On the whole, the RVing lifestyle is comparatively “green.” True, RVs require more fuel than a typical automobile to get to the site of choice, but when it comes to other ecological footprints, an RV is a conservative machine.
Water consumption and wastewater production are comparatively low, and a small space doesn’t require much energy to heat or cool. But want to make your RV trips even less consumptive? Switch to an electrical power source that leaves even a smaller footprint on the environment: solar power, wind power or both.
Served by the Sun
Solar panels won’t run your electrical devices directly. Rather, solar panels produce low-voltage direct-current to charge up your RV’s “house batteries.” With the power in the batteries, you can run lights, a water pump, fans and other devices. With an intermediary device called an inverter, you can also run shore-power devices such as computers and televisions.
What you can operate with solar power is limited only by the size of your solar panel array (a collective term for your solar panels), and the size of your pocketbook. One company that specializes in RV solar kits offers a setup that includes all the needed equipment, including solar panels, wiring, and other hardware and technology, and a power inverter that will allow you to operate hair dryers, coffee pots and even a microwave oven. The cost? Less than $2,300, which is less than many popular gas-powered generators.
The beauty of RV solar is that you don’t need to jump in at that cost level. If your RV lifestyle is simple and you merely want enough power for lights, for running the water pump to wash up and shower, and for using a laptop computer a couple of hours a day, you can buy a setup for less than $1,000. And a solar system can be easily expanded. Start small, and as your budget allows, you can add on, making the system more powerful as you go.
What about installation? If you’re a competent do-it-yourselfer, you can probably install an RV solar system. Common tools are all that’s required, and working carefully with a helper, a small to medium-sized system can be up and running in just a few hours.
Drawbacks? Solar likes lots of sunlight. A bright, clear day is required to get the most out of a system. Add just a few clouds and the system will lose much of its punch. If you use your RV in sunny areas like the Southwest deserts, or you RV largely in summertime when sunshine can be expected, it’s a great alternative. If you expect occasional clouds, then building the system larger than required allows you to bank battery power on sunny days for the occasional cloudy one.
Turning to Wind
Many RVers have found that the sun isn’t the only source of green power. In your RV travels you may have driven past wind farms, where groups of huge wind turbines have popped up out of hillsides and plains like so many giant mushrooms. On a smaller scale, the power of the wind can keep your RV batteries charged, and at a surprisingly low cost.
You’ll need consistent winds to make a wind generator practical. If your travels take you along the coasts, in the Plains states, and on the deserts, you may find that wind power is a perfect green power alternative. We’ve combined wind and solar on our rig, and find that when the sun isn’t shining, often the wind is blowing.
Wind turbines suitable for use on RVs are micro-sized in comparison to those big wind farm towers. Many RVers use turbines made by an Arizona company, Southwest Wind Power, that produce 400 watts of power in a 28 mile-per-hour wind. The company’s Air-X machine can be found with a street price of less than $650. But you’ll need more than just the turbine. Wind produces a lot of torque, and you need a safe, stable mounting system to keep your turbine high up in the air, away from objects near the ground that can produce wind-flow interference.
This is easily the Achilles heel for folks who need a turnkey mounting system. Over the years more than one company has undertaken to produce a suitable portable “turbine tower.” If you are handy with tools, and can follow specifications provided by your wind turbine manufacturer, it’s possible to build your own.
Years ago when we started with our first wind turbine, we were RVing in a truck camper. We used a home-brew mount built out of large thick-walled electrical conduit that “stepped” onto the camper roof, taking the turbine a few feet above roof level. When we changed rigs to a fifth wheel, our roof mount idea was no longer feasible. Here we opted for a two-piece mast that “telescoped” into itself for easy portability when moving the rig. The mast was “stepped” on the trailer’s rear bumper and a holding bracket mounted through the rear wall of the trailer near the roofline. Once in camp we yanked the top portion of the mast out of the bottom piece, allowing our turbine to catch the wind many feet above roof level. Again, heavy electrical conduit was the material of choice. It took a few minutes to set up and to take down, but it worked.
Today we have one of the original prototypes of a telescoping wind turbine tower built of square tube aluminum. A start-up company provided it to us for testing, and subsequently gave up production. It’s a slick affair with a hand crank that allows us to leave the turbine right on the mast while traveling, securely positioned in a yoke that keeps it stable while motoring down the road. Once in camp we simply crank the handle, flip a switch, and we’re ready to generate wind power in about five minutes.
Aside from the “how do you mount the thing?” drawback, wind-generated RV electricity is great. The actual electrical connections are quick and easy, and maintenance is almost zero. Between solar and wind, we can travel away from shore power connections almost endlessly.
Mind Your Batteries
Regardless of your use of solar or wind, one big consideration to keep in mind when going green with your RV is the battery system. Traditionally, RV manufacturers provide a minimum amount of house battery capacity, just enough to get the rig off the sales lot. When you add solar or wind power, the amount of power available for use isn’t just limited by the size of the solar system or wind turbine—you need sufficient battery capacity. This often means finding storage space of sufficient size for more batteries. Consideration needs to be given to keeping those batteries ventilated to open air, and to make sure the rig can handle the added weight.
With sufficient battery storage capacity, a solar, wind, or combination system can make your RV lifestyle more environmentally friendly, and can make staying in some of nature’s beauty spots—those far away from the grid—a reality.
Russ and Tiña De Maris are authors of RV Boondocking Basics—A Guide to Living Without Hookups, which covers a full range of dry camping topics, including how to select, size and install RV solar and wind charging systems. Visit icanrv.com for more information.