Bargain Solar – 640 Watts for Under $1200 – But Will it Work?

We’ve held off for quite some time on posting anything related to our experiences with solar as we wanted a minimum of 2 years of experience with solar before we started posting our opinions on the topic. We’ve had our solar setup for nearly that long and we are ready to share our experiences! Rather than get into a lengthy explanation of how we built our solar setup over the years, we thought it would be much more interesting to keep things focused on a question we get asked all the time. Can I get reliable solar that actually works without breaking the bank?  We’ll that is what we are here to find out so lets get started!

Disclaimer: As usual before we get started its important for us to note that we are not experts! We are sharing our experiences but are not licensed solar installers or electricians. We are hobbyists that are sharing our experiences, not our expertise! Should you choose to take on a solar project please make sure you understand the risks. We highly recommend speaking or engaging a qualified solar installer before embarking on any project, especially one involving electricity. The names of some excellent installers are listed below and as always we are not compensated for recommending them.

Get Advise from An Expert!

In our travels we’ve had personal experience with solar installers that we think do excellent work at excellent value. Thier names are listed below. We are not compensated by these installers in any way and endorse them through personal or close friend’s experience with their work.

The Mission

Erik’s Father (Kevin) full-times in a 2006 Holiday Rambler Vacationer. He loves his bus and has no regrets about his purchase. That said, last year while in Quartzite with us, he saw our solar setup and couldn’t believe just how much power we were able to generate out in the middle of nowhere.

Boondocking using our solar in OregonOur solar setup is atypical; we have a lot of panels and solar output since we spend at least 40 hours a week tied up working in our bus (and because our Entegra has residential appliances that require constant power). Kevin’s setup is much more typical but he’s on a budget. With a goal of spending less than $1200.00 and being able to run his generator on average less than 1 hour per day when not connected to shore power, can he do it? Challenge Accepted!

Calculating Solar Power Requirements

Calculating power requirements for a solar install can be several articles in itself. Let’s just say its a big topic where things like power usage, budget, willingness to use a generator for supplemental power all become part of the conversation. For the purpose of this article we are going to keep things simple (we’ll as simple as we can). Lets get started…

Kevin’s bus on average draws about 6-8 DC amp hours on average. (If you are a little fuzzy on amp hours v.s. amps, I recommend you checkout this article from the folks at Fridge-And-Solar). Kevin has two LCD televisions in his coach that he uses from time to time and your standard complement of LED upgraded lights, kitchen appliances and things found in most rv’ers kit. His refrigerator and hot water heater are propane/electric allowing him to run on propane when not connected to shore power.

One thing driving Kevin’s interest in solar power was a recent addition of a Magnum 2000 watt whole coach inverter. This inverter allows Kevin to use his AC outlets and appliances while running on battery power but it also means he is consuming more electricity as a result. We’ll get into inverter installations in future posts and videos. All-in-all he has a fairly straight forward setup with average power requirements.We also recommend checking out this article on Amps v.s. Watts to familiarize yourself with the terminology used. This means he consumed somewhere between 144-192 dc amps in a 24 hour period. Kevin is also careful not to run his microwaves for extended periods of time without the generator running and schedules his cooking times around when he needs to top off his batteries. If you are not sure how much power you are using, I highly recommend the first investment you make before embarking on a solar project is in an intelligent battery monitor. We have the Xantrex Link-Lite Battery Monitor and LOVE IT.

With the goal of running the generator no more than one hour per day, Kevin wanted enough solar power to to charge up his batteries while also having a bit of spare capacity to deal with additional power consumption during the day and of course for cloudy days! Kevin wanted to accomplish all of this, while keeping his budget under $1500.00. Challenge Accepted (thanks Dad!)

Solution Overview

In doing our research we found that putting together solar systems at or below 40 amps (around 600-640 watts) were the most economical while still giving you a lot of bang for your buck. The primary driver of the cost savings is the ability to get an off brand solar charge controller that has advanced features like MPPT (Maximum power point tracking is a technique used commonly with solar systems to maximize power extraction under all conditions) for much less money than available just a few shorts years ago. But will these off brand charge controllers work? That’s what we are here to find out! Before we get into that, lets talk about the solution as a whole.

Solar Solution Parts List (amazon links)

Specialty Tools List (amazon links)

ECO-WORTHY 160 Watt Panels

On our 2015 Entegra we installed Grape Solar 160 solar panels. They have since been discontinued and updated with a similar 180 watt panel. We were super happy with the grape solar product but found the ECO-Worthy panel a near identical match to our original Grape solar panels at a slightly lower cost. The ECO-Worthy panels are $255 per panel including shipping and you can also go with a less efficient Polycrystalline panel at $165 per panel if budget is an issue. We’ve only worked with the more expensive Monocrystalline panel but have had great experience with them. The amazon reseller we list above has excellent customer service and will deal with any requests or refunds/exchanges very quickly which is a nice plus (at the time of writing this article).

Installing Solar Panels

EPEVER 40A MPPT Solar Charge Controller

At $196.00 for a 40amp MPPT solar charge controller we honestly thought the EPEVER Solar Charge Controller was going to be a lot of talk with poor performance. We honestly couldnt be happier with this little guy and its hard to find a better value at this price point. With features like an included remote for in-coach monitoring, MPPT functionality, Battery temperature sensor options, and bluetooth phone support (untested) we can’t believe how much bang you get for your buck with this little charge controller. Now full disclosure we haven’t been in enough sun (summer) to really test this little unit but so far we are very happy with it’s performance for the money.

Solar Wiring (The Basics)

To keep things short we recommend reading the following article on solar wiring and also checking out this solar wiring calculator. We recommend you try and size all solar wire with a maximum loss of 3% if budget permits.  Remember, how you wire your solar array (series, parallel or series parallel) will impact the amps and voltage running on your solar wiring. Please consult a professional and do your homework before sizing your wiring and when it down, larger wire is usually better, especially for future proofing the solution.

Calculating Fusing Requirements

Fusing your system properly can be complicated business at first but its actually relatively straight forward once you get the hang of it. The key to fusing each section of your install is understanding the amperage that will be flowing at each stage of your system. This can change depending on your wiring configuration of your PV array, the side of your solar controller and array setup among other factors. Renology, a solar manufacture has a great summary article on fusing your solar system located here we recommend you take a look at! As always consult a professional installer before making any decisions regarding fusing and wiring of a solar setup.

Conclusions & Recommendations

So how did we do? Its been over 6 weeks since the original install and we cant complain. The solar charge controller is working great, putting out an average of 28 amps and fully charging my father’s batteries each day by mid day. We did find that his house batteries were old and needed to be replaced but that had nothing to do with the solar setup. After installing 4 265AH 6 volt batteries he has more than enough power and he hasn’t had to run his generator since the install (other than when there is no sun!).  Our concerns about the EPEVER charge controller are still potentially long term issues, but for now we are very happy with the solution and its performance. We’ll keep you posted if things change but for now we feel this is a very viable, inexpensive solution for those on a budget who aren’t afraid to get their hands a little dirty!

overhead view of Livinlite & Kevin's SolarQuestions? Comments?

Make sure to list them below and we’ll reply back as soon as possible!


Erik McCauley

Comments

  1. Very interesting and a topic near and dear to my heart as I spent four years in Kenya East Africa in the early 1980s working on projects involving the installation of solar photovoltaic panels in rural villages. Needless to say a little different from what you’re talking about but still the idea that the sun can be our energy supplier is a wonderful one!

    • Thanks Susan, yes we love our solar. Best of both worlds in that its better for the environment and its more convenient than listening or smelling a loud stinky diesel generator! Thanks for checking in!

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