The Watt Fuel Cell: Coming to an RV Near You


One of the things we really like to see in the RV industry is innovation, and usually there’s not enough of it.  So we like to call out and applaud innovation where we see it.  In that spirit, here’s a quick video we shot at the Pomona RV Show this year about a new power technology that will be finding its way into Roadtrek vans soon.  The Watt Fuel Cell.

 

It’s very early in the cycle to tell how this will be received and what space it will find in RVs.  On the one hand, it’s clean, quiet power generation.  But on the other hand, the capacities are relatively low when compared to your typical RV generator – in other words, you won’t be running your air conditioner off this version of the fuel cell.  Time will tell, but I think the best use of this technology would be for charging up a battery bank in a Lithium rig overnight when you don’t want to start the engine and potentially wake yourself up.

They’ve done something else awesome with this device that I hope catches on.  They’ve integrated the solar charge controller into the Watt Fuel Cell.  This makes a lot of sense because it ensures that the charging sources are working together instead of each at their own program to charge your batteries.  This is something we don’t even have in our own lithium-powered rig.  If they can just get the inverter/charger and second alternator working through the fuel cell as well, then they’re *really* on to something.

If you’d like to read up more about them, you can find the company website here:  The Watt Fuel Cell

And remember, it’s early.  I can’t predict where this might lead, but I have to tip my hat to Roadtrek for taking the leap.  It could well be that in 5 years time, we have much larger fuel cells that are true generator replacements.  Who knows?!

 



James is a former rocket scientist, a USA Cycling certified coach, and lifelong fitness buff. When he's not driving the RV, or modifying the RV (or - that one time - doing both at once), you can find him racing bicycles, or building furniture, or making music. In his spare time, he works for a large IT company.


    24 thoughts on “The Watt Fuel Cell: Coming to an RV Near You

    1. David King

      Thank you, James, for illuminating the WATT’s controlling capability of any solar inputs, and coordinating that with the 500w from the WATT. Being able to connect 600watts of solar to the WATT can pump over 1Kw into your lithium bank each hour? Wow! And this would only cost 1/3lb of propane!

      While the WATT does not technically replace an ONAN generator (sincethe WATT is a battery charger), I would forego an ONAN for this in a heartbeat. It is easier to maintain than an ONAN, is quiet, and is environmentally superior. It is also a much less expensive alternative to the massive lithium ion battery capacity with Winnebago’s VOLTA option.

      Finally, I suspect that air conditioners rarely need to run constantly at full power. The WATT can pump 500 watts per hour (silently) during the evening when solar is not functioning (or pump 1Kw in combo with the solar, making it an easy choice to eliminate an ONAN generator–which I would not want running at night (good luck with that). Also, getting juice with an underhood generator makes better sense while driving, but is less attractive while parked due to noise and air pollution and wear and tear on your primary engine.

      Reply
      1. James - Post author

        Thinking of the Watt Fuel Cell as a battery charger (for now) is a good way to think of things.
        After having had a lithium system for a couple years though, I can tell you… there’s no way we’re going back!
        As for the AC running full blast – depends on where you are. As a test this summer (Southern Utah), I ran our AC full open for over 6 hours and the compressor never cycled once. That may be an extreme case, but it happens regularly enough for us.

        Reply
    2. Terry Lee

      It would seem that this fuel cell really only makes sense for lithium batteries, which can take high charge rates up to nearly 100% SOC. 500 watts can deliver about 40 amps DC. This would be wasted on most lead-acid batteries above about 70% SOC (as is running a 3600 watt generator), since the charge current is well below 40 amps. Am I missing anything?

      Fuel cells have been around since the Gemini space program in the 1960s.

      I can’t help but wonder what a “typical” RV electrical system will look like in say 2050!

      Reply
    3. Ed

      I simply don’t get this “go solar dump propane”.
      What happens if we have a big volcanic explosion ?? No solar. Lol.

      But really propane is clean fuel and a propane stove is extremely reliable and efficient and a great backup heater.

      Why the heck don’t they have this thing double as an auxillary heater ?

      If you doubled it and had a thousand watts plus a furnace, that would be something.

