I’ve talked about solar power before in the blog, so I apologize to those who have already read this information. But this time of year it is a subject that comes up in my e-mail often as RVers spend time boondocking in the Southwest. So here we go again – is a solar system a good investment for RVers?
In my opinion, solar is only a very expensive supplement to a generator. And if you are not going to do extensive boondocking, it is a waste of money. Even if you do a lot of boondocking, solar is still only a marginal investment.
When we designed our bus conversion, we built it for extended dry camping. We do a lot of boondocking compared to many RVers. Everything from overnighting in a WallyWorld parking lot or rest area, to weeks, even months, spent living off the grid. Our longest straight boondocking stint was over seven months, and we have done another five month stay without being hooked up anywhere, as well as many of two to three weeks at a time.
We know hardcore boondockers who go to bed as soon as it gets dark and wake up when the sun rises, to take advantage of every moment they can without having to use their lights, so they can extend their time between battery charging. Some actually live like that fulltime and never use a generator. To each his own, but it’s not for us. We want to enjoy our time boondocking, not change our lifestyle to squeak five more amp hours out of our battery bank before we need to recharge.
We use a lot of power. We live the same way dry camping as we do plugged into a campground’s umbilical cord. Terry makes coffee in the morning, our internet system is up and running, I work for hours on my desktop computer, and we watch television for two or three hours in the evening.
Before we had solar, we ran our generator three to four hours a day. When we added three 100 watt AM Solar panels, we dropped to about 1½ hours a day, cutting our generator time in half. Since then we added two more 120 watt panels. Now we run our generator less than an hour a day. This is based on days with maximum sunshine. A cloudy day may give us very little solar input, requiring more generator use. And yes, we do get cloudy days in the desert.
During peak times, with a clear blue sky and with the sun directly overhead, we have seen over 30 amps going into our battery bank. But that does not happen 24 hours a day. It doesn’t even happen eight hours a day.
Obviously our solar panels don’t do anything overnight. But as the sun rises and begins to hit the panels at an angle, our meters will show a fraction of an amp coming in. As the sun rises higher and more sunlight hints the surface of the panels, it will rise to an amp or two. This increases over a period of a few hours until we reach maximum input. Then, as the sun begins to sink lower in the sky, the amps we are taking in start to drop off, until the sun is low on the horizon and we are down to almost no input.
Our panels are mounted flat on our roof. We could get a few more amps out of our panels if we had them on mounts that we could raise, but to be honest, I’m too lazy to mess with crawling up on the roof to elevate the panels, and I’m too cheap to buy an automatic system to raise them.
We have five solar panels, two state of the art solar charge controllers, a top of the line Magnum Energy inverter, and three of the biggest absorbed glass matt (AGM) batteries they make for RV use. In total we have between $8,000 and $10,000 worth of solar setup, inverter, and batteries, not counting installation. Even when gas was over $3 a gallon, we could buy a lifetime of generator fuel for that much money, and still have the bucks left over to replace our generator if it ever wore out.
So if you want solar and can afford it as a supplement, go for it. But just understand that solar power is not “free.” In fact, it can be darned expensive!
Thought For The Day – Whenever you see a successful business, it is because someone once made a courageous decision.