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

Updated: Feb 16

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


DO NOT TRUST THAT A PRODUCT IS AN AIR CONDITIONER BECAUSE IT IS CALLED ONE!


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!