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Connecting to a camp power system (particularly with an RV)

Connecting to a camp power system (particularly with an RV)

If your camp has a large generator and a power "grid" it may be designed so you can plug into it. The people most interested in plugging in are those with RVs, and in fact many camps that create power for RVs insist the RVs plug into it and not run their internal generators at all. (Some camps will expect a mix of connection and internal generator use.)

If your camp is offering an RV connection powerful enough to run the air conditioner in your RV (or other space) then you want to plug into it using fairly think wire, and ideally an RV plug, known as a TT-30.

Your RV will have in it a 30 amp cable, using 10AWG wire (3 conductors so often known as 10/3 wire.) This cable is usually 25 feet long and comes out of the driver's side of the RV. Sometimes it comes out near the front but it can be anywhere -- you may wish to check your RV or ask your rental provider.

Your ideal situation is to plug this plug into the appropriate socket in your camp's distribution box. Problem is, if the distro box is not right next to your RV, your cable will not reach. The best solution to that is to get an RV extension cable. Such cables are for sale in many RV stores as well as Wal-Mart and some hardware stores, and run about $35-$40 for a 25' one to $70 for a 50' one. They are big and heavy, but they are what you want if your distro box has the TT-30 socket on it. Arrange to have enough wire so you have some slack if you dont' park precisely where you expected on the camp map, but don't have a lot more wire than you need. It's a bad design if you are thinking about having more than 50' of extension cord.

Plugging into regular plugs

Your camp's distro box or generator may just have normal "edison" receptacles on it. These are the ones in your house and offer 15 amps, or they may be a special 20 amp version. These take a normal 15 amp edison plug with two parallel blades as seen all over the USA, but also take a 20 amp rated plug that has one of the blades bent 90 degrees.

The 5-20P plug with the rotated blade is very rare, and converters from an RV to it are not to be foudn and would have to be hand made. However, almost every RV comes with an adapter that lets you plug the TT-30 plug into the standard 5-15R "Edison" socket. This will deliver 15 to 20 amps. That's enough to handle most RV air conditioners, but not all of them. Some will blow the breaker when they draw maximum current starting up. If that's you, you need to find a better solution like a distro with an RV plug or some other methods outlined below.

If you run on 15 or 20 amps, you can't run anything else major while running your AC. Turn off the AC if you need to run the microwave, or a hair dryer etc. Or switch to your internal generator if allowed.

Another important thing to do is switch your fridge to run only on propane. Most RV fridges will run on either propane or electricity, but switch to electricity when they see they are plugged in. That is great for RV parks but on the playa just switch to "gas" mode instead of "auto" mode to stay on propane all week. It runs colder and saves you an amp or two of power capacity.

Since your wire may not reach, you can get an RV extension cord as described above and put the adapter on the end of it before plugging into the distro. You can use a regular edison extension cord, but you must avoid using the ordinary ones found in stores which are 14AWG or 16AWG. You will see that number, or something like 14/3 or 16/3 on the cord. You want to get a 12/3 extension cord at least, or if splurging or going a long way, a 10/3 extension cord -- the same wire as the RV cord. Smaller cord will get hot and that's not good in the already hot desert. These cords are again available at many big-box stores or online, and are big and heavy. As before, get a little more than you need, bu not a huge amount more.

You can't daisy chain RVs (plug one into the other) if you plan on using AC.

Making fancy plug convertors

Some distro boxes will have other special high current plugs. A lot of those known as spiderboxes have the "Hubbell" 50 amp plug, and have both a plug and socket because they pass through for dasily chains. It's not hard to make an adapter that takes one Hubbell plug -- also known as the "tempower" plug -- and offers one or two RV TT-30 sockets. The 50 amp plug has a 50 amp breaker, but since your RV has a 30 amp breaker things should be safe.

Many distro boxes also feature the L6-30 or L6-20 which are 240v 30 amp and 20 amp sockets. Problem is they offer two hot lines for 240v but do not offer the neutral line, so there is no way to plug a 120v device into them. If you're lucky you will find the L14-30 or L14-20 which has a neutral and can feed two RVs if you make a special connector.

What if I only brought a thin extension cord?

You can still plug in, but you probably should not run your AC. It's nice to be plugged in for bright lights and other minor uses of power. You can use your microwave for short times and keep your batteries charged for any generator downtime. Consider a swamp cooler if you planned for this.

Running and blowing the breaker

Ideally you will just run find even with the 15 or 20 amp service. However, on some large RVs, starting the AC uses much more than 20 amps, and blows the breakers on these boxes. If this happens to you, you have to either arrange a better connection, or switch to your internal generator when you need AC. This is not at all optimal -- the whole point of the big generator in your camp was to avoid this.

Some RVs automatically switch to the generator if it is started. But some automatically switch to the external plug if it has power, even if the generator is on. This is silly but if your RV does this, you have to go out and physically disconnect when starting your internal generator, then reconnect when shutting it down.

A few RVs, mostly smaller ones, actually plug the external plug into a socket on the generator. In this case, you must go out and physically move your cable every time you want to switch.

Sometimes you will blow a larger breaker when two or more RVs on the same circuit start their generator compressors at the same time for a big surge. If that happens, turn off the ACs, reset the breaker and turn on the ACs one at a time. If it happens a lot you have put too many RVs on the same circuit and must reconfigure.

You can measure your amps, watts and other usage with a cheap electrical meter called the "kill-a-watt." These can be found in many stores, and online, for under $20. They only go to 15 amps but can tell you how much power you are using with all your devices. Be aware many RVs use as much as 200 watts doing almost nothing due to inefficent voltage converters and other loads. Consider switching to LED lights if it's your RV, though mostly you won't use lights and AC at the same time.

Non-RV connections

Most non-RV folks don't use much power, unless they have a private air conditioner, or perhaps are driving a large scale sound system. Outside of 10 and 2 sound systems are limited to 300 watts but often will draw more power than that.

Otherwise, the most people use in tents and camp areas is low power for lighting, and perhaps a swamp cooler. Swamp coolers use less than 100 watts and on the playa can substitute for air conditioning (using a gallon of water every 2 hours or so.)

Avoid generic incandescent lights. Today LED and fluorescent lights are cheap and much. much more efficient. (In fact, today, LED is almost surely the way to go since they don't break and release mercury.)

You can get by with smaller extension cords, and decent quality power strips and splitters. Get heavier duty than you need, outdoor rated, it's not that expensive. Every few years there is a rain, after all.

If you are connecting a high-power item outside of an RV, such as an air conditioner, a high-power microwave oven (modern ones seem to all be high power) or a large scale sound art speaker system or stage lighting, you need something more like what the RVs are advised to do, and even more for the lighting systems.