Re: Need help with solar/power setup ideas.
Solar power is way over hyped for systems in use on RV’s or camper vans, because you really don’t have enough roof space or battery carrying capacity to make a good working system. That being said, it does work okay for maintaining batteries not in use, but at what cost? Simply plugging in a smart charger to shore supply would be a whole lot cheaper. I have a single 100 amp deep cycle house battery that I purchased from a junkyard for under $20. I charge it while driving mostly, but if I’m not driving enough, I have a 2,000 watt generator that uses about 1 gallon of gas for 8 hours of use, and a 50 amp smart charger. My battery will last about a week under normal use, and will recharge via the generator & smart charger in under half an hour, so a single gallon of gas will easily last me a couple of months. At current prices, it would take over 40 years for a solar panel system to pay for itself, and it still wouldn’t be as reliable due to weather conditions etc. Even -IF- I had solar (I used to…), I still wouldn’t be caught dead without my generator and smart charger.
Cooking, heating, refrigeration, and water heating, are best accomplished by non electrical means if you don’t have shore power hookups. Generally heating can be supplied by a camp stove unless you’re in really cold conditions. Kerosene & propane are the most popular choices for both heating and cooking. Personally I prefer kerosene because it is so much safer, and both my heater & stove can both be run on diesel as well. Many of the non pressurized wick style kerosene appliances can use diesel as well kerosene. There are multiple options for stove top ovens, grills, griddles, and toasters too.
Typical RV style water heaters, and plumbing in general doesn’t work well below freezing. For this very reason, my camper van has no plumbing, and no water heater. Solar does work well for non electrical water heating. Solar showers and black painted containers placed in sunlight work quite well for water heating. In addition to solar heating, I also have a “fire coil” which can be placed on my camp stove or even in a camp fire. My water jugs are 7 gallons, and it can heat the full 7 gallons in just a few minutes.
While you can get fancy 12v water pumps, they are costly, and they are also prone to freezing. Many people use gravity fed water systems, or hand/foot pump non powered systems. You can also get portable hand held battery powered showers. These work well, and once drained, they are freeze proof. I use trigger spray bottles for my dish pan sinks, and a modified weed sprayer with a kitchen sink style sprayer attached to the end of an 8 foot hose for my showers. Water conservation is key, and these types of systems, rather than normally running water can be huge water savers.
Forget about those expensive 12v compressor fridges, the newer ones are junk. I went though 3 of them, all different brands, in under 5 years. Not one of them made it for 2 years. The old ones were marginally okay, lasting 4-5 years, but any of them are very power hungry and none of them are really a good deal for the price. Ice chests and ice are very cheap by comparison, and you don’t need an expensive ice chest either. A block of ice in it’s own container, or a couple of gallon size jugs frozen, should last the better part of a week.
Cheap 12v window fans are far cheaper and work just as well as expensive roof vents with fans. I have a couple of 10 inch 12v fans that cost less than $20 each, and they work great. I rarely use more than one. Just remember to park in the shade if the weather is hot… If you can’t find shade, try to park with the side of your van with the least amount of windows facing the sun, and cover as many as possible.
I drive some almost every day, and I tend to plug in all of my rechargeables while I’m driving, and by the time I’m ready to use them they are fully charged with no noticeable drain on my house battery. Even if I wasn’t driving as often as I do, I doubt my rechargeables would have much impact on my battery life.
Lighting is one of those things it’s hard to have too much of, but I’m not a huge supporter of built in lighting. Portable lanterns and head lamps seem to be a better choice because you can take them to where you need the light. I have a couple of solar/hand crank LED lanterns that have their own built in solar panels. I just sit them in a window and they’re always fully charged. I have a couple of others that use cheap AA batteries, and are dimmable, and a head lamp that also uses AA batteries. I get my AA batteries at a dollar store for 8/$1.00 and an 8 pack will last well over a month using them all the time. I also keep a kerosene/diesel powered lantern around too. I have trouble finding those button style batteries, so I am careful to make sure that everything I get uses AA batteries and not the button style ones. Dollar store puck lights work well too.
While I’m sure my 2k watt generator would power a air conditioner, there are many 12v low power options available that use just water or a water/ice combination for the cooling power. Mine is a DIY type incorporated into the bottom of my ice chest, and will provide up to about 30 degrees worth of cooling while drawing negligible power. All the parts required cost me under $50 and it was pretty simple to build. You can buy ready made 12v units, but they tend to be expensive. Not really sure how good the pre-made ones work either. If you are in a non-humid area, the 12v swamp coolers may work good for you as well, and they require only water, no ice.
Power conservation is your friend. Most deep cycle batteries I’ve encountered are good for 100-300 cycles. When I had solar and my batteries were cycling every day, they would rarely last a year, and they were also expensive batteries. Once I cut my power usage, got rid of solar, and started recharging them weekly instead of daily, I can get 5+ years out of a cheap junkyard battery. This is a huge improvement in both cost and hassles.
I am a full timer, and I became much happier when I changed my lifestyle from trying to emulate house living, to full time camping. Trying to emulate house living didn’t work out too well for me. A good old fashioned camping mindset and techniques has worked out perfectly though. Murphy waas a smart man when he wrote “Anything that CAN go wrong, WILL go wrong.”, and I find the simpler I keep things, the less there is to go wrong, so I can spend my time enjoying life than continually worrying about fixing stuff. Camping doesn’t need to be complicated to be enjoyable.