Getting straight to the point, our 5th Wheel’s solar capability allows Kym and I the freedom to be unplugged from the power grid, all while harnessing and supplying enough energy to live as if we were connected to city electric. We have lights on, watch TV, work on our laptops, take hot showers, and charge our cell phones. As long as we have sun, we could potentially never pay a utility bill again. It is financially and environmentally responsible. 33 and free, indeed. If only I had understood how it all works before the 43rd day of our voyage.
Let me back up.
I have never had to think about power or electricity. I vaguely remember a class in high school teaching me a bit about it, but haven’t had to use that knowledge since. As far as I was concerned, I pay the utility bill and can use all of the electricity that I want to without further consideration.
When we started shopping for RVs, we were happy to see that the new models all come pre-wired for solar. This was great news to us since we plan on spending the majority of our time boondocking. We were also happy to be using renewable energy to reduce our carbon footprint. Having solar installed meant that we could continue to use electricity as if we were at home, or so we thought.
At the time that we purchased our 5th wheel, we had them install a basic solar package. We were under the impression that this would afford us the comforts of home. We could have lights on, watch TV, charge our devices, and live off the grid for as long as we choose to. It wasn’t until our 3rd night boondocking that we realized what our system was capable of, or incapable of.
The dealership installed a Go Power 100-watt panel connected to a 30 amp charge controller, and added a 2nd Interstate 12V deep-cycle battery to the one that came with the coach. Many of our basic electronics run off of DC power, which the batteries could supply power to directly. This meant that we could use our hydraulic jacks, awning, LED lights, and water pump without any additional modification. In order to use any electronics that run off of AC power, or 120v, we would need to buy a generator or an inverter. These items include the TV, microwave, wall outlets, and fireplace. This was all new to us, and we didn’t fully understand at the time.
We chose to skip the generator due to price, noise, maintenance, weight, and gas usage. Instead we bought an inverter that connects to the batteries to convert 12V power into 120V power that can be used by the devices listed above. We figured that the solar panel would keep our batteries full, and we could watch movies or charge our computers freely. For those of you that understand solar charging capability, you already know how wrong we were.
Our first few nights were spent in an RV park with full hookups. We left there fully charged and headed to Sedona, AZ in April planning on spending time in the sunny dessert. Instead it rained for 8 straight days. We would watch the solar controller spike up and down depending on the sunlight and our power usage. We did not adjust our power consumption though. Since we were stuck inside, we would watch movies while playing card games. It wasn’t long before we were down to 9% power, and only getting up to 40% during the day. It is recommended to prolong the life of your battery to never drop below 50%, but we were new to this and were having trouble adapting.
One night, while sitting inside in the dark with only our headlamps on, the refrigerator turned off. Our refrigerator runs off of propane, so we figured that we were out of propane. I went outside to investigate, only to find that the propane was full. I next checked the outside panel of the refrigerator thinking that there was an issue with the gas line. No problems there. Kym was inside googling the issue when she discovered that the fridge does require some electricity to keep it running, and our batteries were at 0%. I spent the rest of the night in the dark cursing to myself. This is not what I signed up for.
We did a lot of research into solar at this point, but the financial commitment and technical know-how was too much for us. It was at that point that we met some fellow RVers on Instagram who were staying nearby. They stopped by to say hello, and solar power came up in conversation. They talked about their system allowing them to play PS4, watch TV, and use their computers freely. By this point, we had resigned ourselves to be happy that our fridge worked. It was apparent that we were under-powered, and were consuming too much. Still, we were not ready to commit. My solution was to just go to an RV park every 5 days to charge up, but that too costs money. We soon realized that the long-term cost of adding more solar would pay for itself if it meant not paying for RV parks.
There is a lot of information regarding solar on the internet, but it went in one ear and out the other. In my past life, when a problem came up, the solution was to pay someone else to deal with it. In this life, we have a stricter budget, and fewer resources than in Los Angeles. When you are boondocking, you can’t exactly go to the nearby solar dealer to make a purchase. Even Amazon Prime is a challenge since you no longer have a home address.
Kym and I went back and forth on making an upgrade. Solar panels cost money, as do additional batteries to increase our storage capacity. We concluded though that it was necessary, and I convinced her that I knew what I was doing and could install it myself. It was a lie, but don’t tell her that.
I will provide a complete list of supplies below, but for now I will jump to what we added. The solar supplies were ordered on Amazon and shipped to a nearby UPS customer center. I was able to find the same batteries at an RV dealer in Durango, CO that we already have in our coach. It is important not to mix brands, types, and especially age. I added 2 more in parallel to the 2 that we had, giving us 4 total. This gives us approximately 400Ah. I then installed 3 more 100 watt panels on the roof in parallel, giving us 400 watts total. Today is the first day of having the system complete, and the impact is immediate. We finally achieved a 100% charge using solar alone for the first time. We have the inverter on, devices plugged in, and are not seeing a drop in battery percentage. We are almost two months in to our journey, and I am just now relaxing a bit.
We lived a comfortable life, and I mean that in a sense that we were rarely outside of our comfort zone. It was rare that a problem came up that we didn’t know how to solve ourselves, or knew who to call for help. In our RV life, every problem that has come up has forced us to learn something new. Solar power is a good example of that, and we are happy to have learned about it. I am putting this one in the win column. Now if only it would stop snowing on us!
Our solar system:
- Go Power 30 amp PWM solar controller
- Go Power 100 watt solar panel
- Two Interstate SRM-24 deep-cycle marine/rv batteries connected in parallel
- All 10 AWG wiring
Installed by us
- Xantrex ProWatt 2000 watt Pure Sine inverter
- Xantrex ProWatt remote control
- 4 AWG wiring to batteries
- Three Renogy 100 watt solar panels connected in parallel
- Renogy MC4 connectors and wire extensions
- Two additional batteries connected in parallelInverter showing battery at 12.4 volts. Cord coming out of front connects to the remote switch installed in the living area.Upper right is the inverter remote switch so that I do not have to go into storage to turn it off.BBattery showing 84% on the solar controller.