Features December 2005 Issue

Coleman Wins Cooler Cool-Off

The Ultimate Extreme Marine from Coleman and the expensive Frigid Rigid hold ice longer than comparably sized portable coolers from Igloo, Rubbermaid and Icey-Tek.

The two most costly coolers PS tested, the Icey Tek ($150) and the Frigid Rigid (above, for $445) have some good features, like an easy-grip, screw-in drain plug on either end of the Icey Tek and the rubber gasket that seals the lid on the Frigid Rigid. The latter also has two inches of high density foam insulation in the case and lid.

Portable coolers are a staple of American outdoor life, from camping trips to backyard barbecues. Certainly they are familiar, if not essential, to nearly every boat owner. Some smaller boats are actually designed with the cooler in mind, with space allocated under a seat, or elsewhere in the cockpit. Even if the boat is big enough to have a built-in icebox and/or refrigeration system below, some owners find it useful to carry pre-chilled drinks and food to the boat in a cooler for transfer once aboard. Then there's the cooler for keeping caught fish cold, carrying frozen food to the boat…the possibilities are without limit.

There are essentially three types of portable coolers: 12-volt thermoelectric ones, which do not require ice (reported in the December 1996 issue of PS), and two that do—hard and soft-sided coolers. We tested the latter for the June 1, 1998 issue of PS. In the review of thermoelectric models, we found that this technology can bring temps down an average of about 40° F from ambient, so if the air temperature outside the cooler is, say, 90° F, the lowest the temperature inside can get is about 50° F. Typical current consumption is 4 amps, and for a small boat with, perhaps, outboard power, that's a lot (4 amps x 24 hours operation = 96 amp-hours lost from the battery).

The soft-sided coolers have the advantage of collapsing once the contents are consumed and ice has melted. But because their insulation is thinner, ice doesn't last as long as in hard-sided coolers, the subject of this report.

Selection Criteria
The most important quality of any cooler is the ability to keep its contents cold, which means preventing the ice inside from melting too quickly. Igloo claims its coolers can keep ice for five days in 90° F heat. PS tested that for this report. But considering that nearly all contemporary portable coolers are of similar construction (thermoformed polyester or polyethylene plastic shells with foam inside), one might expect similar performance—again, we tested that, too. In that case, other features might drive the purchase decision—rust-resistant and sturdy hinges and latches, and convenient carrying handles. Some models have wheels, drink holders in the lid, sliding trays, and other compartments.

Coolers come in all sizes, mostly rectangular boxes. We settled on nine models in the 60-quart range. Five makers are represented: Coleman, Igloo, Rubbermaid, Frigid Rigid, and Icey-Tek. Some have wheels, some do not. We came to prefer wheeled models for their ease of transport; it's a heck of a lot easier wheeling one of these babies down the dock than carrying it by the handles. Stocked full with food, drinks and ice, a 60-quart cooler can easily weigh 40 to 50 lbs.

The Test
Several of the manufacturers provide tips on how to get the best performance from a specific cooler. They all agree that you should:

• Pre-cool drinks and food before putting it in the box.

• Do not keep the cooler in sunlight.

• Open the lid as infrequently as possible to keep cold from escaping.

• Don't drain water; more energy is required to cool air than to maintain the colder temperature of the water.

• Place drinks and food in first, then fill to the top with ice.

• Icey-Tek even suggests pre-cooling the box for three hours with several bags of sacrificial ice, the water from which is drained before refilling the box with more ice.

• If there is room, consider using a combination of block and cube; the former lasts longer, but reduces storage flexibility in the cooler.

We decided that it wasn't practical to fill each cooler with lots of food and drinks, and ice. Since we were less interested in getting the maximum possible cooling time from the nine coolers than learning which ones retain cold the best, we placed a room-temperature six-pack of soda in the bottom of each cooler, and then covered that with two 8-lb. bags of cube ice. The bags were weighed and found to be very consistent, varying at the most by 1/4 lb. Using the same scale, ice was added or subtracted until each cooler contained close to 16-1/2 lbs. of ice, give or take a few cubes.

