Our Simple DIY Home Solar Power System
But we didn’t want to lose the feel of our simple home by bringing in a large generator and the jugs of gas needed to run it, and the prospect of setting up a wind turbine or solar array seemed expensive and a technological eyesore in a natural setting.
Editor’s Note: This article was first posted in 2012. Since then we’ve made a few upgrades to our system that are reflected in this updated version. Basically, we’ve added a couple panels and got a larger capacity charge controller, and added a battery charger to supplement the system during the darkest weeks of winter when solar power is at a minimum.
For many years we managed to get along without the conveniences which electricity can provide, but developing Eartheasy.com using a dialup internet connection on a phone line strung through the woods was challenging, and charging my laptop became a regular necessity. A few years ago, wireless broadband was introduced to our area, and the promise of high-speed internet was the stimulus we needed to build our own reliable, affordable and simple “do-it-yourself” alternative energy system.
…developing Eartheasy.com using a dialup internet connection on a phone line strung through the woods was challenging…
Today, with the help of a local expert on off grid home solar power and alternative energy systems, we have the best of both worlds. Our basic solar powered energy system provides more electricity than we expected, it has been very reliable and maintenance-free, and it is almost entirely hidden from view. A solar panel on the roof with a few wires leading to a small battery bank powers my laptop, and a radio mounted on a tree for receiving the wireless broadband signal. The system also provides enough energy to charge several small power tools, run our home sound system and, amazingly, power a full-size chest refrigerator year round.
The cost of this complete solar system, in today’s pricing for the components, was about 1200.
Our simple home solar power system is comprised of four basic components: the solar panels, a charge controller, two 6-volt golf cart batteries and a small inverter. My son and I were able to install the system in a few hours, and there have been no maintenance issues other than checking the fluid level in the batteries every few months and cleaning the panel surfaces once in a while. Also every year or two I lift up one side of each panel to sweep out any leaves or pine needles that may have collected there.
The cost of this complete solar system, in today’s pricing for the components, was about 1200. It should be noted that I bought the panels ‘used’ for 100 each. Many folks in our community have replaced their 123-watt panels with newer 250-watt ones, which cost about 250 each. So the 123’s were readily available and I was satisfied with the amount of energy they would provide.
The four components are the batteries, charge controller (bottom right), inverter (top right) and battery charger (below inverter).
The basic components of this off grid solar power system are as follows:
We have three solar panels mounted on the roof of our home: 123 watt Sharp Photovoltaic Modules, model 123UJF. The panels are equipped with permanently attached junction boxes for ease of installation of wires and conduit. For each panel, two boards are lag screwed into the roof and the solar panel is bolted to the boards using wing nuts, so it’s easy to lift if maintenance is required. The panel surfaces are about 5” above the roof surface. Two wires run from the solar panels, one is the power line and the other is a ground line. The power line runs down the roof to the charge controller, where there is a fuse. A box on the porch houses the charge controller, inverter and batteries. The ground wire runs beneath the house and is attached to a steel rod that is driven about two feet into the earth.
Panel on roof/panel specs from back of panel
It should be noted that the panel guidelines state that the installation of PV modules requires a “great degree of skill and should only be performed by qualified licensed professionals, including licensed contractors and licensed electricians.” We installed our system ourselves because our supplier, who is a licensed installer, gave us explicit directions and came by to inspect the installation after it was done. We suggest that you follow the recommendation as stated in the module instructions with regard to installation.
The cost of the solar panels in today’s pricing is about 1 per watt.
We use a Morningstar ProStar30 Charge Controller that automatically adjusts the amount of power running into the battery. The controller has a small LED light which indicates the state of charge so it’s easy to see when the batteries are fully charged or if they are becoming depleted. The light flashes green, amber or red, indicating the battery status at any given time. A digital readout shows the battery voltage level and the rate of charge coming from the panels. A quick glance at the charge controller lets us know if we have sufficient power or if we need to cut back a bit on our electricity use until the batteries are topped up again.
The cost of the Morningstar ProStar30 Charge Controller was about 250. You can get it for around 200 today.
Two 6-volt golf cart batteries are wired in series for a 12 volt system. Each battery is rated at 232 amp hours. The batteries are enclosed in a wooden chest with hinged lid, and the top panel of the chest is removed to provide plenty of ventilation. The battery posts and connections are kept clean, and periodically checked to ensure good connections.
The two batteries/closeup of label
The four components are installed in this cedar box with ventilation slot. This box doubles a bench to sit on while removing shoes.
The cost for the two batteries was about 400.
The final piece of the system is a small inverter which converts the 12 volt DC power into 120 volt AC power. This enables us to use standard electric devices without the need for adaptors. Inverters are available in a wide range of wattages for different size systems. Ours is a small inverter made by Nexxtech, rated at 300 watts, with a 500 watt surge capacity. It comes with two cables, red and black, with alligator clip ends for gripping to the battery posts. In choosing which size inverter to buy, we calculated how much power was available to our system and what devices we wanted to run. In calculating power needs, it is important to add the power requirements when two or more devices are running simultaneously.
This is our small Nexxtech inverter.
Our Nexxtech 300 watt inverter cost about 30.
