We’ve seen it advised so many times on RVing groups and forums, if you want to boondock – you have to rely on propane for cooking, refrigeration, hot water heating and heating. If your coach is electrically dependent, don’t bother trying to boondock for long.
We say.. phooey to that.
It is entirely possible to feel abundant while off-grid, without relying on propane for a substantial part of our energy needs. It does take a little planning and upfront investment however.
We didn’t exactly set out to have an all-electric coach, but it’s what we ended up with. When we purchased our bus conversion, the propane systems installed in the late 1980s where not smartly engineered, and all of the appliances would have needed a tremendous amount of refurbishing to bring them back to life.
Instead of trying to redesign the propane system from scratch, we opted instead to optimize for electric.
Our fridge is a Vitrofrigo marine fridge equipped with a Danfoss DC compressor. It runs efficiently off 12v DC or 110V AC.
We do have a portable propane space heater for chilly nights, and we do still have the option of heating water off propane if needed. (Summer 2015 Update: We’ve installed a PrecisionTempt TwinTemp Jr. propane hydronic system that provide radiant heat and hot water throughout our coach.)
But given good sun, we’re overflowing with electrons. Toss us a couple cloudy days and we can still manage with minimal of conservation.
So, here’s how we keep feeling energy abundance with our setup while boondocking…
Of course, boondocking means – no hook-ups. Your coach will need to be energy independent. Whether you choose to rely on a generator or use alternative energy like solar or wind.
Our choice was building a robust house battery system charged up by the sun. We have 500AH of Lithium Ion Batteries (read our 3.5 year review of them), 1400w of solar (800w permanently mounted on the roof, 600w in portable flexible panels we deploy on the ground) and the Victron Multiplus 3000w pure sine wave inverter.
Obviously, not an insignificant investment to make upfront, and one we didn’t approach without lots of research, planning and thought.
We do have an old janky 7.5kw Onan diesel generator that needs a ton of work before we would want to rely upon it – but it does fire up, and can supply some electrons in a pinch as our backup. (Summer 2015 Update: We removed the 7.5kw diesel generator, and installed a 2.5kw propane generator to use to top up the batteries if needed.)
We pretend it doesn’t exist however, and prefer attempting to live within our solar means.
Our battery bank can also charge from our bus alternator when underway – so we generally arrive to new stops fully charged.
Tip: If you arrive to your next boondocking spot fully charged up – you start ahead of your usage curve. For us, this means for shorter stays of a week or less, we generally don’t even bother tilting our panels.
Know how much energy you need to feel fulfilled while off grid, and plan around it. For us, on top of keeping the electric fridge going, we also have two computers with big screens that we want to keep running well into the wee hours of the morning. Those are our most productive times, so planning around ample energy after sunset is key for us.
Most others more than likely don’t have the same needs however.
Obviously, by not offloading a lot of our energy needs to propane we have to plan in more off-grid electric input and storage than otherwise. But it’s not out of reach.
- Solar Electrical Systems for RVs
- Lithium Ion Batteries for RV House Systems
- Solar Planning: Conducting An RV Electrical Consumption Audit
Optimize for 12v
An inverter is a key component in a house electrical system for off-grid living. It’s what takes the 12v stored in your house batteries (or 24v if that’s your coach’s system) and converts it to 110 power that most anything you plug into the wall uses. When it’s on, it has a phantom overhead that is constantly sucking power from your batteries, and the conversion process from 12v to 110 has energy loss.
So the more you can reduce reliance on needing an inverter, the more power efficient you can be. Things that can run directly off 12v tap right into the power stored in your batteries and avoid the energy losses of an inverter.
Our main need for 110V AC electricity at this point is our computer monitors, temperature regulation (air conditioner and electric space heaters) and cooking appliances.
Chris uses a laptop and can run independently off that when we don’t have the inverter on. I use a Mac Mini desktop computer hooked to an energy sucking 30″ monitor (which I love.. come on Apple, how about bringing back matte screens, eh??).
But I’m also able to do a lot from my iPad Mini.
The rest of our bus we’ve been optimizing for 12v, so that we can turn off the inverter and still feel abundant. Here’s some of the recent modifications we’ve made to get there:
- 12v Television. We originally installed 22″ LED TV in our bedroom that required 110 power to run. A couple months ago we tracked down a 24″ Samsung TV that we could direct wire into our 12v system. This allows us to watch stuff even after we’ve shut down the inverter. (We currently keep the old 22″ screen around to use a lower power monitor to my 30″ sun sucker when needed.)
