Inverters, Generators, Solar Panels, and More
When you hear talk among avid RVers of “dry camping” or “boondocking”, They’re talking about camping without the water and power hookups you get at KOA-style campgrounds (in other words, “roughin’ it”!). This is what it’s all about; this is what a self-enclosed unit was built for–and this is where serious campers will go nuts with aftermarket add-ons and upgrades!
The aim of all this is to lengthen the potential amount of time you could disappear for. This means extending the amount of time you have power, water, and capacity in your holding tanks. There are several different ways of going about it, and there are both off-the-shelf products ready to buy and jimmy-rigged DIY solutions for those brave enough to make modifications to their RVs. Here’s a run-down of popular options…
Power in an RV or trailer comes from a 12-volt battery system similar to the automotive setup in your car. The 12-volt batteries you use, however, won’t be the same starter batteries you would buy for a car. They’ll usually be labeled “marine” when you buy them at the store. In the case of a motorhome there will be two different systems, one for starting the engine and running dashboard features, and one for the lights and appliances inside. We often refer to these two systems as the “chassis” batteries and the “coach” batteries respectively.
Some of the most obvious paths to boosting power and having it for longer when camping are in the batteries themselves. For one, are they even charged? Do they need to be replaced with some new ones? Some batteries will be advertised as better than others or longer lasting.
For a pretty penny, you could switch to lithium ion batteries. While expensive (with high-amp-hour units running into the thousands of dollars), they do pay themselves off over time. Comparing dollar per amp-hour between lead-acid and lithium batteries, lithium batteries will end up costing you only a third what lead acid will, because you’ll go far longer between needing to replace.
-You can “draw” more out of them, kind of like a deep cycle battery. With lead-acid you may only be able to “tap” into 50-80% of the actual capacity.
-Get dozens of additional charges out of them.
-Longer cycle life.
-Lithium charges faster and more efficiently.
-Perform intense, current-heavy tasks better.
-Much Smaller and Lighter
-Ideal for solar systems for a myriad of reasons (how easy they charge).
Can’t justify lithium just yet? Here’s another route you can go:
Deep Cycle Batteries
A lead-acid alternative to the lithium route are Deep Cycle Batteries. These 6-volt batteries are most often specified for golf-cart use but when wired in series (for a combined output voltage of 12 volts), they’re a fantastic RV/Marine setup. What you get from 2 Deep-Cycle 6-volt batteries over one of the standard-size 12-volt batteries you’ll buy at the store is, as the term “deep cycle” suggests, a much longer cycle in between charging. The cells in these batteries just allow themselves to be drained “deeper” than the in the shallower 12-volts, if that makes any sense. If there WERE more readily-available deep-cell 12-volt batteries, then we’d be buying those, but because the industry has adopted 6-volt deep-cells, possibly because forklifts and other commercial equipment require 18-volts, that’s what we RV’ers buy!
Real Quick: Parallel vs. Series
Ways to increase power by combining batteries:
What’s all this talk about series or parallel, you may ask? Consult this handy chart:
Parallel combines the batteries in such a way that the output is the same, but the system draws current out of both simultaneously, draining them slower and giving you longer battery life. Though the example above shows two batteries hooked together, you could “daisy chain” as many 12-volt batteries as you wanted (3, 4, 5…) without damage to your RV. The only thing that would limit you is space. However, a more effective setup is usually two deep-cycle 6-volts in series.
When wired in Series the voltage of both batteries are combined. Unlike parallel, you could not wire more than 2 6-volt batteries into the mix without damaging your RV. Because of the deep cells of 6-volt batteries, this is actually a superior setup to the parallel 12’s above.
If your rig is big or you just want to make sure you don’t run out for long dry-camping adventures, this is the go-to configuration. The advantages here are obvious.