This past year we added a battery charger to the system that serves as supplemental power. Running the battery charger when the batteries get low enables us to have more light and power in the darkest days of winter. The charger is in the same box with the batteries and other components. You may see in the pictures there are two extension cords coming up through the floor – these lead to our woodshed where we have a small Honda 2000 generator. To run the charger, we start the generator, plug the charger into one of the extension cords, and also plug the inverter power line into the other extension cord. The generator only needs to run for about 30 minutes to bring the batteries back up to 12.8 or higher. Then the generator is shut off, the battery charger unplugged, and the inverter power line plugged back in. This process takes only a minute or two, and the restored batteries have sufficient power till the rooftop panels start to get light the next day.
left: Battery charger is on floor beneath inverter. right. Close-up of battery charger.
What this system provides:
An alternative energy system can be used to provide electric power to any number of electric devices, such as appliances, tools and computers. The bigger the system, obviously, the more power it will provide. To give you an idea of the capacity of a small system like ours, here is what we use our solar energy system to power:
Refrigeration: This is a DC powered refrigerator, the same size as a conventional chest freezer (4’ wide). The refrigerator draws 40 watts of power and can be converted to a freezer by replacing the thermostat. Since the refrigerator is a DC model, it is wired directly to the battery, bypassing the inverter. So the refrigerator keeps running even if the inverter is turned off. Our refrigerator has been running continuously for over 8 years without any problems. Even during the dark days of winter, the solar panels provide adequate power to keep it running.
Music: Our home has a Vers sound system which lets us use an iPod or direct cable from an iPhone or computer to deliver a rich sound while drawing relatively little power. We can run this sound system about 3 hours a day in winter, and as much as we want in summer.
Light: The big change for our home is electric lights. We have replaced our kerosene lights with a few of these LED lights, which are only 7 watts each.
Internet: Our solar system also provides adequate power to run a laptop computer, a tablet and to recharge cell phones. It also powers a router from so that multiple computers can be operated ‘Wi-Fi’ at the same time. In addition to the router, a small radio is installed on a tree about 300’ from our house which receives the wireless broadband and transmits the signal to the house.
Small tools and appliances: The system also recharges small tools, such as a battery-powered driver-drill. Our system recharges the battery for this tool in about 30 minutes.
These are the principle applications we use which are provided by the solar power system described above. However, you can use a wide variety of electric devices as needed. Today, we enjoy the benefits of our system without feeling a technological intrusion into our off-grid homestead and lifestyle. The refrigerator especially has made a big improvement in our day to day living, since storing food is so much easier. And we don’t miss the kerosene lamps.
Bringing electricity to rural locations is something of a balancing act since we don’t want our simple lifestyle changed by too many electrical gadgets. It does require some restraint to keep things simple, but the few electric amenities we now have are most appreciated!
About the Author
Greg SeamanOriginally from Long Island, NY, Greg Seaman founded Eartheasy in 2000 out of concern for the environment and a desire to help others live more sustainably. As Editor, Greg combines his upbringing in the cities of New York, Boston and San Francisco with the contrast of 31 years of living ‘off-grid’ to give us a balanced perspective on sustainable living. Greg spends his free time gardening, working on his home and building a wooden sailboat with hand tools.
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Greenhouse Solar Powered Ventilation System
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Green Cone Solar Waste Digester
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Jora JK270 Composter. 9.5 Cubic Feet
Premium Drinking Water Safe Garden
Excalibur 9-Tray Food Dehydrator with Timer
Excalibur 5-Tray Food Dehydrator with Digital Timer
All-American Pressure Canner/Cooker. 15.5 quart
All-American Pressure Canner/Cooker. 30 Quarts
Components of Your Solar Power System
When starting out on a new home DIY solar energy project, one of the many question asked by a beginner is: “What component parts do I need to complete my solar power project”. The 7 components of your solar power system need not be expensive or hard to find, as many DIY solar power installations are built using secondhand parts from the internet as people look to upgrade their PV system.
But before you start buying or connecting together the individual component parts on your roof, it helps to get a good quality solar guide that will walk you step by step through the whole process of building, installing and setting up your own home solar energy system. Aside from the obvious requirements of time, tools and instructions, let us look at the 7 basic components you will need for your solar power system.
For installing a grid-tied solar power system for your home, there are basically 7 main components that you will need and we will organise these in the order in which they will be connected into your home solar energy system.
Solar Photovoltaic Panels
In most home installation and DIY solar power system, photovoltaic solar panels are built by the homeowner from individual parts found in their garage or workshop. But you can order discount photovoltaic cells online, and assemble these into complete 80W, 100W, or 120W Solar Panels.
If you do not have the time or skills to build a solar panel from scratch, there are plenty of commercially available panels to choose from. Once built, individual panels are wired together to make larger solar arrays.
Solar Power System Disconnects
A solar power system disconnects are basically just an electrical switch but is an important part of the system. It allows you to disconnect and cut-off the DC power output from your solar panels and array should any repairs be required or if there is a problem with the solar system. This disconnect switch needs to be strong enough to handle the full power output from the panels on a bright sunny day.
Battery Charge Controller
Most home solar systems are built with a battery backup included for when the sun does not shine such as on dull days or at night. The battery charge controller ensures that a consistent amount of electrical power is sent to the batteries so that they are not over charged, and to ensure that the backup batteries do not discharge back through the system at night. In many ways this component is similar to your automotive battery charger so will not be too expensive.
