Lots of new Airstream owners want to find ways to extend their camping time while “boondocking,” (off-grid camping, away from electrical hookups). So inevitably the question comes up: which is better, a generator or solar panels?
The answer depends on how you camp and the things you use when you travel. Let's look at the three main options available today.
Typical gasoline- or propane-powered generators are ideal for powering high wattage appliances like:
- air conditioner
- microwave oven
- hair dryer
- toaster oven
- or anything else that requires over 1,000 watts (generally things with big electric motors or heating elements).
For the air conditioner or microwave your generator will need to be capable of at least 2,000 watts peak output, and often more.
Generators have a few important downsides to consider:
- The emissions controls implemented on generators are currently weak, and many models (sold outside of California) have no emissions controls at all, so they pollute the air. Operating a new, average portable gasoline generator for 1 hour emits as much smog-forming pollution as driving an average passenger vehicle for about 150 miles. (1)
- They're noisy. Both Yamaha and Honda make excellent products which have good reputations for reliability and quietness, but even those can shatter the tranquility of camping, which brings us to the next downside ...
- You can't always use them. Campgrounds usually limit "generator hours" to preserve the peace for other campers.
- Generators are very inefficient at charging batteries. Any RV generator you can buy will produce far more power than the batteries will accept at any given time. Batteries typically take hours to gain a full charge, which means you're wasting a lot of gas waiting for the batteries. Bigger generators can't speed up the process, so they just waste more fuel.
Generally, we recommend fueled generators to people only when there's no other choice.
This product is a great option if you travel with devices that need to plug in but require less than 1,000 watts, like:
- laptop computers
- rechargers for phone, tablet, e-bike, shaver, etc.
- TV and DVD player
- portable electric cooler
CarGenerator is basically a high-quality inverter that uses your tow vehicle to power devices like those in the list above, and charge your Airstream's batteries.
Just connect CarGenerator to your vehicle (two alligator clips or a handy quick-connect option), plug the Airstream into the CarGenerator, and turn on your vehicle. The Airstream batteries will charge and all the power outlets in the Airstream work, while the truck idles.
The battery charging speed is the same as if you were plugged into campground power. So, if your batteries are nearly fully discharged, you'll probably use the CarGenerator for several hours.
In other words, this product does what a fueled generator does, but it differs in several important ways:
- Much smaller and lighter than a generator
- Less expensive than a generator
- Doesn't require its own fuel (no need to haul gas cans)
- It's as quiet as your tow vehicle at idle
- Pollutes much less than a standalone generator, because any modern vehicle has advanced emissions controls.
The major limitation is that CarGenerator powers devices only up to 1,000 watts. That rules out using the microwave oven and air conditioner.
CarGenerator is ideal for people who want a reliable source of power, and don't like the idea of hauling a generator and fuel can around. We find that customers who have solar panels also like it as a backup, in case of a long spate of cloudy days.
Solar panels are best when you are primarily interested in re-charging the Airstream's batteries. Solar panels only provide power to charge the batteries. They don’t directly power anything—the batteries do that. For more about solar, read my blog "Solar—simplified!"
For many people solar is the ideal solution, because:
- Solar panels are silent
- You don't have to carry fuel
- They're virtually maintenance free
- Zero pollution
Solar’s big advantage is in recharging batteries, so if extending your time at camp is your primary goal, solar panels are the preferred option. Rather than pumping out large amounts of power in short time periods like a generator, solar provides a steady all-day charge will have a much better chance of getting your batteries up to 100%. With batteries, slow and steady wins the race.
Solar's disadvantage is that it doesn't charge your batteries on cloudy days, or if the panels are in the shade–such as when you're Airstream is parked under trees. A portable solar system can solve the latter issue because you can place the system's panels in the sun and leave the Airstream parked in the shade.
If you're wondering whether portable solar is right for you, check out this guide.
Regardless of whether you choose a fueled generator, a CarGenerator, or solar panels (or a combination of these options), upgrading your Airstream to give you more boondocking time is a great advantage. It will open up new travel options for you and eliminate worries about running out of power when on a long trip.