Welcome to the (in)sanity!
I am of the Magic Smoke school of car-users . . .(If the magic smoke escapes, it doesn't work anymore ;P. . . . )
Electronics also works on "Magic Smoke" also. There was even an [April fool] article in a radio magazine about drilling holes in smoke-depleted IC chips and adding a nylon screw for access to refill them. Cigar smoke was recommended . . . .
some way to build in the dogs' crates for safety while we're moving,
If it's just you and the dogs, I would suggest the cages be up where they can see out the windows. Our dog often lays down when moving, but also likes to sit up and watch the scenery go by - maybe put your cages on top of a cabinet right behind the stairs, with rear access from a couch against the wall behind the cages? That way, they might feel closer to you when you drive.
I know I'm going to need serious help with the electrical end of things. :P I'm a computer geek, and I know I *should* be able to understand this stuff, but right now, it's still not making any sense.
Look through the tutorials on this site and look at the links, especially articles by Mark Nemeth and phred. Look at the projects others have done. Ask questions about what you have read. If you deal with computer cabling and not just code, you should be able to build on that knowledge base. A few basics:
- Watts are equal to Amps times Volts.
- 120 volts is 10 times 12 volts, so the same wattage load would need 10 times the amps at 12 volts, and require heavier and shorter wires.
- Watt-hours are watts drawn for 60 minutes. Reduce this for things turned on and off. If something is on only 15 minutes per hour, divide the watts used by 4 to get the watt-hours used.
- Deep-cycle batteries are rated in amp-hours. Multiply amp-hours by the volts to find the watt-hour capacity.
- Battery amp-hours are usually measured at a 20-hour rate. That means a 100 Ah battery can be expected to provide 5 amps for 20 hours. Drawing more amps reduces the amount of time that it can be drawn. Don't expect to draw 100 amps for 60 minutes from a 100 Ah battery.
- The amp-hour rating is to 100% discharge. Full discharge will reduce the number of times a battery can be refilled to capacity. Most users have their own comfort level for discharges, usually 50%. That means using the 5-amp load for 10 hours before recharging instead of 20.
- 120-volt AC wiring has 3 wires - hot, neutral, and safety ground. The neutral is white, and goes to the silver-colored screw on the longer outlet slot. The hot is usually black, sometimes red or blue, and goes to the brass-colored (I remember it as 'gold') screw on the shorter slot. The safety ground is green or bare, and connects to the 'U'-shaped opening connected to the green screw.
- With a decent battery bank, you can run an efficient 120-volt refrigerator from an inverter. The best way to charge your laptop may be a 12-volt power supply, instead of a [edit: 120]-volt supply and an inverter. Your lights can be 120 volts or 12 volts.
- You will probably need a generator or shoreline for the toaster, and definitely for air conditioning. I would not leave dogs unattended with the air condtioning running on a generator, only on a shoreline. A police officer in the next county lost his K-9 when the idling engine running the A/C quit in summer while he was in a building for an extended time.
You have plenty of time, so do what Smitty did and read, read, read and then plan, plan, plan.