Ditch the Generator for Under $1200? – RV Solar Project

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. Full disclosure, this charge controller has a max output of 520 watts at 12 volts so our solution has more solar power than the charge controller can put out, but the manufacture has told us the extra power will only be a problem in direct summer sun and the controller can handle the output). Candidly we haven’t been in enough sun (it is winter now) to really test this little unit but so far we are very happy with it’s performance for the money. One thing we love is that this unit can be wired in parallel which means we can add a second charge controller and split the system driving 2 panels to each charge controller to maximize power (and allow for 2 additional panels to be added down the road).

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.

What Would We Change?

If we had a bigger budget we’d invest in a better solar controller. The small heat sinks in the EPEVER, lack of a cooling fan and lack of a dedicated support company we can find on the internet to deal with warranty claims leave us worried about the future (but confident that for $199.00, with a solar remote for inside the cab, we would be happy if it lasted just outside the warranty which is 2 years). If we had another 300 in the budget, and we were ok not getting a cab remote to monitor performance, then we would absolutely go with a higher end controller from Outback Solar, Midnight Solar, MorningStar or Magnum. Yes each of these brands offers a cab remote, and sells charge controllers that would allow us to use the full 640 watts of max potential of the panels, but our total cost would be closer to 1600-1800 for the project. That said, it would be expandable and likely more efficient for that money so if you’re considering solar as a full-timer or serious road warrior, gets the better controller.

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

Comments

  1. Erik, your video and parts list is exactly what I was looking for. I do have one question though.

    Does the MPPT charge controller reduce the voltage from the PV array from 48v down to 12v for the batteries to charge? If not, how is the voltage from the PV array stepped down for the batteries to use it?

    Thanks

    • That is correct Jeff. The MPPT controller will handle the conversion internally. When you first setup it asks what battery bank voltage you have. Simply enter 12v (or let it auto-sense) and you’ll be all set.

  2. Thanks for the video! Great info for a beginner like me. When I but my system, I want to be sure you get the Amazon affiliate credit, but the solar panels aren’t 160w. Can you update your link to ensure credit?

  3. Chris Hamilton Says: March 30, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    Just for my own clarification..By oven you mean the micro/convection oven that Kala used to make cupcakes right? or do you guys have a separate oven-oven…Are you able to use the induction cook top without the generator too?

    Sorry so many recent questions. We are avid DIYers (because its hard to count on paid labor for quality work) looking at moving to a bigger travel setup soon and a late model Entegra Coach is very high on our list. Your blog/videos are a great resource. Thanks for putting it out there

    • nope, same unit. Solar/batteries are fine for quick uses of high usage appliances (microwave, toaster etc) but use of them for long periods of time (convection oven/microwave for 10min or more) are such power hogs that they will give most solar setups a run for their money. The key is undstanding the wattage of the appliance. What makes it tough is Rv’s run on 12volts and homes run on 120volts so calculating amps is different for both. Keeping it simple thought to answer you question. Our solar system puts out a max of about 120 DC Amp Hours (meaning it products 120 DC amps in an hour at 12v). A microwave (1600 watt) will use about 135 DC amp hours in an hour, so we would loose about 15 DC Amp hours of battery capacity in that hour. We have a 900AH battery bank so yes we could afford to do that, but its also pushing the inverter and system pretty hard and would also mean we couldn’t do much of anything else while that was happening. Then there is the fact that under high load, batteries discharge faster, clouds passing over etc so its not an exact science. For the most part if we are going to use an appliance like that we either do it mid day when its REALLY sunny or start the generate just before bed or near night time to run those appliances while also topping off our batteries. An induction cooktop is similar but it allows you to really dial in the power so at max it would be similar to a microwave but at low/medium it would use about 300watts or 25 DC amps at 12v so it wouldnt be bad at all and if you needed to use it on high, hopefully not for very long (i’m not sure i would boil 15 lobsters on solar lol). If you want to setup a call to discuss it more we’d be happy to do a skype call to help out. We do those all the time and if you find the information useful you can just shoot us a tip on our website or bookmark our amazon store which will send us a few percentages for your purchases without costing you a thing. Glad to help! https://livinlite.net/amazon

  4. Chris Hamilton Says: March 29, 2018 at 7:56 pm

    so Erik with your 1600w setup are you only running the gennie when you need to use the AC or microwave and/or top up batteries then? No problems with running the residential fridge, TV’s and the electronic you guys are using daily?

