All of Your Questions About RV Air Conditioners Answered 327

RV life is much more comfortable when your RV air conditioner works efficiently. A functional AC unit is also essential for keeping the temperature inside your RV safe for pets and humans, especially in hot and humid climates.

Like all RV appliances, your AC unit requires you, the RV owner or renter, to operate and maintain it properly. This guide will teach you the basics of air conditioner use and maintenance by answering the most commonly asked questions about RV air conditioners

How to Use an RV Air Conditioner

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Photo by Camping World

The basics of safe AC operation begin with ensuring you have ample power supply to run your air conditioner. Before moving on, let’s answer a few questions: 

Can You Run an RV Air Conditioner on 30-amp Power?

If your RV requires 30-amp service, that will be enough to run your RV air conditioner. If your RV has multiple AC units, you’ll likely need 50-amp service to run both (or all) units. If your RV requires a 50-amp service, you may be able to use a 30-amp adapter to run a single air conditioning unit, but not multiple.

Your best bet for safely running your RV’s air conditioner is connecting to the electrical service your RV is designed for.

Can You Run an RV Air Conditioner on 15-amp Power?

Theoretically, 15-amp power is enough to power an average air conditioner. The problem is figuring out whether your specific AC unit is “average.” You’ll need to know the exact amperage required for your unit. If you have a larger unit that draws more than 15 amps, you won’t be able to run your AC on 15-amp power.

Even if your AC draws less than 15 amps, you may be unable to run any additional electrical appliances without overloading the circuit. For example, the combined draws of your AC unit, RV refrigerator, and electric water heater may be enough to trip a breaker. 

There’s also the question of surge watts versus running watts. Even an AC unit that draws less than 15 amps when running may draw more when starting up, resulting in a tripped breaker. 

To combat this issue, some have gotten away with installing a soft-start device or manually soft-start by turning on the fan for about 30 seconds before switching to the lowest AC setting and working your way up from there. 

However, installing soft start devices or manually attempting to operate an AC with less than the designated power supply minimums may void your warranty, cause damage to the equipment, and possibly result in fire. 

Bottom line: your best bet for safely running your RV’s air conditioner is connecting to the electrical service your RV is designed for.

Can I Run My RV Air Conditioner on 120?

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Photo by The Toidi via Shutterstock

Standard 120 electric power supplies about 15 amps. So, running your AC unit while plugged into a standard 120 outlet is possible if your AC draws less than 15 amps and you’re not running too many additional RV appliances simultaneously. 

The problems are the same as running on a 15-amp shore power connection. You’ll need to consider surge watts, you won’t be able to run many other appliances, and you’ll need to know exactly what else is drawing on that circuit. If someone plugs a box fan into an outlet on the same circuit, it could be enough to trip the breaker. 

Safe AC Usage Tips

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Photo by Camping World

Now that you’re familiar with AC power considerations, here are a few tips for safe use: 

  • Turn off all appliances before starting your air conditioner. AC units draw more when starting up (surge watts) than they do once they’re operating (running watts). Turning off appliances reduces the chances of overloading a circuit when the unit starts. 
  • Inspect the shroud regularly. The shroud protects the AC components mounted on your roof. Check it before and after each trip to ensure it isn’t cracked or missing. Cracks allow dust, moisture, and other debris to degrade sensitive AC components.
  • Keep doors and windows closed. Minimize the stress on your unit by trapping cool air in and keeping warm air out. 
  • Park in the shade. This also reduces how hard your air conditioner needs to work by limiting your RV’s exposure to direct sunlight.

How to Clean an RV Air Conditioner

The basics of safe AC operation begin with regularly inspecting and cleaning the unit’s air filter. Here are some tips to help:

How to Clean an RV Air Conditioner Filter

Inspecting and cleaning your air filter should be done every 3-4 months. To clean the filter, either rinse with water and allow it to dry completely or vacuum out loose debris before rinsing and drying.

Here’s a complete guide to maintaining your RV’s air conditioner for more AC maintenance tips. 

The Top Questions About RV Air Conditioners

Let’s explore these common questions to learn about AC units and how to responsibly cool your RV. 

How Many Amps Does an RV Air Conditioner Use?

The average RV air conditioner draws between 11 and 16 amps, but there are units (smaller and larger) that fall outside that range. Energy efficiency also comes into play. You can have two AC units of the same size, but the more efficient model will usually draw fewer running amps.

Here’s a quick breakdown of average AC amp draw relative to unit size in British thermal units (BTUs):

Amp ratings are listed for 70℉. Add 1 amp for every 10℉ outside temp above 70. 

AC Capacity Running Amps
5,000 BTU ~4.35
6,000 BTU ~5.22
8,000 BTU ~6.96
10,000 BTU ~8.70
12,000 BTU ~10.43
13,500 BTU ~11.74
15,000 BTU ~13.04
20,000 BTU ~17.39

How Many Watts Does an RV Air Conditioner Use?

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Photo by Camping World

Calculating AC wattage requires multiplying amps by voltage. AC units run on a 120-volt circuit, which you can multiply by the unit’s amperage to convert to wattage. You’ll notice that you can also divide a unit’s BTU rating by 10 to get an approximate measure of running wattage.

