Why We Decided to Install Solar
When we took the leap and became full-time RVers in October 2019, we knew there would be upgrades down the road. Our mindset was to get started and figure things out along the way.
One of the first hands-on lessons we learned was the difference between being connected to electric hookups in an RV park and running on a 12 volt battery while boondocking.
When we disconnected from shore power, we weren’t able to use the AC outlets, TV, microwave, electric kettle, and outdoor fridge. That’s only a mild inconvenience for us.
The bigger problem? Our 12 volt battery was always on the verge of dying from running the furnace at night (the blower fan uses a fair amount of electricity).
Instead of getting a generator to charge up our battery, we got a Renogy 100-watt solar suitcase to start with. I detailed our initial experience with this product in another post.
In hindsight, the solar suitcase worked well for us except for a 4-day stint in Big Sur when the sun decided to quit shining. That time, I had to use jumper cables to charge our 12 volt battery from the truck. Not ideal!
When COVID-19 shut the country down in March, we parked our rig at Kim’s parents in Utah and laid low for a couple months.
While quarantined, we got to talking and decided to upgrade from a travel trailer to a fifth wheel. We also bought a bigger, more capable truck to pull it.
By this point, we knew we loved the full-time RV lifestyle and wanted to set ourselves up to do it more comfortably for years to come.
We don’t like generators because they’re noisy, heavy, and need a fuel supply. They also require maintenance. Oh, and unless you have an onboard generator, you have to go outside and start up the dang thing every time you need to recharge.
What if we had a solar system that could run everything we needed? How much would something like that cost? Would it be possible to run A/C or is that a pipe dream?
How and Why We Hired the Dry Campers
I did some research online and found The Dry Campers, a full-time RV couple that travels around the country doing solar installs. On their website, I saw that they were coming through Utah. It seemed like it was meant to be. I loved the idea of working with someone in-person instead of leaving our house-on-wheels at a busy shop.
I gave Mike a call and he happily chatted with me for 1.5 hours, answering question after question. He explained to me that he had over 25 years experience as an electrician and reassured me that we could run A/C with the right system.
Ultimately, we decided on what Mike called “the minimum A/C system” which included 1300 watts of solar panels on the roof, 400 amp-hours of lithium batteries, a 3000 watt inverter, and a charge controller with a few extra goodies (see the full list here).
We ended up meeting Mike and Leanna in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho for a weeklong install. They were able to reserve a spot for their Airstream a few sites down from ours at Lava Campground, a low key RV park with cute and colorful vintage campers for rent.
While Mike worked during the day, we played at The Olympic Swimming Complex which has an indoor pool that’s perfect for toddlers. We also soaked in the hot springs a few times and ran errands in Pocatello.
The Dry Camper’s Solar Install
Here’s what Mike did each day of the installation:
Mike measured the roof, laid out all of the cables and connectors, and got the solar harness ready. He also disassembled the “basement” and got the solar lines pushed through.
Note: The solar panels shipped late and didn’t arrive until Day 4
We opted to put the batteries in storage under the bed rather than retrofit them under the stairs. That makes it easy for us to add two more in the future. Our decision saved Mike some time so he gave us a 20% discount!
Mike completed prep work for the batteries and installed them under the bed. He also ran lines to the shutoffs and got the inverter wired in along with the surge protector.
Mike got the inverter and charge controller bolted in place and brought the solar wire into the charge controller.
Mike and Leanna drove to Pocatello to pick up the solar panels. Mike then secured them to the roof and wired them in.
Days 5 and 6
Mike built a finished wood wall to replace the carpet one we had in the “basement” before. He also created two doors to give us easy access to the inverter, charge controller, and plumbing.
He then gave us a final walkthrough and showed us how to use the VictronConnect App to monitor everything.
The Solar Equipment We Purchased
- 4 Battle Born 100Ah – lithium batteries (Mike wired it so we can add 2 more)
- 1 Victron Multiplus 3000W – inverter
- 1 Victron MPPT 150/100 – charge controller
- 4 REC 325 watt 65×39 – solar panels
- 4 300+ watt panel mounts
- 1 Victron VE.Bus – bluetooth dongle
- 1 Victron BMV712 – battery monitor
- 1 MicroAir Easy Start
- 1 Progressive Industries HW50C – surge protector
Our Experience So Far
We unplugged from shore power the day before we left Lava Campground and continued living off grid for 15 days.
Yes, you heard that right! We dry camped for two weeks without a generator and lived like electrified kings while boondocking outside of Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
Notable hikes in the Grand Tetons:
At night, we microwaved frozen burritos, ran Maia’s sound machine, Kim used her personal fan and heating pad, and we set the heat to 68° F.
In the morning, Kim and I ran the electric kettle to boil water for coffee and tea and made toast.
During the afternoon, we ran A/C for several hours without any problems.
One night, we got back from Yellowstone and it was almost 90° F inside the rig! To make matters worse, we got infested by tiny insects that fit through the bug screens.
Kim ran the A/C and vacuum at the same time and 120 volt power shut off. The battery monitor showed that our stage of charge was 61%, so we were confused.
I texted Leanna late at night, “You guys still up? We’re having problems…” To my surprise and delight, she answered! Like an angel, she troubleshooted with me and figured out that the charged voltage setting was set incorrectly to 13.2 volts. It was supposed to be 14.4 volts.
Basically, our battery charge was a lot lower than we thought! The next day, our batteries reached “float voltage” from our solar panels as we drove through Montana on the way to Glacier National Park.
Notable hikes in Glacier National Park:
As I’m writing this, we’re connected to shore power at North American RV Park. When I plugged in, the inverter automatically switched to the 50 amp connection.
Often, the only available connection is 30 amps. With our current setup, the solar system will “make up the difference” and provide 50 amp power in that scenario!
All things considered, we couldn’t be more pleased with our system. Like many, we love dry camping because it’s free and you get to stay closer to nature.
RV parks and campgrounds with full hookups can cost anywhere from $35 to $80 per night, especially near national parks. Weekly and monthly rates are usually discounted but still run $500 to $800 if you get a good deal.
Every night we spend boondocking is money saved. Based on how we travel, we estimate it will take us 1-2 years to pay ourselves back for what we spent on solar.
Perhaps more importantly though, we now have the convenience and peace of mind of being able to run all of our appliances without any hiccups. When it comes to life on the road, you really can’t put a price on that!
What was the approximate total cost for the solar equipment and the installation?
The equipment was $8k and the installation was $4k. We’re looking forward to getting our 26% federal solar tax credit next year!
Max, what type of refrigerator are you running? Residential or RV??
It’s a Dometic RV fridge. We run it on propane when boondocking.
What did you use for keeping the battery temp above 34 degrees?
Our Battle Born batteries are stored underneath our bed. Battle Born’s FAQ page on their site says their batteries can accept a charge down to 24°F. We live inside our RV full time and it never gets that cold inside. TBH, we rarely camp in places that get that cold outside at night either.