Last Updated on July 24, 2021 by Chris and Lindsay
Whether you are just getting started with RVing or are looking to upgrade or update your power setup this post will help you identify the must-have RV power essentials for life on the road.
When we first started RVing in 2018 we did not have a clue about the basics of our RV electrical system, let alone the importance of the various RV power gear we’ll describe below. We just plugged things in the way we always did at home and they either worked or didn’t work depending on whether we were plugged into 110V “shore power.”
But as we quickly fell in love with the idea of dry camping and boondocking, we realized that we needed to learn as much as we could about our RV power set up so that we could make the most of the energy we had on hand and/or could generate from a generator or solar panel system.
In this post, we’ll walk you through the top RV power must-haves to ensure that you are safe and efficient in your RV living. For each one, we’ll share what it does and why it is important for you to have on hand.
Whether you plan to entirely redesign your RV power system or just want to upgrade existing components, we’ll give you some tips and tricks for how to turn your RV into an efficient power system.
Affiliate Disclaimer: This post may contain links to products we think you’ll like. If you purchase any of the products through the links below we’ll receive a small commission. As full-time RVers, we know our RV products well and only recommend those that we either own or would consider owning ourselves.
RV Power Must Haves Explained
To understand the importance of these RV power essentials you have to understand the basics of your power setup. We won’t go too far down the rabbit hole of explaining things. You should read this post on your RV Electrical System if you would like more information on that topic.
But we do want to differentiate between your 110V “shore power” (AC) setup and your “battery power” (DC) system because for the purposes of this post we’re only going to talk about the battery power side of things.
RV Battery Bank
Every appliance – from lights and fans to hard-wired alarms and water pumps – in your RV depends on the energy supplied in your RV “house” batteries. In most motorhomes, trailers and vans your house battery will be separate from your “starting” battery, which is the battery in your vehicle that starts it.
If you do not have dedicated house batteries for your RV separate from your vehicle starting battery then the first thing you will want to do is to invest in purchasing and setting up house batteries.
But chances are your RV is already equipped with a house battery or two. That being said, you may want to begin your DC power upgrade by ensuring you have the best possible batteries for your RV.
You don’t want to skimp on your house battery or batteries (bank) because everything in your DC system runs through them electronically.
1) House Battery
There are 3 main types of RV batteries on the market today. The most common (and least expensive) is a Flooded Lead Acid battery. We’re not big fans of these because of the maintenance they require and the fact they don’t handle bumps very well.
We’d recommend you start your battery shopping with AGM batteries. These can discharge 60% or more and can be installed in all sorts of places and orientations.
If you have the extra money and/or want to purchase a battery that will last well over 5 years then look into a Lithium battery. These can be completely discharged and, like AGM batteries, can be mounted in all sorts of places. They are pricey at this time – running near $1000 for one 100 Ah battery.
READ MORE: Learn more about all of the best RV batteries in this expert buying guide.
2) Buss Bar (Positive and Negative)
We don’t like to have any more wires connected directly to our battery bank than necessary. A buss bar helps you keep the number of wires on your batteries to a minimum.
With a buss bar, you connect all of the positive wires to your positive buss and all of your negative wires to your negative buss.
Then power is transferred across the buss to all wires connected to it. Whether you are upgrading your battery bank or just want to simplify your battery wiring these are the way to go.
We include a good inverter in the battery bank section because you will want to hook it up directly to your battery bank (via the buss bars, if you opt to install them).
An inverter takes the power supplied in your batteries and changes it to 110V power so you can use normal household appliances.
While we started with a 600-watt inverter we later upgraded to a 1000W inverter.
In our Class C motorhome, we upgraded again to a 2000W inverter. The key here is to invest in a pure sine wave inverter, which provides “clean” power to the devices plugged into it. This will protect sensitive devices such as computers, phones and cameras.
READ MORE: Shop other great inverter options in this post.
4) Automatic Transfer Switch
You may not have ever heard of an automatic transfer switch. But once you read this and realize they exist you will forever be a fan of having one in your RV.
The problem with RV power outlets is that they are wired to only operate when you have a source of 110v power (shore power or generator).
So if you are plugged into shore power then you can use the outlets like normal.
But if you are dry camping and don’t have a source of 110-volt power then you can’t use the outlets. But this transfer switch connects in your power distribution center in line with your 110V power outlet wiring and connects directly to your inverter.
The switch then detects whether you are operating on 110V shore power or on power supplied by your inverter. In this way you can always count on using your outlets – whether on shore power or DC power through your inverter.
RV Solar System Setup
We consider RV solar panels essential if you plan to dry camp or boondock anywhere. They are incredibly affordable, efficient and relatively easy to install.
While we have a great post specifically on how to set up and install your solar system we want to touch on the basics of what components you will need when you invest in your solar power system.
Note that many of these components can be purchased directly through our favorite solar system manufacturer, Renogy.
