Engel Fridge User Review
by Steve Marschke
I have an older Engel refrigerator/freezer, which I keep in my Jeep CJ most of the time. I had it before we went to Baja with John Marnell in 2005 and it still works perfectly today. At the time, ARB and Norcold also made almost exact copies. Mine is two-tone grey, ARB was two-tone blue and Norcold was two-tone brown. Otherwise they’re exactly the same. It is a compressor based refrigerant system much like a home refrigerator but uses a Sawafuji ‘swing’ motor. The motor is supposed to be very efficient and the piston slides back and forth without a direct connecting rod, not rotary like a home fridge. The case is steel with bolt on steel handles. It uses about 2.5 amps max when compressing but doesn’t run all of the time unless it is very hot. Cool down time is amazing fast at least compared to RV refrigerators. It will go from ambient to 32 in about 20 minutes at my house when it’s about 70 degrees outside. When its 105° F, then it will run almost 100% of time.When really hot I can leave car parked about 24 to 30 hours and still start, but any more than that and I’ll have dead battery. If you have two batteries under the hood, then no worries at all. Otherwise drive your car about one hour or more each day to recharge. Usually when fourwheeling this isn’t a problem. We keep it on our Jeep CJ most of the time, but we’ve also used it on roadtrips in our Jeep Cherokee and VW Jetta Sportwagon. In fact, many years ago we had it in the Cherokee when we hiked to Panamint City. We meant to turn it off when we started hiking so we would not return to a dead battery. We forgot to turn it off after we took our food out. We had been gone more than 30 hours and to our relief, our single battery Cherokee started right back up when we returned. We used that experience as a lesson learned and improved our system by incorporating a portable solar panel into our system to work as a trickle charger. The solar panel does not provide enough energy to run the unit, but it does reduce the drain on the vehicle battery when we are parked. A 20 watt panel fits on the lid nicely. Another option we have used occasionally is simply plugging the unit into an extension cord and connecting to available power while the car is parked somewhere. We do this at home when we pre-pack the night before we leave, but also at RV parks or friends residences. Once you have owned it, you will find all kinds of options to adapt and use it to match your mode of travel and style.
Inside there is just one wire basket to put your food in. I have 45 quart which might seem smallish but remember, no ice. Holds about as much food as normal 60 quart cooler with ice. Shape is tall and narrow and takes some getting used to. I use an old tray from a cooler to help organize the food and it makes it easy to remove for access to bottom layer of food. Since you don’t have to worry about conserving ice you can store most of your drinks warm, then put them into fridge at end of day or in morning and let it cool them off... something you would probably never do with cooler as it would melt your ice.
One thing to keep in mind - you can’t really use this as a freezer and fridge simultaneously, it’s really one or the other, chosen by how cold you set the knob. The old model like mine only goes from 1 to 5. I usually have it set at 1.3 and that will keep things about 34°F while sitting on the back of my CJ without a top in direct sunlight in the desert with ambient at about 100° or even 110°F. I have run it inside my other cars with windows up and parked in sun and same thing. If the knob gets bumped to 2 it will freeze the water bottles by the time you try to get the next one out. Debbie used ours to transport an ice cream cake 50 miles from the point of purchase and it worked well (the clerk at Baskin-Robbins was so intrigued that she came out to the parking lot just to take a peek).
ARB has since updated their design and offers a plastic case. It has electronic thermostat and low battery protection. Also the interior is divided into two compartments. I have several buddies that have this newer model. Can’t say that it’s really better or worse than my old one. I like mine with the steel handles as I can strap it down really tight.
I see that Smittybuilt is now making one that looks very much like the new ARB. I suppose it’s a copycat - Smittybuilt seems to make a lot of copycat products. I would stick with original, seems that Smittybuilt always cuts corners somewhere to get lower price.
Watch out for any thermoelectric coolers - they are not really refrigerators. Most of these are significantly cheaper and used to be found at Walmart, Target, etc. These utilize an entirely different physical principle for cooling. TE coolers are used on a lot of other products and are very efficient but only for small temperature changes. Usually they are only capable of cooling about 40°F below ambient. When it 100°F outside that means your cooler will be about 60°F - that’s barely even cold and really only good for part-day trips to keep your drinks from heating up too fast.
I love mine. Wouldn’t hesitate to buy another. I think by now I have saved enough ice money to pay for it but I didn’t really expect to. Mostly I purchased it for convenience and to avoid hassle of ice. No more side trips to replenish ice, which will cost you precious gas and time. I’ve eliminated that nasty “melt ice soup” that can ruin your food once the ice shifts and melts. In fact, unconsumed food is not wasted anymore and can come back home without danger of spoilage. No problem taking restaurant leftovers with you. Ask anyone who has taken the plunge and spent the money – the benefits do outweigh the cost and it will enhance your enjoyment of the trail. You will wonder why you waited so long to buy one. ~ Steve Marschke