But What About Power in a RoadTrek? Don’t You Run Out?

Today, a reader question! Michael asks how I get power when I’m not plugged in.

roadtrek power

I do have to manage the process but it’s way easier than you might think. Since I have the littlest Roadtrek, I also have the least amount of power to work with. (Well, some older models may have even less — for instance, they may not have generators.) A model like the E-Trek is amazing: huge solar panels, 8 batteries, 5000 watt inverter. You basically never have to plug that thing in.

But back to my littlest Roadtrek.

First, spoiler alert: I’ve never run out of power!

My Roadtrek has two sources of power: electricity (in varying forms) and propane. Propane is the simplest. I just get the tank filled when I’m running low and it powers the furnace, stove, hot water heater, and refrigerator,which switches to propane automatically when another power source isn’t available.

The refrigerator has little status lights that tell me what type of power it’s using:

refrigerator power roadtrek

Electricity is available in several forms, which boil down to high power mode and low power mode.

In high power mode, I can run everything: air conditioner, microwave, my Nespresso machine (Mmmm, coffee….).

I’m in high power mode when I’m running the generator (which runs on gas from my fuel tank) or when I’m plugged in. My electrical system is 30 amps, so I can plug directly into a 30 amp outlet, or I can use an adapter to go plug into 50 amps (at some RV parks and campgrounds to accommodate larger RVs) or the 15 or 20 amp outlets you might have at your house.

When I’m plugged into 50 amps, I still only have 30 amps available. When I plug into 15 or 20 amps, well, I only have those 15 or 20. The outlet you plug into at a campground or RV park has a circuit breaker and you also have them inside the RV so if you overload the system, you’ll flip a breaker (or both the outside and inside breaker, like that one time I was running the air conditioner and the microwave at the same time).

roadtrek 170 breaker

But 15 amps is plenty to run the air conditioner.

I almost never use the generator. Mostly because I don’t need to, and also, noise. There are exceptions:


No services for 100 miles? No problem. I’ll just fire up the generator and make some coffee.

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To turn on the generator, I just flip the switch:

roadtrek 170 generator

Unless I need the air conditioner because it’s thousands of degrees outside, I don’t ever really need to plug in. That is, I don’t need to plug in from a “do I have enough power to run this” perspective. If I’m staying in one place for several days, I likely will want to plug in because I’m otherwise on battery, which doesn’t last forever.

So let’s talk about the battery!

The battery is low power mode. On battery, I can’t run the microwave, the air conditioner, or my Nespresso machine. Low power mode runs off of the house battery (which is different from the engine battery). The battery charges when I’m driving, when I’m plugged into power, when I’m running the generator, and from my solar panels.

I mostly keep it charged from driving since I don’t tend to stay in one place too long. If I was out in the woods for a week, for instance, the solar panels would probably not be enough since they only charge the battery a little. In that case, I’d probably run the generator for a while to charge back up.

But if I drive a couple of hours (which I tend to do most days), the battery gets charged back up no problem.

With battery alone, I can run all the 12 volt stuff: the water pump (to flush the toilet or turn on the faucet at the sink), the roof fan, the hot water heater, the refrigerator, the interior lights, the LP gas and CO detectors).

I can also flip on the inverter (which turns battery (DC) power to AC) in order to use two of the outlets (the one for the TV/DVD player and the one above the kitchen counter).

The inverter only provides about 750 watts of power though. (Which is why the Nespresso machine, at 1500 watts, is out.) With the inverter, I can run the TV and DVD player (and hence have music through the speakers), charge my laptop and phone, and power things like my curling iron or a small fan.

But how long can I do those things? For that, we look at amp hours. How many does my battery hold and how quickly do my solar panels replenish the battery? How much power does everything take? It’s math, people. Math! No one told me there would be math.

I have one 12 volt battery, which gives me 95 amp hours. Under optimal conditions, my solar panels recharge the battery with 3.5 amp hours (and the conditions are never optimal). An overhead light is maybe 2 amps, the fan is around 4.

