By Dave Helgeson
Earlier this year I installed a SoftStartRV™ on my RV’s roof air conditioner.
You can read about the installation and my first impressions here. Impressively, the SoftStartRV™ allows me to run an air conditioner with a small generator. It does so by significantly reducing the power requirements at startup.
My 2,200-watt Honda generator running in ECO (Economy) mode was able to supply ample power to start a 13,500-BTU air conditioner while also powering the refrigerator (on AC) and the power converter in the RV.
I also promised a follow-up report after I had the opportunity to field test the unit over the summer under varying conditions. My main point of interest was could I still run an air conditioner with a small generator at higher altitudes? As RVers, most all of us have experienced reduction in power (3% for every thousand feet of altitude gained) as we have driven our RVs over high mountain passes. This is due to less air available to support combustion in our engines.
The same principle applies to fossil fuel-powered generators. While my generator easily powered the air conditioner with a SoftStartRV at my home, which is very near sea level, it might struggle or be unable to in higher elevation settings like the mountains.
Fortunately for testing the SoftStartRV there was a hot spell while dry camping at just over 5,000 feet in the mountains. This was a great opportunity to run an air conditioner with a small generator that is now generating approximately 15% less power (5 x 3%).
Here is what I experienced: I started the generator on ECO mode like I had been doing all summer at lower elevations. The generator started the air conditioner with considerable effort and went into “overload” in less than 5 minutes of operation. Then I turned the ECO mode off and restarted the generator. While it ran longer than 5 minutes, it was soon in “overload” mode once again. Finally, I switched the RV refrigerator from “Auto” to “LP Gas,” which prevented it from running on electricity (120 volts) supplied by the generator without any further overload incidents.
Let’s take a look at what was going on
The 2,200-watt Honda generator with a maximum output of 2,200 surge watts and 1,800 rated watts at sea level was reduced to approximately 1,870 watts surge and 1,530 (85% of 1,800) watts rated at the altitude of 5,000 feet.
Using Ohm’s law we can determine 1,530 rated watts works out to a mere 12.75 amps of constant power. If you will review the “SoftStartRV Video” from my earlier entry you will see my RV drew up to 12.9 amps once the air conditioner compressor had been started. This is slightly more than the 12.75 amps expected in the approximation* above.
Therefore, in the first two attempts, the generator was just able to power the air conditioner. When the refrigerator then most likely called for cooling it activated the 120-volt heating element (1.2 amp draw). This additional draw increased the load to approximately 14.1 amps, which was just too much for the generator.
If you are looking to run an air conditioner with a small generator, here are some things to consider
- Power requirements will vary with the size and make of the air conditioner and RV.
- Some generators may be more efficient than others when it comes to operating at higher altitudes.
- Take into account other 120-volt power draws within the RV such as the converter / charger, refrigerator, etc. Then decide if those loads can be eliminated when operating the air conditioner via the generator.
- Keep in mind the temperature drops three degrees for every 1,000 feet of altitude gained. Therefore, as your generator loses the ability to power your SoftStartRV-equipped air conditioner at higher elevations, it also becomes less likely you will need to operate your air conditioner. Example: It is unlikely you would ever need air conditioning when camping at 9,500 feet in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming.
- If you RV solely at lower elevations like the southeastern United States, you can likely get by with a 2,000-watt generator.
Where does all this leave RVers that want run an air conditioner with a small generator?
If you dry camp often and don’t want to lug around a 3,000-watt generator or run two smaller generators in tandem, a SoftStartRV unit installed on your RV’s air conditioner is a GREAT alternative. It performs as advertised – you just need to understand the limitations of your smaller generator.
For me it’s been a game changer and I highly recommend the product.
Click here to receive a special RVtravel.com discount and 90 Days Risk Free Trial on SoftStartRV for your RV’s air conditioner.
*Assumes that the generator is sized exactly to its engine’s size and loss of power at higher altitudes is proportional.