No, I’m not here to talk about popular line dances, though that might be more entertaining. As Jason mentioned in a recent post, he was hard at work during our time in Casar upgrading the RV’s electrical system. Prior to doing some significant research, we knew nothing about this topic. With persistence and determination, Jason will spend hours on end learning how to do home (or in this case, RV) projects on his own via YouTube videos, online forums, blog posts, etc. rather than pay anyone to do a project he believes he can learn how to do himself. This was true when he re-roofed our backyard shed a couple of years ago with no prior roofing experience, and it has held true with the RV. You can call his approach cheap, frugal, or resourceful depending on your preference; I prefer resourceful. So, Jason has made himself somewhat of an amateur expert (how’s that for an oxymoron?) when it comes to the workings of our RV’s electrical system. I, on the other hand, know just enough to sorta get it. Enough to explain it to you in layman’s terms before Jason writes a more detailed post on the project.
First, our RV came with two pathetic batteries, which we upgraded to true deep-cycle batteries. The batteries get charged from the truck when we are driving. When the batteries have some charge, they can supply direct power to anything that is hardwired into the RV, including the inside and outside lights, power awning and slide-out, water pump, and refrigerator (with some propane available too). Basically, these things run off DC (direct current) power. If you google DC power like I just did, you will find that DC power is created by such things as batteries and solar cells/solar panels. Keep that in mind for later. You still with me? So, DC power from charged batteries is great for hardwired things, but it cannot supply power to outlets, or subsequently, to anything that has to be plugged in like the microwave, TV, coffee maker, cell phone chargers, etc. Again, tuck that bit of knowledge away for later in the post.
Now, obviously, as we use hardwired things like the lights, or as the RV sits and rests, the batteries get discharged (i.e. start to lose their charge) and eventually have no charge. As mentioned above, one way to charge the batteries is to hook the RV up to the truck and drive. The other main way is to plug into a power source at a campground (campgrounds have RV campsites with electrical hook-ups, meaning you literally stick one end of your power cable into the RV and the other end into a pole with a huge outlet on it). This campground power is referred to as “shore power”. When we’re plugged into shore power, the batteries get charged AND we have power to everything in the RV, including the electrical outlets. Life is good. The outlets work because shore power provides AC (alternating current) power. AC power is what we have in our homes; again, it’s the power that makes plugged-in things work. AC power CANNOT directly charge the RV batteries or directly provide power to the hardwired things. Luckily, the RV came equipped with a converter that automatically converts (hence, the name) AC power into DC power so that the batteries can charge and the hardwired things can run while we’re hooked up to shore power. We don’t have to do a thing. The converter just works like magic. Again, life is good. Outlets work, hardwired things work, and the batteries get charged.
At this point, you may be thinking, “Ok, what’s the big deal? You have DC power for hardwired things when the batteries are charged. You have two ways to charge the batteries. And when you’re plugged into shore power, you have AC power for outlets and the RV converter automatically converts AC power into needed DC power for the batteries and hardwired things.” You’re right. No big deal. At least no big deal until we’re out west where campgrounds are fewer and further between and we can legally camp on federal lands for free for days at a time. This is called “boondocking”, “dry camping”, or “wild camping” because federal lands don’t have electrical hook-ups or water hook-ups (we’ll get to water another day). Thus, when we camp in these places, we are essentially “off the grid” and have to rely on battery power alone. Enter, two problems:
Problem number one is that batteries lose their charge as they’re used and/or as they’re just sitting. We will likely boondock for several days at a time without hooking up to the truck and driving. So how will we keep the batteries charged? Our solution is solar power, which will be plentiful out west. After much research by Jason (naturally), we purchased two portable solar panels that hook up directly to the batteries using cables much like the ones used to jump-start a car. Portable panels simply mean that we can set them up and move them around wherever and however we want, so we can change the angle throughout the day to face the sun directly as it moves through the sky. It also means that they store flat in a nice compact carrying case that we keep in the “basement” compartment of our RV (the basement is just a long narrow storage compartment under the RV where we can keep things that we don’t want in our living space). According to Jason (because I just had to ask him), we could boondock for about two days without the solar panels; with them, we’ll be able to boondock for three to four days depending on power usage and sunlight. Pretty cool, and we like that they’re sustainable energy. As an aside, all of our hardwired lights in the RV are LED so they draw much less power.
Okay, first problem solved. Onto problem number two. We’ll have DC power from the batteries when we’re boondocking, but we won’t have AC power for outlets/things that need to be plugged in. Could we live without those things? Sure, but we plan to do quite a bit of boondocking out west, and it’s pretty important to at least be able to charge cell phones. Plus, having the conveniences of a coffee maker, toaster, and microwave are pretty nice for meal prep and good our general wellbeing. Again, after much research by Jason, he figured out how to install an inverter. An inverter is essentially the opposite of a converter. The inverter magically changes battery- and solar-produced DC power into AC power, allowing us to have plug-in power inside the RV. Jason can provide more details in a later post, but the installation required lots of steps. We – scratch that, Jason – had to purchase the inverter, wire it to the batteries, drill a hole into the basement of the RV for the wires to pass through, mount the inverter (essentially a black box) onto a stud in the basement, drill another hole for wires into the floor of the RV, snake the wires along a floorboard, drill ANOTHER hole into a cabinet for wires to be hidden, install an inverter on/off switch onto said cabinet, and then install a new outlet onto same said cabinet, which is the outlet we can now use to plug things into when we’re running off battery power alone (i.e. boondocking and/or not hooked up to shore power).
It’s really quite amazing when you think about it, and I sure am proud of Jason for rigging it up (it looks completely professional) and gaining the knowledge to understand how it all works and how to make it work even better for us. Here’s to living off the grid!