12v USB Charging Stations. Keeping our mobile gadgets charged up is critical. We can get a lot done on our iPads and iPhones without needing to fire up our full fledged computers. We’ve now installed several USB 12v charging stations. This gives us lots of options for keeping the tech happy, as well as our USB charged portable lighting gadgets.
- 12v Lighting. Our bus came with a mix of lighting off 110V AC and 12v DC. We’ve been adding in more 12v lighting to keep our spaces well light regardless of if the inverter is on or off.
- 12v Fans. We have an Fan-Tastic Vent Endless Breeze box fan that runs off 12v that helps keep airflow inside the coach on warmer days (combined with a MaxAir roof vent fan).
We still have a couple more modifications to make, such as powering our NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive off 12v.
Carefully consider your inverter configuration. You need an inverter large enough to handle your typical largest loads (for us, we sized for running 1 air conditioner or cooking appliance – plus computers), but not so large that you have a constant higher than needed phantom draw.
Another strategy is having a large inverter for occasional heavy loads, and then smaller inverters for specific regular tasks. Those with residential fridges (which can’t run on 12v directly) sometimes install a dedicated inverter just for the fridge so they can shut the rest of the coach down.
At some point, we may integrate in a smaller inverter just for our computers… and only using the big inverter when we need to cook or run an A/C.
Shut Down What is Not Needed
When we’re hooked up to the power grid at a RV Park or campground, we pretty much leave stuff on all the time. Computers and hot water heater being our biggies. When we’re off grid, these things get shut down except for when we need them.
For hot water, we find we really only need to run our 10-gallon hot water heater through one cycle – we can both take ‘Navy Showers’ and get the dishes washed. The rest of the time, we don’t need hot water on tap. When the sun is providing our panels an abundance of photovoltaic activity, we utilize some of the spare energy to heat the water up. On a sunny day, we hardly notice the energy hit at all in the time it takes to get the water up to temperature.
Pre-Plan Cooking Options
When relying on all electric appliances for cooking, meal preparation is directly related to how much solar energy we have available. We have a variety of go-to meals we can prepare – some that require more energy than others.
If we’re abundant in energy for the day, we cook pretty much like we always do. We’ll bake a pizza in the convection oven, or make curry, soups, stir-fries, chili, eggplant parmesan or beans & rice. When we make up meals, we’ll sometimes make enough to have a round of left overs too – and leftovers on hand gives us options for when we don’t have as much energy to spare.
If we’re running low on energy, we make sure we have no-cook meal options on board. We can always whip up a salad, a bowl of guacamole, fresh vegetables, cheese & crackers, fruit & nuts with some yogurt, cereal or wraps with fresh ingredients.
We do also have a small BBQ grill for outdoor cooking, which gives us another option that isn’t dependent upon our battery bank. We keep some gluten free veggie burgers in the freezer to toss on, mix up some black bean burgers or slice up and marinate some eggplant. Unless we’re plopping down for several days, we usually don’t bother setting the grill up however (we’re kinda lazy, and like minimizing setup and take-down chores.)
Tip: Speaking of food, we aspire to make sure our fridge and freezer keep well defrosted. A little frost build up cuts down on efficiency quite a bit. For optimal boondocking, we defrost regularly.
Being energy independent while depending on all electric stuff takes a bit of practice. You’ll need to get to know your energy needs and how much you can run before getting into dangerous territory of depleting your battery bank further than you can reasonably replenish.
If you’re optimizing for solar, get in tune with watching your battery status and where your shut down point is to make sure you have enough power to keep the refrigerator running overnight and have enough energy for your morning routine.
We typically have our shutdown for the night point set for when our batteries read around 40% (ours are lithium however, not lead – which have different limits).
We know that by 1 or 2pm the next day, we’ll be back to abundant territory as long as we have good morning sun.
This may mean needing to end a project early for the night and picking it up the next day. Or even going out for a morning walk while the battery tops back up before starting our day. Usually a walk late afternoon extends our night time usage.
This isn’t the Girl Scouts however, there’s no merit badge for maximum time spent without hook-ups or running a generator.
If the weather turns inclement to a point you can’t keep comfortable, don’t hesitate to turn on the genset, move to a better climate, or head for an RV Park.
Other articles in this series: