I started RVing in the mid-80’s with nothing more than one battery, that could keep the fridge running, was a backup for my trailer emergency brake and supply some light for nighttime reading.
Things have changed since then, in a major way! In fact, the battery system’s main purpose was to enable to move from campground to campground. Few people knew about battery maintenance and boondocking was limited to an overnight stay, unless you wanted to go without the conveniences of modern life.
The basic battery was joined by a standard converter that handled the electrical campground hook-up and recharged the battery. Soon, I installed extra batteries to spend more time away from crowded campgrounds. Unfortunately, as a newbie I made the mistake to buy RV/Marine Deep Cycle batteries, a hybrid cranking/deep cycle battery with thin plates, but the learning process had started.
They did not last very long and through my research (mainly in libraries at that time), I discovered some of the basic principles, that are still valid today. Only lead-acid batteries were an option for me and monthly fluid checks/refills started to be part of my maintenance checklist. I found out that real Deep Cycle batteries had thick plates that could hold the electricity and release it slowly over a longer time period. Over the years and several new batteries, I learned about phased charging and topping off. Then expanded with a dedicated 110V charger, soon followed by two expensive solar panels. Still with little monitoring and actually little knowledge of how the system performed.
For years this early solar equipment performed adequately, except of the frequent battery replacements. Since then, the Internet with a wealth of knowledge appeared, and combined with my experience, has improved my understanding immensely. I learned to make the car’s alternator part of the system and added a separate inverter to augment my capabilities. More luxuries like TV and longer boondocks became part of the picture.
All these system components have proven themselves over the years and extensive experience of many RVrs has made this a well-designed and good working system for RV owners. Unfortunately, many manufacturers still install inadequate equipment, undersized wiring, etc. so some personal expertise is still necessary. Especially in todays world, where technology is rapidly changing.
The basic system of battery, alternator, controller, monitor, solar panel, charger and inverter is changing as demands for electricity for all the new electronic gadgets is increasing. Even off-grid A/C has become part of the boondocking vocabulary!
As luck would have it, solar panel efficiencies have greatly increased and substantially lower prices allow for more panels to be installed. A major recent development is the introduction of Lithium batteries to the RV lifestyle. They reduce weight by half, increase storage and virtually eliminate maintenance. Prices are still high and more important, explicit implementation as RV battery is so far untested. Lithium batteries have no real phased charging to worry about; this has led in some conversions to implement a dual alternator system, where the second alternator operates separately to charge the lithium batteries, often within 30-60 minutes. A correctly designed system, could potentially recharge the batteries after a short trip to the store, making boondocking as easy as being at home. Very little actual experience with these systems is available and they do have their drawbacks, especially reflected in price and higher fuel consumption, but things are changing for the better. Increasing electrical supply may even lead to eliminating RV propane use altogether, making for a safer experience.
These generally good improvements have one drawback: with all the convenience we gain, we are losing the reason why we originally went camping for. To get away from that hectic lifestyle; now we have to bring our washer, our cellphone and Facebook. I wonder, when will they install a lift to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon?
UPCOMING: RV Electrical System: Design