How do you stay in touch when living on the road full-time in an RV? What kind of internet access is best? Which phone plans make the most sense for a full-time RVer? These are some of the questions that RVers face, and there is a huge array of possible solutions available for every need and lifestyle.
Note: This post was updated in July 2017, to reflect new offerings from Verizon. Click HERE to skip to that section.
Mobile communications techniques differ a fair bit among RVers. We have a simple method with one device.
Because we have taken an unconventional route with our own communications solution (as we have done with everything in our traveling lifestyle since we started 10 years ago), I thought a few notes here about what we do might be useful.
For starters, we don’t have a phone.
What, No Phone?! How Can You DO THAT?!
After several decades of being “on call” in our professions, bound to our customers by electronic leashes, we ditched our cell phones when we started traveling full-time in 2007. At first, this was a money-savings tactic, but since then it is in many ways a small act of defiance against a world that is increasingly held in electronic bondage.
We have managed just fine without a phone all these years. We’ve been able to meet up with friends at appointed hours, find our way to remote and stunning locations without a GPS-enabled electronic map. We’ve even bought and sold large assets like our sailboat and truck, all without a phone. Lower on this page there are lots of details explaining how we make and receive phone calls.
If you are looking to shave a few dollars off your full-time RVing budget, or if you are just curious how this is possible, here’s what we do.
Internet Access – Verizon MiFi Jetpack
Verizon MiFi Jetpack 6620L
We have a Verizon MiFi 6620L Jetpack hotspot that is the basis of all our communications. It operates on the Verizon cell phone towers, has a cell phone number itself, provides password protected WiFi inside and near the rig, and can theoretically support 15 devices connected to the internet.
A little back-story on — For three years we had a Verizon MiFi 4620 jetpack, but in October, 2014, its tiny charging receptacle broke and it could no longer get charged. Mark tried to nurse it back to life by soldering its lifeless receptacle to the charger permanently, but the problem was internal and it was dead.
We tried soldering wires from the MiFi to its charger, but it still wouldn’t charge.
The old 4620 Jetpack always had problems charging and holding a charge. The MiFi 6620L Jetpack can theoretically run on battery power for 20 hours and support up to 15 simultaneous connections. It can definitely run longer than the old one, but 20 hours is an overstatement. 6 to 7 hours with two users is more like it in our household.
There is a new 7730L Jetpack from Novatel that has a theoretical battery life of 24 hours. The WiFi signal strength it broadcasts is stronger, so you can connect to it from further away. However, the signal strength coming from the cell tower is the same in both units. We haven’t upgraded yet.
Our old 6620L Jetpack has the annoying habit of falling asleep when nothing is happening between us and the internet. For us to resume using the internet after a period of doing nothing, we have to wake it up manually by tapping on its power button. Then the computer has to reconnect to the Jetpack as well.
The New Verizon Plan
As of July, 2017, our MiFi Jetpack is the single device on a 30 GB talk/text/data “New Verizon Plan.”
A few months prior to this switch, Verizon began offering its “New Verizon Plan” and pushing an “Unlimited” plan for data. The “Unlimited” plan sounded great, but it has limitations.
After many hours on the phone with Verizon, I learned that if you have a Smartphone or Tablet, the new Unlimited plan runs at 4G speeds for the first 22GB each month when you use the internet based apps on the phone or tablet. After that, there will be a 1-2 second delay when you first connect to the nearest cell tower, but once connected, the speed will still be a nifty 4G.
HOWEVER — and this was critical for us — if you are using your Smartphone or Tablet as a mobile hotspot, or if you are using a Jetpack, the Unlimited plan will run at 4G speeds for only the first 10 GB of each month. After that it will drop to 3G speeds.
This was not properly explained to me when I talked to Verizon reps the first few times, so we tried the Unlimited plan for a month. For us, it was unusable after it dropped to 3G. With today’s bandwidth intensive websites, 3G is painfully slow. At times during the one month we had the Unlimited plan, we had to walk away and do something else as we waited for something basic like the Google search page to come up.
Yesterday, after a few more hours on the phone with several Verizon reps, we learned that there are high GB plans available that remain at 4G speeds all month long. The question for us was: which one? Not all of these “New Verizon Plans” are advertised on the website in obvious places, and not all the salespeople know the various options either.
We use anywhere from 20 to 30 GB of data a month these day, so we wanted a 30GB plan. The first plan that was offered to me was a 30GB data-only plan for $185 per month.
Verizon’s first offer for a 30 GB plan that would run at 4G all month long was the “New Verizon Plan” that is Data Only and is intended for Jetpacks and phones/tablets operated as Mobile Hotspots
This was crazy expensive and I complained loudly.
Eventually, I was transferred to a rep who offered me a 30 GB talk/text/data plan for $135 per month. That was more like it! I highly recommend being extremely persistent and asking to speak to supervisors when you get on the phone with Verizon!
Our “New Verizon Plan” for our Jetpack is a talk/text/data plan with 30GB of data for $135/month
This 30 GB talk/text/data plan has these features:
Carryover of unused data from this month to next month (if not used, it doesn’t carry over beyond that
The fee for the Jetpack connection itself is $10/month
There is no surcharge for using the Jetpack in Canada or Mexico (see below)
Unlimited talk/text (but our Jetpack can’t do that so we don’t use that feature)
Changing Plans? Cut to the Chase & Call Verizon!
I always dread calling Verizon (I had terrible experiences with them with a fleet of corproate phones in the mid-1990’s), but in recent years, I’ve found that talking to their sales people has always helped us find a better deal than if I just poked around on their website.
Also, I’ve found that the reps are very reasonable when it comes to crediting erroneous charges. We were shocked when we were charged $80 for switching from our old 24GB talk/text/data plan to the New Unlimited plan, because no one had told us this would happen. Verizon later refunded the charge.
Text messages from Verizon come into the Messages page on the Jetpack, including the code necessary for verifying your account online.
In my experience, Verizon is becoming harder and harder to reach by phone because they require using a handset to send magic codes and text messages before connecting you to a rep.
As noted above, any text message they send can be found on the Admin/Messages page of the JetPack. Also, some portions of the Verizon website require you to authenticate your account. To do this, Verizon sends a code via text message to the Jetpack that you then enter into the website.
One neat trick I found is that if you initiate an online chat with a Chat Rep on the Verizon website, you can give the rep your phone number and ask them to have a Phone Rep call you.
For me, this proved to be a lot easier than trying to get through on the phone by calling the customer service number and punching numbers and talking to the Verizon phone menu system computer.
Studying the Verizon web page today, I noticed that talk/text/data plans are not offered for Jetpacks and mobile hotspots, so we may have been given that plan instead of the Data Only plan because I made such a fuss on the phone (very politely, of course).
Saving Data by Using Free WiFi Signals
When we want to save data on our plan, we put off our big download operations, like operating systems upgrades that download as much as 1.5 GB of data at once. We do those things when we have access to a free WiFi signal at a library or coffee shop or elsewhere.
We also use Clipgrab on free WiFi signals to download videos so we can watch them from our laptop hard drives later.
Verizon MiFi Jetpack – International Use
The new Verizon talk/text/data plans now allow you to use the MiFi Jetpack in both Canada and Mexico — if you get a big (or unlimited) data plan — without paying a surcharge. Using our MiFi Jetpack came in very handy during our travels to the Canadian Rockies in the summer of 2016.
HOWEVER — and this is important — when you are in Mexico and Canada your data will operate at 4G speeds for only the first 512MB of use each day. At midnight each night the speed will revert to 4G, but as soon as you hit 512MB in the next 24 hours your speed will drop to 2G. That’s 2G, not 3G! So think through your access needs each day!
ALSO — and this is very important too — if, during a 60 day period, you have used your device more than 50% of the time in Mexico or Canada, you will get a text message (or email or phone call) warning you that you are going to be put on a pay-as-you-go plan until you return to the US. Text messages arrive on the Admin/Messages page of your Jetpack.
Despite 30 minutes of conversation with the Verizon rep, I never got to the very bottom of this issue (we aren’t planning to go to Canada or Mexico in the immediate future, so I didn’t press the issue!!), but I want you to know that the fee she mentioned for this “pay as you go” feature was $2.05 per MB.
That doesn’t seem possible because it would be over $1,000 for 500MB!!
The reason for this draconian fee structure is that Verizon doesn’t want to provide US-based services and charges to ex-pats who are living in Canada and Mexico.
I highly recommend if you plan to travel to Canada or Mexico for more than two weeks that you call Verizon and discuss your plans. After an initial round of questions, ask for a supervisor if necessary, of course.
Internet access on a boat at sea in a foreign country is a trip! Here I hold up my laptop to get a much needed internet weather report while crossing Mexico’s notorious Gulf of Tehuantepec. It took 21 minutes to download a 604 KB file!!
Putting a Verizon Data Plan on Hold
One handy aspect of Verizon’s plans is that you can put them on hold. We used this feature a lot when we spent months at a time sailing in Mexico because Verizon didn’t offer Mexico access for Jetpacks back in those days.
Seasonal RV travelers may find this comes in handy, as they may not want to use the MiFi Jetpack when they are at home and not out traveling in their RV.
You can put the plan on hold for up to 90 days, at no charge. If you call in again before 90 days is up, you can put it on hold for another 90 days, and so on, indefinitely.
All the days that you put the plan on hold get tacked onto the end of your contract. So, for us, our two year contract during our Mexico travels took nearly three years to fulfill. When you decide to resume the contract, a simple phone call is all it takes and you are back online immediately. There is a nominal charge for re-instating the contract.
Phone Access – Skype
We use a Skype account for all of our phone needs. Skype is best known for making it possible to make free video calls between people who have Skype accounts. Similar to Apple’s FaceTime, this is a fun way to communicate. It also requires a pretty strong internet signal. If the call begins to falter due to a sketchy internet connection, turning off the video will often perk it back up again.
That’s not generally how we use Skype, however. Instead, we use it to call people on their cell phones and land lines. For $2.99 a month we have an annual subscription service with Skype to call any cell phone or landline in the US or Canada for unlimited minutes. These are outbound phone calls only.
To receive incoming calls requires another step: For $2.50 a month, Skype assigned a phone number to our account that accepts voicemail and appears on our friends’ phones when we call them. Skype sends us an email when a new voicemail comes in. If we are on our computer and it is connected to the internet, we receive incoming phone calls just like a regular phone (the computer’s speaker rings, and you click a button to pick up the call). Skype has an app for mobile devices too, so you can do all this with a tablet, iPad or iPod too.
If you don’t sign up for that service, Skype calls will come into your friends’ phones with a mystifying number that is unrecognizable. We did this for four years, and it was okay. It was a little awkward not having a call-back number when calling a business, but we let them know that we checked our email frequently, and most companies were happy to get back to us via email instead of a phone call. Our friends eventually knew that if a weird number came in on their phone, it was probably us calling!
Tricks for Making Skype Calls
Skype is pretty good for phone calls, but the connection is not always perfect. We’ve gotten used to tipping our MacBook Pro laptops so the microphone is a little closer to our mouths than when it’s down in our lap. The person on the other end is on speaker phone, which can be nice for calling family and friends, if they don’t mind. However, when making an important call to a company, using earbuds makes it easier to hear the other person and takes them off speaker phone if you are in a somewhat public place.
In general, our internet download speed is faster and better than our upload speed, and this affects Skype. Oftentimes, we can hear the person on the other end of the phone much better than they can hear us. One way to improve things is to make sure only one device is on the internet via the MiFi jetpack. So, if Mark wants to make a call, I have to do something local on my laptop and stop using the internet, and vice versa.
It’s also important that no other internet applications are running on the computer that is making the call. That means turning off the email application, shutting down all browsers and quitting out of anything else that might unexpectedly access the internet and disrupt the phone call.
Wilson Booster – Getting More from our Internet Signal – Kinda
For about a year (in 2014) we used a Wilson Sleek 4G Cell Phone Boosterwhich we have permanently mounted in a cabinet alongside a cigarette lighter outlet. We haven’t used it at all for the past few years and we haven’t missed it. However to keep this page complete, our experiences with it are described below.
The Wilson Booster connects to a Wilson 800/1900 Magnet Mount Antenna. This combo works okay, however, these signal boosters do much more for 4G signals than they do for 3G signals, and we have 3G signals quite a bit of the time. One note: according to Wilson, the number of bars on the MiFi unit doesn’t necessarily increase even though the signal is improved by the booster. A fun way to see how fast your internet signal is and to keep track of the speeds in different places is to use SpeedTest.Net.
The higher the antenna, the better.
The folks at Wilson told us it was very important to have the antenna sitting on a piece of metal for grounding purposes, so we bought their suction cup mounted Accessory Kit for Grounding. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a good place to mount the antenna with this suction cup plate because the wires are so short. Someday Mark might replace our outside (and rarely used) radio antenna with the Wilson antenna, but we haven’t done that yet.
Wilson also told us that simply placing the antenna on a 5″ x 5″ sheet of ferrous metal would do the trick, and we searched around for something and discovered our cast iron skillet fit the bill.
We did tests with the antenna to see how much having a grounding plate seemed to matter. We placed the antenna near the ceiling above our slide-out without a metallic plate under it, then set it on our big frying pan on our kitchen counter, and lastly set it on the roof of our truck.
It’s “grounded” as per Wilson’s recommendation, but the signal isn’t as good this low down.
We found having the antenna higher in the air near the ceiling above our slide-out was much more important than placing it on metal.
Internet Portability – Driving Tactics and Electronic Maps
Siri — ahhhh. Although we don’t have an iAnything, I am in love with the little Apple genie, Siri, who lives inside iPhones and iPads. However, after lots of soul searching about whether Siri’s companionship would make me happier in our travels, so far I’ve decided that it wouldn’t.
Instead, I get to be Mark’s Siri as he drives, and that’s not a bad gig. He does all the driving in our family (I did almost all the helmsman duty on our boat, so it’s pretty fair). To help out with the RV navigation, I bring the MiFi jetpack and laptop with me into the truck’s passenger’s seat, and I use Google Maps to figure out where we’re going. I don’t get the nifty icon that shows me where we are, so sometimes I have some frantic moments trying to deduce our exact location, but once I’ve got it, I call out the instructions for how to get from here to there.
Our 2016 Ram 3500 truck has a factory installed dash-mounted GPS, but it user friendliness pales by comparison. Occasionally when I’m confused/lost, I use it to get the GPS coordinates for where we are and then plug those into Google Maps.
So, the overall functionality of a smartphone or tablet is there for us on the road, it’s just a whole lot more clunky.
Using a SmartPhone or Tablet as a Hotspot and More
When our Mifi Jetpack died, I thought the only solution was to get another one. Not so. I have since learned that we could have taken the SIM card out of our old jetpack and put it into a glistening new iPad. We wouldn’t have had to sign up for another 2 years with Verizon when we replaced our dead MiFi jetpack either (which we did when we upgraded to the new MiFi jetpack), since our contract was tied to the SIM card. We could have simply continued on our old plan until it ran out four months later and then reassessed our situation.
Internet Access Resources for RVers
The Internet Bible for RVers
For us — for now — we’ll keep doing what we’ve been doing since it works just fine. In all likelihood, however, our simplistic and minimalistic methods are not getting you fired up with excitement.
As I mentioned above, the Mobile Internet Handbook (available on Kindle and in Paperback) by Chris Dunphy and Cherie Ve Ard is the most thorough resource available and is an absolute necessity for anyone that wants to get technical on the road. Prior to starting their full-time RV adventures, Chris was a mobile technology expert, working as Director of Competitive Analysis for Palm and PalmSource (the companies behind the Palm Pilot and Treo). He studied every aspect of mobile phone and tablet technologies and is using that expertise to help RVers today.
The detail this book goes to is staggering. From explaining nationwide versus regional cellular data carriers to getting into the nitty gritty of what “roaming” is all about, and what hotspots and routers really are, to discussing cellular frequency bands and the all important topic of security, this book covers it all.
Of course, all of this technology is changing daily. When we started RVing full-time in 2007, we got by with pay phone cards and free WiFi at coffee shops. We were unaware in those days (although we had our suspicions) that cell phones weren’t nearly as smart as their progeny would soon be, and we had no idea just how far the industry would come.
In just a few scant years everything has changed, and who knows where the future will take us!
Two nifty pocket flashlights that are lighting up the dark for us!
A few months ago I reviewed the truly incredible Lumintop SD75 4,000 lumen flashlight, which is the brightest flashlight either of us has ever seen, by a long shot. It is truly like carrying around a car headlight.
When we started planning our trip to Thailand and Cambodia, Mark decided to upgrade his pocket flashlight to the Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight to take with him on the trip. I secretly wondered where he thought we would be going in the dark once we got to Thailand, but he felt this flashlight was a very important piece of gear that he just had to take with him.
Oh my. He was a man in love…with his flashlight! Sigh.
The big Lumintop SD75 searchlight with its suitcase and the two Lumintop pocket flashlights: SD26 (left) and EDC25 (right).
When we returned home, he absolutely had to replace yet another of his small pocket flashlights with the Lumintop SD26 flashlight, another 1,000 lumen total “must have” for a true flashlight junkie!
Lumintop SD26 (left) and Lumintop EDC25 (right): 1000 lumen pocket flashlights with belt holsters.
I wondered why a man would ever need TWO pocket flashlights, but of course he has had a flashlight in almost every drawer and cabinet and pocket since I’ve known him, so I’ve learned not to ask. But when the Amazon boxes arrived, I couldn’t help myself from asking him a little bit more.
He uses the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight to peer into dark corners around the rig. From searching for that small bag of almonds he knows is at the back of the snack cabinet, to crawling under the trailer and looking at the backside of our trailer’s leaf springs where a locking nut recently decided to unscrew itself, to searching the back of the Man Cave (our fifth wheel basement) for his plumber’s wrench or PVC cutters, which he rarely needs so they’re stashed in the depths somewhere, this little narrow-beam flashlight is ideal.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight has a slightly wider beam and is best for short trips in the dark around the rig where he doesn’t want to carry the whopping Lumintop SD75 flashlight” . He keeps it in a cupboard near the door to shine outside when he hears a strange noise, and it’s the one he grabs for quickie nighttime jaunts in the dark where he doesn’t need to light up the whole world.
Lumintop EDC25 flashlight (left) and Lumintop SD26 flashlight (right)
Narrower and more focused beam of the Lumintop EDC25 flashlight (1000 lumens).
Slightly broader beam of the Lumintop SD26 flashlight (1000 lumens).
The “car headlight” effect of the Lumintop SD75 searchlight (4000 lumens).
Changing our angle slightly, we repeated the test with the flashlights shining at the cliff from off to the right. The same characteristics of each flashlight were very clear to see.
Narrower and more focused beam of the Lumintop EDC25 1000 lumen flashlight.
Slightly broader beam of the Lumintop SD26 1000 lumen flashlight.
Huge light from the Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen searchlight.
LUMINTOP EDC25 1000 LUMEN FLASHLIGHT DETAILS
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight — the smaller one with the narrower beam — is a true pocket flashlight, complete with a spring clip to clip onto a shirt pocket or the back pocket of a pair of pants.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight has a spring clip for pockets.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight comes with a belt holster which is a more secure alternative if going on a longer hike with it.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight also has a belt holster.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is powered by a 3,400 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery (the battery is supplied with the flashlight). Simply unscrew the back end of the flashlight and slip the battery into it.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is powered by a 3,400 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.
The battery is charged by connecting to a laptop or other USB connector. The flashlight’s charging port for the cable is located in the threads of the male half (the back half) of the flashlight.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight charging port is located in the threads of the back half of the flashlight.
Plug the charging cable into the flashlight.
Ready for charging.
Then plug the USB end of the charging cable into the laptop. Initially, the flashlight will light up green.
