RV Power Explained

by | Aug 15, 2020

If you follow any of the RV groups on Facebook or participate in any of the RV forums, usually you’ll see questions about RV power. We also receive questions from our ilovervlife.com website or comments on our YouTube channel about RV power, the various RV power adapters, and why the main breaker constantly trips when connected to a 30 amp campground pedestal. The good news is that regardless of the type of power your RV is connected to, knowing the power required by your appliance and using a little simple math, you can prevent that recurring breaker trip and enjoy your time at the campground.

Common Types of RV Power

There are four types of RV power:

  • 50 Amp
  • 30 Amp
  • 20 Amp
  • 15 Amp

For most campgrounds, 50 and 30 amp RV power connections are the most common. The 20 and 15 amp connections are used when we park the RV at home to keep the batteries charged or when we “driveway surf” at family or a friend’s house for the holidays. Here’s a short explanation of each type of RV power connection.

50 Amps

50 Amp RV PowerThe 50 amp RV power connection is one of the most misunderstood. As shown in the graphic on the right, the plug supports two 50 amp, 120 volt circuits often referred to as “legs”. The two legs can support up to 6,000 watts of power each. The legs are separated into two RV circuits to distribute the power load. Most common wiring configurations for RVs equipped with two air conditioners has one air conditioner on the “L1” leg and the second air conditioner will be on the “L2” leg. The remaining 120 volt outlets will be distributed on the two legs. With this amount of power and using typical household appliances, tripping the RV power pedestal breaker is rare.

30 Amps

30 Amp RV ServiceWe find 30 amp RV power connections mostly in state and federal parks and some of the older privately owned campgrounds. Even in campgrounds that report to have 50 amp connections, there may be a number of sites with 30 amp connections. We prefer to stay in campsites that are 50 amp, but if only 30 amps are available we don’t let that stop us from going to a location and seeing the sites.

The 30 amp RV connection supports one power wire referred to as the “hot” lead for a total of 3,600 watts. For RVs that are designed for 30 amps of power, there is only one air conditioner and a limited amount of 120 volt receptacles. For an RV that has a 50 amp connection, a 30 amp to 50 amp adapter, referred to as a dog bone, is required. When this adapter is used, the RV will share the single 30 amp connection.

20 and 15 Amps

20 amp rv powerBoth the 20 and 15 amp RV power connection looks the same, a standard household 120 volt plug. Wired similar to the 30 amp connection, the 20 amp connection supports 2,400 watts and a 15 amp connection supports 1,800 watts. These can be found in campgrounds, but most often are used at home or when stopping at friend or relative’s home for the holidays. The only way to determine if the receptacle amp capacity is to verify the circuit breaker assigned. There are 20 to 50 amp and 20 to 30 amp adapters available providing a standard plug to connect the RV to an extension cord. One note, if you plan to use this type of connection, use a good quality 10 gauge extension cord.

RV Power Management

RV Power Explained Total WattsThe question comes up: “How do you determine which appliances can be operated on RV power?” Great question. With a 50 amp connection the answer is simple – everything in the RV. There are limits to what can be plugged into a single receptacle at one time and not trip the inside breaker, but this is no different than what would be experienced at home.  Here is a sheet  or click the chart on the right that shows the total capacity supplied by each type of RV power connection.

RV Power Wattage SheetBut, this changes substantially with a 30 amp or smaller RV power connection. To maximize the 3,600 watts of power, we need to determine how much power is consumed by an appliance, adding all that will be used at one time and the total watts not exceeding the 3,600 watts supplied. We can use the Ohms Law formula to calculate appliance wattage, but I have created a RV power cheat sheet with many of the most common appliances found in an RV with the estimated watts and amps for each. I also go into additional detail how to calculate appliance power and RV power management in the video below.

RV Power Adapters

For an RV with a 50 amp service, there are three adapters often used:

  • 30 to 50 amp
  • Dual 30 amp to 50 amp
  • 20/15 amp to 50 amp

For an RV with a 30 amp service, there is one adapter often used:

  • 20 & 15 amp to 30 amp

The tip to remember when using an adapter, regardless of the maximum amps supported by the RV, you will only have the capacity supplied by the RV power connection at the pedestal. For our 50 amp RV, we have all three adapters and use them throughout the year. If you don’t have these adapters, I’ve provided links below where they can be purchased.

Closing Remarks

In a perfect world, Joan and I would always stay in a campground with a long pull through spot, trees to block the hot sun, an amazing view of the mountains or beach, and a 50 amp RV power connection. But as we all know, there’s always a little give and take when it comes to that perfect camping spot for the week and it may not have the RV power connection we prefer. That’s ok; we’ll manage and have a great time enjoying RV life.

rv power explained

RV AccessoriesNot sure about what RV accessories you need as you start RV travel? Check out our RV Accessories page where we have listed a wide range of products from essential items to those “nice to have” RV products to make RV life more enjoyable. Every item listed is being used or has been used by Joan and I as we’ve traveled across the country in our RV.

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