What’s in a watt?

airstream light switchesWhen you turn on a light in your house, the light goes on. That’s simple. But when you turn on a light in your Airstream while on battery power, it may seem like you’re suddenly expected to have an advanced degree in electrical engineering.

That’s because managing power is one of the biggest challenges new owners face when they start roaming away from reliable campground electricity. Volts, amps, watts, and strange jargon quickly become part of daily conversation.

As Airstreamer said to me the other day: “I don’t know what any of it means, and yet I’m expected to know just to operate my trailer.”

Discussing electrical systems in an RV can be endlessly complicated, but let’s just keep it simple for now.

AC and DC—Your Airstream has two electrical systems, one for 120 volt AC power (just like the power in your house) and one for 12 volt DC power (from the battery).

Think of volts as a measure of pressure, like water pressure in a pipe. The higher the volts, the more pressure. North America uses 120 volts for ordinary outlets, and Europe uses 240 volts.

The 120 volt system in your Airstream is functional when the trailer or motorhome is plugged in. It powers the air conditioner, microwave, television, standard electrical outlets, and the refrigerator (when running in electric mode). It also goes to the power converter, which turns some of that 120 volt AC power into 12 volt DC power. This is used to recharge the battery.

When the Airstream isn’t plugged in, those circuits are off—in most cases. Why “most cases”? Because some Airstreams have generators which can produce 120 volts, and some Airstreams have inverters.

An inverter takes 12 volt power from the batteries and turns it into 120 volt power (the exact opposite of what the converter does). Because this will drain the batteries pretty quickly, inverters are usually wired only to a few things like TV and microwave, just so you can use them while you’re boondocking. You can’t run the air conditioner through an inverter because it draws too much power.

So how do we know much power something consumes? That’s where “amps” and “watts” come in. Every household appliance has a label printed on it somewhere that shows how much power it uses. For example, take a look at the power adapter for your laptop converter, or the charger for your tablet computer. In very fine print it will say something like this: “Input 100-240v~ 1.5A     50-60Hz Output 20v 4.25A max.”

That means this device can accept a range of voltage from 100 to 240 volts of alternating current (AC) at frequency of 50 to 60 Hertz. In other words, it can be used on both North American 120-volt and European 240-volt electricity. That’s nice to know in case we decide to use it in Europe, but we are really interested in the amount of that power it consumes.

This part tells us the rest: “~1.5A”. That means the laptop power adapter requires up to 1.5 amps. Let’s go back to the water pipe analogy. If 120 volts is the pressure, 1.5 amps is analogous to the diameter of the pipe. More amps means a bigger pipe, which of course can carry more water.

The total amount of energy consumed by this device is the product of the pressure and the diameter of the imaginary pipe. This device consumes 120 volts X 1.5 amps, which comes out to 180 watts. That’s the number we were looking for.

(By the way, if you’re wondering about the “Output” numbers, you can do the same math.  This adapter puts out 20 volt power for your laptop at a maximum of 4.25 amps, which is 85 watts.  The difference between 180 watts input and 85 watts output is lost mostly as heat.  That’s why the adapter gets warm when you’re using it.)

From light bulbs you know that a higher wattage bulb is usually brighter. That’s because it’s using more power. Watts tell us the total electrical consumption of anything, and we can use watts to compare different devices.

So why do we talk about 30-amp or 50-amp power cords? That’s the maximum your power cord is rated to carry on a continuous basis. A 30-amp power cord is really a 3,600 watt cord (120 volts X 30 amps) and we could refer to it that way but it’s standard to talk about it in terms of amps.

adapter

“Aha,” you’re thinking, “so a 50-amp power cord is really a 6,000 watt (120 X 50) cord?” No, because there’s a trick. 50-amp power in North America is supplied at 240 volts. So it’s really a 12,000 watt cord. I know, it’s not fair, but that’s the way it is. Now you know why the 50-amp cord is so much heavier: there’s a lot of copper in it to carry all that power. A smaller cord would melt!

That means an Airstream with a 50-amp connection has more than three times the power available to it compared to a 30-amp connection. Even if you’ve got dual air conditioners, you’ve got plenty of extra juice. Those air conditioners will pull up to about 4,800 watts at full tilt, leaving you with 7,200 watts for everything else. Our example laptop at a mere 180 watts is hardly even noticeable in the overall scheme of things.

Once in a while you may need to plug the Airstream into a regular household outlet, which generally provides just 15 amps at 120 volts (which is 1,800 watts). This is fine for keeping the Airstream charged and powering low-wattage AC appliances, like portable fans and laptop computers. But it’s a very bad idea to run the air conditioner on 15-amp power. It might seem to work, but long term it’s likely to damage the air conditioner’s compressor or cause overheating or even melting at the plug.

Now let’s look at the other power system in your Airstream. The 12 volt DC system is driven by the batteries, and it is responsible for powering everything else in the Airstream, including lights, water pump, furnace, “cigarette lighter” 12 volt outlets and USB outlets, fans, refrigerator (when running in gas mode), propane leak detector, stereo/DVD player, breakaway switch, etc.

By running most things on the 12 volt system, most power consuming appliances in the Airstream can be used anytime, which is convenient for roadside stops and overnights without hookups. Since the 12 volt battery is kept topped up by the 120 volt power converter, it will never run out of power as long as the trailer is plugged in. Only when the trailer is unplugged will appliances be working solely on battery power, and with a little conservation, battery power can last for days.

batteryYou might be wondering why we don’t have 120 volt batteries so that everything can use the same voltage. The reason is simple: 120 volt batteries would be extremely heavy and expensive. It’s much more practical to use a 12 volt battery, charger, and appliances—much like your car does. It’s also easier to design solar panels and generators that produce 12 volt power.

