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Old 09-05-2010, 10:46 PM   #1
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Harbor Freight Solar RV Conversion

Like many that like to RV I have an older (87) coach and a limited budget. I also do not like to run the generator. Too much noise, exhaust fumes and gas consumption.
My wife and I like to go to the lake and also boondock. The lake we frequent has no facilities at all. If the batteries got low we had to run the generator.
I have a friend that powers his second home in northern Az. with batteries and solar from Harbor Freight so thought I would try it. I bought the first set of panels last fall for $139.00 on sale with a coupon. The kit had 3, 15 watt panels, controller, 2, 12v flourescent lights, and various adapters to charge USB devices, 3, 6, 9, 12 volts. Not bad.
I made a frame for the panels and then made a bracket to allow the panels to be tilted up and also rotated to catch the sun. This along with installing 4 LED lights in the coach allowed us to stay at the lake for 3 or 4 days before having to run the gen. We have 2 group 27 deep cycle batteries for coach power.
We only ran the LEDs, TV or radio, and the furnace was set about 60' overnight, then up to 70' or so in the am, off during the day. The refrigerator runs on propane but needs 12v DC for the controls. Water pump was run as needed.
I just installed a second set also bought for $139.00 with a coupon. This set is fixed in a frame I made and does not tilt or swivel. It is mounted closer to the front of the coach by the entry door and really did not want to mess with tilting and rotating a second panel so thought I would see how this worked out.
Not saying this is an ideal system but I think with both panels and the LED lighting will will only need to run the generator for the microwave or the a/c. I have less than $400 for both sets of panels and making the frames. I had the heavy wiring I ran from the roof to the controller, so add another $30 or $40 to the total cost for wire. I think a better controller would make more power from the panels as they put out 21 to 23 volts, but max out of the controller is about 14v DC.
In another thread I posted about the LED lights but thought it might be interesting to someone here. 3 of the old incandescant lights would draw 4.5 amps, 4 of the LED lights draw 1.5 amps. We usually only run 2 LEDs at a time. We also have a small 400 watt, 800 surge invertor for running the TV. There is no draw when this is turned off, something not all do, so check this if you buy one. Also very low power consumption to convert 12v DC to 120v AC.
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Old 09-06-2010, 08:45 AM   #2
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really I will have to get some since I dont have a genarator, thank you







Quote:
Originally Posted by leadman View Post
Like many that like to RV I have an older (87) coach and a limited budget. I also do not like to run the generator. Too much noise, exhaust fumes and gas consumption.
My wife and I like to go to the lake and also boondock. The lake we frequent has no facilities at all. If the batteries got low we had to run the generator.
I have a friend that powers his second home in northern Az. with batteries and solar from Harbor Freight so thought I would try it. I bought the first set of panels last fall for $139.00 on sale with a coupon. The kit had 3, 15 watt panels, controller, 2, 12v flourescent lights, and various adapters to charge USB devices, 3, 6, 9, 12 volts. Not bad.
I made a frame for the panels and then made a bracket to allow the panels to be tilted up and also rotated to catch the sun. This along with installing 4 LED lights in the coach allowed us to stay at the lake for 3 or 4 days before having to run the gen. We have 2 group 27 deep cycle batteries for coach power.
We only ran the LEDs, TV or radio, and the furnace was set about 60' overnight, then up to 70' or so in the am, off during the day. The refrigerator runs on propane but needs 12v DC for the controls. Water pump was run as needed.
I just installed a second set also bought for $139.00 with a coupon. This set is fixed in a frame I made and does not tilt or swivel. It is mounted closer to the front of the coach by the entry door and really did not want to mess with tilting and rotating a second panel so thought I would see how this worked out.
Not saying this is an ideal system but I think with both panels and the LED lighting will will only need to run the generator for the microwave or the a/c. I have less than $400 for both sets of panels and making the frames. I had the heavy wiring I ran from the roof to the controller, so add another $30 or $40 to the total cost for wire. I think a better controller would make more power from the panels as they put out 21 to 23 volts, but max out of the controller is about 14v DC.
In another thread I posted about the LED lights but thought it might be interesting to someone here. 3 of the old incandescant lights would draw 4.5 amps, 4 of the LED lights draw 1.5 amps. We usually only run 2 LEDs at a time. We also have a small 400 watt, 800 surge invertor for running the TV. There is no draw when this is turned off, something not all do, so check this if you buy one. Also very low power consumption to convert 12v DC to 120v AC.
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Old 09-06-2010, 10:15 AM   #3
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solar is no replacement for a genset.

