Solar Rover, Part 1: Why Go Solar?

After thinking about it for over a year, we’ve finally decided to add solar panels to Rover’s roof. This was a big project for us, including months of planning and a month of on-and-off work on the installation. Because there’s so much to say (and show), I’m dividing the information into two blog posts. Part 1 (this article) discusses what we’re doing and why, while Part 2 showcases the actual installation of the panels and integration into Rover’s electrical system.

Why Go Solar?

If you’ve been following Life Rebooted on Facebook you’ve probably seen many photos of our installation progress recently, but without much insight into what we hope to gain from this upgrade. Here’s a few of our primary reasons:

1. We want to be able to stay in campgrounds that don’t offer hookups. When we visited Big Bend National Park in southern Texas last year we camped at the Rio Grande Village Campground inside the national park. It’s a paid campground but has no electric, water or sewer. We really enjoyed our stay, but had to run Rover’s generator for 2-3 hours each morning and evening to keep our house batteries charged up. While this is perfectly allowable (our section of the campground allowed generator usage from 8am-8pm), it seems a shame to ruin the peace and quiet of such a beautiful place with the noise from a generator. There are many beautiful and amazing places we’ve been hesitant to visit due to the lack of electrical hookups. Hopefully that will become a thing of the past!

Rover at Big Bend National Park

Rover at Big Bend National Park

2. We want to do more boondocking. Boondocking generally refers to camping in remote locations outside developed campgrounds. This usually means finding a place on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land or in national forests, and setting up camp for a while. Since there’s no campground, there are no utilities. While we’ve gotten pretty good at camping without water and sewer hook-ups, electricity is a necessity for our refrigerator. Our stay in the Arizona desert near Quartzsite last winter was our first time boondocking, even though it was with tens of thousands of other RVs (usually boondocking is a bit less crowded). Like in Big Bend, we had to run our generator for a few hours each morning and evening.

Boondocking in Quartzsite AZ

Boondocking in Quartzsite AZ

For a while we went back and forth thinking “we don’t need solar since we don’t do much boondocking”, followed by “we don’t do much boondocking because we don’t have solar.” We’ve decided to end that chicken-and-egg problem once and for all!

3. We want more flexibility in our travel plans. Several times since we started RVing we nearly got stuck without a campground during holiday weekends. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day are all big camping weekends throughout much of the country. Even though we usually plan and reserve campgrounds a few weeks in advance, we found ourselves getting told “sorry, we’re sold out” over and over when trying to book during these holidays. This past Labor Day weekend we made it to the 13th campground on our list before we found someplace with availability, and the campground was well off our planned route. Even if we can find an RV park, they often charge higher rates on holiday weekends. With solar, we hope to shrug off these situations and just find someplace out of the way to park for a few days.

What’s NOT on our list is “to save money”. Some RVers spend half, most, or even all of their time boondocking. Some serious money can be saved by not staying in RV parks and campgrounds, but that’s not one of our driving factors. I’ll be shocked if we boondock 10% of our nights in 2016. If we did though, the savings would pay for more than half our solar install.

Take a look at some of the amazing photos on Love Your RV’s Most Scenic Camping Spots of 2014 or Wheeling It’s years of boondocking site reviews to see why we want to do more boondocking and national park camping!

Just A Piece Of The Puzzle

One of the most frequent questions we’ve been asked is “can the solar panels power your whole RV?” The answer is a resounding “no”, but with careful use of electricity we should be able to power most of what we need. It’s important to realize that when we’re “off the grid” we’re actually powering everything from our house batteries, and the solar panels are used to recharge the batteries. Since we only get five or so hours of good “solar power” sunlight per day in the winter, the solar panels need to put enough energy back into the batteries to get us through the other 19 hours of evening, night, and morning.

Rover's four 6V batteries located under the entry stairs

Rover’s four 6V batteries located under the entry stairs

Although some RVers with huge solar arrays and massive battery banks have had success running their air conditioners, that’s not on our roadmap. If it gets so hot that we need air conditioning, we’ll need to start up the generator (which will then also help recharge the batteries) or move to a campground with electric hook-ups.