This is helpful when determining if you can safely run your air conditioner with a generator, which usually offers a wattage rating versus an amperage rating.

Here are some average wattage ratings by AC size: 

AC Capacity Running Wattage
5,000 BTU 500
6,000 BTU 600
8,000 BTU 800
10,000 BTU 1,000
12,000 BTU 1,200
13,500 BTU 1,350
15,000 BTU 1,500
20,000 BTU 2,000

Will a 3500-watt Generator Run an RV Air Conditioner?

The short answer is yes, for most. But you’ll need to know your unit’s surge and running watts. Larger units will draw more wattage and may hinder your ability to run other RV appliances, even with a 3500-watt generator. 

Here are some generator size recommendations based on your RV’s electrical demands: 

  • 30-Amp RVs: Minimum 3,500-watt generator
  • 50-Amp RVs: 6,000-8,000 watt generator for RVs with dual ACs; 10,000-12,500-watt generator for RVs with three ACs.

Check out more tips for choosing the right size generator for your RV.

How Long Can You Run an RV Air Conditioner?

Most RV air conditioners last 6-8 years if maintained properly. The more diligent you are with service and maintenance, the longer you’ll be able to run your unit. 

When camping, you can run your AC 24 hours a day. You’ll just want to use a modest thermostat setting that allows the compressor to cycle on and off periodically. For larger RVs with two or three units, you can cycle between them to give the units intermittent breaks. 

Having a consistent power source is the most important thing to keep your unit running efficiently. This isn’t an issue when you’re plugged into 30 or 50-amp service, but you’ll be limited to your generator’s run time if powering your AC using an appropriately-sized RV generator. 

How Do I Make My RV Air Conditioner Colder?

If your air conditioner isn’t lowering the temperature inside your RV to a comfortable level, here are a few things to try: 

  • Adjust the thermostat. It could be as simple as telling your unit you want it to be colder inside your RV.  
  • Move to a more shaded location. Reducing your RV’s exposure to direct sunlight will make your AC more effective because it won’t have to work as hard. 
  • Add insulation to roof vents and windows. This traps cool air inside instead of allowing it to escape. 
  • Clean and/or replace the air filter. Insufficient airflow reduces your air conditioner’s effectiveness. 
  • Clean the coils or fins. Clogged condenser or evaporator coils will also reduce AC efficiency. These should be checked and cleaned every other year. 
  • Check your power supply. Insufficient power will cause your AC to operate below its cooling capacity. 
  • Minimize the number of occupants. Our bodies give off heat. The more people you have inside, the harder your AC works to cool things down. 
  • Cook outside. Easier if your RV features an outdoor kitchen, but worth it to keep things cool inside your RV. 
  • Shower in the bathhouse. Eliminates steam and condensation from hot water…unless you like cold showers. 
  • Minimize the use of appliances and electronics. Every appliance in your RV gives off heat when it’s on. Reducing appliance and electronic usage will make life easier for your air conditioning unit.

What is the Smallest RV Air Conditioner?

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Photo by Camping World

Roof-mounted units are the most common type of air conditioner for RVs, but there are also small portable and window-mounted units. These are great options for RVs without AC or for supplementing an existing RV air conditioner. NewAir and EvaPolar are two top brands for small RV air conditioners. 

Find small portable RV air conditioners in our complete selection of RV AC units. 

Can You Add a Thermostat to an RV Air Conditioner?

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Photo by Camping World

Most AC units have a built-in thermostat or are wired to a wall-mounted thermostat in your RV. Aftermarket residential thermostats rarely work with RV air conditioners, and while upgrade kits are available, they must be from the AC’s manufacturer and be designed specifically for your unit.

These kits will likely require the installation of additional components that allow them to communicate properly with your AC. If your thermostat needs to be replaced, your best bet is to consult the owner’s manual and wiring diagrams for your model and contact your local Camping World Service Center.

Does RV Height Include the Air Conditioner?

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Photo by Camping World

Most RV manufacturers list heights measured from the ground to the highest point, typically your AC unit. A potential exception would be if the base model doesn’t include an air conditioner, but one is available as an upgrade. In that case, the listed height may not include the air conditioner. 

Can You Run an RV Air Conditioner While Driving?

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Photo by Camping World

You’ll only be able to run your RV’s air conditioner while driving if it’s equipped with a built-in generator and that generator is running. You should NEVER run a portable generator while driving in an attempt to power your air conditioner. If you’re riding in the cockpit, the dash AC should be enough to keep you and your navigator cool until you reach your destination. 


Hopefully, you know a lot more about air conditioners for RV use, how to use them, and how to ensure they keep your RV cool and comfortable. If you feel like you need to upgrade your AC unit, check out our full collection of RV air conditioners

Do you have any additional questions about RV air conditioners? Let us know in the comments below. 

And if you’re still learning the ins and outs of RV maintenance, check out our downloadable RV ownership and maintenance booklet!

Tucker Ballister is a Technical Content Writer for Camping World and a lover of the open road. You can check out more of his adventures and outdoor advice at thebackpackguide.com.
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