will keep our food from freezing. And, this will also likely be the sign that we need to drive to warmer climates!
This remote monitoring system is a great addition to the Dual Input DC to DC Charger. It monitors the service battery, as well as the starting battery and charging amps. It also displays indicator icons when the solar panels are hooked up and charging or when the alternator is charging. We’ve installed it in an easy to see location right next to the cooler, and the extra long cord makes putting it in an appropriate location a breeze.
We’ve had this portable panel for nearly 3.5 years, and relied on it as our primary panel for most of that time. Hooking it up to the Dual Input DC to DC Charger is simply a matter of plugging it into some MC-4 connections which we have conveniently located at the back of the truck bed. Within a couple of hours of full sun, our 100W Folding Solar Suitcase quickly recharges our 50Ah battery without needing to start up the truck.
It’s All Very Cool!
As we mentioned before, this upgrade is a quality-of-life issue, and it’s been... awesome. While we have certainly saved money by not needing to purchase ice anymore, it’s going to be a while until this pays for itself outright. However, the joy of grabbing a cold beverage or keeping food from spoiling is significant. Just with that, it’s worth its weight in gold.
This solution should be a part of every camper’s plan, whether you drive a vintage rig like ours, or you’re starting the van or bus build of your dreams.
In 2012, Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named "Hamlet." What began as a short break from careers and responsibility quickly turned into a love affair with roadlife. They have parlayed their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking gigs from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar-powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com. Or, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as “Freedom in a Can, LLC.”