5) Solar Panels
Solar panels are clearly the foundation to an RV solar system. Several years back when we were first beginning our full-time RVing journey solar panels were relatively pricey.
There were two options: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. And while these two options still exist, the prices and efficiency of the monocrystalline panels make it such that these are the only ones we recommend.
Before you get too far in determining how many panels to purchase you’ll want to do a quick survey of the amount of power you think you’ll use on a daily basis.
You can’t really have too much solar power. We’d recommend considering 300-400 watts as a starting point for a solar system that should provide more than enough power.
Just remember the more panels you add the bigger the battery bank you will need since you’ll be collecting quite a bit of power from your panels.
READ MORE: Check out our solar panel expert buying guide to shop for the best RV solar panels.
6) Solar Charge Controller
A solar charge controller is an absolutely imperative component of your solar system. You CANNOT hook up your solar panels directly to your battery bank.
You must connect the solar panels to a solar charge controller which then monitors how much energy is sent to your battery bank.
As with solar panels, there are two kinds of controllers: PWM and MPPT.
Without getting into the details, you should really only shop for MPPT solar charge controllers at this point in time. They are very affordable and incredibly efficient and will handle your solar power needs.
Of course, the size of the controller depends on how much power you plan to run through it. We recommend starting with a 30-40 amp controller unless you’re adding significantly more than 500-600 watts of solar power to your RV.
READ MORE: Check out this post to learn more about the best solar charge controllers for your RV.
7) Battery Monitor
Having a battery monitor is not mandatory. But we definitely recommend it as this is the best way to be able to see the state of charge of your batteries including all power going in and out of the battery bank.
This is a relatively simple install – placed in line on the negative lead out of your battery and connected to your negative buss.
8) Fuses (in-line With solar)
You want to put a fuse in line on the positive side of your panels before they connect to the solar charge controller.
These in-line fuses are pretty standard plug-and-play with the MC4 connectors that are found in most solar panel setups.
Depending on how many panels you have and whether you connect them in parallel, series or series-parallel you’ll want to make sure you have at least one properly sized fuse between the panels and the controller.
9) Breaker (solar panels → controller)
We like having a power breaker instead of a fuse between the solar panels and the charge controller. It is simple to install, easy to check and you reset it with the flip of a button rather than having to dig inside a fuse.
This should be sized properly to protect the controller from any surge of power from the solar panels.
10) Breaker (controller → batteries)
The last component of your solar power system is an important breaker switch between the controller and the battery.
This will protect the battery bank in the event there is a surge of power from the solar power controller.
Make sure this breaker is the same size as your solar charge controller.
RV Power Outside the RV
With the core of your RV power essentials covered, there are a few things you’ll want to invest in to make life on the road possible and more convenient. These are a few items we recommend outside of the RV that will streamline your power setup..
11) Power Adapters (30/50 amp, 15/30 amp)
Power adapters are imperative for life on the road. And because they are affordable and pack away easily there is no reason why you should skimp on adding these two adapters to your RV gear. By far the adapter we have used the most is the 15 amp to 30 amp adapter.
This power adapter allows us to connect our 30 amp shore power cord to a 15 amp power cord that we can plug into a standard power outlet. While we prefer 30 amp connections when we can have them, a 15 amp connection is convenient when staying with friends or family because we can run the cord to any of their house outlets.
Less commonly used, but essential nonetheless, is a 30 amp to 50 amp power adapter. If you happen to only have a 50 amp connection but need 30 amps for your RV this adapter does the trick. But usually, when you have a 50 amp connection at a campground you’ll also have a 30 amp connection, negating the need for the adapter.
However, a common practice particularly in busy campgrounds is to plug into the 50 amp connection and then step it down to 30 amps with the adapter to ensure that you never receive less than the 30 amps you require.
With a lot of campers pulling 30 amps at a campground you may be surprised to find fluctuations in the power supplied. So having these adapters gives you flexibility in connecting your shore power.
Having a generator is a great backup to ensure you always have access to 110-volt shore power. While many RVs come equipped with onboard generators, yours may not.
If you don’t have an onboard generator and are looking for a great option we can’t speak more highly of the Honda 2200 units.
In the 3 years that we lived in our flatbed truck camper, we carried two of these that we could connect in parallel to give us enough power to fire up our air conditioner when we needed it.
Generally, we just ran one so that we could top off our batteries when our solar panels weren’t doing the trick.
READ MORE: Check out this post for other great generator options for your camper, trailer or van.
13) Surge Protector
Electrical devices are expensive. So protecting them with a surge protector is an additional bit of insurance in the event you experience a surge of power wherever you are camping.
While not necessary, a surge protector does provide a bit of peace of mind and is well worth the money – particularly if you have a lot of electronics in your RV you depend upon.
Never mind the cost and frustration if your power distribution center gets fried during one of these surges.
14) Portable Jump Starter
While a good pair of jumper cables is almost essential in a good RV roadside emergency kit, this portable jump starter takes away the dependence on another vehicle to get your engine started.
