Solar power for camping/overlanding trips installed 6 27 2009

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I have been doing a lot of research as of late, and Martyn from Adventure Trailers has been very helpful in answering my many questions on the subject.

I put together this solar setup mainly for keeping both of my dual batteries charged to full capacity in the FJ Cruiser when out camping.
The ARB fridge, Maggiolina AirLand roof top tents 12v interior light, and occasionally recharging cell phone or laptop batteries can put a drain on the battery.

Not so much just running the fridge for a few days, but you factor in the other voltage requirements and the battery can take a beating if not recharged.
Running the rig for a few minutes a day is not really going to keep it topped off, hence where solar power comes in.

Here is the setup I have gone with:

1. PowerFilm F15-3600 60 watt solar panel purchased from Adventure Trailer via Martyn and Mario.
Pictures from Adventure Trailers on one of their Chaser trailers (one of those is in my future plans too when I move and have a garage) and from PowerFilm Solar.





2. Brunton charge controller.
This required unit (if charging your vehicles battery) keeps the solar panel from overcharging your battery/batteries on your rig.
It has LED lights that tell you when it is charging, and when the charge cycle is over.
It can handle up to 100 watts and 7 amps of power.
My solar panel put out 60 watts and 3.6 amps, so it is perfect for my application.

3. 15' PowerFilm extension cable (bought from AT)
part # RA-7 from the solar panel to an Adventure Trailer trailer type plug that is mounted to the grille.

4. Solar RV exterior plug, female with 12 gauge wire (bought from AT)
part # 055-01109

5. Solar RV plug male with 12 gauge wire (bought from AT)
Part # 055-01110

6. Weather pack connector kit (bought from AT)

Adventure Trailer has a way on their website to calculate your wattage requirements when building your solar setup.
Text taken from their site:
Tips for Evaluating 12 Volt Power Requirements

In the same way that we plan our trips revolving around our MPG and miles per tank, we need to do the same for calculating our auxiliary electrical needs.
It’s really quite simple:
The key is Ohms law.
It is a basic equation that can be read a few different ways depending upon what number you need to crunch:

Volts x Amps = Watts
Watts ÷ Amps = Volts
Watts ÷ Volts = Amps

Let’s say you want to know how many Amps an ARB 13Watt, 12V fluorescent light is going to consume per hour.
Your answer is 13 Watts ÷ 12 Volts = 1.08 Amps per hour of usage.
I mentioned Martyn has helped me a great deal in understanding what size solar panel to go with, and here was his suggestion:
A 60 watt panel will help you stay ahead of the game for longer. The older ARB fridges pulled around 1.2 amps per hour or 28.8 amps in a 24 hour period.
The 60 watt panel produces 3.6 amp and hour during daylight, to at 8 hour of sun it's also producing 28.8 amp.
The foldable or roll up type of solar panels do cost more, but if you are tight on space like I am and want to keep the weight down or simply like them better than the stationary panels, these are pretty trick.

Also there are many more types of charge controllers out there that you can mount under the hood or inside of your rigs cabin if you have the space.
Some have digital readouts too of how much voltage the battery has and how much it is putting out, and how much voltage is coming from that big shiny yellow thing up in the sky.

I saw that Dave (adventureduo) from Expedition Portals forum had used a Sunsei charge controller, but I could not locate one as most places were out of stock.
Scott Brady (expeditionswest) from Expedition Portal had gone with the Brunton charge controller, and I did some research on it and found some good reviews of it at Amazon, the vendor I bought it through.
Dave had gone with the before mentioned trailer type plug from Adventure Trailers and did a cool installation of the plug being in the "O" of Toyota on the grille of his 1993 Toyota Landcruiser.
Very trick.
And it will work on mine too, I put the plug through the second "O" on the Toyota emblem, but I installed it another way which you will see in the pictures.

All parts laid out:
You can see the solar panel connected to the 15' extension cable that then goes to the short adapter cable that goes to the plug with the cap on it that you can mount to a bumper or other part of your vehicle.
The wires coming off of the plug/cap goes to the charge controller.
Also seen is the PowerFilm 12v female accessory plug they include with the solar panels.



Installation:
1. Find a suitable location for the trailer plug to hard mount it.
I pushed the wires through the grille, and the plate for the plug matched up very well with the grille.
I secured it with two zip ties.

