One of the things we need to live comfortable lives, be it indoors or outdoors, is a steady source of electricity. A stable electric supply will ensure you that even if you are far away from home, your appliances will still function enough for you to provide comfort and relaxation while you are traveling outdoors. However, no one has the unlimited supply of power, even in RVs, so it can be a question to most campers as to where they can get electricity while they are outdoors.
How do RVs get their electricity? RVs get their electricity through different sources, such as the batteries in the RV, using generators, relying on the shore power available in campgrounds, using propane to power their appliances, using solar and wind power among many other sources.
In this article, I will be discussing the different ways how RVs get electricity for their appliances and for their vehicles themselves. I will be also discussing the different sources of electricity available for every camper in every situation. Lastly, I will be providing you with useful and functional tips and tricks you can use to conserve and make your electricity supply last much longer while you are on the road.
Knowing How Electricity Works In Your RV
Refreshing What We Already Know About Electricity
Whether you are in an RV or at home, you will never have unlimited amounts of electrical power. Therefore, it is a good idea to review a formula you learned in high school but have probably long since forgotten.
Watts, or total power, is the product of current (amps) and voltage (volts). To compute the watts, you need to multiply the amperes to the volts. Therefore, Watts = amps x volts, or W = A x V. Your circuits will run smoothly as long as you stay under the amount of available wattage.
Always remember that you will still have limited amounts of electricity so it is very important for you to know which appliances have the highest consumption so that you will not use them at the same time.
Two Electrical Systems Present In Your RV
There are two different electrical systems in your RV: a 12-volt DC system and a 120-volt AC system.
The 12-volt device is powered by a battery (or several batteries in some cases), and it powers things like your water heater, furnace, and refrigerator, as well as most of the lights in your RV’s living room, your water pump, your carbon monoxide detector, and a variety of other things.
On the other hand, the 120-volt device is operated by an RV electrical hookup plug or a generator, and it runs your kitchen appliances, television, and other large electrical appliances.
That means the power is evenly distributed by two systems, eliminating the chances of your electric supply being cut off because only one system works.
Understanding How AC And DC Works
The AC system is operated by plugging your trailer into an external AC power source, while the DC system is powered by one or more of your RV’s battery systems.
The air conditioning, microwave, and power outlets are all powered by the AC power system. The DC power system powers your lights, water pump, fans, TV, and radio. The AC system will generate a lot more power than the DC system, which is limited by the batteries in your RV. The two RV electrical systems are connected so that if you plug in your RV’s AC control, it will charge the DC system’s batteries. To accomplish this, we need a converter.
In addition to the RV power converter, several rigs have an inverter, which converts DC power to AC power. Inverter-equipped RVs will have specially labeled wall outlets that are powered by the DC battery system but provide AC electricity.
Most RVs are set up so that you can run pretty much all in the RV if you have RV shore control. If you do not have access to shore electricity, you have no choice but to rely on the DC system, which can keep the lights and water pump going for a few days.
Some Of The Different Sources Of Electricity For Your RV
Your RV Batteries: The Obvious First Choice
The first source for every RV is of course, the batteries inside your vehicle.
One or more batteries are standard in most RVs. When no external power is available, the batteries provide a source of power for your RV. The amount of power the batteries can produce on their own is limited, allowing you to run the lights, water pump, and small appliances for the majority of the day, but that’s it. They are also unable to operate the air conditioning and heating systems.
When an external power source is attached and supplying power to your RV, your battery is indeed charging.
Shore electricity, a generator, a vehicle engine, or a solar panel are all options for power. If you are plugged into a truck with a trailer adapter when driving, the vehicle’s engine should charge your battery, giving it enough electricity for your appliances to function.
Shore Power: Your RV’s Charging Ports
Your shore power acts the same way as your phone if it is plugged in the charger.
The majority of RV parks and campgrounds provide electrical hookups referred to as shore power. Connectors are frequently available with outputs of 20, 30, and 50 amps. When you plug your RV into an AC electrical grid, you are using RV shore electricity. The amount of power you have available is calculated in amps.
30 amp and 50 amp connections are the most common RV connections. You can hook up your RV to a line that runs from a neighbor’s home, but proceed with caution. Smaller RVs, pop-up campers, and travel trailers typically use 30 amps, while larger trailers and fifth wheels typically use 50 amps. However, most RV parks and campgrounds just have 20 amps shore power.
In order to charge the RV, it must connect to the home either through an adapter or through a dedicated 30 or 50 amp connection. Depending on the size of the RV, it will be set up to use 50 amps or 30 amps. You can attach your RV to a lower amp power source, but it can be risky if you are not careful.
