I recently installed a 100 watt solar panel system on Brittany and my 19-foot Winnebago (Winnie). I made a couple videos about the install that you may want to check out. They provide some good information to help others in their potential solar system installs. However, I wanted to create an article where I could share with more details my experience and recommendations with solar panel unit installations. I did a lot of research before and during my install. My hope is that this article combines the research I did with the personal experience I had and provides you with enough information to get you prepared, equipped and excited for your solar system installation.
I have broken this article up into a few sections based on the most common questions I have been asked about our new solar system. I have also provided links to all the products that I used and recommend to make your life easier when deciding on what you need. Let’s get started!
What is solar? How does it work?
Ok.. Are you ready for some science? If your answer is, “not really”, don’t worry, this won’t last long. Here is a super-duper-basic explanation of solar power. Solar power converts sun energy into electricity. A solar panel’s key elements are silicon and phosphorous. Photons from the sun cause electrons in the panel’s silicon and phosphorous cells to break and bond, break and bond, break and bond. This repeated action creates enough electricity to be harnessed and stored in batteries. DC battery power can then be inverted into AC power and used to run standard electronics.
So what does this really mean? With a small investment up front, we can generate FREE, renewable energy!
The basic set up goes like this. You get a solar panel and run wires from it to a control box. That control box is connected to one or more 6 or 12 Volt DC batteries like the one you have in your car. When the sun is out, the solar panel generates electricity which is controlled and properly distributed by the control box to the batteries. These batteries are then connected to an inverter which changes DC power to usable AC power. Don’t worry about the whole DC to AC thing quite yet, just know that in general everything you use- your computer, your blender, your fan- run off of AC. Thus, you connect an inverter to the batteries and BOOM you have electricity. As you use electricity from the inverter, the batteries are drained and as the solar panel creates energy from the sun the batteries are charged.
Isn’t it more complicated than that? Well.. yes it is. But it is not that complicated and by the time you are done reading this article you are going to an (amateur) pro like me!
How much does it cost?
Like most other things in life, when it comes to pricing out your solar system, you get what you pay for. The bigger the system, that is, the greater potential for usable solar energy, the higher the cost. The higher quality products, that is, the longer lasting and more efficient your products are, the greater the cost.
For me, I wanted a system that was going to support my basic electric needs without being overkill. Not only was cost a factor but space was also a consideration. The larger the system, the more space (and weight) it takes up. That being said, I didn’t want to do all this work and not be able to use my blender or charge two computers simultaneously or run a fan all night. When considering what size of solar system to purchase, it may be helpful to do some basic math for the electronics you are looking to run. We will discuss this more below in the section How much power can I get? What can I run on it?
With no further ado, the entire system I installed cost me a total of $609.98. We will get more detailed about the products I used and alternative products in a following the section What do I need to install? The general brake down was roughly as follows: $175 went to the panel kit (this included one panel, control box and wires), $200 for the inverter and about $250 for the batteries.
How much power can I get? What can I run on it?
There are several factors that determine how much power your system can create, store and turn into usable electricity. In order to simplify this, we will break it down into three parts. First, the solar panel itself. Second, the battery. Third, the invertor.
Solar panels come in a huge variety of sizes and capacity to harness the sun’s power. Ideally, you want a panel set up that will be able to charge your batteries fully every day. If you are unable to charge your batteries before every use, at some point, you will run out of the stored power in your batteries because you will be using it faster than you are creating it.
One car battery has the potential to run almost any household device, the question is, for how long? The number of batteries you have will determine the length of time you will be able to run your electronics.
As I said before, stored battery power is in DC form and must be converted to AC in order to run your electronics. In order to do this you will need an inverter. The size of your inverter will determine how much AC power you can use at any given time. Some inverters only have the capacity to invert enough AC power to charge a phone while others have enough to run your whole house.
Check out the section, What do I need to install, for more detail.
In our system we are able to charge multiple devices at the same time, run a Vitamix to make smoothies, and have a fan on all night long. The only time we ran out of power was using an electric heater which pulled all the power in about 30 minutes. Which leads us to the part of this article that discusses some limitations of solar systems you may want to be aware of.
Although it is certainly possible to run any and all electronics off of stored battery power, there are some basic household electronics that zap a lot of power very quickly. For these you may want to find alternative energy sources. Here is a basic list of electronics to be aware of that gobble your stored energy.
- Anything that heats up or cools down. This includes tea kettles, toasters, coffee pots, heating pads, heaters, electric ranges, refrigerators, hair dryers and air conditioning units.
- Power tools
If you are looking to move off grid there is good news. For many of these electronics there are alternatives. AC units, stoves, washers/dryers and even refrigerators can run off of propane. Additionally, because in the conversion of AC to DC a lot of energy is lost, there are many electronics available that can run directly off of DC power and thus reserve more solar generated energy than their AC counterparts.
Is it easy to install? How do I install a solar system?
