Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Solar System

It never dawned on me before we started our fulltiming life that I would actually enjoy camping anywhere other than a manicured, 50 amp, full hook-up site. I mean, even when we camped in Alfred Hitchpop, if it was available, we reserved FHU sites though we didn't use anything other than the electric. (Long story)

I paid lip service to the idea of boondocking, out in the middle of nowhere, without hookups, completely self-contained. "That'd be fun," I said out loud, knowing it would probably rarely happen. But once we started traveling, almost immediately, those manicured, 50 amp FHU sites became less and less appealing, and the off-the-grid, wide-open spaces seemed more and more magnificent. (Goosenecks State Park in Utah, anyone?)

Scoopy is a self-contained RV. We can go a full week and more without hookups, but because we have a residential refrigerator and not the RV kind that runs on both electric and propane, we must have a constant source of electrical power to keep our fridge running. For us, that means running our generator several hours each day. There is nothing like the constant roar of a diesel-coughing generator to ruin the peacefulness of a great boondocking spot.   

By the time we attended the Escapades Rally in Tucson last March, we knew we wanted to invest in solar power. There are a few respected companies that specialize in RV solar installations, but none more so than AM Solar in Eugene, Oregon. Since we were going to be in the Pacific Northwest in June, that's who we called. Their first available appointment was August 10th. We took it. 

We arrived right on schedule and headed to the waiting room. The installers first did a check of all Scoopy's systems to make sure everything was working as it should, then pulled her into the shop to configure the layout of panels on the roof using cardboard cutouts.We currently have 4 AGM batteries and had hoped to add more, but the weight of the extra batteries would have required a very spendy modification to one of our storage bays and ultimately, we just couldn't justify the cost. It was kind of a relief anyway, as we didn't want to give up our precious cargo space. In the end, we stuck with our 4 existing AGMs and went with a total of 840 watts of solar panels on the roof (3 x 100s and 4 x 135s) and everything was tied into our Magnum 2800w charger/inverter.

A drone's-eye view of our new solar panel system.

How do we like it so far? We have no idea. Seriously, when we left Eugene for Bend and beyond, temperatures were nearing 100 degrees. I may have come around to the idea of boondocking, but I'm not willing to suffer and go without aircons when they are clearly warranted. In late November we will be returning to Live Oak Ranch, and as luck would have it, we'll be positioned perfectly to tilt our panels to maximize the sun's rays. There is a big learning curve, as solar is all new to us. The great thing is we will have hook-ups when needed and will use this time to learn and experiment with our system. Pretty exciting stuff, actually. 

Scoopy waits patiently at sunrise for her solar bling.
Showing us a mock-up of the panel layout using cardboard cutouts.
Mitch, our tech lead, talks Steven through the basics of tilting the panels.
Steven gets the lowdown on how all the settings work.

If you're interested in having solar installed on your RV, here's a few things to consider:

1.  As with any work you have done on your RV, communication with the vendor is key. Solar systems come at considerable cost - take responsibility for making sure you have all the information you need to make decisions that are right for you. We relied on the advice of the AM Solar sales guy (thanks, Roger!) to make our final decisions on our installation, but we had to request that meeting as we were sitting in the waiting room. 

2.  Make sure you understand how the installation will be completed on the inside of your RV.  Our installer, Mitch, walked us through the optimal installation, which included drilling holes in our closet and possibly in our clothes cabinet. We okay'd either one, and Mitch called us to confirm before he started drilling. He did a fantastic job! You'd be hard-pressed to find the equipment in Scoopy. 

3.  If your installation is significant, be prepared to move out of your rig. Since we fulltime, this meant moving out of our home. We were told that we should plan on two nights away, so we made hotel reservations accordingly. They completed the job a day early. 

4.  The AM Solar shop in Eugene is tiny, and they are booked out for months. We made our August appointment in March. Of course, this is high season, but while we were there, they were already setting appointments for December. The good news is that you don't necessarily have to go to Eugene. AM Solar works with installers in other parts of the country and can likely hook you up with an installer closer to you (and perhaps with more availability.) Alternately, if you're handy, you can buy your system directly from AM Solar and install it yourself! (We are not at all handy. )

5.  Talk with your tax adviser. At the time of our installation, there is a significant tax credit available for solar energy in your home, which for us is Scoopy. YAY!

We're excited to go boondocking!