Read This First: Disclaimer, I’ve written what I personally did, and my opinions. Don’t assume what I did was safe, and don’t assume it will work for you. Do more research, and make your own choices. I am not responsible for your outcomes!
Basic Battery Types
There are several different types of deep cycle RV batteries available. Much information is on the web, so I don’t intend to duplicate it all here. I’ll give you a general overview of battery selection, talk a little about my own choices, and give you lots of links to sites with much more detail.
First, we’re NOT talking about Automotive Starting Batteries. These are made to provide a lot of power quickly for a short time to start your engine. You may have one or two of these for starting your RV engine, and that’s where they belong. We’re also not talking about most “Marine” batteries like you’d find at Wal-Mart. These typically are a compromise between starting batteries, and true deep cycle batteries.
What you need for an RV “Coach” or “House” battery is a true deep-cycle battery. These are designed to store a large quantity of power, to discharge deeply, and to recharge over and over again. There are three basic types of these.
- Lead Acid Flooded Cell
- Gel Cell
- AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat)
Lead Acid Flooded Cell batteries are the typical batteries that you see in most deep cycle applications. They are available in several sizes, in both 12v and 6v. They have very thick lead plates submerged in an acid solution (electrolyte). The majority of RV’s use this type of battery, although some cheaper RVs and travel trailers will come originally equipped with “marine batteries” as mentioned above.
Many RV’s have two or more 6 volt batteries, wired in series and parallel to create a 12 volt battery bank. Golf Cart batteries are the primary example, and Trojan brand size T-105 is the industry standard.
- Advantages: Inexpensive, durable, powerful, widely available. The most “bang for your buck”.
- Disadvantages: Produce corrosive and flammable gasses when charging, so they must be in a vented compartment. Can spill and are corrosive. Must be checked periodically and water must be added to them because small amounts boil away during charging.
- Great choice for most applications.
Gel Cell Batteries are similar to Flooded Cell batteries, except the electrolyte is gelled. For this reason they require little maintenance and rarely if ever emit gasses.
- Advantages: Low maintenance, no venting of gasses, somewhat greater capacity than standard flooded cells.
- Disadvantages: Expensive, slow to charge, can be easily damaged by improper charging — even once.
- Not Recommended They’re just too picky and easy to damage, also charge rates are too slow.
AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) batteries have a glass mat material between the plates and the electrolyte is absorbed into this glass mat. This makes them “spill proof” and they’re the only battery that can be shipped via UPS or FedEx. Being spill proof also gives them advantages in RV and marine use.
- Advantages: Low maintenance, no venting of gasses, they will take a charge faster than other batteries (if you have a big enough charger), can be installed on their side if necessary, can be installed in un-vented compartment**, can be installed in tight fit area because you don’t have to check water level, etc.
- Disadvantages: Expensive. Can be damaged by excessive float voltage, but MUCH more durable than Gels.
- Recommended for convenience and performance anytime cost isn’t a concern.
What do I have? For our previous RV (Fleetwood Southwind) I bought a set of AGM’s for my Christmas present in 2004. I installed them in a forward compartment under our motor home. They were the most high-end item in our otherwise frugal 12v electrical system. Our current motor home, a 2001 National Islander, came with two large 8D batteries. They were old and wouldn’t hold a charge for long so I replaced them with two Lifeline 8D’s.
**NOTE On Fleetwood Southwind I installed our AGM’s in an un-vented compartment. While this is generally accepted as safe, I’m told by experts in construction that it’s technically against the National Electrical Code (no exception for AGMs). I felt safe with our setup, but you need to research this topic and come to your own conclusions.
6 volt, 12 volt, how’s that work???
- How do I get 12 volts from a bunch of 6 volt batteries?
- How many amp hours do I have when I put all these batteries together?
Easier than you think, here are the rules:
- In series, voltage adds together, and amps are unchanged.
- In parallel, amps add together, and voltage is unchanged
Two 6 Volt, 200 AH batteries in series, give you 12 Volts, and 200 AH
Put these in parallel with another two 6 Volt batteries, and you have 12 Volts, and 400 AH
The Importance of Batteries and Adequate Charging
After years of dry camping, and watching others do it, I came to the conclusion that the lack of an adequate battery bank is the #1 deterrent to successful (i.e. frugal, fun, and quiet) dry camping. Your batteries are the heart of your system, and if they are too small, or if you’re not fully utilizing them, you’ll be a slave to your generator and the bane of neighbors who would like to enjoy a little quiet from time to time.
Without the ability to store sufficient power to meet your daily needs you’re going to have to run your generator most of the time, and that’s costly, noisy, and totally unnecessary. We’ve seen people who run a generator 8 to 12 and even 16 hours a day. There’s just no reason for that. With an adequate battery bank, a good inverter/charger, and a little conservation, you should be able to meet all your energy needs by running the generator just a few hours a day, even without solar power.
Your situation will vary, but here are the basics for a non-solar RV:
- Do the energy survey (in the next chapter “Determining your Needs”) and determine how much power you’ll need
- Buy more batteries so you have enough to meet your needs.
- Ensure your charger will charge your battery bank at the highest level allowed by the manufacturer (see the chapter on Battery Chargers for details)
- Install an efficient pure-sine wave inverter to meet your basic AC power needs for TV, Computer, etc. No need to power the microwave, toaster, hair dryer, etc. You can start the generator for these.
- Plan your battery charging.
- First thing in the morning, note your batteries state of charge. If they are below 50% write down how far below (let’s say they’re down 20 amp hours below 50%).
- Start the generator first-thing in the morning (as soon as quiet hours are over) and start charging your batteries. Also, use this time to run other appliances as needed – coffee maker, microwave, toaster, etc.. Don’t turn off the generator until the batteries are at 100%. This might take 2 or 3 hours, maybe more. It’s also OK to take them up to 95% 3 out of 4 days, then 100% on the 4th day.
- Be frugal with power use all day. Turn off anything not needed. Remove phantom loads. See Conserving Power and other chapters for more tips.
- During the day/evening, any time you run the generator to power the microwave, etc. be sure to charge batteries too (assuming your generator will do both at the same time)
- Re-start your generator when your batteries reach 50%, or when they reach 50% plus the previous morning deficit (see item 1 above). Be sure to charge your batteries enough in the evening so they will NOT be below 50% the next morning when you wake up.
- Start over at #1 and repeat every day.
Start over at #1 and repeat every day.
Here are some links for more detailed reading:
Our Batteries – Here’s our little 4 battery bank
12 Volt Side Of Live – Part 1 – Excellent article by Mark Nemeth on Batteries and Chargers
General FAQ about Batteries – from Arizona Wind & Sun’s web site
Phred’s Poop Sheet on Batteries – Good basic to intermediate primer on battery power
Trojan Batteries Home Page – The industry leader for Lead Acid batteries
Trojan Battery Maintenance – Excellent resource for lead/acid flooded call batteries
Concorde Lifeline RV Batteries – The “Cadillac” of RV and Marine batteries using AGM technology
Continue on to Battery Chargers — or choose another topic from the top line menu under Technical and Projects.