2021 Best Compact Air Conditioning Options?

erstwild

Active member
Well, I recently moved on up to the islands of coastal Washington from California to escape all manner of unpleasant things and to keep my full-time moving living dream alive. As you all have seen from the news at the moment, we are are really getting cooked up here with an unprecedented heatwave. Average temp today down in Seattle is typically 73 degrees...and it reached 73 degrees at 7:30 am this morning, lol.

It will be doable to find ways to beat the heat for this round, but it has made me start thinking about installing the smallest effective AC unit I can find in case this starts happening more often.

Here is my rig to give an idea about what space I have available to install something (or portable and storable would be great too):


I am tempted to give something like the Zero Breeze a try, but I would welcome micro DC or A/C units too. I have shore power at my base, but if I could keep it all DC and mobile friendly to just use for an hour or two here and ther that would be great too.
 
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MiamiC70

Active member
I wish it was 73 degrees 🙄
It’s been in 90’s and 80% humidity and were only 5 days into summer 😒
 

jonyjoe101

Adventurer
If you have shorepower you can use one of the indoor type of AC's. In the hurriedyear website, someone uses one in his sprinter van, he shows what kind of results he gets.
For night time use consider a swampcooler. I use a 3 amp 12 volt swampcooler in my van during the day and also at night. They work great at night time using very little water and running on one fan using less then 2 amps. On hot humid days they don't cool that much but its better then just using a fan.
The more insulation you have in your vehicule, the better results you will get with a small AC or swampcooler. If you have massive amounts of insulation maybe the zerobreeze will work but any AC will have to be vented outside and placed in its own compartment, 300 to 800 watts an AC uses will heat up the AC itself and that heat will go into your van like a heater. A swampcooler doesn't produce any heat, 3 amps is insignificant.
In your camper, I notice the fridge isnt vented. I would definitely get some 4 inch flexible ducting and vent it outside. The hotter the weather the more the compresser runs, and all that heat goes in your vehicule, I measured temperatures of over 115 degrees coming out of the compresser vents. It was heating up my van so much I almost got rid of my fridge. Once I vented the fridge with ducting and a 120mm fan to force the air outside, the fridge heat is a non-issue.
Every thing you can do to reduce heat in your vehicule will help.
 

Roaddude

Long time off-grid vanlife adventurist
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I'm gonna go on at great length here about cooling vehicles when adventuring and staying cool personally in hot weather in economical ways, 'cause I've done it a lot.

If you don't have the time or attention span for a long article, the TLDR version is: Air movement is key and you don't always need expensive and permanently installed solutions.

I spent a lot of time, a few years back, hauling expedited cargo 50 weeks a year all over North America in vans, and several years since then wandering the continent in several extended cross-country adventures. In all of these adventures I regularly experienced all sorts of weather and environments in rapid fashion, from urban to rural across North America and in long back country camping treks across different borders.

It was not unusual for me to be up around the north side of the St Lawrence Seaway in Quebec one week and in Laredo TX the next, picking up auto-parts to haul back to the Jeep plant in Michigan. Or back-n-forth over ensuing months, going from McAllen TX to Denver or from North Carolina to Winnipeg MB or Calgary AB. Or heading out from Maine on a gear-gathering trip across the US and back and be gone for sixteen weeks.

What other full-time expediters do is carry a small 5,000 BTU AC and power it with a Honda 2000 gen. Plenty enough to cool the inside of a vehicle for most situations. The small ACs are cheap and the Honda gens are very quiet, efficient, and easily converted to be multi-fuel (propane, natural gas, and petrol - DM for more info if you want). There are other gens, though the Honda gens are time-proven, well-trusted, and long-lasting. Some carried their gen inside, some carried it on their bumper (front or back). I love my Honda gen. It's saved my ass in more ways than one.

Some would permanently install their small AC unit in a rear door in clever, attractive ways. Really not at all redneck or hokey-looking, with little projecting out the back; usually with a snap on weatherproof cover when not in use. Others would keep it portable and block it into a side or front window with an expanding board while parked. Cumbersome to stow when not in use that way, perhaps, but if it kept them out longer when others were saying "no way, José," because of the heat, they were all for it.

