Electric travel trailers are nothing new in concept. I would argue that close to 100% of the travel trailers out there rely on electricity to function. Take a quick look at your neighborhood RV park, and you’ll likely notice every single trailer, RV, camper, you name it – is plugged into the power connector – what’s called “shore power.” Just like homes, travel trailers require electricity to operate. The key factor here that I’ll be discussing is what happens to that very travel trailer when the shore power cord is disconnected?
Travel trailers are designed to spend time, well… traveling.
There are some significant factors that determine the type of experience you will have with an electric travel trailer. A movement is upon us in the travel trailer industry as we explore alternative fuel sources and power supply. If you are considering purchasing an electric travel trailer, the top 5 points to consider are:
- Do you plan on traveling On-Grid vs. Off-Grid?
- How is electric power being generated and stored?
- The size of the battery bank and energy system
- The quality of the energy system
- Redundant power systems
Most electric travel trailers are designed to function On-Grid. This means the shore power cord must be plugged in at all times to supply power to the primary components that allow that luxury travel experience.
Systems that require power are many and include: air conditioning, heat, refrigeration, cooking, hot water, and many more. This is what’s called a self-contained trailer – meaning all systems may function independently of the grid. But being self-contained does not necessarily mean for very long. A self-contained trailer could become useless in a matter of days, or even hours without being plugged into shore power.
I would not necessarily call trailers that must be plugged in to operate Electric Travel Trailers.
Perhaps a more suitable term would be electric trailers. If you desire to travel off-grid, away from RV Parks and lots of other people, you need a trailer that is capable of supplying power to all the systems away from “the plug.”
Just how many of those critical systems can be powered when traveling off-grid, and for how long?
When traveling off-grid, there are so many factors to consider keeping all that infrastructure running. All those systems require lots of energy on a regular basis. Where does all that power come from if no plug is available?
Electric travel trailers must be able to capture power, store that power, and efficiently use that power over time.
Almost all trailers are designed with some form of a battery to supply low voltage power to a number of simple systems. Think of this like a car-battery that quietly sits there, full of power, ready to supply power at the moment the user commands. This power is typically stored in the battery from the shore-power cable that charges the battery system. When the shore-power cable is disconnected, the battery is stored and then used up along the way. The main issue here is that the capacity of traditional batteries is not nearly enough to power any significant systems for a long period of time. Ever left your interior light on overnight in your car only to find your battery dead the next morning? It doesn’t take that much power over time to drain a fully charged battery.
For this very reason, we need to recharge the battery on a regular basis. Cars do this through alternators, powered by the engine. This is a wonderful design as we regularly use cars, and the engine is an excellent source of power – much like a generator.
Finding sustainable sources of power along the way is a crucial factor to an off-grid electric travel trailer.
Solar power is by far the most widely available source of power. A large enough array of solar panels can fully recharge even the largest energy systems on a regular basis. This power may be converted to power all those systems to keep you running.
However, even the largest solar array becomes rather useless when there is no sun for a more extended period of time.
At a minimum, a battery system should be sized to run the trailer overnight. The larger the battery system, the longer you will be able to self-sustain without solar power. There are times when the sun doesn’t come out for weeks, even longer. This is when alternative sources of power are required, such as generators.
For electric trailers to function off-grid, away from shore-power, the energy required to run the rolling home must be captured from alternative sources. In the past, the primary source of power generation was generators. Generators are excellent devices and can be very reliable sources of energy. There are quite a few downsides, and for this reason, I do not rely on these as a primary source of electricity. Generators are noisy, require large amounts of fuel, and are even illegal to use most of the day in almost all of our national parks, campgrounds, and other public lands. Not a great primary source of power.
That being said, generators are an excellent backup. Just as the humble backup generator is connected to a home when the power is not sufficient from the sun to charge the energy system, a generator available to quickly recharge the system and extend the time required until that energy supply becomes available again. A generator is just one form of a backup energy system. Having more than one source of power is what I call a redundant system. That can make all the difference when planning for an off-grid adventure in an electric travel trailer.
Electricity is an excellent source of power – having the ability to power many, if not all, types of equipment, systems, and appliances we have grown accustomed to in modern-day life.
While I advocate for electric power whenever possible, I firmly believe carrying alternative sources of fuel makes for great planning in case things do go wrong. For example, multiple sources of heat is one of the key components for off-grid travel in cold environments. In even the most insulated electric travel trailer, there are times in the winter when electrical supply is not available from the sun. Having a generator as a redundant source of power is a great way to maintain functionality of those electric heaters.
A propane furnace as a backup is another great idea in extreme environments. While propane may not be your primary source of power, I feel that given the many unknowns when traveling, being prepared is always a good thing.
Leveraging power from your tow vehicle is another wonderful source of power. Modern-day diesel engines have the capability to supply a tremendous amount of power to the battery system. High-Voltage alternators may deliver quick and reliable power while towing or in an emergency situation. All of this goes right back to the primary energy system – quietly capturing, storing, and delivering power to the entire electric travel trailer. In a home so reliant on electricity to function, the quality of the energy system becomes paramount and can make the difference of having an enjoyable experience or having to turn around and cancel the trip.
The final factor to consider may be the least obvious and most challenging to quantify when searching for an electric travel trailer. Having installed near 500 energy systems using all different sorts of components and methods, I can say that quality makes all the difference. Quality first means the system will continue to function, as designed, in all sorts of environments. I simply don’t understand the purpose of cutting corners in an energy system.
An energy system is a very complex set of subsystems. There are batteries, solar panels, charge controllers, inverters, capacitors, and chargers – all working in tandem to do one thing – deliver power to you. If even one of these critical energy components fails, the entire system may go down and fail to serve its primary purpose.
An electric travel trailer is designed to be powered by electricity as the primary source of power.
Without power, nothing else matters.
Carefully consider the quality of the entire energy system, not just one component. After all, the quality of the energy system is only as strong as the weakest link.
There are a myriad of different types of travel trailers and powered by many different sources of fuel.
As we look to the future, I am confident we are moving away from fossil fuels and towards an all-electric world.
It is this type of power that is clean, reliable, and safe that may be leveraged to create a wonderful travel experience in an electric travel trailer.
While we may be some years off from an all-electric off-grid travel trailer, electricity may now serve as the primary source of power to make the best experience possible. When the primary source of power is sitting right above you, rising and setting every day – in an electric travel trailer, the sky's the limit.
There are so many variables to understand just how far the limit really is. The more capable the energy system, the farther you will be able to go, and the longer you will be able to stay there. In the end, the only question that remains is, “how long may I travel off-grid in an electric travel trailer?” To answer that question, I created an “energy calculator” that helps define that exact question. Check it out here.