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


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!


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 insulation (as insulated as you want your van to be it won’t compare to home insulation). This means that, at a minimum, you should have a 6500 BTU unit.


However, these same sources clearly state the obvious that if you live in a warmer climate, the difference in the ambient air and your desired temperature will be greater, which means you'll need your air conditioner to work harder. Units in “the Deep South may need twice as many BTUs as those in New England.”


I’m putting this out there that the Nomadic Cooling 3000 unit has a BTU of approx. 9500, while the Dometic unit has a BTU of approx. 6800.


Major note here on Dometic's RTX line: (and you can already start seeing why we went with Nomadic Cooling): the RTX is being marketed to van lifers. However, Dometic's own website does not list it as an RV A/C but rather as a truck parking cooler (yes, a true A/C and I don't know why it needs to be confusing). What BTU range does Dometic have for its RV line? Almost all of Dometic's RV A/C's are at 13500-15000 BTUs, with only the Cool Cat coming in at 10500.


Now, why is Dometic coming out with a line of A/Cs that run at 4100 and 6800 BTUs? Because truck cabs are only 50 sq. ft! Of course 6800 (I don't know about 4100) BTU is sufficient to cool a 50 sq. ft. space! But your van?

I don't really need anything more to decide. But, in case you do. . .


  • BTUs to dB to Amps balance


Now, the more BTUs for an A/C unit, the more amps it draws and usually, the higher the dBs. Quick info on dBs, for those unfamiliar, “Loudness is measured in decibels (dB). As decibels rise, loudness quickly increases. A 10-dB rise is a 10-time leap in loudness. That means an 80-dB sound (a vacuum cleaner) is 10 times louder than a 70-dB sound (a telephone ringing) and 100 times louder than a 60-dB sound (normal conversation).”


So, as far as dBs, the Nomadic Cooling unit wins out at 60dBs versus Dometic’s 70dBs. As already stated, that means that the Dometic system is 10 times louder than the Nomadic Cooling unit.


If that were accompanied by a similar increase in power and cooling capacity, that might be worth it. Now we’re back to BTUs AND Amps. And, if the sq. ft. comparison wasn't enough for you, I'll give some lived experience here:


Hopefully, before you make the leap into vanlife, you go for a test run. If you go for a test run, you’re probably renting a camper van or an RV. That’s what we did and let me break it down for you. . .


We stayed in one of the smallest RV’s out there, a space just 50 sq. ft. bigger than our van. It had a standard 120v A/C at 13500 BTUs (most 120v RV A/Cs are at 11000-15000 BTUs). At Millerton Lake it averaged 100 F during the day and as dry as can be with almost no humidity. When we were inside the RV, we had to have the A/C run at full blast for 1 hour to get to semi-comfortable temperatures AND kept it at full-blast for when we were inside during the day. We ran it at 50% at night.


So… 9500 BTUs? Or 6800 BTUs? 100 amp compressor or 50-60 amp compressor (Dometic doesn’t list its compressor size but at max amps of 54-ish, it can’t be more than a 60 amp compressor)? Oh, and transparency and availability of information from the two companies is discussed below in the customer service section.


Well, if 13,500 BTU barely made it for us, then the answer is actually pretty simple for me.


Which you choose is totally a personal choice – if you’re in North Dakota, no pets, and a single or couple healthy 30 year olds, Dometic’s unit might work for you. If you’re in Florida, full-time van living, with pets and an elderly person and, in our case, there are 5 of us (6, with dog)? I don’t even know how you can consider it an option.


Plus, the Nomadic unit, as already mentioned, is lower on the decibels.


Both units have “eco” modes. Nomadic’s runs at 40 amps, while Dometic’s is at 19 amps. Again, I’m not sure any eco mode will work in any hot climates during the day. Eco mode will probably work at night in those warmer places. Again, though, I don’t know if “eco” mode on a 6800 BTU unit will cut it for our family at night.


