Posted by on October 16, 2018

Overlanding with Solar Power

As I was driving down the road with the sunlight beaming down upon my rig, I couldn’t help but think how I could be harnessing some of this energy and transforming it into power in order to be able to go out in the middle of nowhere and camp where I want to, without having to PAY for an electrical site at some park somewhere.  The whole goal and idea of overlanding to me was to get out where there is nobody and see things that most people do not see and do things that most people are not able to do.

If we just go from park to park we are seeing the norm, what everyone else sees and does and we really do not get to experience overlanding to the fullest.  We are just park hoppers.  So I wanted to make myself as self-sufficient as possible, being able to survive comfortably without the need for outside intervention for periods of time.

So there are several things to consider.  Water was my first one.  I have to have a shower.  I have to be able to drink, brush my teeth, clean clothes and dishes.  Power was the next one.  As some of us here may be backpackers where we can put everything we need on our backs, we are here to speak of the overlanding experience.  So we all have a vehicle of some kind.  That vehicle has a battery and plug ins where we are able to charge everything we can think of in one way or another.

BUT, the last thing we want to do is to spend 3 days out in the middle of nowhere, reaching that destination of “going where no man has gone before” and living life without any interference of human resources and then we go to pack up and our vehicle will not start because we have drained the battery down to nothing from charging all of our necessities.  So how do we keep from this?  What are our options?

So back to my original thought while driving down the road, thinking about these things, and wondering what do I need to do to be able to be completely self-sufficient power-wise and harness this energy so that I can power all the things I have at my disposal in order to be a comfortable as possible and enjoy this overlanding experience to the fullest?

I considered and began to research solar. I had experience with solar before.  I have backpacked and I had the small solar charger that clipped onto my pack and as I hiked across the earth, the sun would beam down giving it a charge and then I could throughout the day keep my GPS or cell phone charged.  What I needed now was on a much bigger scale.  But I still like the idea…

The benefits are out there and hold true for most people.

  • It gives us freedom to get out where most people are not able to go.
  • It is quiet. I like quiet.  One of the main reasons I want to get away is to get away from the noise I have to deal with every day.
  • It is easy. It requires very little maintenance and no fuel.
  • Even though there is cost to purchase, if you live long enough and go out enough you will eventually make that money back in savings.

Before you get into “is solar right for me?” or “should I use a generator?” you need to determine the answers to a few questions.

  1. How often am I going to be doing this? Am I going to be full-time, a couple times a year, multiple times a year?
  2. How long am I going to stay at a time? What is the longest I am going to stay without having contact with civilization?
  3. What gear do I need to run? Lights, fridge/freezer, fan, charging cell phones and games (and other stuff we should leave at home because we do this to get away from regular life)
  4. Noise…some people do not like noise. In the middle of nowhere and you are sitting by the fire at night and you are either listening to the coyotes, crickets and owls and other night crawlers, or you’re listening to a Briggs and Stratton purr on all cylinders.
  5. How much do I want to spend? Almost everyone has a budget.  Unless you are independently wealthy, you have so much money you have budgeted for each item you want to put into your build according to necessity and need.  WANT has a little to do with it if you are into how “cool” or “impressive” your rig is going to be to others. But don’t build your rig so “cool” that you have to get jumpstarted every time your group gets ready to leave because you run everything off of your single car battery.

 

Is it for me?

  • Weekend Warrior – A couple times a year for weekends. You are really a weekend warrior.  There is nothing wrong with that.  People joke and kid about you but you get out when you can.  We can only do what we can WHEN we can and you take every opportunity to make the best of the time you have.
    • Solar is probably not going to be a big deal to you and it could take years to recoup your investment in a solar power system for your rig.
      • You can most likely keep all of your food in a cooler and there is no need for a fridge/freezer.
      • You can keep your devices (cell phone, tablets, GPS, etc.) charged via your 12v car charger ports.
      • Your lights can run off of batteries.
    • But what you might want to look into is:
      • Rechargeable or solar things such as lights and lanterns
      • Solar lighting around the camp
    • Overlander or Boondocker – If you plan to go out quite frequently or if this is your “thing” in life and what you love to do and you see yourself not only going out when you can get off work on the weekends, and maybe you plan some vacations that will include getting “off grid” for several days or weeks at a time, solar would be beneficial for you.
      • Staying in parks that charge $15-30 a night would add up quickly. Most parks offer spots with hookups and then spots that are labeled as “tent camping” or “primitive.”  There is a big difference in price per night if you have to have electricity and water.
      • What you need to look into is:

How Much?

Compared to those people who spend $50k to 250k on an RV and then $30-50 a night in a full service campsite (I often think how in the world they can afford some of these rigs), we really do not have that much invested.  But to us who work day to day jobs and live paycheck to paycheck it’s a small fortune.  And if most of our wives found out just how much we had in our rigs we would be calling a lawyer instead of 4 Wheel Parts for our next purchase.

But we must decide if Solar Power makes sense for us.  It’s kind of like sushi, it’s not for everybody.  But for some of us, it is really a necessity and will make it where we can bring and enjoy many of the comforts of home and not need any outside sources to do so.