I decided to include this section here even though technically inverters won’t GIVE you more power, they allow you to USE that power you already have differently. Your 12-volt battery system uses direct current. Any of the appliances you would bring from home that plug into wall outlet like televisions, dvd-players, phone chargers, vacuum cleaners, and hair dryers all use 110-volt alternating current. Your trailer may have wall sockets to plug these appliances into, but when running off of 12-volt DC power you won’t be able to use them. An inverter is a machine that inverts the DC back to AC so that those outlets supply power. Obviously, that would mean that the inverter is wired into the trailer in a way that may require a professional’s knowledge, but any RV repair center will know how to do it. You can get them in all different sizes (1000 W, 2000 W, 3000 W…) both online or at larger RV parts stores. If you’ve got a battery system with extra power to spare (because it will drain your batteries quicker while in use), an inverter will allow you to charge your phones, let the kids watch TV, and if the inverter is big enough, run the microwave to heat up food. The one thing you should not ever try to run with only an inverter is your air conditioning. Air Conditioning is a huge power suck and will burn up even big inverters.
ALTERNATIVE: Goal Zero Generator
Goal Zero makes a great all-electric “generator”. Basically like a big battery. Will charge phones, laptops, tablets and power TVs and whatever else you have that plugs into wall.
They come in smaller, cheaper variants too.
What’s big, heavy, loud, and smells like gas? Maybe your Dad’s generator that you remember from childhood camping excursions, but today’s generators have come a LONG way. Pickings from the likes of Cummins-Onan, Yamaha, Honda, Generac and more offer quieter, cleaner power at reasonable prices. You can choose either portable or onboard options, though to get one that lives in your undercarriage compartment permanently you’ll want a technician; probably a couple because they’re heavy!
Deciding on how big a generator you’ll need will depend chiefly on how many air conditioning units you want to power. If it’s going to be 2 units, don’t go smaller than 5500 Watts (that’s the generator that comes factory-installed on Toy Haulers and as optional equipment on larger 5th Wheels and Motorhomes).
If you really have a mind to trek out into the vast frontier of America’s backcountry, find your personal Shangri-La, and sip iced-tea from the shade of your patio awning until your neighbors start wondering “what happened to them?”, then for sure you’ll want to consider solar battery chargers. I say “solar battery chargers” because the point of solar panels is NOT to power all of your lights and appliances off of the sun directly—they don’t really do that. Solar panels charge your batteries while the sun shines on them. So, I guess, indirectly they’re powering your system, just by going through the battery. A 4-panel 3000 Watt system (pictured above) with accompanying battery charging unit and watt-matched inverter will probably run you between $5-8 thousand dollars, but you don’t HAVE to go quite that big, and the huge popularity of RV solar in recent years attests to the fact that passionate outdoor enthusiasts believe the experience is well worth the expense. It’s a technology that’s getting cheaper by the year and is the surest way to thrive “off the grid”
Goal Zero offers a portable, collapsible solar panel charging unit that may be all you really need for your phones. You can find it HERE
BOOSTING YOUR TANK CAPACITY IN THE WILD
So now you’ve got power for days, but what are you going to do when that septic tank fills to capacity?? Fun’s over, right?
It’s true, if you’ve got small holding tanks, you are limited to how long you can be out between dumpings, but for those that just HAVE to go those extra few days, external holding tanks are an option. Basically, as your holding tanks get full, you can empty them into this “extra” tank so your holding tanks have more room. Be careful what happens to that tank… you know what’s in it! You’ll empty it at a dump site at the same time that you empty the holding tanks on your RV. Some great options include the Thetford SmartTote tanks that roll around on wheels easily to the nearest dump site and will even tow behind a vehicle.
To have more water while out camping, you’ll just need to bring more from home! Bringing large packs of water bottles or large coolers of drinking water can alleviate your need for water from the trailer tap and limit its use to cleaning and washing. You could also think about getting a large exterior water tank (there are many on the market with RV purposes in mind, like the holding tanks) for the bed of your truck or auxiliary vehicle. It’s hard for me to imagine many scenarios where you’ll need THAT much water being away from civilization THAT long, but for convenience sake you can hook one of these up to your water filter like this blog article shows:
If you plan camp near natural sources of water, research and select the right water filtration system for your needs.