The 3 Best Rooftop Air Conditioners For Vans

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED August 12, 2020

Best Rooftop Air Conditioners for Vans
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Rooftop air conditioners for vans are a pricey but often essential van life addition. Ask any seasoned van dweller what the worst part about #vanlife is, and I bet you'll hear some complaints about the heat. Sleeping in a van is great during shoulder seasons, but if you're living in your van in the summer or winter, you need to figure out a cooling and heating solution.

If you've ever tried to sleep outside (or in a van) when it's 90 degrees at 1:00 in the morning, you know what I'm talking about.

If you live near the mountains, a ton of van lifers choose to park their homes at higher elevations to cool down. But what if you're in the deserts of Arizona or Moab?

One solution is some sort of vent fan. But a fan can only get you so far. They work great if it's only 70 or 80 degrees, but once you hit the mid-80s, you'll be begging for some good ole' fashion air conditioning.

I'm sure you've seen old-school vans with window air conditioning units sticking out the back, but that's not a great solution. Besides the obvious aesthetic downsides, window units are heavy, loud, and suck up a lot of power, meaning they don't really make sense if you are using a solar setup.

If you're looking for something a little sleeker, we suggest looking at rooftop air conditioners. Rooftop air conditioners are more lightweight than their window unit counterparts and specifically designed for RVs. And if an RV can use it, why can't a van!? And as an added bonus, most rooftop AC units can also heat your van in the winter!


The Best Rooftop Air Conditioners for Vans Winner: Dometic Brisk II Rooftop Air Conditioner

The best roof top air conditioners for vans

Dometic makes some of the best appliances for van life (including one of our favorite 12v refrigerators), and the Dometic Brisk II Rooftop Air Conditioner is no exception. Since this is designed for much larger RVs (think 30-40 ft), it has absolutely no problem keeping a van cool. In fact, this is probably overkill for most people outside of the Southwest (like Arizona, New Mexico, southern Utah).

Our biggest gripe about the Dometic Brisk II Rooftop Air Conditioner is the price. Right now, it is selling for around $700. According to Amazon price trackers, you can get it for closer to $400 if you wait until winter.

Important Notes:


The Runner-Up: Furrion CHILL Rooftop Air Conditioner

Honestly, if it wasn't for the name brand and customer service of Dometic, the Furrion CHILL Rooftop Air Conditioner might be our top pick simply because it comes with a control unit. This 14,500 BTU rooftop air conditioning unit is also a little cheaper than the Dometic (right now, at least), even before you factor in the additional control unit you have to buy with the Dometic.

Almost every reviewer says that the Furrion unit is extremely quiet and can keep RVs up to 35ft long cold even when temperatures reach the triple digits. The most common complaint is that installation can be complicated and the instructions are unclear. On top of that, Furrion's customer service has left some purchasers with a bad taste in their mouths.

But if you consider yourself handy and are looking to save a couple of hundred dollars, this is the unit for you.


The Final Pick: Dometic Penguin II

If you're looking for a more aerodynamic option, check out the Dometic Penguin II. This 13,500 BTU unit is less than 10 inches tall, which is excellent if your van is already on the taller side or if you spend a lot of time in low-clearance areas.

Keep in mind, just like the Dometic Brisk II, this unit DOES NOT come with a control panel, so you'll have to purchase that separately. This unit is also a little more expensive, but it's worth it if you need it very cold at night to get some shut-eye.

When researching the best rooftop air conditioners for vans, we came across this unit a ton. The main reason that it's not at the top of the list is because of the price - its almost double the price of the Brisk II.


Benefits of Rooftop Air Conditioners for Vans

  • Keep you cool (duh).
  • No need to turn the vehicle AC on in the middle of the night.
  • Much sleeker than DIY window units.

Downsides of Rooftop Air Conditioners for Vans

  • Not compatible with pop-tops.
  • Installation is a lot of work.
  • Expensive (especially if you need to buy the roof gasket and control unit separately).
  • Add to the height of your van (watch out for low branches)!
  • If you are installing on a van, you might not meet the warranty requirements since most are technically designed for RVs.

