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Kirk W

Some questions about solar use?

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As one who has been very interested in RV solar systems but have no actual experience with them, there are some things I'd like to see discussed, which I don't recall seeing much about. What sort of maintenance do you find is needed, and how frequently? What about the lifespan of the various components of the solar system? How long have you had solar and how satisfied are you with it? 

Solar has never been very attractive for me because my life partner has declared that after all of our years of tents and toilets, she isn't going to take a modern RV and live out in the sticks. As a result I have never considered getting one, but do find them to be of great interest and expect that they will become more and more common. I would think that as these systems improve it could help to fill the need for additional RV sites as more and more RVs become independent of the grid. 

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Solar systems do not require any maintenance except for perhaps washing off the panels.  Even that is not typically required.  Solar panels are built and rated to last for at least 20 years, but I suppose there could be additional risks for an RV such as being hit by a large tree limb.

I don't understand the concern about living in the "sticks".  A solar system and an appropriately sized battery bank offers additional choices.  It is not necessary to find an RV park when traveling between locations.  It is not necessary to limit yourself to campgrounds with hook ups.  There are plenty of really nice National Park and other campgrounds without hookups.  They aren't in the sticks any more than any other NP campground.

Solar systems have come way down in price.  The big issue is not the cost of the components but either doing the work yourself or finding someone who knows what they are doing and will do the work at a reasonable cost.    

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44 minutes ago, JimK said:

I don't understand the concern about living in the "sticks". 

She wants long showers, nearby stores and events, socials, etc.  And don't forget a swimming pool!

Edited by Kirk W

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We full timed as a couple with 2 cats.  "Nearby stores" reminds me of my stay in Jasper.  Every day we went out all day and returned to our camping area after dark.  For the first week or so we stayed in a low cost "overflow" area.  It was beautiful but without water or a dump station.  We visited those as needed in the nearest regular campground.  A ranger came and gave us notice that the overflow was no longer needed and we would need to move the the regular campground for over $30 a night without hookups.  Instead we moved to Jasper and parked on a residential street in front of a church.  That way we did not take any neighborhood parking spaces which seemed to be in short supply.  We could not have been closer to the stores and events.  In fact it was a one block walk every morning to visit the bakery for fresh baked goods and coffee.

Not having hookups will not necessarily kill the long showers.  With a small 30 gallon tank, when water is not readily available, we have learned how to take Navy style showers with about 1 gallon of water each.  We often stay in campgrounds where water is readily available but there are no hookups.  Long showers are then a great, well enjoyed luxury.  

This discussion also reminds me of a National Park statistic I read years ago.  97% of the visitors to National Parks never venture beyond a paved trail or parking lot!  I am in the 3% group.  I enjoy the staying in the more primitive campgrounds with hiking and remote areas nearby.  

Edited by JimK

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Kirk

Solar power allows boondocking without a lot of generator time.  Now if you are not into minimalism the skip solar.

Panels prices are dropping still.  Efficiency goes up as the panel chemistry improves. 

LiFeO4, Lithium Iron Oxide, batteries are the way to go. No maintenance,  long life, and more usable amp hours.  No ventilation required.  

We have designed a 200AH 24V battery for a cost of about $300 in parts. That should imply that the price should be $600 for the battery. Total weight less than 40#.

Bill

 

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1 hour ago, Kirk W said:

She wants long showers, nearby stores and events, socials, etc.  And don't forget a swimming pool!

I would say that solar likely isn't your biggest concern then?  For the kinds of amenities you are seeking, you'll likely find yourselves in campgrounds most of the time.  As to the water heater, many (if not most?) have dual electric and propane.  Same with the RV fridges.  With our solar, we can certainly "boondock" (away from campgrounds, no hookups) for a bit, but it depends on the weather.  If it's hot, solar won't be enough power to the battery bank to power the air conditioner via the inverter.  You'll definitely need a generator.  Depending on the rig you get you might have to buy your own Honda portable or something.  If you get a larger rig, such as a large fifth wheel or a Class A, they might come with Onan generators.  (Our Grand Design Momentum fifth wheel did.)

