What you need to know about the residential refrigerator option in your new RV
Chosen Equipment and Rig – Part One
Speaking from first-hand experience I can say that power in your RV, for both AC and DC devices and appliances, is all important, especially if you have a full size residential refrigerator in your rig that requires 110V – AC power, AND you want to camp off the grid, better known as “dry camping”.
We did a 6-week trip from June 15 through the end of July, 2017 the year we purchased our 35′ 5th wheel. We traveled from San Luis Obispo, CA up to Jasper, Alberta Canada, then down through Icefield Highway along the Rockies. We visited Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Glacier National Park, Estes Park, CO, then cut West back through Bryce Canyon and Zion through Las Vegas, eventually finding our way back to California. This is our RV power story.
Most of the larger RV’s are now offering 18 to 26 cu ft. 110V refrigerators. Yes, these are full size refrigerators in your RV, same as the one in your home. It is an option now and who knows, they may be be standard in most of the bigger rigs if power technology keeps improving on the same track that it has. AC power is much more efficient and cost effective to use in the right environment.
These set ups require a sine wave inverter that turns your 12V DC current coming from your battery bank into 110V AC current, same as your house.
Given the solar and inverter technology available today, as well as the LED lighting efficiency, many RV’ers are choosing this option. If you spend any time at all in your RV, it’s pretty cool to have all that fridge space, an ice-maker, temp control, power efficiency, and yes, even filtered water.
Not sure you can call this camping, but whatever it is we do quite a bit of it in State and National Parks, not just RV Parks. It’s cool to be in a remote location but still have some conveniences.
We had planned this Canada trip to break in the new beast, then after that spend about 6 – 8 months out of the year living in this monster as part-time/full timers. Needless to say, we needed a rig that we could live in, work in, and use for off-grid camping.
Given our situation, we had to figure out a way to bring our own power with us. Note: The single 12 volt deep cycle battery that they give you when you buy your RV is NOT enough power to keep a rig like this going, no matter what they say. You’re going to need more power.
In 2017, the RV manufacturers didn’t generally offer upgrades that include sufficient power needed for power hogs like microwaves and residential refrigerators. It was baffling at the time, but recently they’ve begun to offer real solar and battery solutions. They figured out that profit was available somewhere in this equation, so why not offer it up?
Given that we only had after-market choices at the time, we had to choose between the following: 1) A big, heavy, noisy, and expensive on-board power generator, 2) an inverter/charger/solar system, or 3) a combination of both. We chose the combo option with a small portable quiet generator used when the sun wasn’t shining. The efficiency of the 3 in 1 inverter by Go Power allows for a small generator to charge the system.
Before the power decision, was the question of which rig to buy. We chose a 5th wheel; a 2017 Cardinal 3250. I count 35′ 3″ nose to stern, but they say an even 35′. We haul it with a 2015 Ram 2500 Turbo Diesel which has plenty of power. Again, at the time, there was no option to buy that rig with a sufficient power supply system. We had to buy aftermarket, and we chose to use the dealer. More on that decision later…
We chose the following power configuration: 2-160 watt solar panels, 4 Lifeline AGM 6 volt deep cycle batteries, and a Go Power IC 2000 inverter/charger. This design was the recommendation from the service department at the dealer. It was supposed to keep us in all the power we and our big fridge needed. Well, it wasn’t even close.
I’m sure all you electronic engineers out there are saying, “duh”. Well, you’re right. Only now can I give enough advice to help others not make the same mistake.
Now, with our power and equipment backstory out there, I’ll share our power woes which started at our first off-grid site in Jasper, Alberta Canada.
Tech Fail: Part Two
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a more beautiful drive or scenery: Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta Canada are stunning. The experience absolutely blew my eyeballs away. Icefield Parkway is breathtaking and should be on everyone’s bucket list.
The tough part about many of Canada’s National Parks is that the sun isn’t always shining. On top of that, there are trees everywhere and they will likely be shading your RV nestled in your campsite. Plus, you’re pretty far North which put our fixed panels in a non-optimal position. This was the case for us in Jasper, summer of 2017.
Having driven up from an RV Park in the Kamloops area on a cloudy and stormy day, we didn’t get much sun on our panels for the drive into Jasper. We had shore power at the RV Park, so I wasn’t too concerned. We set up camp in a dry site at Wabasso Campground. Not easy to maneuver into that tricky spot, but we did it. All is well so far, until… morning number one, we woke to sound of a faint alarm consisting of 3 short beeps coming from the storage bay where the inverter/charger was located.
It turns out that this Go Power inverter is super smart. Among other safety features, it won’t let your batteries discharge beyond a safe limit (50%), meaning they won’t let you discharge completely and damage your batteries. It simply turns itself off. Of course this means everything turns off, including your fridge.
After doing what I should have done from the beginning; read up on how the inverter works, we were able to determine that the alarm was a good thing and we simply needed to charge the batteries. No sun, no charge we thought. Should be fine with a charge. We cranked up the generator and let that go a couple hours.
Between a bit of sun and the charge from our Honda 2000 generator, we thought we had enough juice to crank it all back up. The sun would soon be shining directly on our two solar panels and we’d be back in business.
Not so. We ran the batteries down below 11.5 volts, into the 39% range. The inverter/charger had to charge up the batteries, then power up that fridge that had been off for a few hours. The compressor had to turn on and was calling for a big load of alternating current. We got about 20 minutes of AC juice before the UVP alarm sounded and our power was out again. Uh oh.
We had another 4 days off the grid in Jasper planned. This clearly wasn’t going to work. Step one was to call someone who knew power. We called a local RV repair guy in Hinton, AB who knew solar power and serviced RV’s from a mobile truck, but he never answered my voice mails, emails, and general pleas for help, so that wasn’t going to be an option.
We then called the folks at DDRV in Westminster, California who we bought the rig from and who installed the system. After all, they installed it so they should know what the issue was, right? Doug, our service rep, was nice enough. His advice was to use a separate battery charger to get the batteries back to full before starting the inverter again. He figured we had run the batteries so low, we had no choice but to bring them to full charge. Well, that required a 4 hour round trip drive to from our campground in Jasper, to the town of Hinton for a decent battery charger. Aaargh!!
After the drive, the subsequent charging with a 20 amp battery charger, more intermittent sun, and a lot of frustration we tried again. After all, we used the correct charger settings for AGM batteries and now the voltage was reading 13.4 and 90% on the controller. We got it all turned back on and what did we get? About 60 minutes of power. We went to bed that 3rd night knowing the frozen fish wasn’t so frozen anymore.
We transferred some critical foods to my brother’s trusty, but tiny absorption propane fridge, but we couldn’t fit it all. We needed power real fast. We were in luck; a cancellation allowed us to move from Wabasso campground to Whistler’s campground on our last night. It was a site that had 30 amp shore power and lots of Elk. Phew, saved for now, (or so we thought).
Part 3 – The problem
By no means were we out of the woods yet. We were able to get the fridge back up and operating, the batteries took a full charge (not just a quick surface charge), and the inverter seemed to be working fine. Cool! Off to Banff we went. The drive from Jasper to Banff is truly spectacular. The views on Icefield Parkway are so breathtaking, you simply can’t believe what your eyes are taking in. That was a great day, until we arrived.
By the time we arrived and set up at the Lake Louise campground, just 4 hours later, the inverter was in alarm again and had turned itself off. Fridge was off and we were without AC power yet again. But then we had shore power at Lake Louise, so good for now.
After all this expense; solar, powerful inverter, and battery upgrade, we couldn’t make it 4 hours without shore power? This was unacceptable. We were pissed off, and that’s putting it lightly. What was going on? With a full charge on the batteries, why wouldn’t it power the system?
We got in touch with “Mike”, lead tech at Go Power, to try and trouble shoot. Great guy and very knowledgeable. He was accessible, great follow through, and very helpful over the next few days and many calls. By now I’ve read a lot about how the thing worked; settings, alarms, and specs. Mike has walked me through a lot and I’m feeling much more in control and still happy I went with Go Power.
It turns out that we had multiple problems. First, the cables installed from the battery bank to the inverter were undersized. I read the metric info on the cables to Mike who said, “That’s not our cable. That’s something else and not to spec.” Two gauge cables are called for in the Go Power specs, DDRV installed smaller gauge “welding cables”. They weren’t even from the GoPower wiring kit we purchased from DDRV. Yes, I’m extremely upset at this point.
