This is a four-part mini-series that will review the main types of battery chargers: AC-to-DC, DC-to-DC, and Solar. This isn't a product review or a scholarly journal...it's an overview intended to help you identify the best charging system for your application.
For the purpose of this synopsis, we're going to look at 12v systems used in a mobile application, such as camping.
If you've gotten to this point in the series, you've probably noticed that we said that this a four-part series but then only laid out a framework for three types of chargers. The final installment pivots slightly from the notion of recharging your battery to that of building a battery with sufficient capacity for your need.
That's right, we're talking about power storage vs. power generation.
It's a paradigm that is as old as the 'chicken or the egg' - Do I invest in a great solar and/or DC-to-DC charging system, or do I simply buy more battery? If this is a serious consideration for you, let's dive into the questions you should be asking yourself right now?
What am I powering on the go?
In terms of power consumption, there's a big difference between the family in their fifth-wheel trailer, the couple Overlanding with their jeep and a teardrop trailer, and the guy tent camping with his dog. This is the very first question you need to ask yourself. Am I running a camper with two air conditioners and a residential-style fridge/freezer, or am I simply trying to recharge my phone and power some LED lights? Both battery capacity and generation have a cost. The trick is to find the sweet spot where you’re not over paying. We've created the handy Personal Power Predictor tool to help you dive into your power needs.
Where am I camping?
The climate of your destination will impact your power consumption needs. In hot areas, your fridge will cycle more and, if you're campering, you'll want to run fans or maybe even that A/C. Also, cold temperatures (like midwest winter temperatures) will reduce your battery's output per charge.
As we noted in this series' solar installment, if you routinely camp in the woods, solar will not be as effective as it would if you camp in the desert. As the name implies, you need direct sunlight to properly leverage a solar system.
Do I camp off-grid in remote locations without access to shore power?
If the answer is 'no,' you probably want an AC-to-DC charger or maybe even a complementary AC power system. If the answer is 'yes,' then you may require a mobile charging system. This could be a DC-to-DC system, it could be solar, or it could be...a generator.
Generator power was glossed over in the AC-to-DC section of this series. Still, it's a solid option to recharge your batteries. Particularly if you're camping off-grid for long periods in areas that don't receive a lot of direct sunlight.
We use an ALP 1000 Watt Propane generator and an AC-to-DC charger to refill our battery while off-grid. It's nice because we already have propane on the trailer for cooking and heat. Being propane only we don't have to worry about bringing extra gas.
Am I someone who takes off for a week at a time?
If you're taking extended trips off-grid. You need to stay powered. This is where the solar system, the DC-to-DC charger, or a generator are handy.
Suppose you are predominately someone who takes off Friday after work and spends two nights in the desert (or the mountains, or the woods, or your grandma's backyard...you get the idea). In that case, you may not need an overly complicated, spendy charging system. Simply charge your battery at home during the week and you’re ready for the weekend.
If you go out five weekends a year plus one week-long trip. You may be able to skate for the week on a generator recharge if you build your battery system around your five-weekend trips. This one may come down to preference and conserving your power on the longer trips.
Do I use my 12v system when I'm not traveling?
Many campers who invest in a refrigerator for their vehicle appreciate this amenity's luxury and utilize it seasonally or year-round. Many others build a power supply for the weekends and find it infinitely valuable in their day jobs. Still, others have bangin' sound systems in their vehicles that need the extra juice. Whatever the use, battery systems are not just for weekend recreation. If you're someone who uses your system all the time, you're going to want to keep it charged.
The flip-side to this question is, 'Do I require a generator in my everyday life?'. If you do, that may influence your weekend recreation charging system.
What kind of battery am I using?
If you're on this site and this far through this post, you're probably in the Lithium camp. If you're still debating, I encourage you to go back and read the post on 'Why Lithium', but it's certainly not a prerequisite for this course. The bottom line is; lithium charges faster and can be drawn down to zero. Lead-acid batteries generally behave as the opposite. They charge slow, and the battery can be damaged if drawn below 50%. Therefore, the old mentality was to increase capacity to maintain smaller recharge cycles, which would extend the life of your cells. With lithium cells, like the NPS, that thought process is irrelevant. Indeed, consideration for this topic is necessary if you're still debating what batteries to use, but if you're waving the lithium flag, focus on Q's 1-5.
None of the above questions are mutually exclusive to painting the whole picture for your power needs. Together though, they're able to give you an idea of what equipment you're using, how and where you'll be using it, and with what frequency. That information can then be utilized to conclude if power generation or power storage is conducive to your lifestyle.
For example, suppose I'm powering a fridge, lights, a radio, and charging cell phones for 3 nights at a time in a moderate/warm climate while shacking up in my Kodiak Canvas ground tent. In that case, I probably need a 100AH battery. Suppose I run that fridge 24/7 in my truck, and I like to utilize my camp lights and radio for social events during the week. In that case, I may lean toward a smaller battery and a DC-to-DC charger.
As much as I hate to say it (because I'm here to sell stuff), it all comes down to preference. What do you need, and what are you comfortable with?
We have a saying here at Nomatic: Power is Personal. We're happy to help guide you to your personal power needs. Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to achieve your power goals.
Thanks for tuning into this series. It's a little different than our standard content. Let us know what you think.
We appreciate you.
MARK & AJ