Purchase one that packs enough punch for your particular engine and make sure to charge it in the event you need to use it.
We had to be jumped several times by fellow travelers in Alaska and knowing how few people and far between they can be we decided to invest in a portable jump starter just to know that we could get ourselves out of whatever bind we found ourselves.
Accessories Around the RV
Now that we have RV power essentials covered for your actual DC power system, these are a few items we recommend you consider purchasing for around the RV itself. They will add to the convenience of your RV living experience.
15) USB Multi-port Charger
Whether you’ve done yourself the favor of adding an automatic transfer switch to your power system or not, you still don’t want to clutter up your power outlets with a bunch of chargers for the various devices you want to keep powered up.
This USB multi-port charger streamlines plugging in all of your devices in one location so you can free up the power outlets for other needs.
We charge both of our phones, tablets, GoPro batteries and a handful of other devices using our multi-port charger.
16) Portable USB Charger
We consider this portable USB charger both a convenience and a safety device because of its ability to store the power we need to charge our phones multiple times if needed.
Whether you keep one around as a backup for day trips and other outdoor activities or just want to pack it away as part of your emergency roadside kit you will find the portable charger comes in handy when you need to recharge your electronic device on the fly.
17) 15A Extension cord (Heavy duty)
Although your RV is wired pretty well off the manufacturer’s floor, having a short run of 15 amp extension cord comes in handy for a variety of reasons. We like to keep one 10-12 foot cord for indoor use and another longer 50 foot cord for outdoor use.
Whether you consolidate them into one or you also opt for both lengths, the extension cord allows you to power up the things you want to power when normal outlets just don’t do.
We include this in our outdoor kitchen essentials as well because we can run power to things like our Instant Pot, air fryer and other devices in our outdoor kitchen.
18) Power strip with a surge protector
In addition to having an extra 15 amp extension cord or two, a power strip is a great way to delegate power to multiple devices at the same time.
Be sure to purchase one with a surge protector that will trip if you are trying to pull too many amps at once.
But being able to plug in multiple computers, kitchen appliances or other devices once we get set up at our campsite is incredibly convenient and makes the cost of a power strip worth every dollar.
Tools for Working with RV Power
While you may want to check out this post about our complete RV toolkit, we want to make sure to bring particular attention to several tools that are specific to RV power essentials.
We can’t tell you the number of times we’ve had to reach for these tools – whether to make a quick fix when something rattled loose on the road or to completely overhaul our RV power system.
A multimeter like this should be the foundation for any tools you have related to RV power. You’ll find it will be useful for basic things like testing the voltage of your batteries (if you don’t have or trust your battery monitor) or the voltage at campsites (particularly if you find yourself camping in Mexico).
But you can also use it for more complex tasks like checking the continuity between the connections of electrical devices or ensuring you don’t reverse polarity when installing new appliances.
A good multimeter has a modest up front cost, but it is well worth it when you need it.
20) Various fuses
One of the most overlooked RV power essentials is this simple kit with various fuses. Since every one of your DC appliances is connected to your power distribution center with a blade fuse, this should be the first thing you check if you find an appliance is not working.
Unfortunately most of the time we get upset and fail to remember that a burnt fuse is the likely culprit when a light, fan or other device doesn’t work when we want it to.
So having these handy will help you fix what you need – hopefully sooner than later!
21) Electrical Tape
We use electrical tape any time we are working on any power components inside our RV. Typically once you make whatever modifications and upgrades you want to your power system you won’t have to go back and redo anything. But especially during this process of revamping your power system, or during the addition of a solar system or other devices such as fans or lights, you’ll want to have electrical tape handy. We like to think we overkill when it comes to protecting exposed wires and connections. But we’d rather be safe than sorry. So we tape any exposed wires so they aren’t at risk of shorting out and/or causing a fire. But we also tape any connections we make just to ensure they stay in place with all of the rattling we know happens when we’re driving.
22) Wire Cutters
A good pair of wire cutters will go a long way whenever you have to work on your RV’s power system. Whether you’re overhauling the system or adding new appliances or devices, wire cutters are great for cutting various gauge wires, stripping them and crimping new connectors.
You’ll want more heavy-duty wire cutters and crimpers when working with thicker wires for your battery bank and solar setup.
But these will do great for most of the things you may have to work on in your power setup.
23) Various connectors
Like fuses, various wire connectors come in handy more times than not. We like to try and keep track of the more common wire sizes in our RV so we know which connectors we’re likely to use more often.
But we have literally used every connector in this set at least one time and we were grateful we had them all in one place. Of course, if there are certain wire gauges you work with more frequently then you’ll want to supplement this kit with whatever specific connectors you need.
But this kit will cover most bases when it comes to needing to reach in and grab the right size connector to make a quick fix on an electrical connection.
READ MORE: Check out this post on every tool we recommend you carry with you in your RV tool kit.