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Buying a Thermoelectric Cooler?
Here's What Truckers Need to Know...


When we first started trucking, we had a thermoelectric cooler -- a device usually used to keep cold foods cold -- and a portable toilet in our truck.

Since we wanted to get as close as we could to having the conveniences of refrigeration and indoor plumbing in our truck, these packing list items were non-negotiable.

At right is the view of one of these coolers with its door open.

Photo of thermoelectric cooler with door open.


Why Use a Thermoelectric Cooler?

We recognized that if we were going to

  1. repay our federal student loans in a timely manner and
  2. save money for the future,

we must carry some foodstuffs with us to eat in the truck, to avoid the high cost of continually eating out. One of Mike's co-workers told him in October 2010 that he actually spent $150 the week before on meals eaten outside his truck.

We don't know about you, but to us that's pretty steep. Multiply $150 by 50 weeks a year (not counting two weeks for vacation) and that's $7,800 a year! What if you could save some or all of that money?

We were talking with another of Mike's co-workers -- an owner-operator who had driven his own truck for 32 years -- about cooking and eating in our truck.

He said that he did not have a compact refrigerator, thermoelectric cooler or ice chest in his truck. (He had been given an inverter by his children the previous Christmas but hadn't yet installed it!)

Astounded because she could not imagine a diet that did not include at least some perishable foods, Vicki asked him what he ate. He said mostly fiber bars and protein bars.

Now, if that's what you like to eat and you're used to it, more power to you. But we like a bigger variety of food in our diets. In fact, we like to eat in the truck at least some of the same foods we would eat if we weren't living in a truck.

Our ability to repay our loans and save money hinged on our ability to keep perishable foods -- including meat, dairy products, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables -- cold (just like many people do in a home refrigerator).

We purchased our cooling device at a Wal-Mart. We seem to recall that the name brand of the unit was Igloo. We don't see many thermoelectric coolers manufactured by this company any more, but there are similar devices from other manufacturers for sale, particularly in truck stops, like the ones pictured here.

The fronts of two vertically-oriented thermoelectric coolers with doors closed.


Where Should It Be Stored?

Our first trucking company assigned us to a Freightliner FLD 120 70-inch raised roof sleeper cab; the only space for storing a thermoelectric cooler in that truck (since we teamed and the non-driving team member sometimes sat in the passenger seat) was on the floor under the cabinet behind the driver's seat.

The configuration of the floor storage area is similar to what was pictured for the Freightliner Columbia's sleeper cab.1

So began our adventure...





Cooling Principle and Limitations

In case you don't know it, a thermoelectric cooler is not a true refrigerator. It has no compressor. It operates on a different technique. It is designed to reduce its interior temperature to 40°F below whatever the surrounding air temperature is.

This is fine if you are able to maintain your truck's interior temperature in the 70°F-80°F range (bringing the unit's interior temperature down to the 30°F to 40°F range).

But what if you're parked in a zone with idling restrictions in Phoenix, Arizona, in the middle of a scalding hot 110°F day? Your truck -- unless you're blessed to have a rig with an APU -- will soon warm up to the surrounding temperature. (Note: back in the early 1990s when we started in trucking, APUs were not commonly available. Even now, many company trucks do not have APUs in them.)

So, as you can imagine, when we were sitting in Phoenix (the headquarters for our at-that-time trucking company), our thermoelectric cooler did the best it could to keep our cold food cold, but at 110°F, the unit could (at best) bring the interior temp down to only 70°F. At this temperature, our dairy and meat products obviously spoiled! Yuck!

In fact, double yuck! because not only did we lose the food (and had to replace it at our cost) but we had to get rid of spoiled food. (Some spoiled food really stinks!)





Food Safety and Temperature

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service once stated2:

... Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40° and 140°F, doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. This range of temperatures is often called the "Danger Zone." That's why the Meat and Poultry Hotline advises consumers to never leave food out of refrigeration over 2 hours. If the temperature is above 90°F, food should not be left out more than 1 hour. ...

A temperature of 40°F should be maintained in the refrigerator. ...

Safe food-handling practices are a good defense against foodborne illness. Because we know how different temperatures affect the growth of bacteria in our food, we can protect ourselves and our families from foodborne illnesses by proper handling, cooking and storing foods at safe temperatures.

For this reason, you can see how storing your food in a device that does not keep a consistently cold temperature could increase the likelihood of improperly stored food causing food borne illness.



Breakdown

Not only did we have problems with food spoiling at temperatures in the "Danger Zone," but we also had problems with the cooling unit itself. Something broke.

We can't remember the number of thermoelectric cooler parts we went through -- especially cords and fuses -- but we do remember going through four different units. At the time, the cost of the coolers (if we remember correctly) was about $100 - $110 apiece. That was (and is) a lot of money.

If you go into most major truckstops, you will see a display of thermoelectric devices and perhaps even some replacement parts.

Note: After our fourth unit broke, we decided to try a different method of keeping our cold food cold. We tried using compact refrigerators but ended up settling on using an ice chest.



Does Location Affect Performance?