If you try to draw more power than the shore power line is rated for, you risk damaging the electrical systems. The worst-case scenario is that you blow fuses, but you risk damaging the power source or your trailer.
When you connect to shore power at an RV park, a circuit breaker will be located on the pedestal. Always remember to turn it on after connecting to electricity and then turn it off when disconnecting to leave.
Generators: Another Alternative Source For Your RV
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Generators function similarly to RV shore power in that they plug into your AC system and provide AC power.
They typically do not provide as much RV power as shore power, but this is dependent on the size of the generator. Watts, not amps, are used to rate generators. A 1000-watt generator is adequate for a small RV or if major systems such as air conditioning are not required. A 3500-watt generator is usually the next step up, and it can power most RV systems.
Overdrawing a generator is not as dangerous as drawing too much power from the grid. If you try to overdraw a generator, you will simply not receive enough power to run everything properly.
Overloading your generator might cause some damage on your appliances, but it is not likely to happen, so no need to worry. Some motorhomes include a built-in generator that is separate from the main engine and usually located outside in a bay. These are especially useful because they are insulated and thus quiet.
External generators are not permitted during quiet hours, particularly at night. This is probably due to the noise it generates, as they can disturb other neighbors sleeping with them in the trailer park or campground.
Generators can be a good investment to campers but it can get very expensive. Also, you need to load fuel to the generator to make it work, so that can also cost you some more money.
Renewable Energy: Sustainable Sources For Your RV
Image Source: “Solar Panel Collecting Power for a Class B Camper Van” by ShebleyCL is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Some campers use renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy, which are sustainable energy sources as the sun is abundant in the morning and depending on where you camp out, winds can be in abundance all throughout the day.
However, one thing you need to remember is that renewable energy sources are not designed to provide you with an unlimited stream of power. That is very much impossible, like what I mentioned earlier. These power sources are only meant to charge your battery.
They produce direct current (DC) rather than alternating current (AC) like shore power and generators. As a result, you are still limited by the amount of power your battery can provide, but you can use it for much longer because it can be recharged over time.
Solar power provides an off-grid renewable source of power, which is ideal for boondocking adventures. Solar panels are becoming more popular as an environmentally friendly option because, unlike a gas generator, they only use the sun’s energy to generate power, producing no harmful emissions or by-products.
They are also popular with dry campers and those who want to live off the grid. Solar energy is one way for snowbirds who want to get away from the cold weather to take advantage of good weather away from home.
The panels convert solar energy into direct current power, which can then be used to power the electrical system of your RV. You can also power various appliances by adding an inverter to your solar system.
Some RVs are built with solar panels already installed. Solar kits, on the other hand, are the most convenient option for the majority of people. These systems can range from as simple as a piece of paper to keep your battery charged to fully integrated systems that meet your entire rig’s power requirements.
Back then, you cannot rely on solar power for your RV as the technologies at the time were not that defined and polished. With the advancements in technology, this trickled down to RVs, which now have reliable supplementary sources of electricity.
One pro in using renewable energy sources is that your batteries will be kept charged as long as the sun is visible and shining bright. On the other hand, you cannot run anything heavier than you could normally run off the battery alone.
Obviously, you cannot use solar and wind energy to power your air conditioning system, your heaters, the microwave, and your other appliances that consume a lot of electric power.
Using Propane To Run Your Electric Appliances
Propane is a reliable and affordable energy source for a variety of campervan appliances. Stovetops, ovens, furnaces, water heaters, and refrigerators all benefit from propane as a fuel source. A big propane-fueled refrigerator, for example, can be cooled with a flame no larger than three matches.
Propane energy has certain drawbacks that must be considered. Since propane-fueled appliances must be vented, there are restrictions on where they can be placed in a floor plan. Second, it’s important to note that propane-fueled appliances, such as furnaces, also need 12-volt power to operate.
Each and every liquid propane (LP) appliance must also adhere to strict safety guidelines. As a result, they should always be mounted by a trained professional. Some appliances in your RV may be powered by electricity or propane. It is common to find heaters, water heaters, and refrigerators that can switch between the two.
If you are connected to RV shore power, the rule of thumb is to use the electricity option, or a hybrid electric and propane option if your rig has a hybrid system. You can use the propane option if you are boondocking or camping off the grid. It all comes down to which you have more of and which works best for your system — propane or electricity.