When I’m parked even for a couple of days, I’m probably only going to use the fan and charge up my laptop and phone. Sure, I’ll need the water pump every so often, but I’m not really using that much power. Turning something on generally takes more power than keeping it running too (I tried using a lower wattage coffee maker once and the instant I turned it on, it sucked up half my battery).

But the point is, I really don’t have to do math. If I were out in the woods for a week, maybe. Parked in a Walmart parking lot all night and then parked by the ocean all day, not really. I find that I’m not using much power and the solar panels do OK to keep the battery from dipping too low.

I can monitor everything on a handy panel. The battery status is on the far right. Right now, it’s just below fully charged. The propane, however, is almost empty (it’s the status on the far left). (The second set of lights is the fresh water tank and the third and fourth set are the black and grey water tanks, respectively.)

roadtrek 170 power monitor

On mornings when I’m not plugged in, I generally heat water in a kettle on the stove and make coffee via Aeropress or Starbucks Via.

When I’m driving, I charge my phone, iPad, and laptop (I use an inverter I plug into the cigarette lighter).

See Michael? No sacrifices needed. And I have coffee available no matter the circumstance. And that’s really the most important thing.

Working on the Road: Listen as I Ramble on the Roadteking RV Podcast

Did you know that there’s an RV podcast? Well, there is, and on today’s episode, you can listen to me! I talked a bit about why I’m traveling around the country in my little RV, working along the way. And I talked a bit how I plan out my trip (spoiler alert: I don’t!) and how I find places to work and stay the night.

I’m still working a lot so my second priority each day is figuring out where to work. My first priority, obviously, is coffee (but that’s a post for another day). Since I bring my office (and the rest of my house) with me everywhere I go, I really only need a place to park and wifi. But part of why I’m traveling around and not at home is to experience the country, so whenever possible, I try to work from libraries, cafes, or parks.

Like, check this out. Last week, I was at Myrtle Beach State Campground ($5 for a day pass). This was my view:

myrtle beach

Not only did the park have free wifi, but it had these great buildings with not only tables but POWER OUTLETS. Seriously.

myrtle beach office

I’ll have to do a future post just about my experience with libraries. Some have great wifi; some have wifi that barely exists. Some ban food and drinks so you have to smuggle in your coffee and hide it behind your big bag (I mean, maybe that’s what some people do. I wouldn’t know).

library coffee

Some libraries have a cafe right inside with free coffee refills. (I miss you Hudson, Ohio!)

I’ve worked from just about anywhere.

myrtle beach

south carolina beach

folly beach

south carolina

ok wifi


beach office

Of course, coffee shops are always great (when you can find them). But sometimes, there’s just no great place nearby. Which is why you might find me hanging out in my RV working from a Walmart parking lot (with free wifi courtesy of McDonalds) or a Flying J truck stop (monthly internet plans available).

Inside My Roadtrek 170 Popular: The Non-Cartoon Transformer

When people hear I’m traveling the country in an RV, they generally think I’m navigating windy roads and low clearance bridges in a huge monster-truck size vehicle, which doesn’t sound relaxing and peaceful at all. Then they see my Roadtrek. And well. They think I’m living in a van.


But friends, I am NOT living in a van. (Well, OK, it’s a van, but it is an ENTIRE house in the inside!) Shall I bring you inside for a tour?

First, let’s hang out for a while in the living room. Lovely, no?

roadtrek living room

You are looking for the dining room? Here you go. Also, the dining room can be the office.

living room office

And just like that, one room has become three. But I’m more ambitious than that.

The living room can also become the bedroom with a push of a button. OK, sure, a push of a button + the addition of a tempur-pedic mattress pad, soft sheets, comfy pillows, and a warm comforter. But still, that’s five minutes well spent.

roadtrek bed

Where is all that stuff the rest of the time? The mattress pad and comforter stuff right down behind the couch and the rest fits nicely in the cabinet above, with space left over for a little bookcase (the temper-pedic pillows are on the left, the sheets are in the packing cube in the middle labeled “sweaters” (however, my sheets are not made of sweaters), my books are on the right — mostly books not available on Kindle, like the autobiographies of John Madden and Ken “Snake” Stabler, which yes, I am currently reading right now).

