Van Life Air Conditioning: Best Options For Staying Cool

Being comfortable is one of the main things to consider, especially if you both live and travel in a van. Van life has been an interest to many people nowadays, to mention those who can’t get rid of the travel bug. When you are traveling in locations that can get pretty hot, keeping cool may be a bit difficult. Different air conditioning systems are available for a van, and it’s just up to you on what type you want to get and desire which suits your need and budget. 

The common types of air conditioning in vans are rooftop air conditioning, window air conditioning, compressor types, portable air conditioning units, swamp or evaporative, mini-split heat pump ACs, and roof vent fans. When you have this in your home, you can ensure that you stay cool even in the hottest location.

If you are like me, who loves traveling in hot areas, then having a van air conditioning system is necessary. This article will discuss the different types of air conditioning in vans, the cost of installation, and the pros and cons of each, which will be a great guide if you plan to change your AC system.

Keeping It Cool on Hot Days

Staying cool despite hot summer days is crucial. If you are uncomfortable, you are easily agitated, which is very unpleasant. It is vital to keep your camper vans cool to avoid this.

Importance of Staying Cool

Air conditioning was first introduced in the United States in 1939 as an optional add-on for car buyers. Its popularity was slow to develop, but by 1970, almost half of all new cars produced had air conditioning. They all work together, moving the refrigerant into a closed-loop system of high pressure or low pressure.

Air conditioning allows for cooling of the interior air of the vehicle in humid and hot weather conditions. These air conditioners come in various types installed in the roof, windows, or any desired area that also varies in its ability to cool a van area. There are many options in the market, including portable ones. You can have air conditioning in your vans temporarily or mount it permanently.

Power System Uses

Standard AC systems run on DC power, but some other options are possible. DC-powered air conditioning systems run on power supplied continuously by the engine. At the same time, some units can run on portable batteries. There are also solar-powered AC that relies on power provided by solar panels installed on the vehicle. However, some AC units cannot run entirely on solar power.

Rooftop Air Conditioning For Free Ceiling Space

Source: Sprinter Camper

One typical AC installed is the rooftop AC system. It sits on top of the roof, which you can install on your own. If you are looking for air conditioning that does not consume large wall or floor space, this is the best option.

Air Conditioning Explained

It is a unit that sits on the top of the rooLikeat other air conditioner units. It releases cold air out of the vent coming from the ceiling. This is typically installed in manufactured class B motorhomes.  It requires electrical service because solar energy is usually not enough to power an AC unit like this. It is a purchase in two-part which includes the exterior part and the ceiling assembly.

Knowing the Pros

Rooftop air conditioning offers better air quality with lower cooling needs and energy costs. The packaged rooftop air conditioning units save space and are easy to maintain. The DC-powered rooftop units are easy to start up even with low electrical protection. 

Some roof air conditioning systems require low installation height to blend nicely with other roof-mounted gear, like satellite antennas or roof lights. It doesn’t take any interior spaces and has an attractive, thoughtful design for a stylish indoor environment. Also, it runs day or night for your long-distance roads and eliminates extra accommodation costs.

In terms of mechanical parts, it’s mostly available in stores and a stable one installed. It is fully road-tested and affordable. It is installed in every RV that is ever made.

Weighing The Cons

Due to their all-in-one compactness, efficiency, and convenient packaging, rooftop AC units tend to cost more. A two-person team ideally lifts and installs them because it is heavy. It needs substantial framing to hold the AC unit tight and secure and give it a little more support than just the metal roof.

Adding it To the Van

Installing rooftop AC can be done DIY style. You start by cutting a large hole in the roof and then mount the unit into the hole. By using a sharp knife, you can separate the roof and gasket. Make sure to remove all sealants and roof coating so that the air conditioner will adhere firmly.

The Price For Comfort

Most rooftop AC has a cooling capacity of around 1700 W / 5800 (depending on the variations of AC) and continues cooling during Engine off. The price depends on the cooling capacity, which is around $200- $1000.

Window Air Conditioning For Typical Yet Functional System


A typical house AC system is window mounted, which is also done in vans and is easier to install. It is simple but very useful and budget-friendly.

Air Conditioning Explained

It is sometimes referred to as a room air conditioner. It is mounted on the window, making it convenient and straightforward to install. It is assembled in a casing where all components are placed.

Knowing the Pros

A window air conditioner type is ideal for small spaces as it takes up just about no space at all in the van. It offers much of the same results as a central AC unit minus the high installation and maintenance cost. It effectively cools a space in a short time.

Weighing The Cons

Window ACs may not be an ideal way to cool the van since it is not as powerful as other options, but it gets the job done. This air conditioner type’s motors produce noise and a rattling sound and motion against the window frame. Usually, these are bulky units that need modification of a standard window.

Adding It On The Van

First, take out the window where you want your air conditioner to be located. Prepare a half piece of plywood to put on the window where the air conditioner unit will be located.  Get the window’s size, cut the plywood depending on its size, measure the air conditioner unit, and mark the plywood measurement. Cut the desired length of the air conditioner unit. 

The plywood will serve as the frame for the window air conditioner. Place the frame on the window and put the screws around it. Then seal the side of the frame. Lastly, place the window air conditioner at a leaning angle.

The Price For Comfort

The clearance height and width specifications of the unit are primarily the factors to consider. You should also consider the space available in your RV. What is good about this AC is its low cost-efficiency and speedy, even cooling distribution because of a strong airflow. It has the decent ability to cool more significant areas such as RVs up to 300 square feet.  

It is also quiet and efficient performance, and some brands include energy-saving and sleep modes for a more personalized experience.

Portable Air Conditioning For Portable Goodness

Source: Goodhousekeeping

If you do not plan to replace your van AC system but just want additional coolness, you can try portable ACs. These are convenient alternatives because you can quickly move them in or out of the van space.

Air Conditioning Explained

It is a portable system that can be stored when it is not in use. You can set up this when you need to use it for cooling the inside of your van. It comes in different sizes. There are large types that can take up a lot of space inside your van. However, there is also a small unit in the market that would serve a camper van well.  You can place it anytime in a warm area that you want to be cold.

Considering The Pros

The portable air conditioning units also help to dehumidify your van, making your space even more comfortable on muggy days.  It is easy to install and move, very efficient, and comfortable.

Weighing The Cons

The price of a portable unit is often higher than a window unit. It needs regular maintenance. Also, it requires daily draining unless you opt for a unit equipped with an auto-evaporation system.

Adding It on The Van

If they are too thin, too big, or not open properly, you can get an exhaust hose into position far more quickly than a full window device in these uncomfortable circumstances. Ensure to place the unit near a window and an outlet (without obstructions). Choose a unit with a sound drainage system. Also, provide extra support for your AC so it will remain stable when traveling.

The Price For Comfort

There are different types of portable air conditioners such as Household Portable Air Conditioners, Zero Breeze Camping Air conditioners, and Cooler Air conditioners. Using it for just a portion of the day will keep costs down in a small room while allowing you to remain cool when you need it most. An affordable portable air conditioner for home or van use that is power-plugged costs around $150 to $800.  While some units that can operate both plugged in and on battery costs around $350 to $1,500. 

The price will depend on the model’s filtration and cooling capacity, energy consumption (Energy-efficient ratio), and how much space or area it can cool.  Other things to watch out for are the vent and drainage system, minimal noise, and ease of use—lastly, its installation process and aesthetic appearance.  Overall, the product’s cost to install is about $100 to $1,500, but you might spend a little less if you already have the installation materials sitting in your stash. 

Compressor Type Air Conditioning For Next Level Coldness


All AC units are compressors, but they operate in various ways. If you want the next level of coldness but might have a stricter budget, you can just opt-in to replace your old compressor units.

Air Conditioning Explained

The compressor plays a critical role in compressing the coolant as it enters the machine to raise its temperature.  Although all AC compressors have the same job, they operate in various ways and offer multiple pros and cons. There are five compressor air conditioning types, namely, Reciprocating Air Conditioner Compressors, which are the most common AC compressor type. 

A piston compresses the air inside a cylinder by moving up and down. It creates a vacuum effect as the piston moves down, which sucks in the refrigerant.  Also, a reciprocating air conditioning compressor is very useful in the AC system.

Scroll Air Conditioner Compressors have one fixed coil, called the scroll, and then there is another coil that rotates around it. The second scroll pushes the refrigerant toward the center during this process and compresses it. Scroll compressors are rapidly becoming as popular as reciprocating compressors and are therefore more reliable.