Deep Cycle Battery Storage
In order to store the solar power generated by your solar panels and keep the lights shinning through the night, your solar system will need deep cycle batteries. Deep cycle batteries are not the same as shallow charge automotive batteries which are designed with thinner lead plates for cars.
Deep cycle storage batteries for solar systems are more robust and are designed for the type of charging and discharging cycles they need to endure. New deep cycle batteries are expensive but reconditioned batteries are cheaper. Better still, you may be able to get old dead batteries for free used previously in fork trucks, golf carts, and electric buggies and recondition them yourself.
System Power System Metering
A solar power meter can be optional, but it is listed here as its inclusion will give you a clear way to see how much free solar power is being supplied to your home from your solar panels. Having a system power meter also helps you improve your system to gain the maximum efficiency from your solar installation as well as having the advantage of letting your neighbours know how much money your solar system is saving.
Solar Power System Inverter
Your solar panels generate DC power, and your home runs on mains AC power, the solar power inverter converts the DC solar energy from the photovoltaic panels into usable 115, 220 or 240V AC electrical energy in the home by providing the DC to AC conversion using electronic switching techniques.
In practical terms, the an inverter allows you to run electric drills, computers, vacuum cleaners, mains lighting, and most other mains electrical appliances that can be plugged into the wall sockets of your solar panels. There are many square wave, sine wave modified wave inverters on the market these days but a good quality 1200W sine wave inverter likely won’t cost you more than a few hundred dollars.
Some form of back power may be required for when the sun does not shine and the storage batteries are empty. Most systems will include some sort of backup power. In a stand alone installation this would generally be a diesel generator. In a grid-tied system the utility grid itself would provide the backup power through the inverter. But a backup power source can also be a wind turbine or a water wheel as part of a small scale hydro system.
So whether you build your own solar panels from scratch or buy pre-made commercial panels, using solar energy to power your home can be easier than you think. With a grid connected system you can even sell excess electricity you do not use back to the utility company who have been selling it to you for all these years giving you an additional income.
Alternative Energy Tutorials is dedicated to helping and showing you what you need to make Solar Power in your home a reality, and to help you on your way so why not consider Clicking Here and getting one of the solar books from Amazon about home made solar panel construction ensuring so that you have all the necessary information to get your solar power installation working efficiently and effectively the first time. Good luck!
Basic solar panel setup
PlayaLabs is ‘For Burners, By Burners’. We run tests and trials on-playa. We link to honest reviews and the best we can find. We always link to FREE-SHIPPING!
Keep your balls in a sack!
You can make a Shade Structure!
Even you can do solar power!
You can run off the sun!
The Playa is ideal for solar power. This solar station plays well with the Swamp Cooler.
Renewable energy will help you Leave-No-Trace and looks good on your camp’s Placement application.
A solar station can be a weedy buggy jungle. But you don’t have to be an electrical engineer. Even a beginner can do the Playalabs’ simple playa-approved tutorial.
It’s not cheap, but it’s do-able (about 250 to 600). You can use the kit for other events and road trips house too!
Preferred Shopping List:
There are a few ways to skin this cat, but ThePlayaLabs’ simplest, quickest kit involves this short list of items:
- Deep Cycle Battery
- Solar Panel Kit
- Inverter w/ cables
- Wire strippers
- Extra Wire
- Gator Clips We got feedback that our Solar Parts list gave too many options. So we re-did the parts list for your budget and power needs, with 3 kits (High-end, Mid-range, and Budget-Bob).
The 3 Main Parts:
- Storage Battery: Yes you need a battery
- Panel: The sexy part
- Electronics: Components and cables
It’s possible to run a solar panel directly to your electronics, but playa-testing reveals this is unreliable. Sometimes it’s cloudy or dark when you need power. Power output from the panel is “choppy”, which can actually damage your electronics. The battery allows you to capture solar energy when it’s shining and then use power whenever you need it.
The panel gets most of the glory, but the battery really is the heart of the operation.
You need a 12 volt Deep Cycle” or “Marine battery.
This is not a regular car battery! Look for the keywords Deep Cycle and/or Marine at auto parts stores or boating stores.
You can get these ones online. These are fucking heavy so bake cookies for your delivery driver.
12V batteries are rated by Amp-Hours or AH. That’s basically how much juice they hold. Amp Hours = battery lasts longer. Get the largest Amp-Hour you can afford. This may be a time to buddy-up with campmates to get a larger battery. Ideally you get 100 AH or greater. If you’re frugal with power, 50 AH battery can do OK. We don’t recommend anything below 50 AH for the Burn. 35 AH is just not enough to make it worthwhile.
A note on TERMinology, the TERM “TERMINALS” means the metal posts on the battery. There is a positive and negative “TERMINAL”. That TERMINATES this paragraph. Stop saying TERM.
The is Positive and usually Red or White. The. is Negative and usually Black. Avoid touching the terminals. And don’t let objects touch the terminals or you might throw a spark—unlikely but possible, so just be careful, kids.
Panel: Now the fun stuff
Make sure you get a panel compatible with a 12 Volt system.
Panels rated 12V or up to 18V are still OK.
But do not use a rooftop panel from a house (for example, sometimes people sell a leftover panel from a home solar setup). That panel would NOT work with our 12V setup, unless you know what you’re doing and check the voltage.
