No matter how well you insulate, a van conversion is still a metal box on wheels. We all try to go north for the summer and south for the winter, but you can’t always avoid the heat waves. Thankfully, off-grid-friendly 12V air conditioner units have revolutionized van life. They run on your battery bank with up to 70% more efficiency than traditional 120V air conditioners.
After living full-time on the road for 5 years, I finally took the plunge to invest in a rooftop off-grid air conditioner to make my off-grid Sprinter more comfortable for my dogs on hot summer days and make it easier to sleep in toasty weather. Honestly, I’d never live in a van without A/C again!
Here is everything you need to know about the best air conditioners for van life and how they hold up on the road.
Do I Need an Air Conditioner in My Van Conversion?
Of the thousands of van lifers I’ve met on the road and through social media, I would estimate only 5% of them have an air conditioner. Why? Off-grid air conditioning is a relatively new industry that has dramatically improved in efficiency, but still requires a major electrical system upgrade that can be very expensive.
A/Cs are still pretty rare in DIY van conversions but are much more common in brand-name vans designed to hook up at campgrounds. Still, I am so glad I put one on top of my 2022 off-grid Sprinter for the reasons explained below.
Reality Check: You can’t expect to run an off-grid A/C all day in 100°F weather like you would in a house. Most 12V rooftop van air conditioners require at least 400 amp hours of Lithium batteries to support the energy consumption. Otherwise, you will have to plug into shore power when using the A/C.
Take this quiz to determine if a rooftop A/C is right for your van:
- Do you have at least a $5,000 budget for the unit, installation, electrical parts, and extra battery power?
- Do you plan to live full-time in your van year-round?
- Is van life part of your plan for the foreseeable future (2-5 years)?
- Do you travel in areas where summer temperatures exceed 80°F?
- Do you have pets that sometimes need to stay in your van while you are out and about?
If you answered “Yes” to more than 3 of these questions, a permanently installed A/C is justifiable for your van conversion.
If you’re on the fence or don’t plan to travel to hot places very often, you may be willing to tough out a few sweaty days without needing a full A/C installation. A portable budget pick could work great for you!
As a full-timer with 2 dogs, a remote job, and no home base, an A/C was a game-changer for my van because it is my home for the foreseeable future, and I rarely (if ever) plugin at a campground. Given the tremendous expense, I put in hours of research that will save you a lot of time and headaches.
5 Best Air Conditioners for Van Life
Air conditioners are a tricky business for van conversions because they guzzle so much energy. For years, most van lifers have relied on roof vent fans and moving with the seasons. But serious van lifers need something more dependable for interior climate control.
A standard RV air conditioner may seem reasonable at first glance, but they are typically 120V and designed for use at campgrounds. If you plug into shore power regularly, that’s no problem. But a 120V air conditioner is basically impossible for an off-grid van.
Staying cool in a van requires a very specific set of conditions. Most of us are stealth camping in cities or off-grid camping in the far-out wilderness, depending entirely on our solar-powered battery banks. We need highly efficient 12V air conditioners that won’t kill our batteries or our wallets. Moreover, we have limited roof space and most of us don’t want a mini-split poking out of the window.
Here are the best options on the market:
Top Pick: Dometic RTX 2000
- Voltage: 12V
- Rated Power: 2000 W
- Amperage: 10-58A
- Cooling Capacity: 6,800 BTU
- Weight: 55 lbs
- Opening Size: 14.5 x 14”
- Outdoor Size: 31.5 x 25.4 x 6.8”
Originally designed for trucker cabins, Dometic’s RTX 2000 12V air conditioner is by far the best van life option on the market. I installed this A/C on the roof of my 2022 Sprinter 144” and have enjoyed it on the hottest summer days. It cools the van rapidly, auto-cycles on/off and the cool air stays put for several hours.
