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Loving RV Solar

Loving RV Solar

 

Maybe you've seen solar panels at nearby campsites from time to time and it sparked your curiosity? Or you're newer to RVing and you've heard about solar power for RVs, but wonder why? We love solar power with our RV (what I call “RV solar”) and I'm going to share more about why--but first, a little background . . .

Loving off-grid camping. I'm writing this post today reclined on my 15-year-old green canvas Coleman camp chair. I sit in the dappled shade of a stand of Aspens overlooking a broad sun-filled, green meadow that is surrounded by large rising pine-topped hills. We would definitely call them mountains in Minnesota. Here in Western Colorado, I'm not so sure. But at near 10,000 feet maybe so. My feet are propped up on my wife's matching Coleman camp chair. I think she's ok with me using both chairs, since she's happily rocking in our red hammock near by.

Our 180 degree view of this meadow includes no other people. No, wait. I see a silver SUV a half-mile down valley at the National Forest welcome map. Must be planning their day. I think about the countless camping weekends we've spent in state park campgrounds or private campgrounds, with our

RV travel trailer carefully parked on the designated pad of our reserved campsite 50 feet from neighboring RVs on either side of us. Many, many great memories at those campsites. And often we had more privacy than that. But compared to this spot, today? Fuhgedabowdit!

You see we are camping off-grid today, for free, in the White River National Forest. Something that is becoming a habit for us, since moving to Colorado last year. As much as I loved paying $20+ per nite for a Minnesota State Park campsite after a $9 reservation fee 2 months in advance, it's hard to beat free, off-grid sites like this!

You no doubt can see where this is going. Off-grid RV camping can be simply fantastic. But to enjoy this type of camping, you need a place to go, the will to go, and the equipment to make it possible.

But I don't live in the mountains. You may be thinking, “But I don't live by a National Forest in the heart of the Rockies, so what good is off-grid camping for me?” Good question. For one thing, off-grid camping can include simply choosing a beautiful, more private (and cheaper) campsite without hookups. Being prepared to camp off-grid opens up more potential campsites when you're making reservations.

Yet free (or low cost), off-grid camping opportunities may be closer than you think. We used to have tunnel vision when it came to camping opportunities. If it wasn't a state or federal park or private campground, we didn't consider it. We simply were oblivious to the fact that other state or federal forests also permit camping. Granted, rules vary across states and agencies. A state forest in Minnesota may only allow camping in designated sites versus the camp-where-you-want approach in White River National Forest. You'll want to check the rules, but either way, you'll likely lose the crowds, spend way less, and you'll need to be set for off-grid camping.

What you need. Now, truth be told, you don't absolutely have to have RV solar to camp for a weekend off-grid. What you absolutely have to have is a battery system that is healthy and sized to power the equipment or loads that you will use while unplugged. Like a generator, an RV solar system simply helps you recharge your battery system so you have the power you need. But unlike a generator, an RV solar system is clean, low maintenance and best of all, QUIET!

How big of a battery system do I need? This the most important question to ask when off-grid camping. There is a lot to this topic, so we'll just hit some high-level points now (more detail in later posts). The answer is the same as you'll hear from any good lawyer: IT DEPENDS!

But it really does. Some key questions to think about are: What loads do you want to power in your RV each day? How many days will you typically camp off-grid? What part of the country and time of year will you camp off-grid? Will you have a back-up generator as well? The point is that everyone has different circumstances and goals when camping off-grid. A 55 foot motor coach will often have different power requirements than a 10' pop-up. And someone boondocking for 2 weeks in the Utah desert will have different expectations than a weekend camper in the forests of Maine. This is why going into your RV dealer and buying one of those pre-packaged solar kits sitting on a shelf is not the best plan. One size does not fit all when it comes to battery systems and RV solar, and that's why you should talk to an expert for help in sizing your RV Solar system. Give us a call at SolarPanelStore.com and we'd be happy to help.

Do I need RV solar?  Now we finally come back to solar for RVs. You probably know that solar panels come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. How do you decide what size panels you need? Or how many? Or what type? Again, we help our customers through those choices everyday. But the key concept is that your daily electricity use and your battery system's capacity drives the size and components of your solar system. You'll want enough watts of solar panel to fill up your batteries in a day's charge.

Remember how I said that you may not need solar for weekend RV camping? It's true. If you've oversized your battery bank, you can often make it through a weekend. Often, but not always. You see, for many of us, our batteries are not in perfect health. Or maybe we only have a single 12 volt battery, because that's what the RV dealer sent home with us. Or we forgot to charge the batteries fully after the last camping trip. Or we didn't keep them on a trickle charger all winter. When batteries aren't maintained properly, or are undersized, their capacity decreases.

