Should you buy an off-grid caravan?

The latest all-electric set-ups will power all your appliances for days but the downsides are cost and complexity

Caravanning is increasingly becoming more sophisticated and one way to enjoy the bush in style is to have an off-grid capable caravan. But is buying such a ‘van or converting yours so you don’t need mains power worth it?

Self-sufficient camping

A familiar situation if you’ve been caravanning for a while is pulling up on a cold night somewhere with no mains power to plug your ‘van into. Looking wistfully at the ceiling mounted 240volt reverse-cycle air conditioner, you’d wish you could somehow magically turn it on to stop shivering…

Touchscreen is part of latest Jayco off-gird option pack

Once upon a time, caravan camping was rarely done outside caravan parks, except for the most hardy. If you chose to camp away from 240V mains access, you had to accept that you might have a 12 volt battery to power a few lights for a few days and a gas bottle to run the cooker, fridge and hot water service, but otherwise that was it.

Now there are self contained off-grid power systems that allow you to not only pull up anywhere and run your air conditioner/heater overnight, but stay off the grid running similar high-load equipment for weeks at a time. In other words, use all sorts of 240V appliances and never need to pull out that 240V umbilical cord to mains power.

Longer term off-the-grid camping, where you can use all your appliances for extended periods, is usually possible with two types of set-up: a combined fuel (petrol and/or diesel) and gas/electric caravan, or full (either 12volt, 24volt or 48volt) electric-only set-ups.

Hybrid power systems

The petrol/diesel/gas/electric set-ups are what we call hybrid systems. They usually have the typical LPG gas bottles for running the cooker, fridge and hot water service. Diesel is often employed for interior heating, and works in combination with more minimal solar and 12-volt battery power, either AGM or more often of late, lithium batteries.

One recent example comes from Australia’s largest caravan manufacturer, Jayco, which recently announced enhanced 12-volt off-grid power options for its All-Terrain caravan series.

While the Jayco ‘vans have LPG gas and a single 100Ah lithium battery (with the option of a second), Projecta LCD control panel and 400W rooftop solar as standard, there are two power upgrades available: a 12V 200Ah lithium battery system with 120amp charger and 2000W pure sine wave inverter, or a 400Ah lithium battery, 180A charger and 3000W inverter.

In the case of Bushtracker’s pricier 19ft ‘hybrid’ ‘van, three main sources of onboard power or fuel include twin drawbar-mounted 4.5kg gas bottles, used to run the gas/induction internal cooktop and a portable BBQ via a gas bayonet.

Latest Bushtracker uses gas, diesel, petrol and lithium battery power

Then there’s an Enerdrive 300Ah lithium battery system with 3000W inverter, 120amp charger and four 185W rooftop solar panels that power a range of electrical appliances. A petrol generator is used as back-up to run 240volt appliances, if required, and there’s also a 10 litre fuel container on the A-frame to feed the diesel space heater.

What about a full electric setup?

Full electric caravans eschew any ‘fuel’ in their set-ups, with nothing but electricity for all their power needs. So that this is an effective, long period off-grid proposition, most are 48-volt systems.

Solar panel array on Harvok 48V caravan

Lithium batteries have led the charge for self-contained camping partly because they can last a lot longer after rapid depletion than lead-acid batteries. Most 48-volt systems rely on a large lithium battery pack, a large-capacity inverter, DC to DC and AC to DC charging ability and multiple solar panels. Plus, of course the management system to integrate and monitor it all.

A well-specified 48-volt caravan or camper, like a combined system, should mean that you can power all appliances for extended periods, relying on a very large lithium battery capacity and large solar capacity to recharge it.

Off-grid systems allow creature comforts outside of caravan parks

Advantages of off-grid systems

As Australians increasingly flock to travel in their RVs, caravan parks are getting more crowded in peak times, leaving some campers no choice but to free camp (and even then, some free camps are also getting crowded).

A good off-grid system is fully self-contained, so you can enjoy the use of all appliances without needing the mains power at a caravan park.

Caravan parks can also be expensive, with a peak-period site at a popular destination costing more than $100 per night – if you can get in at all, without booking well ahead of time. Again, a free camp is exactly that, or requires a small donation for camping — either way, much cheaper than paying to stay at a caravan park every night of a camping trip for facilities you don’t really need.

Off-grid equipment eats up valuable storage space

If it’s a full electric (no gas) set-up, dust-proofing the caravan’s interior is easier as no ventilation is required by law as there is for gas installations.

The 48-volt system has the theoretical advantage over 24-volt or 12-volt set-ups in that the caravan’s electrical wiring is not under as much load as it doesn’t require as much amp draw and the battery capacity is higher.

Disadvantages of a remote bush power

The main disadvantage is the cost of the power system, not to mention the cost of the electrical appliances needed to justify such a system. In other words, if your camping power needs run to just some LED lights plus the fridge, then you could probably get away with a very simple hybrid gas/electric system.

Electric BBQ on Spinifex off-grid van

The average high-end 24V or 48-volt set-up can add $30,000 or more to the cost of the caravan. For example, the recently unveiled Condamine Camper Hybrid Bunk model starts at about $80,000, but with its comprehensive off-grid electrical system you can expect a price closer to $110,000.

Ongoing cost of replacement lithium batteries is also something to consider down the track, as are any failures out of warranty periods. These are expensive components to replace, although you’d hope that they would last a while before having to be replaced.

Complexity is another issue — if something electrical goes wrong, it can be more complex to diagnose and to fix. Some advocates of these systems claim that technicians can remotely diagnose system problems via a satellite link or similar, thereby fixing your 48-volt system in the middle of the Kimberly from an east coast capital city office. We’ve yet to see much practical evidence of this being successful to really know, but it’s early days….

Off-grid system on this Condamine camper adds around $30K to price

In the short term, gaining access to electrical components with chip shortages may cause additional delivery delays on top of those already experienced in an industry under pressure to turn out ‘vans due to high demand.

With a high capacity, electric only set up, you also need to have more efficient but high-load appliances like an induction cooktop or airfryer oven, for best efficiency when remote camping and to extend use time, which again adds to initial cost.

No-one is going to think to install enough AGM batteries to a caravan to match the capacity of a good 48-volt system, it’s as simple as that. A hybrid or electric-only off-grid system is always going to be an upgrade.

Power energy-hungry appliances without plugging in at the park!

So while it’s fair to say that such a system can dramatically increase capacity over a standard 12volt set-up, it does come with a weight penalty. We’re not sure how much additional weight a full-house 48-volt off-grid solar/lithium set-up adds on average, but you can bet it’s in the hundreds of kilos.

Other off-grid considerations

Another potential problematic issue is space considerations. One or even two AGM house batteries, an inverter and a few solar panels don’t take up much room, but a full off-grid system can take up a lot of space in a ‘van.

The increasingly popular OzXCorp lithium battery pack takes up the space of a large water tank under the ‘van while a big inverter and associated components can soak up just about all the storage space under a double bed or dinette seating.

Induction cooktops add to the cost an of-grid set-up

While those selling the off-grid systems might tell you that you have full power on tap forever, that’s not always true. If there is no sunlight for extended periods, you will be obliged to go find a caravan park to plug in and charge up the batteries, or bring along a generator.

Final word

While there are a few pros and cons to the latest off-grid caravan set-ups, there’s no doubt they’re very appealing to buyers and are here to stay. If in time the cost, size and weight of these systems can be reduced, they will make even more sense to long-distance travellers than they do now.