One of the great joys of wild camping (or boondocking) in an RV is enjoying the natural beauty of the land without interrupting it. Just complete immersion with nature — the wind, stars, trees, birds, scorpions – you know, all the awesome things the world offers us.
Now, we’re not “tree-huggers” nor are we vegetarians. But we don’t blindly eat what corporations will shove down our over-processed gullets. We’re not cowboys nor are we Indians. We’re a little bit country AND a little bit rock ‘n roll. But we do enjoy getting away from the noise and into the open prairies and we enjoy the peace of the land and our neighbors — sometimes just the land. 🙂
But that can all come crashing down with the constant hum of a generator. Not only is there an increase expenses with fuel, but it’s a buzz-kill on the amazing views and experience.
CALL US CLUELESS
So we set out on our most recent journey with the idea of converting to solar at some point. The only thing holding us back was that we were complete idiots in that technology and hell, we still were sorting out our usage and the different circuits in our RV.
Before solar, we would use our inverter driving down the road, but leave it one when we pulled into wild camp (eating up precious energy) or even into a campground with hookup (just ignoring the inverter once we had 50amps).
We didn’t expect to do Quartzsite but when we did decide, we still didn’t know what to expect beyond thousands and thousands of wild campers (boondockers). And a funny thing happened, our parents invited us to join up with a small group they had met last year, their first experience. And sure enough, when we arrived they welcomed us with opened arms.
And they were super sweet and helpful as we voiced our concerns about running our generator and expressed our complete ignorance to our embarrassment. Instead of shunning us to generator hell, they jumped on our interest of learning, both about power consumption and about solar. Bevin (one of our new camping buddies and great guy) took me over to Discount Solar in Quartzsite and introduced me to the owner, Craig.
Read what we learned from everyone in our RV Power Tutorial.
THE RIGHT INFORMATION MATTERS
It was a crazy busy time for them. Like a certain retail store on Christmas Eve. And yet, they still made time for me, I made it clear I wasn’t just shopping and given the right information, I would pull the trigger. Which is funny because Craig is a gun’s right advocate with a sense of humor – signs in his store read “Due to the high cost of ammunition, there will be no warning shots.” And “Anybody shoplifting will receive a complimentary body piercing.” So their style is part aggressive and part humor but either way, you know Craig’s stance and that he says what he means.
So I collected information, thought about pulling the trigger, but decided to soak it up a bit more, research a few items and get Julie caught up with what I learned and hear more about her thoughts, concerns and questions. Craig, on the fly, took in my ideas, rough plan and shot out his ideas based on his experience and my interpretation of our needs.
After Julie and I discussed it and labored over our increasing frustration with hitting our generator so much in the desert heat, we drove in the next day and fired off a check. We gave serious consideration to having them install it for us — their online reviews are impeccable. It’s hard in today’s market to find businesses that are true professionals, but Craig and his crew at Discount Solar truly are pros. However, their schedule was booked for another week, we really wanted to get out of the heat and we had a small window with family in Northern Arizona. So we loaded up and a few days later we were on the road.
We were anxious for sure. As I told Julie after the first visit, “Man, he gave me a LOT of information, things to think about and great ideas. And I’m sure I managed to remember 50% of it.”
The next day, when Julie and I went back in, I was proud to have retained that 50% and picked up another 40%. He said “I’ve been thinking about what I told you the other day and I don’t think you need this, you should just do this.” and he explained in great detail. I don’t remember exactly what part of the idea changed – that was lost in the 10%.
I went in, having seen the celebrity wild camper’s (The Wynn’s) video on their new (fourth) solar installation. They are in a Fleetwood now (they’ve changed too many times for me to keep up) – so their roof spacing was similar but flipped. They even had their panels installed in Fleetwood’s Indiana location in the bay right next to us about four weeks after we were there for five days of service.
They installed 960 watts in six panels all in a row to avoid shadows which we learned can drop the panels output – and not just one, but any other panel in the same series. Ouch.
I went in thinking four, maybe five panels. But when we decided to take the panels and run (no piercing included) to do our own install, we put the labor saved into six panels. And Craig had a great idea and, for me, the jury was still out on all series or a mix. His suggestion was to split the panels into two series (called “strings”) – that would limit our voltage to ~60 volts coming down to our controller but still not pump the amps up enough to need higher gauge cable to prevent amp loss over distance.
“Ah ha. I like how this guy thinks!”