Also, its not uncommon for our electricity use to go up over time or in different seasons. If you run your propane furnace during an early fall night, you use more energy, which drain syour batteries more quickly (the furnace fan uses electricty). Or you add a TV/DVD player or a coffee pot to your rig. Those loads add up fast and soon you exceed your battery capacity.

Insurance policy. RV solar to the rescue! With solar on your rig, you fill those batteries during the day, so they are ready for your loads. For healthy batteries, solar keeps them topped off as they should be. For older or compromised batteries, the solar recharge gets you through the night.

Let me share one more example to illustrate RV solar's usefulness. It's the middle of the night in our travel trailer. Our family is awakened from deep sleep by a piercing alert going off. A fire? Nope. While at least one of our 3 young kids cries, I determine that our propane detector signals an alert when it senses a failing battery. Not fun. Episodes like that led me to search for a solution. For us, it was a folding portable 130 watt solar panel kit made by SolarLand.It has become our family's RV power insurance policy. Whether we're only off-grid for the weekend or a week. We always set it up, plug it in, and know we'll have the power we need each day.

RV Solar makes it possible. So why not just skip this hassle and always camp at sites with full electric hookups? That's an option. But in our state park days, we usually found the prettiest, most private, and enjoyable campsites were the ones without hookups. The tenters have the beauty and the big rigs have convenience. RV solar has helped us enjoy the best of both worlds at the campground. And now with the amazing, private and free spots we've only begun to find on BLM and National Forest lands, we're thankful that RV solar makes them possible. That's why we're loving RV solar!

Tom

  • Dan Baldwin
  • Tags: RV Solar
Can I DIY Solar?

Can I DIY Solar?

DIY solar?  Do-it-yourself?  Really?  Let's take a step back first.  You've heard about solar power. And that solar electric (PV) systems save you money.  Solar power is a renewable energy source. It's better for the environment. Good stuff. But expensive right?  First there's the equipment. Then design. Then you need someone to install it all? Whew!


Enter DIY Solar.   Can't you save money and install a solar electric system yourself? Yes you can! Is it for everyone? No it isn't. For example, don't we all know someone who changes their own brakes? Disks, rotors, pads, calipers. What did your last brake job cost you? $1000? Do you think your buddy saved some cash doing the brakes himself? You bet he did. Probably 50% less than an auto dealer break job. But not everyone knows enough, is bold enough, or mechanically-skilled enough to tackle that job. But many could.

The point is, for people with some DIY experience, some mechanical inclination, some drive to learn and courage to try, installing much of a solar electric system is quite do-able. In fact, we estimate more than half of our customers install the majority of their solar systems DIY. While it is pretty common for them to hire a licensed electrician to perform the final wiring connections of their system to the utility grid (and recommended and often required), they often tackle the rest themselves. And like the backyard mechanic  . . . they save a bundle!

System types.  

If you are reading this article, then you've probably learned that there are different types of solar electric (or solar photovoltaic—PV) systems out there. And some are easier to tackle DIY than others. Systems that are less complex and/or smaller are good PV systems to cut your teeth on. For example, many of our DIY house system customers got their feet wet in solar by putting a system in their RV. On the other hand, a basic residential grid-tie system, while not necessarily small, is quite straight forward compared to designing and installing a completely off-grid or hybrid grid-tie/battery-backup system.  Let's compare these different types of solar systems:

Grid-tied systems. With solar's popularity boom in recent years, grid-tied PV systems are the most popular systems,and the most straight forward to design and install. Since these systems simply make DC electricity from the sun and convert it to AC electricity to power your house (and sell excess energy back to the grid), batteries don't enter the picture. And that reduces complexity. No charge controllers, special inverter-chargers, additional shut-offs, sub-panels, etc. Instead, solar panels are simply wired to inverters which are wired to your house's electric panel and a new meter that measures what is sold back to the grid.

Off-grid system. Instead of connecting panels through a smart grid-tie inverter that routes inverted AC electricity where it needs to go (house vs grid), an off-grid system means batteries.  The battery bank is usually larger than you expect (although it does vary depending on the size of the load) and needs to be sized correctly to power the home or loads as desired, while maximizing the life of those expensive batteries. But the DC electricity from the panels needs to first charge those batteries via a DC solar charge controller. DC electricity from the panels (if batteries are full) or from the batteries (if sun isn't shining) then flows though the inverter/charger to feed AC electricity to the house's AC loads. When the sun doesn't shine for 2-3 days, the inverter/charger fires up an attached generator to charge the batteries up. More components, more going on, more to learn.

