Welcome to RV Mishaps, a content series written by RVers about problems they’ve encountered on the road, how they solved them, and lessons learned. Have a mishap story of your own that you’d like to tell? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was our first week as full-time RVers. In fact, it was only our second time ever RVing. Seeing as it was our maiden voyage in our brand new Airstream, we opted for a campsite with hookups located near our home in San Francisco. Everything was going smoothly and we felt confident in our new home on wheels. Full of beginners’ confidence and optimism, we started dreaming of a future full of boondocking in remote locations all over the country.
We knew from the get-go that we wanted to camp off the grid, so we had our rig outfitted with 400 watts of flexible roof solar by Zamp Solar and a 240ah lithium battery. But as newbies, we didn’t know what that translated to in hours of power and usage.
To test our battery life, we ran all of the lights and appliances, and then waited a few hours to see what percentage of the battery dropped. We reasoned that we needed to do this at night so that the solar charge wouldn’t impact the results of this less-than-scientific experiment. So we unplugged the rig from shore power, turned on all of the lights, and streamed a movie on Netflix using the inverter power and TV. We also switched the water heater and refrigerator to run on electricity.
A couple of hours later, we had depleted about 50 percent of our battery—but that was guesswork because the factory battery display made it difficult to determine the exact state of charge. We realized that it was going to take a bit of trial and error—and some real-world experience—before we got a good grasp on how much battery our appliances, gadgets, and lights used.
Little did we know just how soon that real-world experience would start.
With our battery about half-charged, we decided to plug back into shore power for the rest of the night and charge the battery while we slept. At 5:30 a.m., we woke up shivering. The power was completely out and the temperature had dropped to 40 degrees inside the trailer. We couldn’t figure out why the battery was dead, since we had plugged back into shore power the following night.
My husband went outside to assess the situation, and quickly realized that the power had gone out at the campground. But the battery still shouldn’t have been completely dead. We didn’t think that we used much electricity while sleeping. We realized that the only appliance running off the battery, other than the small amount used to kick on our propane furnace, was the refrigerator. Learning that the refrigerator consumed most of the battery charge, we knew going forward to run the fridge on propane if we weren’t hooked up to shore power.
After doing some research, we learned that if we plugged our 7-pin connector into our running truck, we would be able to draw enough energy to “wake up” the battery to hopefully run the propane furnace. We ran the truck, but the process was slow. After a couple of chilly hours, the sun rose. With the combination of the truck charging and our solar panels, the battery slowly began to charge (right around the time power was restored at the campground, of course).
Trial and Error
We knew we had a lot to learn when we purchased our rig, so we watched countless YouTube videos and paid close attention to trainings when we rented and purchased our RV. But no matter how prepared we thought we were, it wasn’t until we hit the road and lived in our Airstream that we learned how long we could go off the grid. Now, we confidently go off-grid for weeks at a time—and the limiting factor is our wastewater tanks, not the battery.
It was only through trial and error that we learned how much battery we need during a typical day, and which sources consume the most energy. And while it was an unpleasant experience, if our battery hadn’t died during our first week RVing, we might not have learned that we can plug into our truck for an emergency jolt of power.
Invest in Tech
Today we dry camp and boondock often, so it made sense for us to invest in gadgets that keep our rig running for as long as possible without shore power. We invested in Zamp Solar panels and love that we can use the sun to charge up our lithium-ion battery. If we’re parked under shade, there are cloudy days, or we need to run the A/C, we also have a portable Honda 2200i inverter generator. We’ve only used it a handful of times over the years, but when we need it, we’re happy that we have it.
Our favorite tech investment has been the Victron BMV-712 battery monitor, which we use to view our battery usage and charging level. It’s a digital wall-mounted display that also comes with a Bluetooth-enabled app. The previous battery information screen only showed us if the battery was full, three quarters, half, or one quarter charged. With the Victron Bluetooth app, we know the exact state of charge. We can also see how much power a specific appliance or light switch is using in real-time, and adjust our usage accordingly. AM Solar, a solar energy service, has a resource page for the Victron BMV-712 that includes a video about how to configure your BMV-712 and the settings to input for various battery types and models.
Every battery and rig is different. Depending on your location, time of year, and your RV lifestyle, your battery usage will fluctuate, but with trial and error and a few choice accessories, you can feel confident knowing how long your RV can run off its battery alone.
Disclaimer: Togo RV is part of a joint venture, partially owned by Thor Industries, Inc., of which Airstream is a subsidiary.
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