Unless you are going to revert to lanterns and candles, you not only will need sources of electric power but if you plan to do any off-grid camping you will need to know more than how to plug your camper into the pedestal provided in a full hookups site.
Our [email protected] 400 has the capability of running either off a 120V source (a shore power line or a generator) or a 12V battery system. In either case it’s wise to understand how much power is available to you and how much the appliances you want to use will require.
One of the realities of RV ownership is that you will make a few mistakes along the way and for many of us one of the first mistakes is to allow the battery to totally discharge. Our experience with car batteries doesn’t actually prepare us to deal with RV batteries. We vividly remember the day in 2013 when we discovered we’d exhausted the battery in our brand new [email protected] That’s when we realized we needed to learn more.
The biggest lesson we needed to learn early was the need to pay attention to the battery’s state of charge. Start with a simple battery monitor, available from Amazon, Walmart and other retailers that plugs into a 12V socket in your trailer. Notice on the chart above that 12.7V or more is full charge. For wet cell batteries always keep the state of charge greater than 50% or more than 12.06V. Your most accurate reading will be with the trailer unhitched and not connected to a source of power. Also know that if you’ve just disconnected from power (shore, generator, solar, tow vehicle) that your battery may have a surface charge that will give a temporarily higher reading that actual state of charge. Either let the battery rest for a couple of hours or run the fridge off of battery for a few minutes.
Most camping trailers including [email protected] and [email protected] are equipped by the dealer with wet cell batteries. [email protected] 400s come equipped with AGM batteries. Both are lead acid technology but the AGM’s are sealed and have the advantage of having an 80% depth of discharge capability meaning you can dip down to 11.58V on occasion without damage to the battery. That said, we still like to keep our depth of discharge to 50% on our AGMs.
We love to camp off-grid also referred to as dry camping or boondocking. It’s self contained camping requiring no electric, water, or sewer hookups. This gives us the ability to camp in national park and national forest campgrounds, do dispersed camping on BLM lands, stay at Harvest Hosts sites, and in a pinch accept the hospitality of Walmart, Cracker Barrel, or a number of businesses that welcome RV overnight stays.
Off grid camping helps keep our trip lodging costs down and it also gives us the opportunity to camp near beautiful places that we want to explore. It also makes it exceedingly important to understand your power needs and your battery’s capacity. It ruins the experience if you are sweating over whether the battery will be drained and therefore damaged by morning. Two ways of keeping your battery charged are solar panels or a generator. Using solar alone you can operate all your 12V equipment lights, vent fan, 12V television, 12V sound system, and anything you can plug into one of the USB or 12V (cigarette lighter style) ports.
In June 2020 we traveled to the nüCamp RV Repair Shop to have them install a Sunflare 192W rooftop solar panel. We’re impressed with the CIGS technology both in terms of it’s efficiency and it’s carbon footprint. Back at home our [email protected] is currently parked in the driveway and gets only a few hours of sun each day but nonetheless it keeps the battery fully charged even when we have the Norcold 12V compressor refrigerator running.
If we’re also plugging the coffeemaker into the inverter for our first cup of coffee or if we’re experiencing a cloudy day, we set up our 160W of Zamp suitcase style panels. In our case it’s two 80W panels for two reasons. The first is that we’ve had one of them since 2013 and it was just easier to add the second when we wanted to upgrade in 2017. But more importantly the 160W panels are much heavier and bulkier thus harder to handle and harder to store.
We have two Victron 100/20 smart charge controllers mounted under the bed and wired in parallel to the battery to separately control the rooftop and the portable units. This means that if for instance the rooftop panel is in the shade and the portable panels are in the sun, the lower collection rate of the rooftop unit will not affect the better collection rate of the panels in the sun. We also installed a smart Victron Battery Monitor nearby to monitor our amp hour usage and battery level. Regarding our Zamp panels, we removed their original PWM controllers in favor of the more efficient MPPT technology utilized by Victron. That also gives us the convenience of using the Victron phone app. Although we could wire the two panels in series to get a 24V array, less resistance across the wire, and better efficiency, we opted to just use the Zamp Y-Connector to connect both panels in parallel to the Zamp Port that we had installed by the nüCamp RV Repair Shop.
Admittedly Zamp panels are more expensive than most but we are fans of their efficiency and durability as well as the fact that the panels themselves come with a 25 year warranty and that they are made in America, in Bend, Oregon. In fact in 2018 we had the opportunity to tour the factory and were very impressed.
Here’s a nice overview of Monocrystalline, Polycrystalline, and Thin Film Solar Panels that’s focused primarily in home installations with just a nod to the use of flexible panels for RV installation.
Our second backup is our generator. A generator can serve the purpose of powering your camper with 110V household current and making your standard electric plugs operational
Honda EU2000i generator which has since been replaced in the market by the Honda EU2200. Quality is also one reason we choose a Honda generator. One other reason is how quiet a Honda is. Less expensive generators could make you very unpopular in the campsite.