Hybrid System. In our opinion, this is the toughest, most complex and most expensive system to build. Well, short of an AC-coupled system anyway (beyond the scope of this article!). In this hybrid model, components and considerations of a grid-tied system blend with those of a battery-based system.  Hybrid systems have traditionally been used to add battery-back up to power certain critical loads when the grid goes down.  Instead of using a generator, a battery bank is kept charged and ready by the grid, but then get's refilled by the solar array once the grid fails.  Hybrid systems are increasingly used in situations where the excess power cannot be sold back to the grid (Hawaii) or net metering is prohibited or inhibited by the utility.  In those cases, battery storage is added to a system to power loads at night and essentially only use grid power for backup.  In any event, with the combination of grid and battery components, system-design gets pretty complex and tougher to tackle DIY.

Next steps to DIY Solar.  

Now that you understand the types of systems and some of the complexities involved, let's look at next steps in your DIY Solar journey:

Know your goal.  This is basically the step we covered above.  Understand what you want your system to do.  Do you want to cut your utility bill by 100%? 50%? Look at the last 12 months of utility bills to get a feel for how much energy you want the system to produce.  Are you just looking to power a small system like a remote water pump? Or power a gate?  Knowing your goal is the first step.

Get educated.  Learn, learn, learn!  Subscribe to Home Power Magazine's digital archive service for great articles to help you DIY Solar.  You can find them at www.homepower.com.  Keep checking back here on our site (www.solarpanelstore.com) and our sister site (www.cosolar.com) for a current and growing list of articles and blog posts on all kind of solar topics.   A good forum to read or post questions  on is www.solarpaneltalk.com. Getting informed will help you plan the system for you  and learn what questions to ask when you call an expert

Seek Expertise. You will need help designing your system! There are lots of considerations and nuances for your location and goals. As part of the buying process, at SolarPanelStore.com we regularly help our customers think through the options and help design the right system. Because we don't install systems, we do recommend hiring a local, licensed electrician or solar installer that can help you with final wiring connections or other parts of the project as needed.  Know your limitations and find those folks up front

Permitting/Requirements. Every state and utility (and HOA) is different, so start early to understand what requirements your local utility and AHG (authority having jurisdiction)  have for your system. For example the utility may limit the size of your PV system to a percentage of your historical use.

Incentives. While there are common national programs like the Federal Tax Credit (FTC) and USDA's REAP (Rural Energy for America Program) program, each state and utility have different programs as well. Go to www.dsireusa.org to research what's available to you.

Buying equipment. Buy good equipment from someone who knows what they're doing. We expect reliable, consistent electricity service from the utility, and you'll want the same for your system. We get calls from people buying cheap on Amazon or Home Depot, but then need help but things don't work and they can't get help from those sellers. Since 2002, we at SolarPanelStore.com have worked with our customers all the way through their projects, from concept to maintenance, answering questions, providing advice, pointing to resources and working with manufacturers. And we work hard to be competitive with the bigger guys that don't call you back. You get what you pay for.

Tools. You'll need typical tools used in any home remodeling project, plus some electrical and wiring tools as well. Like an MC4 connection tool, or a Digital Multi Meter to test for voltage and polarity. Again we at SolarPanelStore.com can guide you.

Safety. Obviously solar electric systems involve electricity, which if not handled correctly can cause serious injury or even death. Solar PV systems can involve dangerously high DC current, so taking safety seriously is very important. And lifting large solar panels and mounting them atop poles or roofs involves ladders and risk of falls.  So get familiar with good safety practices described in articles at Home Power.

By no means is DIY Solar a piece of cake.  But with some skill, courage, willingness to learn, and keeping these points in mind, you're well on your way to going solar!

Solar Made Simple

Solar Made Simple

Really? Solar made simple? OK, we admit, solar power can get pretty complex depending on what your goal is. But in this post, we try to simplify the initial important concepts that will help you get up to speed and make better informed decisions on going solar.  So where to begin?  First off, it helps to define the scope of what we mean by “Solar”. For purposes of this article (and really for purposes of the website and business of SolarPanelStore.com), by “solar” we mean electricity produced from solar energy by way of the photovoltaic effect (or "PV").

We'll dig deeper into PV in a later post, but to keep things simple we often just describe our focus as solar electric products or systems. By focusing on PV, we exclude other types of solar energy applications like solar thermal (using the sun to heat water or other fluids circulating in pipes), concentrated solar (utility scale reflecting of sunlight to concentrate heat), wind power (which is really derived from the sun heating the Earth's atmosphere, which causes wind), etc.

This diagram boils solar electricity down to its core. Of course the devil is in the details for any particular use, but it really helps to understand these principles because they underly all solar projects.

The Sun

This is solar made simple after all, but isn't starting with the sun a little too basic? Well maybe. But seeing solar panels mounted on a north-facing roof tends to change one's mind. There is a lot more to this topic, but to keep it simple, we need sun to make solar electricity. And we'll need collectors, which we'll cover in a minute. But first, the more direct sun on those collectors, the better.

