The world's most in-depth and scientific reviews of outdoor gear

How We Tested Powered Coolers

By Maggie Brandenburg ⋅ Senior Review Editor
Friday March 15, 2019

The powered coolers market can be a confusing one. With so many different methods of powering a cooler and various technologies to keep the contents cold - or even hot! - it can cause quite the headache to wade through this veritable sea of endless specs and technical jargon. It's our goal to simplify this unnecessary confusion into real, tangible, and comparable results that you can understand. We designed and carried out a comprehensive testing plan to bring all powered coolers we test onto the same playing field, making them easily comparable to one another, and here's how we did it.

We chose four compressor-powered coolers - and three thermoelectric models (not pictured) - to test side-by-side and present you the results. From left to right: Dometic  ARB  Costway  and Whynter.
We chose four compressor-powered coolers - and three thermoelectric models (not pictured) - to test side-by-side and present you the results. From left to right: Dometic, ARB, Costway, and Whynter.

Temperature Control


The ability to control internal temperature is what truly sets powered coolers apart from traditional hard coolers. Along with insulation, temperature control is one of the most important aspects of a powered cooler. We tested numerous aspects of temperature control for each cooler using repeatable, scientific methods to see how each model truly compared to the others, regardless of what cooling method they use. We also compared the real results of these tests to claims made by each manufacturer to let you know which claims are accurate and which claims are just wishful thinking.

Using ibutton technology and our tried and tested "ibutton sandwich" temperature measurement method (literally sandwiching a temperature recording device, an ibutton, in between two slices of bread inside a plastic sandwich box in each cooler to simulate real food temperature). We then ran each cooler through a myriad of temperature tests. We filled coolers with room temperature cans and cranked them down to 35ºF to see how quickly they could cool their contents in the Torture Test. We set every model to their lowest possible temperature setting and let them run to see just how cold they could actually get in the Minimum Temperature Test. We cranked up the temperature on coolers boasting a heat setting to see how toasty they could get their contents for our Maximum Temperature Test. And through all of it, we measured and compared the actual temperature inside each cooler to the temperature claimed by the external display (for models that have an external display!) to see how accurate each was.

The delicious "ibutton sandwich" we use to get an accurate measure of food temperature inside each cooler.
The delicious "ibutton sandwich" we use to get an accurate measure of food temperature inside each cooler.

Insulation


Hand in hand with temperature control comes a cooler's insulation value. Keeping things cold is great, but this ability is greatly affected by ambient temperature, construction materials, and even where you keep the cooler while it's in use. We tested the insulation power of each cooler by cooling every model to a "normal" refrigeration temperature of around 35ºF and then unplugging them for at least 36 hours while recording how much the temperature increased during that time. As these are powered coolers, we feel that 36 hours is likely longer than you would typically leave one unplugged, but depending on just how hot it is outside, simulates a very realistic amount of necessary insulation.

In addition to each model's performance in our insulation test, we looked into the what and how they were made. From construction materials and coolant coursing through their robotic "veins" to the sturdiness of hinges, attachment points, and plugs. Rather than attempt to evaluate the durability of a piece of gear that's meant to last for a decade or more in our few months of intensive testing, we took note of obvious issues and potential flaws as part of our insulation testing, as this is where they would most likely have the greatest influence. We also researched which models are made for what ranges of temperatures, which greatly impacts their ability to function on a hot July day while trapped in your car or a chilly overnight in the otherwise hot desert. And finally, we noted certain coolers that have additional insulation options available, such as a soft cover or transportation case that would easily add at least some insulatory value to the cooler.

Thick walls help the Whynter insulate better and last longer.
Thick walls help the Whynter insulate better and last longer.

Energy Consumption


Unless you're planning to replace your home fridge for one of these little guys, the amount of energy they consume is probably pretty close to the top of your list in importance - ours too! We ranked this metric as just barely below temperature control and insulation in importance. Powered cooler manuals and websites are full of specs that seem so numerous that they can only hope to confuse anyone who's not an electrician or engineer of some kind. We put those claims to the test not only against the manufacturer's claims but also in realistic settings that you're likely to find yourself up against with your own powered cooler.