      I’m surprised you didn’t ask about this, and of course once you have the propane for this system, then u can have the propane stove etc.

      With silent propane and a battery bank, this would be a perfect setup if it reliable. How does it generate the electricity ??

      Reply
      1. James - Post author

        Well, at a super basic level, you could think of a fuel cell as generating electricity similarly to a battery – only since its fuel supply isn’t limited like a battery’s, it can keep going where a battery would go dead. Beyond that simple explanation, Google is your friend.
        Part of the desire to dump propane is to make the whole RVing process easier. It’s a second fuel that you have to stock up on, and only certain places sell it, and you have to wait for the special person to come out of the store to work with you… Kind of annoying, especially to non-RVers looking at their first rig. A rig that runs everything off one fuel source that you can fill up basically anywhere is simpler and more appealing.
        In fact, right now, I’m looking at our propane gauge – it’s half full and I’m wondering where I’m going to find Propane without going out of our way. An hour of Google and phone calls is in my future.
        Gas gauge is also half full, but I’m not hitting the internet trying to look up gas stations, ya know?

        Reply
    4. TKA

      Respectfully, I think many are misunderstanding what this unit is supposed to do. It’s not supposed to RUN your appliances, it’s supposed to supplement/replenish your batteries. In a Lithium ION scenario, all your appliances would be running off the battery while this unit is recharging them. In doing so, it allows you to use your high consumption appliances longer. As the representative noted, it will allow you to run your A/C through the night. It could also create a scenario where you wouldn’t need as much battery capacity and save both weight and money. Even though lithium battery prices are coming down, they’re still expensive.

      The question that needs to be asked is, will 500 watts be enough to replenish what’s being used? Also, as with all things technological, this is a start and the technology is only going to get better with time. It won’t be long before that tiny unit, or a smaller one, will be providing the 1.5kw he mentions being available for home use in an RV. I think this is a phenomenal tool and could have a bright future simply because battery capacity alone isn’t enough, at this time, to run high energy appliances for long periods of time AND solar is of no use at night. This is clean, quiet, adaptable and can run anytime day or night without disturbing anyone. Imagine being able to run your A/C while parked for the night at a Flying J?

      Reply
      1. James - Post author

        I think you’re understanding the use case for this correctly, though I’m not sure I agree with you about making it through the night with air conditioning. That’s still more a function of your batteries, with this device extending your run time by something less than 1/3 (assuming an 1800 watt air conditioner running at max).
        But I agree that this technology will only get better with time. If we jumped 5 years into the future and I was looking at a shoebox sized unit kicking out 1.5 kW… it would be a completely different video!

        Reply
    5. Tom Boles

      So, this would make the third RV-useable fuel cell in the last 10 years. First Coleman (!!!) fronted a propane powered system several years ago. Next, a German company had an alcohol-powered fuel cell on the market that was still available as of a couple of years ago. And now this system.

      I read an account of a truck camper enthusiast boondocking with the German device. Those rigs don’t have a lot of horizontal surface for solar panels but plenty of room for a breadbox-sized unit and a 2 liter-sized container of alcohol…

      As another poster pointed out, this really is a 24/7 power generation system (if you have the fuel) that is used to replenish your storage battery. The battery supplies the power to your inverter and then you have 120VAC to run whatever. It’s much more like a fossil-fueled solar system that works at night than the 5500W Onan in one’s rig. Slow and silent Vs. fast and noisy.

      Reply
      1. James - Post author

        Yes, Tom. You’ve hit the nail on the head. More of a quiet and persistent battery charger than a “generator”. Best use is with a lithium battery bank (so that you have enough oomph to run things) while this unit works to keep charging that bank.

        Reply
    6. Scott Bennett

      Yes, the output is a little low, but this can just putt away all night, whereas most people just run their generators for a relatively short time. How is the efficiency compared to a generator?

      Reply
      1. James - Post author

        Yep – you’ve hit the nail on the head there. It won’t run the air conditioner, but if you were running the generator to replenish the battery, this is a much better alternative.
        I didn’t get into the efficiency with Paul. He said one of the outputs was heat, so there’s at least that energy that doesn’t get converted into electricity.

