This post contains affiliate links (I get a commission at no extra cost to you for purchases made through links in this post).
RV life often means going off the power grid. As such, having a reliable power source is essential when living in an RV, especially if boondocking. Also important is monitoring your power usage to avoid ruining your camping trip due to lack of electricity.
You can tell how much electricity your RV uses through an energy monitor, a smart energy monitor, or a digital multimeter. Alternatively, check your electricity bill if parking in a designated campground with electrical hookups.
Your RV’s power usage will largely depend on the type of appliances you have and the amount of time spent using them. In this article, I’ll go more in-depth about how you can check your RV’s electricity consumption.
How To Monitor RV Energy Consumption
While you’re on the road, enjoying the freedom RV life allows, it’s easy to lose track of how much power you’re drawing. Knowing your RV power consumption ensures your rig stays powered up when untethered, as you’ll take measures to conserve energy.
Some of your RV appliances, such as refrigerators and heaters, may also run on propane in addition to electricity. A good rule of thumb is to use the propane option when camping off the grid and if you want to learn how much propane it uses i got it covered in this other article.
If propane is not an option or you prefer to operate your system on electrical energy, it helps to know the wattage requirements for your appliances. Discussed below are several ways you can estimate how much electricity your RV appliances consume:
Use Energy Monitors
There are two main types of energy monitors: individual appliance monitors and household monitors. The former track consumption at the device level and are the easiest to use—you plug the meter into an electrical outlet, then the device into the meter.
As for household monitors, they’re typically installed in the circuit breaker panel to give you a more detailed picture of your RV energy usage. As such, it’s safer to leave the installation to an electrician.
Energy monitors can be bought online or at RV supply stores or hardware stores. If you prefer to track consumption at the device level, I recommend the MECHEER Power Meter Plug (available on Amazon.com), which has overload protection and an easy-to-read display.
If tracking consumption at the circuit level, recommend the DROK AC Power Meter (available on Amazon.com) because it automatically stores your consumption data when the power is out.
Smart Energy Monitoring Systems
In addition to providing energy consumption data, intelligent power monitoring systems analyze said data and generate reports on how to reduce energy use and costs. Some features to consider when buying smart energy monitors are:
- Appliance recognition
- Solar ready
- Real-time monitoring
- Compatibility with smart home devices
Use a Digital Multimeter
With a digital multimeter, you can measure multiple electrical quantities, principally voltage (volts), current (amps), and resistance (ohms). Use the readings you get to calculate the wattage consumption of your various appliances using the formula below:
Watts = Amps x Volts (W=AxV)
Add up the power requirements in watts of the appliances you’re likely to run together to determine how much shore power you need (more on this later in this article).
Some safety tips to keep in mind when using a multimeter include:
- DO NOT touch the probe lead tips
- DO NOT touch the leads together or to a metal surface
- Ensure to insert the probes into the correct connection ports.
Read Your Utility Bill
If camping at a campground with electric hookups, you can check your itemized utility bill or campsite meter to know how much electricity you used during your stay.
The unit for electricity price in the United States is cents per kilowatt hour ($/kWh), while in Europe, it’s euro per kilowatt-hour (€ per kWh).
kWh = (watts × hrs) ÷ 1,000.
So if your campground in, say, Arizona charges 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, and your total bill comes to $120 following a month’s stay, you’d be correct in assuming your energy usage for that month was 1000 kWh.
Check Your Appliance Nameplate
Nameplates are a great place to start when looking to find the operating voltage and amperage draw of electric appliances in your RV. However, you should know that the amp draw in some devices, like TVs, varies depending on selected settings. For instance, the higher the screen brightness, the higher the energy consumption.
For appliances whose current draw is not constant, it’s best to use an energy meter to calculate watt-hours (Wh) consumed over a specified period.
How RV Electricity Works
In the video above, I talk through everything you need to know about an RV electricity system to be able to go boondocking and learn all the basics that every RV owner should know.
RVs have three separate electrical systems: a 12-volt DC electrical system and a high-voltage AC system of 120 or 220 volts. DC stands for direct current, and AC stands for alternating current. The 12-volt electrical system powers things like the spark ignition if you run the water heater or furnace on propane, TV, fans, and lights. In contrast, the 120-volt AC system runs larger appliances like the A/C water heater, furnace, and most kitchen appliances.
There is also a third electrical system in motorhomes which is the “car” 12-volt system that ensures that you can start the engine and power signal lights, the car stereo, and so forth.
The AC system gets power from external AC power sources such as shore power and generators. Shore power is when you plug your RV into an AC electrical grid through sources like electrical pedestals in an RV campground.
The DC system runs on a battery or multiple batteries, also known as house batteries. RV batteries get charged whenever you connect to an external power source like shore power, solar panels, or a generator. Like batteries, renewable energy sources also generate DC power.
Depending on the size of your RV, you may have a 30 amp setup or a 50 amp setup. Amp, short for ampere, is the SI unit of measurement for electrical current. For an RV with a 30 amp capacity, the amount of electricity you can use at any given time without tripping your circuit breaker is 3600 watts.
Monitoring your RV’s power consumption can help improve energy efficiency and save money if you use the insights provided to rectify undesirable energy use. It could also help you proactively fix or replace malfunctioning appliances.
And remember, your RV energy usage and electricity costs mainly come down to the power consumption of your appliances. So make it a practice to plug and unplug things as you need to use them.
- RV Life: How To Determine Your RV Power Needs
- Energy: Estimating Appliance and Home Electronic Energy Use
- Motorhome King: EXACTLY How Much Propane RV Fridge Use & How Long It Can Run
- MIT School of Engineering: What’s the difference between AC and DC?
- Dengarden: How to Use a Multimeter to Measure Voltage, Current and Resistance
- Lab Safety Institute: Circuit Analyzer – Lab Safety Institute
- Electrical Equipment: How non contact AC voltage testers work?