Ever wonder “How do campers get power?” You’re not alone, from the battery to solar and gas, let’s talk about how campers get power on and off the grid.
How Do Campers Get Power: Both On-Grid and Off-Grid
Ever wonder how RV travelers access their basic utilities while traveling on the road or even more so off grid away from society? Whether running an Air Conditioning, cooking or taking showers, it will require power (and water).
Some RV’s have basic power sources like the battery and propane tanks, while some others are equipped with generators, power inverters and solar panels for uninterrupted electricity. So, how do campers get power? Let’s take a dive in and look at how do campers get power.
Types of RV Power Sources
Typically, an RV has two different electrical systems each separate from one another, a Direct Current (DC) system of 12-volt, and an Alternating Current (AC) system of 120-volt. The DC electrical system uses a 12-volt battery that powers most of the basics in the RV, things like lights, the water heater, water pump, carbon monoxide detector, and the refrigerator.
The 120-volt AC electrical system derives its power from the RVs generator or fixed campground power hookup and serves power for running daily utilities like kitchen appliances, TV, and other electrical appliances that need larger power.
Every RV has either a battery or a series of batteries installed for providing a source of power in the absence of an external power source. Most RV’s will come factory with a Deep Cycle Battery. Deep cycle batteries can run the electronic equipment that uses low power, things like the lights, and even some small appliances. These batteries can be charged through an external power source connected to the RV, which includes things like generators, your truck (or towing vehicle), and solar panels.
One of the biggest drawbacks to this involves their performance, which as you know is good…..but not enough. Battery power is incapable of running the air conditioner and can drain quickly if you run the Refrigerator or Heater over any reasonable amount of time. Additionally, batteries require decent maintenance to keep them up and running and have to be replaced from time to time.
On Grid Options
When you connect your RV to an on-grid dedicated AC power supply, you are connecting to a power supply of either 30 or 50 amps. Once connected, running all your appliances, including Air Conditioning, heaters and Microwaves will run without issue.
The downside to direct 30/50 amp power is generally that it is tethered to your home or a developed campsite. While campsites can be a nice break from boondocking, many that love the off-grid lifestyle tend to shy away from spending any real-time at a campground and look forward to remote living off-grid.
Generators provide a 120-volt option in a portable “off-grid” option. Essentially, the generator is the grid….. Although, they don’t provide as much electricity as the direct power option because they have limited supplies of the source energy. Generator electricity is measured in watts rather than amps, and a small RV can do well with a 2000-3000W generator.
Most of the RVs will need a 3500W or greater generator for running big appliances like air conditioners and microwaves. Generators cannot be used indoors as they produce carbon monoxide gas and you can rarely find space where you can run it so that the noise won’t disturb anyone.
Gasoline generators are a trusted source for dependable, strong electricity supply to your RV. Most well-equipped gasoline generators can be purchased for under $1000 and will provide roughly 5,000 Watts for that price point. A major drawback to gasoline generators comes in two forms: Size/Weight and well, needing gas. A quality gas generator running the needed 3500+ Watts will be heavy, likely over 100 pounds, and take up around a 3x3ft space. This generator below is great.
Solar Generators / Power Banks:
As of 2020, the outdoors industry has seen a huge spike in camping related to All electric power banks. Companies like Goal Zero, Bluetti, and Jackery have been dominating the Solar Power Bank industry. These devices can be charged by solar panels giving the consumer essentially an endless power supply (dependent on weather). With power banks, there is no need for an electrical outlet or a gas can.
A major disadvantage to Solar Generators is that they lack the ability to maintain amperage and wattage output to charge larger appliances such as AC. So, if it’s a really hot day, I wouldn’t expect your Solar Generator to power your AC for long if at all. However, if you don’t need AC, Solar Generators are an excellent option.
Everyone loves the idea of Solar Power (and for good reason), however, we need to remember that renewable energy sources like solar power are designed not to provide on-demand power, but to charge the existing power banks (batteries). Solar Panels generate direct current rather than the alternating current which you get from generators or direct power. Essentially, you will be limited by the power your battery will produce.
On the other hand, you can keep the battery running on for several hours by recharging them via solar panels without the need for powering them from a grid. The only disadvantage in using solar power is that you can’t get anything running from the current source of the panel and must rely on the battery system. Additionally, the output wattage of solar panels will not power (in most cases) high amperage appliances like Air Conditioning and Microwaves.
Many systems on your RV are already designed to run on propane. Appliances and systems like the refrigerator and heater run on a combo of propane and battery. Propane tanks can be useful for people where there are no hookups available. The price to refill a propane tank is around $3 per gallon.
Propane gas can run almost all the electronic appliances in your RV. There aren’t many disadvantages to running propane, it’s cheap, readily available and many of your systems can run on it. Additionally, many power generators can run on either gas or propane, these are referred to as “Dual Fuel” Generators and can be a great option for converting propane into 120v power sources that can run your AC on a hot day.
How Much Power Does An RV Need?
Exact power amounts will vary from RV to RV as they depend on the appliances that are being used and the size of the units. You should take into consideration how each appliance can use power and what power options you will have.
Generally, every appliance will need more starting watts and then a lower sustained running watts. For Example, a standard 13,500 BTU Dometic AC unit in an RV will need about 2700 watts to start the unit and need to maintain 2200 watts to run the unit at standard output. Additionally, an RV refrigerator will need around 600 watts to start and need 180 watts for smooth running.
Overall, the type of auxiliary power supply you will need will vary depending on the size, nature, and frequency of your activities. Regardless of your personal goals, there are lots of options out there for you. Nonetheless, you now know the answer when someone asks you “How do campers get power?” If you’re needing a little inspiration for your next trip, check this advice out here.
Mike is a Colorado resident, a combat veteran, and a former Police Officer, and an avid outdoorsman. Mike has camped, hiked, and Overlanded all over the United States. From backpack Elk Hunts on Public Land, solo truck camping to Multi-week Overlanding adventures with his family, Mike is very familiar with these outdoor topics.