Initially, the charging light turns green, but the battery is not charging yet.
In order to initiate the charging process, press the on/off button on the back end of the flashlight.
Press the button on the end of the flashlight to initiate battery charging.
Then the flashlight will light up red to indicate that it is charging. Once the battery is fully charged, the flashlight will turn green again.
The battery is charging while the light is red. Once it turns green again, the battery is fully charged.
The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight has six modes. It can be set to five different light intensities and it also has a strobe mode where it flashes on and off very quickly.
LUMINTOP SD26 1000 LUMEN FLASHLIGHT DETAILS
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is also 1000 lumens but it is a little thicker and slightly shorter and casts a wider beam.
Lumintop SD26 flashlight, 1000 lumens.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight doesn’t have a spring clip on it but it comes with a belt holster to make it easy to take on hikes.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight does not have a spring clip but it does have a belt holster for easy carrying.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is powered by a 5,000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery (supplied with the flashlight). This slightly beefier battery allows the Lumintop SD26 flashlight to run for slightly longer than that The Lumintop EDC25 flashlight before needing to be recharged.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight is powered by a 5,000 mAh lithium-ion rechargeable battery.
The charging port is located under a rubber cover.
Simply plug the charging cable into the charging port on the flashlight.
And then plug the USB connector into your laptop.
The battery charging process begins as soon as the flashlight is plugged into the laptop (or other) USB port.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight battery will begin charging immediately, and you’ll see a green light flashing on and off to indicate that the battery is charging. Once the battery is fully charged, the light will stop flashing and will stay green.
The battery is charging as long as the light flashes green. Once it stays lit solid green, the battery is fully charged.
The Lumintop SD26 flashlight has seven modes. It can be set to five different light intensities and it also has a strobe mode where it flashes on and off very quickly. In addition, it has an SOS mode where it flashes Morse code for the letters “SOS.”
The thinner Lumintop EDC25 flashlight is 137 mm long, has a spring clip and bulges a little less in a back pocket, but its 3,400 mAh battery doesn’t last as long. It’s beam is narrower and more focused.
The thicker (and slightly shorter at 123 mm long) Lumintop SD26 flashlight does not need to be unscrewed into two pieces in order to be charged and has a longer lasting battery. It’s beam is slightly broader. It also has a cool “SOS” Morse code mode just in case you need to flash a call for help!
If you are a flashlight junkie like Mark — and I was really surprised after writing our Lumintop SD75 review that there are so many like-minded flashlight junkies out there! — then one of these two pocket flashlights might be something to consider for your life in the dark around your RV.
Is RV solar power affordable or is installing a solar power system on a motorhome or trailer — or even on a sailboat — just too darn expensive to be cost effective? We never thought this question would be hard to answer untpil recently.
This article describes everything you need to install a solar power system on your RV in three different levels:
Can a solar power installation on an RV or sailboat pay for itself?
Ever since we installed our first (very small) solar power system on our first full-time RV nearly ten years ago, we’ve been excitedly telling people it is a very affordable do-it-yourself project for anyone with some mechanical and electrical knowledge. And for those who can’t turn a wrench, it shouldn’t be that much more.
Our first 130 watt solar power system cost us about twice as much as the same system would today, but even at that high price, we felt it was dollar-for-dollar an equal value to buying a Yamaha or Honda 1000 generator. Best of all, once a little system like that was installed, it was a whole lot less noisy, expensive to operate and complicated to use than a generator would be.
At today’s super cheap solar prices, that little solar power system is even more valuable compared to one of those nice Japanese portable gas generators than it was 10 years ago!
Installing solar power can be a DIY project if you’re handy.
Recently, however, we’ve heard some crazy prices being quoted for installing solar power systems on RVs. We met one couple with a gorgeous brand new DRV Suites fifth wheel who were quoted $13,000 for a solar power installation. Not long after that, we read an article in a popular RV magazine describing a $12,000 solar power installation on a fifth wheel.
Yikes!! These are outrageous prices!!
We sure hope no one is finding they have to spend that kind of crazy money to get a solar power system installed on their trailer or motorhome or sailboat.
Here are three solar power “packages” — with approximate prices — that will do the trick whether you’re a part-timer or full-time RVer.
Although it is possible to buy “pre-packaged RV solar power kits” online, we suggest hand selecting the components you want so that just in case any individual item has a problem it can be returned easily.
We’ve heard of cases where people bought a pre-packaged solar power kit online and then had problems returning a broken part because they had to return the entire kit — solar panels, charge controller, cables and all — just because the one item wasn’t working right.
SMALL ROOFTOP RV SOLAR POWER SYSTEM – 150 WATT SYSTEM
For part-time RVers, installing solar on the roof isn’t a requirement.
The following is essentially what we put on our roof and what we camped with off the grid every night for a year when we started.
The brands are not exactly the same, but these components are highly rated and will do the trick for anyone that wants a roof-mounted solar power system on their motorhome or trailer.
The simplest inverter installation is to connect the inverter to the batteries using heavy duty cables and then to run an ordinary (but long) power strip (or two) from the inverter to somewhere convenient inside the rig.
Rather than using the wall outlets in the rig, just plug the AC appliances into the power strip as needed, taking care not to operate too many things at once and overload the inverter.
Prices always change, so check the links to see the current prices.
The nice thing about this kit is that it is easily expandable. If a second or third solar panel is eventually desired (to double or triple the size of the system to 300 or 450 watts, for another $200 or $400), those panels can be purchased at a later date. At that point the solar charge controller can also be replaced with a bigger and more sophisticated charge controller (for $600).
PORTABLE FOLDING SOLAR POWER KIT SUITCASE – 120 WATT SYSTEM
A portable solar power kit that folds up and can be carried like a suitcase is an awesome solution for weekenders, vacationers and seasonal RVers.
A really nifty alternative for anyone that isn’t super skilled with tools or that’s a bit spooked by electrical things, is a portable solar power kit that folds into a suitcase. These come with two matching solar panels, battery cables with alligator clips, and a panel-mounted solar charge controller. The solar panels are hinged together and can be folded towards each other. A handle on the side of one of them makes the whole thing easy to carry and store like a suitcase.
These portable folding suitcase solar panel kits come in all sizes. A good size is anywhere from 120 to 200 watts:
The advantage of a portable suitcase solar kit like this is that it is self-contained. If you think you might upgrade to a different RV soon, then there’s no loss in investment when one RV is sold and another is purchased. Also, if you decide to install a roof-mounted system at a later date, the suitcase solar panel kit can be sold to another RVer.
As for the inverter, heavy duty cables and power strip, they are included here just to round out the package so you have AC power in the rig as well as the ability to charge the batteries just like the “small solar power kit” described above.
Installing solar panels on tilting brackets is popular, but only necessary in mid-winter. We’ve never done it.
The Magnum inverter is an inverter/charger that has a built in transfer switch, making it very straight forward to wire the inverter into the house AC wiring system so you can use the standard wall outlets in the rig rather than plugging things into a power strip.
If you are not a DIY RVer, you’ll need to budget for the installation labor too. As a very rough estimate, I would allow for $500-$1,000 for a small system installation and $1,500-$2,500 for a big system installation. The variations in labor costs will depend on how difficult it is to work in your rig, how hard it is to mount the various components and run the wires from roof to basement, and whether or not you choose to have the batteries upgraded or replaced.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
RV park and campground prices are all over the map, but assuming that the average cost is $25 per night for a site with hookups if you don’t take advantage of monthly discounts or $15 per night if you do, these systems can pay for themselves in anywhere from 18 camping days to 14 months, depending on what size system you buy, whether or not you do the installation yourself, and how you typically camp. Of course, this assumes the rig is equipped with a refrigerator that can run on propane and that if air conditioning is needed an alternative power source like a generator is used.
Installing solar power on a sailboat is very similar to installing it in an RV, but there is an added complexity because there isn’t a big flat roof to lay the panels on. Instead, we had to construct a stainless steel arch to support the panels. Fortunately, our boat, a 2008 Hunter 44DS, had a factory installed stainless steel arch over the cockpit already. So, we hired a brilliant Mexican metal fabricator named Alejandro Ulloa, to create our solar panel arch in Ensenada, Mexico.
We turned to Alejandro Ulloa of Ensenada, Mexico, for our solar panel arch He can be contracted the=rough Baja Naval.
Alejandro is an artist. He wrapped the arch in plastic to prevent scratches until it was permanently mounted on our boat!
The arch went back to Alejandro’s workshop for tweaking after this measuring session.
Dimensions now perfect, Alejandro mounts the arch permanently.
Getting the 185 watt 24 volt solar panels up onto the arch was a challenge. Getting solar panels up onto an RV roof is tricky too!
Getting the solar panels onto the roof of an RV or up onto this arch takes two people (at least!)
The second of the three panels gets installed.
The solar panel arch was going to double as a “dinghy davit” system with telescoping rods that extended out over the transom. These davits supported a pulley system to hoist the dinghy up out of the water. So once the solar panels were mounted on the arch, we had to be sure it could handle the weight of the dinghy.
Our dinghy weighed a lot less than the combined weight of Mark and Alejandro!
Alejandro and Mark test the arch to be sure it can support the dinghy (which weighed half what they do).
The solar panels were wired in parallel because they would be subjected to shade constantly shifting on and off the panels at certain times of the day as the boat swung at anchor.
Mark wires up the panels in parallel.
A beautiful, clean installation with wire loom covering the exposed cabling and the rest snaked down inside the tubes of the Hunter arch. The davit extensions for hoisting the dinghy are clearly visible under the panels.
Down below the cockpit inside a huge locker in the transom, Mark mounted a combiner box that brought three cables in from the three panels and then sent out one cable to the solar charge controller.
The transom locker in our Hunter 44DS sailboat was very large!
A combiner box brings the wires from the three panels together before a single run goes to the solar charge controller (this is optional and not at all necessary).
The solar charge controller was located about 8 feet from the near end of the battery bank which spanned a ~14 foot distance under the floorboards in the bilge.
We had four 160 amp-hour 4D AGM batteries for the house bank and a Group 27 AGM start battery installed under the floorboards in the bilge. One 4D house battery and the Group 27 start battery are seen here
This 555 watt solar power system, which charged a 640 amp-hour house bank of 4D AGM batteries, supplied all of our electrical needs, including powering our under-counter electric refrigerator.
Usually our engine alternator provided backup battery charging whenever we ran the engine. However, at one point our alternator died, and we were without it for 10 straight weeks while we waited for a replacement alternator.
Why such a long wait for a simple replacement part? Getting boat parts in Mexico requires either paying exorbitant shipping fees and import taxes or waiting for a friend to bring the part with them in their backpack when they fly from the US to Mexico.
During that long wait our solar power system supplied all our electricity without a backup while we were anchored in a beautiful bay. Diesel engines don’t require an alternator to run, so we moved the boat around and went sailing etc., and lived our normal lives during our wait.
View from the water — cool!
The dinghy davit extensions on the solar panel arch made it easy to raise and lower the dinghy from the water and also to raise and lower the 6 horsepower outboard engine.
A pulley system on the davit extensions made hoisting the outboard and dinghy a cinch for either of us to do singlehandedly.
For 7 months we left our boat at the dock in Chiapas, unplugged from shorepower, and let the solar panels keep the batteries topped off. Everyday during that time they put 19 amp-hours into the batteries which was essentially the power required to operate the solar charge controller!
At anchor, sometimes the solar panels were in full sun all day long if the current and wind and the pattern of the sun crossing the sky allowed the boat to move around without the sun coming forward of the beam of the boat.
However, whenever the sun was forward of the beam, the shadow of the mast and the radome fell on the panels. We could watch the current production from the panels go from full on, to two-thirds, to one-third and back again as the shadow crossed one panel and then two at once, and then one and then none, etc, as the boat swung back and forth at anchor.
RV solar installations have to avoid shade from air conditions and open vent hatches. On boats the shade from the mast and radome is often unavoidable.
When the shadow fell across two 185 watt panels at once, it knocked both of them out of the system so only one of the three solar panels was actually producing power.
The coolest and most unexpected benefit of having our solar panels mounted on an arch over the cockpit was the shade that they provided. The sun in Mexico is very intense, especially out on the water, and it was wonderful to have two huge forward facing jump seats at the back of the cockpit that fully shade as we sailed!
Made in the shade — What a life that was!!
We have more solar power related articles at these links:
We describe our thrilling — and heart wrenching — first and last days on our wonderful sailboat in the following posts. It is very true that the happiest days of a boater’s life are the day the boat is bought and the day it’s sold!
Since we began our full-time RV travels in 2007, photography has become a huge part of our lives. Photography is an ideal hobby for travelers, and it isn’t hard to learn. Our learning curve has played out on the pages of this website, and it is satisfying to see our improvement over the years. When we first started traveling, we each shot about 6,000 photos per year. Now we each shoot over 35,000 photos per year (a little under 100 per day).
Photography is a lot of fun, and it’s not hard to learn.
People have asked us what cameras and equipment we use, and how we improved our skills. This page presents all of our gear choices, from our camera bodies to our favorite lenses to our filters and tripods to the goodies we use to take our cameras out for a hike to the software we rely on for post-processing.
It also explains how we organize all our photos and lists all the books, eBooks and online tutorials we have studied to learn to take better photos. We are entirely self-taught, and the inspiring resources we reference here lay it all out in plain language.
We’ve invested in our camera equipment because photography is our passion and we do it all day long. What you’ll see here is good solid “value” gear that is above “entry level” but not “strictly for the pros” either.
The best time to buy camera gear is between Thanksgiving and Christmas during Black Friday week or when a manufacturer discontinues a camera model. An inexpensive but good quality DSLR that you can get for a steal is the Nikon D3300, discontinued in June 2016. In October 2016, a smoking deal includes the Nikon D3300, two lenses and a camera bag. Other Nikon D3300 kits are available too. This camera was replaced with the Nikon D3400 which is Nikon’s current (and terrific) entry level DSLR model
As of 2016, we both shoot with Nikon D810 cameras. This is a professional level, truly awesome, full-frame 36 megapixel camera.
For three years prior to that, we both used Nikon D610 cameras. This is a full-frame, 24 megapixel camera. It is considered a “pro-sumer” camera, not quite professional quality but at the high end of the hobbyist ranks.
Although we have a big collection of lenses, we typically take no more than two apiece with us when we are out and about on foot. It’s just too much stuff to lug around!
I have a Nikon 28-300 mm lens on my camera which I use almost exclusively, simply because I love the flexibility of having both wide angle and zoom options with the twist of my wrist without having to change lenses.
When we got into photography, we jumped in with both feet.
Mark likes to pick a lens for the day and work within its limits. His favorites are prime (non-zooming) lenses, and he uses the Nikon 50 mm and Nikon 85mm lenses a lot. These are a lot less expensive than zoom lenses, and they are much faster lenses too (meaning they can be used in lower light). However, they do not have vibration resistance (also known as “image stabilization”), a technology that reduces the inherent wiggle caused by hand-holding a lens.
He also uses the Nikon 24-120 and the Sigma 24-105. These are very similar lenses, and we would have just one of them, but I used to use the Nikon 24-120 all the time before I got the Nikon 28-300, so he got the Sigma 24-105 to have one with a similar range. They’re both terrific lenses, so we can’t decide which one to keep and which one to sell!
We have a Nikon 70-200, which is a truly beautiful lens. For a long time neither of us used it much, but after I commented to that effect when I first published this post, Mark put it into his regular arsenal and uses it frequently now. It is a fabulous lens with excellent color rendition. Another advantage is that the zoom feature doesn’t lengthen or shorten the lens — it is always one length and all the zooming is physically done inside the lens. This means that dust doesn’t sneak into the lens when it is zoomed in and out the way it does with other lenses (like the 28-300, 24-120 and 24-105 mentioned above).
For wide angles, we have a Nikon 16-35 and a Nikon Nikon 18-35 so we can each shoot very wide angles simultaneously. Mark LOVES wide angle photography, and he uses these all the time. The 16-35 is more expensive, and was purchased as an upgrade from the 18-35, but he can’t seem to part with the 18-35 now, so I inherited it.
We have a Tamron 150-600 mm lens for shooting birds (like wild peach faced lovebirds here) and for wildlife — or even for stationary cacti at a faraway distance as in this image here. An alternative to this lens that is priced similarly is the Sigma 150-600 contemporary series lens. If it had been available, we probably would have purchased the Sigma 150-600 instead of the Tamron 150-600, but it wasn’t in production at the time. Another awesome option that has become available since our purchase is the Nikon 200-500 mm lens. That lens is on our wish list right now so we can each have a powerful zoom in situations where we want one.
What about those third party lenses?? Some are better than others, although Sigma’s Art Series lenses are really great these days (and expensive). When I was casting about for a “do it all” lens, we initially bought a Tamron 28-300 mm lens. It had terrible color rendition and didn’t focus for beans, so we returned it to buy the Nikon 28-300, which I totally love. I will be curious to see how the Tamron 150-600 stacks up against the Nikon 200-500 when we eventually buy it.
Our Past Cameras and Lenses
Do you need all this crazy stuff when you first get started? No!
When we began traveling, we purchased two Nikon D40 cameras, which were 6 megapixel crop-sensor cameras. Each came with a Nikon 18-55 mm lens, and we got a Nikon 55-200 mm lens for distance. This was a great camera model to learn on, and we published five magazine cover photos taken with it.
Do you need to spend a bundle on a camera? No! I took this photo with a Nikon D40 that you can buy today (used) for $100.
The Nikon D40 (and its modern day equivalent Nikon D3300) are “crop sensor” cameras (or “DX” in Nikon lingo). This means the sensor is smaller than on a “full frame” camera (like our current Nikon D610 cameras which are “FX” in Nikon lingo). This, in turn, means the image quality is slightly lower and if you blew up the image to poster size it won’t look quite as good up close.
The D40 was discontinued long ago, but can be found on Craigslist and eBay for $100 to $150 with two lenses. One that has been lightly used will work just as well now as it did years back.
How do you tell how “used” a used camera is??
If you have a Mac, an easy way to find out how many shutter clicks a camera has is to take a photo, download it to your computer, export it or locate it in the Finder, and open it in Preview by double clicking on it. Then click on Tools > Show Inspector, click the “i” button and then the “Exif” button. The Image Number is the number of shutter clicks the camera has on it. This works only for cameras that have a mechanical shutter, not for pocket cameras with an electronic shutter.
My only frustration with the Nikon D40 was that there was no built-in cleaning system for the camera sensor, so every time we changed lenses the sensor was vulnerable to picking up dust — and it did! We used the Nikon D40 cameras fro 2007 until 2011.
Today’s “equivalent” entry level DSLR is the Nikon D3300. It is a 24 megapixel camera that is far more sophisticated than the D40 and not “equivalent” in any way except the price point. If you want to get it in a kit with multiple lenses, filters, camera bag, tripod, etc., you can pick up a really nice the Nikon D3300 kits right here.
The Nikon D610 and Tamron 150-600 mm lens. I’m in camo to keep from scaring the birds away. Think it will work when I point this huge scary lens at them? Not!!
In 2011, we upgraded to the Nikon D5100, a 16 megapixel crop-sensor camera. Like the Nikon D40, this camera was also a “crop sensor” or “DX” camera.It came with a Nikon 18-55 mm lens. We got a Nikon 55-300 lens, and I ran all over Mexico with both of those lenses, switching back and forth all day long.
In hindsight, I should have gotten the Nikon 18-300 lens and spared myself the hassle of carrying a second lens and switching lenses all the time (I missed so many great shots because I was fumbling with the camera!). But I had read some iffy reviews of the first edition of that lens and decided against it (the current model is its 3rd generation and I’ve met people who LOVE this lens. Oh well!).