Ultimately, the more BTUs, the more amps and there’s no way around it. In hot climates, whether you get the Dometic or Nomadic, you’ll be burning through your battery bank and that’s just the truth of it.


  • Placement/Flexibility


One additional consideration is flexibility in placement and replacement. There are two particular considerations for us in this regard:

1) The roof opening


The Nomadic Cooling unit requires a standard 14” x 14” cut-out, whereas the Dometic unit requires a 18.9 in. x 15.3 in. Now, for those not in the van world, it is important to note that most “things” that go on the roof (vent fans, sky windows, etc.) require a 14 x 14 opening.


If you’re buying a used van/build and remodeling, the holes already in the roof will have to be enlarged.


If you have any thoughts of reselling, likely the new owner will want to customize a bit – replace with a stronger A/C, put in a skylight instead, put in another vent fan instead, whatever it is . . . they won’t be able to do that with the abnormal and unusually large hole you need for the Dometic A/C.


Basically, you really want to be sure you want this A/C because you might not be able to switch it out with anything else in the future, which is always a consideration for anyone who will be building their own van!


2) Interior Placement Considerations – the wiggle room


So, we have ZERO flexibility on the design of our build (almost zero). One thing we cannot move, unless we move it to its mirror opposite position is the shower – and moving it there results in the same situation. Our shower’s exterior wall extends 25 inches deep into the middle of the van. Also, we need our A/C to reach the back and the front of our van, which means we really need it in the middle.


The control panel area of the Dometic unit bubbles out and really can only be installed so that it sits flush against the ceiling from the outside. It is a full 14 inches wide. To place it anywhere near our shower means that it will sit very tight against the shower wall – too tight for comfort.


The control panel area for the Nomadic system has SO MUCH FLEXIBILITY!! It is a flat metal plate that can be mounted on the inside of the ceiling. You can even go one step further and customize even more, like this image of a Freedom Vans custom build:


And that is the beauty of the Nomadic unit! Without the flexibility, we’d only be able to mount the A/C in the very back or the very front and either choice would decrease the functionality of the unit for what we need.


So, again, a consideration that went into picking Nomadic.


Customer Service


Can I just say, as a beginner DIYer, customer service is everything. It has been the deciding factor for us in many a purchase – our windows, our solar system, our batteries, our composting toilet, our decision to use 8020 on the whole build, and it will probably impact other purchases as well!


It was definitely reassuring that Nomadic Cooling has amazing customer service, which I’ll expand on in a sec. Dometic, my friends, is a giant and as is usually the case with giants, they’re lacking in the customer service department and that was the case here.


When I was calling to get all the details and all of my questions answered, either I was asking unnecessarily technical questions or their customer service agents don’t have enough information to answer. Basically, if it isn’t in the documents available online, you might not get the answer to it. . . and you’ll wait quite a while to speak to someone to find out they’re answering you from the same document you got from their website.


Now, Nomadic Cooling was a completely different experience. Not only did I get to someone right away, but they answered all of my questions, offered to look at my electrical wiring to make sure the A/C integrated well into our overall electrical system, were available for messaging and video chatting to help us make sure the placement of the A/C would work, and will be chatting with us again when we’re ready to plug it into the electrical system after we’ve installed our batteries and are ready to connect the wiring. They sent me a video of them testing the unit once it was assembled and had it out the door to me the next day!


Also, there is simply so much more transparency in the functionality of the units. Dometic has what's on its website. Nomadic Cooling is constantly putting out new videos for installation, testing the units for performance under a variety of weather conditions AND they actually post realistically what amps you'll draw with each compressor under different heat conditions!


How’s that for customer service?!?


Conclusions


So, as you can see there is a lot of information to navigate and consider. Our particular situation calls for an A/C and the best way for us to balance our A/C needs, battery capacity, and placement considerations was to go with a 12v A/C. When running the comparisons, I don’t believe I could have found a better fit for our set-up than the Nomadic Cooling 3000 model!


It is a very personal choice – and I’ve tried to lay out all the considerations when choosing your unit.