Electrical Upgrades and Lessons Learned

While in the US Navy I was trained as an Electronics Technician as a path to become a Nuclear Power Reactor Operator.  I realized that while I could understand and perform electrical task, this was not my strong suit.  So, when I decided to pursue my engineering degree, it was not electrical, rather mechanical.  You may wonder what this has to do with electrical system upgrades in our RV.  Well simply put, at least one lesson learned, I attribute to not being very strong electrically.

We have completed two upgrades to the electrical system of the camper, installed an In-Line Surge protector and installed “Soft-Start” on both HVAC units.  The reason for both was to improve the overall value of the camper.

System Electrical Surge Protection

There are 2 types of surge protectors available on the market:  External surge protector installed at the campground pedestal and an internal surge protector installed between the RV external power connection and the RV fuse box.  We selected the inline version mainly because of the RV Discussion boards talking about the stealing of the external surge protectors. 

Looking at current pricing (TechnoRV as of 11/4/21), the internal surge protector cost ~$250 and the external surge protector cost ~$430 (on sale for ~$375).  There is around 1 – 2 hours needed to install the internal surge protector and if you need a technician to do the work, this could run ~$150, putting the installed cost of either surge protector effectively the same.

The In-Line Surge Protector we installed is manufactured by Southwire, model 35550, “Surge Guard”, with remote display.   After looking at what it would take for me to install the surge protector, I decided that it made more sense for a technician to install it.  We were in Kentucky when we had it installed by Jon Fox, Fox RV Service, Lexington, KY.  It took just under 2 hours to complete the installation and required me to empty the basement area to remove panels revealing the camper wiring (something that I have repeated several times for other reasons since the surge protector was installed).

To date, we have confidence that the camper electrical systems are protected, though I can’t point to a specific instance where it was needed.

Soft Start RV

As we were planning our trips, it seemed prudent to assume that we would be off-the-grid from time to time and rely on the camper power and a generator.  We purchased a 3,200-Watt Portable RV Inverter Generator, which we carry with us everywhere we go.  The problem we were faced with is that this generator could support operation of one of the two HVAC units on our camper.  The Soft Start RV device allows us to operate both HVAC units on the generator, with no margin for any other 120 VAC loads.  So, we could cool down the camper, but if we need another electrical load (microwave, 120VAC TV, etc.), we need to secure one of the HVAC units.  Given the way the camper is designed, we have a door between the two HVAC zones that allows us to focus cooling on half of the camper.

I installed the Soft Start RV devices on each HVAC unit.  The directions and on-line YouTube videos were sufficient for me to complete the work.  The hardest part was to identify the HVAC model we had installed.  The Keystone OEM Manual is written for either a pull-behind or 5th wheel camper and really didn’t provide too much technical data on the HVAC Units installed. 

The nameplate on the units also was of little help.   In the end, I needed to contact an RV technician who could look up the serial number of the unit to let me know what model was installed.  In the end, it took me a little over an hour to install the Soft Start RV unit on each HVAC Unit.

In the end, I needed to contact an RV technician who could look up the serial number of the unit to let me know what model was installed.  In the end, it took me a little over an hour to install the Soft Start RV unit on each HVAC Unit.

If there is a downside to this setup, it comes down to the generator gas supply.  We can get about 4 – 6 hours operation between refueling of the generator, so assuming that we start the generator sometime during the evening, it will run through the gas supply in the middle of the night.  Either sleep through what remains of the night or get up and refuel the generator – that decision depends on how comfortable we are when the generator shuts off.

Lessons Learned

The camper has three power systems, interconnected.  The external power feed is 208 VAC, 50 amp capacity.  This is split into 2 – 120 VAC lines feeding the various loads in the camper and a convertor for AC to DC.  There is a 12 VDC system through-out the camper as the 3rd electrical system.  The camper has a 12 VDC deep cycle battery which is recharged from either the convertor or the power from the truck.  So, the lesson learned is to understand where the power is coming from, what it is supplying, and what are the main loads on each.

As I was upgrading the camper lighting to LED, I came across a few lights that were powered from the 120 VAC system.  Additionally, as I have been looking at upgrading the camper TV to a smart TV, realized that the 2nd TV in the bedroom is powered from the 12 VDC system.  Finally, as we were working through the understanding of what we could and couldn’t operate while on the generator, the importance of the refrigerator and water heater operating on either propane or electric became very clear.

So bottom line, as we read several times in the RV On-Line discussion pages, the RV electrical system is much more complicated than your typical home electrical system.

When we purchased the RV in Sept 2020, we knew we needed to store the RV for the 2020/2021 winter, so I disconnected the battery from the camper and took it inside for the winter.  I also opened the battery disconnect switch in the utility area of the camper (redundant to me removing the battery).  In the spring, I installed a charged 12 VDC battery back in the camper and we went along our merry way.

I was troubled by the lack of 12 VDC power when we were off-the-grid unless I used the generator.  After much on-line searching and questions on the discussion boards, I was not able to figure out what was wrong.  So, I called in a technician to troubleshoot and repair whatever the problem was.  As it turns out, the battery disconnect switch needed to be closed and everything works fine – clearly an operator-error. 

The battery disconnect switch disconnects the battery from the camper 12 VDC system, except for operating the camper slides, the back stabilizer system and the front legs.  The battery will be charged only from the truck electrical connection.  So, bottom line, we could setup/takedown the trailer, but not operate the 12 VDC systems inside.

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