RVing 101 Guide: Electrical Systems 101

A brief guide on RV electrical systems for beginners

Old timey couple outside their RV
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If there is one thing that separates RVing from traditional camping, it’s the comfort of electricity. Whether it is from a generator, solar panels, or RV hookups, electricity gives you the creature comforts that you get at home. It’s important that you know all the different electrical systems and what systems would be the most beneficial for your travels.

Let’s get a basic overview of RV electrical systems, so you understand how your RV works, what you need to know about staying in RV parks, and alternatives to what your RV comes with after purchase.

RV Electrical Systems 101

AC/DC Applications for RVing

RVs use both AC, alternating current, and DC, direct current, to power the components of your electrical system. The 12-volt DC system runs the electrical components of the engine and battery of your ride while the 120-volt AC system runs all the typical appliances and power outlets found on most RVs. 

Shore Power and RV Site Hookups 

Most RV grounds and parks offer electrical hookups known as shore power. Hookups often come in 20, 30, and 50 AMP outputs. The type of hookup depends on your RV, smaller RVs, pop up campers, and travel trailers often use 30 amps, while larger trailers and fifth wheels use 50 amps. Most sites have started to do away with 20-amp connections.

Shore power is usually AC current to power the appliances in your RV. It may be advisable to keep 30 to 50 or 50 to 30 adapters with your RV in case your site doesn’t have the power supply your rig needs. It’s important to make sure you’re booking the right site that works with your RV’s electrical system. Otherwise, you may blow out your RV’s power system or worse – the RV park’s

RV Inverters and Converters 

In some situations, it may be necessary for you to convert or invert your power supply for a variety of purposes. To switch DC power to AC power, you will use an inverter. Refer to the manufacturer’s guidelines that come with your RV to ensure you’re buying the right inverter or converter for your rig’s setup.

The inverter can be helpful in situations where AC hookups are not available, if you can’t, or don’t use a generator such as when dry camping. Inverters come in various sizes depending on how many appliances or systems you need to power. While inverters are useful, they can be pricey. 

RV converters don’t see as much use as inverters. A converter is used to convert AC into DC power for powering or charging small devices that are unable to handle the 120 volts of a standard alternating current outlet.

Converters are referred to as chargers. It’s important to choose a high quality and reliable converter that you can track to make sure it can handle the difficulties of an RV’s electrical system. 

Solar Energy for RVs

Just a few years ago, solar systems were impractical for most RVers. The old systems were bulky, unreliable, and expensive. With the advent of new technologies, solar panels and electrical systems have become cheaper, more reliable, and customizable. 

Solar panels are gaining popularity as an environmentally friendly option as they only use the sun’s energy to produce power without any nasty emissions or by-products as opposed to a gas generator. They are also popular among dry campers and those who wish to stay off the grid. For snowbirders looking to get away from the cold weather, having solar energy is one way to take advantage of good weather away from home.

The panels convert solar energy into direct current power that can be used to power your RV’s electrical system. If you add an inverter to your solar system, you can power various appliances, too.

Some RVs are being built with solar panels preinstalled. For most people, though, solar kits are the easiest option available. These systems can be as small as a piece of paper to keep your battery charged up to integrated systems to meet the power needs of your entire rig.

Pro Tip: Consider alternatives to traditional RV electrical systems and the power they provide, such as RV deep cycle batteries and propane if solar isn’t right for you.

Now you can figure out which RV electrical components and systems best suit your RVing style.

Read More: Can You Hook an RV Up to Your Home's Electrical System?