Conserving Power While Boondocking, Part 2

Following up on our previous post about Conserving Power While Boondocking — another major way to extend your power supply is to understand where the power goes.

The built-in battery monitor won’t help with that. You will need to install an accurate amp-hour or watt-hour meter that measures the amount of power being consumed in real time.

A good amp-hour meter with a digital readout (made by Xantrex, Bogart Engineering, and other companies) requires some installation and money, but for those who frequently camp without hookups it’s well worth the investment.

With a real monitor you can see what each light and appliance is consuming, and identify the big users so that you can avoid them or upgrade them. Right off the bat you’ll see that your RV furnace is a huge consumer of electrical power, so you might want to consider an extra blanket on the bed or even a catalytic heater (which uses no electricity). Incandescent lights (on older Airstreams) are also big consumers, so if you don’t have LED you should seriously consider upgrading the most-used interior bulbs or entire fixtures.

boondocking

Studying power requires you to understand just a little bit about how electrical power is measured. The amp-hour meter will measure the 12 volt DC power coming off the batteries (or going back in when charging) using amps. Constantly drawing one amp from the batteries for an hour will total one “amp-hour.” The meter will keep track of amps going in and out at any given time, and also keep a total of the amp-hours used since the battery was last fully charged.

(If you want to think of the power in terms of watts instead, just multiple the amps by 12. But for the purposes of this discussion we’ll stick with amps.)

A typical Airstream trailer comes with a pair of Group 27 batteries (that’s a physical size, not power capacity). They might each be rated at 85 amp-hours capacity for a total of 170 amp-hours. But because you should only discharge them to half of their total capacity (for longest life), your net capacity from two batteries is really just 85 amp-hours.

The furnace pulls about 7-10 amps while running, depending on model, which adds up to a lot of power when you consider how long it runs on a cold night. It’s one of the biggest DC power consumers in the trailer. That’s why setting the thermostat lower on a cold night will help a lot.

Just two nights of furnace can easily drain the usable capacity of the standard pair of batteries in an Airstream trailer. By monitoring the electrical “cost” of running the furnace with the amp-hour meter, you’ll understand what’s happening before the power goes completely flat.

boondocking

Why do trailer batteries go flat even when you’re not using anything? An amp-hour meter can help you understand “parasitic” loads on the batteries. Several devices draw small amounts of power even when they are not in active use, and that’s what we call a parasitic load. This includes the circuit board in the refrigerator, the propane leak detector, the stereo, the circuit board in the water heater, etc. All of those little parasites add up, and it’s not uncommon for them to total an amp or so of constant draw.

A one-amp parasitic draw means all of your useful power will be gone in about 85 hours—just three and a half days—even if you aren’t using anything else in the trailer at all! This is why Airstream provides a STORE/USE switch to cut power to most systems when the trailer isn’t being actively used.

With the amp-hour meter you’ll be able to see the exact parasitic draw and get an idea of how it combines with your routine power usage while you’re camping. Soon you’ll understand why there are so many posts in online forums from new owners asking why their battery was dead after just one night of running the furnace.

boondocking

If you frequently run out of power when boondocking and you don’t want to spend the big bucks to get a generator or solar panels, the easiest and cheapest option is simply add more battery capacity. There are several ways to do this, and the best solution depends on the layout of your Airstream. Usually people find a spot toward the front of the trailer (such as under a couch or in an external storage compartment) to install a bigger battery bank.

At the same time it’s an opportunity to upgrade to Absorbed Glass Mat batteries, which last longer and are safer than ordinary “wet cell” batteries. Going back to the electric car analogy, more battery power is like going from a Nissan Leaf (with an 80 mile range) to a Tesla Model S (230 mile range). Suddenly your “range anxiety” is greatly reduced and you can actually go places.

The larger battery option is less costly than a “quiet” generator or solar setup, with the advantage of always working regardless of sunshine or fuel supply. For most people, more battery capacity and better conservation are enough to get a few extra days of boondocking.

Knowledge is power, and in this case more power is mostly a matter of more knowledge. You’ve got options to explore. If you find yourself addicted to the off-the-grid lifestyle, congratulations! It means you’re enjoying your Airstream, and that’s a good thing.

Conserving Power While Boondocking

One of the most concerns of RV travelers who have begun to stray from established campsites has to do with energy usage. They’re always worried about running out of battery power, a version of the “range anxiety” that owners of electric cars often have.

That’s a legitimate concern, because once the batteries run out of juice, everything in the trailer goes off: refrigerator (even when running on propane), heat, light, water pressure … even the hitch jack won’t go up or down anymore. If it happens to you, you won’t forget it.

It’s a pretty traumatic experience to have the entire trailer—your home and security—go dead.

The battery life problem is two-fold. First, many owners really have no idea of how much power they are using at any given time (the built-in battery monitor is pretty inaccurate). Second, the batteries typically have just enough capacity for an overnight or a weekend if you aren’t running the furnace a lot.

Airstream provides those batteries because most people don’t use their trailer away from shore power for longer than a night or two.  Yes, despite all the discussions about “boondocking” you may have seen online, and all the blogs written by hard-core off-the-grid travelers, the reality is that most travel trailers go straight to a campground and get plugged in. Problem solved.

Boondocking Anza Borrego

 

 

Boondockers require more. After a while, a minority of owners start to pine for something more in their travel experience, and that inevitably leads them to the need for more power, more efficiency, and a better understanding of what’s going on.

Learn how to cut back on power; that’s the first and best way to get more boondocking time out of your batteries. Cutting back on use of electrical power gets into the same skills that boondockers need for water and propane conservation. You can do simple things like taking shorter showers (the water pump is a big energy consumer) and doing less dishwashing, switching to LED bulbs if your trailer didn’t come with them, setting the furnace temperature lower, etc. Conservation takes a little effort and a little practice, but it pays off immediately.

