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My RV Solar Power

Our Roadtrek™ 200 Popular is the perfect size RV for the two of us. But we were novice RV owners and had to learn some lessons the hard way. The first six years we traveled like many other RVers, forced to hop from one campground to the next and one electric plug to the next. Our attempts at dry camping and living off our house battery were not very successful. We ended up hurting the house battery in ways that, until recently, we didn't fully understand.

Thinking About Solar

We started thinking about solar after attending a western RV workshop where, thanks to Phil-the-solar-guy, we saw solar panels on a Roadtrek for the first time. Being the analytical type I tried to determine how long it would take to break even considering how many nights we could spend without paying for a campground with a hookup. I decided that if it cost less than $1500 it would probably be worth doing, but I still wasn't convinced.

On our trip to Yellowstone and points Northwest we burned out our second house battery. The first time we burned out our house battery it was our fault because we didn't fully understand what it meant to run a lead-acid gel battery down to zero. The second time it wasn't directly our fault. A folding chair bumped one of the lights in our storage area under the rear of the coach and turned the light on despite our best effort to duct tape the switch closed. (Lesson: duct tape is not a long term solution. Remove the bulb!)

The sealed gel-type battery was so damaged by the constant load and frequent deep discharge that the sides were swelling out. If you don't understand the danger in this picture, think of our battery filling up like a balloon with hydrogen and oxygen (both very flammable gases) under pressure. What do you think would have happened when it finally popped? All I can say is be nice to your battery and you may never need to answer that question.

Getting Solar

solar power on van roof

Now that we were forced to get a new house battery anyway, I decided it was time to add solar to our rig. I was still thinking we could do it for about $1,500.00 so we headed off to AM Solar in Eugene, Oregon. Dave, the head AM Solar installation guy, designed the whole system to fit. Even though our needs for power were small enough that we probably could have used just one panel we decided on two AM-100 panels so we could get plenty of energy to keep going even on very cloudy days or when parked under trees. We prefer sites with shade whenever possible. We ended up with two AM-100 Solar Panels, two 6 volt 220Ah AGM batteries (moved to the storage area in the rear of the coach just above the fresh water input), an HPV22 Charge Controller and one XBM Xantrax Battery Monitor. The XBM monitor was an extra item I hadn't counted on but as soon as they brought out the instruction manual and I saw the gleam in Casey's eye I knew we were getting that too. I'm really glad I did, it lets us see in real time what is happening to our house batteries including the temperature which is important so charging is done slower when the batteries are hot. I love looking at it after a whole day and night of sitting in one place doing everything we need to do on battery power and knowing that we still have about 90% of our capacity still available.

Our Needs

Our energy needs are quite simple. We run the water pump, a laptop computer, charge the consumer electronics batteries (phone, cameras, walkie-talkies, etc.), use a few lights in the evenings and the Fantastic Fan™ when it gets warm. Occasionally we might turn on the LCD TV to catch a local program if we are within reception range. Because of these simple needs we haven't installed a large whole-house inverter, we just use a 300 watt inverter that plugs into the 12 volt outlet in the TV cabinet. We found the inverter at Radio Shack. It works just fine.

We now camp for any number of days without having to run the car engine or generator. I don't worry about having to trade gas for electricity just to charge up our batteries and we no longer add to the air and noise pollution for our neighbors.

I ended up spending eight hours of waiting for the installation and almost $3000 when it was all over. You should note that adding solar to big rigs is easier and sometimes faster because there is often lots of room for installers to move around without bumping into each other. Our small Roadtrek required a little more coordination and dancing between the installers, thus more hours of labor.

Solar Realized

Now that we have used solar power for a while on trips all over this country, I realize that the cost savings isn't the most important part. The freedom solar power gives us is way beyond the price. We can spend a whole day parked in a very scenic spot where I can hike, stare out the window, fix breakfast, lunch and dinner and Casey can spend the whole day on the computer without using up any battery power in the house batteries.

This is my new found freedom and it is price-less!

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