We tested the power draw of each model while each was cooling, heating, or simply at a steady state after having reached your desired temperature. We also measured the voltage and current of each model, so you can easily compare it to the capacity of the battery in your little van home or on your getaway yacht to know without question if you can power each cooler easily or if you'll need to unplug it every night when your solar panels are useless. Many powered coolers also boast handy settings that manufacturer's claim to help you conserve energy or save your battery from being so run down you'll need a jump to get going again. We tested how energy saving these settings actually are, so you know exactly what you're getting yourself into before you lose hundreds of dollars of groceries to a dead battery on your next adventure.

Testing energy draw in real time.
Testing energy draw in real time.

Ease of Use


How well any piece of gear functions is always the most important aspect. However, if it's a total pain the bum to use, you're unlikely to be excited about taking it out to play during your adventures. Despite our heavily technical testing, we recognize that this is just important for powered coolers. We carefully evaluated the usability of each cooler as we loaded and unloaded their contents, turned them on and off, plugged them into walls and batteries, and carted them around on excursions. We measured the internal dimensions of each model and calculated their capacity compared to what the manufacturer claims. We also filled every cooler with literally as many 12 oz. cans as we could stuff in and still close the lid, to give a realistic measure of how much food (or beverages) you can fit into each one. We also judged the helpfulness of each manual, as this is one appliance you don't want to use without reading the manual thoroughly!

Additionally, we scoured each cooler for helpful little features like adjustable shelves, removable baskets and lids, reversible hinges and internal lighting. We checked each model for their ability to work in trying functions, like driving down dirt roads that are more boulder and pothole than road and ability to operate at an angle frequently achieved on a choppy lake or off-roading experience. And of course, we compared how loud each model is when it runs, as no one wants to sleep next to an appliance that hums a loud annoying pitch like a swarm of angry bees all night!

Testing the usefulness of removable baskets and adjustable shelves.
Testing the usefulness of removable baskets and adjustable shelves.

Portability


While powered coolers are generally less portable than anything not plugged into a wall, they're more portable than your kitchen fridge for a good reason - adventuring!! First and foremost, we weighed and measured the dimensions of each model. It seems every online source claims a different size for each cooler, and we wanted to compare what they actually weigh directly. Regardless of their actual sizes, we lugged all of them around - up and down stairs, in and out of cars, full of food and drinks and empty - to see how doable it was for one or two people to accomplish with minimal panting or cursing.

While carting these coolers around, we tested the usability of portability features, like handles and wheels. While only one model that we tested has wheels, they all have handles of varying comfort and utility. Some models are well-balanced, making them easier to carry, while others are asymmetrical in design, adding to their awkwardness. We also noted what plugs and adapters came with each model compared to what you actually need for versatile functionality. We measured every cord to see just how far from an electrical outlet you can place your cooler - will it reach from the back of your suburban, or do you have to supplant the dog and keep it in the front seat?

Wheels = obvious increase in portability.
Wheels = obvious increase in portability.

Features


Though fancy features can't redeem a poor performing cooler, they can make your experience more enjoyable. We observed and tested each model for helpful or interesting features to bring you a complete picture of exactly what kind of device you're getting for yourself. From apps to control and monitor temperature and USB ports to charge your iPod while jamming out cooking dinner in the woods to drain plugs, handy cord storage, and dimmable displays, powered coolers can come with a bunch of different features.

As a final features note, we looked into the warranty for each cooler. Though the best case scenario is that your cooler functions perfectly and has no defects, it's never good to bank on that. And for something you may be spending several hundred or over a thousand dollars on, it's a great security blanket.

Some handy features we found include a USB charging port and an emergency override in case of display failure.
Some handy features we found include a USB charging port and an emergency override in case of display failure.

After spending months testing, retesting, and adding additional tests to challenge these powered coolers, we feel we have developed a deeper understanding and more complete picture of the capabilities of these powered coolers. We hope that by bringing you these results and direct comparisons, we can help you find the perfect powered cooler to upgrade your adventurous lifestyle.