Yes, solar can help a little, but, I think, too many expect too much.

The HF sale price is decent as it's under $4/watt.

Now consider what you get.

Your 2 batteries provide a bit over a Kilowatt hour of usable energy. That should do (by rule of thumb) for a weekend of off grid if you conserve energy appropriately. That means 300 to 400 watt hours per day of electrical energy use.

Now, consider that HF solar system.

45 watts for maybe 5 hours per day is 225 watt hours. Deduct losses which reduce that by 20% or more (battery charging is inherently inefficient and the controller you get with HF is designed for cost rather than energy efficiency). What this means is that you can get about a third of your daily use from the HF solar package if all conditions are optimum.

The thing to do is to think about about what a couple of hundred watt hours means in terms of energy. Typical household use is around 30,000 watt hours per day (eia). An RV furnace runs at about 100 watts so a 10% runtime to keep warm would be a couple hundred watt hours per day. A typical DVD plus TV in an RV can run 100 watts or more so watching a 2 hour movie can use up nearly a day's worth of RV battery energy.

Another consideration is your batteries. They need proper care and use for maximum life. An RV solar system is very unlikely to properly and completely recharge the batteries (not enough current to mix electrolyte, not enough time for full charge).

Your RV energy budget is about 1% of the typical household budget. Solar can help some. Using energy efficient lighting can help some. But the reality is that reducing your energy budget by that much has more to do with your behavior than anything else. Solar won't help much there.
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Old 09-06-2010, 03:49 PM   #4
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I think pictures or your neat install is in order...
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Old 09-07-2010, 12:13 AM   #5
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Was going to take pictures today, but when I was on the roof finishing up the solar it was still dark.
Then I repainted one set of stripes on the side. Then under the coach replacing mufflers and pipes, tightening bolts, etc. A 12 hour day.
We live in a unique environment here in Az. Sunny days about 330 days per year, now about 10 to 12 hours of sun.
Solar won't replace the generator, but with installation of the LED lights and the small under cabinet TV/radio, DVD/Cd player and the need for only minimal heat in the winter I think 5 days should be doable without the generator. Winter days at the lake here normally get to 70' or so. The downside is it was 111' a couple days ago.
Also changed the wiring arrangement in my fishing boat so the outboard starts off and charges the same battery as the trolling motor. So far no problems there and the battery stays up for at least 3 days of fishing.
I also have the capability to charge batteries off the solar but with the one set of panels there was not enough amps available.
I agree that a higher quality controller would make better use of the panels and I may investigate this when money is available or my controllers go bad.
Anyone considering purchasing a solar kit from HF needs to get on there mailing list. The coupons for the solar recntly have varied from a low of $139 to $199. I have several extra coupons for $149 dollars right now if anyone is interested.
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Old 09-07-2010, 08:50 AM   #6
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Harbor Freight is kind of pricey and the system are somewhat undersized- for serious solar, try these folks at around $1.75/watt SUN ES-180-RL [SUN ES-180-RL] - $327.60 : Solar Panels Direct, Powered by Nature!
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Old 09-07-2010, 07:49 PM   #7
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Senior Chief, that does look like a bargain. Did not see any dimension listed for the panel but am sure they are there someplace. Just need a controller, some wires and brackets and you would have a great system.
Not knowing much about solar other than what I read I thought the kit at HF would be a good start. As I learn about this stuff I am sure I will make modifications to my coach and probably my house.

Got up on the roof of the coach and took some pictures today.
The first picture is the panel I just installed in a fixed position towards the front of the coach. The rest are of the rear panel I installed last fall that lays flat or can be tilted from either end to an upright angle. The base is held to a plate on the roof by 2 studs with nuts on them. Take the nuts off and the panel can be rotated towards the sun or removed. The last picture is of the controller.

The brackets that tilt the panels are removable so it lays flat. The panels can be tilted from either end.

