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:

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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.

6 thoughts on “But What About Power in a RoadTrek? Don’t You Run Out?

  1. Vanessa, excellent information. I am fairly new with a used Class A and have been wandering about the information you just covered. I would like to add solar, but how many. I have 2 house batteries, I bought a 750 watt inverter and looking at a 2000 watt that is on sale right now, but maybe I should add a couple more batteries. The reason i’m thinking about the 2000 watt inverter is I don’t want to start up the generator while i’m out and about every time I want to use the microwave for only about 1 to 2 min.
    I just started following you and am really excited with the information you give.
    Thank you for your time and detail in your post.
    Best wishes in your travel…..

    • I have a Mercedes sprinter road trek RS adventurous. Can I run the rooftop air conditioner without running the Generator when I am driving?

  2. Hi Vanessa,

    We recently purchased a Roadtrek 190 class B. I was trying to determine if you said you use solar panels. If you do, what size are they? We are interested in going off the grid, so to speak. Have been enjoying your blog. Thank you again!

    • I do although I didn’t have as much info when I had them installed as I do now. I had the dealership where I bought the RT install them and they didn’t really know anything. The best bet is to contact someone like AM Solar who can look at your specific set up to see what size will be optimal (http://amsolar.com/). You also might check out the new EcoTrek power module to see if your RT can be easily retrofitted for it. Here are a post from RT President Jim Hamill on the RT Facebook group (not sure if you need to be a member to view — but you should definitely become members if you aren’t!):

      https://www.facebook.com/groups/roadtreking/permalink/478584128967238/

      Some key info from that post:

      “Q- Can I retrofit my older units.
      A – Ok, very straight talk first. The answer is yes, and it doesn’t take as much as a lot of people think. BUTTTTTTT. if your unit has electrical retrofits, I am going to have to pass. Safety first. if you are Roadtrek original, then we know what to do. it doesn’t matter if you have a 95 or a 2003 or a 2006 or a 2014.
      We will have to add certain controls in to a retrofit package which will cost more. How much more? well, worst case say 1000 dollars. BUT, this will make it work WITH the existing system, not replace it. There is no sense in tearing it all out. You have investment dollars in Amp hours. keep it. We will add to it.
      Q – How much does retrofit cost and who can do it?
      A – it will vary by van, but basically if you have a 2013 or newer its the current option cost plus a few hours dealer labour. If its older then plan on five hours dealer labour and an extra thousand dollars. Remember, I don’t get to delete the current system costs in a retrofit. I cant subtract any parts to keep the price down. But its still affordable.”

  3. Our son has been a licensed alternative energy contractor/master electrician since 1991 and has designed/fabricated an almost solar autonomous 2002 Roadtrek 190 Versatile. He fo.und that there is certainly a lot less space available on a Roadtrek than there is on our 34′ 5th wheel (1420 W Solar and 720 amp-hours (12 V nominal) The system has one 315 W and one 100 W panels. This does require separate controllers. This goes to 360 amp-hours (12 V nominal) LFP (Chinese Aviation Lithium Batteries – CALB – fabricated by Manzanita Micreo)
    Reed and Elaine

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