Q: Without using technical terms, what is “solar” energy?
A: Solar energy is the ability to transform sunshine (or solar energy) into heat (thermal) or electricity (PV – photovoltaics). Think of solar energy as your own personal utility company. Thermal systems (which harness the sun’s energy through water or air energy transfer) are not practical for RV’s and will therefore not be included in this questionnaire. Solar PV (photovoltaic) panels convert solar energy into DC electricity. Once the solar energy is transformed into electricity it must be stored, ready for use. That’s where batteries come in. Batteries store the energy until it is needed. In summary, the solar panel charges your batteries, which in turn supply the electricity, as you need it. A device called a charge regulator is used to control the amount of energy supplied to the batteries. This prevents the battery from being overcharged which can greatly reduce the life span of the battery. We will talk more about batteries later. The only other main component of a solar system is an inverter which transfers DC energy into AC energy to run house hold appliances such as coffee pots and micro waves. Sizing an inverter will also be discussed later.
Q: Is solar power intended to be used as a supplement traditional energy sources, or can it actually “replace” my need for shore power?
A: Shore or grid power is certainly the most convenient way of running your RV. The next most convenient method would be a generator set. The draw backs are: shore power means you can’t go off into the woods and a generator means noise, smell and maintenance, not to mention irate campers close by. Depending on your budget, both of the above can be replaced with a well designed solar electric system. Most RV’rs settle for something in between. If you are a weekend RV’r and camp only in areas where power is available, what’s the point? If you like to get away from it all and boon dock for a few days and not worry about running out of electricity, then a solar system with or without an inverter will serve you well. Chances are, your holding tanks will be the reason for moving on, not the battery condition. A basic DC solar system with adequate battery storage will extend your stay by the amount of energy contributed by the sun. An example would be a battery bank that would normally last five days may last seven days due to the energy collected by the solar panel or panels. I would also point out that a solar panel connected to a battery year round will greatly extend it’s life.
Q: Does solar power offer any advantages to me here in the north west in the winter months? Or is it really suited only to the few months a year we’re able to spend in the Southwestern deserts?
A: Most RV’rs holiday in the summer. If you plan on a winter holiday in the northwest you are going to be disappointed in solar performance. Remember where the sun is and how short the day is. Also take into consideration the extra energy you will be using, such as lights and the furnace. In a nutshell, it just doesn’t work especially with a foot of snow on the panel. Winter in Arizona is a totally different story. Lots of sun, being closer to the equator and no snow makes a big difference.
Q: Do solar panels need to “point” at the sun in order to be effective? Or can they be mounted in a fixed position on top of my RV?
A: For best performance, yes solar panels should point directly at the sun. I have three reasons why we prefer to mount panels flat on the roof. 1. Your roof was never designed for foot traffic on a regular basis. 2. Tilt structures are expensive and have been known to pull all the overhead wires off the camp area you were staying at and have been asked never to come back to. 3. Eventually you will fall off the roof or ladder and that will be that. If you need more power add another panel. I spoke with a customer who had forgotten to lower his panels and discovered only wires hanging off the side of his coach when he fueled up.
Q: Is solar energy used just to charge my batteries, or can it actually “run” electrical appliances?
A: Solar panels are battery chargers. In rare instances such as water pumping, a solar panel can be connected to a pump direct. When the sun is bright you get lots of water, when a cloud shades the sun, the pump volume drops. Equate this to your TV set. Picture, no picture,
Q: Is there a risk that if I use solar panels I might overcharge my batteries?
A: Yes, unless you use a charge controller. A quality charge controller is an integral part of every solar installation. They are designed to protect the battery from overcharging and gassing. They can be very basic or have loads of bells and whistles such as LCD monitoring of solar input and battery voltage.
Q: How much is enough? How many panels of what approximate dimension would I have to mount on my RV rooftop to let me “boondock” i.e., enjoy a modest use of electricity indefinitely without draining my batteries?
A: The amount of energy required by your RV depends on how much electricity you used the night before. A 24 foot RV used in the summer can usually get by with 5 amps of input with 200 amps of battery storage. . To be exact you will need to know how much power the electrical devices in your RV consume. We have been in the industry for seventeen years and have a significant amount of experience in system design and can quickly tell you what type of system you will need. We build our systems so that they can be expanded with minimal cost should your needs become greater at a later date.
Q: Are there differences in brands of solar panels? What are the characteristics I should look for when I want to buy one or more of them?
A: We are pleased to say that no matter what brand of solar panel you buy, you can be assured of quality. The major brands such as Kyocera, Siemens, BP, Unisolar and Solarex all offer warranties exceeding twenty years. You can expect a life time of service from a solar panel. Accelerated testing indicates panels will last fifty to sixty years. There are two types of panels available, crystalline and amorphous. The crystalline modules are encapsulated in glass and offer efficiencies in the 14% range meaning you get more power in a smaller surface area. This type of panel has been around for over fifty years. It does not like direct shading and will suffer some deterioration in performance in high temperature applications. The amorphous modules are encapsulated in a polymer non-glass material and offer efficiencies in the 8% range. This panel is not affected by heat and works well under low light and shaded conditions. It is virtually indestructible. We have a panel with five bullet holes in it and it still functions well. If space is a problem and you camp in non-shaded areas, the crystalline module is a good choice. Module pricing on both types of panel is similar.
Q: Our new RV came equipped with a single solar panel. Is there a limit to the number of panels I could add without risking harm to the batteries?
A: There are an number of factors to consider when adding more solar. Is the wire from the solar panel to the regulator large enough to accommodate the extra current? Is the regulator large enough? How large is the battery bank? A rule of thumb is 1 amp of solar to 50 amps of battery. More is usually better but what’s the point of 10 amps of input on a single 100 amp battery?
Q: If I also have a power inverter, does the installation of solar panels work independently of the inverter or somehow in conjunction with it?
A: Yes, the solar panel is just a battery charger. It has nothing to do with the inverter. Think of a solar panel as the fuel supply, the batteries as the fuel tank and the inverter as the engine that drives the load. The heavier load means more fuel and more supply, just like your car.
Q: What approximate range of cost would I be looking at to equip my RV with sufficient solar power?
A: Depending on the size of your RV, systems start at $330 ranging up to more than $1000.00 CDN. A basic system for a 23 foot motor home will run approximately $800.00. Solar panels are provincial sales tax exempt.
Q: Is there anything else I should know before purchasing an RV system?
A: Do your research, ask questions of people who have already purchased systems and get their feed back. Buy your system from a reputable dealer who has knowledge of product and installation. Ask for testimonials.
Q: If our RV’rs Online want to follow up with you either with additional questions they may have, or to purchase your products, how can they most easily contact you?
A: Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use our on-line inquiry form.