Because it is 12V, it is highly efficient and extremely powerful. It does not drain your batteries the way a 120V A/C might, but it still uses a fair amount of electricity on full blast. Still, my 500 amp hour lithium battery bank keeps up just fine if I run the A/C all night long on an 80-90°F day in Dallas or Denver.
The main downside to this A/C is the installation and the battery bank requirement. It requires at least 180 amp hours of lithium batteries, but I opted for 400 Ah to account for other electrical loads like plugs, an induction cooktop, and a hot water heater. It has very low energy consumption when it’s running (as low as a 15 amp draw), but it still requires a hefty fuse and startup power.
The way the unit is designed is less amenable to DIYers due to its weight, size, and the threaded inserts that hold it together. The biggest design flaw I found during installation was the brass threaded inserts into plastic. If you accidentally overtighten, you’re screwed. Moreover, the shape of the A/C makes it very difficult to get underneath the hood and reseal around the perimeter the way you could do with a MaxxAir vent fan. So be sure you get it right the first time or you’ll end up with leaks like I did!
- High setting rapidly cools the interior
- Highly efficient in eco-mode (least amperage draw)
- Lowest power consumption for highest BTU
- 12V (no inverter needed to run the A/C)
- Up to 12-hour run time
- Fully self-contained
- Aesthetic interior controls in ceiling
- Bluetooth remote control
- Dometic is a highly respected global brand with reliable warranties
- Does not fit the standard MaxxAir fan hole
- Requires a minimum of 180Ah battery bank (in my experience, 400Ah is ideal)
- DIY installation can be challenging
- The design makes it difficult to re-seal the edges from leaks
- No fan mode for recirculating air (I installed a MaxxAir fan in the front for this purpose)
Smallest Roof Footprint with Most Cooling Power: Nomadic Cooling X3 12V Air Conditioner
- Voltage: 12V
- Rated Power: 1,320 W
- Amperage: 50-110A
- Cooling Capacity: 11,830 BTU
- Weight: 57 lbs
- Opening Size: 14” x 14”
- Outdoor Size: 25.4 x 33.9 x 6.6”
Nomadic Cooling’s newest stand-alone rooftop A/C is specifically designed for off-grid van life and RV overlanders. This ultra-compact unit is low-profile and designed for longevity and aesthetically pleasing cooling with lots of adjustment options. Available in 12V, 24V, and 48V options, the Nomadic Cooling X3 is extremely energy efficient, drawing about 50 amps in eco mode.
This A/C is extremely powerful and provides reliable cooling in temperatures up to 100°F. However, it could draw up to 75 amps per hour in high outdoor temperatures. The varying voltage models are compatible with different off-grid electrical systems, but you need at least 200 Ah of lithium batteries and much more if you plan to have other high-draw electrical appliances like an induction cooktop or hot water heater.
The major downside of this A/C is its relative lack of time-tested reviews. The company and development are very new, which means we don’t quite know how they will withstand the test of the road. However, the family-owned company is based in Arizona and is well-known for its excellent customer service.
- Newest off-grid van life option
- Great for large vans in hot weather
- Smallest roof footprint
- Modern LCD control panel
- All stainless steel hardware
- Specially designed to resist road rattling
- Fits a standard 14” x 14” opening
- Straightforward installation
- Great customer service
- Newer brand and products (less established than Dometic)
- Fewer reviews or real-world tests due to the newness of the product
Best Van and A/C Combo for Smaller Vans: Nomadic Cooling X2 12V Air Conditioner
- Voltage: 12V
- Rated Power: 720 W
- Amperage: 27-55A
- Cooling Capacity: 8,188 BTU
- Weight: 44 lbs
- Opening Size: 14” x 14”
- Outdoor Size: 28 x 22.5 x 6.9”
If you need air circulation and an A/C in one unit, this slightly cheaper option from Nomadic Cooling can replace your MaxxAir fan. One of the biggest issues I faced when installing my A/C was ensuring I still had enough roof space for a vent fan (to suck air out) and my solar panels. This unit fixes that issue by providing both in one. It is also the most energy-efficient option from Nomadic Cooling, averaging 27-55 amps per hour.
