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Who else has been to the RV Hall of Fame in Elkhart, Indiana? If you haven’t, I’d recommend it. You can tour all sorts of interesting RVs, some dating back to the early 1900’s. Stef and I have gone twice now, and both times we’ve visited, I kept coming back to the same thought: how RVs haven’t really changed all that much. OK, sure, the decor changed. I mean, the shag carpet, the avocado green, and the brown and orange flowers are (mostly) a thing of the past. But beyond decor, when you look at RV tech, it’s surprising how little has happened in that department over the past 50 years. Heaters, fridges, propane cooktops… the ones you find in RVs today aren’t all that different from the RVs on display in the museum.
I feel like recently though, this has begun to change. This past decade we’ve seen all sorts of big and small technological advances work their way into RVs. Big ones, like lithium batteries. And small ones, like USB outlets becoming standard. And then of course there’s the move towards all-electric RVs; not here yet, but prototypes are. While I’m not going to get into eRVs here, I thought I’d talk about three advancements in RV appliances that we have in Number One… that you won’t find in the RV Hall of Fame Muesum. These technologies have been around a while, but they’re not yet what I’d call “RV Industry Standard”.
Advancement #1: Induction Cooktops
It’s a safe bet that over 90% of RVs out there use propane for the cooktop. Propane cooking is inexpensive, and the fuel travels well. But since discovering induction cooking, we’ve become converts, and have installed it in our last two RVs. Induction cooking itself is not new (designs for induction burners go back to the early 1900s), but you may not have thought about using it in your RV before.
Here are several reasons why you might want to consider it.
1. It’s fast.
Like, crazy fast. Before we installed it in our last campervan Lance, we filmed an induction vs. propane boil-off, and the induction cooktop had boiled its water before the propane cooktop had even developed any steam. But speed isn’t its only advantage.
2. It keeps your interior cool.
Induction cooking doesn’t heat up the inside of your RV as much. Since induction heats your cookware directly, not much heat radiates out into your rig. That can be a real bonus in the summer.
3. It keeps your interior dry.
Induction doesn’t release moisture into your RV as propane does. Burning propane produces over a pound of water for each pound of propane burned. That water (as vapor) escapes into your RV. And anyone who’s ever tried to RV in the winter knows that you want to keep moisture in check.
4. No venting is required.
Propane cooking requires opening a window or your roof vent (or, ideally, both) to safely vent during use. Propane cooking is combustion, and you don’t want to burn up your oxygen without allowing more to get in.
5. There’s no open flame.
This is the reason that really sold us on induction cooking. No flame means a reduced risk of anything catching fire.
So, lots of things to love about induction. But! There are some constraints with induction cooking. First, you’ll have to convert to using induction-compatible cookware. Basically, this means cookware that’s magnetic. So if your current RV cookware is aluminum or glass, you’ll be investing in new pots and pans.
The other major consideration is that an induction cooktop is an electrical appliance. A typical one will use about 1500 watts on high. So if you’re planning on induction, you’ll also need to plan how to power it. If you’re a full-hookup camper, this won’t be a big challenge, as campground power can easily run an induction cooktop. But if you like to boondock, you’ll need to plan how to store or generate the necessary power out on the road.
The last thing I’ll say about induction is that you can try it out without a big commitment. There are loads of options for inexpensive portable induction cooktops on Amazon. They can be plugged in and used without making any changes to your rig, or de-installing your propane cooktop. If you like cooking outside, you can even take a portable burner outside and use it there.
Advancement #2: Tankless Water Heaters
Tankless water heaters are showing up in more and more new RVs, and for good reason – they’re an EXCELLENT fit for the RV lifestyle. Our newest motorhome has a tankless water heater, and I love it. It’s ruined us if we would ever have to go back to a traditional RV water heater.
For those of you who don’t know, traditional RV water heaters have either a 6 or 10 gallon tank. They work well enough, but they have a few drawbacks. The first of which is… they have a tank! That tank of water takes a while to heat up. So if you want a shower, you’ll need to plan ahead by 20 minutes or so to allow time for the tank to heat up. Depending on your shower habits, your partner may need to wait another 20-30 minutes after you’re done before they can shower. (Although experience tells me that letting your partner go first is probably the better idea. Don’t ask how I figured that out.)
The capacity of the tank can be an issue if you like to like to take longer showers, or if you need to wash long hair. It can impart a sense of anxiety to your shower, as you try to guess how much hot water you have left. “Beat the clock” isn’t a particularly relaxing shower game.
A tankless water heater solves these problems. The water is heated only when you use it, so there’s no waiting for a tank to heat up. And since the water is heated continuously, there’s no worry about running out. (You can, of course, still fill your gray tank or drain your fresh tank with a super decadent shower, but that would happen regardless of your water heater choice.)
The Truma AquaGo in our newest RV has a couple innovative features that make the tankless water heater even more comfortable and convenient. First, paradoxically, it has a very small tank. The tank is not intended as a hot water reservoir. It’s there to ensure a more even temperature for your hot water. You see, tankless water heaters only heat the water when they sense it flowing. But if you’re turning the water on and off as you shower, the water heater will also be turning on and off. This can lead to spurts of cold water in your otherwise hot shower. The small tank in the AquaGo is always mixing the water coming out of the heater, so the cold bits are mixed with the hot, and the temperature is more even.
