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12V upright vs chest fridge; which is better?

For many years, the only 12V compressor fridges you’d see were chest style, where you open the lid on top and reach into them to get your food and drinks out. Today though, a huge number of people have gone to upright fridges, and when you stand back and really think about it, the reasons are pretty solid.

We’ve just picked up a new Bushman DC85X upright fridge, and like always, I did extensive research before buying the product. There will be a full (completely unbiased) review once I’ve used it for at least a year, but in the mean time I thought I’d share the thought pattern behind why you’d consider an upright fridge, what the benefits are and what the downsides are.

85L Bushman Fridge

Our new 85L Bushman Upright Fridge

Upright fridge

Are upright fridges actually any good?

Who makes upright fridges?

There are a lot of manufacturers who sell 12V upright fridges. These include Engel, Bushman, Dometic, Vitrifrigo, Brass Monkey, and Evakool. If I’ve missed any other brands, please let me know below.

What size upright fridges can you get?

Upright fridges come in many sizes, starting at around 55L and working their way all the way up to 285L, which is a big fridge, even for a Caravan. These are pure 12V/24V and are not 3 way; they will not run off LPG. In terms of 4WD’s though, you’d rarely see anything over 135L.

What are the benefits of upright fridges?

Compared to a traditional chest style 12V fridge, there are a huge number of benefits of moving to an upright fridge:

Upright fridges are compact

If you compare an 85L chest style fridge to an 85L upright, you’ll see that they take up significantly less space. For those of you who tour Australia, or travel with a family, you’ll know that space is a huge premium and anything that is more compact is better.

We managed to remove our fridge slide and a heap of timber that covered a lot of our canopy, and replace it with something marginally taller that barely takes up half of the canopy. This allows for much more room behind our ‘kitchen’ side, and makes packing much easier.

Cutting our ply box down

We’ve turned the L shape into an I shape and saved a heap of room

Uprights are significantly lighter

One of the biggest reasons an upright is popular is their weight. Our 55L Evakool Fridge was 21kg. The new Bushman 85L upright is 21.5kg, so we get an extra 24L of fridge capacity and 6L of freezer for basically the same weight.

Now, you should note that the Evakool Fridge was actually really light. An 80L Engel chest fridge is a whopping 39kg. Their own 80L upright is only 28kg, so even from brand to brand you’ll save a fair chunk of weight.

However the above is only part of the equation; where you really save weight is the fridge slide, or drop down fridge, and the associated drawer system to run it all. A lot of drop down slides are 40- 50kg, and then you still have to mount them. That is a ridiculous amount of weight. Compare an 80L Engel chest fridge, on a drop slide weighing in at about 89kg, empty to an 85L Bushman at 21kg, or an 80L Engel Upright at 28kg and you are talking chalk and cheese.

60kg saved is a big chunk of weight, especially when so many 4WD’s are running at their maximum weight already.

For us, I removed my custom built fridge slide, and a significant amount of timber and plywood. I would estimate we save somewhere in the realms of 30kg, and we get a fridge that has 30L of extra storage.

If you’ve never bothered to have your vehicle, or trailer weighed, you should. You’ll probably get the shock of your life, and quickly realise that any way you can save weight is a good thing. Your vehicle and its components will thank you, and things will last longer too.

We had ours weighed recently by a mobile weighing company, and even with a GVM upgrade and towing a relatively light weight hybrid camper trailer, it was only just under weight. You can read more about that here – Mobile Weighing.

Upright fridge weight

Our new fridge is 30L bigger, and the same weight but we lose a heap of plywood and the fridge slide

Access is much better

Accessing food and drinks from an upright fridge is significantly easier, for two reason’s; things don’t fall on top of each other, and you can what you are grabbing much better.

Chest fridges are easy enough to access, when they are mounted down low. Put them at waist height though, or higher, and a lot of people will struggle to see into them, and that’s a bit of a problem. This is the whole reason for fridge drop slides; to bring them down to a level that is suitable.