We also have solar that the private seller we purchased the rig from had installed.  It's a pretty good system, with 4 x 190W panels) but like I was just saying elsewhere, if you're not going to install yourself... do NOT have an RV dealer install it, in my opinion.  The installation on this rig was fraught with incompetency that wasn't readily obvious.  Even with our good solar, it's been hot, and we just prefer campgrounds most of the time.  We were in a great shady spot in Kansas, with 50 amp hookups.  But our system kept dying.  The misconfiguration of the Victron 3000 (a VERY good unit) was causing us to end up with dead batteries.  Knowing less then than I did now, the wiring configuration requires that the Victron (inverter and converter) be on all the time, pretty much.  Otherwise there's no juice to the batteries OTHER than the solar, in our case.  (When not in a shady spot, we were just fine!)  Unfortunately, the misconfig meant that if we had 50 amp power, turning on the Victron would cause us to drop to just 30amps.  It should've been configured for passthrough!  Since the batteries weren't getting charged, the Victron shuts down the system at a low voltage threshold to protect the batteries.  The lithium batteries, though, are quite excellent as that they can discharge much lower than regular batteries without losing the voltage.  In my opinion, if you have the space in the rig and the money to do it, there is no reason to not do LiFePo4 batteries.  Their only real downside is they don't charge in really cold weather.  The batteries have an internal "BMS" (battery management system) that will shut down the battery if they get too cold.  (Some kind of science to trying to charge them in super cold temperatures hurts them.)

In addition, some of the wiring used to string the 4 Battle Born (LiFePo4, well worth it!) batteries together was audio cable, not proper cable.  And lastly, the cable running from the Victron to the breaker panel was 10 gauge, not the appropriate 6 gauge!  We could've easily had a fire break out due to incompetence.  If the RV dealer was a "licensed" installer of Victron products, they would clearly have known what the requirements were.  I'm not saying all RV dealers are incompetent, but I am saying that having a system installed by a knowledgeable DIY'er or by a vendor who specializes in this sort of thing is better than a dealer.  

With our issues, we needed someone competent!  What was going on was a bit beyond my own skill set.  We ended up spending a couple of days at Future Sales in Elkhart.  We had seen them featured in a KYD video on YouTube for that family's solar install.  They were so professional, and squared us away with 1 day to research and 1 day to correct.  We have had ZERO problems since.  (And if the initial install was done correctly, we would've never had issues to begin with.)  

So, either know what you're doing, or have someone competent and skilled do your install.  You can always start small, and grow your system as your budget allows.  Or if you've got the cash, go whole hog right up front.  Our frequent stays at Harvest Hosts, or boondocking elsewhere really show the advantage of the solar.  I rarely run our Onan generator.  However, if it is HOT, the gennie is almost always going to be needed to run the air conditioner.  

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The only real maintenance with a solar system on an RV is keeping the panels clean and checking all the connections periodically.  It really is a set it and forget it system, for the most part.  Batteries are dependent on the type used.  Obviously, lead acid batteries need maintenance, but AGM or Lithium batteries are like solar.  The only maintenance is keeping the connections clean and checking that everything is staying tight periodically.  

Most quality inverters and solar controllers (I’m talking specifically Magnum and Victron) are intended for off grid continuous use.  They should last many years in RV use.  Of course, as with any electronic product, issues can arise but they are rare with the quality manufacturers.  I have had Magnum inverters in three of my rigs with no issues.  The oldest is going on seven years and still going strong.  I have installed several Victron units for friends.  Victron is newer in the American market than Magnum, but they had been around in Europe for some time before they migrated to North America.  There are other manufacturers as well, but Magnum and Victron are top of the heap in the RV world.  My next rig will most likely have a full Victron system in it.  This is not because I have been unhappy with any of my Magnum stuff, but because I like some of the electronic bells and whistles that Victron offers that Magnum doesn’t.

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1 minute ago, remoandiris said:

Any issues with leaks in the roof from the solar panel mounting bolts?

Any issues with roof cleaning or maintenance since the solar panels block easy visual roof inspection?

As long as the bolts are properly sealed, there should be no issues.  They are no different than any other roof penetration to mount an antenna or cover.  

As to inspecting the roof with solar panels, a proper installation should still allow you to move around on the roof and access everything needed.  Many panels are installed so they can be tilted up to assist with solar harvest.  This tilting action also helps with roof access when needed.

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We boondocked all summer on our property.  Well sort of.  We could start a generator to get well water to fill our tank.  Putting out 200' of hose was a chore.  We also had a septic tank about 150' away but only solar for power.  The solar met our needs.  We used the microwave, watched TV, used the coffe pot and ran a mini split to stay cool.  I also used an air fryer.  Certainly not roughing it.  We have 2,000 watts of solar.  