The other feature our AquaGo has is a recirculating pump which brings hot water almost all the way to the tap before you even turn the water on. This neat feature eliminates that period of wasted water while you wait for it to heat up. Thanks to this feature, we’re actually washing dishes with hot water!
The final benefit of tankless water heaters has to do with winterization. Since they don’t have traditional tanks and anode rods, the winterization and maintenance procedures for them are typically much simpler.
Tankless RV water heaters, conveniently, can fit in the same installation spaces as traditional RV water heaters, so they’re an easy enough retrofit. But this is one I’d recommend sourcing out to a professional, since it requires good propane safety.
Advancement #3: Compressor-Driven Refrigerators
If you’ve ever heard the advice “turn the refrigerator on a day early” or “don’t pack the refrigerator full”, it’s a safe bet that conversation was about absorption refrigerators. Absorption refrigeration is a bit different from the refrigerators you know in your home. I won’t go into depth on how they work, but basically, they move heat by boiling and condensing a solution of ammonia.
Though it’s counter-intuitive to think of cooling a refrigerator by boiling something, that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s also key to understanding why absorption refrigeration has been so popular in RVs for so long. Boiling a liquid is easily and inexpensively accomplished by burning propane, which most RVs already carry. These refrigerators have no moving parts, and don’t use much, if any, electricity, so they’ve been a solid choice for boondocking situations for a long time.
You can recognize an absorption refrigerator in a couple of easy ways. First, since they’re propane burning appliances, they have air intakes and vents that you can see from outside the RV. And inside the refrigerator itself, you’ll typically see aluminum fins intended to help distribute the cooling.
But absorption refrigerators have their drawbacks. The main one is that they’re not as powerful as other types of refrigerators. This is where that “turn it on a day early” or “park the refrigerator out of the sun” advice comes from. In our experience, they also don’t regulate their temperature as well – meaning you might have to adjust their settings as the day warms and cools. They also need to be parked level, so that the coolant solution doesn’t pool in any one place. And finally, since they’re not as powerful, they’re more dependent on air circulation inside the refrigerator to maintain even temperatures.
Now, contrast absorption refrigeration with compressor-driven refrigeration. Compressor refrigerators work just like the refrigerator in your house. They cool down fast, they regulate their temperature well, you can pack them pretty full (trust me on this), and they don’t need to be parked level.
We’ve had both types of refrigerators in our RVs, but one summer day, after a dinner of frozen lettuce and runny ice cream, I had had enough. Shortly thereafter, I had replaced our absorption refrigerator with a compressor driven one. My ice cream was cold, my salads crisp, and I was happy.
The downside of compression refrigerators is that they are electric-only appliances. You won’t be running them off propane. The RV models are typically 12 volts only, so you’ll need to make sure you’ve got adequate 12 volt power and battery capacity to run them. In practice though, the ones developed for RVs use very efficient compressors, and don’t require nearly as much electricity as you might think. They require far less electricity than an absorption refrigerator in 12 volt mode.
So there you have it. Three new-ish advancements in RV appliances. Some of you may already have one–or all–of these. And others may just want to file this information away for the next time you go RV shopping. Hopefully, RV shoppers will start demanding non-museum technology in their rigs, and together, we’ll all move the industry forward. But regardless, these are great examples how change is actually (slowly) happening in RV tech, even if it doesn’t always seem that way.
To add to what James recently confirmed, in our previous camping van (2016 Roadtrek Zion) we had 200w solar system with 400amp of AGM battery capacity (same useful capacity as 200 amps of Lithium battery). We never had a problem running our compressor fridge (way better than absorption: no frost build up, and don’t have to be level – which I love for boondocking) 24/7. We often go to state campgrounds on short notice (when all full-hookup sites are sold out) and simply take a non-electric site. At times at night we would even turn on the inverter to watch a DVD or connect an iPad to the TV to watch a downloaded movie, and never come close to running out of battery juice overnight.
And, personally, I haven’t noticed the heat.
So perhaps, with some additional battery capacity if needed, you should have the confidence to easily make it through the night (while the panels aren’t generating any power) with your 200w of solar.
re electric (compression) fridge vs propane (absorption) fridge. we are looking at replacing our 9 yr old, very used 17′ Lance travel trailer. Many new trailers are electric only. We are discouraged as we boondocks with solar about 80% of our camping nights. Everything we’ve read indicates we will not be able to power anything else but the fridge with out 200watt solar panel. You seem to advocate the electric fridge. Can you encourage us with better facts than we’ve discovered. Also, we’ve read the electric fridge produces a lot of heat which is fine in the cooler days, how does that work in hotter days? We don’t run AC with our solar. Thanks for some helpful input
You’re right, in that we do advocate for the compressor-driven refrigerators.
First thing – a compressor fridge running on 12 volt power uses FAR LESS electicity than an absorption fridge running on 12 volt. Like 4 amps versus 15. So it could be that the run-time is three to four times greater than what you’re thinking. Plus, they only use those four amps while they’re cycled on.
When we had our EKKO with only one battery (we now have 5), we found that we were able to run more or less indefinitely with 455 watts of solar. So it could be that by adding another panel, you’d be good to go.
As to the compressor refrigerators producing heat. They do, and they’re usually vented inside the RV. But it’s not an issue. Imagine your home refrigerator, and think how much heat that produces. (Perhaps you’ve never noticed.) Now cut that heat down to one-fifth of what your home fridge makes. That’s how much heat we’re talking. Yes, you’ll notice it if you put your hand right in front of the vent, but it’s not enough to be problematic.