Plus, if one string received shading out of our control, the other string if not shaded would still deliver and compensate. Birds are starting to sing in my head for the joy of a peaceful solar day.
And the panels, while slightly smaller than I was targeting, were “supposed to be more efficient” and more “durable.” I like durable because there is another vision in my head that involves my lead foot, cruising down the highway when a flimsy panel rips off and sets sail for the great unknown. Durable is good.
I won’t hide it from you. When we got back to the RV, I was immediately overwhelmed by two things. First, “Damn there goes our last 20 square feet of space!” Followed quickly by, “Whoa, did we just spend more than the Wynn’s and get LESS? How stupid am I?”
My 90% was swimming at that point, so I went running to Google seeking comfort. And it worked. It turns out Kyocera panels have been rated multiple years in a row in the industry (I think 6 or so) as the highest efficiency and performance. And, while I can have an itchy trigger operating without a “budget” confinements, I still try to be frugal. I grew up poor and as Julie and I built our mentoring business, we went through tough times of scraping just to barely make ends meet. Those experiences never leave.
But as it turns out, I believe — note: I don’t stalk the Wynn’s or read everything they write/post, just hit and miss — but I believe I saw somewhere that they spent over $6000 which, again, I don’t think included their upgraded batteries. I may be wrong, feel free to correct me in the comments.
We also upgraded our batteries but to keep bananas to bananas for you (sorry, oranges and apples), I will just show you our plan and costs for solar.
THE BIG REVEAL
So here is what Craig recommended and we ultimately trusted his experience and passion for helping his customers. Solar isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap, so we found great comfort that they valued our transaction enough to make sure we didn’t screw it all up. And of course, I’ve told no less than four people (plus now you) about Discount Solar and I’m giving them credit here – a smart marketing move on his part after all, positive word of mouth advertising is always a great thing.
ALL prices include high Arizona state tax.
- Six (6) Kyocera 145-watt panels (KD145SX-UFU, 10/25 year warranty) including all mounting brackets. They are black which is sexy. They will get hotter but still, sexy. The frame is quite a bit more durable than the cheaper panels which twisted easily by hand. At $2190, the panels aren’t cheap. But again, that performance promise which I will come back to in a moment. I did not at the time in late January see these panels on Amazon or online for actual sale – almost like they were a new item waiting for inventory. » Download Panel Specs PDF (355kb)
- One (1) Magnum PT-100 solar controller which they “bundled” with the Magnum ME-ARC50 remote which will connect with our factory-installed Magnum MS2812 2800-watt inverter. Cost is $999 which is the same on Amazon for the controller and the remote.
- Six (6) aluminum tilt kits to convert our flat panels to tilt in the winter when the sun is lower on the horizon. It was winter when we bought them and we wanted to power these up and push them to their limit, so we were tilting. Cost $270 ($45 each).
- One (1) 150-amp gold plated fuse for $25 to interrupt power from the solar controller to the batteries.
- Four (4) tubes of Dicor self-leveling sealant to seal up the holes
- One-hundred (100) feet of 10/2 UV resistant panel and drop wiring. At 10-gauge, we were minimizing our amp loss, increasing our power efficiency for our combined 16.2 amps coming from our series/parallel panels. Cost is $100 ($1 per foot).
- Sixteen (16) feet of 2-gauge heavy duty cable to go from the solar controller to batteries. Cost is $48 ($3 per foot).
Total cost for solar addition to our existing whole-home inverter was $3,664 out the door, no free piercings.
Now we did go back the day before we left for 2 DC breakers to interrupt power from each string, installed right next to our solar controller and for ONE more attempt to scoop up that last 10%.
And that last 10% was how to connect the in-series wires through the panels. One note about the Kyocera brand — they have full junction boxes, no “consumer quick connects”. I was mixed and frankly panicked on this at first. My adaptability in planning has it’s limitations and we just crossed them. So I brought in my drawing and thought I was going to need more cabling, but Craig showed me the junction box and how it has a post terminal for connecting through-wires. That created a new need then – terminal connectors. So Craig hooked us up with the breakers and terminal connects at no charge based on our total purchases and sent us out the door. And you’re correct, no piercings.
Okay, I can’t leave this part out before I move on to our wiring details. You may see that price and think that’s a great price, or you may think that we overpaid. I don’t have a clue nor do we care what we spent in exact dollars. The only thing I love more than negotiating is teaching others to negotiate. We have a great LifeMAPP program around that lesson.