Propane is a good supplement but you just cannot rely on propane to run your appliances entirely in your RV. Nonetheless, for a fully fitted camper van, propane energy is often the best choice.
Some Tips And Tricks On Saving Electricity While On The Road
Go Manual On Some Household Tasks
We all know how electricity has made our lives much more convenient. We can heat water in a few minutes, we can heat meals as though they were freshly-cooked, cook meals faster, and other several tasks.
One way to conserve electricity is to do some things the way before we got to know how electricity works: manually. Instead of brewing coffee in your electric coffee maker, you can just boil water and use a simple coffee dripper to make one.
You can also use your propane stove to boil water, or go for the more rugged approach and boil water over a campfire. Then, pour the water through the coffee dripper, and there you have it: a steaming hot cup of coffee to start your day without using your electric appliances.
Other things you can do is to toast bread over a fire, cooking food on your propane stove, heat water for your baths using a pot or a kettle, use coolers to store your food, among several things.
Skip The Furnace To Save Electricity
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Although your furnace is powered by propane, the fans that circulate the air in your RV are powered by electricity. When you are camping outside, it is best to count your furnace out.
Stock up on warm clothing and blankets instead. Especially if you know you will be sleeping somewhere cold. Invest in a decent sleeping bag that can withstand cold temperatures. To keep you warm at night, bring stocking caps, mittens, and heavy socks. If you do need some extra air, invest in a propane-powered portable heater.
These heaters are designed to heat small spaces such as fish houses and tents, so they will work in your RV without overheating. They are driven by tiny, disposable propane bottles, so they will not deplete your main propane tanks.
Buy A Lot Of Batteries And Keep Them Stocked
You can also buy supplementary batteries and buy some more for your smaller appliances that can work on batteries.
The number of batteries you can carry is determined by the size of your rig and the amount of storage space available. Furthermore, batteries are large, so keep that in mind when weighing this choice.
It is not unusual for people who go camping on a regular basis to have more than one battery with them. You should also invest in a sine wave inverter to go with your batteries.
Your portable electronics will not be powered by household batteries. The inverter is needed to provide clean, secure AC power for devices such as cell phones and laptops.
Another point to remember about these lightweight, portable electronics is to not use them when they are being charged by the inverter. Using them when they are plugged in quickly depletes the battery’s capacity. Tax them only when you are not going to use them.
Use The Energy Given By Mr. Sun To Your Advantage
Electric heaters consume a lot of electricity when turned on, so it can take a chunk on your electric supply.
Taking advantage of the free energy of the sunlight that comes in during the day is one of the simplest ways to reduce the heating requirements in your RV.
You will maximize the heat (and light) that reaches the room when the sun is shining by parking with the main areas of glazing facing south, which is in the northern hemisphere, or north, which is in the southern hemisphere.
Avoid parking in the shadow of trees or buildings in the winter, and consider how you can spot your car to take advantage of the sunlight. In the summer, thinking about the sun and doing the opposite will also help you keep your RV cool.
Use The Shades Effectively And To Your Advantage
This is perfect for camping in the warmer seasons. It is always cooler in the shade rather than in the sun.
RVs are made of metal, and we all know how metals conduct heat. If you have poor insulation in your RV, this opens the tendency for you to turn all the cooling appliances on, and it consumes a lot of electricity.
You can park your RV in the shade, as this does not allow the sun to enter your RV and raise the temperatures up. If you have the ability to do so, go ahead and do so. Cover any windows that receive direct sunlight with your window shades. We stayed in one RV park where our rig was oriented north-south.
In the morning, we would close the curtains on the east side of the RV and leave the west side open to keep it cool. We’d lower the shades and open the east side until the sun had moved to the west.
Use Fans To Make Air Circulate More Effectively
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This is also applicable when you are camping during the warmer seasons of spring and summer. Installing a couple of small fans inside an RV helps circulate the air and makes it feel hotter than it really is.
A fan placed on the floor and aimed upwards will help disperse cool air that has accumulated on the floor. By circulating this air, you can help your RV cool more evenly and reduce the amount of work your air conditioner has to do. In the summer, if the air conditioner is turned off, so is your power bill.
Electricity makes our lives easier, including those living in RVs. We have different ways on how trailers get electricity. Each has different advantages and disadvantages, and each is catering to a wide array of RV campers and travelers depending on their needs and preferences. What is important is that all of these can make our lives easier, from cleaning to preparing our food to sleeping and relaxing in our RVs. Always remember to clean your RVs, especially the things you used outside, to get rid of viruses such as the coronavirus.