Thermoelectric refrigeration uses solid-state thermoelectric technology to produce cooling through what is known as the Peltier Effect. The path to thermoelectric refrigeration has been a long and twisting one but has resulted in its application to small portable refrigerators or coolers where power from vehicles and other 12VDC is at a premium.
Although I have leaned towards compressor-based refrigerators for portable applications because of their ability to get colder in warmer ambient temperatures, of course, thermoelectric refrigeration technology plays an important role where cost, reliability, precise temperature control, or energy usage are prime considerations.
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This article is not about how thermoelectric refrigeration works or how we got here from the Peltier Effect, but rather it is to point out some important considerations when choosing a thermoelectric cooler to make sure that it uses this technology to its fullest and provides good value.
Best Buying and Usage Tips
What are some important considerations when buying a thermoelectric cooler?
Thermoelectric Refrigeration: Cost
Thermoelectric coolers can be significantly less expensive than compressor-based models, so they are a favorite for casual users who want to keep food and drinks cold while traveling. Serious travelers and outdoor adventurers pay the extra money to carry true refrigeration and freezer capability with them.
Since, how cold a Peltier cooler can get depends on ambient temperature, it’s important to match the cooler with what you’re planning to use it for. As an average figure, a thermoelectric cooler should be able to reduce the temperature in its compartment to as much as 36 degrees F below the ambient temperature.
For instance, if you’re going to use it in an air-conditioned space, air-conditioned vehicle, or in colder weather outside, there is a better probability that the cooler will generate the low temperatures you’re probably looking for. If you want your beer or soda at about 45 degrees F then as long as the ambient temperature remains below about 81 degrees F, you should be okay.
On the other hand, if you’re planning to use one outdoors in the heat, in a hot car, or other location with temperatures above about 80 degrees F, you may be disappointed in the results and may need to consider a compressor-based refrigerator. A hot car can get well above 100 degrees F and in that case, your drinks are not going to get as cold as you want.
Some manufacturers recommend that you load pre-cooled food or drinks into your cooler before you use it to relieve as much of the burden on the thermoelectric refrigeration as possible. This will allow the cooler to keep your food and drinks cooler longer.
Most thermoelectric coolers for consumer use run at maximum cooling and do not give you the option of adjusting the temperature. For the most part, thermoelectric coolers cannot freeze, but if you start with frozen foods, they could keep those foods frozen for some period.
Food and Drinks
What you’re trying to keep cold is also important. If you’re simply cooling drinks, then you know how cold you like them, so you need to be mindful of the ambient temperature where you’re using the cooler to make sure they will be able to stay as cold as you like them.
Meats are an entirely different story. According to the USDA, meats must be refrigerated at or 40 degrees F to inhibit bacterial growth. So, if you’re taking steaks to the BBQ or picnic, make sure your thermoelectric cooler is going to do the job. You are probably placing them in cold, so they probably will last a little longer than other foods but keeping the cooler in a hot car may place them at risk if it’s going to be a while before you cook them.
If power consumption is important to you, and it usually is when you’re using a vehicle’s 12VDC as a power source, then you must consider that in general, thermoelectric refrigeration coolers use more electricity than a compressor-based refrigerator. It’s because a thermoelectric cooler is always in operation if it’s on. A compressor-based refrigerator cycles on and off to keep the contents cold.
Clean, Stable Power
Since oftentimes thermoelectric coolers are on the edge of maintaining the temperature you want, the quality of the input power comes into play. Drops in power below averages can reduce the effectiveness of a cooler and raise the temperature it can maintain. Make sure that AC power sources, for instance, are stable.
In a compressor-based fridge, you don’t usually think about adding ice because it’s cold enough that you don’t have to. But, you may be tempted to put ice in a thermoelectric cooler to help with cooling. It’s okay if the ice is not loose but is kept in a waterproof bag or if you’re using self-contained ice packs. If you use loose ice cubes when they melt the water can get into the electronics and cause it to fail.
One interesting feature of most thermoelectric coolers is that you can reverse their operation and generate heat. In fact, you can generate enough heat to keep hot foods hot. This can be handy for picnics or other gatherings away from home where you would like to bring hot foods.
Just like low power can affect a cooler’s effectiveness, extension cords can reduce it as well. Long extension cords can cause the voltage to drop and raise the temperature that a cooler can maintain.
Don’t get stranded with a dead battery because of your cooler. That’s right, if you get the wrong cooler and you leave it on when the vehicle isn’t running, it can run down your battery before you realize. The best coolers have automatic power cutoffs that sense when your battery is getting low and turn off the cooler. You should always look for this feature in a cooler.
You may not think of your car cooler as a weapon, but in an accident, an unsecured refrigerator or cooler can become a missile just as deadly. Make sure you always secure your thermoelectric refrigerator with a seat belt or other very secure tie-down.
You might not expect that the placement of a thermoelectric cooler will affect its efficiency and longevity. You should always place the fridge so that the intake is not blocked by a car’s seat, a wall, or something else.
A compressor-based refrigerator is noisy just like your home refrigerator. Every time the compressor cycles on, there will be noise. A thermoelectric model will make less noise, but there will be noise from their fan. How much noise varies by model. If quiet operation is important to you, check the specs for noise figures.
There are many different styles of thermoelectric coolers and some are more portable than others. Loaded with food any cooler can get heavy in a hurry. If you need to take it away from your vehicle, make sure it has integrated transport features like strong and comfortable handles, large, heavy-duty wheels, a collapsible handle to pull it, or a lightweight shell to make up for the weight of the food.
Thermoelectric coolers are notorious for breaking down. It may be because of where they’re placed, it may be because of vibration from traveling, or there may be other causes. One thing is certain, the Peltier device in a thermoelectric cooler will eventually fail. How long it takes to fail varies and it could be years, but it will fail. And that’s not the only part that can fail. Even though compressor-based refrigerators have more moving parts if you’re into carrying refrigeration with you for the long haul buy a compressor-based refrigerator that will last for years.
I’m a diabetic and need to carry insulin with me. Fortunately, the kind I used doesn’t need to be kept refrigerated after you remove it from refrigeration and start using it. That’s not true of all kinds of insulin. If you have medicine that depends on the cold, you need to buy a true refrigerator that has temperature regulation and is compressor-based to ensure your medicine is stored at the right temperature.
The larger the cooler the more cooling you need from the thermoelectric refrigeration technology. In fact, moving up to a much larger cooler may double the number of Peltier modules. This increases energy usage to keep up with the larger cooling need. Match your cooler size to your needs carefully to save energy and to make sure your food and drinks will stay as cool as you want.
There you have it. Those are some important considerations when buying a cooler base on thermoelectric refrigeration.
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A thermoelectric cooler is the least expensive choice for an electric cooler to keep your food and beverages cold while away from home base. We sincerely hope that this article has provided you with valuable information that helps you choose the best cooler based on Thermoelectric Refrigeration!