But the only thing I love more than teaching negotiating is supporting strong local professionals and getting professional service for our investment. I almost always negotiate and won’t settle until I know we’ve not overpaid. You may find those panels cheaper; I don’t know. Everything else, I’m confident was a strong price. We extended our solar controller into our bedroom instead of in the basement, so we bought new #2-gauge wiring at NAPA Auto Parts in Buckeye, Arizona and they wanted $6 per foot. Julie is a hound for discounts and found out they accepted AAA, so we saved 10%. Discount Solar was half that price.
And the controller and remote were the same price on Amazon. So, could we have saved a little with a local business over Amazon/internet? Probably. Would I have wanted to? No way. I’m frugal, not cheap.
I half-expected them to push us out the door when we decided to do a self-install (loss of the labor and overhead reduction for them). But they didn’t. In fact, they overwhelmed us. An install guy came out and showed me how to attach the mounting brackets in a very specific way. My brain was melting, but I captured it on my iPhone and used it later. He told me exactly how to install the screws and seal them before and after.
Then another guy showed us the tilt brackets and made sure we knew how those would work best. And Craig once again reiterated how to change up the wiring, how to use the through-posts and the brilliant suggestion on how to split the panels. Oh and he also had another suggestion that may or may not have contributed to the performance noted below — to load balance our battery wiring by tapping our solar controller into the battery bank opposite the inverter wiring. So if our inverter went into the positive (+) on battery bank 1 (of 3) and the negative (-) on battery bank 3 (wiring crossed the entire bank), then we needed to go the opposite direction with the solar controller, the negative (-) on battery bank 1 and the positive (+) on bank 3. (See Figure 1.2 below)
Granted, they didn’t put on a clinic — it was all high speed to us though to them it probably felt like walking backwards. But it was amazing which leads me to the MOST important thing about this install in a moment — performance.
I won’t detail this too much; I’ll just show you our wiring diagram that you can zoom in on and see in great details. It’s simple really once you get the basics. For us, it helped us to see and learn how our entire RV was wired. How things were connected AND how they weren’t. Somewhere along our journeys going back and forth between campgrounds and wild camping, we forgot that our inverter doesn’t need to be on all the time. And forgot that our lights run WITHOUT the inverter off a 12-volt connection. Intellectually we knew that of course. Logistically with five kids and running around, well, it slipped our consciousness.
We also benefited from a “reset” on our battery bank. During warranty work for our coach last Autumn, we noticed leaking on our batteries at the repair center. A technician looked at it and the corrosion and felt it didn’t warrant attention. We took photos, noted it for warranty item and left. A few months later, in the middle of wild camping, we cleaned them with baking soda to remove the old residue so we can start fresh and monitor again. Only six weeks later they looked like we hadn’t touched them.
So we upgraded from six (6) lead-acid wet batteries to six (6) AGM also purchased from Discount Solar (~$1600). They had Full River battery reps on the floor who overloaded my brain but got me straight, and it all started making sense. And with AGMs not leaking or needing fluids to maintain, I was sold. The maintenance on the old batteries was wearing on me and apparently not helping.
And in the end, Fleetwood/REV Group honored the batteries under warranty. It was upsetting that they ignored it the first time, but we can’t say enough positive things about Fleetwood/REV Group and their warranty work. Like all RVers, we’ve had some issues, but they have not failed us and have made loyal repeat customers out of us for our next model.
Quick 10-Minute Tip: I have been cursed with an eye for detail as I can accurately detect an un-level surface of 1/8″ across a 10-foot line from 20 feet away. And it bugs me, but not most people. If you are so-cursed, the kids and I laid out a simple string across all of our panels before securing them. And even when tilted, they hold their line. I will tell you, depending on the slack in the tilt screw, there is one panel off on one of these photos, by about 1/8″. I won’t tell you which one though. 🙂
Ok, this is where the “rubber meets the road”. Does all of this matter? Does it work? Did it meet our expectations? Did it change our wild camping experience?
Yes, yes, yes and hell yes.
Since our install, we had a few hiccups (outdated remote software and network issues between controller and inverter), but once we jumped past that, we JUMPED past it. Immediately it was clear that our solar panels and their reputation for delivering higher efficiency than the competition were true and accurate. After my brain had cooled down from the overheating above, I did all the requisite math and calculated that in theory, our panels were going to deliver 50-60 amps. Having seen the Wynn’s with more wattage delivering that same range, I felt that would be a victory. This is their fourth solar install, so I am more than happy to learn from them just as you are learning from me.