2. Mount the charge controller under the hood near the battery.
I used heavy duty Velcro to mount it to the top of the main fuse box behind the stock battery location.
It has positive/negative wires with battery stud rings to put on your battery.
For the ground wire I ran it off to the side on the fender well where there was another wire grounded from a previous project.

The other red and black wire will be wired to Adventure Trailers "quick plug port" (trailer type connector) which I mounted to the grille.
Run the 15' extension cable from the port on the grille with the AT adapter cable to the solar panel and you are in business.

The solar panel also came with a female 12v socket with a plug on the other end that plugs right into the solar panel so you can use it not hooked up to the vehicles battery.
This way you can plug in a 12v male plug that goes to accessories like cell phones, laptop batteries, two way communication equipment, anything that you would normally plug into the 12v receptacle inside of a vehicle.
Way cool 'huh?

Here are a few pictures of the installation.
I will get better pictures and a complete field review at a later date during a camping trip or when I am on my vacation.





In picture five above I connected my volt meter to the solar panel and it was putting out a healthy 19.03 volts.
I played around by blocking more of the sun with my shadow that what the picture shows above, and I got it down to 18 volts.

In picture six above I was not blocking the sun at all and it was putting out 19.12 volts, I was impressed.
This was around 9:45 am, the sun was not even at its full strength yet.
It can put out more as the panel gets more saturated with sunlight.
Also the panel would have put out maybe more if it was all angled at the sun instead of having the top half laying flat on my old camping table.

In pictures seven and eight you can see the battery charging and then fully charged.
When you unplug the cable from the front trailer plug on the grille, the LED lights shut off on the charge controller, so no worries about having extra draw.
Not that I am worried about that anyways, as my alarm system always has a big blue LED flashing all the time.

Well there you have it, this puts out enough volts/watts/amperage to run an ARB/Engel type fridge on its own if you use the included female receptacle and plugged in your fridge directly to it.
I will just leave my fridge hooked up to the 12v outlets in the rear, and have the solar panel hooked up while camping and never worry about the battery running down.
This will also keep the second battery in my dual setup charged too.

If you have 12v needs like I do when out camping and do not want to run your battery(s) down, take a look into going with a solar panel.

Total investment:
$48.96 charge controller
$55.75 cables, plugs
$961.86 solar panel
______________
$1066.57 total

Links:
Adventure Trailers solar page
PowerFilm Solar
F15-3600 60 watt model, also comes with female 12v (cigarette lighter) adapter that plugs into the solar panel, and you plug your 12v devices to it to charge them
Brunton Solar Controller 12-Volt Battery Charge Monitor
Bought Brunton Solar Controller at Amazon
 
Last edited:
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If you don't mind, can you share how much you spent? Or just a ballpark, if you don't want to be too specific.

Looks like AT and Martyn were very helpful and cooperative. Looks like a top-notch set-up. :cheers:
 
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Thanks guy's.
I also added in the total investment in the first post near the bottom above the links.
 

spressomon

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Corey,
I'd like to hear your comments on the relative power generating capability/efficiency of the PV flex panel in: Direct sun; partly cloudy and cloudy conditions.
 
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Will do.
Will take my trusty Wavetek meter with me.
I got that back in '95 when I first got laid off from Boeing as part of a toolkit for a class I took.
Meter still has the original 9v battery in it.
Checked it Sunday, and no leakage.
I am going to put a new one in it though.

Amazing, still working after 14/15 years.
 
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Thanks for the information here about the solar panels installation. You know I just got mine this year which cost me around 7k$ for full installation but mine was smaller as compared to you have shown here. I bought solar panels from a local company and they are offering me 2 year warranty. Does every company gives 2 years warranty or more , can you please tell ?
 
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Total investment:
$48.96 charge controller
$55.75 cables, plugs
$961.86 solar panel
______________
$1066.57 total
This is pimp, and all, but $1066 will buy you a lot of gas.

266 gallons, to be exact (at $4 a gallon).


Solar is great technology, but hard to invest that much into something so fickle. Especially when running the truck or a generator for a short period of time will do much more than a single 60 watt panel all day. :meh:
 
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This is pimp, and all, but $1066 will buy you a lot of gas.

266 gallons, to be exact (at $4 a gallon).