I know one guy, not an expediter, who camped a bunch across deep south USA doing research/writing on juke joints and the Blues Trail. He would keep a small AC unit rigged for his ground tent when he had shore power, though I don't recall if he used a gen at all when he did not have shore power. On wicked humid Mississippi Delta nights when no one else wanted to camp, he'd be out there sleeping cool as a cucumber.

> I don't know of any effective air-conditioning units that will run sufficiently on 12v; though that doesn't mean they don't exist.

The user reviews I've read of the Zero Breeze mostly indicate you have to be in the direct path of the cool air it produces to gain any real cooling effect. I don't know how much power they draw, though I see you have, at least according to your 2019 post, 300ah of battery storage. The Zero Breeze might be finest kind in your small space. Especially if supplemented by through-flow of other air.

There are small RV rooftop cooling units by Dometic and others, though those I am familiar with need 110 shore power. I have no personal experience with them, though have talked about them with satisfied users. Not sure how much they draw either, or how much they'd keep a small gen running. It's sure something to think about if considering being on the road a lot in hot climates.

For super dry areas of the country where one might prefer a cooling and humidifying effect, there's a guy in west Texas who has contrived an easy way to build effective 12v swamp coolers using common and easily-ordered materials. Swamp coolers draw air through a medium soaked in water to humidify and cool room air. A conventional commercial swamp cooler would be difficult to use in a vehicle, though they do exist.

John Wells' design, from his The Field Lab experiments, could easily be used in a vehicle set-up, provided you have the space. As much time as I've spent in the desert borderlands, I've thought seriously of making one for my van. Doesn't help in the PNW for hot humid days, though may be of use to some in arid territory adventures.

Here's his Pepino Swamp Cooler, Part 1. His channel has several more vids to the swamp cooler build, as well as a couple other vids showing earlier versions and time-lapse of how he monitors his. He's a very clever fellow. It's been successful enough he has made them to sell to off-grid neighbors.

Over the years, whether urban or back country, the biggest effect-change I've found for staying cool is judicious parking; keeping the front of my vehicle (where all the transparent exposure is) out of direct sun while short-term parking and out of the predominant all day sun if parked longer. Along with a simple roof fan like the Fan-tastic Vent, (or two; one pulling, one exhausting) it can make a dramatic change in comfort.

Accompanied with the right roof and sidewall insulation and reflective barriers in all windows, I can create a nice through-breeze without an AC that makes life far more tolerable on the inside of my van than being outside, even with the rear doors open.

Air movement is key. I keep my front windows down a couple inches almost all the time, no matter what the weather, and below my Weathertech Weather Reflectors, which I've used for ten years to great effect to keep out rain/snow while driving or parked. When parked in hot weather, I keep the rest of the front windows covered with Reflectix radiant barrier that I've cut to fit. What also works well are the store-bought folding windshield reflectors, usually made of the same stuff that can be custom-bought for windshields, then cut-to-fit for side windows. Put in place simply by friction fit on front windows left down a few inches, they allow my roof vent or other 12v fans to pull air in from the front and across my living space.

I often put a simple thin black cloth over the outside-facing side of the Reflectix on all windows. From the outside to a casual viewer it appears like the dark window of an unoccupied vehicle. Wicked handy for urban stealth-camping or for camping in areas with folks walking about.

Looks like you already have a good MaxxAir roof vent and cover, @erstwild (and a very cool SpaceKap Diablo). I'd think seriously about creating a front vent on the forward face or with one of the front windowpanes, if they do not open already.

Also very handy for cooling are simple 12v fans, placed where needed to augment through-air flow. Place them to blow air on you or to pull air from ingress points through living space and out the other end.

I have a few different 12v fans I like, from the simple and easy Ryobi cordless fans (which use the same 18v batts my cordless travel tools use, though can use 110, too) to the terrific 12v Fan-tastic Endless Breeze, made by the same folks as so many roof vents, which is portable and terrific in vehicle or RTT.

