When it comes to your RV, leaving it plugged in for long periods of time may not be the best idea. It can cause issues with certain appliances (see RV refrigerator basics) and leave your RV susceptible to electrical issues if you’re not protecting your system with a surge protector.
Whether you’re renting an RV or have decided to purchase one, RV power can be confusing for even the most advanced RV enthusiast. Fortunately, you’re in the right place to break through that fog of confusion.
Should you leave your RV plugged in all the time? No. Well, “not quite,” is the short answer. The longer answer? Read on for more details to ensure your RV continues to run smoothly.
Understanding the Basics of RV Power
It’s important to know how your RV is powered and how to ensure that power is used and maintained. There are two power systems that supply power to an RV: DC power which uses 12-volt direct current, and AC power which uses 120-volt alternating current.
12-volt DC power from your battery bank (whether lead-acid, AGM, or lithium) can power things like lights, fans, your tongue jack (if it isn’t manual), and water pumps.
120-volt AC power, also known as “shore power,” supplies power to your RV’s AC receptacles and is essential for larger appliances like your air conditioner.
Some appliances, like your refrigerator and water heater, may be powered by either/or DC or AC depending on whether you’re boondocking or plugged into a power pedestal. To troubleshoot RV electrical systems, it’s really important that you know how to use a digital multimeter.
When using shore power, you connect your RV to an electrical grid (the same ones that power homes) through a shore power cord (typically 30-amp or 50-amp) to receive power. The shore power is run through a converter turning AC power into DC power that charges your RV battery while supplying power to your RV’s electrical components.
Shore power is generally provided by a campground or an RV park, but you can also use an outlet on the side of your friend’s garage with the correct power adapter. To use it, it’s imperative that you make sure the power source is compatible with your RV’s internal electrical system.
The easiest way to determine if your RV uses 30-amp or 50-amp is to look at the prongs on the plug of your shore power cord.
- 30-amp plugs have three prongs
- 50-amp plugs have four prongs
Check out the video below for a comprehensive look at how to hook up power to your RV.
Since RV batteries keep your 12-volt electrical components running properly, it’s imperative that you ensure your battery is in optimal condition and operating at full capacity. Here are a few things that could potentially affect the life of your battery:
- Undercharging — When a battery is undercharged, the battery life is reduced over time because of sulfation (a chemical process). Sulfation is a buildup on the battery that prevents it from getting a full charge, therefore, reducing its ability to hold a charge long-term. The goal should always be to charge your battery between 80% and 100% for the best results.
- Overcharging — When a battery is overcharged, it’s often because it is left plugged in after it has reached a full charge. This leads to a depletion of electrolyte levels. The most common reason a battery is overcharged is when they are plugged in for months, especially over the winter months. Most newer converters are designed to avoid overcharging. If your converter has a three-stage charge mode, it will automatically go into float mode to maintain the charge instead of overcharging.
- Temperature — When batteries get too cold or too hot, they can lose their voltage capacity. If you’re storing your RV for the inter, remove the battery to charge occasionally throughout the season instead. A frozen battery will essentially kill its life span.
Tech Tip: Never attempt to charge a frozen battery as it will likely explode. Allow it to fully thaw indoors before attempting to recharge at room temperature.
Is it Okay to Leave Your RV Plugged in All the Time?
Again, the short answer about keeping your RV plugged in all the time is – no. The risks include battery damage from overcharging and frozen refrigerator coils, as most RV refrigerators need to be periodically cycled off and thawed.
The longer answer is a little more complex and depends on the type of converter installed in your RV.
WFCO RV converters, for example, feature a three-stage charging system with a float mode that prevents overcharging by reducing the converter’s output when it hasn’t detected a significant variation in amp draw for 44 continuous hours.
In other words, it detects that your RV isn’t being used and reduces its output to continue trickle-charging your battery without overcharging it. When a significant change in DC current is detected, the converter switches back into a normal or absorption mode to maintain your battery’s charge.
These WFCO converters are now common in many RVs. But if you don’t have one, you risk overcharging your battery if you leave your RV plugged in for an extended period. Overcharging will deplete your battery’s electrolyte levels and shorten its capacity.
To avoid this, you can unplug periodically and rely on the charge your batteries have built up. But you’ll need to avoid discharging your battery too much, as this can also reduce its lifespan.
What is the best way to prevent your battery from overcharging? Look toward the parasitic load items — clocks, propane leaks and smoke detectors, etc. These items consume a steady trickle of energy as is and can help use some of the charge from your battery.
When Should You Unplug Your RV?
Sound a little complicated? That’s why many smart RV converters like the WFCO manage this for you. And it’s also why many RVers install energy management systems that manage energy consumption and modify how your battery is being charged to protect and extend its life.
But if you are managing your battery’s charge with the use of a digital multimeter, your aim should be maintaining at least a 90% charge through regular cycles of charging and discharging.
If your RV isn’t being used, you can remove your batteries and store them inside your garage, which makes it easier to periodically check and charge as needed. This is a good solution for climates where cold temperatures can negatively impact your battery’s health.
To Plug or Unplug, That is the Question
Ultimately, the choice is yours when it comes to plugging in your RV or unplugging it. However, the most common reason an RV is plugged in for a long time is forgetfulness. You park your rig after your last vacation, plug it in, and don’t think about it until the next trip.
Another reason is when RV enthusiasts live in bitterly cold climates and don’t want their electrical systems, appliances, or pipes freezing during the winter. Winterizing your RV properly is the best method for protecting these components.
Remember that most RVs aren’t built for full-time living, which means they aren’t designed to be plugged in 100% of the time. But with more folks interested in just that, tech-like smart converters remove a lot of the hassle from RV battery and energy consumption management.
Check out these posts for more information regarding your batteries and electrical systems:
How long do you leave your RV plugged in? Tell us in the comments below!