If you like to camp in places where electrical hookups aren't available, you may have run into one of the big limitations of most RVs (not just Airstreams): It's easy to run out of battery power in a night or two.
There are several reasons that this happens, but it boils down to this:
- there are a lot of things in the Airstream that need power
- there's not a lot of power in a pair of batteries
Before you rush off to solve this problem with an expensive generator, or live like hermits by candlelight, take a moment to learn a little about the electrical system. You may find that you are perfectly content to boondock a couple of nights on the batteries, once you have a few strategies for conserving power.
Beware the inverter and laptops
Many times we've heard from new owners wondering why their batteries didn't last, and the first question we ask is, "Are you using laptops?" Usually the answer is yes. And often it's a case of using two laptops for several hours a day—because using laptops requires the use of an inverter if you need to plug them in.
An inverter is an electrical appliance that uses the energy in the batteries to power the household outlets, so you can plug things in. (For details on what the inverter does, and how best to use it, read this blog.)
When you turn on the inverter you can power your laptop computer, which is great. The problem is that the total power consumption can be much larger than you think. Without getting into numbers, a pair of laptops, plus the power needed by the inverter itself, will eat up more than half of a typical Airstream factory-supplied battery bank in just four hours!
Add that to the power needed for an electric refrigerator and a few other things, and you're looking at dead batteries tomorrow.
This is just one example. A modern Airstream has many items that all need power, and some of them consume power all day and night even when you think they are turned off. So even if you don't use laptop computers or have an inverter installed, you can still run into power shortages within a day or two, if you're not careful.
Conserve power with these strategies
Fortunately there are lots of ways to get more out of your batteries. Here are our top conservation tips:
- Use your laptop computer on its own battery power as much as possible (don't plug in).
- Turn on the inverter only when needed to charge laptops or power other appliances that need it, like the TV. Always turn the inverter off when done, because it consumes power even if nothing is plugged in.
- Set the temperature lower on cold nights, so the furnace blower runs less. Even though the furnace uses propane, the blower fan is a big consumer of power.
- Keep water pump usage to a minimum. The water pump doesn't usually get run for long periods of time but when it is running it eats up a lot of power.
- If your refrigerator has a propane mode (generally trailers made 2020 and earlier), use it. Make sure it's not in 12 volt electric mode when you're boondocking.
- Don't leave lights on at night. Even a single LED light will consume a noticeable amount of your battery capacity when left on for hours.
- If you have solar panels, try to coordinate your power needs with the sunniest part of the day, so that the Airstream's batteries can absorb as much power as the panels can produce.
- Be mindful of appliances and devices that run for long periods of time. The Fantastic Vent fans, for example, doesn't draw a lot of power, but the cumulative effective of running them all day long adds up faster than you think.
Add other sources of power
Beyond conservation, you can also take some steps to upgrade your Airstream for boondocking situations:
- Get portable solar if you don't already have it. Portable solar works in tandem with a rooftop solar installation to give you even more power.
- Consider a CarGenerator for those times when the sun isn't shining, or when you need a rapid re-charge.
- Install larger-capacity batteries. Lithium batteries are a powerful, albeit expensive option. Read our lithium battery upgrade story here.
- Install an amp-hour meter, so you can truly understand how much power you are using, and how much you have left. This is essential if you have lithium batteries.
Photo credit: Thomas Kelly on Unsplash
I researched getting portable solar panels to augment my rooftop panels and I thought the trailer would use the rooftop or the portable panels but not both at the same time. Can I augment my rooftop panels to double my solar generation or will the controller only accept power from one source?
Scott, our Portable Solar Panel kit comes with a separate charge controller and plugs into the “solar port” or the 7-way connector on any Airstream trailer. As a result, each controller and solar array puts power into the batteries at the same time.
The actual power you gain from each solar array will depending on many factors (shading, battery fullness, etc) but they will both contribute to charging at the same time.
Another consideration: Purchase 12v devices when shopping for things like Wifi Routers, etc. And, don’t use your brick with your laptop. In some cases, you can use 12v accessories designed to output to a USB-C connector to your laptop. My Macbook Pro just needs 60 watts, which can be supplied by these 3rd party car charger products. Leave the Inverter off in these cases and live on 12 volts only.
Good subject and informative post! Thx for sharing! We use a Honda suitcase generator and a portable Zamp solar charging unit when boondocking. Keeping the batteries charged when using the furnace can be challenging! We are managing better since adding the Zamp.
I discovered the parasitic draws on my batteries the hard way. Open your fantastic fans but then turn them off….make sure the little red light is off. Turn off the antenna booster. The sub-woofer also draws on precious battery power.