Buyers Guide

Rooftop airconditioner graphic

If you have never shopped for a rooftop air conditioner before, then it can be hard to know where to start or what you should be looking for in a rooftop AC. 

You will find everything you need to know about rooftop ACs in this section. We will cover how to set a budget, how to pick out the right sized AC, and what extras you should expect your AC to come with. 

The first step to finding your perfect rooftop AC is to set yourself a budget. While investing in good pieces of equipment can benefit you in the long run. You don't want to put yourself in debt for a rooftop AC. 

So, look at how much money you have to spend and research the best ACs you can get within your budget. You might find that you don't have to spend more to get a better quality AC. You probably noticed that by reading the article above. 

If spending a little more can get you an AC that ticks more of the boxes on this list, then it might be worth doing so. 

Model Of Your Van 

Not every model of rooftop AC will fit onto every model of van. So, before you spend the money on any type of AC unit, make sure that it will fit onto your van. 

You will be able to find this information on the seller's website. Or by going to the bottom of the products page on Amazon. At the bottom of this page, there will be a list of models that the AC unit can and can't be used on. 

You will also find people talking about what models work with the AC in the reviews. 

Size Of Your Van 

Another thing you should be aware of is that AC units are designed to work for different-sized spaces. Therefore it is possible to buy an AC that would be too small or too big for your van. 

The good news is that if you have a small van, you could save yourself a lot of money by buying a smaller AC unit. IF you have a larger van, it will be worth investing in something bigger so you can keep the whole van cool. 

You will find the power level of the AC unit in its product description. 

Installation Process 

There are some people who hate DIY and some people who live for it. 

If you are someone who would rather not spend two hours installing a rooftop AC on your van then you should be on the lookout for an AC that is easy to install. 

To work out if an AC is easy to install, you should head down to the product reviews. As every single product description will say easy to install, whether that is true or not. 

People are brutally honest in their reviews, and you'll be able to find out the truth about the installation process. 

Maintenance 

Following on from the last section, if you do not like doing DIY, then you are going to want to look for a rooftop AC unit that requires very little maintenance. 

No unit will be maintenance-free, as you will need to clean it out occasionally and have it checked over by an electrician every couple of years. 

However, some cheaper AC units require a lot of maintenance and trips to the repair shop. Soon, they end up costing you more money than the top-of-the-line unit would have. 

Efficiency 

Efficiency is important for two reasons - your environmental impact and the cost of keeping the AC running. 

Efficiency is often something you sacrifice for a cheaper unit, but again, an inefficient AC unit will end up costing you a lot more in the long run.  

You also need to consider how you will get the power to run the AC. If you only want to travel with a small generator then you are going to need a very efficient rooftop AC.

However, if you are bringing a big generator or going to a campsite that provides generators then you won't have to be so concerned about efficiency. 

Ease Of Use 

If you are a person who loves learning new things about technology, then you may not mind if an AC unit isn't very easy to use. 

However, if you are gifted when it comes to technology, or you are going to be sharing your van with people who aren't good with technology, then you may be very concerned about ease of use. 

AC units that are easy to use are well-designed and have clearly been tested by the people who use them. They may be slightly more expensive, but the extra money will save you time and frustration. 

Life Expectancy 

If you are going to spend a lot of money on a rooftop AC unit for your van, then you are going to want it to last for at least a decade. If you spend $500 on an AC unit and it lasts you 10 years, then you have only spent $50 a year.

However, if you buy a $150 unit that you have to replace every two years, then you are wasting money. 

Buying an expensive AC unit with a long life expectancy may be worth it if you plan to keep your van for a long time. If your van is only a temporary thing, then you may not need an expensive AC unit with a long life span. 

Warranty 

Finally, if you want to make sure you are getting good value for your money out of an AC unit, then you need to make sure that it comes with a generous warranty. 

The warranty length will give you a good idea of how long the manufacturer expects the product to last - i.e., if it has a 2-year warranty, they will expect it to last for about three years. 

A long warranty normally indicates that the AC unit will be of good quality.

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.
OptOutLiving is an online destination for alternative lifestyle inspiration, advice and information. Our goal is to help people design a life that optimizes their time and happiness.
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