Screw Air Conditioner Compressor is highly reliable and efficient, but it is mainly used in large buildings where continuous cooling requires a massive amount of air.  There are two rotors (helical in shape) that transport the air end to end. This space gets smaller as it gets compressed in the compressor.

Rotary Air Conditioning Compressors are small and quiet, so they are popular in locations where noise is a concern. The inside of the AC compressor has a shaft with several blades that rotates inside the graduated cylinder. It pushes the refrigerant through the cylinder and compresses it simultaneously as it spins.

Centrifugal Air Conditioning Compressor is the final AC compressor type. To work, it applies centrifugal force to pull in the refrigerant gas and then spins it quickly with an impeller to compress it. For extra-large HVAC systems, centrifugal air conditioning compressors are usually reserved.

Knowing The Pros

Replacing the old compressor might be cheaper once than buying new air conditioning. It is typically the best option if you want to save money.

Weighing The Cons

If it is not done correctly, it may damage the whole AC.

Adding It On The Van

In replacing the air conditioner’s compressor: Unscrew the bolts and remove the front cover ( side and back cover). Remove the connections for safety. Before doing the breeze, rub the pipe with emery paper so that the line gets clean and the breezing will be done quickly. Take the defective compressor. Place the new compressor ( depends on the type of air conditioner). Put the bolts back until it is tight. Put also the pipe on the newly installed compressor. Lastly, put back the cover and screw it. 

The Price For Comfort

An AC compressor unit’s cost can range from $190 50 $1000 for the parts and labor. It will depend on the car model and the intensity of the needed repair. Some units are hard to replace, and components may be scarce.

Swamp or Evaporative Type Cooler For Energy-Efficient Alternative


If you are looking for a more energy-efficient alternative in cooling your van at a reasonable price, you can check out swamp or evaporative types.

Air Conditioning Explained

It is a unique system because it cools air through the evaporation of water. Evaporative cooling uses vapor-compression or absorption refrigeration cycles. It uses the fact that water will absorb a relatively large amount of heat to evaporate. It provides energy-efficient alternatives to cool spaces in dry regions. A blower to force air through a porous water-soaked pad. As the air passes through the pad, it is filtered, cooled, and humidified. Evaporative coolers have efficiency ratings in cubic feet per minute (cfm), where most models range from 3,000 to 25,000 cfm of air that they deliver to the unit.

Knowing The Pros

These types have less consumption of DC power. The evaporative process usually is 100 Watts at most (less than half an amp at mains voltage). They are usable and reasonably practical outside. They are around half the size and a fraction of the weight of a portable aircon system. It is definitely an energy-saver alternative because it consumes less than other coolers.

Weighing The Cons

It is not as effective as air conditioners in terms of cooling. It is unsuitable for use in high humidity areas and has several drawbacks and limitations due to moisture.

Adding It On The Van

You can install evaporative coolers in a central location where the cooler connects to ductwork that disperses cool air in the van space. Central-location installations work well for compact spaces. You should install ducted systems for larger vans. In effect, powerful fans route the air they expel through a wet matrix, which drops the air’s temperature. This process consumes thermal energy, which is why overall air temperature decreases.

The Price For Comfort

It will cost around an average of $1400 to around $2300, which excludes labor costs to get the comfort of evaporative coolers. It will be ideal to DIY if you can to save some cash.

Mini-Split Heat Pump Air Conditioning Technology

It is an AC type that is highly efficient and cost-effective because it can cool and warm your air inside the van. If you plan to upgrade to a unit suited for almost all temperatures,  this might be the perfect option. 

Air Conditioning Explained

Heat pumps work in a way that can cool or warm the air in your motor homes. There are many distinct heat pump types, such as geothermal and air-to-water, but the most common are air-source heat pumps. The heat pump (using the evaporator in your indoor unit) will absorb heat from the inside and then release it outdoors through the outdoor company. The liquid coolant goes to the evaporator and transforms into a gas, where it gets depressurized. The gas gets very cold and absorbs all the heat it can from the inside.

