Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Our Solar Set-up… the good, the bad and the potentially boring.

There is something very nonchalant about solar power.  It’s there but it’s not there.  It’s works without really working.  You are neither plugged in nor tied down in any way.  Yet, when you want to turn on a light or plug in your computer, even at night, there it is!

IMG_0328(Our panel, fresh out of the box and already providing power via a temp connection)

We’ve been solar independent for about nine months now.  That means we have no generator and we turned off the option to charge from our alternator. 

Solar is now our sole source of electricity.  There are days when it doesn’t even cross our minds where our power is coming from.  But we are quietly confident that it will be there when we need it.  Other times we gaze up at our roof in amazement, get a chuckle out of the whole process and marvel at its simplicity.

Simplicity is what we are seeking in this venture but so is freedom.  Solar provides us with both.  It allows us to park in places like this… nine miles down a dirt road and at least fifteen to the nearest of anything or anyone.
2012-02-24 Lake Mohave Tree Scene
Or this… around fifty miles in any direction to civilization and services.
2012-04-14 e. Fry Canyon, UT (1)
Now, if only we could figure out how to fill our water tank in these remote locations!


Our system is small and fairly crude compared to larger rigs but then again our vehicle is too so it works just fine for us and our purposes.  In our set up, the sun feeds one Kyocera 135 watt panel which is flat mounted on our rear roof rack at about a 3 degree permanent angle due to roof slope and with no possibilities of shadows from roof vents, antennae, etc.. 

IMG_0397 The panel feeds into a breaker first so that we can shut the power feed into the van off at will.  Although we had read about other breaker and fuse options we kept our system simple with just this one shut-off from the panels in.  If we need to work on the panel itself we just throw a sheet over it.  The raw power from the panel is fed through the breaker into a Morningstar Tristar 45 Controller. 
IMG_0394 The controller feeds the batteries based on its ongoing assessment (via the battery voltage monitor wires and its other calculations) of what they need at any given time.  We are running two 12 Volt, 105 amp hour, Costco Krikland Marine Deep-Cycle Batteries wired to provide us with 210 amp hours (which works out to 84 usable amp hours when all is said and done). 

No, we have not put them in a vented battery box.  There is a small vent to the outside just left of the breaker and plenty of circulation in the van at this time so we opted not to.  So far, we are happy with this decision.2011-10-07 Battery Bank Set-UpOur 12 volt lights and outlets are wired through the fuse panel in our old converter (which sits right next to the batteries). 

To run our 110 items, we’ve purchased a Cobra 400 watt inverter.  The inverter is located about a foot from our batteries just outside the bench seat compartment they are stored in.
IMG_0033All 110 items are run via a surge strip which is plugged into our inverter essentially turning one outlet into six.

We followed a few important solar installation basics like keeping our wire runs short, upsizing the gauge wire we used and locating the controller within only a few feet of the batteries all in an effort to minimize voltage drop.  After the system was complete we used our voltmeter to test / compare every in and out and found only a negligible drop in the .0XX range. 

Via the solar, our batteries are charged at 14.8 volts which is why we chose the controller that we did.  It is one of the few that allows the user to set dip switches to their specifications and allow for a higher charging level. 

The batteries that we are running were offered to us by Darlene’s father.  They were used for a while in his boat and in his mind ready for replacement.  To us, they were better than the nothing we were starting out with so we jumped at the offer, topped them off with water (we had found two cells were dry) and threw them in the van. 

From day one of their install (which was three months prior to getting solar) we charged them 98% of the time by van alternator.  Although we had a generator, we used it very sparingly while crossing the country and when we finally turned it on to charge them one afternoon discovered that it had kicked the bucket in a way that was financially not worth the fix.

IMG_0141(A combination voltage regulator / windings failure did in our 1988 friend)

When we had it, our generator was better than nothing at 13.8 charging volts.  Our alternator will charge the batteries at 14.1 but we really don’t drive all that often.  With no generator and plans to boondock for weeks on end without starting the van we needed a way to keep our batteries healthy and provide ourselves with a regular and reliable source of power.  Solar was the answer for us.


Despite having been warned otherwise (by the highly recommended ‘Handy Bob Solar’), we did our own thing initially and purchased a Go Power controller.  Strapped for finances and wanting a simple system it made good sense on one hand if we could get it to work.

It didn’t work.  It charged lower than our 1988 converter / generator combo and was not adjustable.  Our batteries behaved as if we had no solar attached to them at all.  After a few days of ‘testing’ and learning more in a hands on way about why controllers work and don’t work, we returned the Go Power and swapped it out for the Morningstar.  Within a few days our well used batteries were behaving like brand new.  At rest readings in the morning, even after normal evening power consumption, were typically above 12.5 volts and they still are.  We now charge them solely on solar, even when driving (we turned our alternator charging toggle off).  So, if you are considering a system and like to ‘try your own thing’ first like we do we suggest you ensure a solid return policy.

Not once since switching to the Morningstar to complete our system have we run out of power, seen our lights dim or observed a voltage reading indicating that we have pulled our batteries into a deep cycle.  Even over the course of a three day cloudy spell, we saw no negative effect on our system and most of the time still read in the high 13’s on the volt meter. IMG_1590Speaking of meters (or monitors).  We did not install one.  Yes, we think that they can be important, and we consider the Link Lite or the Trimetric 2025 to be great options.  In our case, we opted to simplify our process and reduce our financial output in that we do the majority of our electronics charging (phones, computers, etc.)  and high power usage (tools, etc.) during the afternoon when the panel is providing way more charging power than the batteries can use.  In the evening, we run a few lights off the house batteries.  Our electronics use the power of their internal batteries occasionally getting plugged into the house for an hour or so at night if they die while we are in the middle of something. 

As we said, in the morning, we rarely see an indication that the batteries have been used.  Although we aren’t getting a true measure of actual amp hours, given our particular usage pattern we feel that we are o.k. at this time.

When we first installed the system we took readings every 15 min the first and second full sun days.  The next few days we picked random times to check them and compared with our previous readings.  After observing consistent readings in the system we decided that we could monitor our system by taking periodic readings at the batteries.  If we buy a new piece of electronic equipment we check readings at various times with our volt meter.  A basic rule for us not having an amp meter, we never keep anything that pulls our volts below 14.8 for any length of time while full sun charging.  For the most part, if readings stay within the ranges we recorded those first few days and our electronics are working, we consider ourselves and our batteries in good standing.  IMG_1593The beauty of solar is that you can make it as simple or complex as your desires and finances permit.  Although there are a few basics everyone should follow to ensure an efficient system, you have a good bit of freedom in what you create for yourself based on your rig and your power usage.

Solar has been a wonderfully freeing addition to our boondocking regimen.  Our batteries are healthy, fresh and always ready to provide.  We do not buy gas for nor have to worry about maintenance on a generator.  It is also a much more considerate power option for our neighbors and the animals who reside where we stay as they most likely prefer to hear the sounds of nature over the noise of a generator.  It’s a total win in our book.