Look closely at the photo above. Aside from the obvious bit of magic we now blithely accept as normal—I’m downloading and viewing photographs in the middle of the Simpson Desert—note the cocktail. It’s a refreshing warm-weather concoction called a dark’n stormy: dark rum, lime juice, simple syrup, and ginger beer, served over ice.
Wait a minute. Ice cubes, six days from Anywhere, Australia? Yes, thanks to the National Luna 50 Twin Weekender fridge/freezer we had along.
Just as with digital photography and laptop computers, we now take for granted the sorcery of the Engel 12V fridge and its descendants, which forever eliminated that three-days-out semi-cool swill in the bottoms of our old Coleman coolers (note I’m referring to proper fridges employing proper compressors, not the ineffective thermoelectric coolboxes). I don’t predict ice chests will go the way of 35mm film and typewriters any time soon—a fridge is still a wince-inducing investment—but increasingly an Engel/ARB/Dometic/Waeco etc. is becoming one of the first accessories added to a new overlanding vehicle. (When we were stopped at state border agricultural checkpoints in Australia, the officers automatically said, “Need to check your fridge.” They assumed anyone in a Land Cruiser had one.)
Recently National Luna upped the ante, and gave us fridges with a separate freezer compartment. No longer do we have to struggle along with just cold beer, milk, and cheese; now we can add to that frozen meats, ice cream—and the means to keep a cocktail properly chilled. (Of course 12V fridges have always had the ability to freeze, but you had to choose one function or the other—fridge or freezer—or bring two units. We’ve done that on group safaris but it’s a bit much for a single vehicle.)
There are several quality brands of 12VDC/120VAC fridges on the market. We’ve had both an Engel and an ARB for years, and each has performed perfectly. With the exception of Engel, which has stuck with their tried and true Sawafuji swing motor compressor, and Waeco, which uses a branded compressor, virtually all fridge makers use the identical SECOP BD35 compressor in their smaller units, and the SECOP BD50 for larger fridges. (These were formerly known as Danfoss, but that company was bought out in 2010.)
Since the compressor is the heart of the fridge, you might think there wouldn’t be much difference in performance between brands using the same one, and continue to wonder why there is such a price disparity between those brands. Indeed, in general all work well and are reliable in harsh conditions. But the thickness and quality of insulation has an obvious impact on how often the compressor has to cycle (and thus use power) to maintain a set temperature, as does, to a lesser extent, the lid seal. Also, the thermostat can simply turn the compressor on or off, or the manufacturer can incorporate a sophisticated electronic control that varies the output in response to several parameters, further conserving energy. Inexpensive fridges use plastic exterior and interior cladding; more expensive models use aluminum or even stainless steel. In some fridges the evaporator plate is exposed in the interior, where it is susceptible to damage; in others it’s enclosed. Some fridges use plastic latches, others stainless steel.
Finally there are the ergonomic factors. Does the lid open only one way, or can it be switched to hinge sideways? Is there a useful interior light? Is the interior simply one big space, or are there baskets for organizing and securing contents? Does the control panel have an actual thermometer, or just a dial with numbers? What about a voltage monitor and adjustable low-voltage cutout? And since I’ve already written “finally,” a postscript that might or might not be important to you: You’ve spent a lot of money—does the fridge look like it’s worth it?
National Luna justifies its premium pricing by handily checking off all these factors. Particularly in the category of performance, in the fridge comparison tests in which I’ve been involved it consistently manages to both cool contents the quickest and keep them that way while using less power overall—an impressive trick. In fact, the one beef I have with this fridge is the name: “Weekender?” Not sure what NL was thinking, because the 50 Twin combines a 40-liter fridge with a 10-liter freezer—enough capacity for a far longer trip than one weekend. Not only is the capacity generous, but an easy-to-miss additional advantage of fridges over ice chests is that you don’t have to load all the contents at the beginning of the trip; the fridge will easily chill stuff added en route. We had more than enough room for all our refrigerated goods for ten days between supply sources.
And the ice cubes just kept coming, every evening . . .