While a high-powered fan kicks on, the hot coolant then goes through the radiator. To facilitate the release of heat energy, the air flows over all of the radiators. The refrigerant cools down and is sent back to the evaporator to start the process repeatedly after the refrigerant’s heat is distributed outside.

Knowing The Pros

The high efficiency makes them ideal when installed on an RV, trailer, or camper. It is very popular with RV and trailer owners since they are much more efficient and works much better than rooftop units installed. Mini-split units are well known for being highly efficient with excellent SEER ratings. The outside condenser is set on the tongue of a trailer or a hauling hitch for an RV. They have a low amp power draw, with many units running over a standard extension cord. 

Many will like mini-split types because of their small size. It is also flexible for zoning and can heat or cool at the same time. It is easy and straightforward to install, and also easily retrofitted to any RV. It’s relatively inexpensive to operate and can be powered by a generator or direct power source. It can be mounted to any RV frame and reduces interior noise. Generally, mini-split ACs are perfect for any mobile home and definitely worthy of your consideration.

Weighing The Cons

The user should well plan out the installation to avoid “short-cycling” or damage to the compressor. The cost may be higher than some systems because of the detailed planning it invokes. 

The Price For Comfort

Heat pump prices are usually high considering the installation and parts. The average price range for a complete installation is between 3,000 to $15000, and the running costs have to be considered.

Adding On The Van

Use a battery-operated flaring tool and find a spot where the air conditioner is fitted.

Roof Vent Fans For A Wise Budget Technique

Source: Amazon

One option you can try for keeping your van cool without investing too much is getting a roof vent fan. It can also cool your vehicles by keeping the natural circulation of air but with considerable noise.

Knowing The Pros

It takes advantage of the natural flow of air. It does not rely upon onshore power to run. It also keeps smell and moisture out of the RV by circulating the mood well. It does not require a high-power setting, and most importantly, it is a cheaper option.

Weighing The Pros

It does not cool the way an air conditioner does and needs regular checking.

Adding It on the Van

First, cut a space in the van where you intend to put the vent. Make sure the dimensions fit with the chosen product. You can install two vents where one gets cold air and one sucks out warm air. Wipe off dirt in your roof before installing the vent fan

Once cleaned, smoothen the edges by using a metal file and paint the lines. Once dried, place the flange, which will support the fan. Make sure to seal the flange on the roof with screws and clamps. Lastly, place the fan in the flange and secure it.

The Price for Comfort

You have to consider the noise factor and the size of the roof vent. The sensor it has and the ease of control through a remote or another control system. It is an affordable option that starts from $25. There is an option equipped with a rain sensor that comes at around $300. It also includes handy backup ceiling controls on remote control models—the same easy-to-use, easy-to-clean keypad.

Tips and Cautions For A New AC system

Getting new air conditioning for your van is crucial. Before getting one, make sure to know the dos and don’ts to avoid future dilemmas both in the cooling system and your van build.

Check The Defaults

When buying and installing a new AC, always check RV’s manual for information on the ideal air conditioner that works best with it. This information will serve as your guide on what type to buy. Make sure to do a complete test after installing a new AC unit and try out all the features to know right away if there is any defect. Most importantly, do not forget to examine the warranty coverage and maximize its use.

If your air conditioning system does not work the way it used to, check out the filter. AC filters are advised to be cleaned every two months to preserve their best working condition. Clean it immediately if you see any dirt and dust that might block the AC from giving off cool air. 

Getting It Done

Gather up all the tools and materials needed before replacing the AC. Install a new unit carefully following the steps in the manual. You can always find a way to do it as you wish as long as it is correctly installed. One good tip is to ensure that the weather is good and clear when installing a new one. Of course, you do not want to get wet if installing in the open sun.

Ease of Installation

You must know the unit’s specifications. Inspect whether it’s built, bulky, heavy, or lightweight, but it boils down to your preference. It should match the right size of your van and should not obstruct any mirrors or consume too much space. Also, consider the amount of noise it produces, the type of drainage it has, and the exhaust system. Ultimately, the cost of the money you can shed to achieve the perfect installation.


Van life is pretty satisfying, especially since you can hop from one place to another with all the comforts you need. Your mobile home building will always depend on your preference and budget, particularly on its cooling system. With all the options in keeping your van cool, you can definitely enjoy traveling and even staying anywhere you like.

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