So you want to know if installing solar is easy? You want know if you can do it yourself? The short answer is a resounding YES! Every install will vary slightly depending on your set up but the basic concepts will remain. Let’s go through the steps that I took to install a solar panel system on our 19 foot RV.
First, I decided on my location for the solar panel itself. Ideally, your solar panel will be on a flat surface. This will give you the most sunlight available. Our RV roof is mostly a flat surface so I had plenty of real estate to choose from. I decided on the back center, huddled between our skylight and vent pipes.
The solar panel is held down with 4 bolts. That means that I needed to create 4 holes in the roof, which meant a high risk for leaks. Simply drilling 4 holes and bolting the panel down would not suffice. I needed to make sure the bolts were running through something more solid and fixed than the thin aluminum and plywood roof. I wanted to provide the best conditions possible to prevent leaks.
Let’s talk about what this means starting with the inside of Winnie. When Brittany first got Winnie, she renovated her. Part of that process was installing 2 X 3 beams running along the width of the roof. I lucked out with spacing and was able to line up my holes for the bolts to run through the 2 X 3’s. If I were not able to go through the existing 2 X 3 I would have installed a 2 X 3 or at the very least 1 square foot of 3/4 inch plywood for each bolt. This would act as a large washer, spreading out the force of the bolt when the nut was tightened.
Let’s move back outside. Winnie’s roof is aluminum and twice a year we paint her with aluminum roof paint. Although I can use a small roller and reach under the newly installed panel, I knew that once I installed the panel I would not want to remove it. So I took some time to inspect that area of the roof and give it a nice thick coat of paint. I cut some 1/2 inch plywood into 4, 6 inch strips. I screwed them down to the roof where the bolts would be going and then wrapped them in rubber, aluminum tape and painted them with a aluminum roof paint. By doing this I created a platform that prevents the brackets of the solar panel from digging into the aluminum of the roof. This also created a second water barrier to prevent water from entering through the holes created by the bolts.
After the paint dried I laid the solar panel down and marked the holes for the brackets. I used a 1/2 inch drill bit and a rigid portable drill and drilled the holes. Because I didn’t want to have the bolt ends sticking down through the ceiling, causing a potential head gauge when moving around Winnie, I ran the bolts from the inside with the threads exposed on the roof. I then used silicon caulking around the bracket and the bolt. Finally, I covered the bracket and bolt with strips of rubber, aluminum tape and painted it with aluminum roof paint.
With the panel in place it was time to run the two -positive and negative- wires that are attached to the solar panel. The panel kit came with connections and long enough wires to run them down through the roof and into the cabinet where we decided on housing the rest of the system. The question became; Where was I going to create a new hole in the roof to run the wires and how would I ensure that it would not leak? I had some pretty good ideas of how I could do this, but as it turned out, it wasn’t necessary. I instead used an existing vent pipe to run the wire through. The vent pipe I used allows gasses from the waste water tank to exhaust. It is covered, water tight, and had plenty of room to run the wires.
I drilled two holes at the base of the pipe from the inside of Winnie and ran the wires up through the pipe. I connected them to the solar panel and sealed off the holes with a thick tape (you could also use caulking or a mixture of the two) so we wouldn’t get any waste exhaust inside our living space.
I drilled through the back of the cabinetry, ran and tacked the wires to the back side of the cabinet and then connected them right into the control panel that I had mounted on the inside of the cabinet. I then ran a negative and a positive wire from the control panel to the batteries.
Here we will need to take a moment to talk about the battery set up. I went with 4, 6 volt golf cart batteries that are running parallel. Well… what the heck does that mean? Your car battery is 12 volt. You can absolutely use a 12 volt car battery in your system but I wanted to make sure I have enough stored energy to run all the electronics I want so I got a total of 24 volts.
You may ask, “why not just get 2, 12 volt batteries?” A complicated and very long answer could be provided here but do you really want that? I know that I didn’t when I was doing my research. So I will give you the condensed version and hopefully it will provide the info you are looking for. 2, 6 volt golf cart batteries last longer both in their life expectancy and capacity to provide electricity than a standard 12 volt car battery. They are also smaller which for me meant that we could install them easily within the cabinetry where larger 12 volt car batteries would not have fit as well. Overall, the price worked out to be just a little higher for the four golf cart batteries than for two car batteries, and they are expected to last significantly longer.
Before attaching the positive and negative wires from the control box to the batteries, the batteries must be linked. I am providing an image from rvroadtrip.com to help explain the wiring. Wiring up multiple batteries is easy but different depending on 12 volt versus 6 volt. I simply followed the diagram here and all is working well. I recommend you do the same. Be sure to do a little research on wiring so you are aware of how to keep yourself safe when wiring up your batteries.
Once I had my batteries wired I ran my positive and negative wires from the control panel to the batteries. As soon as the connection was made the display on the control box turned on and revealed that the solar was generating electricity and that the system was wired up at 13.6 volts, the exact number I wanted to see.