Roadtrek storage

But let’s say I’ve gotten ready for bed, but I still have some work to do. I just head over to my second office (with bonus skylights). Both chairs in front swivel around and a table pops up from nowhere! (Actually, in between the closet and the kitchen, but as though from nowhere!)

Front Office Roadtrek

Here’s my kitchen, complete with two-burner stove, sink, refrigerator, and microwave.

roadtrek 170 popular kitchen

And then my amazing, transforming bathroom. By day, just a regular bathroom. By.. well, also day, I just open the door, roll up my rug and remove the drain cover, pull the shower curtain around the hall, and I’ve got a roomy shower.

Here you can see the bathroom with the door open and the curtain rail:


A closer look at the shower controls:

roadtrek shower

And here’s what it looks like inside the shower:

roadtrek 170 shower

Except in that photo the door on the left is closed so you can see inside. This is what it would actually look like if I were inside the shower and not outside taking the photo. You can’t really tell, but the door is open and the curtain is pulled around it:

roadtrek 170 popular shower

I also have a TV, DVD player, and surround sound system that includes speakers throughout the RV so I can rock out whether I’m hanging out in the living room or the front office. Normally, I listen to music by plugging my iPhone into the DVD player, but sometimes I connect my laptop to the TV and watch TV from bed (yes, I’m watching Grey’s Anatomy; so do you):

roadtrek tv

I could hoist up the antenna and watch TV over the air and at most RV parks and campgrounds I could also plug into cable, but I’m more a stream over the internet whenever I want kind of girl, so I haven’t done either of those.

But what about storage?

I’ve got a closet just to the right of the kitchen (behind the driver side door) to hang up my clothes up in (I keep my shoes in a bin at the bottom):

roadtrek wardrobe

Above that is a little shelf where I keep tools and things.

The Roadtrek used to have a third seat, but I removed it and put in lightweight drawers. There’s also storage in the cabinet underneath (I keep a bunch of shoes and nice clothes that I don’t need every day in that section).

roadtrek storage

In the bathroom, I’ve added a few containers (held in place by Command velcro) to keep everything in place.

bathroom storage

You’ve seen the storage for my bedding to the right of the air conditioner (er, also there’s a couple of bottles of gin and tonic back there). The cabinet on the left has a box of electronics and other various items like my curling iron and window screens.

I’ve also got storage above the front seats. And I keep coffee and other vital essentials in bags in the upper shelving on both sides.

I keep kitchen stuff (plates, cups, pots, and pans, whatever) in bins under the sink. I have a little pantry with stuff like peanut butter above the stove. And I keep towels and first aid kit and odds and ends in the cabinet above the counter. (Yes, I have 6 bath size towels in there! They are magic towels!)

kitchen storage

And then there’s all the storage under the couch (that I get to from the back doors) for things like my lawn chairs.

Of course, I spiffed it all up a little too. Here’s a few before and after photos:

2014-07-12 06.42.38

roadtrek afterYes, I can even light the vanilla candles for even more peace and relaxation. Well, as long as I take the battery out of the smoke detector first. Otherwise, that’s a path to less peace and relaxation for everyone.

Folly Beach and James Island: Choosing Peace and Quiet

“If you have a bad feeling about someone, don’t worry about offending them. Just run. Being polite is how you get your purse stolen or your “purse stolen”.”

-Lena Dunham’s mother, as quoted in Dunham’s new book, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman tells You What She’s “Learned”

I read that last night, lying in bed, looking out my window at the star-filled sky, in the overflow parking of the James Island County Campground. (I wasn’t reading and looking at the stars at exactly the same time, obviously. I’m not quite that good at multi-tasking.)

By happenstance, running is exactly how I ended up in the overflow parking of the James Island County Campground.

I had spent the day at Folly Beach. I parked right by the ocean and worked from my Roadtrek.

Since I didn’t really need hookups or the hassle of checking into a campground, I stopped for the night at the nearby Walmart (which can be a pretty low maintenance way to enjoy an area).

