Off-the-Grid Camping in the New RV

Working out the kinks.

One of the improvements I made on my old RV was to add a solar panel to the roof. It was connected to a battery charger which, in turn, was connected to the camper’s batteries. When the sun was out — which is during most daylight hours here in Arizona — the batteries were charged. This made the camper extremely useful for off-the-grid camping. My husband and I did a lot of that last year on our way back from Washington to Arizona. We never ran low on power, which was a good thing because we didn’t have a generator.

There are a few things that won’t work in an RV without a connection to A/C power:

  • A/C power outlets. This means you can’t plug in and use any device with a standard plug.
  • Certain light fixtures. Some lights are A/C while some are D/C. A/C fixtures won’t work without an A/C connection.
  • Microwave. Even if it’s standard equipment on an RV, it’s plugged into an A/C outlet.
  • Air Conditioning. It’s A/C and it sucks a ton of power when it is plugged in and running. That means that even if you have a generator, you need a pretty powerful one to run the A/C when you’re not hooked up to campground or city power.

There are a few things that will run on propane or battery (D/C) power if you’re camping off-the-grid:

  • Refrigerator. Setting the refrigerator on “Auto” tells it to look for A/C power first; if that’s not available, it uses propane from the onboard tanks (assuming the valves have been opened).
  • Stove/Oven. Obviously, they’re propane. It would be dumb to put an electric stove in an RV.
  • Water pump. If you’re not connected to a pressurized water line, a D/C pump activates when you run the water to pump the water from the onboard fresh water tanks.
  • D/C devices. Some RVs include D/C outlets — think of power ports or cigarette lighters on a car. My old RV had one and I added a second; my new RV had three and I added a fourth. These are handy for charging cell phones or plugging in low wattage inverters to plug in low wattage A/C devices like laptops.

Other appliances use D/C power all the time, but if you’re plugged in, your battery is being charged all the time, so it’s no big deal. The heater, stereo, and certain light fixtures are good examples.

As you can see, RVs are pretty much designed to be self-sufficient when you’re off-the-grid. There’s a limit, of course, to how long you can live in an RV without a hookup, though. The solar power (or a generator) helps take care of electrical needs. Eventually, however, you’ll run out of water or fill up your black water sewer tank. There are ways to get around these issues — for example, minimize toilet use by using public toilets whenever possible, carry extra water in external tanks, etc. — so two people can easily live in a well-equipped RV off-the-grid for several weeks if they need to.

Oddly, however, most RV owners do not live in the RV off-the-grid. Instead, many of them tend to pull their RVs from one parking lot-like RV park to the next, cram them into narrow spaces between other RVs, hook up power, water, and sewer lines, and retreat inside their luxury boxes to watch television.

I’m not like most RV owners.

Before trading in the old camper, I pulled the 135-watt solar panel off the roof. This past week, I had it installed, with a new battery charger and controller, on the roof of my new RV.

This weekend, my husband and I are out in the desert about 25 miles west of our Wickenburg home, testing the trailer’s off-the-grid setup. I’m out in Aguila, at a private “resort” where my clients are testing some wireless networking equipment. The test requires me to fly their equipment around in the helicopter to see how well it works with ground-based mobile and stationary equipment. There’s more to it than that, but for the sake of my client’s privacy, that’s really all I’m willing to say.

At Robson'sThe job has a lot of down time — time when I’m just waiting around for them to be ready to fly. It made sense to bring the RV out here for the weekend. It gives Mike and I a chance to get away and relax away from home and we can bring along Jack the Dog and Alex the Bird. And, of course, we can test the off-the-grid setup of the RV close enough to home so that if there’s a serious problem, we’re not suffering. So the RV is currently parked about 100 yards from the helicopter’s landing zone out in the desert.

We’ve discovered a few things:

  • When the refrigerator works off propane, it makes a noise that sounds like a fan running inside it. We’re not sure if it should be doing that. It seems to work fine and the fan noise does stop when the refrigerator reaches the correct temperature. But my last two RVs had silent refrigerators, so we’re a bit concerned.
  • The fresh water in the tanks smells like shit. I do mean that literally. We’re not drinking it, but we are washing with it. It’s making the RV stink a bit on the inside, so we have a lot of windows open to keep the air cleared out. This is our fault. We should have flushed out the system before using it. We’ll do that after this trip and likely run at least one tankful of clean water through it, too.
  • The new solar setup works great. It had the batteries fully charged before 10 AM. While it was doing that, we were using the lights, stereo, cell phone chargers (all D/C) and a 300-watt A/C inverter to charge my MacBook Pro and some aviation radios.
  • The 2000-watt Honda generator I bought so I could run A/C devices if I wanted to works great. It’s easy to start and can be very quiet. We gave it a good test on Saturday night when we ran it to see if we could watch a DVD (Up) on the 32-inch (or thereabouts) flat screen TV the RV came with. It ran hard when we first started it — likely to recharge the batteries we’d run down a bit after sunset while giving us A/C power — then settled down to a lower, quieter power setting. I don’t think I’d run it in the future just to watch TV, though.

Everything else works exactly as expected.

At this point, I consider this second test a success. It proves to me that the new RV can be at least as comfortable — more so, of course — than the old one when camping off-the-grid. Even though I didn’t get the solar power system I wanted, I think my less expensive solution — one solar panel to charge the batteries and a portable generator for more power when needed — will work fine.

One thing’s for sure: having a portable house along on these weekend long gigs is very nice indeed — even if I’m not plugged in.

3 thoughts on “Off-the-Grid Camping in the New RV

  1. Wow! This is a great post and very useful information for any RVer’s who are considering solar power or boondocking. Real information from someone who has been there. Invaluable. Thanks for the great information.

  2. That is completely true about rv’s not being used for off grid living.
    I actually have a website called http://www.offgridrving.com I will be living in a custom home build camper 6ft by 8ft that is all dc power no ac, composting toilet. even going to play with building a methane digester to run a single burner cook stove! this equals no propane, no black water tank and no inverters sucking efficiency out of the system! If you look around you can find 12v dc laptops, Im typing on one now it pulls just 32 watts at 12v dc! Have fun, and check into dumping that black water tank and get a composting toilet like the Natures head.

    • Nick: My RV is actually very well suited for comfortable off-the-grid living. I don’t think I’ll ever be as hard core as you. The idea of living in a 6 x 8 space isn’t very appealing to me. Hell, my college dorm room was bigger than that.

What do you think?