Trying your hand at RVing for the first time can be overwhelming. There are a lot of different systems, maintenance tasks, and other ins and outs to learn about. You have to learn how to tow and park your rig, how to dump and care for the tanks, how to maintain the roof, and more. Another thing you really should learn about before you set out on your first RV adventure? RV electricity.
To be honest, an RV’s electrical system is pretty straightforward. Even if you’ve never done much with electricity before, you will be able to hook your RV up to electricity without a problem. Still, it is a good idea to understand how the system works before you dive in. That’s why we’re here today.
Below, we’ve outlined the ins and outs of using your RV’s electrical system and hookups. These tips will get you started and should keep you going for many years to come.
Understanding How Electricity Works in an RV
First, you will want to get a basic understanding of how the electricity in your RV works.
Most of the time, you will probably be in a campground with electrical hookups. In these cases, you simply plug your RV into the power pedestal and flip the breaker on. This sends an alternating current (AC) through the RV’s power cable and into the rig, powering all of the outlets and appliances that require AC power (such as the microwave and air conditioner).
This current will also go to the converter, which turns the AC power into direct current (DC) power, thereby charging the house batteries and helping power things like lights and fans, which tend to be on the DC system.
Sometimes you won’t be connected to an outside power source. In these cases, you will not be able to power anything that requires AC power without an inverter, and inverters do not come standard in most RVs. That said, you can still use DC power to run lights, the fridge, vent fans, and a few other things. This power comes from your batteries and will only last as long as your batteries have a charge.
Hooking Up an RV to a Power Source
Let’s say you arrive at a campground and you’re ready to plug your RV into the pedestal, but you aren’t sure what to do next. That’s where this section of our article comes into play.
50-amp vs 30-amp
First, you will need to know whether you have a 50-amp or 30-amp RV. Those with 50 amps will be able to run more things in the RV at once without flipping a breaker—that is, as long as they are able to plug into a 50-amp power source. Meanwhile, those with 30-amp rigs will likely have to be a bit more careful about what they run together (like the microwave and A/C).
The type of rig you have will determine where you plug in. Many campgrounds offer both 50- and 30-amp hookups at every site. In these cases, you’ll simply choose the outlet that matches your plug (a 50-amp plug cannot fit a 30-amp outlet, and vice versa).
If the pedestal at your site doesn’t have the type of outlet you need, you will need an adapter. There are adapters for both 30-to-50-amp and 50-to-30-amp, and it’s a good idea to carry one with you for situations like these. It is safe to plug a 30-amp rig into a 50-amp outlet, but you will still only have 30 amps to work with. Meanwhile, 50-amp rigs can plug into a 30-amp outlet, but as mentioned before, they will be limited to 30 amps of power at any given time.
Using a 20-amp Outlet
Occasionally, you might find yourself in a situation that requires you to plug into a 20-amp outlet for RV electricty. This is fine, but you will need an adapter to do so. You will also need to be very careful that you don’t run too many things at one time.
You probably won’t be able to run a microwave on 20 amps, and you won’t be able to run the A/C safely unless you invest in a soft starter, which makes the electrical load on startup a more gradual process rather than kicking on all at once. Even with the soft starter, you will only be able to run a single air conditioner, and you definitely won’t be able to have anything else running at the same time.
No matter where you plug your RV in, you will definitely want to plug a good surge protector in first. This will help preserve your rig’s electrical system should there be a surge of electricity for any reason. We prefer the surge protectors that offer diagnostic information on the outlet itself. This has saved us from plugging into pedestals with poor wiring on many occasions.
Besides adapters and a surge protector, you will also want to keep a shore power extension cord on hand. This comes in very handy when the power pedestal is placed far away from the campsite. Keep in mind though that you can’t just use a regular extension cord, as these can’t handle the amount of power an RV needs and are likely to overheat. Instead, you’ll need a heavy duty RV-specific cord.
About RV Batteries
Now that you know how to plug into RV electricity, let’s talk a little bit about RV batteries. As mentioned before, your batteries can power any of the DC appliances in your RV (fridge, fans, lights, etc). If you invest in an inverter, the batteries can also power AC outlets and devices such as the microwave and air conditioner.
That said, because these things tend to consume much more power, you will need more than the one or two basic batteries that tend to come stock in RVs in order to do this.