The best thing about that camera was the built-in sensor cleaner. Living in the salty and dusty environment of coastal Mexico, this was huge. The other fun thing about that camera was the flip-out display on the back. You could put the camera in Live View, then set it on the ground or hold it overhead and still see your composition on the back of the camera.
We used the Nikon D5100 cameras from 2011 to 2013. The Nikon D5100 has been discontinued. Today’s “equivalent” level DSLR is the Nikon D5300. It is a 24 megapixel camera that, again, is far more sophisticated than the predecessor that we had. This is an outstanding “intermediate” camera and can be purchased in a Nikon D5300 camera and lens bundle.
If you have a few more dollars to spend, the Nikon D7200 is even better. It is still a crop sensor camera, but it is very sophisticated. Like the others, if you are starting out, getting a Nikon D7200 Camera and Lens Kit is very cost effective.
Sometimes carrying a big DSLR camera is inconvenient. We both like having a pocket camera for times when a DSLR is too big.
This camera is very rugged. The bruises it has given me on my backside are proof that it holds up a lot better than I do when I fall off my bike and land on it. I like it because the lens doesn’t move in and out when it zooms, and you can drop it and not worry about breaking it. Here are a bunch of photos it took: Bell Rock Pathway in Sedona Arizona.
Mark has a Nikon Coolpix A that he is nuts about because it is just like a mini DSLR. He doesn’t do crazy things like take photos while riding his bike one handed the way I do (and he’s less prone to falling off), so he doesn’t mind having a more delicate camera in his pocket. It is a 16 megapixel camera that has most of the features of a the Nikon D610, except it is a crop-sensor camera that has a fixed 28 mm lens that can’t be changed. It has been discontinued.
Prior to that, he had a Nikon Coolpix P330 (also discontinued). It could shoot in raw format, which was the reason he chose it, but it didn’t produce nearly the quality images of the Coolpix A.
Lots of folks use a smartphone for all their photo ops or as an alternative to their DSLR. We don’t have a smartphone, but we have used a lot of them at scenic overlooks when groups of people pass their cameras around to get pics of themselves. One thing we’ve noticed is that there is a big difference in dynamic range (the rendering of bright spots and shadows) between Androids and iPhones, with iPhones being much better. This is probably common knowledge and not news to you at all, and it may be partly due to which generation of smartphone a person hands us to get their portrait taken.
Batteries – We have two batteries for each of our Nikon D610’s, so we each always have a fully charged battery on hand besides the one in the camera. We’ve found the Watson batteries are a good alternative to the more expensive Nikon batteries. My Watson battery died shortly after the manufacturer’s warranty expired, and I was impressed that they honored it anyway and replaced it for me.
Memory Cards – We also have two memory cards in each camera (the Nikon D610 has two card slots in it). We use the SanDisk 95 MB/second SD cards. We like these fast SD cards because when we start shooting in a burst (holding the shutter down and letting the camera take pics as fast as it can — for instance, when a bison jumps over a fence in front of us), the faster the card can be written to, the faster the camera’s internal memory buffer will empty, and the longer the camera can keep shooting at top speed. Faster SD cards also download photos to the computer faster.
Every evening we download all our photos onto our laptops and reformat the memory cards in the camera. We’ve heard that this reduces the chance of the card failing and losing all our photos (which happened to me once long ago with a Kingston card – ugh!).
The Hoodman Loupe – A Game Changer! The Hoodman Loupe revolutionized our photography because we were suddenly able to see our photos clearly on the back of our cameras and then retake the photo if necessary. The loupe fits over the LCD screen, blocking the glare and magnifying the image. The lens is adjustable, so no matter how good or bad your eyes are, you can adjust it until you can see the image perfectly clearly. We have the original hard sided loupe. A new model collapses down so it can be stored more compactly. In a lot of the photos of me on this website, you can see my Hoodman loupe hanging around my neck!
The Hoodman Loupe lets you see the image on the back of the camera clearly, adjusted for your eyes, and without glare.
Battery Grip – Mark occasionally uses a Vello Battery Grip on his camera. This grip can hold extra batteries and also makes it possible to take portrait oriented shots (vertical images) while holding the camera as if it were upright rather than twisting your right arm over your head. Mark absolutely loves his. I use mine only occasionally because I can’t use it with my tripod L-bracket (see below).
Camera Straps – We replaced the standard Nikon camera straps with the Optech Pro Strap. This strap is thick and cushy and is slightly curved to fit the curve of your shoulder. It also has quick release clasps so you can easily unclip it from the camera when you’re using a tripod.
For a long time we preferred the B+W brand for all our filters, although we’ve used a lot of Hoya filters over the years too. We’ve also tried Tiffen filters, but find they are hit-and-miss. Often, if a “lens deal” includes a filter with the lens, it’s not a great one. Most recently, we have begun buying Nikon filters which seem to be the best quality all around. Just be sure you get the right size for your lens (52 mm or 77 mm, etc.).
UV Filters – We have UV filters for all our lenses to provide protection for them.
Polarizing Filters – We also have polarizing filters for all our lenses. A polarizer makes it possible to enhance the colors or reduce the glare in certain lighting situations. It is best around midday and has less effect at dawn and dusk. It is wonderful around bodies of water and for removing the dashboard glare on the windshield when taking photos from inside a car. A polarizer adds a lot of contrast to an image, however, so while it can enhance a landscape beautifully, I’ve found it makes street photography of people too contrasty.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters – We occasionally use a graduated neutral density filter when the sky is very pale and the scene we are shooting is dark. This kind of filter is half colored and half clear. By twisting it so the colored part lines up with the sky and the clear part lines up with the darker landscape, the sky and landscape come out more evenly exposed. They are also very helpful for sunrises and sunsets.
Neutral Density Filters – When shooting moving water, a neutral density filter darkens what the camera sees enough so the shutter speed can be increased to show silky movement in the water without it being blown out and all white. These filters are also helpful if you want to use a very big aperture (small “F number”) to blur out a background and the camera’s top shutter speed isn’t fast enough to get proper exposure. These filters come in different degrees of darkness. A 10-stop filter is good for shooting a waterfall in broad daylight while a 4-stop filter is good for the same scene at dawn or dusk. We had fun with moving water photography at Watkins Glen in Upstate New York, the Blue Ridge Parkway in N. Carolina, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in N. Carolina.
It is really hard to invest in a tripod after blowing the bank account on a nice camera, a few lenses, spare batteries, memory cards and filters. And you can have loads of fun with photography without getting a tripod. But if you want to play with shooting (and showing) motion (i.e., a car going by, clouds streaking across the sky or water flowing) or you want to have perfect exposure in very low light (like a sunset) without a flash, or you want to do some timelapse videos (very cool at sunrise in a big canyon) then a tripod is a must.
Sunwayfoto XB52-DL Ballhead with T2C40C Tripod and Sunwayfoto DDC-60LR Quick Release Clamp
Most people end up upgrading their tripod several times because they just can’t believe, at first, that they have to spend good hard earned money on a tripod, and they go through a bunch of cheap ones before they bite the bullet and get a decent one! We did that, and lots of our friends did too.
The biggest difference between tripods is how much weight they can hold solidly, how easy they are to set up and adjust, and whether things drift or droop a little after you tighten the buttons. I have a Benro carbon fiber tripod that I absolutely love. The legs slide in and out really smoothly, and the adjustments are easy.
Mark has Sunwayfoto tripod legs and ballhead that he loves. We reviewed them in depth at this link:
We both have the SunWay Foto L-Bracket that attaches to the camera body and lets us set the camera in the tripod in either Landscape or Portrait orientation very easily. I keep my L-bracket on the camera all the time for simplicity in case I want to grab my tripod quickly, but it means I can’t use my Vello Battery Grip. Mark loves his battery grip, so he has to switch back and forth between the regular tripod bracket that fits on the camera along with the battery grip and the L-bracket that doesn’t.
We love doing night photography, photographing the milky way and the stars, and doing light painting on old buildings for ghostly effects. At Waterton Lakes National Park we did a timelapse video of the Milky Way.
When we are hiking on a remote trail in the middle of the night, or light painting a building to make it appear visible in a nighttime photo, we find that a good flashlight is essential.
Lumintop SD75 4000 lumen tactical flashlight next to a pocket Mag Light
Built with heavy duty aerospace aluminum, it has a military grade hard-anodized aluminum finish and is water resistant to 2 meters. Offering 3 power levels plus a strobe, there’s also an LED tail light that can be used as a night light when we’re setting up our camera gear in the dark. It also has threads on the bottom for mounting on a tripod.
The flashlight batteries are rechargeable and there is a battery level indicator. The flashlight ships with a wall charger and 12 volt car charging cords, and it comes in a suitcase! The batteries are so strong, it can be used to recharge other smaller devices like cell phones via 2 USB ports.
This is not a pocket flashlight, but it has slots in the end for a strap that makes it very easy to carry.
We love this flashlight and just wish we had had it when we cruised Mexico on our sailboat, as it is far more powerful than the emergency floodlight we had for rescuing a man overboard!
With all this camera stuff, it can be a challenge to figure out how to carry it to scenic spots and where to store it in the RV and truck when we’re not using it. Also, our camera gear takes a lot of abuse from dusty air out west, salty air on the coast, and sunscreen from our faces and hands. So it needs to be cleaned periodically. Here’s where we’re at with all this right now:
Hiking With Camera Equipment
When we go on a hike of a few miles, it is likely to take us four hours or more because we stop to take so many photos. So, we want to have water, snacks, our camera gear, tripods, and possibly a jacket with us. There are a lot of camera-specific backpacks and sling style camera bags on the market, but none we’ve seen is really designed for hiking.
After a lot of searching, we finally decided to use big Camelback hydration packs instead of bona-fide camera bags when we hike with all our photography stuff, and we’ve been really happy with this choice.
I have a Camelback H.A.W.G. and Mark has a Camelback Fourteener. Both can carry 100 ounces of water, and each has enough capacity for the Tamron 150-600 lens along with everything else if need be. (We never take more than two lenses with us — one on the camera and one in the pack).
The Camelback H.A.W.G. can hold a big camera.
We generally hike with our cameras slung around our necks so we can take photos with them as we walk. I put the Camelback on first and then put the camera on afterwards so the camera straps aren’t trapped under the shoulder straps of the Camelback. There’s nothing like getting caught in the Tourist Tangle!
My main criteria for choosing a Camelback was that I wanted to be able to put my camera (with the 28-300 mm lens attached) inside the Camelback and then close that compartment so I could scramble over something gnarly that required two hands and not worry about the camera slipping out of the pack. And it had to do that with 100 ounces of water in the hydration pack.
My other criteria was that I wanted to be able to hang my tripod on one of the Camelback straps and hike without carrying it in my hand.
The straps on the sides of the H.A.W.G. aren’t designed to carry a tripod, and they may fatigue over time, but I’ve been really happy with how this Camelback has held up on the many hikes I’ve taken with it so far in two years of owning it.
The straps on the sides of the Fourteener are designed to hold ice picks and things like that, so they are probably a little more rugged. If I had known about the Fourteener before I bought my H.A.W.G., I probably would have bought that model instead. Mark has had it almost as long as I’ve had my H.A.W.G., and he is very happy with it as well.
The tripod fits neatly on the side of the H.A.W.G., and the camera straps aren’t trapped under the Camelback straps.
One really nice feature of both of these Camelback models is that they have a waterproof rain sack that can be pulled out of a hidden pocket and slipped over the whole Camelback, keeping the contents dry if you’re caught in a downpour. This came in super handy at the Duggers Creek Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway!
One of the tricks with backpacks in general is that, if they have a waist belt, you can loosen the belt a little, slip your arms out of the arm straps and then swing the pack around so it is in front of you. This way you can get something out of it without taking it off and putting it on the ground. This is fantastic when you want to swap filters, grab a snack, or change batteries without taking the whole darn thing off.
Once we get to an area where we’re going to take a lot of photos, we take the tripods off the Camelbacks and we carry them around in our hands until we’re ready to hike out again.
We carry a plastic bag (a shopping bag is fine) in our packs in case it sprinkles and we want to cover our cameras for a short time. We also carry rain ponchos so we can cover ourselves and our Camelbacks in the event of unexpected rain.
Short Walks With Photography Gear
If we are going to spend the day roaming around but not hiking, or if we’re taking photos a short distance from the truck, we don’t take the big Camelbacks. I use a small fanny pack to carry a spare battery and possibly a second lens. Mark likes to wear a photographer’s vest that has lots of pockets for all his goodies. He likes the one he has, but has his eye on the Phototools Photovest 14!
Storing All This Stuff
In the trailer we have Ruggard camera cases and Ruggard backpacks to hold the cameras and lenses. We also have camera cases in the truck. We’ve found good homes for the tripods in the truck too, and they generally stay there so they are with us if we arrive somewhere and suddenly wish we had them with us.
Sometimes the camera’s built-in sensor cleaning system doesn’t quite do the trick, and getting debris off the camera sensor can be really intimidating. Rather than paying for an expensive cleaning at a camera shop, we’ve discovered that the Sensor Gel Stick sold by Photography Life does a phenomenal job (don’t get the cheap Chinese imitation ones). Check out the video under the product description here to see how to do it. It’s easy and we have done it many times.
We each have a plain MacBook Pro (no retina display) with 16 GB RAM and a 1 TB internal drive and slots for CD, SD card, Thunderbolt, etc. (2012-style case). We also each have a 4 TB external hard drive with a Thunderbolt dock that allows multiple drives to be daisy-chained.
We use Adobe Lightroom for most of our post-processing. The easiest way to learn Lightroom is the Julianne Kost Lightroom Videos. Julianne is Adobe’s “Lightroom Evangelist” (what a great title and job!) and her presentations are clear and concise.
Organizing photos is never easy, and everyone has a different method. Lightroom lets only one person work on a catalog at a time, so we each have separate Lightroom catalogs. We make use of the Smart Previews in Lightroom to get access to each other’s photos without transferring all the original photo files between our laptops. All we have to transfer is the catalog, previews and smart previews. It’s clunky — I know they could do better — but it works.
We also have a separate Lightroom catalogs for each year. The older catalogs are stored on external hard drives and the current year catalogs are on our laptops. We try to make sure all our photos are in two places (laptop and external drive or on two external drives). Some of our older photos are in Apple’s Aperture and our oldest are in Apple’s iPhoto, the two post-processing programs we used prior to Lightroom.
I don’t want to have to plug in an external drive every time I go into Lightroom, which is why we keep our current year’s photos and catalogs local to our laptops. We have our previous year’s catalogs and smart previews on our laptops so we can see and work with our older photos. If we need the full image of an older photo, we plug in the appropriate external hard drive, and the catalog on the laptop reconnects with the original images.
We don’t store anything in the cloud.
We organize our photos by location but like to have an overall sense of the chronological order in which we visited places, since that is the way we remember our travels. So, we label our folders with 2 digits followed by the state to bring up the states in the order in which we visited them.
Inside of each state folder, we name every download with a 4-digit date (month/day) followed by the specific location. For photos that aren’t location specific (like photos of our trailer disc brake conversion or fifth wheel suspension failure, we move them after downloading to a MISC folder and name a subfolder within it more appropriately or add them to an existing folder.
2 digits to order the states chronologically, then 4-digit dates on subfolders with the specific location.
Photomatix Pro is an excellent program for creating HDR (high dynamic range) effects from several identical photos taken at different exposures, and Topaz Adjust and Topaz Detail in the Topaz Suite of software are great for getting a little wild with crazy effects at the click of a button.
For panoramas, we use Panorama Maker to stitch together a series of photos.
We use the X-Rite Color Checker Passport to create custom color profiles calibrated to specific camera and lens combinations. It also comes with a gray card that we sometimes use to set a custom white balance for particular light conditions.
Photography is something you can spend the rest of your life learning. We’ve been reading and studying photography books and blogs for a few years now, and we have found the following printed books and ebooks and online resources to be really helpful in conquering both the technical aspects of understanding what all those buttons on our cameras do and the artistic aspects of how to capture the essence of what we’re seeing.
If you enjoy a good, dense, technical tome, The Art of Photography by Bruce Barnbaum is outstanding. It is heavy going, but if you can get through it, it’s like taking a college course on art theory, photographic techniques and the history of photography.
The website that has taught us the most is Photography Life written by Nasim Mansurov and his very talented team. He has super detailed gear reviews and his site is read by many of the top professionals in the photography world. His tutorials are excellent, and he has two pages with links to them all:
Choosing a truck to pull a trailer is a critical decision for RVers, because getting there, and particularly getting there safely, is the first and most important part of enjoying the RV lifestyle! Towing specs and towing guidelines always give the outer limits of what a truck can safely tow. Too often, in towing situations, the trailer is a little too big for the truck, or the truck is a little too small for the trailer, pushing the truck right to its outer safety limits or beyond.
The 2016 Ram 3500 Dually is an awesomely powerful truck for towing big and heavy trailers
The truck-trailer combo may be just a little out of spec on paper, so it may seem okay, like you can get away with it, but it is a really unwise decision. Not only is it absolutely no fun to drive a truck that is screaming its little heart out to tow the load its tied to, but if you have an accident and it is determined your truck was towing a load that is beyond its safety limits, you will be liable.
Heaven forbid that there is a fatality in the accident — either yours or someone else’s. There are lots of horror stories out there of people’s lives that were transformed because someone decided not to get a truck that could tow their trailer safely.
Of course, truck and trailer salesmen don’t help. We have heard time and again, “That truck is fine for this trailer,” or “This trailer will be no problem for that truck.” Don’t listen to them! Trust your instincts and your gut feelings. If you are studying the specs and are nervous that your truck *might* be too small because your trailer puts it on the hairy edge of its specs, then you need a bigger truck or a smaller trailer.
We have been amazed at the huge difference between our old 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel and this new 2016 Ram 3500 dually
This article covers all the specifications we studied and were concerned about when we placed the order for our 2016 Ram 3500 truck to tow our 14,100 lb. 5th wheel trailer. You can navigate to the various sections with these links:
When we bought our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 Single Rear Wheel long bed diesel truck with the 6.7 liter Cummins engine, its purpose was to tow a 7,000 lb. (fully loaded) 2007 Fleetwood Lynx travel trailer. Our 2004 Toyota Tundra (4.7 liter engine) had been okay to tow that trailer on paper, but when we took it on its first mountain excursion up and over Tioga Pass on the eastern side of Yosemite in California, it could not go faster than 28 mph with the gas pedal all the way to the floor. What a scary, white knuckle drive that was. Who needs that?
Our ’04 Toyota Tundra half-ton pickup rests as it tries to tow our 27′ travel trailer over Tioga Pass… sigh.
We replaced the Toyota Tundra with a 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 which was rated to tow much bigger trailers than the little Lynx travel trailer, so all was good with that small travel trailer. However, within a year, we upgraded our trailer from the lightweight Fleetwood Lynx to a full-time quality, four season, 36′ NuWa Hitchhiker LS II fifth wheel trailer that the scales told us was 14,100 lbs. fully loaded. Suddenly, our big beefy diesel truck was at its outer limits!
We drove our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500 and 36′ fifth wheel combo for seven years without a mishap, but it was not an ideal situation. The truck would strain in the mountains and would wander in strong cross winds on the highway. We installed a K&N Cold Air Intake Filter and an Edge Evolution Diesel tuner which helped the engine breathe better and increased its power (see our Edge Evolution Tuner Review), and we installed a Timbren Suspension Enhancement System to keep the truck from sagging when hitched to the trailer. But the frame of the truck and the transmission were still stressed by the heavy load on steep inclines.
We wanted a truck that was well within its towing limits and that could tow our trailer effortlessly.