In the end, it doesn’t make much difference to most appliances. A light, whether running on 12 volts or 120 volts, will produce about the same amount of illumination for a given wattage. In other words, a 12 volt light that consumes 1 amp is about the same as a 120 volt light that consumes 0.1 amp. Both consume a total of 12 watts and both will be about the same brightness.

So a watt is a watt, whether that power is supplied at 120 volts, 240 volts or 12 volts. If you ever get confused about comparing power from your solar panels, generator, or the needs of various appliances, figure the watts (remember, volts X amps = watts) and you’ll have a fair comparison.

Rich Luhr is the author of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance,  available at the Airstream Life Store. There’s a lot more about Airstream electrical systems, including maintenance tips, in this 220-page book.

Solar vs Generator?

Lots of new Airstream owners want to find ways to extend their camping time while “boondocking,” (off-grid camping, away from electrical hookups). So inevitably the question comes up: which is better, a generator or solar panels?

Generator AirstreamThe answer comes down to your needs. Generators are the most practical way to have enough power to run very high-wattage appliances like the air conditioner and microwave oven. If you must have air conditioning when not plugged in, you will have to use a generator, and it will need to be capable of at least 2,600 watts peak output, and preferably 3,000 watts.

However, if you can live without your air conditioner and microwave oven, solar panels become a very attractive option. Solar panels are silent, don’t require you to carry fuel, and are virtually maintenance free (other than washing them once in a while). They work without any intervention from you and can keep the batteries in your Airstream charged while it’s in storage.

A major difference is that solar panels only provide power to charge the batteries. They don’t directly power anything, although the batteries will of course power all of your 12-volt devices and can even power low-wattage 120-volt AC appliances like laptops and TVs using an inverter.

Most RV generators have on-board inverters so that they can provide 120-volt AC power directly to the Airstream, just like plugging in. This is convenient but most of the time the generator is producing far more power than you actually need.

If you want a generator primarily to recharge your batteries while camping off-grid, you can get the smallest generator possible. Even a small 1000-watt (rated) generator can typically produce far more power than the batteries will accept at any given time. The rest of the power is wasted, unless you are running the microwave or some other power-hungry AC appliance while the generator is running.

This means that the best time to use the generator is when power demand is high. It’s much easier to avoid using battery power by being plugged into the generator, than to try to recharge battery power later. Use the generator in the morning and evening when you are cooking and using lights and water pump, and the power needed will be supplied by the generator rather than coming from the batteries.

If you want to get a generator, do yourself and your neighbors a favor and get one of the quieter models specifically made for RV use. Both Yamaha and Honda make excellent products which have good reputations for reliability and quietness. If you borrow a “construction” generator from work on your weekend camping trip you will save some money but you won’t be popular when you fire it up—and the noise might detract from the peacefulness of your boondocking site, so what’s the point? Similarly, there are cheaper “knock off” brand generators on the market, but their quality is not up to the standards of the major brands.

Solar’s big advantage is in recharging batteries, so if extending your time at camp is your primary goal, they are the preferred option. Rather than pumping out large amounts of power in short time periods like a generator, solar provides a steady all-day charge will have a much better chance of getting your batteries up to 100%. It’s like the turtle and the hare. With batteries, slow and steady wins the race.

If you have both a generator and solar panels, use the generator when the batteries are heavily discharged (for an hour or so in the morning, for example) to get the bulk charge done quickly, and then let solar finish the job over the course of the day.

If you only have solar, keep in mind that during the morning and mid-day, moderately or heavily discharged batteries will probably accept every amp the panels can generate. Then the charging rate naturally slows down. If the sun is still shining at that point you have surplus power, and so that’s the time of day to plug in all of your rechargeable accessories like phones, cameras, laptops, etc. This strategy takes maximum advantage of the power being generated.

Sometimes people go with generators over solar because they are afraid they won’t have power on a cloudy day. Certainly clouds will drastically reduce the amount of power generated, but you’ll still get some. The solution is to add batteries so that the Airstream has enough power to bridge a cloudy day (or two) without a problem.

If you are considering adding solar panels, keep in mind that the solar panels should be sized to approximately match the capacity of the batteries in the Airstream. If the panels produce a lot more power in a typical day than the batteries can store, you’ll have wasted money on expensive panels. If the panels are too small, they might not produce enough power to keep the batteries charged, which can lead to short battery life if the trailer is not plugged in regularly (such as during long-term storage).

It’s hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison of generators and solar panels, because as you can see, they perform very differently. It’s even hard to pin down a cost for comparison, because the output of each option can vary widely. Quiet RV generators from Honda and Yamaha range from 1,000 watt units suitable for battery re-charging and small appliances, up to big 3,000 watt units to run the air conditioner. Solar panel systems (including battery banks) can run from 50 watts up (typically 200-400 watts will fit on the roof, plus more possible using portable panels), and the costs of an installed system are likewise varied. Keep in mind that comparing wattages is not useful since the solar panel runs whenever the sun shines, and the generator usually only runs for short times.

You’ll need to decide which option you prefer, and then talk to a solar installer, or shop generator prices. RV solar specialists are in many parts of the country (some are even mobile and will come to you) and they can help determine the optimal size of your battery bank and provide solar panels to match.

Either way, upgrading your Airstream to give you more boondocking time is a great advantage. It will open up new travel options for you and eliminate worries about running out of power when on a long trip or during storage.

For more, pick up your copy of Rich Luhr’s books, “The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming” and “Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance” at the Airstream Life store.