Once each day, the coolers were drained of melt water and the amount measured in a graduated container, rounded off to the nearest ounce. We didn't open the coolers, which would have more accurately simulated real-life usage. Again, our purpose was only to compare the ability of each cooler to keep ice. Outdoor ambient temperatures ranged from 80° F during the day to 60° F at night.

The performance results of the nine coolers fell into two groupsings, with the two Coleman Extreme Marine models and Frigid Rigid faring the best. Total melt water over five days for these three ranged from a low of 167 ounces to 177 ounces. The second group included two Igloo models (MaxCold wheeled and Marine), Rubbermaid, and Icey-Tek, with total melt ranging from 203 ounces to 220 ounces. The Igloo MaxCold, with 196 ounces melted over five days, ranked between the two groups.

Because differences in volume can affect cooling performance, PS also calculated the ratio of melt water drained from each cooler per quart of capacity. The results here were no different for our winners, but the largest cooler—Coleman's Marine 68-Quart—did perform better when capacity was factored in.

Igloo Maxcold 60-Quart
The Igloo series of coolers reviewed have attractive blue bottoms and white tops. The company calls its insulation Ultratherm; the label claims: "Keeps ice up to 5 days at 90° F."

The wheel axle is along the side so the wheel base isn’t that wide and one must be careful making sharp turns. Fortunately, the plastic wheels are larger than the ones usually found on carry-on luggage (roller boards, in flight attendants' parlance), that are notoriously tippy. The hinged, 13-inch handle isn't quite long enough to trail the cooler well behind your heels; we found ourselves having to hold our arm out a little so the cooler was next to us, rather than behind us.

The lid has a restraining strap screwed to the cooler and lid; it's kind of chintzy, as is the lid latch, which is nothing more than a bent piece of plastic one pushes to fasten.

The drain is situated on the same side as the wheels, so it had to be elevated about two inches off the bottom, meaning the cooler won’t fully drain melted water unless tipped.

Bottom Line: Cooling performance was middle of the pack. We like the wheels, and all the Igloos are priced lower than competitor Coleman, but there are better coolers to choose from.

Igloo MaxCold 50-Quart
This somewhat smaller cooler is nearly identical to the 60-quart model above except it has no wheels and therefore the drain is closer to the bottom. Like the 60-quart model, the drain plug is threaded, offering a more positive means of preventing leaks than the press-fit plugs found on most other brands. It is held captive by a ring and leash.

Bottom Line: Same performance and features as Igloo 60 above. Okay for under $50.

Igloo Marine 54-Quart
Unlike the two Igloo coolers above, this one is all-white in color. Here's what the term "marine" gets you in this case: a 24-inch fish scale molded into the lid, a sliding tray to hold a few goods above the ice, and "stainless steel reinforced screws to resist the salty air." We checked the screws used in the other Igloo coolers and they appear to be stainless as well. The label says the material in the marine cooler has UV inhibitors to slow solar attack. The drain plug is a press-on plastic fitting.

Bottom Line: This model did not perform as well as the other Igloos, ranking seventh out of nine.

Rubbermaid 60-Quart
The wheels on this model run across the length of it, offering a wider staying base than the Igloo's wheeled cooler. Also, its handle is a generous 23 inches, so there was no problem having the cooler hit us in the heels. The handle extends and retracts like carry-on luggage, locking in the out position. To compress, you just give it a little rap or shove.

The lid is built in two parts, which we suppose might minimize the loss of cold air compared to opening a single large lid, but chances are you're going to have to open both anyway to rummage around and find what you want. The lid has molded drink/can holders. The drain is recessed into the bottom so all water empties; the plug is press-fit. The wheel axle and hardware are magnetic (rusting is possible).

Bottom Line: Nicely made cooler that totes easily with wheel axle oriented across the length of the cooler. But, performance was poor, ranking eighth out of nine.

Coleman Ultimate Extreme Marine 50-Quart
Like the Igloo cooler with wheels, the hinged handle on this Coleman cooler is just 13 inches long, making pulling it a little awkward. What "marine" means to Coleman is a 24-inch fish scale, an ill-fitting vertical divider to separate contents, and rope handles threaded through plastic tubes. While these handles may look nautical, they don't really work any better than the swing-up plastic handles found on other brands.

