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Van Build Diary 5.2: The Best Van Life A/C for Animal Lovers and The Temperature-Sensitives (Me!)

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Air Conditioner! Such a luxury in a van and yet, so needed in our build. It takes room, it’s expensive, it drains your batteries. . . so, why? Which one? In this post, I’ll go over why we decided to install an A/C, which one we picked, and why.

A close-up of the air conditioner mounted onto the roof of our sprinter van
What a lifesaver this is gonna be!

This is the third part in a five-part series about everything roof related – what belongs up there, timing, installation, etc.:

5.0 – Figuring out what needs to go where on the roof and timing

5.1 – Ventilation – why 2 vents, why Maxxair, how they were installed

5.2 – 12v Air-Conditioning – a confusing and stressful topic, what we went with, why and how (what you're reading now!)

5.3 – Roof Rails – why you should ALWAYS install them and how to install them

5.4 – Bed Liner - why, where, and how

As a side note, I won’t be discussing the installation process because it is quite similar to the ventilation install. The only differences, if any, are all explained in the instructions that come with the unit and Nomadic Cooling (the A/C brand we went with) has really great video tutorials, as well as amazing customer support and they're available when needed and especially during the install and electric connection process to assist with any particular questions you may have. A few more side notes on this topic later in the post.

Another side note: I am not an affiliate of Nomadic Cooling, the brand of A/C that we went with. They did upgrade my unit to 10500 BTU upon hearing our story and the fact that the primary impetus for the unit was to keep my mom comfortable. However, that does not impact my thoughts in this post.

Last side note: I will be posting again, once we’ve had our electrical system installed and we’ve connected the A/C, to review what I think of the unit in operation.

Given All the Costs, Why?

Well, the answer to this was somewhat simple for us: Baba - my mom. She has always been sensitive to temperature, especially hot and humid weather (I guess that’s the Russian blood). Given that she’s hitting 80 this year, I’d say, she’s lived long enough to live the rest of her life in comfort.

The other reason, let me be so clear: YOU CANNOT DO VANLIFE WITH ANIMALS WITHOUT AN A/C – IT IS CRUEL! We also have our dog, Nikki, coming with us. Even if we wanted to, we can’t take her everywhere with us and there will be days when Baba and Nikki just want/need to stay in the van (with Marino or I, while the other explores with the kids).

We know that just to start our trip, we’re trekking across all of the Americas – getting to places like Florida, Louisiana, Mexico, Central America and Equatorial parts of South America during summer/early Fall months at the latest, if everything goes as planned. So, we really need to just accept the reality that, in order to maintain acceptable levels of heat and humidity for both of them to not only be comfortable but to be safe, we need an A/C. You all will need to make that same decision.

Now, while it doesn’t seem like we have the option to say “no” to an A/C, many of you may have more flexibilities and are still debating whether to get one or not. Again, I think it depends on the specific situation:

  1. Is this permanent living?

  2. Where do you plan to spend your summers?

  3. What is your heat-tolerance level?

  4. Can you adjust where you travel based on the weather, spending summer months in cooler areas or will there be times when you cannot escape the heat?

  5. Will you have pets?

  6. Will you have plants (yes, these also need to be considered)?

Don’t forget you’re living in a metal box and all the shade, window coverings, and insulation in the world won’t be enough in really hot and humid zones!

To the extent that you have flexibility in how/where/when you travel, that’s great! At the same time, your budget, battery bank, and other considerations might afford you to have the option of NOT having to be a weather-chaser when you don’t want to. Even if my mom didn’t come with us, I’d still prefer to have an A/C installed to give me more options in my travel plans.

Now, before going into all the considerations involved in purchasing an A/C, I wanted to breakdown various cooling options out there. There seems to be a lot of confusion out there around different kinds of units, so I want to distinguish a true A/C from another available option: the swamp cooler.

Options: Ventilation Only

Some people do it. Many people do it actually. I probably could have done it 10-20 years ago. I probably could do it if I’m only traveling in northern regions with mild summers.

I might still be able to do it – I did spend a summer in Argentina with only a room fan AND the summer of the rolling black-outs in Manhattan in a 6th (top) floor apartment with only room fans to cool me. But, why would I want to? I’d visit the grocery store just to cool off, I’d take cold showers and sleep in wet clothes with the fan right on me, just to be comfortable enough to fall asleep. I’m not looking to do that now, with 2 kids and my mom in tow.

This option is simple, crank all the windows open, crank your ventilation at top speed and good luck! Not an option for us.

Options: Swamp Cooler


I have to say that as a non-expert, I am really pissed at some of the swamp cooler companies out there. They run around calling their products air conditioners and they are NOT! Yes, Fresair, I’m referring to you!

A swamp cooler, for those of us unfamiliar with the term, is an evaporative cooler – meaning, it cools the air through the evaporation of water. Usually these systems have reserve water tanks that have to be installed and that can range in size. The most important thing to note, however, is this lovely graph, from Fresair, a top-of-the-line swamp cooler brand:

You see, swamp coolers have less and less of an effect the more humid and hot it gets. . . which is EXACTLY when you need it most.

Just note the areas in the graph that are in light orange/beige. . . Fresair states that in that range, the Fresair unit will not be enough, alone, to cool a person. You need additional directional air flow (a vent) aimed at the body to cool the body down. Now, that might be fine at night in a 144 wheelbase where the Fresair is almost directly over the bed but definitely not for us. Oh, and also, I don't know about you all but 78 F isn't comfortable for me, and certainly NOT for my mom, although it is in the "comfort" category in the graph. I can handle it but it is NOT "comfort."

