How Does an RV Electrical System Work? 

When you own an RV, it’s important to know how your electrical system works if you need repairs, go off-grid, or want to add more equipment to your system. RV electricity differs from home electricity, with RVs using a combination of AC and DC electricity to run their various components. 

First, we’ll learn the difference between AC and DC electricity, looking at how electricity works under different scenarios, whether plugged into a pedestal, using your batteries, or running on solar. 

Understanding AC vs. DC

First, you need to understand the difference between AC and DC electricity before looking at how your RV electrical system works. 

AC stands for alternating current, where the electricity flows back and forth in two directions, and is the energy we use to run most homes and household appliances. AC is produced by most generators using thermal (fossil fuels or nuclear) and kinetic (hydroelectric or wind) energy to produce electricity. It can travel short distances with less loss, making it easier to modify the voltage, and thinner wires can be used to transport the energy. The disadvantage is it’s more dangerous to work with at high voltages. 

DC stands for direct current because it only flows in one direction. Solar generators create DC when they capture energy from the sun, and batteries also use DC to store energy. Many electronic devices and appliances use DC, converting AC to DC when necessary. DC can travel longer distances with less loss and is safer to handle at high voltages, but its voltage cannot be easily modified.

RVs use a combination of 120V AC and 12V DC electricity to run different components.

RV Electrical Systems 101

1. Power While Connected to the Pedestal

When your RV is plugged into a power pedestal, also called shore power, it runs on AC electricity. The AC goes through a transfer switch, then a 120V breaker box panel to run your AC-dependent appliances. Most household appliances, like your TV, microwave, or air conditioner, use AC.

When DC-dependent components require energy when plugged into the pedestal, the electricity runs from the AC plug into a converter to convert that 120V AC into 12V DC. From there, it flows into your 12V battery to charge it. Devices running off 12V DC receive energy from your battery via a 12V fuse panel. Devices that don’t draw too much energy simultaneously, like lights, water pumps, heater blowers, and RV refrigerators, use DC energy.

2. Power While Dry Camping or Boondocking:

If you enjoy dry camping or boondocking in places without RV hookups, you likely rely on DC electricity from your batteries, which works differently. 

The DC system works the same way: all DC-dependent components still receive their power directly from a 12V fuse panel connected to your 12V battery. But, it skips the transfer switch and converter because it comes directly from the battery. 

AC appliances also run differently. Here, it goes through an inverter to change the DC into AC, which consumes considerable amounts of energy. This is why it’s important to use deep cycle batteries or LiFePO4 batteries that can handle the draw without killing your battery. After the inverter, the electricity goes through the 120V panel and runs all your AC-dependant appliances. 

This works if you’re only dry camping or boondocking for a day or two. Your energy supply will also be limited by how much charge is in your battery, the quality of your battery, and how many appliances you are running. If you plan to be out any longer than that, you’ll need a way to charge those batteries. That is where solar energy comes to the rescue.  

3. Solar Power for RVs

Those planning to go off-grid for more than a day or two will need a way to charge their batteries. The simplest and most convenient way to do this is to use an off-grid solar system to run your RV using EcoFlow’s 400W Rigid Panels for rooftop installations. There’s also the optional addition of EcoFlow’s Flexible Solar Panels, which maximizes the surface area of curved roofs.  

In this case, the system works similarly to straight battery power, except the solar panels generate the DC energy via the photovoltaic effect. The DC created then runs through a controller, power hub, or portable power station, and from there, it charges your battery and runs your RV the same as if you were on battery only. Solar power also allows you to charge your battery even while in use. It’s a great option for those who love to be off-grid for long periods, and you can even live off-grid full-time if you have enough solar panels for your RV.    

How Do EcoFlow Power Kits Work?

EcoFlow’s Power Kits simplify off-grid energy generation, storage, and usage by combining all necessary components into one easy-to-use system. It also saves space as it contains two MPPT solar charge controllers, one battery charger with MPPT, one DC-DC step-down converter, and an inverter charger, all in one compact unit. This allows it to handle all your energy inputs and outputs directly without needing multiple devices or extra wiring.

These Power Kits have stackable LiFePO4 batteries that start at 2kWh and are expandable up to 15kWh, so you’ll have ample energy for your off-grid adventures. These batteries differ from traditional solar batteries because they can draw energy in multiple ways: solar panels, your RV alternator, shore power (external AC plugs), or the EcoFlow Smart Generator using gas or propane. You can even use a combination of methods so you never worry about running out of energy, no matter where you are. 

You can also utilize optional components, like a smart distribution panel and console, to simplify and automate things even more. Many different power kit options are available, so you can easily find one that suits your specific needs. The solar panels are purchased separately, depending on your unique energy needs. Those who live in their RVs for extended periods will probably want more panels and extra batteries, while those who only go on short off-grid adventures can use a smaller system.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Does the 12-Volt System Work on an RV?

The 12-volt RV system has a standard 12V RV battery that supplies electricity to all your appliances. For those that use DC power, it runs them directly, while your appliances that rely on AC power must go through an inverter to change the DC to AC electricity. 

Can You Use a Regular 12V Lead Acid Battery to Run Your RV?

Due to the high energy demands of an RV, only deep-cycle lead acid batteries or lithium batteries are recommended. A standard lead-acid battery would not run your RV long, and as soon as you discharge it completely, you may need to purchase a new battery. 

Final Thoughts

Now, you should have a basic idea of how the electrical system on your RV works. This will allow you to efficiently plan what equipment you’ll need for the adventures you enjoy, whether on-grid, off-grid, dry-camping, or boondocking in the wilderness. Either way, with a better understanding and the right equipment, like one of EcoFlow’s Power Kits, you won’t ever have to worry about your energy supply again.

EcoFlow is a portable power and renewable energy solutions company. Since its founding in 2017, EcoFlow has provided peace-of-mind power to customers in over 85 markets through its DELTA and RIVER product lines of portable power stations and eco-friendly accessories.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here