Welcome to our Smart RV

Tue Sep 15 2020

A smart RV isn't just about turning on the lights with your phone. It's about using technology to make your RV more comfortable, efficient and secure!

Welcome to our Smart RV
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Starting in this blog post, we'll be sharing the story of how we have been incorporating home automation and smart devices into our RV. Through trial and error, we've learned what works ... and what doesn't! Unfortunately, many of the most common residential smart devices don't work well (if at all) in an RV!

Would you like your RV to be more comfortable, more efficient and simpler? If so, keep reading and find out how we made our very own Smart RV.

What is a Smart RV?

Home automation. Smart devices. Internet of Things (IoT). Cloud connected.

These terms have burst onto the scene over the past few years. From the Google Nest Thermostat to the Ring Doorbell, WiFi lightbulbs to smart garage doors - these devices are everywhere! What used to be the preserve of hackers and makers can now be found in Walmart, Best Buy and Amazon.

For many people, going camping in their RV is an opportunity to escape technology - to step away from the rat race, disconnect from the grid and relax.

It's a little different for us. As two 30-somethings living and working full-time in our RV, this is our home! We want all the same luxuries and conveniences that we had in our house.

In many ways, a Smart RV is no different to a smart home - an assemblage of smart devices that promise to improve your quality of life. But an RV poses some unique challenges, and opportunities. Houses don't have wheels and don't change location. Houses usually have reliable power and internet.

Think back to my list of common smart devices a few paragraphs up. None of those would work in an RV. For example, RVs use 12V DC power not 24V AC for thermostats, so the Nest Thermostat doesn't work. Most RV lights run on 12V DC not 110V AC, so standard WiFi light bulbs don't work. And how many RVs do you know with a doorbell or a garage door?

No, RVs are different. RVs are (usually!) smaller, and particularly when running off-grid, have limited resources (e.g. holding tanks, propane, batteries) and more complicated (maybe intermittent) internet connectivity.

A smart RV should leverage technology to become more efficient, more comfortable and more capable. The technology should must work for us, not the other way around!

What does our Smart RV let us do?

It was cold outside, barely above freezing. The thermostat had been set to 55°F overnight, but now it was morning, and one of us had to leave the warm, cozy bed to go and turn the heating on! It was me. Again.

Back in the house, I could have used the app on my phone to control my Nest thermostat from the warmth of my bed. Although I wouldn't have to, since the Nest would have learned what time we typically get up and turned the heating on automatically. By contrast, our RV's thermostat was an antique. A manual slider to set the temperature and a switch for heating or cooling. No WiFi. No schedules.

That's when I realized that just because our RV is small, it doesn't mean we can't benefit from technology. Quite the opposite in fact, as we began to learn!

Upgrading to a Smart WiFi RV Thermostat

Most RV thermostats are cheap, low-end units - certainly nothing like the fancy domestic WiFi models. Find out how we added a WiFi-controllable thermostat in our RV.

Upgrading to a Smart WiFi RV Thermostat

We now have the following devices as part of our Smart RV:

All of these are connected to our hub, an Intel NUC i3 running the fantastic open source software Home Assistant. This lets us control all of those things through our laptops or an app on our phones - from anywhere in the world as long as we have an internet connection! Or we can say "Hey Google, turn on the office lights" and it will happen.

Mounting a Smart Speaker in your RV

Installing a Google Home Mini or Amazon Echo Dot in your RV adds a lot of capability, and hard-wiring it means no need to pack it away on moving day.

Mounting a Smart Speaker in your RV

But turning on a light from your phone isn't smart, it's just a different interface. No, smart means making life easier - usually through automation. Here are some examples of things we have set up:

  • Say "Hey Google, turn off all the lights" when we go out, and then "Hey Google, turn on all the inside lights" when we get home.
  • Press the button in the kitchen to turn the inverter on for 5 minutes - just enough time to boil the kettle or make a smoothie, before turning off again to save power

We also have various triggers set to do things based on our batteries - turning things on as our batteries fill up and turning them off as they start to drain, for example:

  • Above 90%, the inverter will automatically turn on, and turn off if the batteries drop below 85%;
  • Above 95%, the fridge will automatically switch from propane to AC electric, and turn off if the batteries drop below 90%;
  • Above 98%, the electric water heater will automatically turn on, and turn off if the batteries drop below 95%.

This means that on a good sunny day in summer, if we've been out exploring, we'll get back to find the fridge has been running on electric to save propane for most of the day, we have a full tank of hot water ready to take a shower, and our batteries are full. Without that system, we would have wasted any excess solar power once the batteries were full.

That's just the beginning and there are plenty more ideas I am thinking about implementing:

  • Automatically use the electric space heater instead of the thermostat to heat the RV as long as the underbelly isn't at risk of freezing (using a temperature sensor underneath the RV);
  • Monitor the fridge and freezer temperatures and adjust the settings as needed;
  • Track the temperature of the hot water tank so we don't heat more than we need for a shower;
  • Alert me before I go to bed if I've left one of the storage bay doors unlocked;
  • Use the weather forecast to make better use of the solar power;
  • Automatically turn on our ceiling fan if it's starting to get smoky inside when cooking (ideally before the smoke alarm goes off!);
  • Turn on the lights automatically when we get home and it's dark;
  • Detect when we're 30 minutes away and driving towards the RV, then automatically turn on the heating (and maybe the water heater too) if necessary;
  • and many, many more!

Once devices are connected, the opportunity to automate is limited only by your imagination.

How do I make my own Smart RV?

So far, we've talked about what we've done. Your goals may be completely different!

Maybe you have pets and want to make sure they're safe and comfortable. Perhaps you use your RV recreationally and want to have it pre-cool the fridge before your next trip. The possibilities are endless! The point is that adding some simple automation to your RV can be cheap, easy and yes, fun!

This post is kicking off a brand new theme of content on our website. In the next post, I'll share more information about our Smart RV hub - why we chose to use an Intel NUC running Home Assistant, and how you can get it running yourself easily and cheaply.

Then, in upcoming blog posts I'll go through each of our integrations - our lights, thermostat, fridge, temperature sensors and more. In each case, I'll share what we chose and why, how I set it up, and how I configured it to work with Home Assistant.

While bringing home automation technology into RVs isn't new, there aren't many people out there doing it. I know there are a few, but I'm looking forward to introducing far more people to the benefits it brings. As more and more people climb aboard, I hope that RV manufacturers will take note and we'll see more smart devices aimed at RVers!

Cover photo by Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash

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