Solar is great technology, but hard to invest that much into something so fickle. Especially when running the truck or a generator for a short period of time will do much more than a single 60 watt panel all day. :meh:
Well, I do not believe in taking a generator camping, and running the engine unnecessarily is not good for it or the carbon footprint, especially in the mountains where I like to camp the most.

The solar is working out fine for me, and I am not wasting any fuel.
 

e9999

You want to do what...?
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interesting
(although painful to read these quotes in the OP with the messed up units... :) )
 
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Well, I do not believe in taking a generator camping, and running the engine unnecessarily is not good for it or the carbon footprint, especially in the mountains where I like to camp the most.

The solar is working out fine for me, and I am not wasting any fuel.
Nothing wrong with solar, and glad to hear it's working out for you.

I've followed solar for some years now, waiting for them to actually help the carbon footprint. They can, but generally only in very limited areas and only with very limited setups.

Solar is very interesting tech, and I keep trying to figure out ways to get it setup for myself in a fashion that it makes sense, never really does.

As for the numbers, I find the ones listed in the OP very very very optimistic, especially given your location. A cloudy day will reduce output of a solar panel by 50% or more. If it's not aligned perfectly (which will be difficult to do with a flexible unit) another 50% or more. Toward the beginning and end of the day, when the sun is low in the sky, another reduction in power. Any shade, 50% or more.

Lots and lots and lots of things will reduce the power a panel puts out. I've been told multiple times (by installers) to properly size a panel you want 4 times (at a minimum) the amount of power you need. So if you believe you need 60 watts of juice, better get 240 watt panels.


In your case, not as much an issue as you're just using it to help offset the power used, not completely replace it.



As far as the carbon footprint goes, solar isn't actually all that friendly to the environment.

How long does it take to eliminate the carbon footprint of a solar panel; i.e., offset the carbon generated producing the panel with the clean energy coming from the panel itself?

About four years, according to Peter Owen, president of Linde Electronics
When the people manufacturing the panels say it takes ~4 years (and if anything they will lowball the number), that says a lot about it. Are you going to run this panel 1460 days? Doubtful. (That's a lot of camping!) Plus that assumes you get full output of it. If you only average 50% (a more reasonable estimate) that jumps to 8 years. Manufacturing solar panels actually is pretty bad on the environment, it's gotten drastically better over the last 20-30 years, but still has a ways to go.

IMHO there are better "low carbon" choices for power. Have seen some cleverly designed water powered generators for low loads, if you have a stream or river nearby can toss it in and have free power with truly little to no carbon impact (at least with the ones I've seen, as they've generally used recycled parts). Plus a much more stable power source, runs the same 24/7.

Alternatively there are low carbon footprint generators, both gas and propane. Propane especially is interesting as it burns extremely cleanly. Could easily buy two propane generators for the same cost, and get 133x the power (~4000 watts per generator vs 60 watts per panel).


In the end, it comes down to whatever floats your boat. If you have the money to burn, solar is a nice way to go, but hard to justify it when you can get a similar carbon footprint in a generator, far smaller cost, way more power, and a power supply that's not fickle.
 
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The solar panel really is to just keep my main starting battery charged from running the ARB fridge up since I like to dry camp for a week at a time without starting the engine.

The solar panel will also be used for charging back up my Goal Zero stuff I bought earlier in the year.
Goal Zero Ranger 350 Kit

The Goal Zero stuff will be used to charge back up camera batteries, RC batteries, and other stuff while camped for long periods of time, and also to power their LED lanterns.
 
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Thanks for the write-up Corey.

Solar is an intriguing alternative that I definitely need to compare to other potential power sources.

Thanks again!
 
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george_tlc

 
 
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I'm a long time solar panel user for my oz camping trips. Purchased my first 40W panel about 30 years ago - eek!

For my camping trip back to oz a few weeks ago I bought an 80W folding panel in oz.

Solar Panel Folding Kit Caravan Camping Power 80w Mono | eBay

is an example of the unit I purchased, basically around US$200 for 80W, folding, padded storage bag, PWM controller/charger and monocrystaline cells.

I can't begin to write how pleased I was with the performance of the unit. I had a digital meter with me (alsways take one along on trips) and kept an eye on charge current and battery voltage during a 10 day trip. An Engel fridge (old unit) draws 4.5A while running, versus today's lower current more efficient units (typical around 2.5A or less).