My only bummer with that math — being frugal — was that we bought that up-sell PT100 (100 amp MPPT controller). I was totally excited about the MPPT part that was going to turn our extra voltage (60 volts) into extra amps to charge the batteries faster. Anything above 12-14 volts in panels is wasted without the MPPT conversion which takes 60 volts – 14 volts = 46 extra volts and turns them into higher amps going into the battery through a DC to AC to DC conversion.
But a funny thing happened in the cosmos as those rays traveled 92.96 million miles to our panels and blew out my math. Our panels and controller kicked it up in the hot desert sun to 69.5 amps. I knew it was mathematically possible, but I felt it unlikely.
So now instead of waking up at 6:30a to 9:00a with our batteries at 0% (12.1 volts) from the night before and overnight, we wake up to the sunshine and the batteries anywhere between 12.3 and 13.1 volts. Usually, by 9am we’re over the 100% (12.6 volts) mark and cruising towards float/maintenance over-charge.
And here’s the crazy thing about the controller — once the batteries are full, the controller gradually shuts down the solar panels. “What? That’s wasted energy and sun!!” I know, I know. So our kids now know that solar time is charge time — phones, tablets, laptops, trackers, camera batteries, et al. “Light them up!” And they also know the peak noon-time sun is cleaning (vacuuming), microwave/leftover lunch and even hot water/shower/dishes time. Yes one great surprise to us was that our electric water heater (we also have propane option of course) is wired through the inverter. Bonus! So that 69.5 amps was midday after/while running the central vacuum and either the microwave or convection to re-heat food.
Now, we’re THRILLED that we bought the PT-100 instead of the MX-60 (60 amp max).
It is a real “use it or lose it” festival of plenty during the midday. Then about 1-2 hours before sunset, we unplug charging devices and start throttling back our usage with the lone exception of the inverter loaded with our full residential refrigerator and my 27″ iMac with 5k-retina resolution running. Around 9pm, we’re at 12.3 volts or so and we sit down to watch some DirecTV DVR until 11p-midnight.
The only question remaining for us is, do we have enough battery power for the evening? As you can see, we don’t have to modify our consumption too much in the evening. Adding 2 more batteries would ease that even more, but why? We’re ok with controlling our evening energy to the point that we do. The only thing we give up is charging devices and water heater; we just don’t need those 24/7. Occasionally we turn off the inverter (refrigerator) overnight if our batteries are 0-10% (12.1-2 volts) when we go to bed. The refrigerator is highly efficient in both operation and the enclosure, so it easily goes overnight with minimal loss.
Read about our RV Battery Secrets.
So what’s next? Probably nothing until we sell the RV. We’re perfectly happy and hit our solar/energy needs on the first try with the help of some great new friends and amazing retailer in Quartzsite, Arizona.
Some people have asked me about A/C and sure we could do that but here is why we won’t. First, we’ve done enough. We’re out in the wild to play, to teach, to learn and to work and grow our mentoring business. We’re not perpetual upgrade junkies. Second, we only bought the RV for a one to possibly a two-year set of mini adventures. Our kids will be grown up soon and we’re going to enjoy these years with them instead of trying to figure out how to do more with solar.
And lastly, we aren’t comfortable in the high heat. I am still recovering from chest and ankle surgeries — the heat makes my recovery and hiking less enjoyable. Also important is that high heat is the arch-enemy of solar, batteries and refrigerators. Whether electric (battery/inverter) or propane, a hot refrigerator runs more and burns more energy — also decreasing its life cycle. Batteries start to die faster at temps above 77ºF. Solar panels lose their efficiency over 77ºF as well as controllers. Makes me wonder if anybody checked how they all do at 76ºF or did they just get tired and settle on one flat number for those of us running on 10% brain power.
Rather than try to cool the heat with A/C, we just avoid the heat altogether. Makes sense to us if we’re going to use the sun for power/energy that we should use the absence of heat (cooler climates) to keep cool. So we aim for locations where the high temperatures will be below 77ºF, and we find that both humans, dog and electronics are all very happy, comfortable and energetic.
So we’re done, most likely, and the beneficiary of all this solar-energized RV will be the next family who buys it and starts off on their own wild camping adventures across the U.S. and Canada. We’re pretty sure they will enjoy it.
Leave any comments or questions below and I’ll try to help out more if I can.