Category Archives: Boondocking

DIY 1000 Watt Inverter Installation

110 volt outlet and remote on/off switch installed.
The red 110 volt outlet dedicated to the inverter and inverter remote on/off switch installed.

In my previous RV I only had 110 volt household current when I was plugged into shore power at a campground, when I ran my disturbingly noisy generator, or when I turned on my inverter to power the single, dedicated outlet I had installed along with it. This last method involved running extension cords from that outlet to other points inside (or outside) the RV where I wanted or needed household current–inconvenient and a tripping hazard.

Upon getting a new RV my plan had always been to have an inverter installed that would supply power to all of the RV’s existing 110 volt outlets so that power would be available throughout it without needing to run extension cords–a more convenient and aesthetically pleasing arrangement that would also eliminate the hazard of tripping over extension cords.

When I started looking at all that was involved in wiring an inverter into the RV’s electrical system it soon became apparent to me that it was outside my wheelhouse of skills. So, I decided to have that done professionally later on, but until I could hire it done I was comfortable doing a more simple trip-over-the-extension-cord style hookup that would at least provide us with some AC until the professional installation could be performed. [READ MORE…]

Toast on a Cloudy Day

Sunset: Imperial Dam LTVA, Feb. 2018
Another gorgeous sunset at the BLM’s Imperial Dam Long Term Visitor Area. I grabbed this shot with my iPhone.

In my most recent post I promised an upcoming article about a DIY inverter installation. I haven’t gotten around to that yet and I apologize to everyone who has been breathlessly waiting for it… both of you!

As for an explanation as to why that post has been delayed, well, I have been working on something of a larger project that has demanded my attention and kept me away from my writing desk: a DIY solar install on the RV. That job, now largely complete, shall be the subject of this post, or series of posts.

My interest in solar power for RVing has its wellspring in my love of nature which by extension means camping more closely to it in more natural and off-the-grid locations where it becomes necessary to be self-reliant for services such as electricity. Back in the old days when I had my first RV (named Charlene, a 30′ Coachmen Class C) I traveled the country with a 120 watt GoPower portable solar panel I would set up then pack up as I moved from location to location. Although “Sunny” (as my panel became known to me) could not supply all the power to meet my electrical demand, he served me well once I replaced the cheap controller with which he was equipped from the mfr., and he is still part of my solar arsenal today. (Previously I wrote a User Report about the GoPower 120 watt portable kit.)

Over the past weeks and months I have been working on designing and installing a more complete and robust solar installation on my current RV. This system, now fully operational, includes four, rooftop mounted and tilt-able 190 watt solar panels, a 60 amp TriStar MPPT solar charge controller, 4 LifeLine 6 volt AGM batteries (wired in series/parallel to make 12 volts), and a Bogart Engineering TM-2030 battery monitor along with a remote control for the TriStar controller. Of course, there are a number of minor components such as circuit breakers, busbars, terminal blocks, etc., but the components I listed above are the major players of the system.

As a first step in planning an RV solar installation many people write about figuring out what your electrical demands will be and then planning the system size and components accordingly. Personally, I think, that while this may sometimes be valuable it isn’t always practicable. It involves cataloging all the devices and appliances you will be using, how much current they draw and how long you will use these devices every day. In other words, this means figuring out how much electricity you will need. It seemed to me that, for me, calculating this might be something marginally more possible than guessing the next winning lottery numbers. If you have an established RVing routine and the ability to measure all these things then this sort of assessment may be more useful, but even then electrical demands and the ability to generate power will change from season to season with the varying number of daylight hours as well as one’s current latitude to say nothing of the weather.

In my case I didn’t see how I could undertake a truly valuable assessment. I had no history in this RV. I should say “we” instead of “I” because I now have Diane as my partner in crime. Nor do we have too much of an idea of what our camping style will be. So, I took another tack which was to put as much solar on the roof of my RV as I could because, as they say, you can never have too much. However, I’m not so sure about that either.

I used the Draw modue of Open Office to construct this diagram of the rooftop of my RV. Then I tried placing different solar panels I drew to scale in various places. This is the final layout I made.

My first step in doing all this was to get up on the rooftop, measure and diagram where everything was in order to know how much space I had into which I could place solar panels while (and this was a critical component of my planning) still being able to move safely from front to back of the roof in order to carry out routine maintenance as well as get to all the corners of each panel so as to be able to operate the planned tilting hardware. Another important aspect of planning the solar panel positioning was avoiding, as much as possible, any shadowing that might occur from objects on the roof such as the air conditioner and TV antenna and even one panel casting shadows on another. I am including one version of the roof diagrams I made. It shows the panels and placement that were ultimately chosen

Once I figured out which panels I thought would work best—part of this was the operating voltage which I will discuss below—I made a cardboard cutout the size of one of them, took it up to the roof to check the fit in the planned mounting positions. It would have been better to make four cutouts, but who has that much cardboard? I used some painter’s tape to mark the corners of the planned panel mounting positions. Then I walked from the back of the RV to the front, to see if I would be able to comfortably and safely step over and around everything as well as being able to access the corners of each panel in order to tilt them. It was a rehearsal, a pantomime.

In picking out which panels to get one consideration of course was their physical size. Another was their voltage. My lay understanding is that RVs have 12 volt systems and solar panels that can operate with RV systems can be 12 volt panels, 24 volt panels, 36 volts or perhaps even 48 volt panels but that 24 volt panels and above must be used with a solar controller that can reduce the voltage to the 12 volts used by RV systems. The advantages of using solar panels that produce higher voltages include they are both more efficient and that smaller wires (less expensive and easier to work with) can be used to carry the electricity from the rooftop to the solar controller wherever it is located (usually somewhere inside the RV). My choice of the Solarland 190 watt, 24 volt panels was made because they offered the advantages of a higher voltage (above 12) while fitting the spaces I had on the RV roof.