The weight ratings for trucks and trailers are an alphabet soup of confusion that takes a little imagination to grasp. Here’s a synopsis:
Unloaded Vehicle Weight
The weight of the vehicle without fuel, people and stuff
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating
The heaviest weight the vehicle can safely be when it is loaded up with fuel, people and stuff
Gross Combined Weight Rating
The most a truck-and-trailer combo can safely weigh when hitched together and loaded up with people, fuel, food, etc
The GVWR less the UVW
The amount of weight the truck can safely carry. Compare to the trailer’s Pin Weight
The actual weight on the truck’s rear axle when a trailer is hitched up. Compare to the Payload
The Pin Weight is most easily visualized by first imagining yourself standing on a bathroom scale and making a note of your weight. Then your teenage kid walks up and puts his arms around your neck and hangs on your shoulder. The weight on the scale goes up a little bit, but not a huge amount, because your kid is still standing on the floor on his own two feet. The more he leans on you, the more weight the scale shows.
The difference between the weight the scale shows when your kid is hanging on your shoulder and the weight it shows when you’re by yourself is the “pin weight.” In the case of you and your kid, the “pin weight” might be 30 lbs.
The Pin Weight is the weight of the trailer at the hitch pin, a value that has to be calculated.
The following chart shows the factory safety weight ratings given by Chrysler and NuWa and the actual weights for our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500 truck and ’07 36′ NuWa Hitchhiker 5th Wheel trailer. We had our rig weighed by the Escapees Smart Weigh program at their North Ranch RV Park in Wickenburg, Arizona. This is a detailed, wheel by wheel, RV specific method of weighing.
Our truck, when loaded, carries fuel, 24 gallons of water, a generator and BBQ, the fifth wheel hitch, several leveling boards, two huge bins of “stuff” and ourselves, as well as the pin weight of the trailer. So, even though the pin weight itself was within tolerance on our ’07 Dodge 3500, all that other stuff made the truck way overweight. Moving those things to the trailer would clog our fifth wheel basement and would just make the trailer way overweight instead.
2007 Dodge Ram 3500 SRW (Single Rear Wheel) Truck
* LOADED with passengers, fuel and cargo but not towing
Besides the pin weight, our truck carries spare water, a heavy hitch, leveling boards, and generator. And there’s more stuff plus ourselves in the cab!
We improved our trailer’s cargo carrying capacity by upgrading from E rated tires to G rated tires and by revamping the suspension completely (I have not yet written about that project). So, even though some elements of the trailer frame are still at the spec limit, we have some leeway with our trailer in those places where the rubber meets the road.
The truck, however, was over its limit for both GVWR and GCWR, and it was pushed nearly to its max when towing.
The 2007 Ram 3500 towing guide is here: 2007 Dodge Ram Trucks Towing Guide. Our truck is on p. 20, on the 2nd to last line. Search for this text: “D1 8H42 (SRW)” (you can copy and paste it from here).
There are three brands of big diesel pickup trucks on the market: Chevy/GMC, Ford and Dodge. People have lots of brand loyalty when it comes to diesel trucks, and the bottom line is it’s pointless to get into a religious war over truck manufacturers. That said, the following are our personal opinions and there is no offense intended to anyone who loves a particular brand.
GMC makes the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra which both have the Chevy Duramax 6.6 liter engine and the Allison transmission. The Allison transmission is widely used throughout the commercial trucking industry and is considered to be the best.
FORD makes the Super Duty series of trucks which have Ford built engines and transmissions. Ford has modified its Power Stroke engine several times since the early 2000’s. The current engine is a 6.7 liter engine and it has performed well. Earlier models, the 6.0 liter engine and 6.4 liter engine, both had significant problems and were less reliable.
CHRYSLER makes the Ram series of trucks which have the Cummins 6.7 liter engine and Aisin transmission. The Cummins engine is widely used throughout the commercial trucking industry and is considered to be the best.
With the late model Ram trucks there are two models of 6 speed automatic transmissions to choose from. The 68RFE transmission was the only one available for our ’07 Dodge, and we found it developed problems over time (before our installation of the K&N Cold Air Intake and Edge tuner). It stuttered on climbs and didn’t always shift smoothly. The new (in 2013) Aisin AS69RC transmission is much more rugged and reliable and is now available as an option in the Ram Trucks lineup.
All three big diesel truck brands are good. After much research and many test drives, we chose the Ram 3500.
PICKUP TRUCK SIZES
All trucks are categorized into eight weight classes, from Class 1 (lightest) to Class 8 (heaviest) according to their GVWR. Pickup trucks fall into the smallest (lowest) three classes:
0 – 6,000 lbs
6,001 – 10,000 lbs
10,001 – 14,000 lbs
All three classes of pickups are referred to as “light duty” trucks, as compared to dump trucks and semi tractor-trailers in the higher “medium duty” and “heavy duty” classes. Within the pickup truck market, however, they are referred to as “Pickups” (Class 1), “Full Size Pickups” (Class 2) and “Heavy Duty Pickups” (Class 3). So, even though a large diesel pickup is marketed as “heavy duty,” it is not technically a heavy duty truck. It’s just a heavy duty pickup. This may be obvious to many, but sure had me confused at first glance.
When we were first time truck buyers shopping for a truck to pull our popup tent trailer, the advertising made the ’04 Toyota Tundra look like it was a heavy duty towing monster that could pull a mountain right across a valley. But it is not so! Pickups come in all sizes.
Toyota Tundra and Ram 3500 — Which one is the towing monster?
Pickup truck sizes are referred to as “half-ton” “three-quarter ton” and “one ton,” and they are numbered accordingly:
Ford also mass markets 450, 550 and larger pickups. Some people make custom Chevy and Dodge trucks in those sizes too, but they don’t come from the factories that way.
Ensuring the tow ratings of the truck are well beyond the actual weight of the trailer is essential.
For reference, a ton is 2,000 lbs. The truck naming convention comes from the original payloads these trucks could carry when they were first introduced decades ago. Back in those days, a half-ton truck could carry 1,000 lbs. (half a ton) in the bed of the truck. A three-quarter ton could carry 1,500 lbs and a big one ton truck could carry 2,000 lbs.
In 1918 Chevy had a very cute half-ton pickup that was basically a car with sturdy rear springs. By the mid-1930’s pickups came with factory installed box style beds, and a 1937 Chevy half-ton truck went on a 10,245 mile drive around the US with a 1,060 lb. load in the bed. It got 20.74 miles to the gallon!
As the payload capacities increased, the manufacturers assigned model numbers that corresponded to the weights the trucks could carry. But technology advances never quit!
Our 2016 Ram 3500 dually can tow this trailer with one hand tied behind its back.
Since those early times, truck and engine designs have improved dramatically, and the payloads modern trucks can carry now is significantly higher. For instance, the payload of a 2016 Toyota Tundra, a half-ton truck, is 1,430 to 2,060 lbs., depending on the options, making it essentially a “one ton” truck. The payload of a 2016 Dodge Ram diesel can be as high as 6,170 lbs. (and even higher for the gas HEMI version), making the 3500 model more of a “three ton” truck than a one ton.
In the modern trucks, the major difference between a three quarter ton 250/2500 truck and a one ton 350/3500 truck is the beefiness in the rear end suspension for supporting a heavy payload, that is, the number of leaf springs on the rear axle. In our opinion, if you are going to spend the money to buy a three quarter ton truck for towing purposes, you might as well spend the tiny incremental extra few bucks to buy a one ton.
Pickups come with more than one bed size. A “short bed” truck has a box that is a little over 6′ long and a “long bed” truck has a box that is around 8′ long. When a fifth wheel hitch is installed in the bed of a pickup, it is placed so the king pin of the fifth wheel will be over the rear axle. In a short bed truck this leaves less distance between the hitch and the back of the pickup cab than in a long bed truck.
The advantage of a short bed truck is that the two axles are closer together, so the truck can make tighter turns. This is really handy in parking lots and when making u-turns. The truck also takes up less space when it’s parked, again, a big advantage in parking lots.
A long bed truck is less maneuverable when it’s not towing but is preferable for towing a fifth wheel trailer
However, when towing a fifth wheel trailer, there is a risk that the front of the fifth wheel cap will hit the back of the pickup cab when making a tight turn. For this reason, there are special sliding fifth wheel hitches, and some 5th wheel manufacturers make the fifth wheel cap very pointy and even concave on the sides so there’s room enough to ensure the pickup cab doesn’t touch the fifth wheel cap on tight turns.
The advantage of a long bed truck is that not only can it carry more and bigger things in the bed of the truck, but when it is hitched to a fifth wheel trailer, doing a tight turn will not risk the front of the fifth wheel hitting the back of the truck cab.
Also, you can open and close the tailgate when the fifth wheel trailer is hitched up. We can actually walk from one side of our trailer to the other through the gap that’s between the open tailgate and the front of the trailer, even when the truck is cocked in a tight turn.
With a long bed, the truck can be at a sharp angle to the trailer and still have the tailgate open.
For folks that use their pickup primarily in non-towing situations and take their fiver out for just a few weekends a year (and stay close to home), a short bed truck is fine. However, in our opinion, if you are going to tow a large fifth wheel frequently, and especially if you are a seasonal or full-time RVer traveling longer distances, a long bed truck is the way to go.
We bought a long bed as our first diesel truck for our little travel trailer, knowing we might eventually get a fifth wheel, even though it takes much more real estate to back a travel trailer into a parking spot with a long bed truck that it does with a short bed truck (because the pivot point on a travel trailer is behind the bumper rather than over the truck axle, forcing the front end to swing exceedingly wide to make a turn).
When we use our truck as a daily driver, even though we always have to park away from the crowd and walk a little further, and we sometimes struggle making u-turns and maneuvering in tight spaces (it takes nearly four lanes to do a U-turn in a long bed pickup without the trailer attached), we have never once regretted having a long bed truck.
SINGLE REAR WHEEL vs. DUAL REAR WHEEL (DUALLY)
In the one ton class of trucks (Ford 350, Chevy/Dodge 3500), there is an additional consideration: single wheels on the rear axle of the truck (“single rear wheel”) or two pairs (“dual rear wheel” or “dually”).
The advantages of a single rear wheel truck are:
Only 4 tires to maintain instead of 6
Changing a flat will never involve accessing an inner tire under the truck
No wide rear fender to worry about at toll booths and drive-through bank windows and fast food windows
Easy to jump in and out of the bed of the truck from the side using the rear wheel as a foothold
Can handle rough two track roads better because the rear wheels fit neatly into the ruts
Gets traction on slick ice, snow and muddy roads better than a dually
The advantages of a dual rear wheel truck (“dually”) are:
Wider stance supporting the weight of the king pin (or bumper hitch)
Can carry a heavier payload — heavier trailer pin weight and/or bigger slide-in truck camper
Much safer if there’s a blowout on one of the rear wheels, and you can still drive (for a while)
A dually has a wider stance, providing more stability, and it can handle much more weight in the bed of the truck.
Why do you need to get in and out of the truck bed from the side? Climbing in on the tailgate is great, and there is a very handy foothold at the license plate mount on the 2016 model that is low enough for a short person to reach easily. However, when the truck is hitched to the fifth wheel, it’s not possible to climb in from the tailgate, and sometimes we need to get into the bed of the truck when the fiver is attached!
For instance, we keep 22 gallons of spare water in the bed of the truck in 5.5-gallon jerry jugs. I’m the one who holds the hose in the jugs while Mark goes to the other end of the hose and turns the water on or off at the spigot. We could switch roles, but I like that job!
When we’re hitched up, I have to get into the bed of the truck from the side to get to the water jugs. I plant one foot on the rear tire, and I hoist myself up and over the side. Getting over that fat fender is not so easy with the dually!
When hitching/unhitching, Mark also reaches over the side of the truck to loop the emergency break-away brake cable from the trailer onto the hitch in the truck bed. That way, if the trailer comes unhitched as we’re driving, the quick yank on the small cable (as the trailer breaks free) will engage the trailer’s own brakes as we wave it goodbye behind us.
Obviously, for both of these maneuvers, the width of the dually fender makes reaching into the bed of the truck a whole lot harder. Doing these things on a single rear wheel truck is trifling by comparison!
RESEARCHING SINGLE REAR WHEEL vs DUALLY TRUCKS
Our biggest debate was whether or not we should simply buy a new single rear wheel truck that had the latest engine and drive-train and chassis improvements or if we should take the plunge and get a dually. We do occasional research online, but our preferred method of learning about things in the RV world is to talk to experienced people in person, especially since we are out and about all day long and we enjoy meeting new people.
So, we interviewed every single dually truck owner that we ever saw. For two years! Whenever we saw a dually parked somewhere, we’d look around to see if the owner was anywhere nearby. If so, we’d walk up and ask him about his truck.
Did he like it? What did he tow with it? How long had he had it? Was it his first dually? Did he have trouble maneuvering in tight quarters? Had he towed that same trailer with a single rear wheel truck? How did they compare?
We asked lots of people how their dually performed compared to a one ton single rear wheel long bed truck towing the same heavy trailer.
To our astonishment, although we searched for two years for a person who had towed the same large fifth wheel trailer with both a dually and a single rear wheel truck, and we talked to dozens of dually truck owners who had towed all kinds of trailers, we found only one who had towed the same fifth wheel trailer with both styles of truck.
This guy was a rancher with several big cattle and horse trailers as well as a 40′ toy hauler fifth wheel. He’d been towing comparable trailers with single rear wheel long bed trucks for over twenty years. Three years ago he’d switched to a dually, and he said the difference for his toy hauler was night and day. He’d never go back.
Another fellow told us the ranch he worked on had both single rear wheel and dually trucks and that the duallies were used exclusively for the big trailers because they were better tow vehicles.
We LOVED the new, sleek styling on the Ram duallies.Our biggest questions: is the wide dually fender flare a pain? How does it do at toll booths and drive-through windows?
This was very convincing, but an interesting side tid-bit we learned is that many folks go either dually or single rear wheel when they buy their first diesel truck for a big trailer, and they stick with that type of truck when they replace it. Guys love their trucks, so we heard few complaints, but when folks raved about how their single rear wheel or dually was the ultimate towing machine and that they’d never switch, when pressed for details, we found they didn’t have first-hand experience using the two different types of trucks to tow the same large trailer.
For those looking to conduct their own research, in addition to talking with ranchers and horse owners, one of the best sources of information we found was the trailer transport drivers who drive their own personal trucks to tow both large RV and horse trailers from the manufacturers to the dealerships where they are sold..
Our questions would have all been answered in a heartbeat if we could have hitched our trailer onto a dually sitting in a truck dealership lot and towed it up a mountain and on a few back roads. However, that wasn’t possible.
Perhaps in the future, because of the fantastic new hitch puck systems that can be factory installed in pickups these days, dealerships will decide to keep one of the nifty B&W OEM fifth wheel hitches on hand for prospective customers to do just that (if they can sort out the liability and insurance issues).
Ultimately, we held out on the dually versus single rear wheel decision until the very end, but we knew inside that if we did buy a new truck it would probably be a dually. So every test drive we did was with a dually truck.
We took all three brands of pickups out on over 200 miles of test drives at 25 or so dealerships.
Going for test drives is lots of fun and is the best way to learn the product
Dealing with Slick Salesmen
A reader wrote me recently to say he was intimidated by the sales tactics at car dealerships, so he was reluctant to do many test drives or much dealership research. That is a real shame, because the only way to learn about trucks is to spend time with them, test drive them, sit in them, crawl underneath, study what’s under the hood, read the marketing literature, and hound the salesmen with questions.
After all, the salesmen are there to teach you what you need to know about the product, and if they don’t sell you a truck today, they are helping another salesman (or themselves) sell you a truck tomorrow. What goes around comes around, and any good salesman understands that. You can easily deflect the high pressure sales tactics by saying, “We are starting our search and just want to do a test drive today. We won’t be ready to buy for a few months.”
Where to Do a Test Drive? Where to Buy?
The best places to find knowledgeable diesel truck salesmen and buy big diesel trucks, especially duallies, is in cattle ranching country. As we scoured dealerships from San Diego to Maine and from Sarasota to the Tetons, we found urban areas generally have few big trucks on the lot and the salesmen know very little about diesel trucks. Cattle ranchers, horse owners and big commercial farmers know their trucks, and so do the salesmen they work with.
The most knowledgeable truck salesmen are in places where people need and use big trucks — a lot!
Our first test drives were focused on the turning radius and maneuverability of a dually truck as compared to the single rear wheel truck we knew so well. It was hard to tell, but the turning radius seemed to be the same or better (and we now feel the 2016 Ram dually definitely turns tighter) than our old 2007 single rear wheel Ram.
As for general maneuverability, Mark didn’t notice a whole lot of difference driving a dually versus our single wheel truck. Frankly, owning a long bed diesel truck period means you have to park in the back 40 and walk long distances anyway, so we soon realized that dealing with a dually in parking lots would be no different.
We did one round of comparative test drives on the uphill entrance ramp to an interstate in Baker City, Oregon. We visited each truck dealership in town, and when we did our test drives, we floored each dually truck on the incline to see how powerful it felt. The 2015 Chevy won by a long shot, against the Ford and Dodge 2015 models, but did not feel as powerful as our single rear wheel ’07 Dodge Ram (at that point our truck had the K&N Cold Air Intake and Timbrens but did not have the Edge Evolution Diesel tuner).
Our trailer snuggles up to its new companion, a 2016 Ram 3500 dually
Deciding Factor – The Cummins Engine
In the end, the deciding factor for us for choosing a brand was the Cummins engine. This was true when we were researching our ’07 single rear wheel truck and again when researching the 2013-2016 duallies. Lots of people wish they could buy a pickup with both the Cummins engine and an Allison transmission in one brand of truck, a combo that is on many commercial trucks. But that’s not possible.
For us, the simplicity of the inline 6 cylinder Cummins engine (as compared to the more complex V8 engines in the Chevy and Ford) along with the longer stroke (inherently higher torque) makes a lot of sense. Inline engines are used commercially in big rigs and tractors, and the 6.7 liter Cummins engine has a long and solid track record, not just in Ram trucks but in many commercial applications as well. The Cummins quality control and manufacturing seem to be top notch.
Here is a fantastic video showing a Cummins engine being built:
Amazingly, with each passing year, the payload and towing capacity of each brand of truck jumps higher. From the time we started test driving duallies in 2013 until we placed our order for our new 2016 Ram 3500, the horsepower and torque across all three brands increased, and the towing and payload capacities climbed too.
Built with the right options, the 2016 Ram 3500 diesel truck has an eye-popping, 385 horsepower and 900 ft-lbs. of torque with a GCWR of 39,100 lbs. It can tow a trailer weighing 31,210 lbs. and has a max payload of 6,720 lbs.
This is absolutely astonishing, and neither the Chevy nor the Ford trucks match that torque right now.
Accurate comparisons between brands are challenging within the same model classes, however, because there are different standards for making measurements. Ram Trucks uses the SAE J2807 standards, while other manufacturers don’t. Also, we were able to locate Ford’s towing and payload capacity charts online (see the links at the bottom of the page), but did not locate a similar chart for GM.
Some of the head-to-head tests between the brands that are posted online are also a little misleading, because, for instance, a Ram 3500 is pitted against a Ford F450. Even though both of those models are Class 3 trucks (10,001 to 14,000 lbs GVWR), one would expect the Ram 3500 to compete head to head with the Ford F350, not the Ford F450.
Best in Show
Here are the towing and payload capacities of the many models of Dodge Ram trucks:
As mentioned above, the Ram trucks are sold with two options for the transmission. After our troubles with the old 68RFE transmission in our ’07 Dodge Ram 3500, we wanted the new and better one, the AISIN AS69RC. In the Ram Trucks marketing literature, the 6.7 liter Cummins engine is paired with the AISIN AS69RC transmission to make their “High Output Engine” because it delivers max torque at the low end for heavy towing situations. This combo became available in 2013.