My approach to everything on this adventure is to not do things that stress me out for no reason. I mean, what’s the point of that, right? People often ask me if it’s scary to park for the night at a Walmart or truck stop or whatever but it’s not. In fact, I’ve mostly only gotten that apprehensive, an axe murderer is on the loose and and tracking me down feeling at campgrounds, not for any other reason than they tend to be absolutely pitch black at night. And apparently I’m afraid of the dark.

Places like Walmarts and truck stops are well lit and have people coming and going at all hours, so while my curtains give me a dark, peaceful cocoon for a restful sleep, if I hear a noise, I can just look out and see the lack of monsters and axe murderers around me.

But if I feel nervous, I just drive away. Not because I actually think I’m in danger, but who can get a good night’s sleep if they’re worried about monsters under their Roadtrek.

They Walmarts I’ve stayed at have felt really safe. Most are open 24 hours, generally other RVs and trucks are there, and they’re surrounded by roads and street lights and civilization.

Once, I drove up to a closed Walmart at about midnight and the parking lot was completely empty. A McDonald’s in the parking lot was still open and was surrounded by partying kids, hanging out by their cars. I’m sure those kids were all sweet and lovely, even in a rowdy drunken state, but I drove on to a quiet truck stop and had a restful night surrounded by truckers.

Back to the Walmart at Folly Beach. I read in the Allstays app that the store wants RVers to stay in one particular corner, and sure enough, I saw a travel trailer parked there. The corner was far from the store and a little hidden, surrounded by trees. As I drove past the trailer, it didn’t look like it had pulled in that day. It looked more like someone lived there. Several shopping carts full of 5 gallon paint cans and other assorted items surrounded it and it may have been on blocks rather than levelers (I didn’t want to slow down too much or look too closely). No one seemed to be around, but it looked a little sketchy. I normally park just a few spots down from other RVs (as a courtesy to Walmart so RVs don’t scatter around the parking lot and take it over), but this time, I parked pretty far away and in a different row. All was quiet, so I settled in for the night.

Then the owners of the trailer came back. And brought their friends. They roared in, and once they got out of their trucks, they started yelling at each other across the parking the lot the way drunkish bros tend to do (which I get is a stereotype – some drunkish dudes get quietly weepy and play love songs about ex-girlfriends on their acoustic guitars, but these weren’t that kind of bros). One guy was carrying a case of beer.

And then they started up their generator. At 11pm. I looked out from over my curtain and saw one guy sort of ambling around the parking lot, smoking. He wandered somewhat close to my RV then away again, then sat on a curb for a while.


Now, these guys had no idea that I was a woman alone. And probably they were so caught up in their revelry that they’d never even notice my Roadtrek. Even if they knew both of those things, they’d probably not give me a second thought.

By why stay someplace that makes me uncomfortable if I don’t have to? That’s certainly something I’ve finally learned after 42 years.

So I drove off.

I had heard good things about a county campground a couple of miles away so I drove over. You know much I am not into driving up to campgrounds late at night, and it was after 11pm. But James Island county campground is a delight. You drive through (flat, nicely paved) winding roads to a gate with a call box. A ranger is on duty 24 hours a day and is available all the time by cell phone. I picked up the phone and the ranger came over. He told me the campground was sold out, but that overflow parking was available. That sounded dismal, but better than the sketchy dudes, so I paid my $25 and followed him. We ended up in a beautiful meadow, surrounded by woods. This is overflow parking?

James Island Overflow Parking

Several other RVs were parked in the lovely, peaceful meadow so I pulled in at the end and watched the stars while I read my book.

$25 might seem steep for parking in a meadow, but you get access to the dump station, bathrooms and showers, miles of hiking trails, game room, and the rest. You can rent a bike and meander around the lake. Go fishing. Do you laundry. Grab some wifi (they have free wifi!). Basically take full use of the campground in all ways other than electricity and water. Plus you get to camp in a beautiful meadow.

The campground also has a daily shuttle into Charleston, and after driving through the city and finding it a little troublesome in my Roadtrek, that sounded like a good idea too.

So the next morning, a spot had opened up, and I booked it for two more days. Honestly, I would have been happy hanging out in the meadow a couple more days. But this is pretty good too.

James Island Campground