What Is A Self-Contained RV (& Camper)?

With all the options, it’s understandable to have many questions when buying an RV. It’s essential to understand the different choices you have before you commit. Research and education are the first steps to buying an RV.

If you have started researching, you have undoubtedly seen the term “self-contained RV.” What does self-contained mean, and is it necessary? In this guide, we’ll answer all your questions about self-contained RVs. We will also cover basic use and maintenance needs for this class of motorhomes.

What is a Self-Contained RV?

When it comes to RVs, self-contained essentially means self-sufficient. A self-contained RV has systems for electricity, water, and sewer that don’t rely on shore power.

To be considered self-contained the RV must have:

  • An electrical system that doesn’t rely on shore power. Most often means the RV has a built-in generator.
  • A water tank to store freshwater for plumbing use. This water supplies the faucets and showers.
  • Two wastewater storage systems known as gray and black tanks. Gray tanks store used water from sinks and showers, and black tanks hold sewage waste.

In the U.S, most RVs on the market are self-contained, or they are class B motorhomes. Even within Class A and C motorhomes, not all self-contained RVs are the same. They vary in size, amenities, and how long they can remain self-sufficient when you are off the grid.

What Is the Difference Between a Class A and C Standard Self-Contained RV and a Class B Motorhome?

First, you should know that RVs are Class, A, B, or C, depending on their size, design, and occupancy constraints. Class A and Class C are the two largest models and are the two classes that tend to be self-contained.

Class A is the largest, and most of them have all the amenities of a home as well as lots of living space. You’ll be able to travel in comfort with a kitchen, shower, toilet, and air conditioning system. Many Class C RVs also have these same amenities but fit them in a smaller footprint.

Class B RVs are like large vans converted into living spaces, making them the smallest class of RVs. Some have small self-sustained appliances. However, they do not meet the requirements to be self-contained.

What are the Advantages of a Self-Contained RV?

Self-contained RVs offer independence far beyond their non-self-contained counterparts. When you aren’t dependent on shore power, you can camp at any location you please. There is no need to locate and pay extra for powered campsites and bathroom facilities.

With this freedom, you can explore remote areas and stay off the grid. Camping off the grid is also known as dry camping or boondocking. You can embrace spontaneity and the sense of adventure that comes with self-contained travel.

Camping in a self-contained RV is also immensely more comfortable. You enjoy your own private space and won’t need to brave public restrooms and shower facilities. There will be no more stumbling through the woods when nature calls in the middle of the night.

What are the Disadvantages of Self-Contained RVs?

The most considerable disadvantage of self-contained RVs is their cost. The price range varies depending on class, size, and amenities. Even budget models are almost always more expensive than non-self-sufficient options.

Self-contained RVs aren’t only more expensive when you buy them. It costs more to maintain them because they have more parts that need maintenance. The plumbing and electricity systems also increase the risk of repairs in the future.

For many self-contained RVs, their size can be a disadvantage. The largest size disadvantage comes with Class A RVs. Their large footprint makes it difficult to drive them and leads to low gas mileage. You will notice many Class A RV owners also have to tow a car to get around once they reach their destination.

What Are the Time Limits on Self-Containment? 

Unfortunately, RVs can’t run on their own forever. So, how long can you be off the grid? The make, model, and your utility usage will all determine the time limit.

Let’s review what we know about the standard timelines for each system in a self-contained RV.

How Long Does a Self-Contained Electrical System Run?

The two factors that determine how long your electrical system can run:

  • The type of power system
  • The amount of use (time and maximum wattage)

Generators are the most common type of power in self-contained RVs. Most self-contained RVs have built-in generators that can run for multiple days. Many RV owners keep a portable fuel supply on hand. For extended trips, you will need extra fuel to keep the generator running.

Your run time will be shorter if you are using a portable generator. Portable generators can be the primary power source or a supplement to boost power capacity. You should expect between 8-20 hours of power from most portable generator models.

An inverter connected to your RV batteries is another electricity source. Unfortunately, the capacity of this power source is minimal. Also, most inverter systems only provide power to some of the outlets and appliances. It’s not enough for long dry camping trips. To be fully self-contained, we recommend adding a portable generator.

How Long Can My RV Water and Sewer System Stay Self-Contained?

The factors that will affect how long you can dry camp on your water and sewer systems are:

  • The Size of Your Tanks
  • Water Usage and Waste Production

A self-sustained RV water system has three tanks. Two are waste tanks (black and gray), and one is a clean water tank. The capacity of the RV tanks is in your owner’s manual as three numbers in a row.

Example: 75-30-35

Each number indicates the size of one tank. The first number is the clean water capacity, the second is the gray water, and the third is the black water tank size.

The clean water tank is the amount of water you will have to use from the faucet, showering, etc. while off the grid. Large Class A RVs hold on average 75-100 gallons of water while a smaller Class C holds 35-60 gallons. Gray and black tanks are typically about one-third to one half the size of the clean water tank.