Basic Parts of an Overland Solar System

  • Solar Panels
    • Solar panels come in various sizes and wattage.
      • You can get them from a small wallet size all the way up to 3’x5’
      • Wattage will depend upon size and can range from 5W up to 100W and several panels can be coupled together to increase wattage.
    • Make Up
      • Polycrystalline – most popular and the best price
      • Monocrystalline – more efficient but higher priced
      • TFSC – Thin Film Solar Cell – less efficient but can be made into different shapes.
    • Charge Controller
      • A charge controller sits between an energy source (panels) and the place where the energy is stored (battery or power source).
      • The controller prevents overcharging by limiting the amount and rate of charge to your batteries and protects against drainage by shutting down if stored power falls below 50 percent capacity.
    • Inverter
      • This turns the low-wattage DC power produced by Solar Panels and stored in batteries into AC power.
      • Power Station – this is much like a generator but solar charged batteries power your equipment and supplies. The Power Station is hooked directly to the solar panels which charge the power station.  Then you can use the power station as a generator.
    • Storage
      • Vehicle Battery or 2nd battery
      • Power Source

Example Solar Panel Systems & Costs

System                 Number of Panels            Watts                    Charge Controller             Inverter                Price

Renogy 200 W                   2                            200                         30 Amp Renogy                N/A                 $464

Lensun 80W                       1                             80                           Lensun 10A Regulator     N/A                  $209

GoPower Electric                1                            170                         30A GoPower                   1500W              $1600

Windy Nation 200              2                            200                         30A P30L                           1500W              $533

Zamp Solar 480W               3                            480                         30A Zamp                          N/A                  $2000

Goal Zero 150                     1 Folding               150                         N/A                                   Yeti 150             $449

NOTE – The Goal Zero kit listed last would not be connected directly to your vehicle power source but to the Yeti 150 Power Station.

The Math

Ok, so let’s go back to 7th grade and put all of this into a word problem and try and make this make sense and see if it is worth it to us. When thinking about energy savings of going solar, we must think in terms of whether it would be comparable to what we would spend using a gas generator.  This is totally ruling out the sound co-efficient and just crunching numbers.

An Average generator burned one ½ gallon of gas per hour.  If we round around and say that the average price of gas is $2.50 then being parked for 8 (normal time we would run it at night for lights and fans) hours we would spend $10 per night.

Based on that figure, if you have $1000 investment that you have made on solar, you would reach a breaking even point on that investment in 100 days.  So how many days per year do you go out and need this type of charging system?  If your solar system allows you to avoid $40-50 per night campground fees, then your break-even point would come much sooner.

After you reach that break-even point then your energy costs would be $0, other than what you would pay for replacement or broken parts such as batteries.

 

Batteries

Model                        Technology                       Size                    Weight        Voltage                         Cost

WalMart Everstart   Lead-Acid                       11×6.6×9                     68                12                              $100

AutoCraft Marine     Lead-Acid                    11×7.25.7.75                 24                12                              $115

Optima Yellow              AGM                   10×6-7/8×7-13/16             43.5             12                               $282

Trojan Reliant               AGM                             13x7x11                    81               12                               $310

Powerbrick100       Lithium Ion                    10.2×6.6×8.3                  30                12                               $725

Smart Battery        Lithium Ion                      12.8×6.5×8.7                 28                12                               $1300

 

For me

I researched and looked around to see what was best to fit my needs.  To be honest I put more investing into this presentation than I did my research back then but I think I made the right choice and it has been worth every penny.

I spent $200 on Ebay for the Lensun 80W solar Combo that came with a charge controller.  I like Ebay because sometimes they run discount codes pretty often.  I wasn’t in a hurry so I waited on the 15% off day.  It was a flexible panel that is black and came with all of the cables needed to hook it up to a second battery.  I planned to install the panel permanently on the hood of my FJ Cruiser where I had painted the hood black.  It was the perfect size and would hardly be noticeable.  I also purchased a Heavy Duty Dual Battery Auxiliary Isolator with 15’ and 4’ cables for $112 on Ebay.  This is a necessity when using dual batteries and came with the heavy duty cables that I needed to hook everything together.

I went to the local HS welding shop and had them fabricate me a battery stand out of heavy metal.  They measured and it took them about 30 minutes to come up with a stand with rails that would fit directly into the slot I had made for it behind my air cleaner, passenger side by the fire wall.  They charged me $5 for the materials.

I bought 4 grade 8 bolts at the local Ace Hardware store for $6 with lock washers and washers in order to install the battery plate.  This took about 30 minutes to drill the holes, insert the bolts and install.  After this I went down to the local Advanced Auto Parts store and purchased their deep cycle battery for $109 and a battery holder for $9.  I installed the battery and holder in about 10 minutes and tightened everything down.

I installed the isolator on the driver side and ran wires connecting it to the second battery and also to the alternator.  A switch was installed inside the cab for me to push if I wanted to use the alternator to charge the second battery.  Otherwise all of the charge would come from it sitting using the solar panel.

I had to purchase windshield water relocators because the solar panel being added to the hood covered up the OEM windshield washers.  These were $8 at advanced.  I used heavy duty double-sided tape and 4 self-tapping screws to attach my solar panel to the hood.  I used double sided tape to attach the charge controller to the top of my sealed intake and ran wires from the solar panel and 2nd battery to the charge controller.  It was done.

Total Cost – $435

I added up that I will spend (estimated) 60 days/nights in my tent this year.  With an average of $10 per night running a generator the cost would be $600 for an 8-hour night plus the cost of a generator (around $800) totaling $1400.  That leaves me with after 1 year a savings of $965 not counting the cost of staying in parks where it would cost an average of $40 per night.

 

 

Websites

Products

www.goalzero.com

http://www.lensunsolar.com/

www.Zampsolar.com

www.wholesalesolar.com

https://gpelectric.com/

https://www.rolasolar.com.au/

https://www.solarblvd.com/

https://www.windynation.com/solar

https://www.inergysolar.com/ref

https://www.renogy.com/

 

How To’s and Tips

http://www.vehicledwelling.com/solar-systems.html

https://www.solarblvd.com/faqs/

https://www.renogy.com/learn/

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