“High Output” engines on Ram Trucks pair the Cummins 6.7 liter engine with the Aisin AS69RC transmission
The rear axle gearing on a pickup determines the GCWR for the truck (the maximum safe weight of truck and trailer hitched together and fully loaded) and the maximum weight trailer that the truck can tow safely. It also makes a huge difference in how the truck drives, both while towing and not towing.
Rear axle gear ratios are given as a ratio, for example “4.10” which means 4.10:1 or “3.73” which means 3.73:1. The ratio refers to the number of teeth on the axle ring gear as compared to the number of teeth on the driveshaft’s pinion gear. With a 4.10 rear end, the driveshaft has to turn 4.1 times in order to rotate the rear wheels one revolution. With a 3.73 rear end, the driveshaft must turn 3.73 times to rotate the rear wheels one revolution. So, with a 4.10 rear axle ratio the driveshaft’s pinion gear is spinning more quickly at a given speed than with a 3.73 rear axle ratio.
“Easier” Gears vs. “Harder” Gears
If you think of riding a bike, when you have the bike in a “hard” gear, it takes a lot of leg strength to turn the wheels, but one pedal stroke will cover a lot of distance. For example, going uphill in a “hard” gear would be especially hard. Your legs are turning really slowly and straining and you’re wishing you could put it in an “easier” gear! But when you descend in that same gear, you can hit high speeds easily. Back to trucks, this is like having the driveshaft turn a little to make the wheels turn a lot as it does with the 3.42 or 3.73 rear axle gear ratios found on Dodge Rams.
However, when the bike is in an “easy” gear, just a small amount of leg strength will turn the wheels, but one pedal stroke doesn’t get you very far. For example, going uphill isn’t so bad — you can inch up slowly — but once you began descending you’re spun out because your legs can’t pedal fast enough to hit super fast top speeds. In the truck world, this is like having the driveshaft turn a lot to make the wheels turn a little as it does with the 4.10 rear axle gear ratio.
Wide Load!! The highest tow ratings are achieved with a high rear axle gear ratio (like 4.10)
Towing Heavy Loads vs. Driving Fast on the Highway
So, on a truck, the higher ratio (4.10) is ideal for towing heavy loads. It takes more turns of the driveshaft to rotate the rear wheels of the truck, so the engine revs higher, putting it in the power band for RPMs, and the heavy load gets moved. But the top end speed and fuel economy get sacrificed a bit.
With a lower gear ratio (3.73 or 3.42) it takes fewer turns of the driveshaft to rotate the rear wheels of the truck. When the truck is zipping along at highway speeds, the gears are turning a little more slowly (lower RPMs) than they would with a 4.10 rear end, which saves on fuel efficiency and makes the fastest attainable speed a little higher.
The highest tow ratings are achieved with a 4.10 rear end, so the heaviest trailers will be best if towed by a truck with a 4.10 rear axle gear ratio. However, if most of your towing is with lighter weight trailers, and your driving will be primarily on interstates, and your personal preference is to drive fast, a 3.73 or 3.42 rear axle gear ratio may make more sense.
Our ’07 Dodge had a 3.73 rear end. The problem was that at the speeds we tended to drive — 55-65 — the engine would lug. Mark manually changed gears a lot to try to keep the RPMs up, but he found it fatiguing to have to monitor the gears so closely and to change gears all the time.
We also don’t drive on interstates very often, and when we do, we’re the grannies of the road, moseying along in the right lane.
We take life, and the open road, fairly slowly, so a 3.73 rear end, which is awesome a 75 mph, was not the right choice for us.
4.10 vs. 3.73 – RPMs at Different Speeds
We wanted a 4.10 rear end on our new truck, but we wanted to be 100% sure this would truly make the kind of difference we expected. So, on one Ram dually test drive we drove a stretch of highway in our ’07 Dodge at various speeds between 45 and 65 mph, noting the RPMs in a notebook, and then we took a 2015 Ram 3500 dually with a 4.10 rear end out on the same road at the same speeds. The salesman raised an eyebrow in surprise when we marched into the dealership and announced we wanted to do a test drive at various speeds to note the engine RPMs, but he went along with the idea!
On that test drive we found the 4.10 rear end shifts out of lower gears sooner than the 3.73 rear end, and generally keeps the engine RPMs about 100-200 RPMs higher at each speed. Our new truck bears out those findings.
So, how can you tell if a truck on the dealer lot has a 4.10 rear end without peering at the window sticker? Check underneath the back end of the truck. The differential is the big round casing that hangs between the rear wheels. On trucks with a 4.10 rear end, the differential has a series of vertical cooling fins on it. These help keep it cool since the gears spin faster and it is designed for heavier towing loads, both of which make it heat up.
Looking under the rear end of the truck, the differential has cooling fins if the rear axle ratio is a 4.10
BEEFED UP FRAME
Besides the more powerful engine tuning and transmission, Ram has improved the truck frame on the dually considerable. Every aspect of the frame is more sturdy than it used to be, making the truck not only powerful enough to pull heavier loads but strong enough to withstand the multitude of forces as it hauls the load up a mountain.
Peering under the front end of the truck, the frame has been strengthened for heavy towing
We learned with our ’04 Toyota Tundra truck towing our 7,000 lb. 27′ travel trailer that four wheel drive is a necessity for us in our RV lifestyle. In our first weeks of full-timing, a small, wet grassy incline prohibited us from camping in a campground in Texas, because our truck kept slipping and couldn’t tow the trailer up over the short rise! From that moment on, we’ve felt that a four wheel drive is mandatory if you are going to tow a big trailer.
Also, while descending a really gnarly, skinny, twisty, single lane road on a mountain in Utah, with grades of 10% or more in places, we discovered that the safest way to drive DOWN a very steep descent is to put the truck in four wheel drive LOW gear, and creep down the mountain at 5-10 mph using the exhaust brake. This tactic was a lifesaver for us on that mountain with our ’07 Dodge truck and fifth wheel trailer. Without it, we would still be living at the summit of that mountain!
The new Dodge Ram and Ford Super Duty trucks have a really fantastic option for a factory installed puck system in the bed of the truck where you can mount either a fifth wheel or gooseneck hitch. During our truck search, GM did not have that option on their trucks.
This option has five holes in the bed of the pickup, one in the center for a gooseneck hitch and four outer ones to hold a fifth wheel hitch. The idea behind this mounting system is that rather than drilling holes in your brand new truck bed to install hitch rails to support a fifth wheel hitch — the method that was always used until this new system was devised — you can buy a hitch designed for these puck mounts and simply drop it in.
Looking towards the tailgate, there’s a gooseneck puck in the middle and four pucks in a square to mount a fifth wheel hitch. The bed is totally flat without the hitch in it.
If you want to use the bed of your truck for hauling, and you won’t be towing your fifth wheel, you can easily remove the fifth wheel hitch temporarily and have the entire bed of the truck available to you. Not only is it a snap to remove the hitch, but the bed of the truck will be flat and obstacle free because there won’t be any hitch rails installed in it.
The B&W Companion Fifth Wheel Hitch is easily installed and removed (facing the front of the truck)
Another huge benefit is that installing the hitch is an easy do-it-yourself job. We have a detailed pictorial step-by-step guide showing how to install a B&W Companion OEM Fifth Wheel Hitch here (it took just one hour from start to finish!):
Our 2007 Dodge Ram came with an exhaust brake built into the turbo. Mark LOVED this brake and used it all the time, both towing and not towing. The only thing that bugged him about it was that coming down mountains with our trailer hitched on, he often had to shift gears manually and feather the gas pedal to keep the truck going the speed he wanted.
The 2016 Ram trucks have an improved exhaust brake that has two modes: max braking power and constant speed braking. We definitely wanted that option!
Dodge Ram trucks have two backup cameras, one that aims at the bed of the truck (for hitching and unhitching) and one that aims behind the truck (for backing up). Beginning in 2016, both of these cameras could be set to display their image on the main touch screen display (in the 2015 model, one camera would display in the rear view mirror while the other would display on the touch screen display).
It’s nice to have a backup camera when backing the truck in next to the trailer!
An option on the 2016 Ram trucks is to have four leaf springs with computer controlled air bags to provide for auto-leveling of the rear suspension. This is instead of the standard six leaf springs without air bags that have a fixed height suspension.
Without the air bags — the standard configuration — the “rake” of the truck’s rear end is four inches, meaning that the rear end of the truck is raised four inches higher than the front to compensate for the weight of the trailer which will push it down when it’s hitched up. For a shorter person, this is quite high, and I was astonished how much higher the tailgate of a 2016 Ram truck sits than our old ’07 truck did.
With the air bags, the rear end is raked only one inch, making the whole back end of the truck much easier to access for those of us who aren’t that tall. In addition, there is an “Alt Ride Height” button that can be used to lower the back of the truck one more inch. Hurray for short people!
When the trailer is hitched onto the truck, pushing the truck down, the on-board compressor kicks on and pumps air into the air bags, raising the back end of the truck until it achieves its normal one inch rake. If you prefer to drive with the truck level, the “Alt Ride Height” button can be pressed to lower the back end one inch.
When we did our test drives, we found that the duallies with the auto-level suspension had a slightly smoother ride when not towing than the ordinary leaf spring only models did. This has proven true with our new truck too.
VENTED and HEATED LEATHER SEATS and STEERING WHEEL plus OTHER GOODIES
As we test drove different trim levels of trucks, we decided that if we were going to buy a new truck, we’d go all out and get the many little conveniences and options that are a “splurge” but that make using the truck a pleasure.
Let’s go for a ride!
Heated and vented leather seats with power seat adjustments and lumbar support, a side step to make it easier to get in and out of the truck, independent climate control for driver and passenger, a CD player, OWL on/off-rad tires, the fancy electronics console with the big touch screen display and GPS nav system and power adjustable pedals were all on our list.
Most of these options are bundled into the Laramie model of the Ram 3500 trucks.
The Laramie comes with a beautiful interior that includes all the fancy stuff.
Top level Nav/GPS Display with voice activation and climate control
Tan colored Heated/Vented Leather Seats and Steering Wheel
The Tow and Payload Ratings for the 2016 Ram 3500 dually with the above options as compared to our 2007 Dodge Ram 3500 single rear wheel are the following:
Max Trailer Weight
Even though the make and model of these two trucks is the same, separated by just nine years, these numbers show that they are two radically different trucks!
After doing so many test drives, studying all the material and thinking about this truck for two years, there was no way we would give up any of the options we wanted, especially the ones that made the tow ratings and payload rating so high. But we never found a dealership that ordered this exact truck for their lot. Time and again, Mark would find a truck that was close, but there would be some things missing and other things we didn’t want.
So we decided to order the exact truck we wanted and wait 8 weeks for it to be built.
We had a ball ordering this truck through Airpark Dodge in Scottsdale, Arizona, where a marketing connection with Alice Cooper made one of Mark’s lifelong dreams come true. See our really fun blog post:
A significant difference between our 2007 Dodge Ram truck and our new 2016 Ram dually is that the new truck requires occasional refilling of the DEF (Diesel Exhaust Fluide) tank. Here are some tips we’ve discovered about DEF since we purchased our new truck:
Dodge Ram Truck Owners — Please note:
Late model Dodge Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks have been recalled (beginning 6/23/17) for side airbag problems in a rollover accident. See this article for details: Dodge Ram Side Airbag Recall
More info about Pickup Trucks, Ram Trucks, Tow Ratings, etc.:
There are a lot of decisions to make when you install solar panels on an RV or boat. Some of the most basic are: what size solar panels to buy, whether to go with flexible solar panels or aluminum framed rigid panels, whether the solar cells should be monocrystalline or polycrystalline, and whether to install nominal 12 volt or 24 volt panels.
We have done several RV and marine solar panel installations, and we have used not only 12 volt and 24 volt panels of various sizes but we have also used both aluminum framed rigid solar panels and the newer semi-flexible solar panels. We have also worked with both monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. This article outlines the pros and cons of the various types and sizes of solar panels and offers some things to think about when you are deciding which solar panels to buy for your RV or boat.
Once you decide on overall capacity for your solar panel array, the next thing to think about is solar panel placement and wiring. The panels should be a matched set of identical or nearly identical panels. If you have a lot of real estate on the RV roof, then you can get a few big panels. If you have a truck camper or your RV roof is cluttered with a lot of things on it already (hatches, vents, antennas, etc.), then you may need to go with smaller panels that can be squeezed in and around everything else.
Our fifth wheel trailer is powered by four 120 & 130 watt 12 volt rigid polycrystalline solar panels wired in series
WHAT VOLTAGE IS THAT SOLAR PANEL?
Solar panels are constructed internally with DC wiring, and they are sized to work on 12 or 24 volt circuits. So, they are commonly referred to as 12 or 24 volt solar panels. What’s confusing is that while the nominal voltage of a solar panel may be 12 or 24 volts, the open circuit voltage is higher. So, for a nominal 12 volt solar panel that is 100 watts, the open circuit voltage (“Voc“) will be 17 or 18 volts. Likewise, for a nominal 24 volt panel, the Voc will be 34 to 36 volts.
Also, smaller solar panels (both physically and in terms of watts) are typically nominal 12 volt panels while larger panels are typically 24 volts. Solar panels under about 150 watts in size are usually 12 volt panels. Solar panels over about 150 watts are usually 24 volt panels.
For nearly four years, we sailed our boat on Mexico’s coast relying on three 185 watt 24 volt polycrystalline rigid solar panels, wired in parallel, for all our electrical needs.
Solar panels work best when they are a matched set. The electrical characteristics of all the solar panels in the array need to be very similar, preferably identical. When upgrading a solar power array this can make things complicated as you try to mix and match old small panels with new big ones.
One technique for upgrading is to wire two 12 volt solar panels in series to work on a 24 volt circuit. For instance, if you have two 100 watt 12 volt panels and you are buying a 200 watt 24 volt panel, you can wire the two 100 watt panels in series and then wire that pair in parallel with the new 200 watt solar panel.
This will work as long as the electrical characteristics of the pair of solar panels in series match the electrical characteristics of the single panel that is wired in parallel with them.
THE EFFECT OF SHADE ON SOLAR PANELS
Shade is the biggest enemy of any solar power installation. Unbelievable as it seems, a tiny bit of shade will effectively shut down a solar panel. The impact is dramatic: a few square inches of shade can drop a solar panels current production down from 8 amps to 2 amps. A few more square inches of shade can drop the current production to 0.
Before deciding on the size of the panels, it is worthwhile to take some time to study the various things that might cast shade across them once they are in place. A closed hatch may cause little shade, but when it is open on a hot day, depending on where the sun is in the sky, it might cast a big shadow across a nearby solar panel. Satellite dishes, air conditioners and even holding tank vents can cast sizable shadows as well.
We put a book in one corner of a 120 watt 12 volt panel and discovered that even though it was a small percentage of the surface area of the panel, that 8.5″ x 11″ book was enough to knock down the current production of a 120 watt solar panel by 80%. Rather than producing 7 amps, it produced a measly 1.4 amps. Egads!
Just 8.5″ x 11″ of shade from this book reduced current production by 80%!
Similarly, shade wreaked havoc on our three185 watt 24 volt panels on our sailboat. The shade from our mast traveled across the panels as the boat swung at anchor, and the current production dropped by 1/3 and then by 2/3 as the shade first crossed one of the three panels and then straddled two of them. It did this over and over, with the current rising and falling repeatedly, as the boat slowly swung back and forth at anchor.
A line of shade from the mast on our sailboat reduced our solar panel array to 65% and then 35% of its capacity as it traveled across the panels and occasionally straddled two of them.
Shade is a huge concern in the solar power industry, and there are several white papers (here’e one) about the impact of shade on commercial solar panel installations. The gist is the importance of spacing the rows of commercial solar panel arrays in such a way that one row of panels doesn’t accidentally shade the bottom inch or so of the next row behind it when the sun is low in the sky.
If it does, the second row of panels shuts down. If there are rows and rows of solar panels spaced like this, none of the panels except the ones in the first row can function until the sun rises a little higher in the sky.
Solar panels are most sensitive to shade along the longest part of the panel, so in the case of our sailboat, when the sun was over our bow, the mast would shade the panels in a strip that had a maximum impact on current production (as you can see in the above photo)!
For RVers, besides rooftop obstructions, shade comes into play primarily if you park near a building or trees. Snowbirds boondocking in the southwest deserts of Arizona and California during the wintertime have little concern with shade from trees and buildings. But summertime RV travelers who boondock in wooded areas need to be cognizant of where the shade from the trees will fall during the course of the day.
WIRING SOLAR PANELS IN PARALLEL vs. IN SERIES
One of the big decisions for a solar power installation on an RV or boat is whether to wire the solar panels in series or in parallel. There are several things to consider when making this decision.
When the solar panels are wired in series, then the developed voltage across all the panels is additive while the current remains constant from panel to panel. That is, if there were four 120 watt 12 volt panels producing 7 amps each, then the developed voltage across all the panels would be 48 volts (12 x 4) while the current would be just 7 amps.
In contrast, when the solar panels are wired in parallel, then the voltage of the panels remains constant through the circuit while the current is additive from panel to panel. For instance, for those same four panels, the developed voltage across them would be 12 volts but the current would be 28 amps (7 x 4).
The solar charge controller takes care of balancing everything out by ensuring the circuit between it and the batteries is 12 volts. In the case of the above solar panels wired in series, the solar charge controller steps down the voltage from 48 volts to 12 volts (if they are 12 volt batteries). The current then increases from 7 amps to 28 amps in the wire run going between the solar charge controller and the batteries.
In the case of the above solar panels wired in parallel, the voltage is already 12 volts, so the solar charge controller does not need to step it down for the batteries.
SHADE EFFECTS on SOLAR PANELS WIRED IN SERIES vs. WIRED IN PARALLEL
When solar panels are wired in series, if shade hits one panel and shuts it down (caused by that solar panel’s internal circuitry building up a massive amount of resistance), then the entire string of solar panels shuts down. For instance, if a tree shaded 1/3 of one solar panel in the string of four panels given above, wired in series, the current production of the entire array of four panels would be reduced to to 0 amps, even though the three other solar panels were in full sun.
In contrast, if the panels are wired in parallel, when shade knocks one panel out, the other panels are unaffected. So, even if 1/3 of one solar panel were shaded, reducing it to 0 amps of current production, the other three would be working just fine. The total current production would be 3/4 of what it could be if that one panel were in full sun (in this case, 21 amps), rather than 0 amps.
So, it would seem that the best way to wire solar panels is in parallel.
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy, and here’s why:
CURRENT and WIRE SIZE in a SOLAR PANEL INSTALLATION
The more amps of current there are flowing in a circuit, the thicker the wire needs to be to ensure that no energy is lost to heat. Unfortunately, thicker, heavier gauge wire is a pain to work with. It’s stiff and doesn’t bend around corners easily. It is hard to tighten down in the solar charge controller connections and it’s hard to crimp ring terminals onto. It is also more expensive per foot.
So, when the solar panels are wired in series, a thinner gauge wire can be used for a given distance than when they are wired in parallel.
Of course, the thickness of the wire is also dependent on the length of the wire. The longer a wire is, the more energy is lost along its length. So, if you are installing the solar panels high on an arch off the aft end of a 50′ sailboat and the batteries are located at the bottom of the hull over the keel, the wire must be a lot heavier gauge than if you are installing the panels on an RV roof directly above the battery compartment.
What is the price difference in the cable? We like to use Ancor Marine Cable because it is tinned and it is very supple (the copper is fine stranded). Here are the price differences for 25′ of 2 gauge wire as compared to 25′ of 10 gauge wire.