BigAss & Blossom: our truck and RV respectivley, with Blossom sporting her new do of four rooftop solar panels. Sunny, our little 120 watt portable on the ground is facing east and the first to ctch the morning rays.

I chose a Tristar 60 amp MPPT solar controller from Morningstar. They have an excellent reputation and the MPPT style controller can transform excess voltage into usable amperage. This is where toast comes in… Our panels are rated at about 41 amps combined output for the four of them. When using our toaster the other day which puts a high demand on the system the TriStar remote panel we installed indicated 54 amps being sent to the batteries, 13 amps more than our panels can produce—it converted excess voltage to amperage thereby sending to the batteries more amps than the panels actually produce. Again, that’s my lay understanding of things, anyway. With all the wattage we have on the roof and the storage capacity of our battery bank we can make toast on a cloudy day. That may not seem like much when you live in a stIcks and bricks home, are plugged into shore power at a campground or running a generator, but when you are living off-the-grid on solar power alone it’s a pretty big deal.


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Meriwether Lewis Campground, Natchez Trace Parkway National Park, Hohenwald, TN

Section of the original Natchez Trace
This shot represents an idyllic section of the original Natchez Trace, the Old Trace as it is sometimes called. In reality, some sections of the Trace at times were miserable with water and mud, heat, humidity, insects and highwaymen (robbers). Travel was sometimes extremely difficult, even impossible.

The campground sits on a hilltop and as I wrote this in early April many if not most sites have views through the trees in one or more directions. Once the trees fill out with the new leaves leaves of spring (they were still bare when I was there) those views will likely disappear–the campground is in a forest of deciduous trees.

Just a mile from the campground is the gravesite of and memorial to Meriwether Lewis of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition also known as the Corps of Discovery. After that famed expedition, as Governor of the Louisiana Territory, Lewis traveled the Old Trace on his way to Washington D.C. and it is within a few steps of his gravesite that he met his untimely death by gunshot. It appears uncertain whether it was murder or suicide. READ MORE…

Campground(s) Report, Cedar Lake, Ouachita Nat’l Forest, OK

Fishing Pier, Cedar Lake
Fishing pier, Cedar Lake, Sandy Beach Campground, Ouachita National Forest, OK.

The route I was taking was from the Imperial Dam LTVA near Yuma toward Tennessee, a state I had not yet visited. I chose a route of secondary roads that would keep me off the Interstates and take me through the countryside. This was true through Arizona, New Mexico, and the panhandle of Texas. All of these places have some beautiful country including the mountains of Arizona and the gorgeous orangy-red soil of northern Texas. I also followed a secondary-roads route through another state I’d not yet been to, Oklahoma. This route was south of I-40  taking me through the Ouachita National Forest where I stayed at Sandy Beach Campground after looking also at North Shore and Shady Lane–all three campgrounds are at Cedar Lake. READ MORE…

It’s 10 o’clock, do you know where your solar charge controller is?

The solar panel portion of the GoPower GP-PSK-120 solar panel kit
The solar panel portion of the GoPower GP-PSK-120 solar panel kit

When I first set off on my See-the-USA-in-an-RV trip back in May of ’14 I brought with me a little, 120 watt portable solar panel kit with the idea it would generate a little electricity and cut down a little on how long each day I’d need to run my generator, and it has. As time has passed and my explorations into the scintillating world or sunshine and solar have progressed I’ve learned more and more about the whole solar thing. Learning about this sort of stuff is fun and has practical benefits, one of which led me to replace the controller on my solar panel kit and this has allowed me to go generator free for the most part since then. READ MORE…

Exploring My New “Home”, Imperial Dam LTVA, Part Four: A Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing

Vicious Beast
This vicious beast, in reality, is really cute little dog that suffers from an overbite. The  the light in his eyes is making him squint as they reflect the color of the sandy hillside behind me giving him, along with the overbite, a rather menacing appearance. Other than belonging to someone here at Imperial Dam LTVA this pooch has nothing to do with this story but made for a good lead in, I thought.

As I was first exploring my new neighborhood I walked by a neighbor’s RV and this very long legged, snow-dog like looking creature appeared from behind the vehicle, barking, leaping in the air, tugging on her chain, running back and forth, her eyes fixed intently upon me. I knew I’d be a goner if the creature somehow got loose. READ MORE…

Boondocking Report: IMPERIAL DAM, BLM LONG TERM VISITOR AREA, NEAR YUMA, AZ

 

Road to Ferguson Lake
From South Mesa at Imperial Dam LTVA it’s about 8 or so miles up a dirt road Ferguson Lake. The road had just been graded when I was there so passage was easy. The countryside is desolate but beautiful. I saw two other vehicles on that drive.

This is an interesting and unusual place! It quickly became evident that there is community here and that many campers have been coming here for the Season (see Seasonality, below) or a large part of it for many years. Many of them know each other or at least know of each other. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving here and now about a week later I’m still discovering things. What kind of things? All kinds of things: There are maybe 25 named camping areas within the Imperial Dam LTVA. There is a real sense of community here with organized hikes, potlucks, musical performances, model airplane and race car meets, exercise and yoga groups, all organized by campers. There’s and ice cream truck that comes around every other Thursday I’m told, a guy with a wifi hotspot, the nearby Christian Center where you can send and receive mail, get propane, telephone messages, get Internet access and more. There is lots of hiking around here and a bat habitat where, beginning about March, I’m told, you can see, well, bats. READ MORE…