Don’t worry we put some playa-tested panels on our parts page.
Panels are rated by Wattage. Get the largest Wattage you can afford. Budget Bob, if you are weighing your costs on the Battery vs the Panel, it’s better to get a larger AmpHour Battery and a smaller panel. Spend more on the Battery and save on the Panel if you have limited budget.
For the panel, get at least 20 Watts for light duty (it’ll run a swamp cooler a few hours a day, charge phones, and run LEDs sporadically). Upgrade to a 100W panel if you are hoping to charge many phones, or run more lights, gadgets, speakers etc.
It may sound amazing to get a 500W panel or some ungodly amount of wattage. But you can overwhelm the charge capacity of the battery. So if you have the budget and the desire, get ANOTHER 100W panel, another battery and inverter, and use 2 identical kits. This will get you more useful energy than simply getting a huge panel.
The panel kits we tested come with adapters and charge controller (more on that later). We recommend the kits with these gizmos included—it’s just easier and cheaper than buying it all separately.
If you really want to customize your kit, you need to buy panels, charge controller, and cable adapters separately.
Components: The Bullshit
Charge controller: This little box to regulates the flow of energy to protect your gear. Luckily the kits come with this included.
12V wires. 10 gauge, at least 10 ft.
Gator clips. You need at least 2 but get a few backups. If you’re doing a Swamp Cooler, you need 2 more clips.
Inverter: A boxy device that makes this whole thing usable.
Inverters are confusing. Let’s clear it up:
If all you are running is a swamp cooler, you do not need an inverter! You can connect directly to the battery terminals. See the other tutorial for getting wired.
The inverter takes power from the battery and transforms it into a usable form for USB gadgets and standard AC plugs.
There are 2 types of inverters: Modified Sine or Pure Sine. For most electronics, the Modified Sine is fine. Your LEDs and USB devices, and phone chargers will be alright. If you have advanced audio equipment, medical devices, laptops, or high tech gadgetry, you may want to spend extra and get a Pure Sine inverter.
The PlayaLabs have listed solar kits with different inverters for various budgets. All of ours have safety-features that some cheaper inverters are missing.
Anytime the solar panel is in the sun, its collecting energy. If the panel is in the sun, the wires will be live! Don’t freak, just be careful.
Flip the panel face-down ass-up. There are Pos and.Neg wires leading from the back of the panel.
If you bought a complete kit w/ charge controller, follow the instructions on connecting the cables. The kits come with good instructions and it’s not hard—connect the 2 cables coming from the panel to the charge controller INPUT. Line up Positive to Positive, and Negative to Negative. Then you connect the second set of cables from the charge controller OUTPUT to the battery terminals.
If you didn’t buy the complete kit with cables, or you need additional help, follow these steps:
On your panel, find the Pos and –Neg wires. Depending on your kit, you may need cable adapters. Run the Pos and –Neg wires from the panel into the INPUT slots on the charge controller (labelled with a grid Panel icon), and make sure you match the Positive cable to Positive slot, and Negative to Negative slot.
Next, cut a length of your black and red 12v power wires about 10 feet (you can always shorten it later but best to start with a nice long piece).
On one end of these power wires, strip a half inch of insulation, twist the fibers, and connect the red wire to the Pos slot of the Charge Controller (the output slots labeled with a square Battery icon), and repeat to connect the black wire to the.Neg slot of the Charge Controller output.
Now, on the loose end of your red and black power wires, strip an inch of the coating from the black and red wires, and crimp the bare wires onto gator clips. Label these Gator Clips with a Sharpee: PANEL TO BATTERY
Clamp the gator clips labeled (PANEL TO BATTERY) onto the 12v battery terminals.
Make sure everything is lined up Red = Positive; Black =.Negative.
Flip your panel back over and let the sun hit it. The indicator lights on the charge controller should light up indicating the flow of energy.
Congratulations! You just made renewable energy.
Chose the inverter that meets your needs (read above yo!).
The inverter comes with red and black cables and clips. Label these clips INVERTER. I know we’re labelling a lot you’ll see why.
Attach the included cables to the inverter (each inverter is a little different, read their instructions how and where to attach).
Clip the INVERTER clips to the battery terminals matching Pos and.Neg. You may need to adjust the solar panel clips and inverter clips so everything fits on the Terminal. It doesn’t matter which clips go on first, just set it up the most secure way.
Once it’s all connected, turn ON the inverter. The LED on the inverter should turn on and it may “Beep” as it powers up. Plug in your phone charger to the inverter and verify that your phone is receiving a charge. If your inverter keeps beeping, that’s an error message. Detach all cables and try again, make sure all Red/Positive and Black/Negative are lined up properly.
The inverter is a sensitive piece of equipment. It has a built in fan, and needs to be kept out of the sun and dust with some fresh air circulating. You should consider customizing a plastic storage tub or crate to house all the cables and inverter. Something like these, to keep it shaded and make sure drunkees don’t kick it or run over it.
At the very least, make sure the inverter is in the shade and not sitting in a pile of dust. (ie, under a table or car bumper, with some fresh air).
Now you can plug your electronic devices into the inverter, using the USB ports and regular AC outlets.
Just because it has an outlet does not mean you can plug in anything you want! It has limitations and it won’t run a microwave, massive sound system, etc. It will run LEDs, small speakers, and it works well to charge phones and batteries. Understand that your rig has limitations.