If you do a lot of boondocking, then 1) upgrading the type of battery you have, 2) adding a few extras to your battery bank, and 3) adding an inverter to your setup is all well worthwhile. However, if you spend most of your time in full-hookup campgrounds where incoming power isn’t as much a concern, it really may not be worth it.
Types of RV Batteries
There are a few different kinds of batteries that can be used in RVs. There are pros and cons to each type, so be sure to do your research before buying anything. Here’s a quick glance at the options to help you get started.
12V Flooded Lead Acid Battery
These are what typically come in an RV. They are the cheapest of the three options, but they also require the most maintenance, as the fluid inside must be topped up regularly. They shouldn’t be used below 50% charge, meaning you’ll get something like 30 to 50 usable amp hours out of each 12-volt flooded cell battery.
6V AGM Battery
Often referred to as “golf cart batteries,” AGM (absorbent glass mat) batteries are another popular option. Cost-wise, these are the in-between option. When the golf cart size (6-volt) is purchased, they do have to be purchased in pairs, but even then, they fall right in the middle in terms of price.
Most AGM batteries are sealed, meaning they don’t require any maintenance. That said, like flooded batteries, these also should not be used below a 50% charge level. This means you should get around 175 to 300 usable amp hours from each pair.
12V Lithium-ion Batteries
Lithium-ion batteries are fantastic because they are super lightweight, don’t have to be installed upright, and require no maintenance. Additionally, they can be discharged completely without incurring damage or dropping voltage, meaning you can get 100 to 200 amp hours out of every battery, and you will get a full 12 volts the whole time you’re using it.
It should be noted that these batteries should not be used in super cold temperatures though, and the cost for these batteries is very high, which is likely why more RVers don’t have them.
Using RV Batteries Off-Grid
Of course, if you plan to be off-grid and running off of battery power for a long period of time, you will need some way to recharge your battery bank. Obviously, the more capacity your battery bank offers, the more time you can go without recharging.
Nevertheless, everyone, regardless of battery choice, will need to charge up eventually. This is where generators and solar panels come into play.
Using a Generator
If you do plan to use your RV electricity off-grid, a generator is a very smart investment. Not only will it recharge your batteries as mentioned above, it will also let you run AC appliances while it is hooked up and running, even if you don’t choose to install an inverter. Essentially, your RV treats it like being hooked up to shore power.
Choosing the Right RV Generator
Of course, you will want to make sure you purchase the right generator for the job. There are a few things to consider when buying an RV generator:
The first thing to consider is what type of generator you want to buy. There are two main types of RV generators: on-board generators and portable generators.
As the name suggests, on-board generators are built into the RV. They never move from the bay where they live (barring maintenance reasons), and can be turned on from inside the RV. If your RV didn’t come with an on-board generator built in, it’s probably not worthwhile to have one installed. If it did come with one, it might be worth the money and effort it takes to replace it with another on-board generator, but it also might not be.
Portable generators are…well, portable. They must be taken out of wherever they are stored and set outside when in use, which can be a pain and does make theft more likely. That said, these generators are much more affordable than their on-board cousins.
There are two types of portable generator: the traditional-style portable generators that are infamously quite loud, and the much quieter portable inverter generators. Despite the higher price tag of the latter, we always recommend inverter generators, and your neighbors will thank you for going that route.
Once you’ve decided which type of generator to invest in, the next step is to figure out what wattage you need. This depends on two factors: whether your rig is 30-amp or 50-amp, and what you plan to run with the generator.
If you don’t plan to run the air conditioner, microwave, or other appliances that pull a lot of power, a small 2200-watt (20-amp at 120 volts) generator should do the trick. That said, if you plan to use your RV as you normally would on full shore power, you will want at least 3500 watts (28 amps at 120 volts).
Have a 50-amp RV and want to run both air conditioners at once on generator power? In that case you’re looking at a generator that puts out 6000 watts (50 amps at 120 volts).
Size and Weight
The type and wattage of the generator you choose will determine its size. Therefore, you will probably want to take size and weight into account before you fully settle on which generator you’re looking for. If you have limited storage space or weight capacity, a smaller generator that puts out fewer watts might be a necessary compromise.
Want to camp off-grid but don’t want to carry a generator? Want a second source of power while boondocking? Solar panels are an awesome option for RV electricity systems.
