Getting Technical: Knowing Your RV or Van’s Electrical System

RV and travel van specialists at Classic Vans provide an easy reference for understanding this vital, yet often misunderstood system…

The ins and outs of a van’s electrical system can be daunting. Knowing about the differences between a 12-volt and 110-volt system is intimidating. An RV or travel van enthusiast’s main concern is the adventure of the open road! The details of electrical wiring and batteries are a foreign language to most. However having some basic knowledge around these systems can help ensure your thrill-seeking vehicle stays maintained and offers you all that it can.

The Basics:

After starting your car, the vehicle’s power system works by flowing power from the battery to the starting motor, which turns over the engine. A small generator, (also known as the alternator) is started up by an engine belt. The alternator supplies your vehicle with the power it needs to run the pumps, light the spark plugs, power your stereo, and recharge your battery. The battery’s main purpose is to supply power until the alternator is ready to go. Most vehicles run on a standard 12-volt battery.

Electrical Systems in RVs and Travel Vans:

There are two separate electrical systems within your RV. The first is the starting system, which operates like any other vehicle. The chassis that RVs and travel vans are built on are like any flat bed truck so their starting systems are pretty much the same.

The house system is the secondary electrical system that provides power to all of the amenities the RV has to offer.  The house system has several different components to it. The first is the battery bank that is used to store power. House batteries are heavier duty than those of the starting system – they are called deep cycle batteries.

Deep cycle batteries can typically last years in an RV. Since RV’s are rarely used year round and will spend most of its time hooked up to outside electricity or powered by a generator, these batteries will not need to be replaced often. If you are living in your van, motor home or RV and depending on the amenities you use the most, you may be looking at replacing your House battery every few years. Consult an expert if you can to ensure your battery indeed needs replacement and you are doing so with the proper type.


Inverters will take the power from your battery bank and turn it into a useable 110v AC outlet like the ones found in your house. These outlets can be used to plug in laptops, game consoles, TV’s, washers and driers, microwaves, hair dryers and anything else that you might want to bring along.

There are three types of inverters you would be using in your system, and include:

Square Wave Inverters: These inverters simulate household currency by reversing polarity from full positive to full negative. These can cause havoc on electronics and should be avoided if possible.

Modified Sine Wave or Modified Square Wave inverters: These inverters create currency by ‘stepping up’ or ‘stepping down’ polarity to simulate house hold currents. These inverters are better quality than square wave inverters.

Sine Wave Inverters: These are the highest quality of inverters and have the ability to run sensitive pieces of electronic equipment. These inverters will produce a sine wave that is identical to that of a household current. Their price is considerably higher than that of modified inverters but will allow you to bring just about anything you might want and use it with ease.

Converters and Chargers:

An RV system will also have a converter and charging component. “Shore Power’ in RV lingo, is the name for the 110v electrical line that will allow your RV to power everything that goes on 110v. These lines are typically found at any campground you choose that is RV compatible. When hooked up to “Shore Power’, your RV will not be putting drain on the inverter or batteries but these batteries will need to be recharged.

The charger portion of your RV’s system is very similar to a battery charger that would be found at any automotive store. When your RV is hooked up to “shore power”, the system is using some of that energy to recharge the battery.

The converter portion of your RV’s system is basically taking the 110v energy given from “shore power” and transferring it to 12v currents that will run anything in your RV that needs 12v power. Your RV’s lights, fans and water pumps are typically run on 12v power.

Transfer Switches:

Wiring up and remembering to change all of the switches from ‘shore power’ to the inverter can be confusing. Luckily your RV’s system has a transfer switch to help simplify the process. When your RV is running on the inverter and batteries while plugged into the ‘shore line’, the transfer switch will turn off the inverter allowing the power to pass through outlets and anything run on 110v. The transfer switch will also turn on the converter/charger to allow the batteries to recharge.


Every RV will have a generator. The Generator will take the place of the RV’s “Shore Power” connection so you can charge your batteries when you have no electrical source to plug into. Higher wattage appliances such as air conditioners typically won’t run with out one.

Whether it’s an RV, Conversion Van or Motor Home, these amazingly versatile travel vehicles were made to be self-reliant machines! Knowing a bit about your vehicles inner workings can go a long way in the maintenance and upkeep of your beloved RV or conversion van.

We invite you to continue browsing our blog and information center resources to learn more about RVs and conversion vans. And feel free to contact us with any questions, or to discuss your transportation needs today.