The other “gotcha” for us is our awesome “residential refrigerator” that’s just like the fridge in any house. Many RVs have special ammonia absorption refrigerators that can run on propane, using no electricity, allowing almost unlimited boondocking. For a variety of reasons we opted for the residential fridge and haven’t regretted it one bit. However, that means even if we turn off everything else in the RV, we need to keep the fridge running 24/7, which consumes a fair bit of energy from our batteries. Note: some boondockers turn off their residential fridge overnight to save power, and report that the inside of the fridge only drops a couple degrees. We may have to try this with a thermometer.

Big fridge = energy drain

Big fridge = energy drain (brochure photo; our kitchen isn’t quite so tidy!)

After looking at our electrical consumption (mainly driven by the refrigerator) and Rover’s gross vehicle weight rating (the panels and wires aren’t exactly light-weight and Rover was already close to his weight limit) we decided we would add 600 watts of panels. With careful use of electricity on our part, they should give us enough power to mostly recharge our batteries each day. If we hit cloudy days or we boondock more than a few days in a row we may need to run our generator for an hour or two to add a lot of energy back to the batteries and then let the solar top them off during the day.

Choosing Equipment

There was a lot to learn about solar and RV electrical before we were comfortable enough to move forward. As in many fields, there are many options and opinions, including some seemingly conflicting information. Panels come in different voltages, can be wired together in different ways (parallel or series), and there are different types of solar controllers, battery monitors, and other related equipment.

Once we decided that we wanted to tackle the solar installation ourselves, we settled on a 600 watt kit from AMSolar in Oregon. AMSolar has an excellent reputation in the RV world, and they’ve been personally recommended by several people. While an all-in-one kit is more expensive than buying all the components individually and assembling them ourselves, as complete amateurs it helped build our confidence that we could do this ourselves and AMSolar’s great how-to videos show step-by-step how to install the equipment. With the federal 30% tax credit for solar installs (including RV solar) we felt the net cost was very reasonable.

The system core part of AMSolar's kit

The system core part of AMSolar’s kit

Since we were planning to be in one campground in Northern Virginia for all of November, it was a perfect time to work on the install at a nice slow pace, learning as we went. Even better, local friends were able to loan us some of the tools we needed to do the install.

It’s time to open the boxes and get started. Stay tuned for the next blog post detailing the actual installation!

Time to get started!

Time to get started!

Michael Fischer

After a high-tech career spanning software development and systems administration to leading hundreds of engineers across cities and continents, I’m now slowing things down a bit. Traveling full-time in an RV with my awesome wife Kathie and our two big dogs Max and Opie, I’m now pursuing smaller personal software projects while seeing North America up close.

7 Comments

  1. Jerry Plante   •  

    Good post Mike. Looking forward to the details.

    I doubt that I’d be doing this on the old Sahara. Jeanne’s idea of boondocking is no cable.

    • Mike   •     Author

      LOL! For me, no cellular/internet is my breaking point…

  2. Rod Reichardt   •  

    Just catching up on your solar install. We typically turn off our fridge in our 36LA when going to bed at night when boondocking and have never had any issues. I checked the temp the first time. I don’t remember the drop but it wasn’t much at all. I remember being surprised.

    • Mike   •     Author

      Rod, that’s great to hear! We’ll give that a try in Quartzsite in the coming weeks. We did an overnight test with everything turned off except the fridge and we used a lot more amp hours than I expected (100 AH over 12 hours). That was in Florida where it was 70 degrees at night, so I’m also expecting the fridge to run less often in Quartzsite where it’s 40 at night.

    • Ed Bickford   •  

      Could you instead raise the temperature setting a few degrees so it wouldn’t run unless the temperature got to the point where you would want it back on?

      • Mike   •     Author

        We could, but I’d have to open the fridge to change the settings, and opening it will cause the temperature to increase as well. We have tried a few nights where we turn off the refrigerator and have seen a 2-3 degree increase inside overnight. Not bad…

  3. Pingback: Life Rebooted – Solar Rover, Part 3: Inverter Upgrade

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