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5 hours ago, Kirk W said:

She wants long showers, nearby stores and events, socials, etc.  And don't forget a swimming pool!

.... then solar is not for you! 🙂  If you have a generator and for the small amount of time you may boondock, the generator will suit your needs just fine.

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4 hours ago, Will B. said:

.. do NOT have an RV dealer install it, in my opinion.  The installation on this rig was fraught with incompetency that wasn't readily obvious.

x2.  I don't think RV technicians know much of anything about electricity.  If you want it installed by someone else, it may behoove you to design it yourself, or have a reputable solar dealer do it. I think it's a good idea to really understand your system, like what voltages are where and why the  wires are a certain size. 

As a regular boondocker I wouldn't even consider it sans solar. I have 830w, which works out just about right for microwave, toaster, TV, and all other uses.  I do have  to admit I get a bit irritated when I find myself camped near someone who has to run a generator to watch TV.  Generators are a lot easier to understand than solar and inverters.. I guess that's why.  The only generator needs I have are for air con.  With a 48v LifePo battery I can run my air con on the road to keep the cat cool, but not for very long.  The neatest thing about solar is it charges your batteries at full power going down the road.

In 18 years I've had one BP panel short out, and BP replaced it without question. The foil connections can overheat and burn out.  You can see that happening on the front (and back) of the panel... it's a brown spot.  Never a problem with leaks.

Edited by hemsteadc

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Between the lady that I live with and the fact that we are back to part-time, I have no plans to ever get a solar system, nor do I do tenting and backpacking, but I still retain an interest in all sorts of things that I have done and the changes that are taking place. I also know that even though I'll not be putting in solar, reading the posts of people like Glen, Randy, Chad, and others helps maintain my interest. I have done a lot of boondocking, on foot, on horseback, by 4WD, and with our earlier RVs. Even though I have no plans to ever go back to any of those, I do continue to read about it and to follow those who are.

I sometimes play around with looking at what I might buy if I were to suddenly get younger go back to that lifestyle. Back when we were in that interest group, batteries were pretty much of the golf cart style and regular use of a hydrometer was just part of the maintenance. A few years ago I had quite a conversation with Chris of Technomadia, who is the first place that I'd probably go if I were building one today. What I am wondering mostly is what it costs nowadays to put in a mid-level system, what if any maintenance is needed (pretty well answered) and what sort of life one expects from one. If I were to build one, the big question is batteries, since lithium are clearly the best, but budgets could get in the way. I sometimes marvel at the changes I have seen take place in all areas of outdoor activities. Time really does fly by when you are enjoying life!  😊

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10 minutes ago, hemsteadc said:

I don't think RV technicians know much of anything about electricity.

Unfortunately, my experience matches yours and without any solar involved. There are exceptions, but most RV techs have very little electric theory education and mostly change parts if something electrical should fail. There are a lot of refrigerators and air conditioners replaced that could have been reparied if the techs had known how. 

13 minutes ago, hemsteadc said:

In 18 years I've had one BP panel short out, and BP replaced it without question. The foil connections can overheat and burn out.

You have just the background that I was looking for, with 18 years of experience.  Has your 18 years been all with the same RV and solar system? What sort of modifications and additions have you made over the years?

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We put our first solar panel on in 1987.  Back then these were expensive and we had 50 watts.  It allowed us to make through our long weekends and such and still run the water pump and a few lights.  That solar panel is still in working order and tests show it nearly equals the advertised power.  It is not uncommon for panels to last 25 years or more.  Some warranty it.  Charge controllers have changed a lot and like any electronic device these can fail but usually last for years.  Batteries are the biggest problem and have the most upside if one is budgeted for it.  We are still using golf cart batteries and I would like to go to lithium but I can't bring myself to shell out that much.  Our solar was inexpensive.  The solar panels were used and the controllers were basic without the bells and whistles of the fancy controllers.  I fabricate my own mounts and use quality welding wire for higher power circuits.  The 915 watts I added this spring cost a little over $500 for panels, wire and controllers. A budget system but it works very well.  One can easily spend 2 or 3 times that amount for components with more bells and whistles and new panels.  The 1,100 watts of solar that was already there from a previous install was also a budget system with comparable costs.  I have 6 Sam's Club golf cart batteries and these typically last us 3 to 5 years.  Our inverter is 2,000 watts PSW and is more than 10 years old.

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2 hours ago, Kirk W said:

You have just the background that I was looking for, with 18 years of experience.  Has your 18 years been all with the same RV and solar system? What sort of modifications and additions have you made over the years?

