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, both here and elsewhere. In your head you can replace the word “nominal” with the phrase “so-called”. Nominal refers to something's name, and the name for car electrical systems is “12v” even though it is very rarely literally 12.0 volts.
Solar power uses solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity. This power is usually stored in a deep-cycle "house" battery, which is separate from the vehicle's starter battery.2) 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).
Solar is not a magic bullet; it is a compromise like anything else. Solar has very high startup costs for the amount of power you get out of it. It could 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. Over time, though, the power is “free”.
Minimizing power consumption is key to happiness with a simple, affordable solar setup. It requires a change in mindset for most folks. Electrical power becomes a precious resource to be carefully consumed. The path to frustration (or at least considerable expense) involves heating or cooling with electricity or trying to run household appliances in a van.
“…trying to take the comfort level you had in a house into your mobile life [is] tough to do for a boondocker.” – akrvbob3)
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.4)
It's not fun but the first step in getting solar is to assess daily power requirements. It's like writing down all your monthly expenses when making a family budget. Unpleasant but necessary.
Power requirements are assessed as daily because solar power feeds the batteries5) only in daylight. Then at night the 'dweller pulls power back out of the batteries. So a minimal solar configuration will meet your daytime needs then get you through the night without running out of power. No one but you knows how much power you will need daytime and nighttime. First-timers often have radically unrealistic ideas about power in the van.
The basic idea is to tally up all the loads you want to run daily, the time in hours each will run, and the amount of power (Watts) each will consume while running.
It is useful to calculate power use in Watts, because “watts are watts” no matter if it's a 12v load or a 120vac load.6)
First things first: Bill needed some idea of how much power he actually needed each day.
One way to figure it out is to see what configurations other people are running successfully in their own camper right now. The gamut runs from 100W to 1000W+, with 200W being the most common.
The details of Bill's logic and math has been moved to its own page, but for now we will stipulate he came up with a daily requirement of 91Ah of usable battery capacity for each 24hr period. On average he will consume that much power each day, and will have to replace that amount7) from the sun.
A peek ahead: for reasons that will be explained later, this requirement means he will need about 200Ah of lead battery (flooded or AGM)8), and 200w+ of solar panel, depending on where the camper will be used.
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.9)
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.
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.17) When combined with an isolator, 200W is probably all the average camper needs in typical conditions. Folks that want to run microwaves or other power-hogging appliances will have to pony up with more gear and more $$$.
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, either. He has a functional, comfortable system suited to his needs.
Solar setups require a battery bank of some kind, even during the daytime.19) In simple installs the bank is one or two batteries.20) 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 lead-acid deep cycle batteries, it takes twice the amount of battery bank Ah rating to deliver the daily Ah requirement:
|Minimum battery bank21)||182|
and that's just to get through a 24hr period with good sun. If you want to get through a day (or more) of terrible solar yield (rain, snow, fog) it requires even more battery capacity (reserve), money, and cargo capacity. These numbers are both very rough but will illustrate the pattern:
|Rated Ah||cost (flooded)||cost (AGM)||weight in lbs|
|Minimum battery bank22) 0 days of reserve||182||$182.00||$364.00||91|
|1 day of reserve||364||$364.00||$728.00||182|
|2 days of reserve||546||$546.00||$1,092.00||273|
|3 days of reserve||728||$728.00||$1,456.00||364|
Don't panic! You don't need to spend thousands of dollars. In practice, many vandwellers do not design for extra days of reserve, planning on just not having power (or not much power) on rainy days. And there are other ways to compensate for rainy days:
The most beginner tolerant and value-for-money battery bank is two 6v deep cycle flooded23)“golf cart” batteries wired in series to make 12v. This will provide 200+ Ah (amp-hours) of rated capacity.24) This bank gives one normal day's use and and about a half/day of 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 are typically discharged no lower than 50% as this is a good usability/lifespan compromise. 50% DoD is about 12.2v for lead-acid chemistries. 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.”25)
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.26)
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.”27)
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 for solar-only charging is that one needs one watt of solar for every Ah of rated battery capacity. 2:1 is recommended for winter or other challeging conditions, and 3x is even better for off-grid folks.28)
So about 200w of solar is a good fit for Bill's 200Ah golf cart bank if he stays in a sunny area like the desert southwest. In the Pacific NW he'd be better off with something like 600w.
|Ratio W:Ah||Panel watts|
This usually means framed panels, as flex panels are usually 2+ times more expensive per watt and are less rugged. Flex panels do have legitimate uses but they are specialty panels and are not recommended as a default panel for most builds.
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 are paired with a MPPT controller29) (see below) but tend to be cheaper per watt.
The two main types of panel in 2018 are monocrystalline (mono) and polycrystalline (poly). The technical details are unimportant but you will see panels described as mono or poly when you are researching. Due to relatively small differences in their voltages, poly panels are slightly better suited to PWM charge controllers, and mono panels30) are slightly better suited to MPPT controllers. These controllers are discussed next.
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.