    • Hi Chris, yes that is for the most part correct. Some additional details: Obviously it needs to be sunny! Tilting panels in the winter is a large improvement also but we often don’t tilt and are still fine. If we use the oven (electric) we usually will run the generator at the same time so we dont hit the batteries for 30+ minutes of oven time but with timing you’ll get the benefit of also toping off the batteries before bedtime. Lastly we usually flip off a couple breakers before bed like the “entertainment breaker” which is the outside TV, direct TV system, front tv, bedroom tv, usually that saves us about 7ah of power during the night when we arent using them anyway. We also turn off the stuff on my desk which is around 5-6 dc amps which is also not used at night. If we do that, we usually wake up with our batteries at around 75% and then they are full charged usually by 1pm at the latest? Again highly dependent on the weather but for the most part we average 1 hour or so of generator usage every 3 days when boondocking i would say. Let us know if you have any other questions!

  5. I thought I was clicking on a link showing how you put 1600 watts on the roof of an Entegra 44b?
    I also have a 44B, and 900 watts of solar to go on. Looking for tips on avoiding shadowing, and on getting some decent size wires (4 gauge) from the roof to the basement?

    • Hey Jim, if you want to run a 4 gauge wire from the roof to the basement you have a ton of options but for the most part you’ll have the easiest time if you run through the front cap or rear cap as they are hollow and easiest for wires. Let us know what year your coach is and we’ll provide our input/experience. NOW THAT SAID… your coach has 2x 8 guage pairs pre wired which is the equivalent to a 4 gauge pair so you might want to consider using those. You’ll do less damage to the coach and while you’ll need an mppt charge controller, you can easily overcome any loss caused by the smaller wire by increasing your array voltage to 48 or 60 volts. Message us on Facebook if you want more details. Video of our 1600 watt setup using the factory 8 guage wires coming soon.

  6. Vern Billeci Says: January 28, 2018 at 4:46 am

    Hello Erik

    am new at this solar but looking at your wire diagram your panels are wired in series making that 48 V if the panels are 12V ea and then coming out of the controller it is reduced down so you can charge 12V batteries I wasn’t aware you could do that.

    • Hi Vern, yes you can as long as your controller supports this configuration. Most MPPT controllers will do this. The one in the video will support up to 100v input and support a 12v or 24v battery bank configuration. If you are going to wire more than 3 160w panels in this configuration I do recommend you go with a higher capacity controller like the Outback controller listed as upgrade alternatives in the article. Best of luck and let us know if you have any questions!

  7. I to full time and have 580w of solar. I’ve been wondering if there is a way to tie in a wind generator to the system for those cloudy days, and there always seems to be wind in the desert.

    • Hey Terry, We’ve had a couple friends use small wind turbines (met them in quartzite) and they did seem happy with the purchase and setup. It doesn’t put out a ton of power, probably 5 DC amps during decent wind but that is enough for some folks (about the same as a 100w solar panel i believe). Not too bad but for us, we’d probably recommend adding a little more battery capacity and a few solar panels. Really depends on your setup, weight, space etc. If you end up doing it keep us posted on your experience as it sounds like a cool option and we’d love to know how you make out!

  8. Do you have a wiring diagram on all the parts you installed?

    • Hi Wayne, we added a diagram to the article for you located in the main body above and also here: Wiring Diagram

      • Hey Eric, thanks for getting back to me. I can see this is a separate system, I was planning on running the solar panels in parallel with the regular storage batteries that are charger my my generator or alternator

        • Hi Wayne, nope not a separate system, I just didn’t include the wiring for the rest of the bus as that was in place when starting. Obviously double check with a a qualified electrician but simply hookup the solar charge controller battery terminals to the terminals of your existing house battery setup. If you have more than one battery in your house battery system make sure to wire the + and – terminals to the beginning and end of your battery series (usually where you see wires from your generator/shore power and/or inverter already hooked up. The systems will work together and having multiple 12v chargers on a single battery bank is very common as most folks including us have shore power, generator and solar all as systems that can charge their house batteries.

  9. Backlot Bob Says: January 14, 2018 at 6:43 pm

    Great article! I am using the info here to plan the solar project for my Gulfstream MH. My only concern about your article is the title. Especially since the L key and the R key are so far apart. Freudian? Probably causing your search hits to increase :o)

  10. Hi There!
    I’m assuming you didn’t mean to say “Whore RV Solar …” But rather “Whole”.
    Damm autoCorrect is a bitch!
    ????

  11. my rv is class-c 28′ how many panell need ? for a/c work.

    i am not good english so your help 470-418 9782 myung cho call after 4:00 pm
    evrry day please’

    • Hi myung,

      Unfortunately solar just isnt powerful enough to run an air conditioner. There are many reasons but in short it wouldnt really be possible in a 28ft class C as you would need probably 20 panels and a huge inverter. It would be much easier to just summer somewhere were you do not need air conditioning. We are in Florida this time of year and its a nice 70 degrees. Best of luck!

  12. 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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