RV Leveling Systems: Hydraulic vs. Electric

One of the first things you’ll need to choose is what type of leveling system to get. This decision can impact your entire RV experience, from ease of setup to maintenance costs. Let’s take a deep dive into hydraulic and electric systems to help you make the best choice.

I’ll be upfront – I prefer electric systems. But this isn’t about my opinions, it’s about giving you the full picture so you can evaluate both options objectively. Hydraulics have been around a long time and some swear by them. Electrics are newer but have advanced a ton in recent years. There are convincing cases to be made for both.

How RV Leveling Systems Work

First, a quick overview of how RV leveling systems work in general. Their job is to stabilize and level your RV once you park. This makes moving around inside more comfortable and prevents stuff from falling over or sliding around.

There are a few main components that all systems share:

  • Jacks – These extend down from the frame to lift the RV off the wheels and stabilize it. There are usually 4-6 jacks.
  • Control panel – Lets you operate the jacks and level the RV. Can be manual or automatic.
  • Sensors – Detect the slope and tilt of the RV. Work with the control panel to level everything.

The biggest differences come down to how the jacks are raised and lowered. Let’s look at both approaches.

Hydraulic Jacks

Hydraulic systems use fluid power to operate the jacks. Here’s an overview:

  • A pump pressurizes hydraulic fluid and delivers it via hoses to each jack.
  • The jacks contain hydraulic cylinders that use this pressurized fluid to extend telescoping segments and raise the jacks.
  • When it’s time to lower the jacks, valves release the pressure in the cylinders. The jacks then retract under the weight of the RV.
  • A reservoir holds the fluid and the pump circulates it in a closed loop.

Some key benefits of hydraulic systems:

  • Power – Hydraulics enable tremendous lifting capacity. They can handle very heavy RVs with ease.
  • Manual operation – Hydraulic jacks can be extended/retracted manually as a backup if power is lost.
  • Reliability – With routine fluid changes, hydraulic systems can last decades.
  • Familiar technology – Hydraulics have been used for RV leveling since the beginning. Their operation is well proven.

Downsides to consider:

  • Maintenance – Hydraulic fluid needs changed periodically. Hoses and seals deteriorate over time.
  • Noise – Hydraulic systems use loud pumps and make whirring noises when operating.
  • Weight – Heavy steel cylinders and a fluid reservoir add considerable weight.
  • Leveling precision – Getting perfectly level is trickier with hydraulic systems.

So in summary, hydraulic systems are a mature, powerhouse technology able to lift the largest RVs reliably for many years. But they require maintenance, run noisy, and precision leveling takes some practice.

Electric Jacks

Electric leveling systems take a different approach. Here’s how they work:

  • Electric motors drive each jack up and down through gear reduction. They run off the RV batteries.
  • The motors connect to jackscrews that telescope the jack segments when turning.
  • Automatic leveling uses sensors and software to precisely control each jack’s position.

Benefits of electric systems:

  • Quiet operation – No noisy pumps or hydraulics. Just slight motor noises.
  • Lighter weight – No heavy cylinders or fluid reservoirs needed.
  • Precise leveling – Automated sensors nail perfect leveling every time.
  • Lower maintenance – No fluids to change or hoses to maintain.
  • Automation – With the press of a button, automatic systems level your RV in about a minute!
  • Advanced features – Some systems auto-chock tires, stabilize for wind, and have smartphone integration.

Tradeoffs with electric:

  • Power limitations – Electric motors can’t lift extremely heavy RVs like hydraulics can. Know your RV’s weight.
  • Electricity dependent – Without battery power, electric jacks can’t be operated manually.
  • Newer technology – Electrics don’t have hydraulics’ 60+ year track record, although reliability has improved.
  • Repair challenges – Sophisticated sensors and electronics make some electric systems harder to repair yourself.

So electric systems trade raw lifting muscle for quieter, automated operation. They’re super convenient but best suited for lighter RVs. For maximum lifting capacity, hydraulics still rule.

Making the Choice

By this point, you hopefully have a solid understanding of how hydraulic and electric systems differ. But how do you make the right choice for your needs? Here are a few key factors to consider:

RV Weight

  • For RVs over about 15,000 lb loaded weight, hydraulic systems are the only way to go. Their hydraulic cylinders can lift tremendous loads electric motors can’t.
  • For lighter travel trailers under 7,000 lb, electric works beautifully. Precise leveling makes setup a breeze.
  • In the 7,000 – 15,000 lb range, you can make arguments for both. Asses your lifting needs and preference for automation vs power.


  • Hydraulic systems start under $1,000 for manual 4-point systems. Automatic 6-point systems run $2,000 – $4,000.
  • Electric systems range from $1,500 – $3,500, with higher end systems having more jacks and advanced features.
  • Consider maintenance costs too. Electrics need little routine care while hydraulics require fluid changes every few years.

Boondocking Frequency

  • Hydraulic systems work fine off-grid since they’re manually operable if power dies.
  • Electric systems only work on battery power. If you’ll be off-grid a lot, the batteries may drain before leveling finishes.

Need for Automation

  • For maximum simplicity, electric systems level at the push of a button. Retire those bubble levels!
  • With hydraulics, manual leveling is the standard, though automatic systems exist. It’s a bit more hands-on.

Desire for Upgrades

  • With hydraulics, what you buy is what you get. There’s not much upgrading down the road.
  • Electric systems can be expanded by adding jacks, control panels, and sensors. Buy a base system now and upgrade later.

Fifth Wheel vs Travel Trailer

  • Fifth wheels benefit from hydraulic power when lifted/dropped from the truck bed. They also have more weight concentrated in the rear.
  • Travel trailers are lighter overall and have a more central floorplan. Electric systems shine for their quiet operation and precision leveling.

Existing Equipment

  • If upgrading an RV with existing hydraulic jacks, sticking with hydraulics may save installation costs. The jacks still have plenty of usefulness left.
  • For RVs with manual crank jacks, switching to either hydraulics or electrics will be a big upgrade. It’s a perfect time to go electric for automated convenience.

Final Recommendations

I know, I know…I gave you a ton of factors to consider! Here are my quick picks for common scenarios:

  • Heavy fifth wheel? Go hydraulic for the raw lifting power. Get an automatic system for easier use.
  • Light-weight travel trailer? Electric all the way. Enjoy silent setup and perfect levels.
  • Boondocking a lot? Hydraulics don’t need battery power and can manually level.
  • Love gadgets and automation? Choose a premium electric system with all the bells and whistles.
  • On a tight budget? Look at entry-level hydraulic systems under $1,500. Basic but capable.
  • Want whole-system convenience? Higher-end electric systems integrate lighting, awnings, and slide-outs into one control panel.

No matter which system you choose, enjoy your adventures on the open road! Let me know if you have any other questions. Happy travels!

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