Friday, February 5, 2016

The Solar System for Dummies

Every time I say that my next post will be about solar, I set myself up for another four-month hiatus from blogging. My eyes glaze over just thinking about trying to write that kind of post because to get it all technically correct and informative, I would have to do a ton of research. Unlike Matt Damon, I can't just "science the shit" out of stuff, ya know? So I'm just going to tell you what I think I know and write about how it's working for us. Then I can get on with my life and maybe do some other posts that don't bog me down. M'kay?

We have seven solar panels -- you've all seen one of those, right? Little black squares inside a big rectangle? Yeah, that thing. We have seven. Together they total 840 watts, which is meaningless to me, because who cares? I don't know a watt from an amp from a volt, and frankly I really don't need to know. Anyway, 840 watts is what we've got and apparently that's a pretty good amount so I'm happy about that.

Scoopy’s awesome solar panels!

The panels are attached to metal frames bolted to the top of Scoopy. They lay flat when we travel (duh) and when we're parked and the sun is high in the sky, like, say, summer. Or we can tilt them when the sun is low in the sky, like in winter. Now, when I say "we" tilt them, I mean that in the royal sense. Steven does all the climbing on Scoopy's roof. It would be awesome if tilting was as easy as simply pushing a button, but it's not, tilting is a manual process. The panels can tilt either way, but our best direction is to the left, or the driver's side. Panels don't work so well if there is a shadow over them and our AC units can throw some shade if the panels are pointed to the right. So ideally, in the winter, we want to orient Scoopy to the west (which means our panels are tilted south) and in the summer, it doesn't really matter as long as there is open sky. Got all that? It took me a while. In fact, the very first time we parked to test out our solar in Colorado, the first place we picked out had a ton of shade. Once we realized our mistake, we had to move. What noobs!

The “Royal We” tilting our solar panels.

If we have managed to park away from any obstructions and point ourselves in the right direction, on a good day the sun shines brightly on those panels and they absorb all the little sunbeams they possibly can. Probably 840 sunbeams, which is why 840 of panels is better than 340. (I'm guessing here, but it sounds logical.) Those panels are connected to a bunch of big fat wires and those little sunbeams swim down those wires through a couple of twists and turns and a metal box (no idea what that is for) and flow down into our batteries. The more batteries we have, the more little sunbeams we can store for later use. We only have four, which is okay, but more would be better. We tried to get more, but fitting them into Scoopy was too costly and complicated. Our batteries are AGMs, which stands for something but is mostly unimportant. All I know is that those suckers are expensive, but require no maintenance, so worth it as far as I am concerned.

Anyway, the little sunbeams are bouncing around in the batteries just waiting to be called up inside to do something awesome like charge my computer or run my vacuum cleaner. Of course, we all know that stuff doesn't run on actual sunbeams, right? So before they are sent upstairs, the sunbeams have to pass through a big, powerful box called an inverter that changes them into little electric thunderbolts, you know, the stuff that comes out of a household plug. Pretty cool, huh?

Our inverter, a 2800 Magnum, turns sunbeams into electric thunderbolts!

There are times that the sun is so bright and high in the sky that our panels absorb more sunbeams than our batteries can possibly store, which is why more batteries would be good. Our battery capacity is 440 amp hours (again, eyes glazing over . . . ) and so that's why we have a ton of sunbeams that are essentially swimming around waiting for space.

Anyhow, I think that's about how it works. This time of excess usually starts around noon and can last until four or five o'clock. This is my favorite time of day. I can use thunderbolts to my heart's content. We can plug in All The Things!! and there is not much we can do that will take our batteries below 100% because the batteries fill right up again. If we are home, we tend to use this time to cook, clean, watch TV, excessively use our computers. It does kind of blow my mind that I can vacuum Scoopy using solar power.

