Generating Power While Boondocking (Solar vs Generator)

Your battery bank will supply the majority of your electrical power throughout the day when dry camping. While running off your battery bank, conserving power is the key to prolonging your reserve battery capacity. So only power up what you need, then turn it off when it's not needed.

We all know by now that replacing indescent light bulbs with LED bulbs is a great way to use less electricity in your RV. LED bulbs use one tenth the energy consumed by incandescent bulbs. It's true. Here's an LED comparison test I performed a while back.

After regular use throughout the day, your batteries will need to be recharged. For that you'll need to either run a gas powered generator with a charger or install a solar charging system. Keeping your RV batteries at 50 percent of reserve capacity or higher is recommended to prolong the life of your deep cycle batteries.

So how much electricity do you need?

Since everybody's needs will vary, you should understand what your specific needs are before choosing whether to go the solar route or stick with a power generator.

I should point out that some components in your RV need a lot of power to run such as your A/C unit or electric heater. Running a generator to power those items is usually the only option. Components like air conditioners simply draw too much power for a solar/battery setup to handle.

Assuming you've already decided that remote camping is what you want to do, ask yourself these questions and get a better understanding of your electricity needs:

  • In a 24 hour period what will you be doing?
  • What electrical equipment will you need?
  • What type of electricity does each component use (AC or DC)?
  • Calculate how much power each of those electrical components use (electrical current measured in Amps)

AC powered appliances like your laptop power supply, television, or stereo have the Amp draw written on the back of the unit somewhere. There are also inexpensive devices that will measure the AC current being consumed.

DC powered consumption can be more difficult to measure since those components are typically wired directly into the RV. Using a DC clamp meter on your battery cable will work. You can also install a battery monitoring system. I installed one called the TriMetric Battery Monitor from Bogart Engineering.

To estimate your daily electrical consumption simply add everything up. Create a list of electrical components like I've done below indicating each item's current draw (in Amps), and how many hours you'll need it in a given day.

Component

Current (Amps)

Hours

Amp Hours (amps * hours)

Lights

1 (5 low powered LED lights)

6

6

Laptop

5

4

20

TV

7 (LED TV)

3

21

Fan

3

5

15

Gauges, detectors, etc.

0.5

24

12

Note: 1 amp at 120 volts AC is roughly 10 amps at 12 volts DC. Multiply your AC amps by 10 to get the equivalent current rating at 12 volts DC.

Notice I didn't include air conditioners, electric heaters or electric water heaters in this list.

Gas Powered Generators

Using a power generator is a suitable option for generating power. Many RVs come with onboard generators or can be easily connected to an external one. The drawback to running an onboard or external generator is that it requires a steady supply of fuel. They can also be noisy. For those reasons, RVers who use generators usually use them on an "as needed" basis to recharge their battery bank at the end of the day.

Small portable generators are popular options for battery recharging since they use less fuel and are generally quieter. A popular option is to plug a multi-stage battery charger to a small gas powered generator.

Generators are also great backup power sources when your primary power source is solar. They provide enough power to run heaters, air conditioners and microwave ovens as needed.

Charging with Solar Panels

If you plan to do a lot of remote camping, then a solar charging system is something you should consider. Powered by the sun, a solar charging system can recharge your batteries indefinitely. Whenever the sun is shining you're solar panels will be generating power. Unfortunately, solar requires an investment on your part as most RVs do not come with solar panels installed.

A typical RV solar charging system consists of solar panels plus a solar charge controller (your battery charger for solar). To power household items (via standard 120 volt AC receptacles) you will also need a power inverter. Inverters convert DC battery power to household AC power and come in a variety of sizes measured in watts (e.g. 500, 1000, or 2000 watts).

More RV Solar Information

If you're considering a permanent solar installation, I recommend taking some time to understand your options. Start by reading our Guide to RV Solar which covers basic solar concepts and answers common questions.

We also have professionally configured and affordable Do-It-Yourself Solar Kits to help eliminate the guess work of choosing the right components for your RV.

Small RV Starter Kits Mid-Sized Solar Charging Kits

More Boondocking Tips

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