There are other ways to conserve as well. If you have an inverter, use it minimally because it’s a fairly inefficient way to power your devices like laptops. The inverter turns 12 volt DC power into 120 volt AC power, which then gets turned back into DC power by the “power brick” attached to your laptop. In each step, some energy is wasted—and even when there’s nothing attached to the inverter it is constantly consuming a small amount of power. Switch it off when you’re not using it.

More efficient devices are needed for boondocking. A laptop can pull 60-100 watts, which is a lot when you’re running on battery. Using a tablet instead of a laptop cuts that power requirement to 10 watts or less, and it can recharge off a USB outlet, which means you can skip the inverter — or recharge in the car while you’re driving.

In hot weather, bail out of the trailer by late morning when things warm up, and try to stay out as late as possible. This cuts down the length of time you’ll need the vent fans, saving about 24 watts per fan used. That power is put to better use after sunset when the temperatures start to drop.

Sometimes it’s easiest to relocate your power consumption to another place. In other words, if you’ve got to log some laptop time, consider relocating to a coffee shop and using their power (and wifi). Consider trying the campground showers to cut use of the power-hungry water pump in the trailer. Instead of running the inverter to watch a movie in the trailer, consider going into the local town to see what’s playing.

A lot of people hate conserving because it makes them feel deprived, but if you take a different perspective you may not mind so much. You may find that the steps you take to conserve open the door to opportunities for new experiences.

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.

Digital Voltage Monitor

Should you care about the power that comes into your Airstream from the campground?

Absolutely. YES.

Even newer campgrounds can have problems with their electrical power. Outlets may be mis-wired or damaged in a way that can be hazardous to your health—and the health of your Airstream.

Especially on a hot and humid day, when everyone in the campground is running their air conditioner, you’ll need to know that voltage is high enough to avoid burning out your A/C compressor.

The best way to know you’re getting good power is to use a digital AC voltage monitor. Outside Interests recommends one of the best: the Prime Products monitor, available at the Airstream Life Store. It constantly displays voltage so you’ll know if the power is sagging, and it checks for common mis-wiring conditions:

  • Reversed polarity (which can cause a very dangerous “hot skin” condition
  • Open neutral
  • Open ground

Digital Voltage MonitorIt’s simple to use: just plug it into any available outlet in your Airstream while you’re connected an electrical hookup, and observe the lights on the display. You’ll always know at a glance that you’re getting good power.

This voltage monitor is something every Airstream should carry at all times, and is available from the Airstream Life Store. When you order from Airstream Life you’ll also receive Rich Luhr’s short instructional booklet, How To Avoid Electrical Problems At The Campground.

The 7-way cable on an Airstream

Most people don’t think about the fat black cable that connects the Airstream to the tow vehicle—until something doesn’t work, like taillights or brakes.

It’s called either the “umbilical” or “7-way” cable, and keeping it in good condition is important because it’s the critical link for correct operation of trailer brakes, lights, and signals.

The 7-way, explained—

Dirty 7-Way plug
Don’t let your plug look like this

Since 1989 all Airstreams have used the same wiring arrangement. (Earlier trailers may have different wiring, but typically they have long since been rewired to fit modern tow vehicles.) Each location in the 7-way plug is dedicated to a specific signal. Two of them—the 12 volt positive and 12 volt negative—supply power to keep the battery charged while towing to prevent depleting the battery while using the electric brakes. The other pins carry signals to activate the clearance lights, turn signals, brake lights, and back-up lights (if the trailer is equipped with them).

Is your cable too long?

Take a look at the 7-way cable the next time your Airstream is hitched up. Does it drag on or very near the ground? It will wear away quickly if it touches the ground during ordinary towing. You can use a bungee cord to take up the slack. (Drooping to touch the ground only in a sharp turn is okay, since that contact with the ground will be very brief.)

The cable should have enough slack so that the tow vehicle can make very sharp right and left turns in a parking lot without pulling the cable taut. If your cable is too short, you can buy an extension cable or (better) have the entire cable replaced. On vintage Airstreams, old stiff cables are common, so replacement is a good idea anyway.

When hitching up…

…double-check that the plug is inserted fully each time. Often it feels like it is in all the way when it really isn’t. To be sure, kneel down and look at the connection from the side. There are little tabs on the plug and the lid of the receptacle on the tow vehicle, which lock the plug into place. If the plug isn’t inserted fully, you’ll be able to see it from the side much more easily than from the rear, and this will ensure it doesn’t come loose while towing and make sparks on the freeway.

Avoid corrosion

Corrosion is the major cause of problems for the 7-way plug. Just a little moisture over time will result in greenish or white corrosion on the connectors, and that will cause problems like inoperable lights or brakes.

Be sure to position the plug between trips so that the head of plug is hanging downward. That will help keep rainwater from settling in the plug. At various RV stores you can find a generic “7-way plug holder” that mounts to the A-frame, which gives you a place to lock the plug when it’s not in use.

Periodic maintenance…

…for the 7-way plug on the trailer is important. Periodically you should clean corrosion from the seven spade connectors. It’s difficult to do without the right tool, so we recommend a kit available in the Airstream Life Store which includes a burnishing tool (a special file designed for electronic use), a premium electrical contact cleaner, and instructions.

You can also use the same tools to clean the connectors in the tow vehicle’s 7-way outlet, if they need a little help. Plan to do this simple cleaning job at least once a year as preventative maintenance. With the right tools it takes just a few minutes.

With those simple checks and a bit of annual maintenance, you’ll have eliminated the most common causes of problems with trailer lights and brakes.