Unclip the inverter (or turn off via the remote) when not in use to preserve battery life.
Tell your campmates how to turn off the battery station when not in use!
Unclip the solar panel or put a towel over it before working w/ the wires!
Set up your whole system at home before the burn. Make sure you know how it runs and connects. Label stuff. Make sure it works.
The items linked here all carry warranties so if something doesn’t work, return it.
Everything will run better if you start off with a fully-charged battery. We linked to an inexpensive little charger that is a great help and it will prolong the life of your battery. Worth the investment.
Wipe down the solar panel every day to get rid of the dust! This is very important.
Keep solar panel up high and in the sun (duh!). The top of a vehicle is a good spot. Optional: angle the panel slightly to face the south. This can be as simple as a rolled up towel or 2×4 frame.
Inverter: The Playa-Tested inverters have auto-shutoff features that will turn off when the battery power gets too low (this is to prevent damaging the battery). If this happens, you have to wait for a sunny day. Unclip the inverter from the battery, make sure the solar panel and charge controller are connected properly and clipped to the battery. Let it sit in the sun for a day and recharge without any usage.
Turn stuff off when you leave camp. The inverter drains a little power any time it is connected, so unclip the inverter when you’re not using it. The nicer model has a built in control switch to turn it off without unclipping (very nice).
If you end up running out of power, you can always re-charge the battery the old fashioned way: using a set of jumper cables (you should have this anyway, right?). Attach the Deep Cycle terminals to your vehicle battery, and idle your vehicle for a few hours. This is inconvenient and less-than-ideal, but it’s a suitable backup plan.
Inverter overheating: Your inverter beeps and shuts down. It is probably clogged with dust. Unclip it, blow the dust out of the fan, and put it in the shade to cool down for a few hours. Make sure your battery and inverter setup is in the shade and protected from dust drifts, and gets fresh air.
You may have a blown fuse. Each inverter has a different fuse setup, check the instructions.
You may have too many devices plugged into your inverter. Campmates may have tried to charge massive devices. Unplug everything and slap your campmates.
The playa has a way of making wires come undone. Flip the panel over (or cover with a towel), then trace all the wires and make sure everything is still well-attached and where it should be. Drunk campmates have a habit of knocking wires loose, then reattaching in the wrong location. Proceed with slapping.
You can damage your nice new battery if you run it down too much. So don’t leave things plugged into the inverter or running off the battery all night. Don’t be a bug, unplug.
SWAMP COOLER INTEGRATION
The solar rig described here is ideal for the swamp cooler.
Check our new tutorial for Wiring the solar station and integrating your swamp cooler!
RV Solar Panels: A Guide For Beginners
Solar panels atop RVs are all the rage. Everybody’s installing them. But what are RV solar panels? How do they work, what can they do for you, and are they worth the investment? Let’s find out!
What Are RV Solar Panels?
In the 1800s, scientists observed something called the photovoltaic effect, where some materials would produce an electric charge and current when exposed to sunlight. Attempts were made over the years to create “solar engines,” as they called them, but most had very low efficiencies. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that scientists discovered that silicon (found in sand) could create a much more efficient solar panel.
This initial discovery led to the development of solar cells that could harness the sun’s energy and turn it into electricity. The technology has evolved over the years, but the concept remains the same.
A solar panel is a panel filled with solar cells that capture the sun’s energy and turn that energy into usable electricity that powers homes, businesses, coffee pots, and, yes – your RV!
Let’s find out how it all works!
How Do RV Solar Panels Work?
Let’s imagine you have a couple of solar panels on the roof of your RV. If your RV is on the road or parked during the day, sunlight hits your solar panels, and cells on the panels absorb energy from the sun.
Within your solar panels’ cells, circuits take the energy absorbed by the sun’s cells and turn it into electrical current. The electrical current is fed through wires to a charge controller that controls the battery’s current.
So the system looks like this:
This energy becomes DC (direct current) electricity that charges your RV’s house battery or batteries, essentially “storing” energy to be used to power devices and appliances in your RV or charge devices for your later use.
This DC power from the solar panels and batteries is typically 12 volts. This DC power runs lights, appliances, and electronics in the RV.
However, you can also take that 12-Volt DC, pass it through an inverter, and convert it to 120-Volt AC (alternating current) electricity (like the outlets found in a sticks-and-bricks house) to power 120-Volt devices such as a coffee pot.
There are 120-Volt outlets scattered throughout your RV, but those don’t have power unless you’re using a generator or your RV is plugged into shore power.
If you want to run a 120-Volt appliance when you’re boondocking in the desert, you can harness the sun’s energy through solar panels — charge controller — batteries — inverter, and voila! = 120-Volt electricity at your command!
Theoretically, you can power anything with the sun’s energy provided you have enough solar panels, batteries, and conversion ability!
How To Know How Many Solar Panels You Need For Your RV
Knowing how much solar power you need for your camping comfort involves figuring out a couple of pieces of information. These two parts of the equation help you determine how many solar panels you’ll need for the sun’s power to deliver the electricity you want. The two parts of this equation are:
- How many watt-hours will you use each day? (energy used)
- How much energy do your solar panels provide to your battery/batteries? (energy stored)
You must balance all of this for an optimal system. Solar panels without enough batteries to store all of the power they produce will waste your money and not provide the power you need.