Our original setup allowed me to fairly easily see into the fridge, but at 6″6′ its hardly a fair comparison. My wife on the other hand, who is a more normal height could only just get her eyes over the lip, and would struggle to get anything out easily without a step.

Evakool Fridge Review

Our previous setup, with the 55L Evakool quite high off the ground

The other side of this though, is that you can see, and grab your food and drinks out of an upright significantly easier. Anyone who’s has a chest fridge will vouch that the moment you pull a bottle of milk out everything around it falls in, and then you spend time trying to balance it all to put the milk back in again.

When you open an upright, you can clearly see what is available, and you also have the door to store your drinks so there’s no mucking around to stop things falling in and on top of each other.

Upright fridge access

The access is so much better in an upright fridge

They require no extra components

As we mentioned above, you can buy an upright and bolt it in, and be done with it. There’s no need to buy insulation bags, fridge slides, drop down slides or any other gear.

They are cheaper

I was pleasantly surprised to see the prices of upright fridges. An 80L Engel Chest fridge is $2059. Their 80L upright is $1349. Evakool seem to sell both styles for a similar price, and Dometic is close too, although their sizes are not comparable. 

Our Evakool 55L stopped working at Christmas time, and although I did get it running again, I didn’t want to head away for 6 weeks without getting it looked at, and then saw the uprights and was convinced. I could see we weren’t going to get anything for under $1500 anyway, so the Bushman 85L for $1200 delivered from Signature Spares was a great deal.

There’s less food damage

We are pretty careful with our food in the fridge, but inevitably you end up with damage. For us, its either from being squashed, which is super hard to prevent in a chest fridge, or its from being cooled too much (which is what happens often when trying to balance a fridge/freezer in the same unit).

An upright sorts both issues out as they aren’t able to run as cold, and you can put your fragile items (cucumbers, mushrooms, capsicums etc) on one shelf, away from everything else and out of harms way.

12V fridge

You always get damaged food in a chest fridge

Where do upright fridges fall short?

With every choice you make, there will always be a downside, and upright fridges are no different. There’s no free lunch, and you will have to think about the below issues:

The temperature control is not as good

Upright fridges running at maximum will not cool to a level that your normal chest fridge will. On maximum, the Bushman 85L fridge will run at about 1 degree, with 4 degrees being a pretty common temperature. 

In your chest fridge/freezers you can often get them down to -22, which is great for some applications. Obviously if your upright has a freezer in it, it will freeze, but the fridge temperatures are somewhat capped.

Cold air falls out

Any fridge, including the one at home will run more efficiently if you keep it full. Once the items are cold, opening and closing the door has less impact on the fridge efficiency as they retain the cold. Regardless, every time you open a fridge, you are allowing some cold air out, and some warm air in.

With a chest fridge, if you rip the door open quickly, it will draw a heap of cold air out of the fridge, and then when you close it again the fridge has to cool the air back down again. The more cold air you pull out, the harder the fridge has to run, and the more power you will consume. This is why opening any type of fridge regularly will make it use more power.

Regardless, cold air is denser, and likes to fall to the ground. This means when you open a chest fridge, its less likely to move out of the fridge, unless you physically draw it out with the lid being opened too far.

With an upright fridge though, when you open the door the air naturally wants to waft down, and out of the door. In essence, in both situations, an upright will lose cold air faster. However, I reckon that you would have the door open for far less time on an upright because they are easier to see and grab what you need, and you aren’t shuffling things around, so maybe it all balances out? 

Bushman upright fridge

When you open the door, the cold air naturally falls out

They need more ventilation

Upright fridges need a lot more ventilation than your standard chest fridges. This means if you are going to mount it in a tiny enclosure, or a toolbox, or small canopy with limited air flow, its going to work hard and use a lot of power in the process.

Upright fridge compressor

Ventilation is far more important for upright fridges

Defrosting needs to happen more often

Uprights frost up more often, and need to be defrosted regularly to keep things running well. The only way to do this is to remove your items, let it defrost and put them back in. Not exactly convenient if you are on the road with no where to keep your fridge items for an hour or so!

I’ll do a larger post on this later, but for now its been our single biggest gripe with the Bushman Upright Fridge.