Ultimately, there is a dilemma: Is it better to go for thinner, cheaper wire and an easier installation, and wire the panels in series, risking that the whole array will shut down whenever a corner of one panel is shaded by a nearby tree? Or is it better to pay the extra bucks for heavier gauge wire and endure a more challenging installation but have a system that will be more tolerant of partial shade?
What to do?
SOLAR PANEL VOLTAGE and WIRE SIZE
Luckily, there is another option: higher voltage solar panels can be wired with thinner gauge wire. Remember, Watts = Current x Voltage. So, for the same number of watts in a panel, a higher voltage panel will produce a smaller amount of current.
Rather than using four 120 watt 12 volt panels wired in parallel that would produce 28 amps at 12 volts, you can use two 240 watt 24 volt panels wired in parallel that produce 14 amps at 24 volts. The net effect on the battery bank will be the same, but the bigger panels can be wired with smaller gauge wire.
As mentioned above, the wiring that is most affected by these solar panel choices is the wiring that runs from the solar panels to the solar charge controller. The wiring from the solar charge controller to the batteries is the same in either configuration, as the same amount of current will be flowing in that wire regardless of how the solar panels are wired. In the case of solar panels wired in parallel, the voltage will be stepped down in the solar charge controller. So, in our example, the solar charge controller will step down the voltage from 48 volts to 12 volts, ensuring that the circuitry between the solar charge controller and the batteries is at operating at 12 volts.
CHOOSING THE OPTIMAL WIRE GAUGE
The thickness of the wire, or wire gauge, depends entirely on how long the wire is going to be. That is, the wire gauge is determined by how far apart the solar panels and the solar charge controller and the batteries are.
Why is this? The more current that flows in a wire, the more the conductor in the wire will warm up. The more it warms up, the more energy is lost to heat. Eventually, this becomes measurable as a voltage loss between the two end points.
When wiring solar power circuits, you can choose how much voltage loss you are willing to have. Somewhere between 2.5% and 5% is typically considered okay. There are voltage loss tables that will help you decide on the proper wire gauge size for the distance you are spanning between the solar panels and the solar charge controller and between there and the batteries. Here’s a good one:
An Example: 480 watts of solar power located 27′ from the batteries
Say we have four 120 watt 12 volt panels wired in series. If the distance is going to be 27′, then by looking at the third chart at the above link (the 12 volt chart) and going to the line for 8 amps flowing in the wire, it shows a wire run of up to 27′ can be done with 10 gauge wire.
Now, imagine putting those same panels in parallel. 32 amps will flow at 12 volts. For that same 27′ distance you’ll need 2 gauge wire.
Lastly, instead of using four 120 watt 12 volt panels, use two 240 watt 24 volt panels wired in parallel. For this you use the 2nd chart down (24 volt chart). There will be 16 amps flowing in the wire at 24 volts. You will be able use 8 gauge wire.
Of course, due to the nature of multi-stage battery charging and the changing position (and angle) of the sun in the sky, the solar panels will be operating at full tilt for a very short time each day. They may produce max current for 30 minutes near noon as they wrap up the Bulk Stage, however, as the Absorb stage takes over and continues in the afternoon, the solar charge controller will gradually hold the panels back so they produce far less than max current.
With less than peak current flowing in the wires, less energy will be lost to heat.
So, although it may seem dire that you’re wiring is on the hairy edge size-wise, it is only that way for a little while each day. Depending on the overall size of the solar power array, the size of the battery bank, and the state of discharge when the batteries wake up in the morning, your system may not even hit the theoretical maximum current production or even come close.
You must run more wires between the RV roof and the location in the coach where the solar charge controllers are installed (preferably next to the batteries), and so you must not only pay for additional solar charge controllers, but you must buy more wire and install it all. However, this design option does deserve mention and consideration.
TILTING THE SOLAR PANELS
Solar panels perform a whole lot better in the summer than in the winter. This is because the sun rides much higher in the sky and its rays hit the panels at a nearly perpendicular angle in the summertime. The days are also a whole lot longer. In the winter, the sun’s rays hit the panels at an angle and the sun is only out for a short while.
Tilting solar panels in winter can improve current production by 30% Or…install more panels and save yourself from climbing up and down the RV ladder!
To get around this, rather than using ordinary Z-brackets to mount their solar panels on the roof, many RVers use tilting brackets. By tilting the panels towards the sun at about a 45 degree angle (technically, at the angle of your latitude), then the sun’s rays hit the panels at a nice 90 degree angle if they are oriented to face south. This can increase the overall power production by about 30% on a sunny winter day.
The only problem is that you have to climb up on the roof to tilt the panels each time you set up camp and then climb up again later to lay them flat when you are packing up before you drive away. We’ve seen many a winter snowbird driving their RV around with the solar panels still raised.
An alternative is simply to install more solar panels and to keep them lying flat all the time. This is easy for a big RV that has a huge roof but is not so easy for a little trailer with a small roof. We have not installed tilting brackets on our trailers.
MONOCRYSTALLINE vs. POLYCRYSTALLINE SOLAR CELLS
Monocrystalline solar panel
There are lots of different kinds of solar panels on the market today. There are two primary types of solar cells used in the manufacture of solar panels: monocrystalline and polycrystalline.
Monocrystalline solar panels are more efficient and more expensive, but they are also extremely intolerant of shade. Polycrystalline panels are slightly less efficient and less expensive, but they handle partial shade just a smidge better.
The way to tell if a solar panel is monocrystalline or polycrystalline is to look at the pattern of rectangles on the panel itself.
If the circuitry between the rectangles has large silver diamond shapes, it is monocrystalline. If the pattern of rectangles is just intersecting lines, it is polycrystalline.
Polycrystalline solar panel
Examples of popular monocrystalline solar panels are here:
Flexible solar panels have several advantages over rigid panels. They are a little lighter than framed solar panels and you can glue them onto an RV roof using Dicor Lap Sealant, or something similar. This saves you from the complexity of drilling holes into a perfectly watertight roof and risking creating leaks. This is especially helpful with a fiberglass roof. It takes just a few minutes with a caulk gun to attach these panels to the RV roof.
Another nice feature is that on a rounded roof, like an Airstream travel trailer or Casita travel trailer, the panels can bend to follow the contour of the roof.
Mark uses Dicor Lap Sealant to affix flexible solar panels to a friend’s fiberglass roof.
One of the most important things for solar panels to work well is heat dissipation. Rigid aluminum framed solar panels stand up off the roof of the RV by about an inch, allowing air to flow underneath and for heat to dissipate. Air can’t flow underneath flexible solar panels. The aluminum substrate serves to dissipate the heat instead. This may or may not be as efficient a method of heat dissipation, and I have heard of a case where all the flexible solar panels on a sailboat had to be replaced after two years because they did not dissipate the heat sufficiently in the tropics and the panels self-destructed.
FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANEL CONSTRUCTION and INSTALLATION
We had a tough time getting the plastic off the back of the Eco-Worthy flexible solar panels
With all of us working together, we got the job done!
Once we got up on the roof, and got past a cute warning from Winnebego, the installation was straight forward.
Hmmm…I wonder what sage advice the manual suggests for this problem?
Flexible solar panels are lighter than their rigid counterparts
The plastic protection needed to be removed from the face of the panels as well. Interestingly, at one point Mark found himself picking at the corner of the mylar that has the solar collection circuitry embedded in it and almost began to peel that whole layer off the aluminum substrate! But once he got a hold of just the most superficial layer of plastic, it came off easily.
Mark removes the plastic from the face of the flexible solar panels
He used Dicor Lap Sealant to tack down the corners of the panels and then ran a bead around each side of each panel.
FLEXIBLE SOLAR PANEL DISADVANTAGES
Flexible solar panels are less efficient than rigid aluminum framed solar panels, which means you may want to get a few more total watts of solar panels than you would if you were buying framed panels. Bendable panels also can’t be installed on tilting brackets. So, again, buying more total watts may be the best solution.
Flexible solar panels are not as rugged as rigid aluminum framed solar panels built with tempered glass. Overhanging branches can scratch them. This is important for anyone that will be boondocking or dry camping a lot on public lands and in rustic public campgrounds, as it is often impossible to get in or out of a site without ducking under some low lying tree branches.
Some RVers have found that flexible solar panels installed on flat motorhome roofs tend to pool water when it rains. This can lead to debris building up and taking root and damaging the panels.
Perhaps for all these reasons, flexible solar panels are sold with a much shorter warranty than rigid solar panels. Whereas many solar panel manufacturers warranty their tempered glass aluminum framed rigid solar panels for 25 or 30 years, bendable solar panel manufacturers generally warranty their panels for 5 years or less.
This may or may not be relevant for RVers, as the fine print in almost every solar panel manufacturer’s warranty states that their solar panels are not warrantied for use on mobile vehicles.
Also, there has been a huge problem across the entire solar power industry with rigid solar panels failing prematurely in large numbers in big commercial installations (see a May 2013 NY Times article here). Apparently, just because those lovely rigid solar panels are warrantied for decades doesn’t mean they will last that long. We have already had a failure of one of our framed solar panels that was warrantied for 25 years, and we discovered the manufacturer’s warranty did not apply to RV installations.
However, as a general rule, when manufacturers warranty a product for 5 years versus 30 years, it says something about how they think their product will hold up over time.
Nice job! (but don’t fall off that roof!)
There are many ways to go about installing solar power on an RV roof, and the solar panels that work best in one installation may not be the same as those that are best for another. Not only is every RV roof different, but every RVer’s needs are different.
If you have loads of space on a big motorhome roof or fifth wheel trailer roof, and you are setting it up for full-time use, you may be best off with three or four 200+ watt 24 volt rigid solar panels wired in parallel. If you have a little tear drop camper you use on weekends and store in the garage, a single flexible 100 watt 12 volt panel may be just the ticket for you.
What happens when two RV or marine battery charging systems attempt to charge the batteries at the same time? The interactions between solar charge controllers, converters, inverter/chargers and engine alternators can be complex, and in our lives off the grid in a sailboat and RV, we have observed them working together in many different kinds of circumstances.
This page offers some insights into what goes on when two battery charging systems operate simultaneously, specifically: solar power and shore power, and solar power and an engine alternator. It is the fourth post in our series on RV and Marine Battery Charging Systems. The previous articles in this series are:
When two battery charging systems are working side by side simultaneously, each follows its own internal algorithms to get the job done. However, when this happens, and the two charging systems measure the battery voltage to determine which charging stage they should each be in, they don’t see a “real” value. They see an artificially elevated battery voltage due to the presence of the other charging system. This can throw one or the other or both systems off of their normal Bulk-Absorb-Float cycle.
Because solar charging systems operate 24/7, the most common scenario in which two charging systems work simultaneously is solar charging and some form of artificially powered charging, either a converter or inverter/charger when the RV or boat is plugged into shore power or the generator is turned on, or an engine alternator when the boat or motorhome is under way.
The bottom line with two charging systems working simultaneously is that each will do a little work, but one will do more work than the other. Higher end solar charge controllers are designed to ensure that the batteries are never overcharged. As explained in the previous post about solar charge controllers, they are the gate keepers for the solar panels and will reduce the current coming in from the panels to 0 amps if need be.
There are many factors to consider when running an artificially powered charging system alongside a solar charging system. And in reality, just letting the two systems do their thing without worrying about how they get along is probably fine. But for those who want to ponder the relationships, here are some things we’ve learned.
In order for all the charging systems on an RV or boat to work together truly harmoniously, it is helpful for the voltages at which the systems change charging stages to be the same across all the systems. For instance, each charging system should be set up with one common set of voltages similar to the following:
Obviously, these voltages should be whatever values you have determined are optimal for your battery type. Unfortunately, some charging systems don’t allow you to enter specific voltages, so you may be stuck with whatever defaults the manufacturer chose or whatever “set” of voltages they provide that is closest to the values you want.
Soaking up the sun: 600 watts of flexible solar panels we installed on a friend’s motorhome roof.
As you can see, if one system has an Absorb target voltage of 14.7 volts and another has an Absorb target voltage of 14.1 volts, there is going to be a conflict. What will happen is that the system that is aiming for the higher voltage will win out and raise the batteries to or towards the higher voltage. The reaction of the other system will depend on how it was designed to handle a situation where the battery voltage is higher than the stage it was in. This is true for all the target voltages (Bulk, Absorb and Float).
Similarly, all the charging systems on the RV or boat should be set up with the same algorithm for switching from one stage to the next. However, as shown in the posts about converters, inverter/chargers and engine Alternators and about solar charge controllers, this is not possible, because every product made by the many manufacturers who build these things has a unique charging algorithm.
There are some similarities, however. All multi-stage charging systems remain in the Bulk stage, pouring the maximum current they can into the batteries, until the Bulk voltage is reached. Then they switch to the Absorb stage. However, no two charging systems use the same criteria to exit the Absorb stage to go into Float. The Float stage is also handled differently by different chargers and manufacturers.
Every RV and marine battery multi-stage charging system monitors the battery voltage to decide which stage to be in. How and where this voltage is measured and how each device is internally calibrated can make quite a difference.
For instance, the solar charge controller in a sailboat may be located as much as 20′ from the battery bank if the batteries are strung out from bow to stern in the bottom of the bilge and the charge controller is mounted in an aft compartment. Unless the charge controller is connected to the batteries with fairly beefy wires, there will be some voltage loss between the batteries and the charge controller, and the charge controller will get inaccurate readings of what the battery voltage actually is.
This can happen even if the distance is just 10′ but the wire used is too small for that distance. It can also happen if the engine alternator or the converter or the inverter/charger is a long distance from the batteries. Wire gauge sizes, distances and percentages of voltage lost are given in the following chart:
Higher end solar charge controllers are complex pieces of electronic engineering that are likely to be calibrated pretty well coming out of the factory. However, a cheapie single stage converter, like the factory installed units that come with so many RVs, may not be calibrated as well, and may be off in its measurement of the battery voltage by a tenth of a volt or more. Likewise with a simplistic engine alternator.
It was a big surprise to me to read in the user manual for our boat’s engine alternator/regulator (a Balmar ARS-4 multi-stage regulator) that the voltages may be off by +/- 3%. That means that a target Bulk voltage of 14.4 volts could vary between 14.0 volts and 14.8 volts. Hmmm. Not a lot of precision there!
Our solar panels catch some tropical rays on the back of our sailboat during our cruise in Mexico.
If the two charging systems that are working simultaneously are detecting different voltages on the batteries — for instance, the solar charge controller is measuring the batteries to be 14.5 volts while the converter is measuring them to be 14.7 volts — they will each react according to their own internal charging algorthims.
For instance, say both the solar charge controller and converter are in Bulk mode, trying to attain a voltage of 14.7 volts before switching to Absorb. When the batteries reach 14.7 volts according to the converter, the converter will think they have achieved the Bulk voltage already and will switch to the Absorb stage, while the solar charge controller will remain in the Bulk stage because it sees only 14.5 volts, and it will continue aiming for 14.7 volts, according to its internal measurements and algorithm.
What does this mean? It simply means that the solar charge controller will continue to let as much current in from the solar panels as they can produce while the converter will already be backing off how much current it puts into the batteries to hold them steady at what it perceives to be 14.7 volts (and which the solar charge controller sees as 14.5 volts). Not a big deal. The solar charge controller will keep pushing while the converter keeps backing off, and the job will eventually get done.
LESSONS LEARNED FROM OUR ENGINE ALTERNATOR AND SOLAR CHARGE CONTROLLER
The most challenging relationship we’ve had between charging systems was on our sailboat, and it was the one that forced me to investigate this whole business more deeply and to learn how to program a solar charge controller — and to discover, in the process, the value of programming one!
The two systems were our Balmar ARS-4 engine alternator/regulator and our Xantrex XW-MPPT-60-150 solar charge controller. The charging algorithms for these systems are described in detail here (for the alternator) and here (for the solar charger).
When I first observed them working together, I noticed two things right away.
1) Whenever we turned on the engine, the solar charge controller went into the Float stage soon afterwards.
2) Once the solar charge controller was in the Float stage, if we turned the engine off, it remained in the Float stage, even if the batteries hadn’t been fully charged by the engine alternator.
For instance, if the solar charge controller had been in the Absorb stage when we turned the engine on, and then we ran the engine for just 15 minutes and turned it off (not nearly long enough to charge the batteries), the solar charge controller would wind up in the Float stage and remain there for the rest of the day, depriving the batteries of a proper charge.
Engine Alternator Causes the Solar Charge Controller to Switch from Absorb to Float
The thing about batteries in a complex vehicle like a motorhome or a boat is that they are running many different systems that are continually turning on and off. In the case of our boat, when we were underway, any or all of our big systems might be in use at any one time: fridge and freezer compressors, radar, chartplotter, autopilot, anchor windlass, and even the microwave.
100 amp Balmar diesel engine alternator
Worst case, all of those things might be on at once for several minutes as we raised or lowered 200′ of stainless steel anchor chain with a 60 lb. anchor attached to the end of it (well, maybe not the microwave!).
Plus, there was no guarantee we’d run the engine long enough for the alternator to go through its Bulk and Absorb stages and charge the batteries completely.
We might run it for as little as a few minutes while moving from one anchoring spot to another, or for half an hour while we motored out of the bay to go daysailing.
We wouldn’t want to idle the engine at anchor just to charge the batteries, because the engine RPMs have to be fairly high for the alternator to generate a good charging current. These high RPMs happen naturally while driving the boat, but unfortunately, conventional wisdom says that revving the engine to high RPMs while not in gear (i.e., without a load on it) risks glazing the cylinder walls.
Besides it being random as to how long we might run the engine, it was also random as to what state the solar charge controller would be in when we started the engine up.
We might start the engine in the dark to raise the anchor, and in that case the solar charge controller would be asleep. Or we might do it early in the morning when the solar charge controller was in the Bulk stage and gamely trying to get whatever current it could from the wimpy sun on the horizon. Or we might do it later in the day when the solar charge controller was in the Absorb stage and cranking away.
We used a clamp-on ammeter to find out exactly what was going on at various points in the system. We put it around the alternator’s battery cable to see how much current the alternator was putting into the batteries. We also used it on the solar charge controller’s battery cable to verify that the current it displayed on its LCD screen was correct (it was).
The alternator is pouring 77.9 amps into the batteries – WOW!!
Whenever we turned on the engine, regardless of what the solar charge controller was doing, the engine alternator would immediately go into the Bulk stage and dump as much current into the batteries as they needed to reach the alternator’s Bulk voltage.
If the solar charge controller had been in the Bulk stage already, its job would suddenly become much easier as it got a huge boost from the alternator.
If it had been putting 21 amps into the batteries and had been slowly raising the voltage towards 14.4 volts (the setting we had for the boat’s batteries), the engine alternator might contribute another 40 amps for a while, getting the batteries up to the Bulk voltage a whole lot faster than if the solar panels had continued working by themselves.
If the solar charge controller had been in the Absorb stage already, putting something like 18 amps into the batteries to hold the Absorb voltage of 14.4 volts, the engine alternator would begin its own Bulk stage regardless, and it would remain in the Bulk stage for 36 minutes as it followed its own internal algorithm.
The solar charge controller would react by backing off and delivering less current.
To make things more complicated, as these two systems worked through their charging stages, the loads on the batteries would be fluctuating widely as Mark and I went about our business of living on a boat.
If the fridge and freezer compressors were both running, and the autopilot was maintaining our course and the radar and chartplotter were on and we were making burritos in the microwave, the batteries would need a lot of current.
However, if neither compressor was on and someone was hand steering the boat, etc., then the batteries would need a whole lot less current. During those lulls in current demand, the solar charge controller would suddenly scale things way back and put just 8 or 9 amps from the panels into the batteries.