The wires go to an electrical box on the roofand plug in with standard 110v plugs right now. Used 2 runs of 14 gauge romex for the first set of panels but added 2- 8 gauge wires now just because I found them in the shed. The go down thru the refrigerator vent and over to the door area where the batteries are under the step.

Originally I would set the panels up on the roof with the HF brackets that were in a fixed upright angle and take them off the roof for transport. Didn't take long to get tired of this.

If you don't want to install or place them on the roof it can be set up on the ground easily. The panels originally slip over some t-headed pins on the brackets in about 2 minutes without tools. Be ok if you didn't leave your campsite or had confidence they would not grow legs.

Like I said, I am learning about solar and wanted a working system to play with. Now that I have installed these panels I see that these are very simple devices to work with and it will be just a matter of getting the right components to work with one another.
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Old 09-07-2010, 08:13 PM   #8
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Well, for those who say that solar cannot replace a generator, here's a guy that would puts up a pretty good argument that it can. He boondocks regularly and does not own a generator.

Hello world from HandyBobSolar! HandyBob's Blog
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Old 09-07-2010, 09:01 PM   #9
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I read Handy Bob's website and he makes some good points and passes on some good info.
From his writing I know that the HF controller is marginal at best as the output voltage is lower than what it could be. The panels put out up to 22 to 23 volts, while the max I have seen out of the controller is 14.2 v. This is perfect for an automobile but could be a little more for solar. There is a positive to the HF controller though is that is does not cause the batteries to consume water due to the lower voltage.
It would be nice to have a desulfation mode though. Will have to work on that, going to investigate an automotive type regulator that can be adjusted to a higher voltage but the cost would be lower than a true solar controller.

I did check for a controller on the site Senior Chief provided and from what I can tell it would be about $130 for a controller to match the panel. This raises the cost per watt a bit to over $2.50. Then you still need bracket, wires, fuses, etc. Probably about the same per watt when done. The positive of this panel would be ease of installation and size.
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Old 09-21-2010, 09:39 PM   #10
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Thought I would chime in. I'm a full timer who pretty much lives off the grid in remote locations.

I have the SUN SV-T-190 from sun-elec.

The folks down there were fantastic and since I was in Miami anyway, decided to stop by and pick up my panel. Awesome panel! But it is big if you need to move it around. However, I'm pretty big. If possible, try to break up your total wattage into two panels, so they are easier to move around. Unless, of course, you wanted to hard mount them to your roof.

The harbor freight panels, like most others, are just way too over priced. The Sun-elec is by far the best watts for the buck.

I haven't needed a controller yet as I use all the juice I produce, but I will probably get one as I want to spend more time away from the coach when I'm in the desert, and I don't want to fry the batteries. This combined with my home made 600 watt pop-up wind gen and 160 amp PowerMaster alternator gives me all the juice I need I need for my 21ft class c. I have a 480 amp-hour battery pack. I wanted a large battery reserve so I didn't dip too deeply into the pack each day. Discharging a pack beyond 70 percent rapidly kills it.

My panel puts out 11-12 amp in full sun. While I travel with it on the roof, I can take it out of it's custom closure when I park so I can orient it in the sun while keeping my coach in any available shade. The 25 foot of 6 guage wiring keeps the voltage drop under 2%. Do remember, The ACTUAL output should be measured by the amps...not the watt output. Most manufacturers rate their watt output by multiplying the max volts times the max amps, but that never happens in real life, unless you are cooking your batteries at 20 volts! The batteries will bring the real voltage down to about 13 volts times the amp output.

Keep all your 12 volt usage to a minimum and you can boon-dock just fine. I use fluorescent mainly with a few LED lamps. My netbook on the inverter takes another 20 watts. My fan is a wal-mart tent fan that draws less than amp and with its magnets, I can hang it anywhere. When I have an excess of power, I will turn the 12 volt on the fridge and save the propane.

Just some tips to help you make the choice to go solar. With usual driving to the wal-Mart, etc...the alternator does a good job of bulk filling the batteries when they are low. The panel tops them off well and keeps them full till sundown. The NOCO 200 amp Isolator keeps everything separated. However, to avoid the inevitable voltage drop through solid state isolators, the coach bank is directly wired to the alternator so ITS voltage is the one that determines the output of the Alt. The engine battery doesn't really get discharged, so it can take the half-volt drop in it's charging profile.
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Old 09-21-2010, 11:59 PM   #11
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Running a solar system without a proper charge controller should only be done if you are using panels with 30 cells (15v max) per 12 volts of battery and at very low (trickle charge) power levels.

re: "Do remember, The ACTUAL output should be measured by the amps...not the watt output." -- just because some folks can't understand how to measure things properly is no reason not to use the proper units.