Anyhow, most of the days were fairly overcast and with a fair bit of drizzle/rain. So, pretty bad for solar to 'shine'. Even with thick cloud cover (socked in weather and raining) the panel was putting no less than 0.5A into the battery. With just a bit of cloud thinning (still no sun) output current would easily go to over 2A. With sunshine it was putting out around 5A.

I ran the fridge 24/7 and with the cool weather it would cycle 1 in 5 during the warmer part of the day and 1 in 10 to 1 in 15 during the night. Fridge set to low was still causing ice to form in one the water containers in the fridge. Nice cool beer everyday!

So, with clouds and on/off rain, I'm guessing an average of 15A.hr going into the battery per day - re-orienting the panel 3 times per day.

With the 1 in 5 to 1 in 15 cycling I'd guess an average of 1 in 10 per 24 hours. So, 4.5 x 24 / 10 = 11 A.hr per day.

So, basically it was just keeping up with my fridge draw. With a modern fridge it would easily keep up.

Obviously with any kind of sun shining, the panel would more than take care of running the fridge 24/7 along with camp lighting and gadget charging duties. Of course with the sun shining a hot days, the fridge would likely cycle 1 in 2 or 1 in 3 and maybe 1 in 5 at night. Though that also means longer summer days and even more time to harvest power during the day.

This 80W panel replaced an old 40W panel that I bought ~30 years ago. For a fraction of the price (factoring inflation etc), the new panel puts out double the current (or more) and is MUCH more shade/cloud tolerant due to the monocrystaline structure. Since it folds and has a built in stand it is even easier to pack and deploy.

Anyhow, I am very pleased with the solar setup I'm now running. I put Anderson powerpole connectors on both batteries and on the solar panel and some of my other portable accessories.

For $200 it beats buying a generator and feeding it fuel and putting up with the noise etc. Of course with solar you need to be able to point the panel at the sun for the majority of the day - so not a good solution if you are camped in a forest - but for my oz camping in the bush where lots of trees are rare and a clear view of the sun for most of the day is more typical, it works great.

cheers,
george.
 

Bogo

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I always figured 4 hours @100% rated.:meh: Some places, southern US deserts, may get as much as 6 hours effective charge time a day. Also reserve charging capacity needs to be figured in due to the missed charging on cloudy days.

Which solar charge controller is used really makes a difference. I recommend at the minimum getting a PWM style with the MPPT style being preferred. Warning: There are a couple companies selling PWM type charge controllers with part numbers that begin with MPPT. Careful reading of the specifications is needed. The main clue is they are often allot cheaper than true MPPT charge controllers. The Morningstar SS-MPPT-15L SunSaver 15A MPPT Solar Charge Controller is the lowest cost true MPPT charge controller I know of. If you don't want to spend $200 plus on it, and your panel is small enough, then the Morningstar SunGuard is a very good low cost option. It is a PWM type for 4.5 Amp or less panels and retails for $25 to $35. I use them on the farm for solar powered electric fencers.

A PWM charge controller uses a switching converter to change excess voltage from the panel into greater charging current thus getting the charging done faster. It still stops charging when the panel voltage drops lower than the battery voltage. MPPT takes it one step further and will still charge when the panel voltage has dropped lower than the battery voltage by stepping up the voltage from the panel to allow charging to continue. MPPT controllers will often charge even under cloudy conditions. In cloudy conditions they may be only producing a fraction of the charging that would happen under full sunlight, but it is better than none.

I know it isn't ECO friendly, but one of those Honda 1000W inverter generators hooked up to a quality automatic 45 Amp battery charger. To time limit the charging you can put just enough fuel for X hours run time into the generator, and recharge X*45 Amp hours back into the battery. The generator should also have enough spare capacity to recharge your laptop and cell phones at the same time. Works day or night, under tree cover, and is robust. If you have some spare battery capacity, you don't have to recharge back up to 100% every night*. Bringing the battery back up to 85% to 95% is all that is needed. Plus putting back in that last few percent goes allot slower due to reduced charging rates.

The drawback to generator based recharging is campgrounds that have quiet hours like all National Park ones.

* Sure it is important to do a full equalization charge every couple weeks, but it doesn't have to be done daily.
 
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