As soon as that happened, the solar charge controller would suddenly switch to the Float stage!
After some sleuthing, as described in the previous post, I realized that the charge controller was switching from Absorb to the Float stage because the current needed to maintain the Absorb voltage had dropped below 2% of the capacity of the battery bank.
In Tangolunda Bay (Huatulco, Mexico) we motored back and forth across the bay every few days to anchor out of the swell as it changed its flow.
Since I had entered the true value of the battery bank (710 amp-hours), the controller switched from Absorb to Float when the current dropped below 14 amps (2% of 710).
So, I lied to the controller and told it the battery bank was just 250 amp-hours. Then it would remain in Absorb down to 5 amps.
What I found (by trial and error) was that the solar charge controller pretty much always needed more than 5 amps when it was in Bulk or Absorb.
I don’t know why the alternator didn’t produce that last 5 or so amps on its own, but I suspect it was because the alternator’s Absorb voltage was set to 14.2 volts while the solar charge controller’s Absorb voltage was set to 14.4 volts (the alternator had “sets” of values for the three target voltages, and 14.2 volts for Absorb was in what I felt at the time was the most appropriate set).
The Solar Charge Controller Gets Stuck in the Float Stage
The second problem I encountered was that in the event that the solar charge controller went into the Float stage prematurely, then, after the engine was turned off it would remain there until the next morning.
Xantrex solar charge controller (bottom plate removed)
Yet the batteries may not have been fully charged by the alternator, and they may have really needed to remain in Absorb with the solar panels charging them at a fast clip for another hour or two.
In this case, the solar charge controller needed either to resume the Absorb stage or cycle back through the Bulk stage as soon as the engine was turned off.
The only way the Xantrex XW MPPT 60-150 would cycle back through the Bulk stage is if the battery voltage dropped below a certain level.
I experimented with different voltages. The Float voltage was 13.4 volts, so if I set the “ReBulk” voltage to be 13.5 volts or higher, then the charge controller would never get into the Float stage at all, because it would keep cycling back to Bulk.
According to the user manual, this is actually a valid way to operate this solar charge controller, and they even provide a programming parameter that sets the charge controller up to be a “two stage” charger that has no Float stage and has just the Bulk and Absorb stages.
I wasn’t comfortable with not having a Float stage (although in hindsight that probably would have been just fine given the intermittent heavy loads that were on the batteries all day long). In the end, I settled on a ReBulk value of 12.9 volts.
So, if the solar charge controller was in the Float stage after the engine was turned off, and a big load came on some time afterwards that drew the battery voltage down from 13.4 volts to below 12.9 volts (microwave plus fridge and freezer, for instance), then the solar charge controller would cycle back through the Bulk stage and start the charging cycle all over again.
Programming For Storage
Periodically, we left the boat for a month or several months at a time when we traveled inland or went back to our RV for hurricane season. Since the fridge and freezer would be turned off, and there would be no loads on the batteries at all, I would undo these two programming changes. I would reprogram the solar charge controller with the true size of the battery bank so it would switch from Absorb to Float at 14 amps rather than 5, and I would change the “ReBulk” voltage back to 12.5, the factory default.
Solar power is free, however, the electricity from shore power hookups may not be. If your shore power electricity is “free” (i.e., built into the overnight fee you are paying for your RV site or boat slip), then it doesn’t really matter which charging system is dominant.
If you have metered electricity (a common situation if you are renting your RV site or your boat slip on a monthly, seasonal or annual basis), and you are paying for your electricity, then you may want to ensure that your solar charger is running the show and doing the bulk of the work while your converter or inverter/charger is playing second fiddle.
One easy way to do this is just to flip off the electric switch on the shore power post. Flip it on only as needed when the batteries get low and need a boost.
It was nice when we settled up the bills for these places at the end of each stay to have a big ol’ “$0” on the line item for electricity.
What Happens If You DO Plug In?
If your RV or boat is plugged into shore power, and the switch at the post is turned on, it is hard to get the solar power system to be dominant because its power source is flakey (as explained here).
We plugged our sailboat into shore power for several months while we lived aboard at Kona Kai Marina in San Diego at the end of our cruise.
Schneider Electric (Xantrex) 2500 watt Freedom inverter / charger
Our Xantrex inverter/charger went through the Bulk and Absorb stages the first time we plugged in, and then it remained in the Float stage forever after (except when we unplugged to go day sailing and plugged back in again upon returning)!
Each morning when our Xantrex solar charge controller woke up, it zipped through the charging stages and went into the Float stage after just a few minutes, because it saw the batteries were already fully charged.
In our RV, we plugged into shore power for 48 hours during rainy and stormy skies while we stayed at Narrows Too RV Resort in Maine. It was overcast when we plugged in. Our Outback solar charge controller was in the Bulk stage putting about 6 amps into the batteries at around 13.9 volts (it was aiming for 14.7 volts).
Ordinarily, since we live a solar power only lifestyle, our Outback solar charger is set up with Bulk and Absorb values of 14.7 volts, a minimum Absorb time of 2 hours and a maximum Absorb time of 4 hours. However, our Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 Converter has a fixed (non-modifiable) Bulk voltage of 14.6 volts and Absorb voltage of 14.2 volts and Absorb time of 8 hours.
I temporarily changed the solar charge controller to have Bulk and Absorb voltages that matched the converter, and minimum and maximum Absorb times of 0 hours so it would remain in Absorb only as long as it took to get to Bulk (the charging algorithm of the Outback solar charge controller is explained in detail here).
Iota DLS 90 IQ4 Converter and smart charger ready for installation in our RV
As soon as we plugged in, the converter began dumping 49 amps into the batteries which zoomed the battery voltage up to the converter’s Bulk stage value of 14.6 volts. Then it backed way off to 30 amps, then 20, then 15 as it held the converter’s and solar charger’s Absorb voltage of 14.2 volts (our new Trojan Reliant AGM 6 volt batteries charge up extraordinarily quickly!).
From there, the Outback solar charge controller went through its usual Sleeping and ZZZZ stages as the Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 Converter quietly slipped from Absorb (14.2 volts) to Float (13.6 volts). When the Outback solar charge controller went through its wakeup sequence after being in the ZZZZ stage for 3 hours, it saw the batteries were fully charged, so it rolled over and went back to sleep in the ZZZZ mode.
We catch our RV’s solar charge controller sleeping on the job at midday! The solar panels are in full sun and are at 68 voltsThe converter is in control and has elevated the batteries to 13.5v But the controller sleeps soundly as 0 amps go from the panels to the batteries!
In fact, the whole rest of the time we were plugged into shore power, the Outback solar charger stayed in the ZZZZ mode, even in bright afternoon sunshine. Every 3 hours it would lazily open its eyes, yawn, look at the state of the batteries, see that they were fully charged and go right back to dreamland in the ZZZZ mode.
To summarize, these are two examples of how different solar charge controllers handled the presence of full-time shore power:
No. On another occasion, while getting repairs done at an RV dealership, we plugged in our trailer for an afternoon while it was out on the lot next to the building on a cloudy day. The solar charge controller was putting in 6 amps at 13.8 volts in the Absorb stage (trying to keep the batteries at 14.7 volts) at mid-afternoon.
As soon as the shore power cord was plugged in, the converter began dumping 55 amps into the batteries and the battery voltage zoomed to 14.6 volts. The solar charge controller kept putting in around 6 amps.
For the next few minutes, the total current going into the batteries dropped from 61 amps to 33 amps and then settled there. If the solar charge controller could put in 8 amps, as the sky lightened, the converter put in 25 amps. If the solar charge controller could put in only 2 amps as the sky darkened, the converter put in 31 amps.
Suddenly, the converter switched to its Absorb stage where it holds the batteries at 14.2 volts, and the total current going into the batteries dropped to 20 amps. The solar charge controller was still in its own Absorb stage where it wanted to hold the batteries at 14.7 volts, so it kept putting in as much current as it could (5 to 8 amps and even as high as 12 when the sun came out for a few minutes) while the converter made up the difference, keeping the total at around 20 amps.
We didn’t stay plugged in long enough to see the solar charge controller switch to Float (the converter stays in Absorb for 8 hours), but at that point the converter would have held the batteries at 14.2 volts while the solar charge controller wanted them at 13.5 volts. It also would have been dark, so the converter would have been in complete control and the solar charge controller would have gone to sleep.
If you are using a generator to give the batteries a boost of charge because you’ve been in cloudy conditions or don’t have enough solar power to run everything on board indefinitely, then you’ll want the generator to charge the batteries as quickly as possible, saving you a few dollars in fuel (gas or diesel) and saving yourself from the loud noise and obnoxious fumes of the generator itself.
Yamaha 2400i generator — our backup
In essence, the goal with a generator is to run it for as short a time as possible to get the batteries charged up.
With solar power, at the end of the day, before nightfall, the batteries are in their most charged state.
During the evening and into the darkest hours of the night, the batteries get depleted from running the lights, the TV, the computers, the microwave and whatever else your household uses until bedtime.
By dawn, the batteries are at their lowest state of charge. This is also a time when the sun is low in the sky and the solar panels are operating weakly and producing minimal current.
Early morning is the ideal time to turn on the generator!
An Example of Generator Use at Midday versus Dawn
The first time we fired up our generator to charge our batteries via the Iota DLS-90 / IQ4 converter, we’d had several overcast days in a row. It was mid-afternoon, and the batteries were fairly depleted from days of cloudiness. However, they had already gotten about 25 amp-hours of charge during the morning and noon hour, so they weren’t as depleted as they had been at dawn.
The solar panels were limping along in the Bulk stage with the batteries at about 13.5 volts. The solar charge controller was aiming at a Bulk voltage of 14.7 volts and the panels were valiantly trying to produce enough current to get there, but all they could muster was about 6 amps. It wasn’t likely the batteries would reach the Float stage before dark.
As soon as we turned on the generator, the the Iota converter went into the Bulk stage and began delivering about 60 amps to the batteries. It quickly got them up to 14.6 volts and switched to Absorb, dropping to about 20 amps. Great! But this converter is capable of putting 90 amps into the batteries, so why run it when Bulk mode delivers just 20 amps?
We let the solar panels do their job during the day.
We decided turn off the generator and let the solar panels do whatever they could for the rest of the day.
Early the next morning when the batteries were depleted from several days of inadequate charging plus a night of activity in the RV (they were down to about 12.3 volts), we fired it up again.
I did not modify the settings on the Outback solar charge controller to match those of the converter because we were just going to run the generator for a few hours and probably wouldn’t need it again for a few months.
This time the converter rolled up its sleeves and got to work, pumping 67 amps into the batteries as it aimed for its target Bulk voltage of 14.6 volts. The solar charge controller was in Bulk mode too and was busy putting in 1-2 amps of its own (it was early morning), and with the converter’s assistance, it briefly hit 14.7 volt Bulk target and switched to Absorb.
With both the converter and solar charge controller operating in the Absorb stage, the converter dropped the current to maintain the target Absorb voltage. The solar charge controller could still bring only 1-2 amps to the party due to the low light, so the converter was in control and doing virtually all the work.
We shut off the generator off after about two hours and let the solar charge controller take over. Now that the batteries were partially charged up, the solar charge controller was able to get the batteries up to its Absorb voltage target and finish the job, even in the overcast conditions, getting the batteries through its Absorb stage and going into the Float stage for the first time in a few days.
So, you can see, there are many ways to charge RV and boat batteries and many things to consider. Of course, it’s easy enough to leave the various charging systems at their factory settings after installing them, and there is nothing wrong with that!
But if you want to understand your system and get the most out of it — especially if you are using solar power and end up running a second charging system in conjunction with your solar power system — you may want to dig into the nitty gritty details buried in the user manuals and figure out what the charging algorithms are and how to program each system with the parameters that make the most sense for you.
All battery charging systems for mobile installations like RVs and boats have become increasingly more sophisticated over the years. A quick review of the older systems described in detail in the previous posts here and here show how the engineers designing these systems have become more and more knowledgeable about the real world applications of their products and what conditions they might encounter as they interact with other charging systems.
As the years go by from here forward, more and more solar charge controllers, inverter/chargers, converters and engine alternators will be designed with the understanding that they may not be the only charging system operating in the RV or boat.
This was the last article in our series on RV and Marine Battery Charging:
The two sample systems described in Part III of our Solar Power Tutorial series are essentially the same systems we have installed on our RV and sailboat. The RV system is pretty standard for full-time RVers (four 120-140 watt 12-volt panels and 440 amp-hour battery bank). The sailboat system is bigger than many cruisers carry (three 185 watt 24-volt panels and 710 amp-hour battery bank).
Cruisers often install less solar power and rely on additional charging methods via engine alternator, and wind/gas/diesel generators. However, we have found our solar power alone is sufficient to live an ordinary house-like lifestyle on our boat (if we don’t use our standalone DC freezer). We lived for 10 mid-winter weeks in southern Mexico on solar power alone, without using the alternator once (it was broken), and still used two laptops, the TV/DVD, stereo, microwave, chartplotter, autopilot, anchor windlass and vacuum as much as we wanted.
Our rationale for having enough solar power to live comfortably without alternative charging methods was: we didn’t want to store a lot of gasoline to power a gas generator; we had found that boats with wind generators often suffered from the whirring noise and vibration; and we didn’t want the added cost, installation work and maintenance of an inboard diesel generator. Solar power has been a great solution for us on both the boat and the fifth wheel.
Part III described these two basic full-timer systems with just a cursory comparison of the solar panel choices. This page goes into more detail about the various options for sizing solar panels and suggests different ways to wire them.
Wiring in Series versus in Parallel and Wire Gauge Size
There are quite a few choices for solar panel configurations, each with its own pros and cons. But before choosing a panel configuration it’s worthwhile to consider how to deal with the large current that will be flowing through the wires. As much as 35 amps or more might be flowing from the panels to the charge controller and then from the charge controller into the batteries. This requires heavier gauge wire which is more difficult to work with and is expensive. However, there are several ways to reduce the amount of current in the wires.
If the panels are wired in parallel, the amps produced by each panel are additive while the volts remain constant (Ohm’s law). Therefore, the cable leading from the connection point of all the panels to the charge controller and then on to the batteries will carry the full current load, or potentially as much as 35 or 40 amps at 12 volts DC. Heavier gauge wire must be installed to handle this large current load throughout the system.
If there is too much current on a cable, then it will get warm (or hot), and lose some of its precious amperage to heat. In other words, if the wire gauge is too small, not all the power produced by the panels will make it to the batteries. It will dissipate as heat loss along the way. And at the extreme, there’s the risk of melting the shielding off the cable (highly unlikely).
Larger wire is more expensive and is more difficult to handle because it is stiffer. “Larger” generally means 6 or 8 gauge wire and “smaller” is generally 10 gauge. The size is dependent on the current flowing through the wire and the length of the wiring run. A detailed chart for selecting wire gauge is given here. Note that some charge controllers can’t accommodate wire heavier than 4 or 6 gauge.
If the panels are wired in series, the amps produced by each panel stay constant while the voltage is additive (also Ohm’s law). Therefore, the cable leading from the connection point of the panels to the charge controller will carry just the amperage produced by a single panel (7-9 amps) at 48 volts DC (if four 12 volt panels are installed in series), rather than the 25-35 amps at 12 volts DC that would flow when wired in parallel. Because there is less current, thinner gauge wire can be used throughout the system.
In practical terms, most solar power systems on RVs and boats never reach their full potential current load. During the morning hours, before the sun gets high and powerful in the sky, the batteries get quite a bit of charge. Usually, by the time the sun is really cranking out maximum energy at noon — the time when the system could be producing max amps — the batteries have already gotten pretty well charged and are starting to ask for less and less current. So the charge controller has already begun to throttle the panels back a bit and less current is flowing through the system.
Also, solar panels are rated for operating with the sun perpendicular to their surface, and anything other than a perpendicular orientation reduces their output significantly. In all months except May-July, the sun doesn’t ride all that high in the sky. We have rarely seen much more than 25-30 amps on either of our full-timer systems, although they are capable of 30 and 36 amps respectively.
Another important consideration is that when a small fraction of a solar panel is shaded — as little as a 4 square inch area on a 2′ x 5′ panel — the entire panel stops producing power. That is because internally the panel is “wired” in series. When there is resistance, caused by shade, in just one portion of it the panel’s internal circuitry, current can’t flow through any of it.
By extension, if the panels are all wired in series, when one panel shuts down due to a palm-sized bit of shade, then the entire array of panels shuts down. A tree branch or part of a boat’s standing rigging or mast/boom can cause the entire array to shut down if it is wired in series.
Shade from the mast and shrouds on our three 185 watt panels.
If the panels are all wired in parallel, a small amount of shade on one panel will only shut down that individual panel. Current will still flow through the rest of the panels and then through the rest of the system.
We were persuaded by our solar panel vendor to wire our trailer’s panels in series so we could use small gauge wire throughout the system. We have experimented with shading a small corner of one of the four panels and were stunned to see the entire array quit working! However, almost everywhere we boondock we are in full sun. So, in the end, it doesn’t matter for us. Wiring our RV’s solar panels in series has worked out just fine. If, however, you anticipate camping under trees on a regular basis and you want to maximize the panels’ chances of getting access to the sun, wire the panels in parallel and use heavier gauge wire.
On a boat, this series versus parallel decision is much more critical than on the roof of an RV. The mast, boom and shrouds often shade portions of the panels as the boat swings at anchor. Under sail the shading can be even worse. So the best wiring option on a boat is to wire the panels in parallel. However, the cable runs in a boat can be much longer than in a comparably sized RV. On our sailboat the wiring running from one end of the system to the other — panels-controller-batteries — is 45′. Why so long? The panels are high in the air on an arch at the back end of the boat, the batteries are at the bottom of the hull in the middle of the boat, and the all the wiring is routed so as not to be seen.
12 volt versus 24 volt panels
Another way to tackle this issue of having a lot of current flowing through the system is to use 24 volt solar panels instead of 12 volt panels. When the voltage is doubled like this (24 versus 12 volts), the current is halved. So the current produced by 24 volt panels is half that of equivalent wattage 12 volt panels (the watts don’t change whether the panels are 12 volts or 24 volts). We chose to go this route on our sailboat, using three 185 watt 24 volt panels wired in parallel.
Since the batteries are 12 volt batteries, the input side of the charge controller coming from the solar panels is 24 volts while the output side going to the batteries is 12 volts. Most large capacity charge controllers allow this kind of configuration. This means that the current flowing between the panels and the charge controller is half that flowing between the charge controller and the batteries. So, while the panels may be producing 14 amps at 24 volts, and those 14 amps may be flowing from the panels to the charge controller, the current will double to 28 amps at 12 volts when it flows from the charge controller to the battieries.
While the wiring run between the panels and the charge controller can be smaller gauge (less current flows in that portion of the system), the last wire run between the charge controller and the batteries needs to be as short as possible and wired with heavier gauge wire to accommodate the larger amount of current.
We made the mistake of placing the charge controller 25′ from the batteries at first and using 10 gauge wire (I suspect we didn’t explain our situation to the salesmen at the solar panel store well enough when we asked him for guidelines). When the panels were running at full power we lost about 10-15% of the power they were producing. Once we moved the charge controller to within 10′ of the batteries and replaced the 10 gauge wire with 8 gauge wire, we lost just 1.5% of the power between the charge controller and the batteries, which is considered acceptable.
Tilting brackets make a lot of sense on an RV because an RV is parked in a stationary position. In wintertime it is possible to tilt the panels towards the sun (tilt them about 45 degrees). Most folks align the panels with the length of the RV and tilt them on their sides. This means that either the driver side or passenger side of the RV will be situated to face due south and the panels will be tilted in that direction. In most boondocking locations we find we can orient the rig any way we want to because there is so much space around us.
