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Caravan Pitfalls #5: How Much Power Do You Really Need?

I raise this question because recently the number one topic amongst RV’ers on the road, seems to be Solar Panels. How many do you have? How many do I need? What happens on a cloudy day? Do I need a generator?

Let’s forget the technical side and focus on the practical for a moment.

From my research, I determined that most new off-road vans, come with a minimum of 2 x 150W panels, several were offering double that. And owners were adding panels after purchase.

The motto seems to be more is better. But at what cost and for what?

The point here is to determine why so many panels are needed to primarily keep your beer cold and your food fresh. Oh, and let’s not forget the all-important – charging of mobiles, tablets and computers.

Which raises another question; why so many RV’s come with compression fridges rather than three-way versions, be it manufacturer supply or owner requesting. I discuss the pro’s & cons of these in a separate article in August issue of Aussie Life On Wheels, so no need for me to go into the technical stuff here.

Simply by having a 12v compression fridge in your RV means you need a constant supply of power to keep it cold. Many a traveller will make that extra effort to seek out the cheapest slab of their favourite brew, but never consider what it is actually costing them to keep their cans cold and frothy.

Solar panels don’t come cheap and they weigh a lot (13 – 17kg on average). Add the cost of the panels and the extra fuel required to lug them around and that $2 saving on the cartoon is looking shaky. 

With a reliance on solar panels you need sun and plenty of it. But what if you are experiencing inclement days or spending time in the southern states where clear blue skies are not guaranteed? 

Batteries will only store so much, regulated by how many you have installed, and the amount of drain imposed on them (again weight comes into the equation with batteries being very heavy at 20kg each). 3-4 days is the max before you start go in search of a powered site or rush out and buy a generator at $2000!

What’s the alternative?

We have owned the same 2 x 80W solar panels since we started travelling 10 years ago. One fixed on the roof and one moveable, that way we can park in the shade and use it when on camping trips away from the caravan to charge the car’s auxiliary battery. 

Our preference is to spend much of our time ‘off grid’ or in non-powered sites. My generator would still be classified as brand new due to the lack of hours it has run.

I run a business 5-days a week from our van (tablet, printer, laptop, phones x 2, wi-fi). Add to this the TV, Radio, Music System, Satellite, VAST box and wall fan which all run off 12v. We have LED lights throughout, to save power.

Our wine and cans never get warm and more importantly neither do my chocolate bars! The fridge, with large freezer section, is 190 litres (household size). We only run the 12v car fridge (a 40-year old Engel) when we go shopping or I’ve caught too many fish – so not often in other words… This runs off a second car battery that can be connected to our van for solar charging if necessary.

How is this all possible?

We have a 3-way fridge and run it on gas when away from powered sites. Works beautifully whatever the temperature (see July issue of Aussie Life On Wheels for tips on keeping your fridge cold and running efficiently).

A bottle of gas will last 16 days for cooking, showers and fridge and at $23 (the amount I just paid in Broome, WA) that’s just $1.44 a day!!!  And it doesn’t matter if it rains cats & dogs for a fortnight I can sit inside watching the footy with a cold one in hand. 

We NEVER use an INVERTER!  They eat up the power for no good reason.

That is in fact a lie, Eva insisted we had one, so she could grind her coffee wherever we were camped (I’d been bashing the beans with a hammer, until then. Apparently, the greasy metallic taste does not enhance the Black Arabic!)  

I charge and run all my electronic gadgets off 12v (purchased a 12v power adaptor for the laptop and printer) In case you were unaware computers and printers run on 19v, they all come with built in adaptors to reduce the power from 240v to 19v – why not go up 7 volts instead, it uses far less power?

Our 2-onboard deep cell 12v batteries will run all our appliances for weeks without charge. 

How do I know this?

Something every RV owner should do – when at home, turn off the battery charger and leave on a light or two and the TV to see just how long the power will last. I accidently turned off the battery charger when we were on a powered site, a MONTH later and we wondered why the lights were beginning to fade….

Which brings us back to the debate of ‘how much power do you really need’? 

There is no doubt that more is better but anyone buying a new or used caravan should spend a bit of time looking at exactly what electrical equipment you will be needing and how best to source that power. Also discuss with the manufacturer which is the best type of fridge for your new van, if you do not intend to go off road exploring then a compressor fridge is not an essential item.

My thanks to Hudson’s for allowing me to pass on these experiences which I sincerely hope assist any potential or existing RV owner.

Happy Travels

This article is an extract from his RV Newsletter ‘Aussie Life On Wheels’ which thanks to Hudson Financial Planning, you can grab the first issue FREE by clicking this link:

Here you will find other informative ramblings, plus lots more tips, laughs and exciting places to visit in your RV. A good read.

Chad and his partner are veteran caravaners. (10 years into a 2-year trip around Australia!). Chad has spent years researching vans and equipment, knows most of the ins and outs of living on the road and how to earn a living from their van.

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