Second, the system requires a 300 amp breaker between the batteries and the inverter. Again, a 300 Amp breaker comes in the kit that I purchased, but DDRV installed a 200 amp fuse which had blown between Jasper and Banff. To this day, we don’t know why it blew. Maybe the quality of the non-GP fuse? Perhaps the load on the wrong cables that were installed? Never did figure that out. We measured and bypassed the fuse at the block to confirm that the breaker was blown. The nearest place to get a fuse; Calgary, another 4.5 hour round trip drive. Wow.
At this point in our adventure we we’re beyond upset and simply in problem solving mode. There’s a point in any challenging situation where blame just isn’t a solution. We had to solve this and deal with the cause and justice later. So we made the drive and picked up the $162 fuse and matching block required. Installed it, and proceeded with the process of charging, then testing, charging, and more testing.
We had more dry camping reservations coming up and spots of boondocking planned. From Banff, we had planned campsites at Redstreak, Kootenay National Park, Emery Campground at Hungry Horse reservoir near Glacier National Park. All dry camps with more dry camping planned in Colorado and Utah. Ugh.
Dry camping wasn’t going to work. Our plans had to be changed, which isn’t easy in the middle of peak summer camping season. Everything was booked. We proceeded to move it all around and opt for power. We had no choice and it was absolutely no fun at all. Again, solutions, not blame.
Luckily, we had power at Tetons and Yellowstone. Fishing Bridge is not much more than a parking lot, but we were out hiking and exploring, so who cares. The fridge worked. We had dinner with my brother and sister-in-law at their site in Bridge Bay, which is much nicer (our opinion). Our campsite at Fishing Bridge was not much more than a storage location during Yellowstone.
Our next stop was Moraine Campground, Estes Park, CO. We stayed a night at Sleeping Bear RV park in Lander, WY, again, for sleep and power on our way to Estes Park, but alas, a full charge wasn’t enough to get us from 11am check-out in Lander, through to Estes Park the next morning. At Moraine dry camp, we woke again to the UVP alarm.
We had to cancel 2 nights at Moraine Campground in Estes Park, CO and were able to squeeze in at Manor RV Park for the last 2 nights needed. We cancelled other National Park campgrounds in Bryce as well and opted for private parks with power. It was extremely maddening and disappointing, but you do what you have to do. Our expensive power system was now just about useless. It was getting us anywhere from 4 to 12 hours of off-grid AC power depending on the load and how deep the batteries where charged.
Conclusion: There were multiple issues:
- The wiring between the batteries and the inverter was just too small. The heat from those cables when inverting was too hot to touch. It didn’t appear to melt the insulation, but it was close.
- The connections to the 4 Lifeline batteries wasn’t correct. They should have wired the power needs to a positive and negative terminal, which then ran one connection to the 6-volt batteries that were in series and parallel to make one giant battery. Instead, these masterminds at the dealer connected the DC to one battery, the inverter to another, the hydraulics to another.
- The recommended system wasn’t enough to power our needs. Had it been installed correctly, we would have had enough to power they fridge but only in full sun. We needed more panels.
The fact is that the installation done by DDRV back in 2017 was not to code, and not to the Go Power specifications. Their recommendation on size wasn’t correct and they swapped the cable and fuse from the cable kit I purchased and used different parts. They modified the battery bay at great expense, sold me 4 very good Lifeline AGM 6-volt batteries, and they proceeded to hook them up like amateur’s who knew nothing about DC power on an RV. I’m told by professionals today that this install could have easily burned down my rig with us in it.
Part 4: The solution
At this point in the story, readers should have two conclusions swirling around in their heads:
- Do it yourself if you can. Owning an RV is expensive. It’s not an asset, it’s a money pit. If you can’t do the work yourself, then at least follow the next tip.
- Check the work. Do your homework and know what you’re buying and who you’re buying it from. Not all dealers are bad, and I’m not even saying DDRV is a “bad” dealer. They do what they do which is sell RV’s at a reasonable profit, then service them at an insane profit. I’m saying that you should check their work. Get a second opinion on their advice or suggestions. Shop around and hold vendors accountable.