Conversely, one solar panel and lots of batteries will not allow enough of the sun’s energy to be harnessed to fill those batteries for your use!
Figuring out this balancing act can take some work and requires an entire article of its own to explain, but we can distill down the basics here.
Calculating How Much Energy You Use
First, you need to know how much energy you use in a day. There are a couple of ways you can do this. The first involves math. Estimate how much power you’ll consume while boondocking in your RV by learning what each device or appliance you want to use consumes and multiplying that by the number of hours you’ll use that device or appliance.
Here’s an example: You have one television that consumes 90 Watts. You estimate that you’ll watch television for approximately two hours per day. So 90W x 2h = 180 Watt/Hours per day
You can do the same for every appliance or device you may want to power as you boondock, and you would add the total of Watt-hours consumed. From there, you can estimate how many panels you need.
Calculating Energy Generation and Storage Needs
A decent assumption is that a 100-Watt solar panel will generate on average 350 Watt-hours of power per day. However, this will vary significantly by location and time of year. This article by Mortons on the Move explains a way to get a more accurate result by using PVwatts.
You’ll also need to know how many batteries you’ll need to store that amount of power! One 100 ah 12volt Battle Born battery has about 1200 Watt-hours storage capacity.
Keep in mind that your solar panels will only give you the stated number of Watts under perfect conditions. Perfect conditions = direct sun pointing directly at the panel. On a rainy day, you won’t get 100 Watts from your 100-Watt solar panel. If you’re parking in the shade, you won’t get 200 Watts from your 200-Watt solar panel.
It’s also challenging to estimate the amount of power you’ll use on a given day because days are different. You may be outside all day today enjoying nature, and fall into bed and watch 15 minutes of television tonight. Tomorrow could be a rainy day, and you’ll stay inside your RV, do a lot of work on your laptop, and watch a couple of hours of television in the evening. So estimating high is usually a good idea!
Rather than estimating your daily power consumption using math, some people prefer to simply go out camping without electrical hookups and monitor their battery usage over a typical day. Installing a battery meter like the Victron BMV712 before installing solar can give you an accurate reading of how much power your RV needs.
RV Solar System Components
Before we take a look at how you install a solar system, let’s review the RV solar system components:
Your battery bank is the heart of an RV’s power system. Without a battery, an RV has no way to store power. The battery is where energy provided by the sun is stored for your use. Your solar panels will charge the battery bank.
But not all battery banks are created equal, and not all are suited to the unpredictable charge cycles of solar systems. Lithium batteries for solar applications are the superior choice over lead-acid.
RV Solar Panels
Your RV solar panels will sit on the roof of your RV collecting energy from the sun in the solar cells and transferring that energy (through a charge controller) to your battery bank. Your solar panels may lay flat, or you may choose to employ a mounting method that allows you to angle the solar panels toward the sun.
The charge controller mounts inside the RV. Wires run from your solar panels to the charge controller and from the charge controller into your battery bank. The purpose of the charge controller is to control the rate at which your batteries charge. The charge controller is required to prevent overcharging and in the case of an MPPT charge controller, operate the panels as efficiently as possible.
The electricity from your batteries is 12-Volt DC electricity. With this, you can power all 12-Volt devices and appliances as well as the 12-Volt (cigarette lighter) ports in your RV. If you want to use 120-Volt AC electricity to power a coffee maker, laptop, Instapot, or anything that requires AC, you’ll need an inverter that transforms 12V DC power to 120V AC power.
You’ll mount your inverter inside your RV as close to your battery bank as possible, and your AC appliances and devices will receive the transformed (from DC to AC) power from that inverter.
Do You Need To Use RV-specific Solar Panels?
No! Any type of solar panel can be made to work with an RV; however, there may be some challenges.
First is space available. An RV roof may have lots of stuff on it and require the use of smaller panels. If the roof is wide open, full-size residential panels like used on homes can be used for RV solar panels.
The second challenge with non-RV-specific panels is the voltage they operate at. Most RV solar panels are around 17-20 volts which will work with most PWM charge controllers to charge a 12-volt system. Home solar panels are usually 40-70 volts and cannot be used with PWM charge controllers.
You can use MPPT style controllers as long as they have a high enough voltage rating. Using an MPPT controller allows the use of most of any solar panel for an RV.
How To Hook Up Solar Panels to RV Batteries
Now that we know how many solar panels you want to add to your RV let’s figure out how to connect them to your RV batteries to produce the electricity you need!
Solar electric systems for RV’s vary enormously, especially if installing a larger system, make sure you are confident working with electrical wiring before taking this on. For systems up to a few hundred watts or kits, the voltages are not dangerous and can be installed by anyone. Regardless of the size, the following instructions are a high level of how the components should be wired.
Let’s assume that you’ve purchased a kit containing the solar panel system parts, and you have a battery or battery bank installed in your RV.
- A solar panel (or more than one, depending on what you’ve opted to buy).
- A charge controller.
- A wiring harness (and possibly connectors, adapters, and mounting brackets)
You may also want a battery monitor and an inverter (to turn that 12V DC power into 120V AC power).
Steps for Connecting RV Solar Panels to Your RV Batteries
Here are the steps to connecting your solar panels to your batteries:
- Mount your solar panels on the roof of your RV.