I also really like the Sirroco 12v fan; 360º adjustable, 3-speed, ultra-quiet for sleeping, and low power draw. I use it in both van and RTT.

All of these are portable enough to also use outside to create cooling. When in the desert, I'll set one up to blow, or pull, air across my working area, powered by the 12v outlets in van or trailer.

Sometimes that's all I need to make a marked difference in comfort, allowing me to stay out longer and not running for cover or wishing I had a conventional air conditioner.

And sometimes it means I'm the only one left in a campground or dispersed camping area during hot weeks. I consider that a bonus.

You really can create you own 'air conditioning' without resorting to a powered 110 AC unit.

All that said, the older I get--I'm in my late 60s now after decades of doing this ********--the more I consider the worth of putting a 5,000 BTU unit in the rear door of my van or portable for my front window powered by my Honda gen, and closing myself in when out in the Chihuahuan, Mojave, or Sonoran deserts.

I'm resisting, though, and determined to find a more self-sufficient way to endure the heat.

A good hat can make the difference, too, in the right environments.

roaddude_1654n-900n.jpeg\
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erstwild

Active member
I wish it was 73 degrees 🙄
It’s been in 90’s and 80% humidity and were only 5 days into summer 😒
Sorry, if my emphasis did not make sense, haha. The day time high ended up hitting 104, so over 30 degrees higher than the average high (which was already hit by 7:30am).
 

hour

Observer
looks pretty fancy, meaning you probably don't want to cut a 12x15" hole in the side or rear for a traditional window 5kbtu window AC. You could shop for a 9K/<9k btu mini split and figure that out. Could cut a pass through to cab assuming you have sliding rear glass. Could carry the smallest window ac possible and sit on tailgate with a false wall made of foam insulation for the rear. I'm also not a fan of the west coast heat wave.
 

erstwild

Active member
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I'm gonna go on at great length here about cooling vehicles when adventuring and staying cool personally in hot weather in economical ways, 'cause I've done it a lot.
...
Wow, thanks for the great write up and sharing all your experiences and observations tackling the “beat the heat” problem of mobile living and working.

Airflow in a small space is definitely king for both hot or cold weather. Love my Planar diesel heater for that in the Winter. Vents moisture out the roof vent cracked open a bit and only uses about 0.05 liters an hour and 0.5 amp on low after start up with great air circulation. AC is more challenging with current technology, haha.

Yeah, swamp evaporative coolers are really amazing for place like the desert southwest, but I am based by Puget Sound so even though the humidity dropped quite a bit with the heat dome circulating drier air from the East, it has only dropped to 40% humidity instead on the typical 70%.

You do make a very good point about trying to vent the fridge. I drove around all day today and it was about 110 degrees East of Seattle. Opened up and it was baking back there and the fridge heat sink/vent was really cooking.

Hopefully, this really is the freak heatwave it seems and not a major recurring event trend (at least not yet, lol).

I am already spec’ing my next rig for later this decade to try to tackle all these improvements, haha. Electric truck (next gen solid state lithium or aluminum ion batteries), total composites insulated body (Go from my current R-4 or 5 to R-20 plus), tap into the vehicle battery for all systems (heat, AC, etc.). I also want to put in an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to increase air circulation but also improve heat retention in cold weather and heat rejection in hot weather. Maybe even atmospheric water condenser for onboard water. Incinerator toilet. Plus a top notch air filtration system (wildfire smoke, erk). One can plan/dream for now, lol.
 

Roaddude

Long time off-grid vanlife adventurist
Wow, thanks for the great write up and sharing all your experiences and observations tackling the “beat the heat” problem of mobile living and working.

Airflow in a small space is definitely king for both hot or cold weather. Love my Planar diesel heater for that in the Winter. Vents moisture out the roof vent cracked open a bit and only uses about 0.05 liters an hour and 0.5 amp on low after start up with great air circulation. AC is more challenging with current technology, haha.