The last leg of our 2017 RV trip was through Las Vegas and on to San Luis Obispo, CA. Ah, home sweet home. Vegas is always hot in the summer, but the last weekend of July, 2017 it was a scorcher. That weekend was over 110 degrees at peak. Wow. Glad we had two AC units on our rig. Maybe that contributed to blowing the 300 Amp fuse, or maybe it was just the way our dealer wired the expensive power system.
We left Vegas on the morning of July 31st and headed home. We stopped in Tehachapi for lunch and checked on the inverter. After all, we spent 3 nights plugged into 50A shore power. Four brand new fully charged AGM 6 volt deep cycle batteries would certainly power an ice cold refrigerator for a 7 hour drive.
The inverter was off after 4 hours of “off-grid” driving. The 300 amp fuse I bought in Calgary had blown. Again, it was hot and that doesn’t help but the wiring that DDRV used was simply not to spec. The likely culprit was battery wiring; trying to draw too much through one of 4 batteries through a 300 amp fuse. No doubt we were towing a fire hazard.
After we got home and settled, it was time to solve the problem. I called DDRV and scheduled an appointment for the following week. It’s a 4 hour drive from San Luis Obispo to Westminster, so we had to make arrangements for accommodations. Another, ugh and big expense.
Doug was kind enough; of course they would fix their mistake, and maybe more. We had them fix a bunch of warranty work while they were at it. Forest River gives you one year to find and fix all of their mistakes. After that, it’s on you. So, we asked DDRV to fix the shoddy work and lack of attention to detail: Molding that simply fell off, doors that didn’t close, blinds installed wrong, etc.
When I bought the rig, I knew I’d have issues; everyone does when they buy new. All of the advice from veteran RV’ers was buy 1 to 2 years hold. Let someone else take the hit on depreciation and fight with dealers and manufacturers on repairs.
We knew this, but we also wanted what we wanted and this 5th wheel was it. It turns out that DDRV is the only Cardinal dealer in California, so we negotiated the price with Mike, a very nice sales rep with good follow through, then bought from DDRV.
We knew we wanted and needed more power given the residential fridge, so we went with the solar system they recommended and upgraded the batteries as recommended by Ryan in service. He said I could save money, and that I could always add more panels, so start with the Go Power Elite Kit, then add more panels, if you need them. Made sense to me.
Well, I had no way of knowing how many panels I needed after our trip because they wired it wrong. It didn’t work at all. What I learned later, and should have known before, is that you can’t expand beyond 3 – 160W panels with the same 30 amp controller that the Elite kit comes with. It requires an upgrade to an 80 amp controller/regulator. That was my big beef with Ryan; don’t give advice to people who don’t know how to ask questions. If you do, ask them questions and make sure you’re selling a solution. In this situation I later learned that I’d have to replace the 30 amp controller with a $840 unit. It’s like installing the system twice to upgrade and go beyond 3 panels. Note: Adding panels is a money maker for dealers.
I knew from all the post-install homework that I needed at least 3 panels, 6 being optimal given weather and location of campgrounds. I decided to have DDRV add one more panel, the max allowed on that controller. Why them you ask? Because I figured they would probably do it for free. After all, I had racked up thousands of dollars in expenses and hours of frustration on our trip. Surely they would want to make me whole with one more panel. If I needed panels beyond 3, I’d do the work myself.
DDRV charged me $540 for the extra panel, plus 20% mark up. They agreed to discount one hour of labor by 50%, and refund me the cost of the fuse I bought in Calgary. “Is this the best you can do given all I went through?” Yes, was the answer. The 20% mark up was $108, labor savings was $40. This tells you where their mindset was when it comes to how they view the customer.
I explained that I was in the RV business and I write blogs. I explained that I’m going to tell this story; “Are you sure that this is how you want to leave it?” Confirmed. They had to make money to keep the doors open.
So, this was my story about RV power and how demand drives an economy. It closed that chapter of extreme RV aggravation and education. It’s called experience and felt the need to share many more RV’ers have this same question about residential refrigerators and the power demands we have today.
Part V: The Final Solution
After our maiden voyage to Canada in the summer of 2017, I embarked on a quest to find a solution to my power problem. DDRV did not know off-grid DC solar, except what they knew from installing kits. What’s worse than not knowing, is thinking you do, telling customers you do, and then selling solutions with lack of understanding.