Average daily usage will depend on the number of people in your travel group. How much water each person uses will also play a part. One or two people traveling may get a full week out of the tank. A family may need to refill and dump the tanks every couple of days.

To limit your water usage, the most useful thing you can do is shorten your showers. To lower water use during showering, turn off the water stream when you aren’t rinsing. Another option is to use a washcloth or sponge to distribute soap rather than the water.

Keep reading for more information about the usage and maintenance of your RV water tanks.

What To Ask When Buying A Self-Contained RV

When you are purchasing an RV, there are a few critical questions you should ask yourself. An RV is a huge investment, and you want to make sure you make the right decision.

Is a Self-Contained RV Necessary? The answer depends on your travel expectations and what’s most important to you in an RV. If you spend time boondocking in the wilderness, then self-containment is of high value. If you plan to stay at campgrounds with power hook-ups, you might not need a self-contained RV. Also, think about how comfortable you are driving a big motorhome. If you want a small footprint vehicle that’s easy to operate, a Class B (not self-contained) RV is the best option.

What Amenities Do You Need? If you decide to go with a self-contained model, choose one that focuses on the amenities that are crucial to you. If you travel with a big family, you might need extra sleeping space instead of a large kitchen. But, if you love to cook, you might want a full kitchen over other amenities. Self-contained RVs are not one-size-fits-all. Shop around for the layout that best fits your needs.

Should I Buy New or Used? Your budget will be the biggest factor in this decision. A brand new high-end Class A motorhome starts around $150,000. For smaller Class C RVs, you are still looking at a starting price point of around $100,000. If that gives you sticker shock, you might want to look at used options.

Well-maintained use RVs are a great option to save money. Used Class A RVs can start as low as $20,000 depending on amenities and the number of miles they have on them.

Guide to Camping Spots in a Self-Contained RV

One of the advantages of being on the road in a self-contained RV is that you have so much freedom over where you park. If you are staying at a campsite, it’s not necessary to get a powered site. You’ll save money by skipping the shore power hook-up when you can.

You can also avoid camping fees altogether by staying in a free spot and calling it a night. Always check on location regulations to find the numerous free options that exist. Many big-box retailers, like Walmart and Sams Club, allow overnight parking. Most Cracker Barrel restaurants also let you camp overnight outside the restaurant. Local organizations like churches, movie theaters, and fraternal organizations are also resources. Call ahead to check.

How Do I Refill and Dump My RV Water Tanks?

While on the road or after a short trip, you will need to take time to dump and refill your water tanks. Newer RV models have a sensor that will tell you when your tanks are full. If you are traveling alone or with one other person, you might be able to go a week. If you travel with a large family, you may need to empty the tanks every couple of days.

Most RV sites will have a designated dumping spot where you can empty the gray and black tanks. Always empty the black tank first so the gray tank water can help wash any sewage left behind out of the hose.

The same places that allow dumping often have refill stations. You replenish your clean water supply when you dump waste. Travel centers are another excellent resource for your water tank refill needs. Always make sure you refill the tank with “potable” water. This means it’s safe to drink.

Self-Contained RV Maintenance

The plumbing and electrical systems are the reason self-contained RVs need more maintenance. Unlike the appliance inside the RV, it’s easy to forget to check up on the system appliances. Maintain these two things to keep your self-contained system to stay in working order.

Generator Maintenance: The generator is the heart of your RV’s electrical system. Various parts of your generator need replacement after different run periods. We suggest keeping a log of run hours so you won’t miss any crucial maintenance. Check your owner’s manual to see how often your filters, valves, and engine oil need replacement. Depending on your generator, you may need to inspect the fuel lines, spark rings, and exhaust system every year. You also should run your generator to its load capacity monthly. Fire up your RV even during the off-season to keep your generator running correctly.

Water Tank Maintenance: You’ll want to make sure your clean water tank is providing the freshest water possible. Sanitizing it every six months will do this. It’s also essential to keep your black and gray water tanks clean and sanitized. Skipping cleaning leads to undesirable odors in your RV. Regular use of enzyme products and periodic backwashing will avoid issues.

If you have an unexpected electrical or plumbing issue, it’s sometimes best to call an en expert. It will cost more upfront which is hard to swallow. But, you’ll avoid more damage or injury that can result from amateur repairs.

Before You Hit The Road

If you want to experience the comfort of home while on the road, then a self-contained RV is what you need. The self-sufficient electrical and plumbing systems add immense convenience. You can have a working bathroom, kitchen, entertainment, and air conditioning without an outside power source.

Of course, added convenience comes at a price. You will need to pay significantly more for a self-contained model. There will also be higher maintenance expenses down the road. However, if your dream is to boondock with complete peace of mind, then it will likely be worth it.

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