- Mount your charge controller inside the RV as close to your batteries as possible.
- Run your wiring from the solar panels into the RV and over to the charge controller. (You can run your wiring through a refrigerator vent or through the holes where the plumbing enters the RV if these are located near your batteries. If not, you can drill a hole through the roof of your RV to run your wires and thoroughly cover and caulk any drilled holes.) You should install a fuse or circuit breaker on the wires for this run.
- Connect the wires from your charge controller to your battery bank. A fuse slightly larger than the charge controller’s rated current should be installed on these wires.
- At this point, the system is fully installed but the RV solar panels are not connected to the charge controller. Before making the final connection it’s important to double-check all wiring to make sure polarity (positive and negative) are all correct. Once confident you can plug in the solar panels to the charge controller. We recommend doing this at night or with the solar panels covered by a blanket to prevent a spark.
- This step is optional, but if you want to use 120-Volt AC appliances, you’ll want to mount an inverter inside your RV, as close to the batteries as possible, and run appropriate wiring to that inverter.
Note: If you are wiring your solar panels/controller directly to your battery bank, there is no need to disconnect the existing converter in your RV. Both the converter and the solar panels will be able to supply charge to the battery bank.
Are RV Solar Panels Worth It?
If you always camp at campgrounds and RV resorts where you will be paying for electrical hookups to power your RV and your various devices and appliances, then investing in a solar system may not be worthwhile.
However, if you like to boondock – to stay in areas where there are no electrical hookups – beaches, city parks, state parks, the desert, a solar panel system is an excellent addition to your RV lifestyle. Solar panels provide silent power and can minimize the need for a noisy generator to recharge your batteries.
Solar panels are a remarkable development in renewable energy! As an RVer, a solar panel system frees you! It allows you to go anywhere and stay anywhere, harnessing the incredible power of the sun to address all of your electrical needs.
Solar Panel Setup: The Easiest Step-by-Step Guide
To set up your first solar panel system, you will need to buy solar panels, batteries, a charge controller, an inverter, and cables to connect everything together. Next, you will need to connect these parts in the right order, making sure they are installed and set up correctly so they can work well together.
In this guide, we will show you the exact process of setting up a basic solar panel system. We will discuss everything from choosing the right equipment to connecting these components together.
Step 1: Getting the Materials and Tools
Before you can begin assembling your DIY solar panel system, you’ll need to gather the essential materials and tools.
Here’s a list of items you will require to complete this project:
- A solar panel
- A 12V battery
- A 10A, 12V DC charge controller with a built-in inverter
- Cabling and connectors to connect the solar panel and the battery to the charge controller
In addition, you will also need:
- A plier
- A wire cutter
- A multimeter (optional)
Before you start working, make sure you have a safe and comfortable workspace for assembling and testing your solar panel system. Make sure you have ample space and proper lighting.
Step 2: Understand the basic wiring setup
It is important to first understand how everything connects together in a basic solar system. The three main components in the solar panel setup are the solar panel, the charge controller, and the battery. The basic wiring setup of how these are connected is shown below.
Step 3: Connecting and Wiring Solar Panels
Most solar systems use more than one solar panel to generate enough electricity to meet the power requirement.
Here, we’ll walk you through the steps of installing a single-panel solar system. You may want to use multiple panels in your own system for two reasons, though.
- To adjust the voltage and current of your solar panels to match the specifications of your selected charge controller.
- To increase the overall power output of your solar system.
Multiple solar panels in a solar system can be connected together in two ways:
In a series connection, the solar panels are connected end-to-end by connecting the positive terminal of one panel connected to the negative terminal of the next panel. This increases the system’s voltage but keeps the current constant.
This type of connection is great for systems that need higher voltage, those with MPPT charge controllers, or setups with wiring that covers long distances.
In a parallel connection, the solar panels are connected side-by-side. We do this by connecting the positive terminals together for all panels. Similarly, we connect all the negative terminals together.
This method keeps the voltage the same while bumping up the current. Parallel connections are made to increase the overall power output of a solar system while ensuring that your system voltage matches your charge controller.
You can also combine series and parallel connections to achieve the desired voltage and power for your system. To calculate the right size of the solar system for your needs, check out our step-by-step guide.
Wiring Solar Panels
Here are some important points to keep in mind when wiring solar panels:
- Pick the right wire: When selecting solar wires, you’ll want to choose the right wire size to minimize power loss and keep your system safe. Use an online calculator to figure out the wire size based on your solar panel system’s current and voltage requirements.Go for UV-resistant, weatherproof wires that are designed for solar applications, especially for outdoor installations.
- Install and utilize proper connectors: Most solar panels come with pre-installed MC4 connectors, which make it super easy and secure to connect. If your panels don’t have connectors, you can attach them manually.
- Connect the panels with fuses: Place the solar panel face-down on a cushioned surface to avoid scratches and easily access the cables. Then, locate the positive solar cable on your panel, which is marked by a plus sign or a male MC4 connector with a red rubber ring. Next, connect the positive solar panel cable to the MC4 inline fuse. After that, connect the charge controller adapter cable, the positive solar cable, and the positive solar extension cable to each other. The process for the solar negative cable is pretty much the same, except you won’t need a fuse.
- Properly secure the connections: Make sure the connections are secure and watertight to avoid disconnection and potential hazards.
