Going Solar

Well, it’s winter. Yes we are missing our Airstream adventures. Although we are “newbies” we have grown very attached to our little home on wheels! 🙂

#16003 in snow

Our first season “glamping” we stayed close to home. This season we are planning to venture out a little farther and boondock which means no hook-ups. So what do we do for power? Neither my husband or I are fans of the generator. Seeking the peace and quiet that comes along with the off-grid camping experience has spurred much talk and research about alternate means of power. Our conclusion… trying solar! So, we believe that we are ALMOST ready to take the plunge into the solar world. I thought we would share some of our research with you…
**A word of caution! This is ONLY a description of our experience and not meant to be a recommendation for others. **

Last season we had a few problems with our lead-acid battery. (Our Airstream only has one.) Although the battery was just 2 years old, we had found it dead a few times during our camping season. This made for some inconvenient and unhappy times 🙁 Please remember, we are newbies!! We have learned that when the Airstream is parked, or in storage there is still a draw on the battery. Why you may ask? Well, our quality airstream is equipped with a propane leak detector that does NOT shut off. So even though our battery cut off was in the off position, there was still demand for power from this detector. Sadly, even that small amount of draw was enough to run down/kill our battery after non usage for just a few weeks. This resulted in charging the battery by connecting the rig to our home power for many hours. Once we charged it again we were lucky and it held the charge thru our trip. We did plug into the campground’s shore power. This was fine for that week long trip. This happened a few times to us- each time the battery was discharging sooner and sooner while stored. During the off season we brought the Airstream in for winterization (NJ gets COLD). At this time we had them check out the battery only to learn that it was a goner! Now what? Well here is what we are thinking…

First, we are going to purchase a small – maybe 10V solar “trickle” charger. This we plan to hook up and use when in storage, and in between outings. Our research indicates that this should keep the battery topped off to avoid the issues we had this past year with non usage discharging.

Next, we are going to convert from the lead-acid battery to an AGM (absorbed glass mat) battery. According to our research from the internet, AS dealers, and people using them, this is a better battery type when used with solar: less maintenance and holds a charge better. They are more expensive, but not terribly so. The next question we have is will one 12V battery be enough? From what we can tell the answer to this question is a very personal one. Why? Well, it depends what you want/need to run off of your battery. Some may need to use an electric coffee maker, hair dryer, computer, etc. All of these items draw a different amount of energy. We are pretty basic people. No hair dryer, and we use the stove for coffee or tea making, so for us the battery powers the lights, the propane appliances, and the water pump. Hopefully this new battery type will hold a charge better and run longer than the lead-acid battery that we currently have.

Finally, we are planning to purchase a portable solar kit. This will include the solar panels, controller and an extension cable. Why portable? Most of the time when we camp, we try to park in shade. Our thinking is that with the extension cable we should be able to move the unit around to get the full benefit of the sun whenever possible. This allows us to stay a bit cooler in the shade, but take advantage of the suns energy. If we have only roof panels then we will always be looking to park in the sun. That seems like a less than ideal way to camp for us. Another reason for us to try the portable unit is an optimistic one. Someday we may decide to “trade up” to a slightly larger Airstream. This seems to be what so many Airstream owners do; start small then go bigger. Having the portable unit will allow us to take our purchase with us to the next trailer. 🙂 Our Airstream dealer has told us that if we ever decide to put the solar panels on the roof permanently, they could mount them for us. Seems like the portable is the first step to deciding how efficient it may be for us to use. Then if we want to mount them we can can just do it!

Now that we know we would like a portable unit, on to the next question-what size? Hmm. So the manufacturer suggest a 140 Watt unit. That is based on the trailer size. Seems reasonable. In chatting with other owners of solar it has been suggested to go slightly bigger- we have been told that it will charge faster and maybe it will increase the number of days that we could boondock? Not sure. The price difference is not much so we are now thinking of maybe a 180-200 W unit. Different companies offer different sizes so what will get will depend on the brand that we decide to go with. Here’s where the biggest question comes into play. Do we go with Zamp or Renology or some other brand? All of our research has told us that the Zamp is the best quality, but also the most expensive. A less expensive brand would be Renology. Everything I have read states that this brand is also good quality for less cost. If we were more experienced in the electronics field I would seriously consider this brand. Since we are not, were are thinking that it may be too costly to hire someone to change the wiring connection for the panel to the new brand. Zamp is the easiest to connect because our Airstream is pre-wired with a Zamp connector. If we buy the Zamp product all we need to do is “plug and play”! Of course that comes at a higher price. So, we continue to research. We continue to debate, at least for a little longer.

Our goal is to be up and running with solar by April. I’ll report back after we have a few months of solar experience under our belt 🙂

Cheers!  Lois Wagner