Airstream's recent announcement of the 2024 Trade Wind travel trailer has created a stir in the RV industry, because of its big battery bank and promise of boondocking independence. It's likely to be the first of many travel trailers that takes advantage of the lithium battery revolution to provide seemingly endless electrical power.
But does this amount of battery power make sense for you? Let's take a look at what the Trade Wind's battery can realistically do—and what it can't do.
What's In The Package?
The Trade Wind comes with three big LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate, also called LFP) batteries, each with a capacity of 270 Amp-hours. That's a total of 810 Amp-hours, which is a lot. It's about four times more the power that you'd get from a new Airstream with the standard pair of LFP batteries, and nearly eight times as much usable power as an Airstream with older lead-acid batteries (including AGM batteries).
What Can You Do With It?
The key question is, "What are the batteries good for?" Well, those big batteries certainly can run all the usual devices in the Airstream, such as the electric refrigerator, water pump, lights, TV, etc. There's so much power that you could easily run all of those devices in normal usage (and charge your laptops) for weeks without plugging in—even before taking into account the extra energy you'd get from the solar panels.
That's pretty impressive. A battery bank this size eliminates the need for a generator for most Airstream travelers. If you're a tech-nomad who loves to camp off-grid with a bunch of electronics that you use 40 hours a week, the Trade Wind is just the ticket. For example, using a Starlink router alone can kill a standard set of batteries in a day or two if you're not careful to unplug it when not in use. But with an 810 Amp-hour battery bank you can run your Starlink router for weeks.
The 600-watt solar array on the roof is also impressive. While most people don't need that much solar capacity, it's a good hedge against cloudy days when the panels might be producing only a fraction of their rated capacity. You won't need to break out a backup generator with this combination of big batteries and lots of solar capacity. That's a nice package for those who live the "connected" life.
What About Air Conditioning and Microwave?
Airstream took the Trade Wind's power delivery even further. Their marketing says: "Trade Wind's powerful electrical system can even handle running the air conditioner and microwave simultaneously off the battery – no shore power required!" [Italics are mine.]
Is it true? Let's look at the numbers:
When you're boondocking, both of those devices would be powered by an inverter that is connected to the batteries. The inverter is rated at 3,000 watts, so I didn't believe it was possible to run both at the same time. However, Airstream's engineers say that the GE air conditioner nominally pulls only 1,210 watts when running (which is astonishingly efficient). The Contoure microwave is rated at 1,000 watts when it's not in "convection" mode. That's easy math: 2,200 watts total, and well below the limit of the inverter.
Moreover, the engineers say the inverter can actually handle a peak of 5,500 watts, which is important when the air conditioner needs a burst of power at start-up. The 3,000 watt limit refers to continuous load.
So yes, you can run the microwave and air conditioner at the same time, but I wouldn't recommend doing it very often, because you'll run out of battery pretty quickly.
It's hard to say how long you would be able to run the air conditioner off battery power alone, because it depends on the exterior temperature, humidity, shading, and many other factors. But let's consider a hypothetical situation, where the air conditioner is cycling on every fifteen minutes, to run for 6 minutes each cycle. Let's also assume this happens from 10:00 a.m. until 6 p.m. (8 hours) of the day.
Under those circumstances, the air conditioner would use about 320 Amp-hours of battery capacity per day. Taking into account the needs of the refrigerator and other devices, you might get through a hot weekend, but not much more.
So, while you can run the air conditioner off the batteries, it's clearly not going to last long. It would probably be best in circumstances where you only need air conditioning for a short time, like when you're stopped for lunch on a roadtrip.
Will The Solar Keep Up With The Air Conditioning?
There's 600 watts of solar on the roof. Perhaps that would be enough to recharge the batteries?
Alas, no. At least not in any reasonable scenario involving air conditioning use.
Airstream has provided a formidable array of solar panels, but even 600 watts is a poor match for a depleted battery bank of that size.
To compare apples to apples, the battery bank has 9,720 watt-hours of capacity. Let's say you had a couple of hot days and ran the air conditioning most of each day, and the batteries were low at the end of that. Even with incredibly good sunshine (full sun at noon in the desert southwest) the 600-watt solar array would need several days to restore the majority of that power—assuming you weren't doing anything else during that time that needed power.
In reality, taking into account normal cloudiness, normal sun angles, and normal power consumption while camping, if you completely drained the on-board batteries by running the air conditioner too much, your best option might be to hitch up and tow back to a power plug.
So my advice would be to consider the claim that you can run your air conditioner from the batteries as a "nice to know" fact, while realizing it's not something that you'll be doing much. The ability to run less power-hungry appliances like the microwave oven, electric coffee pot, and hair dryer will be what most Trade Wind owners will find they take advantage of most.
This is actually pretty revolutionary. Until recently, propane and other petroleum products have ruled the RV world, as they have been the only practical fuels with enough energy density to make hot water and hot air. With the arrival of better batteries and the subsequent rapid decline in cost, we're finally seeing the potential for all-electric travel trailers with no compromise.
That's part of what the Trade Wind represents: a step toward the future of RV'ing. You can't power your laptop, your satellite TV receiver, or your Starlink with propane, so it's a pretty exciting development.