Step 4: Connecting Solar Panels to the Charge Controller
Once your solar panels are connected in the designed solar array, it’s time to connect them to the charge controller.
The charge controller is an essential component of the solar system as it regulates the current and voltage going to the battery. This ensures that the battery is charged safely and efficiently.
Very important: You should never connect the solar panels directly to the battery.
You can easily connect your solar panel to the charge controller by following these steps:
- Identify input terminals on the charge controller: Locate the input terminals on the charge controller, which are usually marked as “PV”, “Solar”, or with a symbol of a PV panel. The positive and negative terminals are marked with corresponding positive and negative symbols.
- Connect cables to the solar panel: Connect appropriate cables with MC4 connectors to the positive and negative terminals of your solar panel.
- Connect the positive cable to the charge controller:Strip the free ends of the cables connected to the solar panel. Attach the positive solar cable from the solar panel to the positive input terminal on the charge controller. Ensure the connection is secure and tight.
- Connect the negative cable to the charge controller: Similarly, attach the negative solar cable from the solar panel to the negative input terminal on the charge controller. Again, make sure the connection is secure and tight.
Step 5: Connecting the Battery to the Charge Controller
The next step is to connect your battery and charge controller together.
Each charge controller has a set battery voltage it can work with. For small-scale residential systems, this can be either 12V, 24V, or 48V. Depending on your selected charge controller and battery, you may need to connect several batteries in series to get the required voltage before you connect the batteries to the charge controller.
You may also wish to connect batteries in parallel to increase the overall storage capacity. Use an online calculator to calculate the required size of your battery pack. You can use lithium batteries or simple lead-acid batteries to make your battery bank.
You can connect your battery bank to the charge controller in three simple steps:
- Identify the battery terminals: Locate the positive and negative battery terminals on the charge controller. Also, identify the positive and negative terminals on the battery.
- Prepare battery cables: Use appropriately sized battery cables that are suitable for the voltage and current of your battery bank.
- Connect positive and negative cables: Attach one end of the positive and negative battery cables to the positive and negative terminals of your battery, respectively. Connect the other ends to the corresponding terminals of the charge controller.
Step 6: Connecting the Charge Controller/Inverter to the AC Load
Next, link the AC output of your charge controller to your electrical panel. This step typically involves wiring the inverter’s output to a dedicated circuit breaker within the panel. This helps in distributing the power to various loads in your home.
However, take note that if you have a grid-tied solar energy system, you may need to install a bi-directional meter to measure both energy consumption from and exported to the grid.
Very Important: Consult with a licensed electrician to ensure that your solar installation complies with local regulations and utility requirements.
Step 7: Ensure Grounding and Surge Protection
A proper grounding and surge protection system is vital for the safety and longevity of your solar energy system.
Follow these guidelines to establish a robust grounding and surge protection system:
- Equipment Grounding: Ground all metallic components of your solar panel system, including solar panel frames, mounting structures, power inverters, and battery enclosures. Utilize appropriately sized grounding conductors to ensure a low-resistance connection to the ground.
- System Grounding: Establish a grounding electrode system using ground rods, plates, or rings connected to your system’s grounding conductor. Ensure that the grounding electrode has a low resistance to earth (typically below 25 ohms) and complies with local regulations.Ground the negative terminal of your battery pack or the grounding point of your solar charge controller. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s recommendations while doing this.
- Surge Protection Devices (SPDs): Install SPDs at critical points in your solar panel system, such as the solar array, inverter, and battery bank. SPDs protect your system components from voltage surges caused by lightning strikes, grid fluctuations, or other transient events.
Step 8: Install a Monitoring System
A monitoring system allows you to track your solar power system’s performance, receive notifications for specific events, and store historical performance data for analysis. Consider these factors when selecting and installing a monitoring system:
- Compatibility: Ensure the monitoring system is compatible with your inverter, solar charge controller, and battery bank. Many manufacturers offer proprietary monitoring solutions that seamlessly integrate with their products.
- Data Logging: Choose a monitoring system that logs essential data, such as solar panel output, battery voltage and state of charge, inverter output, and energy consumption.
- Remote Access: Opt for a monitoring system that provides remote access through a web portal or mobile app. This allows you to monitor your solar energy system’s performance and receive notifications from anywhere with an internet connection.
- Installation: Install the monitoring system according to the manufacturer’s guidelines. This typically involves connecting the monitoring device to your power inverter or charge controller, connecting the device to your home network, and configuring the software settings.
Step 9: Test Your System
Before activating your solar power system, it’s crucial to test its functionality and safety. Follow these steps to perform a thorough system test:
- Visual Inspection: Examine all components, cables, and connections within your solar panel system for any visible damage, corrosion, or improper installation.
- Voltage and Polarity Check: Perform voltage and polarity checks on your solar array, battery bank, and power inverter using a multimeter. Ensure the values match the specifications and are consistent with your solar energy system’s design.
- Continuity and Insulation Resistance Test: Perform a continuity test on all conductors to ensure there are no open circuits or loose connections. Additionally, check the insulation resistance between the conductors and the system’s grounding to ensure there are no short circuits or leakage currents.
- Inverter Functionality Test: Check its output AC voltage, frequency, and waveform with a multimeter. Verify that these parameters align with the inverter’s specifications and the requirements of your electrical loads.
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