With the increasing concern about the environment, it is no surprise that more “green” technology is being marketed to RVers. “Environmentally friendly” holding tank treatments, solar panels and wind turbines have been available for years. Recently, another technology took the spotlight at the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Kentucky: fuel cells.
Fuel cells directly convert chemical energy into electricity. They’re not a “new” technology, as they were first invented in 1839 by Sir William Grove, a British judge and physicist. Grove’s device proved to be an expensive thing, and the idea went to the back burner until concerns about a finite supply of fossil fuels brought interest—and research—alive again in the mid-20th century.
Plenty of research dollars are now being spent to develop practical fuel cells for use in powering motor vehicles, but already RVers are in a position to take advantage of this emerging technology.
Plastic Black Box
Unlike a battery, which stores electricity via a chemical reaction, the fuel cell produces electricity from a chemical reaction. But like your high school science teacher always said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” and so it is with fuel cell technology—you’ve got to put fuel into it to get electricity out of it.
Much fuel cell research is directed toward converting hydrogen into electricity. Problem is, hydrogen is difficult to store, and doesn’t freely occur in nature. Hence, to make fuel cell technology practical for RVers now, manufacturers are promoting generators powered by methanol—what some of us old-timers call wood alcohol.
The latest proclaimed contender for your fuel cell generator dollar is Protonex Technology, a Massachusetts firm. They trotted out their new M-250B generator at the Louisville show, apparently putting their figurative marketing toe in the water to gauge reaction of the RV industry. The M-250B is a 40-pound plastic black box, about the size of an old-fashioned fruit crate. Hooked up to your RV electrical system at one end, and a bottle of methanol at the other, the Protonex generator will produce up to 250 watts—at 12 volts, on a round-the-clock basis. The system operates quietly, kicking out less noise than a normal conversation at three feet. Hence, you can generate power 24 hours a day without disturbing your sleep.
But in practical terms, just how much juice is 250 watts?
One Couple’s Power Bill
For most RVers, there’s more to their “electrical life” than just operating a few lights, pumping water, and turning blower fans. The low-voltage output of a fuel cell generator will handle all of these assignments directly. But as our love affair with electronic gadgets increases, the need for “shore power” arises. Hence, many RVers lug around an old-fashioned internal combustion generator. They’re noisy. They’re smelly. They pollute. The fuel cell generator promises to do away with all that.
But to get shore power from a low-voltage system like a fuel cell generator, you’ll need to take an extra step—and expense—and add a power inverter. The inverter changes that low-voltage DC power to 120-volt AC power, suitable for use by computers, televisions, microwave ovens, and the rest. Just how much power an RVer needs is about as specific as your clothing size—it varies.
Let’s invent an RV couple who watches TV three hours a day, has lights on four hours, takes the chill off running the RV furnace an hour and a half, uses a laptop computer for an hour, and runs the microwave oven a total of 15 minutes a day. In a day, this couple’s power use runs about 4,100 watts. That’s a pretty conservative estimate, as a power inverter is not 100 percent efficient, by any stretch, nor are the batteries used to store power. If the couple used the Protonex generator, producing 250 watts, it would be up and running at least 16 hours per day to keep up with the demand.
How much fuel will you need to support that lifestyle? Using the Protonex as our model where the consumption rate is two hours/liter, we’re looking at about two gallons of methanol per day to keep the lights shining. We asked Protonex’s representative, Michael McCarthy, just where a customer could get methanol, and how much it might cost. McCarthy says his company is already working on a distribution plan where RVers could buy methanol from national dealers around the country—for about $6 to $9 per gallon. So keeping up with the illustrative RV family here, the cost of running their fuel cell generator would be somewhere between $12 and $18 per day.
What about the initial cost for the system? Protonex officials are keeping mum about the street price—after all, they tell us they won’t be releasing the system to the public until sometime after March of next year—but they did suggest it will retail for somewhere between six and nine thousand dollars. A German firm already produces and ships a methanol fuel cell generator. EFOY’s 1600 Smart Fuel Cell Ag system retails for a little over $5,400; it’s much smaller, producing a maximum of 100 watts per hour. You’re right, there is no free lunch out there.
Of course, fuel cell technology does have its advantages: These devices are much cleaner than a regular gas-fired generator, producing very little in the way of pollutants.
There are some things this “new” technology won’t do: It will not produce enough power to fire an RV air conditioner. If you need cooling while boondocking, you’re still largely stuck needing a conventional internal combustion generator. It won’t produce large amounts of power in a short time: You’ll need a good “house battery” bank to store up power for use when running a large power consumer like a microwave oven, or a lot of items at once.
Depending on your haunts, you might find solar power is still hugely competitive with fuel cell technology. A good six-hour day of full sunlight exposure could produce the same amount of power as running a Protonex, 24 hours a day, for a base cost of around $4,000 for the panels and equipment. Even quieter than a fuel cell generator, the solar panels have one bigger advantage: at this point, sunshine is still free.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics. They also provide great resources in their book, Camp Hosting USA—Your Guide to State Park Volunteering. Visit www.icanrv.com for more information.