The drain, with press-fit plug, is recessed in the bottom. The lid has four drink holders molded in. The axle is magnetic and the wheel caps are plastic. And, the label says this cooler will hold ice up to six days.

Bottom Line: Best performance by a wheeled model. At $64, we'd buy it in a heartbeat despite the handles.

Coleman Ultimate Extreme Marine 58-Quart
This model is more or less identical to the 50-quart Extreme Marine except it doesn't have wheels. It, too, has a 24-inch fish scale and four molded-in drink holders, same tray, same divider that doesn't fit well, and same optional rope handles.

Bottom Line: Rated No. 1 in keeping its cool.

Coleman 68-Quart Marine
Yes, it has rope handles. No, it has no drink holders. Plain vanilla.

Bottom Line: It was a poor performer, so why bother?

Frigid Rigid
This cooler is quite unlike the others. For starters, the case is made of fiberglass rather than thermoformed polyester or polyurethane. And it is the only model with a rubber gasket to seal the lid; the others rely on contact between the lid and the top of the case. The hinges, latch lock, and other hardware are robust stainless steel. The latch itself is rubber that one pulls taut into the cupped lock—watch out for pinching the skin on your hand. The drain plug is a rubber plug with 90-degree handle that makes the plug expand; same concept as the transom plugs on many small powerboats. The box and lid are built with two inches of high-density polyurethane foam insulation. The rope handles have rubber sleeves. And the product carries a lifetime warranty.

Bottom Line: Strong, heavy, and very expensive at $445. No. 2 in performance, but by only three oz., so consider it tied for first with Coleman's Ultimate Extreme Marine.

We shared our melt-test findings with Frigid Rigid (as we did with all manufacturers). Company owner Art Link was surprised that his cooler essentially tied with the Coleman Ultimate Extreme Marine, believing that the Frigid Rigid would surpass all others handily. Link conducted his own test, matching up his cooler with the Coleman Ultimate Extreme Marine. In his test, which was similar but not identical to ours, Link said that his cooler held ice significantly better than the Coleman.

Whichever test results you believe, the less-expensive Coleman remains a better buy by far.

Made in Thailand of polyethylene, the Icey-Tek resembles a poly water tank in appearance. It even has the same type of threaded drain fittings. The plugs have O-rings to seal them, and there's one drain on each side of the box. Also on each side is a poly fitting with recessed bar one can use as tie-downs to keep the cooler from sliding around. Speaking of which, there are skids molded into the bottom for protection against abrasive surfaces—as if the poly isn't tough enough. On the front, the lid can be locked shut with a conventional padlock, and the two latches are rubber that one pulls down over a screw head, similar to the single latch on the Frigid Rigid, but with a different means of capture.

Bottom Line: Also heavier than the Colemans and Igloos, we expected this cooler to do better than sixth place in the melt test. Indeed, Icey-Tek literature says it's the best in the world. That didn't turn out to be the case in our tests. It's nicely made, but still expensive at $150.

Unless you have reasons not to want a wheeled model (if short transport distances apply, and the extra capacity of non-wheeled models is critical), we'd look at the wheeled models before buying. The Rubbermaid cooler totes beautifully, but its cooling performance lagged. The non-wheeled Frigid Rigid keeps its cool, but is heavy and expensive. That leaves us with the two Coleman Ultimate Extreme Marine coolers, one with wheels, one without. At $64 and $68, they represent the top choices. If we have a gripe with them, it's the short warranty and funky "marine" rope handles. We'd keep the standard plastic handles and leave it at that.


Also With This Article
"Value Guide: Coolers"

• Coleman, 800/835-3278, www.coleman.com
• Icey-Tek, www.icey-tek.com
• Igloo, 713/584-6900, www.igloocoolers.com
• Frigid Rigid, 239/433-4447, www.frigidrigid.com
• Rubbermaid, 888/895-2110, www.rubbermaid.com

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