Jan 302009

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.

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Nick Russell

World-Famous, New York Times Best Selling Author, and All-Around Nice Guy!

  5 Responses to “Is Solar A Good Investment For RVers?”

  1. We strongly agree regarding the marginal value of solar, particularly for those of us who spend summers in new England.

    We bought a 40 amp 4 stage battery charger and a 2kw Honda portable generator to supplement our built in generator for extended dry camping. Works great!

  2. Hi Nick,
    Just a note to say that we sure enjoy your journal. You do a great job and we appreciate the info you offer, as well as the humor and the common sense you impart with the info.
    We have quoted you in one of our own journal entries.
    Thanks so much for doing such a fine job of writing.
    Ed & Marilyn

  3. I can not totally agree with you Nick. Now, if one must pay for the installation and buys all new equipment, at retail prices, maybe. Depends on whether or not the installer did the job right or not. I am a power hog like you, but not to your degree. We don’t use much power during the day as we are outside unless it is raining. Come dark though we come in and turn on the tv, or two, and the laptops. We run the batteries down to about 80 % every night, sometimes more or less. I have 300 watts of solar on the roof and a Xantrex 60 controller with a Trimetric 2020 shunt fed meter. Total price, 1300 dollars with some panels purchased used. I did the installation myself, with #6 welding cable. We don’t tilt either. During summer months our 4 6 volt batteries charge up full in 4 hours. During the winter it takes all day, on a good day. We carry a 1000 Kipor generator to use when we need as it is much cheaper to operate than the Onan 6000. We love our solar and live for a month at a time with no generator at all. This winter in Quartzsite we did occassionally use the Kipor. I think if we do this next winter I can stay charged by tilting the largest panel only.
    You have way too much invested for what can be expected. Do yall use led lights? We are totally on led lights when dry camping and that makes a big difference in the amount of power we use. The newer led lights are worth installing if you dry camp a lot.
    Just my experience and we do live the same way off grid as we do while on the grid except for the lights.
    Thanks for the daily writings. I look forward to reading your blog every evening.

  4. I’m surfing a lot of rv blogs often and I haven’t come across anyone with an Air-X or similar setup to capture wind. To me it seems like an easy setup to add if parked for any length of time anyway, just need to setup on a pole. It would never be high enough to be optimal but at least on cloudy days it’d give plenty of opportunity to recharge. I’ve got one myself for a camp I was going to buy,but didn’t;have never used it yet. they say the air-x is quieter than once was. Maybe its not quiet enough though.

    Just wondering why no one uses one rvíng. Can’t be the setup time as a dustyfoot would take longer and plenty of them used.

  5. You make it sound cheaper to run a generator, even if you buy a new honda every year or two then to put solar on the roof….. Hummmm, make one think don’t it?

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