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Basic Electricity for Your Van!

There are two basic forms of electricity within your van: 120V (AC) and 12V (DC) Power.

Call them what you want but I like to think of 120V as “Electric Hook Up or Generator” and 12V as “house batteries." Okay now you’ve got the lingo down… let’s talk about how it all works.

The 120V devices in the van, like the Rooftop Air Conditioner, get power by either being plugged into a 30 AMP electrical source or by running the onboard generator.

12V devices in the van, like your interior lights, get power by the house batteries.

Easiest way to think of it all is, “If I’m not plugged into electricity nor have my generator running, that means I am only running off my house batteries (12V) What devices will not work only using the house batteries?

Easy! No large 120V Devices! See list below.

Require 120V Power

Require 12V Power

​Air conditioner

Interior & Exterior Lights


Refridgerator and Freezer

Induction Cooktop

Exhaust Vent Fan

Electrical Outlets



USB Outlets

Water Heater (also needs propane)

Furnace (also needs propane)

Okay now you have a basic understanding on how all that works. Let’s take it up a notch…

The inverter

The inverter enables you to run a 120V device using only the 12V house batteries (not having to be plugged in nor the generator running)

It is important to know how large your inverter is because this will tell you what all you can run on the inverter without exceeding its maximum wattage. For example, 2000 watts is a standard size inverter for most vans.

Each appliance you turn on has a certain amount of watts used to power that appliance! If we only have a 2000 watt inverter we want to be mindful that we don't try to run too many appliances at once which would result in tripping a breaker.

Here are a few examples of the power consumption of common appliances, Hair Dryer 1,250 Watts, Coffee Maker 800 Watts, Microwave 800 Watts.

If we tried to run all 3 of these appliances at the same time we are using 2,850 watts, which would exceed our 2,000 watt maximum. However, if we just used the Coffee maker and the Microwave, we are only using 1600 watts which is under our 2,000 watt maximum!

So typically, the inverter is only large enough to operate the induction cooktop, outlets, TV, or the Microwave- not all at once, but just or two at a time! It is not powerful enough to operate the Air conditioner!

So what's the real world situation look like for when to use the inverter? Use your imagination with me here....

It’s Early fall, the leaves are changing and you are driving to a beautiful state park to fully embrace the change of scenery. On your way to the park, you decide it’s time to take a break from driving, so you pull over into a rest area. You want to lounge around and watch a little bit of TV. We aren’t plugged into electricity outside and the generator is not running, which means we now have two ways to make the TV work!

Option 1. Fire up the noisy generator and burn up gasoline for an hour Or

Option 2. Turn on the quiet Inverter and just simply use your batteries!

Remember the inverter is really just a convenience to use for short periods of time! The inverter will drain those batteries quickly, so you don’t want to be out in the middle of nowhere with that inverter on for 10+ hours at a time. Which leads me into the next topic of discussion...

How do those house batteries get charged? In order, starting with the quickest solution and working our way down to the least efficient.

  1. Plug Into Shore Power

  2. Run the Generator

  3. Go for a drive

  4. Solar

That is it! I can add many more things here, but I hope you picked up at least a little bit of something to improve on the use of your van!

Happy Camping,

Justin Shanholtzer

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What does an Inverter do in an RV?

In an RV (recreational vehicle), an inverter is a device that converts DC (direct current) power from the RV's battery to AC (alternating current) power that can be used to power household appliances


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