Here I paused, turned up some music, and committed to a solid five minutes of celebratory dancing. I highly recommend you do the same. Once this subsided I hooked up my negative and positive wires from the inverter to the batteries’ positive and negative terminals. The inverter we bought has a wired remote power button that connects with a phone line wire. I cut a hole on the outside of the cabinet and installed the button. I then ran a standard three prong wire from a standard outlet I had installed next to the on/off button for the inverter, and plugged it into the inverter. This gives us the ability to control and plug into our power from the solar system without having to open up the cabinet.
Finally, I tested it. I turned on the inverter and checked it’s LCD screen which lit up and displayed the same number, 13.6 volts, telling me that the system was connected and had plenty of juice. Now for the real test! I pulled out my Vitamix with it’s 1380 watt motor, put in some frozen bananas, blueberries and apple juice and flipped it on. A few short minutes later I was drinking a delicious smoothie with the music back up and my little feet doing a happy jig throughout the RV.
Is there maintenance?
There is minimal maintenance needed for your system. The most important is to refill the water cells in your batteries. It is recommended you check your cells every month. I think this is a little over kill but since they are probably the most expensive part of your system, I certainly wouldn’t say it is a bad idea. Check the directions on your battery to refill. For most batteries you simply use a screwdriver to pop off the lid on top of the battery and fill to the line with distilled water.
For a system installed on a roof or anywhere that has the potential for leaking, I recommend checking after every big storm, long trip (if your system is mobile), or every few months, whichever comes first. Check for cracks and holes. Install fresh silicon, patch and paint with aluminum paint as needed.
What do I need to install?
I am going to give you links to everything you need to install the same system I installed. I am also going to provide you with some alternatives to create custom system that will fit your needs. I have set up an amazon store with all the products you will need. If you purchase any of the products through the store you get them at the same price you would if you bought them directly through amazon but you get the additional satisfaction knowing that I get a small percentage. This percentage keeps this page running and creates a smile on my face. So… you might want to do that.
I am going to make it super simple and break this up into four categories, giving a little information about each product and a link to purchase the product.
As I said, there are many options for solar panels. After doing a lot of research I decided that the company WindyNation on Amazon seems to have the best options. Because you will need the panel, wires, and a charge controller, I would recommend buying it all in one lump. This assures that they all work together properly and save you a little bit of money in the process.
I went with the single, 100 watt, panel kit. The great thing about this kit is if you wanted to add more panels in the future you do not need to get a new charge controller because it can handle up to 3, 100 watt panels.
The solar panel kit costs $179.99.
There is a ridiculous amount of information out there about batteries. I can’t tell you how many hours of research I did on this part of the system. I have learned several things I want to share with you in a condensed form so you don’t have to spend hours researching this stuff.
- In general, 6 volt golf cart batteries are superior to 12 volt batteries.
- In general, the more expensive the battery the longer life expectancy it has.
- Only use “deep cycle” batteries in solar systems. These include 12 volt marine and 6 volt golf cart batteries. If your 12 volt battery doesn’t specify that it is a “deep cycle” battery, it is not. Deep cycle batteries have the ability to last longer in solar systems.
- Only use new batteries.
- It is possible to spend A LOT of money on batteries. In the Amazon store I have set up I have put in some expensive batteries that are of a very high quality. But also know that-
- It is possible to spend less and still have a great system.
Although there are plenty of reasonable options for batteries on Amazon and at Sam’s Club, Costco and other retailers, I went with Apex batteries because they have better prices than anything else I could find. Use the code “Apex5er” and get 5% off your order.
We got 4, 6 volt golf cart batteries from Apex.com with shipping for a total cost of $249.39.
I have used a variety of inverters in my life and they have all been pretty great for doing simple things like charging my phone or even my computer. Since living in an RV however, I have had several situations come up when the smaller inverters we have used just have not done the jobs that would bring us the kind of joy we are looking for in our lives. I really didn’t want to set up this awesome solar system and then be limited by the inverter simply because I wanted to save a few bucks.
I went with a pretty inexpensive panel and battery set up, but when it came to the inverter, I sprang for one of the more high quality machines available. I couldn’t be happier with my choice.
The Krieger 2000 watt inverter has a 4.5 star rating on Amazon with over 250 reviews. In case you don’t know much about the Amazon star rating system, that is a very good rating! The inverter has a wired remote control, a fuse kit, overload, temperature and short circuit protection and an LCD display that shows input, output and battery levels. We are able to use all of our electronics with this inverter including an electric heater!
The Krieger 2000 watt inverter costs $189.99
Some additional products I have mentioned in this article that may be helpful for the install are as follows:
- Rigid hand held power drill
- Aluminum roof paint
- Aluminum/rubber tape
- Drill bit kit
- Wire cutters
I’m so stoked on our solar system and I really love being stoked. Being able to generate your own power is incredibly self-empowering. Having the satisfaction that you created that for yourself is massively satisfying. I highly encourage you to consider a solar system and if it sounds fun, to install it yourself. Either way, I really hope you find space in your life to do a happy little dance in celebration of your awesomeness.
-Conor McMillen of Thriving Minimalist