Upgrading Class A RV Batteries to Go Unplugged
Upgrading Class A RV Batteries to Go Unplugged
Considerations when adding more solar and battery power.
By: Kenny & Sabrina Phillips
If you follow Sabrina and I on social media, then you probably have noticed that once we reach our destination, we typically stay at campgrounds with full hookups. So, you may be surprised to find out that we just spent thousands of dollars expanding our Winnebago Vista’s battery and solar array.
Believe me, there is method behind our madness and in this article, I am going to share all the reasons why we did this upgrade.
How We Expanded Our RV Solar & Batteries
Five years ago, we added two 100-amp-hour Battle Born Batteries and 320 watts of solar. This was a very simple install. In fact, I did it myself with only an extra set of hands to pass the panels up to me on the roof. This system gave us 2400 watts of battery capacity.
It let us power all of our 12-volt systems in the RV like lights, water pump, exhaust fans, furnace and our 12-volt tv in the bedroom. We could also turn on our factory installed 1,000-watt inverter and power our living room tv and some of the outlets throughout the coach so we could charge our laptops and camera batteries.
We really liked how simple this system was to install and use, but we always wished we could operate our microwave and air conditioner while off grid as well.
Recently, we finally decided to go all in and expand this system to what we have always wanted. We now have over 1000-amp-hours (Ah) of Battle Born Batteries, 1,300 watts of solar, and a 3,000-watt Victron Inverter/Charger. My idea has always been a split-system build, meaning we kept our two 100-Ah batteries connected to our 12-volt systems and we added 810-Ah of batteries to power all of our 120-volt systems.
So now we can operate our air conditioner for more than eight hours before needing to plug in and recharge. Actually, because our air conditioners cycle on and off, we have had ours on for more than sixteen hours with power to spare.
Note: Our air conditioner has an auto function that will shut the fan off when the compressor turns off, which will happen once the thermostat reaches its desired temperature. This is not the case on all air conditioning units.
I remember an RVing friend being jealous of our air conditioner because his would run continuously even when the compressor was off. This not only uses extra energy, but in high humid areas allows the humidity to be pulled back into the RV while the fan is running with no compressor on.
Our RV Off-Grid System Install
This new battery and solar setup was a major upgrade and one that I did not feel that I could do on my own, so we hired a company called Echo One Adventures located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to do the install.
We went with them because they have a very good reputation and they are also mobile installers, which meant they came out to our campsite to do the install. This worked perfectly for us because we were able to stay in the RV while they did the work and, more importantly, so could Belle.
This saved us from having to find things outside of the RV for us to do during the day as well as figuring out what to do with Belle while the work was getting done. We are glad that we decided to have Echo One Adventures do the install. The owner Jordan did such a great job, you honestly wouldn’t even know the system was in the RV unless you look under our bed for it.
The install took four days, but that was mostly my fault because I would stop often to ask him questions and to film or take photos of what he was doing. I believe if I was not bothering him, it would have been closer to two days and maybe just spill a bit into a third day.
What About Added Weight with More Batteries and Solar?
Weight is definitely a consideration, but the good thing about lithium is that it is less than half the weight of traditional lead acid batteries. Because we do not full-time in the RV anymore, we are considerably under our weight rating giving us plenty of room to work with.
If we were still full-timing with all of our worldly possessions in the RV, we would have to reconsider how many batteries we went with or decide what we could part with in the RV. Or a third option would be to move our E-bikes into our tow car and out of our rear cargo bay. That would free up 130lbs right there.
This build could never be done with lead acid batteries, because of weight constraints alone. I think it is good to point out that our Vista has a surprisingly large cargo capacity for such a small RV. It is important for everyone to look up their specs and be sure they are staying within their weight capacities.
Also, Jordan was strategic in the way he laid out our solar panels – making sure he was distributing the weight of the panels evenly across our roof. We have three panels on one side of the roof and three on the other with the seventh panel as close to center as possible.
Why Such a Big Expansion if We Rarely Boondock?
There are three major reasons for this expansion: safety, convenience, and comfort.
The safety consideration is really all about our dog, Belle. We cannot count how many times the power has gone out at a campground and how much we worry about leaving Belle back in the RV on warm days. So much so that we do not do much in warm weather because we don’t feel comfortable enough to leave her alone.
We have pet monitors to keep an eye on temps in the RV, but we still never felt 100% comfortable with leaving her alone and she can’t go everywhere with us. Even if a place is dog friendly, it might not be a place that Belle can handle due to her high anxiety. With the new system, we now feel much more comfortable leaving her for four to five hours alone in the RV because our new battery system is always on.
That means if the power at the campground goes out, our 3,000-watt inverter will automatically step in and take over. We have tested this several times by going to the pedestal and cutting the breaker to see what happens and the transition is so fast that while in the RV you don’t even notice.
Because the system is always on, there is nothing for us to do. It is now like we are plugged into 30-amp service everywhere we go – even while driving down the road. We can now turn on the rooftop air conditioner while driving which should improve our MPGs because we won’t be using our dash air conditioner as much.
We also have the convenience of using the microwave or air fryer when stopping for lunch in a parking lot on long drive days without utilizing fuel to run our generator. Lastly, we can leave our refrigerator on electric while we drive, so all of our groceries are staying cold even while in motion.
This might not be a big deal for some, but for us it was huge because we never left our propane on while driving which meant we just relied on the fridge to stay cold like a cooler. Now with the new system, we just leave the fridge on electric until we stop for the night, then switch it to propane.
This now leads me into comfort and how we are mainly using this system. We may not boondock often, but we are unplugged for several days at a time while traveling. Typically, the way Sabrina and I travel is in long stretches and across the country all in one go. We almost never stop at campgrounds along the way.
We normally have always stayed at Flying J’s, casino parking lots, Cracker Barrels, and other places that never have any type of hookups. We would just be careful of our energy consumption and limit what we operate. Now, it doesn’t matter because we can operate everything as if we are plugged in at a campground for the night.
We can sleep in comfort with the air conditioner on all night, make any meals we want using an assortment of kitchen gadgets, and really just sit back and relax without having to think about any of it. This system has given us a level of comfort that we have never had before.
Of course, when we do boondock and can have our slides out, that is really when the system shines because once you pull down the shades, you would never know we were in the middle of nowhere since everything is powered up and running silently from our batteries.
We have been putting the system through its paces, and we are about to have a really good test as we are getting ready to boondock at the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, Arizona. I checked the weather this morning and it is supposed to be overcast for the four days we are there, so it will be interesting to see how we do without having full use of our solar panels due to cloudy weather.
How Would You Use this Kind of Power?
I would really love to hear from you! How do you travel in your Winnebago? Have you been thinking about upgrading to lithium batteries and if so for what reason?
Do you already have lithium batteries? If so, how do you use them? These comments can be very helpful to myself and everyone reading them, so don’t be shy and please leave a comment down below. I like to come back to articles to read what everyone has to say.
Take care and safe travels!
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