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RV 101 - RV Hookups - Electric, Water, Sewer

What’s a hookup?

Before we became acquainted with how RVs support human life, I didn’t really know what a “hookup” was.

 

Our previous knowledge of RV hookups

 

“Hookups” is a general term for ways to connect your rig to shore power, water, and sewage.  Internet and cable connectivity are usually not lumped into that group.  “Full hookups” would include electricity, water, and sewer connections right at your site.

Lots of private RV parks and many modern state/national parks have full hookup sites.  In our experience, most state parks have electricity and water at each site and a “dump station” near the exit.

Let’s break this down a bit more.

 

Electricity

 

A primer on RV electrical systems

First off – shore power is a term used to describe power originating from a separate system (like a campsite hookup).

Secondly, an RV has 3 separate electrical systems. 

The first system is the 12v automotive electrical system that runs off of a standard 12v automotive battery, similar to that of a car or truck.

The second electrical system is also 12v, but it’s on the RVs house side.  It’s powered by the RV’s house battery, which is a separate battery (or batteries) solely there to power the house side of the RV – which is basically everything behind the cab in a gas class A or C rig.

The third system is 110v (standard residential power) and is also on the house side.  It powers the standard 15 amp 110v outlets throughout the RV.  This system is dead when not plugged into shore power or running your generator (if equipped).

Let’s mix things up a bit.  A power converter is an electronic device that’s connected to both systems.  It takes 110v AC power (either from shore power or from your generator) and converts it into 12v DC power to charge your house batteries and run your 12v devices (lights, fridge, fans, etc).  On the flip side, you can power a standard 110v device using 12v power if you run it through an inverter first.  We use this 200w inverter and like it.

 

An electrical hookup is ubiquitous to a modern RV campsite.  Without that, the site is considered “primitive” and requires specific gear in order to maintain normal life (generator, solar panel systems, inverters, etc).

Larger rigs, like Trudy, have 110v systems that can support up to a 50 amp load.  That amperage would support running all of our energy hogging devices at the same time (both A/C units, microwave, power converter, water heater, etc.).  Smaller rigs usually only have 1 A/C unit (which are the largest energy consumer), so they generally have 30 amp 110v systems.  Some really small rigs may even have a 20 amp system.

The different load ratings (20A, 30A, 50A) require different types of connections at the campsite distribution box/post.  This prevents any confusion when connecting your rig.  Most have at least 2 options available – commonly 20A and 30A or 30A and 50A – and some have all 3.

It’s perfectly fine to hookup your rig’s 30A cable to a 50A connection.  The rating describes what the system supports, not what it’s pumping into your RV – your rig will only draw what it needs.  You can also hook up your large RV’s 50 amp cable to a 30 amp connection, but keep in mind that you’ll trip the breaker if you draw more than 30 amps. You should also know that you will need additional equipment to hook up to different amperage connections since each type of connection has a different plug.  These accessories are known as dogbones since they have plugs on both ends.  We use a 30A male to 50A female dogbone from Camco when we’re at 30A sites.

Speaking of accessories, it’s always smart to put a surge protector between the distribution box and your RV’s fragile electronics!  We’ve heard horror stories of RVs getting fried by lightning.  We use this surge protector rated for 50 amps and like it enough (I mean, nothing has fried), but there are far fancier ones that pack in lots of technology.  Ours has lights on it that indicate if each leg has power and whether either of them are wired incorrectly (reversed polarity, etc).

 

50 Amp connection with surge protector. Notice the circuit breaker switch and 20 amp household connection.

 

We’ve been staying at 30 amp sites for the past several days (the 50 amp sites were all booked), and we’ve tripped the breaker a couple of times.  I’m pleasantly surprised – if we limit usage of other devices, we can run both roof A/Cs without tripping the breaker.  If we make coffee or something while we’re doing that, though, the breaker trips.  I believe an average roof A/C takes 12-16 amps and a fridge in A/C mode takes 5-8 amps, so we’re right up near the limit.

 

Water

 

Now for an easier one – water.  It comes out of a standard hose bib at each site.  Most campsites have water, though some have only an electric hookup.

You need to make sure your hose is safe for drinking water, which means is has no lead or other toxic stuff in it.  Most fresh water hoses are 25 feet long, but when ours broke I decided to up it to a 50 footer in case we ever needed more length.

 

Full hookups at Raleigh Oaks campground

 

The water connection in most motorhomes is in the wet bay.  The wet bay is behind one of the storage/basement compartment doors and is dedicated to water and sewer hookups.  Why you’d want to have to have your fresh water source a foot away from where the sewage comes out is beyond me, but that’s how it’s set up for many motorhomes.  I’m always jealous when I see other rigs and their fancy separated connections and powered hose reels!

One important accessory that every RVer should have is a water pressure regulator.  We use this adjustable one and like it.  RV water connections should receive no more than 30-45 PSI.  Trudy is no spring chicken, so I keep pressure at or below 40 at all times.  Apparently newer rigs can handle up to 100 PSI, but I don’t see why you’d ever want to try that.  Keeping it on the lower end also reduces flow rate and overall usage – which is very important when you don’t have a sewer hookup!

Another important accessory is a water filter.  We have a pretty basic one from Camco, but it’s good enough for now.

I also have a lead-free 90 degree angle on our water connection so there’s not as much weight hanging there.  It would also let the compartment door close, but I can’t actually close the door because I refuse to run the hose down through the hole where the sewer hose goes though the bottom of the compartment.  I try to keep them as far apart as possible!