Yeah, swamp evaporative coolers are really amazing for place like the desert southwest, but I am based by Puget Sound so even though the humidity dropped quite a bit with the heat dome circulating drier air from the East, it has only dropped to 40% humidity instead on the typical 70%.

You do make a very good point about trying to vent the fridge. I drove around all day today and it was about 110 degrees East of Seattle. Opened up and it was baking back there and the fridge heat sink/vent was really cooking.

Hopefully, this really is the freak heatwave it seems and not a major recurring event trend (at least not yet, lol).

I am already spec’ing my next rig for later this decade to try to tackle all these improvements, haha. Electric truck (next gen solid state lithium or aluminum ion batteries), total composites insulated body (Go from my current R-4 or 5 to R-20 plus), tap into the vehicle battery for all systems (heat, AC, etc.). I also want to put in an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to increase air circulation but also improve heat retention in cold weather and heat rejection in hot weather. Maybe even atmospheric water condenser for onboard water. Incinerator toilet. Plus a top notch air filtration system (wildfire smoke, erk). One can plan/dream for now, lol.
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You're welcome. I've had four vans of my own over the years, as well as a variety of other vehicles for extended adventuring, and love experimenting with various methods for all systems.

It was actually @jonyjoe101 that brought up venting your fridge, which is an excellent point. They can produce a lot more heat than most would think. I know when van-camping in cold weather, I can depend on the fridge, actually, to produce enough heat on its own to make a difference in the van interior. I've contemplated ways to vent that heat outside right from the fridge in warm temps then redirect it in cooler temps. Perhaps route it to the sealed compartment I may create that's vented to the outside for storing propane.

Lots of possibilities to contemplate and play with in small mobile living spaces. Sounds like you've thought about it a lot for your next rig; ERV and water condenser, etc. I was making all sorts of plans similar to those for my own rig, loving the idea of being as self-sufficient as I can be in all ways possible. Then found the more I got out there, and for longer and longer times, I really didn't need as much tech or involved systems to be comfortable and still have a blast. Still, creating warm space in cold weather is much easier than creating cool space in blistering heat.

Insulation: I found it more important to have a good radiant barrier like Reflectix, installed properly with air space on BOTH sides of it when behind my side wall panels, than to stuff that space chock full of insulation.

Purely as an experiment years ago in my current van, I put XPS in the full ceiling and only Reflectix in the walls and doors, with spacers on both sides and sealed around all edges, then covered by inexpensive white tileboard. What I found is that it worked surprisingly well in reflecting heat back out in the summer and keeping heat in in the winter. It's worked so well that I haven't had proper insulation in my van walls since then; just Reflectix. I hope to redo the van interior this summer, so may actually sandwich a 1" piece of XPS with Reflectix each side and put that behind my walls.

Good luck with your rig; I'll be interested to see what you come up with for cooling.

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ChasingOurTrunks

Well-known member
Everything RoadDude posted is correct except the following, which I have corrected for him.

A good hat can will make the difference, too, in any the right environments.

View attachment 668496\
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The hat suits you friend, and if I learned anything from being a super-fan of Indiana Jones back in the day, it's that every adventurer needs a hat, whether they are wrangling snakes in a pit outside Cairo, or meeting with government agents to advocate for the study of religious artefacts rather than locking them away in Area 51 (in fact my own Adventure hat is by a company called Adventurebilt, the hat maker who made the hats for the 4th film). I'm also a big fan of the "Tilley" hats -- but basically anything with a bit of a brim will help a person stay comfortable in a almost any weather.

I'll be watching this thread with interest - we are looking at solving a similar problem as we always travel with dogs, and in the past we've just skipped things like museums and stops of interest where dogs weren't allowed because we don't want to leave them in a non-AC'd car (obviously). I did some initial research into how K9 units do it for the police, but it seems they just leave the engine running. That's an option for us if we can do so securely, but our current command start system gives us two 10-minute sections and has to be manually started so we don't have the option to leave it running unless we leave the keys in, which is a security risk as we don't want someone being able to simply smash a window and drive away.