But, can you imagine a summer day in Florida or Arizona or Rome or Buenos Aires (not even naming the obvious UAE or parts of Asia)? Absent my mom laying down on the floor, right in front of the Fresair at full-blast, and not moving, she’s going to be uncomfortable (even then, I’m sure she’d be uncomfortable). For you dog and cat lovers, of which we are…, I’d never risk it.

And back to Fresair’s own website: At >80% relative humidity though the air temperature drop is minimal, however directional airflow from the vents works better than a single fan. People, they’re literally saying that under these conditions there is almost no change in air temperature, but it works better than just a ventilation fan. . . gee, thanks but no thanks.

Oh, and, if that wasn’t enough convincing for us, Fresair goes on to say:If you plan on using Fresair as your only AC system you need to be aware of the temperature and humidity of wherever you’re traveling. If you’re pushing into the “orange zone” at night then you would need to run the vehicle AC, a separate coolant-based AC unit… or check into a hotel!

So… while some of you can handle heat and humidity well and/or plan to be out of the van always during the day and/or don’t have pets to consider (and plants, poor guys!) and/or are willing to plan alternative accommodations for the really hot nights, it doesn’t work for us.

Options: Regular 120v Air Conditioner

You could go the route of a standard 120v air conditioner that you plug into a regular outlet at home. Many RVs have them. However, they are a huge drain on your battery bank and are really intended for either running when plugged in (shore power) or with a generator.

While I haven’t gone into sources of power yet, suffice it to say that I agree with most vanlifers out there and do not recommend a generator in a van – it takes up too much space and it is loud. And, if you’re like me and that buzzing sound the dishwasher makes when it is drying/sanitizing your dishes drives you crazy, you will not be able to handle the constant hum of that generator. What’s the point of getting out there, off-grid, away from the sounds of city life if you’re bringing the horrid noise pollution of the city with you and disturbing the nature all around you?

Just know that the battery drain is so significant that I don’t think you could have a battery bank large enough to provide for the energy needs of a 120v A/C and everything else you need electricity for (e.g. a 120v A/C using 10amps is actually sucking 100amps off of a 12v battery. If planning on using that A/C for 5 hours, that’s 500amps per day when many vanlifers don’t put more than 400 to begin with!). This isn't an option for anyone planning to boondock or dry-camp without a plug-in.

So, not an option for us.

Options: 12v A/C

There are quite a few 12v A/C options out there and, if you’re confident enough, you can build your own A/C (if you want to learn how, Curt and Snow of The Chill Daze offer a great place to start with that process – he built his own!). Here are the considerations we took into account when choosing ours:

  • We’re NOT building our own

We have too little time and too much to figure out to try to master building our own A/C. For those of you in less of a rush, it is definitely an option. Again, check out Curt’s Tech Talk on his DIY A/C.

  • Placement restrictions

A/C’s can be placed under chassis, in cabinets, or – the standard placement, on the roof. We went with a roof A/C and here’s why:

We didn’t want to deal with anything else under chassis - see Curt's A/C for an undermount. We will already have a lot under chassis that many usually build into the living space of their builds – basically, our whole plumbing system will be under chassis. It is stressful enough thinking about everything that will go under chassis as is and how to protect everything from bumps and knicks. We didn’t want to deal with all those concerns with our A/C on top of everything else.

We didn’t want a cabinet A/C – Dometic’s Cool Cat is a great example of this compact option. We just can’t spare any more space inside the van. We need every inch we can get!

Oh! There are A/C’s that can be back-mounted – you can find them in the world of big-rigs (truck drivers use them to cool their cabs). However, most vanlifers want to keep the back doors functional. So, that’s not an option in the world of van life.

So, that left us with roof-mounted A/C’s as our only option. Now, some of you might remember that we are planning to cover the whole roof in solar panels – we have to if we want to power our whole battery bank (900ah).

This means that we have to build a roof rack that gives enough space under the panels for everything we’ve mounted on the roof. Some might also remember that we already have 2 Maxxair fans installed on the roof and these need a little under 9.5” of clearance to open and function properly. So, ideally, we need a roof A/C that doesn’t require more clearance than that.

Otherwise, it would have to be even higher. The higher the roof rack is, the more limited we are in parking, bridge clearances, etc. Plus, each inch of metal we add to the roof means more and more weight added to the build, which is bad generally, and especially bad if it is making us more top-heavy.

That eliminates a lot of roof-top A/C’s from our list. The two brands I found with low clearance A/C’s that are highly recommended are Dometic and Nomadic Cooling.

Nomadic Cooling’s Line of 12v A/C’s vs. Dometic’s RTX line

Ultimately, we went with Nomadic Cooling for several reasons, the main being the balancing act between amps, dBs, and BTUs, placement flexibility and customer service.

I will compare the Nomadic Cooling 3000 model (both the 75amp and 100amp compressors) with the Dometic RTX 2000 model.

Note that Nomadic Cooling also has a 4000 model for those needing more (at almost 13500 BTU), but the 3000 should be more than enough. Dometic has an RTX 1000 model but at just under 4100 BTU, I don’t think (and a significant enough number of van builders/converters would agree) it has enough power to keep you cool in the conditions you’d really need it in.

  • BTUs and A/C and room size

BTUs: “British thermal unit (BTU or Btu) is a unit of heat; it is defined as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. It is also part of the United States customary units.

Thank you Wikipedia and what does that actually mean for us?

Well, most sources of information agree that 5000 BTUs are enough to heat/cool a 150 sq. ft. space – about the size of our van (ours is maybe 30 sq. ft. smaller - we count the cab area with a TON of windows, because part of my mom's bed will be in that area and the passenger swivel will be a mini-office area, too).

CRITICAL POINTS, though: it is suggested to add an additional 10% of BTU per each of the following conditions: many windows relative to space (we have to include the front cab and ventilation cutouts), if under the sun (if you want solar, you have to be in the sun!), less