Knowledge is power

New Airstream owners are full of questions, and one of the most common questions has to do with energy usage when they are not hooked up to shore power. They’re always worried about running out of power, a version of the “range anxiety” that owners of electric cars often have.

That’s a legitimate concern, because once the batteries run out of juice, everything in the trailer goes off: refrigerator (even when running on propane), heat, light, water pressure … even the hitch jack won’t go up or down anymore. If it happens to you, you won’t forget it. It’s a pretty traumatic experience to have the entire trailer—your home and security–go dead.

The problem is two-fold: First, new owners really have no idea of how much power they are using at any given time (the battery monitor is pretty inaccurate); Second, the batteries are typically sized with just enough capacity for an overnight or a weekend if you aren’t running the furnace a lot.

Airstream provides those batteries because most people don’t use the trailer away from shore power for longer than a night or two.  Yes, despite all the discussions about “boondocking” you may have seen online, and all the blogs written by hard-core off-the-grid travelers, the reality is that most travel trailers go straight to a campground and get plugged in. Problem solved.

But after a while, a minority of owners start to pine for something more in their travel experience, and that inevitably leads them to the need for more power, more efficiency, and a better understanding of what’s going on.

The quick answer for many is a generator … (insert sigh here)  I’m not a fan of them. They’re noisy (even the “quiet” ones), they put out smelly fumes, you have to carry a gas can or extra fuel for long trips, they require maintenance (although nobody ever does it), you’ve got to store them and lock them up, and they are expensive. They also do a crappy job of charging batteries.

Hey, before you generator owners get all up in arms, let me say that if that works for you because you need air conditioning or because you really like hauling gasoline around in your truck (whoops, sorry for the sarcasm), that’s all fine with me. To each their own. (But if you own a generator solely because of your CPAP machine, Google “12 volt CPAP” and see if you can find options there.)

Personally I like solar energy. It’s free and endless. You can set up a cheap 50 watt panel on a cord to the battery for as little as $150, and just toss it on the ground, or you can spend a few hundred and get a really nice setup … or even a few thousand for a really nice setup with all the bells and whistles. No matter what, you’ll have power anytime the sun shines and it’s scheduled to keep shining for the next five billion years.

But let’s say you are a real cheapskate and don’t want to spend a penny on solar panels or a generator. How can you get more boondocking time out of your batteries?

The short answer is to learn how to conserve. Cutting back on use of electrical power gets into the same skills that boondockers need for water and propane conservation. Take shorter showers (the water pump is a big energy consumer), do less dishwashing or learn to wash very efficiently, use fewer lights at night, set the furnace temperature lower and sleep with a dog, etc. Conservation takes a little effort and a little practice, but it pays off immediately.

That’s about all you can do without spending any money. Then it gets into some upgrades, which will cost you something but I think all of the suggestions below are well worth the investment.

The first thing I always recommend to people is to understand where their power goes. To do this you need a real battery monitor, by which I mean an amp-hour meter with digital readout like the Bogart Engineering TriMetric series, or the Xantrex Link series. If it doesn’t have a “shunt” to be wired next to the battery, it’s not an amp-hour meter; it’s probably a cheaper voltage meter that guesses at amp-hour usage. You already have that, so you don’t need another.

With a real monitor you can see what each light and appliance is consuming, and identify the big users so that you can avoid them or upgrade them. Right off the bat you’ll see that your RV furnace is a huge consumer of electrical power, so you might want to consider an extra blanket on the bed or even a catalytic heater (which uses no electricity).  Incandescent lights (on older Airstreams) are also big consumers, so if you don’t have LED you should seriously consider upgrading the most-used interior bulbs or entire fixtures.

The second piece of advice I give cheapskates friends is to simply add more battery capacity. There are several ways to do this, and the best solution depends on the layout of your Airstream. Usually people find a spot toward the front of the trailer (such as under a couch or in an external storage compartment) to install a bigger battery bank. At the same time it’s a chance to upgrade to Absorbed Glass Mat batteries, which last longer and are safer. Sticking with the electric car analogy, more battery power is like going from a Nissan Leaf (with an 80 mile range) to a Tesla Model S (230 mile range). Suddenly your “range anxiety” is greatly reduced and you can actually go places.

Both of the amp-hour monitor and larger battery options are less costly than a “quiet” generator or solar setup, with the advantage of always working regardless of sunshine or fuel supply. For most people, more battery capacity and better conservation are enough to get a few extra days of boondocking.

See? Knowledge is power, and in this case more power is a mostly matter of more knowledge. You’ve got options to explore. If you find yourself addicted to the off-the-grid lifestyle, you’ll want to start looking at solar and generator options … and if so, congratulations! It means you’re enjoying your Airstream and that’s a good thing.


  1. Lou says

    Just a note: I have the 12 v. adapter for my CPAP. We can get away with 3 nights of run time on the house batteries, if we are careful not to use too many other things on battery power.One problem is that the water tank heater needs more electricity to function properly. It is an older CPAP, and I hear that they are making them better. One of these days someone will figure out a better way.

    • RichLuhr says

      Oh, doc, with all the options for puns based on electricity, you went for the easy one? I mean, watts up with that?