Solar panels work by pulling in energy from the sun and sending it to a charge controller. The charge controller turns the energy into the electricity (that is the correct voltage) and stores it in your battery bank. From there, you can pull the electricity from your battery bank and use it to run lights and appliances in your RV.
Types of Rooftop Solar Panels
There are three types of rooftop solar panels you tend to see in the RV world:
These are known to work better in warmer weather, making them ideal for those who travel in the south during the winter. They are more efficient than the polycrystalline panels we’ll be discussing in a moment, meaning a mono panel will produce more power than a poly panel of the exact same size and shape. They also tend to hold up better than polycrystalline panels.
All that said, monocrystalline panels are almost always more expensive than polycrystalline panels, so keep that in mind when making your decision.
Polycrystalline panels are known to work best in cooler weather, and they tend to do better than other types of panels in slightly shady conditions. However, we don’t recommend putting them in the shade, as they certainly aren’t going to do great when shaded. As mentioned above, polycrystalline panels are the cheaper of the two glass panel types, so they might be a good choice if you’re on a budget.
Thin-Film (aka Flexible)
Flexible panels can be monocrystalline or polycrystalline. They are super lightweight, and because they are flexible, they are much easier to install. One would think flexible panels would be the ideal solution for RVers. Unfortunately, these panels don’t have a great reputation because they tend to die quickly.
When it comes to charge controllers, you have two main options: Pulse Width Modulations (PWM) and Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT).
This is the older technology and, as you might have guessed, typically the cheaper option. PWM controllers are limited in that they are limited to the battery voltage, meaning that if you have a 12-volt battery bank (as most RVs do), you will be limited to buying only 12-volt solar panels and you’ll only be able to wire them in parallel.
MPPT charge controllers are a more advanced technology. For this reason, they are more expensive than the PWM charge controllers out there. These are the more efficient option because they are able to take extra voltage out of the panels and turn it into more amps for the batteries.
Portable Solar Panels
Don’t want to make permanent changes to your rig? Looking to use some solar power without diving into a huge project? There is also the option of using a portable solar panel.
These come in a huge variety of sizes, meaning you can simply choose the option that works best for you. Many come with a charge controller, making things easier for you. We like that they can be moved throughout the day in order to get as much sun as possible. Additionally, some RVs come solar-ready, meaning you can plug and play without any setup at all.
Of course, a single panel is never going to pull as much power as a whole rooftop of panels, so don’t expect it to.
Troubleshooting RV Electrical Problems
As is the case with any RV system, it is possible (and even probable) that you will eventually run into issues with your RV electricity. Below are some of the things you’ll want to check when the power isn’t working properly.
Breakers and Fuses
If the power goes out suddenly, the first thing to check is the breaker on the pedestal outside. If that seems okay, be sure to check the fuses in the fuse box inside of your RV. You might also want to check your surge protector, as the breaker inside your surge protector can flip, causing the power supply to be cut off.
Outlets placed near sources of water (sinks, faucets, etc) will likely be GFCI outlets. Sometimes in RVs, the breakers attached to these outlets are also attached to nearby outlets and/or lights. If the power doesn’t seem to be working in only one section of your RV, check the GFCI outlet buttons.
Aux Battery Switch
Having trouble using the batteries while unplugged from the power pedestal? If you aren’t getting any power, it could be as simple as flipping the aux battery switch. Not all RVs have these, but many do, and if the switch is flipped it will disconnect the RV batteries, meaning they won’t be receiving a charge or sending power out to the DC appliances.
Another thing to look for if you lose power—or if your power comes and goes—is a bad shore power plug or a bad connection at the plug. Sometimes the wires inside the plug head will become loose or frayed over time. Other times the plug might become fried from a loose connection, a bad outlet, or a variety of other reasons. In these cases, the plug must be replaced right away.
If you notice your lights flickering or dimming randomly, or if your batteries aren’t charging fully or as quickly as they used to while plugged into power, you might be looking at a bad converter. Believe it or not, this is relatively easy to replace yourself.
By now, you have a pretty good understanding of how your RV’s electrical system works, how to hook your RV up to electricity, and how to improve and troubleshoot the electricity in your RV. We’d say you‘re pretty well equipped to hit the road and start taking advantage of having power wherever you roam. Why not start planning your first trip right now so you can get out there and start exploring as soon as possible?
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