Yes, 18 years with my wonderful 2002 Okanagan 5th  wheel.  I'm on the road  7 months of  the year, and my cabinets are still on the walls and my roof is still in great shape.  

I guess it was about a year of ownership before I got fed up with RV parks and  purchased 3- 120w carry-around panels.  That got old real fast, they're bulky and heavy,  so I put them on the roof with big screws and lots of Dicor.    Made sure I could tilt them for  winter use.  I started with 4 - T105 batteries, then moved up to 8 because I'm a big power user.  Then went to 8 AGMs when got tired of adding water. Boy that's heavy.  Now I have a 100ah 48v LifePo battery pack (135lb)  which I'm hoping will be the last battery I ever buy.  I have 6 panels which is about the limit on my roof.

I've been through several inverters, including a Xantrex, Cotek, something else I can't remember, and now an Outback 3400w, which is a monster and hopefully the last inverter I'll ever buy.  I've been through 12v, 24v, passed on 36v and now running 48v with a Victron 48v->12v  30a converter to supply 12v to the coach. The nice thing about that is it's a constant 12.8v, no wild fluctuations from a 12v converter.

For shore charging I have a couple Schauer 48v golf cart 17a chargers.  The company modified them for my LifoPo free of charge.  

Oh, I forgot I did have another panel fail, but I  left it up there and glued a flexible panel over the top of  it. I can't recall  why I didn't have it replaced under warranty.  It wasn't a BP..some Chinese brand maybe. It's a pain to get up there and replace a panel, and the flexible ones are pretty cheap so maybe that's why. I don't want to put  a flexible panel directly  on the roof because they get very hot.

My panels are  in series, running anywhere from 80 to over 100 volts.  I like that because I do not like combiner boxes and fat wire, and the Outback 60amp controller handles it just fine. 

Edited by hemsteadc

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8 hours ago, JimK said:

Solar systems do not require any maintenance except for perhaps washing off the panels.  Even that is not typically required.

X2.

5 hours ago, remoandiris said:

Any issues with leaks in the roof from the solar panel mounting bolts?

Any issues with roof cleaning or maintenance since the solar panels block easy visual roof inspection?

Our solar panels were installed using 3M's VHB tape. No holes in the roof. Since the panels also provide protection for the roof, repair is less likely to be needed.

I liked AGM batteries since they don't require monitoring or watering. If starting now I would look at lithium.

Linda

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The dealer installed mine with aluminum tracks which raise the panels about an inch above the roof.  The air circulation is supposed to help keep the panels cooler which significantly improves efficiency.

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30 minutes ago, JimK said:

The dealer installed mine with aluminum tracks which raise the panels about an inch above the roof.  The air circulation is supposed to help keep the panels cooler which significantly improves efficiency.

Correct. My builder used z-feet along with the VHB tape to get that air space.

Linda

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1 hour ago, sandsys said:

 

Our solar panels were installed using 3M's VHB tape.

If this is the case you should avoid commercial truck washes, especially the acid or 'brightener' as it is called. It can and will dissolve VHB.

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5 hours ago, podwerkz said:

If this is the case you should avoid commercial truck washes, especially the acid or 'brightener' as it is called. It can and will dissolve VHB.

Hmmm. I regularly used Blue Beacon Truck Wash but never had that problem.

Linda

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When  traveling use Blue Beacon, they only do the front, back and sides, so do not worry about them damaging anything on the roof.  I use unistrut fastened down with VHB tape.

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16 hours ago, podwerkz said:

If this is the case you should avoid commercial truck washes, especially the acid or 'brightener' as it is called. It can and will dissolve VHB.

Brightener is meant for use on Aluminum rims and brightwork. If you're spraying it on your roof, and thus getting it on paintwork, you're doing it wrong. Your paint won't look very good, never mind the VHB tape.

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The hired hands in the commercial truck wash can and do aim the brightener wand and nozzle above what is called the 'hot zone'....which is the lower third of the truck....they are probably ill-trained if they do so (or some overspray drifts onto the roof) and in fact these acids should not be used on an RV unless you have a LOT of 'brightwork' in the hotzone...unlikely on most painted RVs but of course some RV bus conversions retain the stainless and aluminum 'skin' of the original bus.

It doesn't take much effort to find out what these acids are...here is one wholesale source:

https://georgiachemical.com/chemicals,-detergents-and-specialty-products/house-brand-products/house-brand-transportation.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edited by podwerkz

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