We get a lot of questions about power in the RV and how it works. Things like, “How does your refrigerator run while you’re driving?” and, “How quickly do you go through your propane?”. So we’ve decided to lay it all out as best we can and cover all bases when it comes to powering up your RV.
When you’re done driving for the day and looking to hook up at a campground, shorepower is one of the things that you’ll be plugging into. Shorepower got it’s name from when boats dock at a marina, they run a power line from the dock, or “shore”, to the boat so that the boat doesn’t have to run it’s generators. The same applies to RVs. When you open the door on the pedestal (the post at most campgrounds where you’ll find your power, water, and cable TV) you’ll find one, two, or three options to choose from for electricity. Let’s start from the bottom and work our way up:
This will be the most familiar to you, it’s the same plug you use at home to plug in a lamp or other household appliance. RVs require a lot more power with their ACs, lamps, and appliances, so 15 amps isn’t enough for most RVs. Mostly the 15 amp plug will be used by tent campers and, in some cases, very small trailers.
Probably the most common hookup that you’ll find at most campgrounds. The plug has 3 posts, 1 ground post and 2 legs that are at an angle. Thirty amps will run all of the appliances in your rig, just not at the same time. A general understanding of how many amps an appliance uses will help keep you from tripping breakers. The microwave and AC(s) are going to be your biggest draw on power while things like small lamps and phone chargers won’t pull much at all. We have 30 amp hookups on our rig and we’ve learned to only to have one AC on at a time and maybe the toaster oven and TV, anymore than that and we’ll start tripping breakers. Our ACs draw 13 amps a piece, so if they’re both on that’s 26 amps and leaving 4 for everything else. I love how when you’re reading up on this stuff, they always use a hair dryer as an example of what draws a lot of power, funny thing is, is that I don’t think that I’ve met an RVer yet that even owns a hair dryer.
This hookup is getting more and more popular now that RVs are coming with built in washer/dryers, ice makers, electric fireplaces, dishwashers, and hell, probably dual mounted hair dryers in the bathroom too. While it’s possible to trip a 50a breaker, it’s a lot harder to do. The 50 amp plug has 4 posts, 1 round ground and 3 legs going up and down. They make the 20, 30, and 50a plugs different from each other so you don’t have to worry about where it goes when you’re plugging into the pedestal. Sometimes you might not be able to get a site that has 50 amp if that what your RV uses. To be ready for those situations, they make a 50a to 30a adapter making it so that you can plug into a 30 amp outlet. Keep in mind that you’re on 30 amps and the dual mounted hair dryer will probably have to stay off this trip.
If you’re boondocking, and your rig has a generator, it can be a lifesaver. They’ll run everything in your rig, most of the time your AC too. The obvious downside to gennys is that they burn up your gasoline. Depending on how you use it, a generator can give you power for days even weeks as long as you use it sparingly. Don’t run it all of the time and try to keep AC use down to a minimum. If you use it just to give you some light at night and to keep your batteries charged, you’ll really make your gas last. Most generators in class As and Cs pull their gas from the same tank that your RV’s engine runs on. I can’t speak for all RVs, but ours has a cut off where the genny will shut down when the gas gets down to around a third of a tank. That way you can’t leave the genny on all night and wake up to an empty gas tank, stranding you where you stand. Most generators can be started from inside the RV. While that’s convenient and all, I would still suggest checking the fluids before each start.
The idea of fire burning in your rig can be disconcerting. But it is a necessary part of living in an a RV. Before we got our first RV, I had never even lit a gas stove before. The first time I lit the burner, I was poised to run and trying to come to terms that I was about to lose my eyebrows. But as time went on, I became more and more comfortable with it, but not too comfortable. You want to think of LP as living with a roommate who’s your best friend that jokes a little too much about killing you in your sleep. You always want to keep a eye on them. Most RVs are equipped with LP detectors that will cut off the gas if it detects propane in the air. And of course if you you smell that rotten egg smell and have a metallic taste in your mouth, get out immediately. If you can, turn off the gas from the main tank and get a professional to help you find the leak.
All of that being said, LP can heat your water, run your furnace, and will run your refrigerators. Most RV refrigerators can either be run off shore power, generators, or LP and batteries. Gas works with your 12 volt batteries to keep the appliances running while you are on the move. And they can switch automatically to the optimal power source available. That way the milk always stays cold whether you’re parked or on the road. If no shore power is available, your batteries help work the electronic parts of the appliance while the propane does the rest of the work.
We keep the LP turned off if we are not using it. Our gas detector also has an switch that will distribute propane to all of the appliances or cut it off. When we want to cook something or take a shower, we flip the switch to “on”, it beeps for a few seconds to let us know it’s filling the lines, then the beeping stops and we’re ready to turn on the appliance. Most water heaters have a 4, 6, or 10 gallon tank. A rule of thumb is that it takes a minute to heat each gallon. So for our 6 gallon tank, we switch on the water heater and in 6 minutes, we’re ready to take a shower or wash some dishes.
Cooking with gas is a little different than electric and can take some practice to get it right. I’ve only been using it since we’ve been in RVs and I’m still learning. On the stovetop, gas cooks fast and RV ovens are small, so it can be hard to get your food away from the heat. Several times I’ve made muffins with doughy, under-cooked tops and charred black bottoms. What you can do to help out with this is to get a pizza stone or an uncoated tile from the hardware store. You set that on your oven rack and set the dish on the stone and it distributes the heat making cooking with it a lot easier. The problem with using the rig’s oven is that you are burning your money. We find that we can cook most of our meals in the toaster over that uses the campgrounds shore power rather than our LP.
LP bottles come in all sizes: 20, 30, 40lbs removable bottles and most class As and Cs have built in bottles. The furnace can use up the most gas. Being in Florida, our furnace never comes on, so with our built in tank we can last months before having to refill. Move to a colder climate and that furnace will quickly deplete your reserves; months quickly turn into weeks and that can start to get a little pricy. When we are in colder weather we try to keep the furnace off as much as possible and use space heaters. Space heaters have a tainted past, but they have come a long way and are a lot safer now. We have two of them and have them in the living area during the day and carry them into the bedroom at night, and in most cases they are more than adequate to cut the chill out of the air. And it’s the same deal as with the toaster oven, why not use the campground’s shorepower rather than burn all of that propane to run the furnace?
When you first get into an RV all of the control panels and the systems that make it work can be a bit overwhelming. But a little flipping through the manuals or the internet to figure out why and how all this stuff works will make you a lot more comfortable with it.