Do Coolers Lose Their Effectiveness Over Time?

I've owned my Yeti cooler for over 6 years now and that's a long time to own anything, let alone a cooler. It got me wondering – how long you can expect your cooler to remain functional and do coolers lose their effectiveness over time?

No, coolers are unlikely to lose their effectiveness over time unless the cooler is damaged in some way or exposed to extreme heat which can compromise the insulation. Foam insulation in a cooler should last a lifetime without significant decreases in its ability to insulated and keep ice frozen.

There are a wide range of coolers out there ranging from simple and cheap polystyrene boxes to more extravagantly priced vacuum insulated Yeti coolers. The higher priced the cooler the more durable the materials will be and the longer the cooler will last.

For example, I've got a Coleman Extreme cooler and while it still works great the exterior plastic is deteriorating and the drainage plug has broken. Still, for a $40 cooler it's still going strong 6 years later even if the exterior has faded a little bit.

So no, you should not expect a decrease in performance of your cooler over time unless something has happened to damage the cooler or the foam insulation.

The plastics and foams used to manufacture coolers are quite robust and it takes quite a lot to damage them to the point where the insulating layer is compromised. Let’s take a look at some of the ways that could happen:

What Can Cause A Cooler To Lose Its Effectiveness At Keeping Things Cold?

Degradation of the Foam Insulation

There are 4 types of foam used as insulation inside of most coolers. Of these, styrofoam is the cheapest and most vulnerable to degradation over time. You'll find styrofoam insulation in cheap coolers that you buy from Walmart or the hardware store for around $50 (or less).

There are two different kinds of styrofoam: extruded polystyrene and expanded polystyrene. Extruded polystyrene is the slightly more effective of the two but they both work by utilizing the same principle.

Styrofoam works as a “closed cell” insulator, meaning millions of tiny air bubbles are trapped within the foam. Heat struggles to travel across these bubbles of air, thus insulating the contents within the walls of styrofoam.

More expensive coolers like Yeti use a polyurethane foam which is higher density, stronger and a better insulator than styrofoam.

To give you an idea of how long these foams are designed to last – polyurethane foam is commonly used inside the walls of houses and other buildings to provide waterproofing and insulation. This insulation is rated to last at least 80 YEARS before it begins degrading (according to HvacSeer.)

The foam in your cooler will generally last a lifetime but there are 2 exceptions to this. Repeated exposure to high heat or a singular exposure to very high heat has the chance of degrading the foam or even melting it completely. This is why you shouldn't put boiling water in your Yeti cooler.

If the foam melts it will eventually reset but you'll lose a lot of the tiny air bubbles that give the cooler its insulating properties.

The other thing that can deteriorate the foam is repeated exposure to UV radiation and moisture. In most cases coolers will have a plastic shell which will protect the foam insulation inside.

But there are cheap polystyrene coolers without protective shells and you can visibly notice the deterioration over time the longer you own this type of cheap cooler.

Crack or Chips In the Cooler

Yeti Cooler Tough

Once I dropped a cheap cooler of mine which was full of water at the time. It was heavy and when one of the bottom corners hit the ground the plastic cracked instantly, sending a few shards flying off and exposing the foam underneath.

It was one of the cheaper coolers, made with molded HDPE plastic. This type of plastic is brittle and big impacts will easily break it.

The more expensive roto-molded coolers have more durable exteriors but if a crack does occur, there is no doubt that the performance of your cooler will suffer because the heat has one less layer of insulation holding it back.

This also exposes the foam to the outside world and UV light and moisture will degrade it over time.

Deterioration of Lid Gasket

Yeti Commercial Grade Rubber Gasket

One of the reasons yeti coolers keep ice so long are the freezer grade gaskets they use in the lids. These seal the cooler (much like a fridge door does with its magnets) and stops warm air from entering the cooler.

These gaskets are made from a rubbery material that can more easily be damaged than the hard plastic the rest of the cooler is made from.

When damage does occur to the gasket, the airlock effect is compromised and your cooler won’t stay cold for nearly as long.

Luckily these gaskets are fairly easy to replace and you can find replacement parts of these on Amazon.

Broken Hinges

Another part of the lid that can eventually fail over time is the hinges. This is more likely on cheap coolers with small plastic hinges. More expensive roto-molded coolers use a larger metal rod as the hinge and this is unlikely to fail.

The hinges see a lot of action with all the opening and closing. They are probably the most vulnerable element of the whole design of any cooler.

When the hinges do break or bend it can become impossible for the lid to keep a seal as effectively as before, leading to more warm air getting in from the outside.

Leaking or Broken Drain Plug

I mentioned before that the drain plug on my Coleman Xtreme has recently broken. Lucky for me it's the plastic connecting it to the cooler that broke and the drain plug still fits into place and doesn't leak.

However, over time drain plugs can deteriorate and stop working.

You will notice a leaking drain plug by the puddle on the floor. If cold ice-melt is escaping through a leaky drain plug then you can be sure that warm air from the outside is coming in to take its place. This can cause your cooler to not keep ice for as long.

How to Increase the Effectiveness of a Cooler

If you find yourself in possession of a cooler that has lost some of its previous effectiveness you might be looking for solutions for how to insulate a cooler even more. Here are a few ideas:

In Summary

People tend to abuse their coolers and really put them through their paces. If you manage not to drop it and crack the outer shell then your cooler should maintain it's ability to keep things cool and this shouldn't noticeably reduce over your lifetime.

Yeti insulated tumblers can lose their effectiveness if the vacuum seal is broken, however these too should continue to work for years and years without issue as long as the vacuum seal isn't broken.