Defrosting our upright fridge

Defrosting our upright fridge is annoying

Items are more likely to move around

By their very nature, upright fridges have a far greater chance of your food and drinks moving around. If its in the door and secured, you are going to be just fine, but anything loose on the shelves will be able to bounce around especially when you are off road. This means you need to pack more carefully, but also be aware that when you open the door there is a chance something might fall out!

However, know its not nearly as bad as many people make out. The fridges are smaller, the gaps between shelves are much less and things really do not move around that much at all, if you are smart with your packing.

You have to be more careful storing items around them

Uprights seem to be far more fragile, especially around their compressors. Where a normal chest fridge would be completely covered, a lot of the upright fridges have the compressors and heat exchangers exposed. If you were to throw a shovel on top for example, you are going to break something.

We will put mesh over the top to protect ours, but you still need to be far more careful how they get treated than you would for a chest fridge.

Exposed compressor

You have to protect the fragile compressor and pipework

They cannot be used in the open

A lot of people run Engel chest fridges in their tray, open to dust, rain, hail and everything else that is thrown at them. You won’t be able to use an upright in this situation; they are simply not built for it. They need to be kept in a dry environment.

Fridge/Freezer space cannot be changed

Most upright fridges have a small freezer section, but its a full time freezer and you can’t make it bigger, or smaller. A lot of the chest fridges can be split into 50% fridge and 50% freezer, or 100% of one, or the other. This is great if you want to change them while you travel. You can’t do this with an upright.

For us, we get a 6L freezer, which will be perfect for ice creams and a bit of bait as required, and we have an 82L Evakool that will have the rest of the freezer items, in our Hybrid Camper.

You can’t carry items to the fridge in the cages

One of the first things I noticed when we got our upright is how you take food and drinks from your home, to the fridge. In our Evakool, we’d bring the cages inside and load them up carefully, then take them out and drop them in the fridge.

You can’t do that with an upright, as there are no cages. Now, in the scheme of things its no biggy, but it does mean you are packing the fridge outside, from a box or container that you bring your food to it in.

They need to be mounted properly

I’ve seen some pretty shoddy ‘mounted’ chest style fridges. Jammed between seats, ratchet straps holding them down or in some cases just left roughly floating in the back of a tray. You won’t get away with this with an upright fridge. They need to be mounted securely, and not left to bounce, or float around.

Portable fridge

Chest fridges tend to be far more portable

So, upright or chest fridge?

We’d never considered an upright. I’d seen them many times, and up until our Evakool started to play up I never really thought about them being a good idea. However, when you weigh the above up, if it suits your usage, they are an overwhelming improvement from a chest fridge/freezer.

I was actually very surprised at how little negative comments people had who’d moved from a chest fridge to an upright, especially because of how different they are. The huge majority who had made the move said they’d never go back to a chest fridge, and that the upright was so much better.

Of course, they aren’t perfect, and I’m sure we’ll be picking food up that spills out when you open the door from time to time, but if that’s the only downside we have to deal with I’ll be a happy bloke.

We’ll do a full review on the Bushman 85L upright in due time, and update this if our thoughts change. If you’ve been considering an upright or chest fridge I hope this guide has been useful!

EDIT – After 6 weeks of full time use, we find the upright so much better. It has probably been the best change we’ve made to our camping setup in a long time, and that’s saying something. However, the defrosting arrangement and frequency in the warmer weather up north is something we are not very happy with, and we’ll comment more on that in the future.

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2 comments… add one
  • Kim June 27, 2021, 8:15 AM

    Great article again Aaron and like you hadn’t realised uprights were an option. Space, weight and access have me sold. Been researching this since and be interested on what tipped the scales towards the Bushman for you?

  • Aaron Schubert June 27, 2021, 8:10 PM

    Hey Kim,

    Thanks for the comment. Bushman seemed the most popular, with almost all positive reviews, they were available, relatively cheap and most importantly it fitted in my existing spot by just a few millimetres. I’m sure some of the other brands are great too, but Bushman got the ticket for us.

    All the best
    Aaron

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