When you use amps you have to assume voltage and that can cause as much error as using improperly calculated wattage. Talking about 10 amps from a solar panel at 16 volts is going to have an entirely different impact on your battery than 10 amps at 22 volts. The proper units for power, watts, will indicate the difference.

It is the power over time that provides the energy that is stored in your batteries.

Modern MPPT solar charge controllers test the system to determine peak power from the solar panels to get maximum efficiency. They are very handy if you want to run higher voltage panels for wiring efficiencies but most RV systems can't get good cost efficiency that way so ordinary PWM controllers are usually sufficient. Connecting the panel output directly to the battery is a lot less efficient and needs extraordinary care to avoid overcharging your batteries.

When it comes to solar panel ratings, there are many factors to consider. Peak power output is usually used and it has a set of standards that should be applied regarding temperature, sun angle, and so on. Like batteries, the specifications are for controlled conditions and should only be used to compare similar equipment.

What you actually get in service will depend upon these factors. Shade and sun angle are what usually make the biggest impact in RV systems. That is why the 'electron counters' like the Trimetric are popular so folks can see how much energy has actually gone into and out of their batteries.

On battery discharge levels, it is easy to be confused about whether the measure is for how much was used or how much was left. Smartgauge has a good rundown on the cost effectiveness considerations trading off battery cost versus life that suggests that you should avoid using more than half of your battery's capacity as a regular thing.

There is the right way to do things and then there is what you can often find when you purchase a used RV someone has 'upgraded.' What I often see reminds of the Holmes on Homes show on HGTV.
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Old 09-22-2010, 11:39 AM   #12
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My point on posting about the Harbor Freight system is to let others know about this complete system that is easily set-up with nothing else to buy. It also includes 2 12v flourescent lights that plug into the controller along with a plug-in wire with adapters to charge different devices. It has a USB port, 3v,6v,9, 12v sockets on the controller to run or charge devices.
This is not just the panel.
Granted to output is not large but with just 2 batteries for our coach it tripled the time we have before we have to start the generator to charge the batteries.
I think this is pretty good for $140.00.
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Old 09-22-2010, 12:09 PM   #13
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Regarding Bryan L's input:

"Running a solar system without a proper charge controller should only be done if you are using panels with 30 cells (15v max) per 12 volts of battery and at very low (trickle charge) power levels.".......This is true if you have a very small battery pack for the size of your solar panel. I've been using solar and wind since 1988 and have only needed a charge controller a few times, since I opt for a very large reserve capacity. This was both in my house, and now in my boondocking Rig. The batteries rarely get completely topped off before the sun goes down, but if they do...then I use the 12 amp excess for my fridge which draws exactly that.

The point is NOT that you shouldn't use a charge controller. I will probably be picking one up in the near future myself. It's just that in practical use when boondocking, it's pretty rare that you will have a massive excess of power. Unless maybe you get a 200 watt panel and have just an 80 amp hour coach battery. I assumed that most people who are setting up for boondocking would not even try such a ridiculously low amount of reserve capacity.

"When you use amps you have to assume voltage and that can cause as much error as using improperly calculated wattage."....Actually, until your batteries begin to top off, say the last 90% or so, they couldn't care less if you are filling them at 16, 22, or 30 volts. I've charged dead 12 volt car batteries by series wiring 2 other batteries into a 24 volt emergency charger. While bulk charging (under 90% or so) the battery is only concerned with the amps, not the volts. Obviously as you "top off" the battery will start getting warm and you can cook it easily then. That's where the charge controller comes in handy, especially if you are not monitoring it yourself. I rarely get to that point when boondocking, unless I get some great wind and my windGen is just putting out more than I can use. But I usually find a good use for that excess power!

But yes, if you want a system you just don't have to monitor, get a charge controller. Of course, in that case you probably aren't orienting the panel into the sun from sun up to sundown, like I do. They are probably laying flat on your roof which means you are only getting half the daily potential output anyway. To me, that's just a waste a very expensive electricity producer.