  • Sunny days. The more sunny days the better. Cloudy, rainy climates mean less sun to make energy.
  • Longer days. The longer the sun is up, the more energy can be made. So places closer to the equator with longer days mean more solar energy. Same thing with summer days vs. winter days.
  • Direction. Collectors need to face the sun. In the northern hemisphere, that mean pointing south. As close to south as possible. The more those collectors point other directions (southwest, west, etc) the less direct sun they receive, and the less energy they produce.
  • Shade. Like clouds, shade is bad for solar energy production. Depending on the equipment chosen, a very small amount of shade may really reduce the amount of energy produced (like a chimney or a branch above a roof). But some equipment can really minimize these losses.
  • Angle. The optimum angle for maximum energy production varies by latitude and season. It's more complicated than this, but think flat at the equator and steeper as you go north.

Sun and the Panel

The next step in the solar PV chain is to collect the sun's energy keeping the above points in mind. How do we do this? Solar panels of course! “Solar module” is the more correct term, but most people still call them solar panels. A solar panel is really a grouping of solar cells. Those cells are what make up the grid-like pattern you see on a solar panel. You may read or hear about 36, 60 or 72-cell solar panels. Usually, the more cells means a larger panel which produces more energy.

The PV effect creates electricity in each solar cell when the sun's rays contact the silicon in the cell. The electrical current flows through ribbon-like wires that connect the cells within the panel. Those wires exit the solar panel through wire “leads” connected to terminal inside a junction box on the rear of the panel.

There are different types of solar panels. Most commonly used for a multitude of applications are the rigid style made up of silicon solar cells covered by tempered glass with an aluminum frame and an insulating back sheet. There are also “thin-film” style panels that are semi-flexible, plastic-like material that may be glued to a roof or embedded in a device. The composition of the solar cells may also vary and will certainly continue to evolve, but the standard today is silicone-based material.

DC Electricity

So thanks to the miraculous photovoltaic effect, electricity is birthed of sunlight and silicone.  Solar made simple.  Got it. So you can just plug a TV into the solar panel's outlet and you're good to go right? Not quite. First, the solar panels aren't usually next to a TV (or other appliances) since the best direct sun is often on top of a house or mounted on a pole or rack away from the house. So the electricity generated from that panel needs to be routed to where it can be used. That happens through conductors or “wire” that connects to the leads of each solar panel. Often there is more than one panel involved, which we call an “array” that need to be wired into groups called “strings” in order to match the voltage and current from the array with the right equipment downstream.

But not just any old wire will do. It has to be rated to carry DC current at certain levels at certain temperatures in certain environments (hot roofs vs underground). So what is DC current or electricity? DC is “direct current” electricity. It's direct because electrons flow in only one direction. It's also the form that batteries store. But it doesn't travel long distances well. On the other hand, AC current (“alternating current”) is a form of electricity where the electrons alternate directions and travels over long distances without the losses of DC current. Accordingly, utilities specialize in producing and supplying AC electricity to homes and businesses to power almost everything.

Storage or Work

Once produced and moved from the solar panel, DC electricity must either be stored or put to work. The options really boil down to these:

  • Option 1: DC electricity directly connected to power a DC appliance (or “load”)
  • Option 2: DC electricity stored in a battery to power a DC appliance later
  • Option 3: DC electricity “inverted” or transformed into AC electricity to power AC loads
  • Option 4: DC electricity inverted into AC electricity and “sold” back to the utility grid
  • Option 5: DC electricity stored in a battery, then later inverted into AC electricity to power AC loads

Option 1 is the most simple, but of limited utility. “PV Direct” systems only supply power while the sun shines. And the loads must be able to handle variable power depending on the strength of the sunlight and shade. Well water pumps and attic fans are typical examples.

Option 2 is the typical system for RVs, boats, and other remote “off-grid” power needs (lighting, remote pumps, instruments, telecom, sensors, etc).

Option 3 & 4 happens in a typical “grid-tied” residential system. The house uses solar energy to power AC loads while the sun shines or sells it back to the grid if not needed.

Option 5 is the most complex scenario and is the system used for off-grid homes, or grid-tied homes with battery back-up systems (a/k/a hybrid systems).

Knowledge is Power

While the sun is certainly power, so is knowledge! Knowing the basics of solar electric systems, you can make better-informed plans and decisions about how to employ solar systems for your project. You can have more efficient phone discussions with us about what are looking to do. You can better evaluate a contractor's proposal. And frankly, you stand a better chance of being happy with the end result.

Why Solar?

Why Solar?

Curious about solar power, solar panels and what a solar system could do for you?  This is a great place to start!