Did the placement of our devices under a truck cabinet have anything to do with their demise? Possibly. After all,

  • the floor below the unit could have gotten warm from the truck's running parts underneath, and
  • the cabinet under which it was placed -- even though it had vent holes -- could have trapped the warm air that the unit continually expelled, making the air warmer and warmer.

Either or both of these situations could have made the units burn out prematurely. But where else could we put the device except on the lower bunk?

The device we bought was designed to stand upright (vertically), not lie on its back (horizontally). (Some units are designed to lie horizontally, just as our ice chest does.)

Some drivers keep their units strapped in the passenger seat in their trucks. However, because there were two of us in the truck, that idea did not appeal to us. Furthermore, we pose the question to drivers who have placed their units in the passenger seat of their trucks:

Does the heat from the sun shining in your windows add an undue burden on the cooling ability of your thermoelectric cooler?




12-Volt Products

In general, we have found most 12-volt products to be of inferior quality when compared to their 120-volt counterparts. While there may be some 120-volt units available, we have never found them in truck stops.

Some folks have had great success with their thermoelectric coolers. As for us, we will never again use one because we have found them to be unreliable.



Heating and Cooling?

For what it's worth, these units may be able to cool or warm, depending on the direction that the cord is put into the outlet on the unit. Also, these units may be called food warmers or food coolers rather than by the thermoelectric name.



Thermoelectric Cooler Parts

If a part can break on one of these coolers, the continual movement of a truck is likely to help it break. What parts are most likely to give out? Vicki walked around in the travel stores of some chain truckstops. Here's what she found...

Parts for a Koolatron unit, what appear to be motors, on sale at a truckstop.
Koolatron motor spare part for thermoelectric cooler. Koolatron spare part motor for thermoelectric cooler.

Two packages containing a "Replacement Motor" for a Coleman thermoelectric cooler.
Replacement Motor for a Coleman thermo cooler. Replacement Motor for a Coleman thermo cooler

Replacement cords for a Coleman thermo cooler.
Replacement cord for a Coleman thermo cooler. Replacement cord for a Coleman thermo cooler.

Replacement cords for a Koolatron thermo cooler.
Replacement cord for a Koolatron thermoelectric cooler. Replacement cord for a Koolatron thermoelectric cooler.

A generic replacement 12-volt cooler power cord by Road Pro. A generic replacement 12-volt cooler power cord by Road Pro.

A generic universal 10-foot straight power cord for 12 volt Igloo and Koolatron Coolers. A generic universal 10-foot straight power cord for 12-volt Igloo and Koolatron Coolers.

As you can see in some of the pictures, these replacement parts are not cheap.

But then again, here's an interesting observation: Since when did you see replacement parts for a refrigerator being sold near refrigerators?

You don't.

Why?

They're built to last much longer. According to Repair2000.com, new refrigerators are designed to last for 8-14 years. One website detailed a couple who had a fridge (with one replacement part) that lasted for 50 years!3

So, why don't thermoelectric coolers last that long?

In a nutshell, they're not meant to. They have planned obsolescence. And that's something you need to bear in mind.

Also, if you replace a part once, what is the likelihood that you'll have to replace it again... and again... and again? Consider the lifespan not only of the unit itself but also of the replacement parts.

Now if your cooler has given good, long service, perhaps we should have asked, "Why didn't our coolers last that long?" We would be very interested in knowing the average lifespan of thermoelectric devices for all professional drivers on the road over the years.

And speaking of appliance lifespan, make sure before you buy one that you look at its warranty. If it has a cheapo 30-, 60- or 90-day warranty, we strongly urge you to think again. If a product is worth its salt (so to speak), it should have a minimum of a one year warranty.






truck drivers money saving tip icon

Money saving tip: If you decide to buy a thermoelectric cooler, shop around for the best price based on features. Truck stops tend to sell them (and replacement parts) at a premium price. You may be able to find units less expensively through discount or department stores.

Vicki found some units listed on a popular price comparison website. Of course, when you buy anything online, you need to factor in shipping as part of your overall costs.

You may wish to compare these features:

  • Size (capacity) -- usually stated in quarts;
  • Position (vertical or horizontal);
  • Warranty and return policy; and
  • Accessibility of replacement parts.

Furthermore, you would be well advised to have a stash of non-perishable foodstuffs in your truck in case your unit bites the dust and all of your perishable food spoils. Without a back-up food supply, you'll most likely be stuck with having to buy either restaurant meals or overpriced foodstuffs from a truckstop travel store.

You may want to use as the basis for comparison shopping the table we designed to help you compare compact refrigerators. The parameters may not be the same, but it may give you an idea of how to evaluate units.

Consider also that a thermoelectric cooler is not a freezer and is not designed to keep ice frozen. For those of us who like ice in our drinks, you'll have to arrange for a different ice storage device -- like an ice chest.



References:
1 http://www.freightlinertrucks.com/trucks/find-by-model/Columbia/cab.aspx (no longer online)
2 http://www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/how_temperatures_affect_food/index.asp
(no longer online)
3 http://www.unplggd.com/unplggd/blogging/whats-your-longestlasting-appliance-095817 (no longer online)








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