"It is the power over time that provides the energy that is stored in your batteries." ....... I'm not even sure what this means. If you mean Work/Time=Power...yes, that's physics 101. But not sure of the relevancy here. The total energy available from your battery is simply the amount of stored amps. Whether those amps got there with a 15 volt push, or a 20 volt push, is irrelevant. Only as the battery begins to reach its full charge is it necessary to taper down the amperage, followed by the tapering of the voltage. This is what modern 3 stage chargers/controllers do. I just rarely reach that point when boondocking.

"When it comes to solar panel ratings, there are many factors to consider. Peak power output is usually used and it has a set of standards that should be applied regarding temperature, sun angle, and so on. Like batteries, the specifications are for controlled conditions and should only be used to compare similar equipment. " ............. I'm not really sure how that is going to help anybody chose the right panel for them. As an example, I can get 2 different "200 watt" panels for the same price. One puts out a peak voltage of 17.9 at 12 amps, while the other does 22 volts at 9 amps. Unless I need the extra voltage to make up for losses in a long wire run, the 12 amp panel makes more sense as this will charge my batteries faster. Just like in your USAGE... you are concerned with the total amp hours used, not the voltage at which they were consumed. Likewise, for the REPLENISHMENT of those amp-hours. Given 2 identically rated panels, for thrifty Rv'ers, Mo' amps is mo' better!

In the example above, my 17.9 volt panel will only lose about half volt in the hot sun. This is still plenty of voltage (16+) to charge any 12 volt bank with full amperage. My wiring is always of sufficient size for no more than a 2% voltage drop. Both for efficiency, and safety.


"On battery discharge levels, it is easy to be confused about whether the measure is for how much was used or how much was left." .......... Um, well nerds like me LOVE to watch the amp-hours going in and out of our instrumentation. But I think the average user is just concerned with how much electrical "gas" is still in the tank. That is told to them with the voltmeter. There are numerous tables out there that will approximate your current state of charge vs. voltage, whether under load or not.

That gas tank analogy also works well to explain what I was saying above. If you have an empty tank, and only have 8 minutes to fill it (i.e 8 hours of sun) which would you rather have? A pump that shoots out 5 gallons a minute at low pressure, or 2 gallons a minute at high pressure? What counts, especially if you got a long ways to the next gas stop, is total AMOUNT (i.e amps) of gas you can get in the tank in a limited amount of time, not how fast you were able to get your few gallons in there.

I suppose I could have made my previous post much more technical, but I assumed the average solar buyer isn't a techie and just wants to know what to look for first to keep their batteries charged. Whenever anyone asked me about solar, or wind, I try to keep the explanations as simple and relatable as possible.
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Old 09-22-2010, 12:56 PM   #14
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re: ""It is the power over time that provides the energy that is stored in your batteries." ....... I'm not even sure what this means." -- it is a basic definition concerning what is of primary interest with your batteries. That is, the energy capacity of your batteries and how you can measure it going in and out.

What you want a solar panel to do is to put energy into the batteries. The flow of energy is called power. When power is applied to something over a period of time energy is transferred. Watts are the proper measure of power. We often use watt hours as a measure of energy as it provides for convenient comparisons.

re: "Um, well nerds like me LOVE to watch the amp-hours going in and out of our instrumentation." - it can be fun to have a bunch of numbers in your face but most of us want numbers that mean something. The market for numbers that mean something is why those electron counters sample both voltage and current to obtain a measure of power that is added up over time to figure out energy into or out of the battery. As the technology advances, they are beginning to apply knowledge about batteries such as the Peukert coefficient and battery efficiencies to get better numbers. The smartgauge device takes this knowing about batteries even further for better results.

re: "I suppose I could have made my previous post much more technical" -- technical wasn't the issue with me. Correct use of terminology and proper practice is. It isn't being too technical that misleads, it is using inappropriate measure or terminology or suggesting practice that is well outside the norm that creates many problems I see.

Quote:
Granted to output is not large but with just 2 batteries for our coach it tripled the time we have before we have to start the generator to charge the batteries.
I think this is pretty good for $140.00.
This is what we need to hang on to, IMHO. Understanding the context and circumstances will help others make effective decisions for them and this experience provides an excellent starting point.
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