It’s not quite as powerful as the X3 and is better suited to small vans. The aerodynamic design is low-profile on your roof and great for stealth camping. This unit is the lightest-weight rooftop option and the easiest to install by yourself.
- Best for smaller vans
- Dual-functions as a vent fan and air conditioner
- Whisper quiet operation
- DIY-friendly installation kit available for additional charge
- Aesthetic interior available in black or white
- Fits a standard 14” x 14” opening
- Less powerful than other options
Best Portable: Zero Breeze Mark 2 Portable Air Conditioner
- Voltage: 24V DC
- Rated Power: 240W
- Cooling Capacity: 2300 BTU
- Weight: 15 lbs
- Size: 20 x 10 x 11”
Stay comfortable without a massive battery system, generator, or campground hookup. This portable option starts up at a moment’s notice. If you’d prefer to save roof space for more solar panels, a roof rack, or other accessories, this option is ideal for van lifers who only occasionally hang out in ultra-hot weather. It is very small, easy to store, and highly portable with a built-in handle.
The battery-powered design is plug-and-play. Charge it up with your van’s front power sockets or USB solar power and enjoy up to 2300 BTU of cooling instantly. This is perfect for hot camping days, but I wouldn’t rely on it for several hours of cooling. However, it is surely the best pick for anyone who feels intimidated by the complex installation and electrical requirements of other A/Cs.
- No rooftop installation
- Ideal for weekend warriors and camping trips
- More affordable (under $2,000)
- Quick startup
- Built-in battery and compressor (no need to wire into your electrical system)
- Charge with 12V power or a car socket
- Lightweight and modular
- Less reliable long-term solution
- Requires recharging
Budget Pick: EcoFlow WAVE 2 Portable Air Conditioner + Heater
- Voltage: 120 V
- Rated Power: 540-6100 W
- Cooling Capacity: 5100 BTU
- Weight: 49 lbs
- Size: 13 x 12 x 20”
For a straight-out-of-the-box cooling option, this battery-powered portable A/C can drop the interior temperature by 18°F in 5 minutes or heat it up in the same amount of time! If you need to save roof space and you prefer a portable option, this amazing 2-in-1 A/C and heater is portable and multifunctional for camping trips. It will run for 8 hours on a single charge and doesn’t require any installation or drainage. But for the best cooling experience, the included tubes ensure optimal air output.
EcoFlow is a newer China-based company with moderate reviews. This is not a reliable option for cooling your entire van, but it may provide some respite from the heat if you’re in a pinch. It could also be great for a dog kennel area. The main downsides of this option are the charging compatibility (doesn’t charge from a DC power source or a modified sine wave inverter) and the small size. But for something so portable and convenient, you get what you pay for!
- 8 hours of battery-powered A/C
- Quick, on-demand cooling AND heating
- High BTU for the size (very powerful airflow for its size!)
- Very portable – save roof space and no installation required
- May not cool your entire van
- Newer company with questionable customer service
- Batteries sold separately
- Charging options may be limited
- Some defective units
Key Takeaways: Dometic RTX or Nomadic Cooling V3 are the Best Air Conditioners for Van Life
If you are serious about spending lots of time in your van during summer heatwaves, a 12V rooftop A/C is the most reliable way to stay cool. The Dometic RTX 2000 or Nomadic Cooling X3 are the only truly functional options I’ve seen on the road. Personally, my Dometic unit was worth every penny and keeps my dogs and me amazingly cool even in 100°F weather. Just be sure you install it with the correct butyl tape and sealant, otherwise hire a professional van outfitter.
Remember, this project requires a large budget and a realistic outlook. A large battery bank is essential (a minimum of 200 amp hours, but 400-500 amp hours of Lithium is ideal) if you plan to run even the most efficient A/C for several hours a day. Moreover, you need robust insulation and thick window covers to keep the interior consistently cool.
See you on the road!