We've looked to aftermarket options but I'ma also nervous about messing with an immobilizer.

If I find any mobile AC solutions that work I'll share them here.
 

Roaddude

Long time off-grid vanlife adventurist
Everything RoadDude posted is correct except the following, which I have corrected for him.



The hat suits you friend, and if I learned anything from being a super-fan of Indiana Jones back in the day, it's that every adventurer needs a hat, whether they are wrangling snakes in a pit outside Cairo, or meeting with government agents to advocate for the study of religious artefacts rather than locking them away in Area 51 (in fact my own Adventure hat is by a company called Adventurebilt, the hat maker who made the hats for the 4th film). I'm also a big fan of the "Tilley" hats -- but basically anything with a bit of a brim will help a person stay comfortable in a almost any weather.

I'll be watching this thread with interest - we are looking at solving a similar problem as we always travel with dogs, and in the past we've just skipped things like museums and stops of interest where dogs weren't allowed because we don't want to leave them in a non-AC'd car (obviously). I did some initial research into how K9 units do it for the police, but it seems they just leave the engine running. That's an option for us if we can do so securely, but our current command start system gives us two 10-minute sections and has to be manually started so we don't have the option to leave it running unless we leave the keys in, which is a security risk as we don't want someone being able to simply smash a window and drive away.

We've looked to aftermarket options but I'ma also nervous about messing with an immobilizer.

If I find any mobile AC solutions that work I'll share them here.
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Thanks. I don't want to redirect this thread to be just about hats, though will say a good hat when adventuring is a must when trying to stay cool. The hat I'm wearing in that image, a SunBody Hats Guatemalan Palm Cattleman (#noaffiliation) with a wide 4" brim, is the best hat I've found for dealing with intense desert sun. Lightweight, breathable, and casts a big shadow.

I regularly soak the whole thing and put it right on. It's like having an AC on my head. I'm planning an article just about my hats, which will expand on this blog post: Books, Boots, & Hats

Vehicle Cooling: I recently replaced the blower motor in my van and kept the old one. Needs a new squirrel cage, though I've thought about re-purposing it to move air in the back of my van via narrow duct work, perhaps even pulling cooler outside air from under the van when parked, or with an extension dryer vent type hose from whichever side of the van or trailer is cooler and in shade, usually under my awning on the trailer.

desertbunker_9659-900 copy.JPG
The temps under this awning--from South Africa and which has an aluminized reflective coating on top to reflect heat--when coupled with my FPG Thermashields attached as shown to reflect midday and late-afternoon desert sun, were often 15-20º F cooler than outside the awning. Made a vast difference in being able to stay out camping longer.

Contrive a way to pull some of that cooler air through a parked vehicle throughout the day, and it would be a far more tolerable work/sitting/sleeping space.

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erstwild

Active member
I think I found my answer for this if I have shore power available and feel like I need to do this mod in the future (luckily the incredible heat wave up here in Western Washington has passed today). I think I would just buy a little $150 LG 5000 BTU window unit like this one:


I would then install it in the baseboard of my spacekap if there is enough clearance between the shell and the side wall of the bed of the truck for the exhaust section to be able to vent externally while avoiding having to look at it or worry about a cover for it. Otherwise, I could install it on some small sliders like some people use for portable fridges, install a small cargo hatch to the side with roughly the same dimensions, and open the hatch and slide it it out when in use and perhaps have my roof fan on the lowest exhaust setting too if sitting out in the sun.

@Roaddude Is spot on about good awnings if they make sense for your type of rig and air circulation to at least avoid the greenhouse effect and achieve ambient air temperature.

Still, I think the second generation of electric trucks like the Ford F-150 Lightning that are just being introduced now will be a real game-changer later this decade for simplifying builds for all kinds of advanced applications like this fully off-grid AC issue.
 

chet6.7

Explorer
I have used the Arctic Cove version, you have to be close, but in low humidity it is better than nothing.
RYOBI 18-Volt ONE 2-Speed Bucket Top Misting Fan
 
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