A good solar system is one that meets your needs. – jimindenver1)
The fastest way to bring beginner expectations of solar in line with reality is to assume you will run nothing off an inverter. – secessus
This page aims to provide beginners with a basic overview of solar power for nomads. There are oversimplifications and concepts skipped for clarity. If you would like a refresher on basic electronics, see the AltE Intro to Electronics for solar video.
A quick definition: the word nominal will crop up again and again in your reading. It refers to how a thing is named or labeled. In your head you can replace the word “nominal” with the phrase “so-called”. The most common use is “nominal 12v”, referring to the common automotive 12v system. The term is used for historical reasons and is almost never literally 12.00 volts.
Solar is not a cure-all; it is a compromise like anything else.
Solar is expensive for the amount of power you get out of it. It can cost several thousand dollars to get the same amount of reliable power one might might get from a residential (or campsite) outlet with a $20 extension cord.
Minimizing power consumption is key to happiness with a simple, affordable solar setup. The path to frustration (or at least considerable expense) involves heating or cooling with electricity or trying to run household appliances in a van.
The amount of power a solar configuration outputs is greatly affected by things like latitude, season, shade, temperature, and even battery voltage.
Since it looks like magic, beginners tend to worry about whether or not their system is working. It usually is.
Given these limitations why do we do spend so much time and money on solar? Because having power off-grid, however expensive and limited, can make a huge difference in quality of life. Solar is silent, works for decades, and is always working when the sun is shining.2)
Solar power uses solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity. This power is usually stored in a deep-cycle "house" battery, which is seperate from the vehicle's starter battery. Electricity from the panels is fed to the battery by a solar charge controller, which keeps the battery optimally charged and powers any “loads” (things that consume power).
Kits are available that handle the basics at a reasonable price. 200W of solar is the most common campervan setup, and is sufficient for most campers that do not run inverter (residential appliance) loads.3)
Are kits the penny-pinching cheapest, or the highest tech, or the most tacticool military/marine grade option? No. But the average user doesn't need those attributes. And once users get comfortable with how their system works it can often be tweaked for better operation by adjusting controller setpoints. But that is further down the road.
For now, let's consider some common kit-based installations. The terms used will be discussed later in the page in case you don't recognize some of them.
200W is not a magic number, but it is the most common size of solar install for vandwellers and boondockers. It is probably more than what's needed for the basics and has enough power to add in a 12v compressor refrigerator if desired.
Going beyond the basics, handling the basics more frugally, or running non-trivial loads off an inverter will require more research, planning and patience. Read on, and follow links in the text to drill down to deeper explanations. Beware that some of the links are technical.
You've never seen him run out of power. He isn't wasteful with power but is not obsessed with conserving every watt. He has a functional, comfortable system.
How did he pick those parts? How did he know they would work? Where did he start? What are other people doing? How the heck does anyone untangle this stuff?
[note: this section is complicated and I'm not sure how to simplify it yet. Will keep working on it. – secessus]
First things first: Bill needed some idea of how much power he actually needed each day. He wrote down each item, how much power it uses, and how long he would use it each day. Yes, this was annoying but he didn't try to do it all at once.
He read the Amps off the electrical product label, and multiplied it by the hours per day the item would be use. Amps x Hours = Amp-Hours, commonly written Ah.
This is what he plans to run each day:
So his daily power requirement is 56.2Ah. He will use this to decide how much battery capacity and therefore solar production he will need.
There are calculators to help get a handle on daily power requirements.
Solar setups require a battery bank of some kind, even during the daytime.8) In simple installs the bank is one or two batteries.9) The battery also stores excess power. At night or any other time your demand is higher than your solar is pumping out, you will be pulling power from the battery.
For reasons related to the chemistry of deep cycle batteries, the ~55Ah of daily power will take about 110Ah of rated battery capacity to get through one night with the batteries unharmed. Getting through two nights10) will take ~220Ah.
The most beginner tolerant and value-for-money battery bank is two 6v deep cycle “golf cart” batteries wired in series to make 12v. This will provide 200+ Ah (amp-hours) of rated capacity.11) This bank gives Bill one normal day's use and an extra day of reserve (ie, a day with no charging). A set of golf carts like this will be sufficient for most needs and does well with 200-500W of solar panel. Deep cycle batteries should be discharged no lower than 50% to avoid damaging them. This is about 12.2v. A Low Voltage Disconnect can help prevent deeper, damaging discharge.
Yes, they should be vented. No, not everyone does.
“I don't think any battery is going to out cycle a 6v flooded golf cart battery. These are simply the most tolerant of the type of usage typically seen in this lifestyle.”12)
Because beginners commonly murder their first battery bank, a common beginner's battery is a Walmart "deep cycle" / marine battery, preferably one with removable cell caps for adding distilled water as needed. Often called a “learner battery”, they do not have long lives or much capacity but are widely available nationwide and often have pro-rated warranties. A walmart battery will usually have half the capacity of actual deep cycles, so Bill would get one nights's power with no reserve for rainy days.
Also common are AGM batteries, a sealed type. They do not have to be vented under normal conditions and have very high charge/discharge rates. On the downside they cost 2x as much, require vigorous charging one generally cannot get with solar charging alone, cannot be charged to as high a voltage, and have less capacity.13)
About these Sternwake says:
“While AGMs are considered a no maintenance battery if they were a person… they would be considered high maintenance… and only with a surplus of everything they want could they be kept happy.”14)
A single 12v AGM would get Bill through one night; two can be paralleled to double capacity to nearly match the capacity of the golf cart batteries.
A common rule of thumb is that one needs one watt of solar for every Ah of rated battery capacity. 2:1 is even better. This makes 200w of solar a good fit for Bill's 200Ah golf cart bank, and generous for a single 12v bank.
This usually means framed panels, as flex panels are usually 2+ times more expensive per watt, are less rugged, physically larger for a given output, and degrade much quicker. Flex panels do have legitimate uses but they are specialty panels not well-suited for general use.
Arrays of two 100W panels are popular because 100w panels can be shipped individually by UPS/FedEx. Larger panels may require $$$ truck shipping; try to buy those locally if possible to avoid shipping fees.
100W panels are usually nominal 12v; there are also 20v and 24v panels one can source from the solar grid-tied market. The higher voltages panels require a MPPT controller (see below) but tend to be cheaper per watt.
The charge controller stands between the panels and battery bank and takes care of charging. There are two types of controller commonly found in vans and RVs:
PWM are cheap enough that it is common to start with PWM and upgrade to MPPT later only if necessary. After one upgrades from the PWM unit it can be kept as a spare/emergency part.
Folks in areas of limited sunlight (like the Pacific Northwest) or heavier power use might be better served by investing in MPPT right away.
One of the challenges of learning solar is that until you understand how it works it can be difficult to be confident that it does work.
This information will help you tell if it's working or not.
Once you have a headlock on the information above it is time to introduce a bit more complexity.