        Reply
    7. Dmitriy

      Some random thoughts:
      N.1 I hate when companies take common names like Watt, Volt(a) and then trademark them (and yes, Tesla is a prime offender in this ‘let’s trademark famous people names’ game). What’s next, Amp?

      N.2 500Wt output (650 if combined with Solar) can’t keep up with many 120V appliances. Let’s hope Roadtrek will properly adjust EcoTrek lineup to compensate this with either bigger battery capacity or second alternator. Of course, if second alternator will remain an option, then Watt becomes just a big, expensive, quiet redundancy charging alternative.

      N.3 I thought we were moving towards eliminating propane from the configuration, not adding other components depending on it. I’m glad manufacturers are experimenting with different energy solutions, but it seems that there is a lack of cohesive roadmap. Maybe it’s for the best.

      N.4 I am intrigued at the residential solution as a back up generator. Current LP/diesel generators are too noisy and unreliable. Combine this with residential solar and Powerwall and who needs electric companies anymore!?! This and 5G wireless internet are off-the-grid aficionados dream come true.

      Reply
      1. James - Post author

        I have to admit – what really got me to perk up and take notice was the idea of using this technology for a home standby generator. A generator that was quiet and you didn’t have to exercise periodically! If they need product testers for that then sign me up!
        If you’re calling out companies with annoying trademarks, you can’t leave my all time least favorites off the list: Bose, for trademarking “.2” (like, the actual number… anything.2), and Specialized Bicycle for trademarking “Roubaix” (an actual city in France that predates Specialized Bicycle by at least a thousand years). Ugh.
        And I’m with you on eliminating propane. I think that would be cool and I would sign up for a propane-free rig. But I think we’re honestly a long way from that. And if this is received well enough, who knows – we may see a resurgence of propane? Time will tell.

        Reply
        1. Luc Comtois

          James, why would you need a home standby generator? You have a big gas generator with battery and solar panels parked outside your house. Why couldn’t you just use Lance as you generator?
          You just need to upgrade Lance with an output plug. Do you think it would be possible? I am Exploring this option myself.
          Have the RV plugged in with shore power and ready to go if we need to evacuate but also be able to use the rig to power my house emergency circuits via a reverse shore power connector.

        2. James - Post author

          Honestly, if power went out in the house and it were a real issue, we would just go out into Lance.
          But wiring Lance up, backwards if you will, into the house is something I’m not really thinking of doing. You need to have a transfer switch, for starters, and a licensed electrician to install one – to avoid feeding power back into the grid. (That keeps people working on the lines safe and limits your liability there.) Then I’d have to bypass defeat or rewire the rig to have the output from the inverter going directly to the shore power receptacle (where right now, the shore power is wired to an INput, not an OUTput). Either that, or drill more holes in the rig for a second shore power connection.
          Then there’s the going out in the snow to start things up, switch them over, and manually connect cables – vs. a standby generator which does that without human intervention.
          Sure, it could be done, but in my view it’s totally not worth it. It’s easier and safer to just go hang out in the RV. Who knows… you might wind up going on a trip!

    8. John LeGresley

      Hi James, just got wind of these guys at WATT. Was hoping you’d check them out. Would like to know if you thought this was a game changer for off-grid RVing. Should we get excited yet????

      Reply
      1. James - Post author

        I’m happy, but not overly excited just yet.
        The capacity is still a bit low and it does require propane.
        But – definitely something to keep tabs on.

        Reply
    9. John Herman

      I think it’s funny that James is probably one of the few people who talked to this guy who can actually understand the technology!

      Reply
    10. Mark E Hesse

      I saw this in some other videos but really wanted to know what the master scientist thought about it…it sounds fantastic to me if you have enough lithium batteries…could fit right where the generator is maybe? thanks James!

      Reply
      1. James - Post author

        I do think the technology is cool. The capacity is a little short to be a true generator replacement just yet.
        For right now, I think the best application of this would be in a lithium coach, to keep the batteries charging if you didn’t want to run the engine.
        Maybe think of it as an alternative to auto-start overnight.

        Reply

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