 

Trudy’s wet bay

 

If you don’t have a water hookup, don’t be scared.  Most RVs have a fresh water tank so you can bring your water with you!  This is generally the largest tank in the RV – ours is 70 gallons.

There’s 2 ways to fill a fresh water tank – a filler tube on the side of the RV (which is just a tube behind a twist-off cap behind a little door) or through a valve in the wet bay.  You can see ours tank filler valve in the image above – it’s the blue handle to the left of and behind the water pressure regulator.  Turning this valve directs the water into the fresh water tank instead of the RV’s plumbing.

 

Sewer

 

What goes in must go out, right?

Generally, an RV has 3 types of tanks – fresh (which we’ve covered), gray, and black.  The gray tank receives everything from your sinks and shower.  The black tank receives everything from your toilet. Yuck!

The gray tank is larger than the black tank.  In my opinion, the gray tank should be the largest tank overall (even larger than fresh water) since it has to support water from all showers, hand washing, and dish washing – which adds up quickly!  I believe our gray tank is 54 gallons and our black tank is 40 gallons.

If you have full hookups, you can set up your sewer hose when you arrive and put it away when you leave.  I initially thought you’d just keep the system wide open and let things flow… but that’s not ideal.  Like most things RV, there are nuances and processes that must be followed when you empty the tanks.  I would pretty much do whatever it takes to greatly reduce the risk of an incident involving 40 gallons of black tank material!

Anyway, ideally, you want to let the tanks fill up a bit so there’s some momentum and some “flow” there.  You don’t want any clogs, so keep it moving!  There’s nothing wrong with letting the tanks fill up and draining them every day or every couple of days.

In the wet bay, the gray tank and the black tank have separate handles.  They have a shared termination point so you only need one sewer hose.  You always want to drain the black tank FIRST and the gray tank SECOND, which essentially lets you flush the sewer hose with the gray tank.  The gray tank is way less nasty!

 

Full hookups at Ebenezer County Park near Charlotte.  The rock plays a key role here. 🙂

 

If you don’t have full hookups, you do the same process, but you have to drive to the dump station first.  You usually want to do this when you’re leaving, but we’ve had to make special runs to the dump station when our gray tank fills up.  Due to this, when we’re at E/W sites (electricity and water only – no sewer), we generally shower in the bath house if one exists and it’s decently clean.  We also cook less complex meals and even wash dishes outside if permitted.

Most dump stations have a hose handy for sewer hose rinsing.  Just don’t drink out of it!

 

The dump station at Fort Clinch State Park in Fernandina Beach, FL

 

A lot of RVs have tank flushing systems and handheld sprayers in the wet bay to aid in cleaning and flushing tanks and sewer hoses.  I use our hand sprayer a lot, but I’m not convinced our tank flusher does anything.  We do our own sort of black tank flushing by dumping all of Calla’s bath water down the toilet (TMI, probably, but I’m already blogging about poop).

There are also lots of accessories to aid in draining tanks.  There are fancy sewer hoses, many types of connections and extensions, etc.  We have a Camco Sidewinder sewer hose support to help get the proper slope and a clear extension piece so I can monitor flow.  Trudy also came with a few basic hose extensions – more than we ever use at the same time.  It’s good to have backups, though.  All of the pieces that are exposed to sewage are stored in a special bin in a special compartment.  It’s not to be touched unless your gloved and have a job to do!

 

Monitoring capacities

 

RVs come from the factory with built-in tank monitoring capabilities.  They come in many forms, but ours has indicator lights for different levels for all of our tanks as well as our propane tank and battery voltage.

 

It doesn’t do anything until you press “LEVELS TEST”

 

Testing!

 

We’re pretty good at limiting water usage and tank capacities when we need to (when we don’t have full hookups).

However, the most frustrating part of going without a sewer hookup is that our tank monitoring system sucks! This is common with many factory monitoring systems since they require sensors inside the tanks to be clean enough to give proper electrical readings.  After 10+ years, ours are pretty unreliable – the black tank almost always shows 2/3rds or entirely full, and lately our gray tank is rarely reading below 2/3rds full!  I know it’s not true – right after dumping, I can reach up and tap on the tanks and hear that they’re empty based on the sound, but the lights still show 2/3rds full.

We’re looking into new tank monitoring systems to remedy this, but the install on those isn’t that simple and dialing them in takes work as well.  Anyone have any suggestions on aftermarket monitoring systems?

 

TV and Internet

 

Some campgrounds also have wireless internet and cable available (sometimes at an additional cost for cable).

In our experience, only Hilton Head Island Motorcoach Resort has had usable wifi.  The rest are over-used and are beyond their bandwidth.  That’s ok with us – we have our own wireless network (via 4G) that works just fine.  Even when the campground wifi appears to work, I switch back to our own network because I know the campground network will slow to a crawl at some point.  We’ll cover our wireless setup in a separate post.

Most RVs have an OTA TV antenna on the roof.  We can usually pick up a few OTA channels to get some local news or weird local programming, but it’s not a big deal to us if not.  Some RVers have their own satellite receivers on the roof or an aimable one they move around by hand – but we don’t watch TV enough for that!

Many campgrounds also have cable TV available, though sometimes it costs a few bucks per day.  It plugs right in to your RV via coaxial cable and usually works pretty well, though that’s pretty dependent on your RV’s A/V setup.  Ours is kind of complicated and outdated, so I try to use it as little as possible.

 

 

That’s it – everything you ever wanted to know about RV hookups!

 

2016 Christmas cookies – can anyone pick out everyone’s favorite sweater?