Among the thousands of people who purchase RVs and hit the open road each year, there are a fair number who are not only looking for adventure. You might be looking for a more sustainable lifestyle. One that prioritizes experiences over things. One of the many decisions you will have to make when forming your budget and plotting your course is about power. Solar power, to be exact.
Most RV families who have installed solar panels use a combination of generators and battery operated appliances to power their lifestyle. And while generators are a cheap and easy solution, they are also noisy and rely on fossil fuels. If you are trying to live completely off the grid, you may find the inconvenience of having to purchase generator fuel every week to be stifling. Luckily, alternative fuels and clean energy technologies have progressed significantly, and ditching your generator all together is an option.
The first thing you will need to do is calculate how much power you need per day and then select a battery that can handle twice that capacity. Remember that running your batteries below 50% on a regular basis will damage them. Also, on cloudy days or during inclement weather your electricity consumption can jump considerably.
Once you have an idea of how much battery capacity you will need to look into purchasing and installing solar panels. The general rule of thumb is the bigger the better. Portable solar panels are also available for those whose rig simply won’t accommodate a lot of solar panels on the roof. While these are not as efficient as the mounted panels they can be useful. I have seen families using portable panels to charge electronic devices, cell phones or recharge spare batteries, thus reducing the household usage.
But all if not roses when it comes to solar energy. As with anything in the RV lifestyle, there are trade-offs. So, let’s start with the bad news.
What are the cons of going solar?
1. Cost. Yes, it is almost free to use on a daily basis, but installing your solar system could require a significant investment. Even if you are handy and able to do most of the installation yourself, the cost of supplies can be prohibitive. Initial costs for traditional generators are much less. Additionally, your rig’s electrical system may need a bit of an upgrade, depending on the system you install and the RV you own. This can dramatically increase your installation costs.
2. Space. As mentioned earlier, your roof may not be large enough to fit the requisite number of panels you need to feed your electricity consumption. This means that you will either need to learn to consume less or find alternative solutions. Switching to battery operated or manual appliances is one way to solve the problem. Appliances that draw a lot of power, like refrigerators, air conditioning units, and stoves, will present a continuous challenge, especially those who have children or family members who are prone to falling ill in the heat. And while this is not an unsolvable problem, it will require a level of self-discipline and ingenuity to overcome.
3. Reliability. Short winter days and cloudy weather can put a real damper on your ability to keep your solar battery charged. Even parking your RV in the shade can cause your panels to shut off altogether. Making sure your solar panels get the maximum exposure to sunlight is a constant concern, particularly if you don’t have a generator as a backup.
4. There is no place like home. The truth is that if your power usage in your RV is similar to the usage in an average home, solar won’t be able to keep pace consistently. As mentioned earlier, if you need to keep medicine cool in the refrigerator or are trekking into climates where not running the air conditioner could pose a health risk, then your solar system won’t be able to keep up with the demand.
So what is the good news?
1. Reduced hook ups. You can forgo the stops for power hookups and take your adventure further.
2. Become virtually energy independent. You are still going to need to get gas to get you from place to place. But, your solar system is charging as long as the sun is shining. You can virtually eliminate the need to stop anywhere for an electrical hookup.
3. Getting into all the best places. Some national parks do not allow you to run a generator at all. Period. But you can relax, your solar system is safe, odorless, soundless, and national parks and wildlife approved.
4. It’s cheap. The sun never sent me a bill.
5. It’s easy. While generators usually require a certain amount of maintenance, solar panels, once installed, require almost no follow-up. Barring several days of bad weather that may require you to climb on top and clear snow, dirt, or debris from the roof, there is nothing else that needs to be done. This excludes those who opt for adjustable panels that you can shift towards the sun.
It is possible to dramatically reduce or, in some cases, eliminate your reliance on your generator by incorporating solar power. But remember, it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing prospect. There are plenty of people who have installed solar power systems in their rig and keep their generator as a backup, or for days when their electricity usage is increased. But for most of us, a hybrid system of sorts is the best way to integrate solar power into our lives.
So how do we use solar power?
1. Think of solar power as part of a larger system. Forget the idea of using only one power source. Instead, think of solar power as part of your RV’s overall power supply. Your battery is the core of that system and solar is just one of the ways you keep it charged. Check to make sure you are using a<a href=”http://www.criticalcactus.com/rv-off-grid-solar-guide-beginners/”> deep cycle</a> lithium battery for the best performance.
2. Choose an efficient generator. Why are we talking about generators? The point of solar is to reduce fuel costs and emissions. Since a hybrid system will need to use a generator at least some of the time, investing in an extremely efficient one will reduce run time and fuel costs. Currently, inverter generators reign supreme on fuel efficiency, output, and size. Inverters work by converting an AC current to a DC current then back again, revving it up before discharging it. If you have ever used a car adapter for your phone or other devices, you have seen it at work.
3.Make sure that your consumption is under control. Simply put, if you don’t get used to turning off lights in the day time and not running the air conditioner on full blast all night, no amount of fancy rigging is going to save you. Ideally, your consumption should always be well below your ability to charge each day.
Solar power is becoming increasingly popular and affordable for all. The off-grid community has been early adopters, but are far from alone in the search for the perfect balance. Many residential homes are being built with solar panels already installed. Even office buildings are upgrading, adding solar power to their energy plan to help reduce costs.
This should prove to be a boon for those who are considering solar power, as the increased demand will only increase innovation and efficiency. while a backup generator may be a necessity for most full-timing families, it may not be that way for long.
If the question is “should I install a solar power system in my van” then the answer is a resounding yes. But, how far that will take you and how reliant you will be on alternative sources of energy is completely up to you. Your lifestyle, the climate, the size of your rig and the needs of your family will ultimately decide your fate. And while it is possible to eliminate your creature comforts and energy guzzling appliances so that you would never need to use anything else, it is a bit of a stretch to ask people to live like that if they are full-timing.