FullSizeRender    AlltheThings
Actual inverter display                                    Inverter display for Dummies

But once the sun begins to set, we go back into conservation mode. What does that mean? Well, we'll use our LED lights instead of regular household ones. We might unplug our computers and run them off their batteries. We unplug things we don't need, like the microwave clock and other phantom draws. But that's about it, really. In reality, Steven and I are not the ones hogging all the power, no, that would be our residential refrigerator. If we had a regular RV fridge that we could run on propane, 840 watts would most likely be overkill. But we got rid of our RV fridge and put in a big lovely residential style that frankly I don't ever want to be without. Even though it uses great wads of thunderbolts I don't even care, I love it so much.

There are a few things in Scoopy that we cannot run on solar power at all. The microwave, for example. It's amazing how much we rely on that thing, but we're making progress weaning ourselves off it. We've ditched our drip coffeemaker for a pour over. My hairdryer doesn't run on solar. The air conditioners won't run on solar, so if we are going to be in a place where it's hot enough that we need to run them, we either pay for full hook ups or we move. But, when we're out boondocking and need to run any of these things, like, when we are too lazy to heat up leftovers on the stovetop, we have a powerful generator on board that will run them all.

We try not to run the generator much, but sometimes solar isn't enough. This is especially true on a cloudy or rainy day, or if we've just stayed in all day being power hogs. Since running the generator also charges our batteries, we usually run it in the evening for an hour or so to top off the batteries before bedtime. We like them to be at least 85% or higher when we go to bed.

Because here's a funky thing about our batteries that I don't even understand - they can't go below 50% before they have to be charged up again, otherwise they will die! How lame is that? Most of the time we don't let ours go below 60% "just in case". In case of what, I don't know, but that's how we roll. I think the lowest ours have ever been is 59% and we freaked out a little.  Our system is wired to shut down if the batteries ever get close to 50%. That's a nice feature, I guess.

We might watch a bit of TV after going to bed, but usually not for long. Steven has to get up and unplug the TVs, DirecTV, speakers, and so on to limit the power draw overnight. (That's kind of a pain, so I never suggest watching TV. I am too lazy to get up). When we wake up in the morning, the batteries will typically read between 63-70%. In other words, our residential refrigerator uses about 20-22% of our batteries overnight. It would use a ton more power if not for a little feature that allows us to put it in "E-Saver" mode.

In the morning, unless it's cloudy out, we will usually let the panels do their job and by early afternoon we are back to 100%. If it's cloudy, we will run the generator just to give the batteries a morning boost. Here in the SoCal desert, we have way more sunshine than rain, or even clouds, so we've only minimally used our generator.

Elk Creek in Colorado. See that tree? That’s where we parked the first time. NOOBS!

So there you have it, my brain dump on our solar system. It's awesome and we love it. If you're even thinking about getting solar, do it. (Jodee, Bill . . . )

Up next: Where we’ve been and where we’re going.


  1. Finally someone who actually 'splains' the solar power system in layman's terms!!
    Nice campsite in the last photo by the way !!.. Where is that ?

    1. That is Elk Creek about 12 miles outside of Gunnison, CO. It's where we went after we spent a week in Gunnison with Paul & Mary!

  2. Thanks for the comment on our blog. We'll be hiking in the morning, also, but not too early. Probably be around another week or so. Hope to meet you!

  3. Glad you are appreciating your solar investment.
    Power strips and Belkin Conserve Power Switches (a one plug power switch) might be a good idea, instead of unplugging stuff. That is what we do. We turn off the microwave breaker, since the plug is hard to reach in our motorhome.
    840 watts! Wow, we only have 400 and it is definitely not enough. But we don't boondock that often these days. We do love our hybrid Magnum 3000 watt inverter/charger.

    1. Hey Bill! If I recall, you guys also have lithium batteries, right? So no worrying about falling below 50%! I would think, in theory, that would give you a bit more power. Anyway, good to hear from you. Hugs to Diane!

  4. Hehe, yes we are definitely going to do it. Especially now that we've read your post and completely understand how it all works!! Wonderful post Linda :-)