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An RV is one of the easiest and most adventurous ways to live. Whether it’s a 6-month excursion across the country or a three-day trip to a local state park, RVs have everything you need to blend indoor and outdoor life. They’re essentially cabins on wheels, with beds, showers, toilets, and nearly full kitchens. Still, a large majority of RV users still heavily rely on connections and hookups to provide electricity and water.
But what happens when you want to venture out of the world of full campgrounds and into the world of public land? A random field in Montana will not have a place to plug into or a direct hose line with fresh water. This off-grid lifestyle is growing in popularity—wonder why!—and with it, solar harvesting systems have grown to become impressively efficient and easy.
Solar energy is the primary add-on you need for an off-grid lifestyle, but it’s not the only thing to consider. There are several preparations you need before you leave people behind and let the beards and armpit hair grow, so The Drive editors have created a brief checklist to help you out. Time for adventure!
What Is an RV?
RV stands for recreational vehicle. An RV is a wheeled unit with living quarters used for recreational purposes like camping and traveling. Some RVs, also known as travel trailers or caravans, have integrated propulsion systems, while others require vans, trucks, or SUVs to pull them around.
What Does Off-Grid Mean?
Living off-grid means you are not using the public grid of utilities, in particular electricity. Off-grid means no direct water line, no electricity, and no waste disposal. In the RV world, this is sometimes also referred to as boondocking, free camping, or dry camping.
What Is Required For Off-Grid RV Living?
To live life as normally as possible while off-grid adventuring, you need to find solutions for the absence of plug-and-play utility connections. In other words, your RV needs its own source of electricity, its own source of water, and its own method for handling waste.
Fresh Water StorageTank
This isn’t old America where you could just put a reed straw into a river and drink or dive into a pond and take a bath. You need to carry your clean water with you somewhere inside the RV. You’ll use it for cooking, for drinking, for the toilet, for the shower, and for anything else fresh water is needed for. RVs have water storage systems included, but extras never hurt anybody.
Waste Storage Tanks
Your RV still has a toilet, it just doesn’t have a pipe that extends from that toilet to a waste management facility. Instead, your waste goes into a storage box that is later emptied at a dump site. If you’re going off-grid, you need to have an understanding of how much waste your RV can store and how close you are to the nearest dump site.
Unless you’re going into the wild, you’ll still need and use electricity when you’re camping. You might need it for lights, a refrigerator, heating, charging phones, or numerous other reasons. Your best two options for sourcing electricity without a plug are gasoline and/or the sun.
- Gas Generator: Using a gas generator is an older method that is more involved than using solar power. Generators are large, heavy, loud, and require gas refills, so they’re not ideal for traveling, sustainability, or maintaining the sense of peace and quiet so many people desire from nature.
- Solar: Depending on sun availability, solar power is likely going to be the best method for powering your off-grid RV. Solar generation uses panels to capture sunlight and convert it into energy, which is then stored in a battery pack. Depending on how many appliances you have and use, as well as what creature comforts you require for daily life, you can use portable solar units or systems integrated into the RV.
Types of Solar Systems
There are a few different options when choosing how to utilize solar in an RV. Some are cheap and simple, others are more expensive and involved. Learn which is best for you.
If you don’t require a ton of energy, you might be able to get away with using a portable solar pack. These devices typically feature a few solar panels that can be folded or packed into a stowable unit.
- Pros: Simple setup, cheap, saves space, flexible, not dedicated to RV, can follow sunlight, easier to clean, able to angle toward sun, direct plugs
- Cons: Not enough power for appliances, extra setup work
If you require the maximum amount of possible energy, you’re going to want a professionally installed solar system that integrates into your RVs electrical system. The main components will be the solar panels, the charging unit, the battery pack, and an inverter. The panels typically go on the roof of the RV, while the remaining components live inside the vehicle.
- Pros: You can get exactly what you need, you can pick where to store the equipment, you pick the brands and suppliers
- Cons: Expensive, more complicated, dealing with aftermarket shops
Certain manufacturers such as the Keystone RV Company, offer solar systems straight from the factory. This is a great option because everything is already set up and integrated into your RV, but it might not have the exact equipment that you wanted. As a result, it might be more expensive to go the convenient route and buy straight from the factory. These might also be more difficult to upgrade in the future, as solar power is gradually becoming more efficient and cheaper.
- Pros: No hassling with aftermarket shops, completely integrated, tailored for your RV
- Cons: Possibly more expensive, no control over setup, possibly difficult to alter
How Many Solar Panels Do I Need?
Basic solar units only use one solar panel, while advanced systems fill up the entire roof with panels. A rough average is 1-4 panels, which are typically rated about 100 watts each. How many solar panels you need for your adventure will depend on your battery capacity, what appliances you plan to use, how much you rely on creature comforts, and how long you’ll be going off-grid.
This RV solar calculator from GoPower asks numerous prompts to determine exactly what you need.
How Much Does an RV Solar System Cost?
Expect to pay between $500-$2,500 for all of the parts of a solar system, not including the labor of installation.
Tips For Maximizing and Preserving Energy Off-Grid
Here are a few quick tips for helping you maintain the energy your solar system created.
- Camp in neutral climates
- LED lighting
- No AC or heating
- High-efficiency appliances
- Do things manually without electricity when possible
- Only charge devices when not in use
- Angle and move portable panels with sun throughout the day
FAQs About Living Off-Grid In an RV
You have the questions, The Drive has the answers.
Q: Can You Fully Live Off the Grid in an RV?
A: Absolutely! Whether you want to depends on your available cash and willingness to give up creature comforts.
Q: Is It Cheaper To RV or Stay in Hotels?
A: We aren’t your accountants, so we don’t know your financial situation, but this seems like it requires a cost-benefit analysis. Without context, a night off the grid in a rented RV will be cheaper than many hotels. However, if you’re buying an RV, it largely depends on how often you use it. Buying a $500,000 RV and using it 20 times will not be cheaper than going to a luxury hotel 50 times.
Q: What Does It Mean When an RV Is Not Self-Contained?
A: A self-contained RV does not require any outside resources. An RV that is not self-contained requires outside resources.
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