I vacuumed my RV the other morning. A few minutes later, my husband used the microwave to warm his coffee. While ordinary domestic scenes like these are usually nothing special, they were significant events in our full-timing lifestyle. That’s because for the first time ever, we were able to do these simple chores while living on power supplied by the sun.
Our previous RV never would have enabled us to enjoy these creature comforts while dry camping. It had a solar power system, but with a lack of rooftop real estate and battery storage capacity, that rig could never provide the kind of robust system our lifestyle required. However last fall when we upgraded to a larger fifth wheel, we knew that we wanted our next system to give us all that we needed to feel comfortable. Shortly after buying our new rig we headed to one of the most highly respected RV solar electric designers in the industry, Mike Gohl of The Sun Works in Southern California.
Ask any RVer from Quartzsite to Yuma and they’ll mention Mike as one of the go-to experts in RV solar electric. He’s been in the business since 1987 and knows the ins and outs of solar power for RVers. Through the years he has installed hundreds of systems in RVs from Prevosts to Casitas. When the day came that we could invest in an all-new system, Mike was our first choice.
We’re so enamored with our new system that I sought out Mike’s expertise for this column in order to help other RVers who are considering a solar investment. During a rare break of calm during his busiest time of the year, we met in his bus conversion/office so I could ask him: what are the three things RVers should ask themselves when considering solar? Here’s what he said:
First Ask: Do You Really Need It?
Every RVer seems to have solar power these days but just because it’s available doesn’t mean you really need it. “Think about your camping style and the length of your stays,” advises Mike. “If you go dry camping more than five or six days at a time, that’s when it makes sense. But if you’re just taking the RV out on weekends, you might just be OK using house batteries and recharging them when you get home.”
In his usual style of covering every angle, Mike pointed out one more scenario when considering RV solar power. Let’s say you don’t have a way to recharge the batteries because you keep your RV in a storage lot. If you are in that kind of situation, Mike says a small system could be beneficial by recharging your batteries so they’re ready to go the next time you are.
Next Consider: What Do You Want to Do?
Once you determine if you need a system, Mike says to ask yourself “What kind of power do you need? And what do you want to do?” You have to do some soul searching to figure it out, he says. Ask yourself, do you want a system that will only power your communication devices? Or do you need power for other things like cooking or using the microwave or vacuum?
Ask yourself if you can get by with just 12v power (house batteries) to run basic needs like your lights and water pump—or do you need an inverter? If you want to run typical household appliances such as your computer and coffee maker, you need A/C power, which requires an inverter, so that’s another cost concern, he explains.
In order to build a solar power system, you need to understand your power consumption needs by performing an RV energy audit. An energy audit is a thoughtful analysis of the power usage of every appliance you rely on, and it will tell you how much power you require to live comfortably in your RV.
Energy audit calculations are relatively simple: multiply the average current (draw) of electrical appliances times the amount of hours each is used per day to determine amp hours consumed. Total all of the amp hours required in order to determine the number of solar panels required. The energy audit formula looks like this:
Appliance: DC Amps@12v x Hours per Day = Daily Amp Hours Consumed.
NOTE: Multiply AC Amps x 10 to get DC amp draw from batteries. (Example: 5 amp AC = 50 amp at 12vDC.) Many RVers have written about this process and if you do an Internet search for “RV Energy Audit” you will find lots of helpful RV bloggers explaining how it’s done.
Finally, Consider How Much Real Estate Is on the Roof?
What kind of rooftop space do you have for solar panels? How many obstructions are up there? Everything from air conditioners to antennas and vents to skylights will pose challenges. Will you have the space to mount an adequate number of panels to supply electricity for your needs, while still allowing you to walk on the roof for maintenance and repairs? Since solar panel output is measured in wattage, your goal is to uncover the maximum wattage per square foot that you can get on top of your rig.
Our new system has five 100-watt panels that are physically small by most standards. But at just 47 inches x 21 inches in size, they offered the highest amperage rating for their footprint, and provided the most flexibility when positioning them on our roof. By spreading the smaller panels out and mounting two together, we have a .5-kilowatt system that enables us to move around the roof comfortably when needed.
Once you discover the answers to these questions, you’re probably in for a reality check about your future system. Mike says one of the biggest disappointments potential customers face is that even with a large, powerful system, they’ll probably still have to give up a comfort or two that most people take for granted, like running the air conditioner. Most RVs don’t have the rooftop real estate and battery storage areas to build a system that can simultaneously and continuously run power-hungry appliances. “Air conditioners and refrigerators are the two biggest power loads,” says Mike. “You just don’t usually have enough real estate on top to run both.”
Building the right solar electric power system is a matter of balancing your needs with the physical capabilities of your RV and your budget. If you can’t afford the system you really want, Mike suggests asking yourself “What can I do without if I don’t have enough money to do what I need?” If you can live without using some power-hungry appliances like your microwave and hair dryer, all is not lost—you can still have a system that enables you to live comfortably enough for most basic needs. Even the smallest budget can buy a system that can make your life more comfortable. With panels on your roof and juice in your battery, there’s nothing better than sleeping under a blanket of stars and knowing you can wake up to a hot cup of coffee in the morning.
To learn more about solar power, visit TheSunWorks.com or call Mike Gohl at (760) 791-5011.
Rene Agredano and her husband, Jim Nelson, are full-time RVers who share their experiences at LiveWorkDream.com. Follow Rene’s blog, “The Full-Timing Nomad” at rvlife.com.