Friends just purchased a travel trailer and the very next day went shopping for an inverter. Since we have traveled in our motorhome(s) more than 10,000 miles over the past 18 months without an inverter I was surprised. Then I started developing inverter envy. Before it got too serious, I took some time to do two things: research on the internet, and call Dave.
Inverters, Converters and What You Learn on the Internet
There are dozens of great articles on the internet related to the electrical system in your motorhome, camper, trailer, or fifth wheel. Before I provide you links to these, permit me to use the Denzel Washington approach. (You may recall Mr. Washington, as the attorney in the great movie Philadelphia said, “explain this to me like I’m a two-year-old.”) This is not to suggest that you are a two-year-old! This is to suggest that this is about as much as I understand and we have traveled in our RV without incident for 18 months. Here are the basics:
- There are likely things in your RV like the ceiling lights, some TVs and the water pump that are designed to work on 12 VDC. (That’s the same kind of power as comes out of a vehicle’s cigarette lighter.) That’s the power that is stored in your batteries. That is why you are able to boondock and flush the toilet. Brilliant idea if you ask me.
- There is also something in the RV called a converter. The converter charges your batteries when you are plugged in, driving or running the generator…i.e. it converts the 120 VAC and makes it 12 VDC.
- You might be asking, how long can I run off my batteries? Excellent question! The answer is…it depends. It depends on how many batteries you have…how new or old they are….how well you maintain them, etc. We dry camped in Yellowstone National Park for three days, running the generator for about 30 minutes each morning to make coffee in OLGA 1.0 (a Forest River Sunseeker 2250, Class C motorhome). Fortunately, your RV probably has a control panel where you can see the charge of your batteries.
Are you still with me? Because they seem to want to make this hard to understand. Okay, let’s continue:
- When you put a plug in the outlet of the wall of your home you are running 120 VAC electric.
- Your RV likely has the same kind of outlets.
- These outlets will work if you are plugged into the campground power.
- They will also work if you have a generator and the generating is running.
- These outlets won’t work if you aren’t plugged in or are not running your generator unless your unit is equipped with an inverter.
- Inverters take the electricity (12 VDC) stored in your batteries and makes it 120 VAC.
- Big fancy rigs, those with residential refrigerators, typically come with inverters. Many “entry-level” units don’t or offer inverters as options.
Here are a few articles you might want to read on this topic:
So given the above, what are we giving up by not having an inverter in OLGA 2.0. I thought I knew, but then I called Dave just to be sure.
Who is Dave, and Why Did I Call Him to Talk About Inverters?
Dave is the Safety and Facilities Manager, Sprinter Service and Warranty guy at Renegade RV. I’m not sure his job is to take care of my every question….but he seems to be willing to. If I have a question about our Renegade Villagio, I call Dave. When OLGA got a boo-boo, I called Dave. When my insurance company first denied our insurance claim related to OLGA’s boo-boo, I called Dave. When the RV service center says the best way to fix that is to “blah, blah, blah”, I call Dave. When he isn’t at his desk, he calls me back. It really is a beautiful thing. And regardless of which manufacturer built your RV, I sincerely hope you have a Dave.
I called Dave because my friends took less than 24 hours after buying their travel trailer to go in search of an inverter and I had inverter envy. I felt like I must be missing out on something. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what. I explained my dilemma to Dave in light of the way we camp and our experience to date.
- First, let’s consider we don’t boondock that much. We might spend a night in a Harvest Host site. We might not be able to get into a standard hookup site in Yellowstone. But 80% of the time we are staying at military campgrounds, public or private campgrounds that offer standard electric hookup.
- Second, OLGA has TVs that run off of the 12 VDC system. Also, our laptops and phones can be charged via the cigarette lighter. Yippee!
- So the only time we have to have 120 V power is when we plug in a coffee pot, plug in my Nutra-Ninja, want to run the microwave, or run the air conditioner. When we were in Yellowstone we would turn on the generator (yes, it is noisy and smelly) in the morning to make coffee and/or juice. Trust me we never needed AC in Yellowstone.
What I learned from Dave is that given the above, we probably didn’t need an inverter. Not everyone does. More importantly, there is more to it that buying the inverter. First, you need to figure out the right size. He counseled me if the chart says a coffee maker needs 600 watts, do yourself a favor and buy a unit that can put out 1000.
Second, you need to understand how your unit is wired. For example, even if we add an inverter our refrigerator is not wired to use it. Some units do not have all of the electric outlets wired to “see it”. (My words, not his.) So in addition to the size, you need to understand how your unit is wired. I’m certain anything is possible….but anything will cost more money.
Thirdly, be realistic, i.e. don’t expect to run an air conditioner off an inverter overnight. Clearly, there are wonderful advancements being made in solar technology, and some units now come with huge lithium battery arrays. But the typical RV is not equipped to run the AC unit for more than about 5 hours.
Finally, there may be affordable alternatives. There are small inverters that actually plug into your cigarette lighter available on Amazon. I’m still not convinced we need one, so we haven’t taken the plunge. But if we ever feel we must make a breakfast smoothie without running the generator there are options available.
So there you have it .. .everything I know about RV electrical systems and resources so you can learn more. If this article on inverters has been helpful, let us know.