In my opinion, the RV industry, in general, is first about chasing a buck and paying lip service to quality or customer care. What all RV owners should know is that the RV industry isn’t well regulated. The RVIA is the main association representing the RV industry. If your rig is RVIA certified, it means that the manufacturer passed the minimum standards of the RVIA in manufacturing, but what are those? What about assembly? Not easy to know, unless of course you’re a manufacturer. Go ahead and try.
Most people think the RV industry is regulated similar to that of the auto industry with lemon laws. Not true. I won’t go into details, but I will offer an eye-opening paper for readers to contemplate. Whether you own an RV, or are thinking of buying one, I would encourage you to read The RV Industry Death Spiral, by Greg Gerber. I recommend you read this before you buy.
Dealers are part of the industry, and yes they out for profit. Will they try and get the most out of the buyer that they can? Yes. Caveat emptor. Do your homework folks. There is nothing wrong with chasing profit but in this case, you better do your homework or you will be skinned alive.
My solution was a guy named Scott Esh who owns a small business in Tennessee called My Homestead Marketplace. He provides everything you need to be off-grid, but DC solar is his specialty and RV’s are all about DC. Scott comments and provides solar and electrical advice through his group on RVillage. You can find his posts here. I highly recommend you read his work before you invest.
I got in touch with Scott through the RVillage group and began to ask questions. I found him extremely giving and honest. We spoke over the phone several times, and based on his advice to others in that RVillage group, plus the conversations over the phone, I decided to have him redesign our power system using new parts I purchased from his store, and existing parts that I had purchased from DDRV.
I bought 3 more 160 watt solar panels, a MidNite 80 Amp solar controller, and a custom designed wiring system based on his recommendation. Had I gone to Scott in the first place, I would have saved about $8,000 with zero power issues.
I bought the system online toward the end of 2017 without meeting Scott face to face. I had it installed by a local RV repair shop exactly as Scott had designed it with complete instructions. After install, the new system set up was producing 960 watts of power, but still not charging as designed. Scott didn’t disappear, he helped me figure out the battery issue over the phone.
Given the batteries were toast after just 1.5 years into a 5 year warranty, I was able to speak to the owner at Lifeline who gave me a discount considering my story. He knew exactly what DDRV had done and explained why it was not only dangerous but it was guaranteed to wreck the batteries.
I later met Scott at Dale Hollow Lake in Tennessee, about 2 hours away from where he lived. He drove out to meet me and test the system he designed. We had a great conversation, he installed two new busbars for me at the campsite, rather than stacking 5 terminals on one post.
The system is working great now. We have plenty of power and rarely have to pull out the generator. Solar truly is the way to go, especially with a resi-fridge.
One of the main points of this article, besides making me feel better, is to educate. I wanted to explain what buyers of new RV’s are up against; the industry as a whole, the dealers, the quality of your new RV, and the people who earn their living from this industry. I think I’m fair in how I presented these facts and how this particular dealer responded with a solution, and we all know that every dealer is different.
I’ll leave you with this one last story to make my point: My company, RVPlusYou, attended the big RV Show in Pomona last year at the Fairplex. As a vendor, I was able to go in early, well before the show started and customers began to mill around and pine over the shiny new RV’s.
On the biggest day, a Saturday morning, I passed a large group of sales people preparing for the day. I won’t say the name of the dealer, it wasn’t DDRV but it was a So. Cal dealership. The sales manager was a woman leading the meeting and whipping up the sales team to “go sell”. The song they played: “I Wanna be Rich” played loudly for the team. “I want money, lots and lots of money…” were the lyrics designed to prep the team for the prospects about to enter their hen house.
I hope this article helps those people shopping for RV’s. The industry had record sales in the last few years and 2020 was through the roof given the pandemic and demand to be outside. This year looks good as well. My hope is that this story will provide a glimpse into the industry and an idea of what you’re dealing with when you go to buy a new RV and choose the various features and options.
If you know an RV owner, or you know someone looking to buy, please pass this on and share. You might save them some heartache, you might help them with their power and refrigerator decision, or you just might help contribute to improving the RV industry. Hopefully they can steer themselves into a better direction.