In experiments one December with RVing neighbors who had tilting brackets, we found that their solar power system produced about 40% more amp-hours throughout the day. Their system was fully charged and their batteries were floating in the afternoon, while ours never reached the Float stage. Some of that may have had to do with their batteries being better charged to begin with in the morning (we have no idea if they were or weren’t), but it is a pretty dramatic difference nonetheless.
Four 120-130 watt panels on our fifth wheel’s roof
However, to get the advantage of tilting brackets, you have to get on the roof to tilt each panel every time you set up camp, and then remember to return them to their flat position before breaking camp and driving off.
An alternative is to keep the panels flat in all but the most dire circumstances (a week of cloudy winter days), but have one more panel in your system than necessary. Or don’t even bother installing tilting brackets at all. The trade-off is a few hundred dollars for an extra panel versus climbing up and down your RV ladder and fussing with the panels, as well as the risk that you might drive off with them raised up (we’ve seen plenty of people do that).
Tilting brackets don’t make much sense on a boat because boats move around so much at anchor. Ours swings back and forth in a 90 degree arc. Also, the tilting mechanism for a lot of boats introduces shade across the panels at certain angles. On a boat, it is best to mount the panels as far from the mast and boom as possible and to focus on keeping the shade off the panels as much as possible by forcing the boom off to one side or the other while at anchor. A fixed, flat mounting position works best.
For more information about how to select the best solar panels for your installations, see this article:
Most of the components for an RV or marine solar power installation can be purchased at Amazon.
Shown here is a complete full-timer's kit (far left), a big charge controller (middle) and a big inverter (right). More comprehensive listings of each component type can be found at the following links:
If you are going to live in your RV full-time, year-round, you will need a much bigger system than the one described on the previous page. You will likely be using your computer a lot, you’ll keep the lights on for many evening hours in the winter, you’ll be using the TV and stereo quite a bit, and you will want to use your microwave, hair dryer, vacuum and toaster on a regular basis.
Compared to the small-medium sized systems described in our Solar Power Tutorial Part II, this will require more total wattage in the solar panels, a bigger and more sophisticated charge controller, more total amp-hours in the batteries and a better quality inverter that is wired into the RV’s AC wiring system. At the very least, a full-timer’s system should have 400 watts of solar panels, a 40 amp charge controller, 400 amp-hours of battery capacity and a 1000 watt inverter.
Full-time RVers Solar Power System – 12 Volt
A sample full-time RVer’s solar power system consists of the following:
The 12-volt 120- to 130-watt panels are sized about right to fit between the many little things that stick up on our fifth wheel’s roof.
This system is rated to produce 600 watts at 12 volts and has a 440 amp-hour battery bank. It is a little bit larger than the system that we have on our fifth wheel trailer. Ae have three 120 watt panels and one 130 watt panel (for a total of 490 watts), and our system cost a whole lot more back in 2008!
We can get as much as 170 amp-hours per day in summer, although more typically it is about 120 amp-hours. There have been summer days/nights when we watched our 26″ TV for 15 hours (the Olympics), and there have been days/nights when we ran two laptops for 10 hours and then watched a movie (such couch potatoes!!).
In the dead of winter, around the winter Solstice (December 21), this system can produce about 80-100 amp-hours per day. The only limitation in winter is when storms cloud the skies for three or more consecutive days. Three cloudy winter days in a row where we get just 40-60 amp-hours makes us start thinking about supplemental charging or cutting back on our power use.
Our weird choices for solar panel sizes were due to what we already owned from our first solar panel installation (a 130 watt panel) and what was available in the store at the time of purchase (120 watt panels). If we were buying today, we would have purchased four 150 watt panels as shown above.
This system will allow you to run everything inside your rig but the air conditioner and big power tools. We have even used it to run a small compressor to change a flat tire on the rig (on four different occasions, ugh!).
RV Full-timer’s System Installation
Installation follows the same guidelines as the smaller systems described in our Solar Power Tutorial Part II, but is just a little more complicated. An outline of the installation follows.
(1) Install the solar panels on the roof
We wired ours in series, but wiring in parallel may be preferable. A discussion about the pros and cons of wiring the panels in parallel versus series comes on the next page of this tutorial along with a discussion of wire gauge sizes. Run the wires down through the refrigerator vent to the battery compartment. If the fridge is in a slide-out, run the wires down the outside of the gray or black water vent pipe
(2) Install the batteries in the battery compartment
Not many RV’s have enough battery boxes for four 6-volt batteries, especially trailers. Often the battery boxes are too short as well, since 6-volt batteries have the same footprint but are taller than the typical 12-volt Group 24 batteries that are shipped with RVs from the factory. Here are example 6 volt battery boxes and Group 24 12 volt battery boxes.
If you haven’t purchased your RV yet, you may be able to get the manufacturer or dealer to modify the battery boxes for you as part of the deal (that’s what we did with NuWa on our fifth wheel). Wire two pairs of the batteries in series to form two 12-volt batteries, and wire those two pairs in parallel.
Connect the wires that come from the solar panels to one side of the charge controller and wire the batteries to the other side. It is best to crimp eyes on the ends of the cables.
(4) Install the inverter near the battery compartment
Wiring the inverter to the AC wiring system in the RV is complex. The proper way to wire it is to place the inverter as close to the batteries as possible. Protect the DC side with a big fuse, and wire it to a transfer switch. We are not master electricians, and we took a short cut on our system that not everyone would be comfortable with but that works very well for us.
We positioned the inverter next to the DC to AC converter in the basement of the fifth wheel and wired it directly to the batteries. The converter is located next to an AC outlet that it uses for power to run (the converter uses the AC power to charge the batteries).
When we use shore power, we plug the converter into the AC outlet to allow the converter to do its normal job of charging the batteries. However, we use shore power only a few nights a year, at most.
When we dry camp, which we do virtually 100% of the time, we unplug the converter from the AC outlet so it is totally dormant and not in use, and then we plug the inverter into the AC outlet instead.
The inverter and converter are never “on” at the same time.
The inverter draws its power from the batteries and converts that DC power into AC power. That is, it generates AC power which it supplies to the rig backwards through the AC outlet it is plugged into.
This is very non-standard and would be frowned upon by master electricians. What would concern them is that when the rig is in this configuration, the shore power outlet on the outside of the trailer is live, with power coming out. Accidentally plugging the shore power cable into the shore power outlet on the outside of the RV while the inverter is turned on would be disastrous. However, because we almost never use our shore power cable and we rarely change our setup to switch between dry camping and hooking up (since we dry camp almost exclusively), this method has worked fine for us for over seven years.
This is not a recommended strategy if you plan to switch between dry camping and using electrical hookups frequently.
We also connect the two 50 amp AC legs of our 50 amp coach by plugging a modified extension cord with a male connector on each end into one outlet on each leg. We have two outlets next to each other in the bedroom, one on each of the 50 amp legs in the trailer, that are ideal for this purpose. We plug the “cheater” cord into each outlet, effectively connecting the two 50 amp halves of the RV together at that point.
It is handy to wire the inverter to a simple toggle switch located somewhere inside the RV so you can turn the inverter on and off from inside the rig without having to go outside to the battery compartment each time you want to turn on your AC power.
Liveaboard Cruiser’s Solar Power System – 24 Volt Solar Panels
A large arch installed off the back end makes it possible to use very big panels. Note the shade on the panels from the mast and shrouds. The panels are producing about 50% of their potential power right now!
A system like the above would work fine on a sailboat. However, another style of design — which we ended up using — is the following. Of course, this system could be used on an RV as well.
This system is rated to produce 750 watts at 24 volts and has a 650 amp-hour battery bank.
System Comparison – How do these two full-timer/liveaboard systems differ?”
The system we installed on our sailboat was bigger and more robust than the one we installed on our trailer. If we were to install a solar power system on our RV today, it would be what we put on our boat. Here are the differences between the two:
AGM versus Wet Cell Batteries
One basic difference between the sailboat design and the RV design is the use of AGM batteries rather than wet cell batteries. AGM batteries are not only maintenance free but they can be operated while lying on their sides, whereas wet cells prefer to be upright. They also charge up faster and discharge more slowly.
There is less need for expensive AGM batteries in an RV than on a sailboat since an RV never lies on its side the way a sailboat does while sailing. However, that said, gazillions of cruising boats have sailed around the world with wet cell batteries, through all kinds of storms and mayhem, with no problem, so AGM batteries are by no means required on sailboats. On the other hand, if you have the money and don’t want to be hassled with battery maintenance on your RV, go for AGM instead of wet cell!
To learn more about AGM versus Wet Cell Batteries, see this article:
The primary difference between the two systems is the size of the solar panels. An RV has things sticking out of the roof that may hamper the installation of very big solar panels (hatches, fridge vents, air conditioning units, TV antenna, domes, etc.). So the slightly smaller 150 watt panels may be easier to position on the roof than the big 250 watt panels. Going even smaller (120 watt or 100 watt) may be advantageous.
Finding a place for solar panels on a sailboat is challenging, but the best solution is often to build an arch over the back of the boat, as far behind the end of the boom as possible. This arch can be designed to support large panels. See our Sailboat Solar page for more details about our arch and panel installation. If you are a west coast sailor, consider going to Baja Naval in Ensenada, Mexico, and having Alejandro Ulloa install your arch. His stainless steel fabrication is by far the highest quality and most beautiful we have seen in all of the US West Coast and Mexico.
24-volt versus 12-volt
This sailboat system differs slightly from the first RV system shown above in that rather than being a strictly 12-volt system, one part of the circuitry is 24-volt (the portion between the panels and the charge controller), and one part of the circuitry is 12-volt (the portion between the charge controller and the batteries).
The combiner box contains a breaker for each panel and combines the 3 wires from the panels into 1 for the charge controller.
The charge controller steps down the voltage from 24-volt to 12-volt (and correspondingly doubles the current). Large panels aren’t available in 12-volt configurations. Also, the wiring for 24-volt panels can be slightly thinner gauge, which is advantageous (discussed in more detail on the next page of this tutorial).
The other difference is that this system uses a combiner box and circuit breakers. This makes for a more professional installation and can be used on any/all solar power installations that use more than one panel in parallel. The combiner box sits between the panels and the charge controller. One of its purposes is to combine the three wires coming from the three panels into one wire that goes to the charge controller. The other purpose is to provide a breaker for each solar panel so that if something goes wrong the panel can be shut down easily or will trip the breaker automatically.
Liveaboard Cruiser’s System Installation
Installation of a solar power system on a sailboat is more complicated that on an RV simply because the panels are flying out there on some crazy scaffolding in the sky and the batteries are scattered about the bilge of the boat somewhere. The solar panels and batteries are often separated from each other by a big distance. Finding space for batteries, installing them so they will stay in place even if the boat flips upside down, and snaking wires down the inside of stainless steel tubing in an arch is not all that easy.
The things to keep in mind are simply:
– Install the panels so they get shaded as little as possible by the mast and boom
– Make the wire runs as short and direct as possible
– Install the charge controller as close to the batteries as possible
Our Experience on Our Sailboat
The system outlined here is basically the system we have on our sailboat, except we have three 185 watt panels instead of three 250 watt panels (we weren’t sure if the bigger panels would be physically too big. In hindsight they would have probably fit fine).
We have anchored out over 750 nights, usually for months at a time. In a typical day we use two laptop computers for about 4-8 hours and watch a movie on our 22″ TV/DVD (with power hogging sub-woofer & surround-sound) at night.
We get about 220 amp-hours (at 12 volts) per day in the summertime and about 165 amp-hours per day in the wintertime, provided the panels are unshaded all day. We have found that the winter prevailing winds on the Pacific Mexican coast usually position the boat so the mast shades the panels for a few hours each afternoon, dropping our typical daily total to 150 amp-hours.
We have found that if we run both our DC refrigerator and our separate DC freezer (both of which both cycle on and off 24/7 — a very different load than a few hours of continuous computer or TV use — we come up a little short charging the batteries each day in winter.
However, if we turn off the freezer (which uses about 50-70 amp-hours every 24 hours all by itself!), our batteries are fully charged and in “float” mode by mid-afternoon each day throughout the winter. So — provided we can live without frozen meat and ice cubes (gasp!) — we can sit at anchor indefinitely without ever going into a marina or running the engine for supplemental charging from the alternator. This is a good thing, because our fancy Balmar smart charger/alternator combo gave up the ghost in Huatulco, and we waited eight weeks at anchor for a replacement to come down with a friend from the US. We don’t have any kind of generator on the boat.
These two solar power systems have worked well for us in their different settings. I’ve described them here without any background theory because they will do the job for most full-time RVers and cruisers just as they are. However, there are lots of things to think about when choosing the different components that make up these two systems. There is a more detailed discussion of those issues on the next page:
Most of the components for an RV or marine solar power installation can be purchased at Amazon.
Shown here is a complete full-timer's kit (far left), a big charge controller (middle) and a big inverter (right). More comprehensive listings of each component type can be found at the following links:
Designing a solar power system for your RV depends entirely on how you plan to use your RV. Are you RVing in summer or winter, or both? Are you staying in it for a week or two at a time or for several months at a time? Do you want to use a laptop for an hour or so a day, or do you need to camp out on it for 4-8 hours at a time? Do you hit the sack after an hour or so of watching TV or do you want to plunk down in front of it with a cocktail and stay planted there until after midnight?
We didn’t install the panel on the roof at first. Silliness! Install it on the roof so you don’t have to think about it!
However, if you are just weekending, vacationing, and living largely outdoors, get a small system. You’ll quickly learn what you can and can’t do. It is very easy to upgrade if you find you need more. Upgrading is mostly a matter of adding more and bigger parts. Not too many parts have to be swapped out.
Mark connected the cable to the panel’s junction box before hoisting the panel onto the roof.
This page describes a “starter solar setup” which is good enough for heading off into the woods for a month or two of simple living in the summer. We used a system of this size for a full year, boondocking (dry camping) for months on end. We typically used the laptop or TV or stereo just 1-2 hours a day. We went to bed 2-3 hours after sunset.
In the summer it was fully adequate for those kinds of light electrical needs. In the winter there was so little sun that we had to be very conservative. We used oil lamps at night, and we supplied extra charging for laptop, toothbrush, camera batteries etc. by charging them in the truck while driving around, using a portable inverter plugged into the cigarette lighter in the truck.
A Small Solar Setup: 150 watts of solar power with portable 150 & 300 watt inverters
If you are going to dry camp in your RV in the summer, you don’t need an big solar power system. You will be busy around the campfire at night rather than watching hours and hours of TV. You will be using your RV when there is abundant sunshine, and you probably won’t spend too many hours on your computer. Here is a very simple solution that will be sufficient for as much as a few months of simple living in summertime:
Total cost: ~$650
Wild guess at an installer’s fee: ~$400
Cardboard covers the panels (shown here on our big full-timer’s installation) so they aren’t live
Installation isn’t too difficult if you are willing to scramble around on the roof a bit:
(1) Install the solar panel on the roof.
While working with the panel, keep it covered so it isn’t producing electricity. One easy way to cover it is to cut part of its cardboard packaging to size and tape it on.
Mark drilled holes in the roof and used anchors for the screws in places where the panel couldn’t be screwed into a roof truss. He jammed Dicor lap sealant into the holes before putting the anchors in, then ran the wire and then put more Dicor on the whole works after it was screwed down.
If there is a chance you might eventually want to use your RV in winter, install the panel on tilting brackets so you can tilt the panel towards the sun. It isn’t necessary to tilt the panel in the summertime, but it can be a huge help in the winter when the sun rides very low in the sky and doesn’t shine down on the panel but actually shines kind of across it from just above the horizon. Tilting the panel towards the sun might give you an extra 25% of total charge for the day in the wintertime.
When you have tilting brackets, you have to climb up on the roof to tilt the panel each time you set up camp — and you have to remember to climb back up again to lower it down before you drive off. If you don’t think you want to do all that scrambling around on the roof, skip the brackets (and consider getting two panels instead, described in Part III of this tutorial).
Connect one end of the wire to the panel (there are screws in the junction box on the panel that you screw the wire to). You can use duplex wire or two runs of single conductor wire for the positive and negative leads. If the refrigerator is not in a slide-out, run the wire down through the refrigerator vent to the battery compartment. Otherwise, run the wire down along the outside of the grey or black water vent pipe.
Taping the wire to a metal snake and snaking it down behind the fridge really helps. We snaked ours down inside a piece of PVC pipe that we used as a kind of conduit to keep the wire away from the back of the fridge. If you do that, make sure the PVC pipe is quite a bit bigger than the thickness of the wire so you can get it through easily.
Our lightweight Lynx trailer did not have a “walk-on” roof, but Mark used a telescoping ladder and crawled around to install the panel
At the charge controller, connect the wire coming down from the solar panel to the input side. Run a second wire from the output side of the charge controller to the batteries. It is best to crimp eyes on the ends of the cables.
(4) Remove the cardboard from the panel.
You should see an LED light on the charge controller turn green to indicate that it is charging.
Use small, portable inverters plugged into the RV’s cigarette lighters for the TV, laptop, etc.
Now your panel will start charging your batteries all day every day. It might even start charging them before you get out of bed in the morning! They will charge faster if you are in full sun. Just a little shade on the panel (like a single tree branch across one corner) will cause them to charge much more slowly.
(5) Use your AC appliances
Plug your portable inverters into whatever available cigarette lighter outlets there are inside the RV.
Whenever you want to watch TV, DVD’s or use your laptop or charge your camera batteries or toothbrush or whatever, plug the appliance into an inverter, turn the inverter on, and use the appliance as you would at home!!
A successful morning’s work – the panel is permanently installed!
(6) Add a second 12-volt battery to your battery box (this could also be Step 1, it doesn’t matter).
The battery is your energy storehouse. You add energy to it when you charge the batteries and you remove energy from it when you use your appliances and lights. Think of your batteries as being a big kitchen sink. You fill the sink with water (charge the batteries) by turning on the faucet. You drain the sink (when you use your appliances and lights) by removing the drain plug. The goal is to keep the sink at least 2/3 full all the time. After a day of sunshine, as the sun is setting, your sink should be full. After an evening of watching TV and computer work, your sink should not be less than 2/3 full (batteries don’t like to be drained until they are empty).
Add a second Group 24 12-volt battery in parallel
So you have to balance the size of your faucet (the total wattage of the solar panels), the size of your sink (the total amp-hour capacity of your batteries) and your appliance usage (how often and for how long you remove the drain plug) to make sure you don’t drain out more than you can fill up on a sunny day.
Most RVs come with a single Group 24 12-volt battery. These typically store about 70 amp-hours of energy. Adding a second Group 24 12-volt battery will double the size of your “sink” to about 140 amp-hours of energy. As a very general rule of thumb, the total watts of your solar panels should be comparable to the total amp-hour capacity of your batteries. With 140 watts of solar panels in this system, it makes sense to have two 12-volt batteries to give you 140 amp-hours of battery capacity.
Make sure there is room in the battery compartment for a second battery, as some RVs don’t have room for one. When shopping for an RV, if you plan to dry camp a lot, make sure the battery box can hold two 12-volt batteries. Wire the two batteries together in parallel.
To learn more about batteries and battery charging, read this article:
And that’s it for this whole system. Very very simple. The only limitation to this system is that you need to keep your TV/laptop usage fairly light and you cannot use your microwave, toaster, hair dryer, vacuum or air conditioning unit. However, it is a great starter setup to get your feet wet and learn to live in a solar driven home on the road.
Monitoring Your Batteries
A multimeter can help you monitor the batteries
The easiest way to see how your batteries are faring is to use a multimeter and measure the voltage. We use a Sperry clamp-on meter that has jaws that can wrap around wire so you can measure the amperage flowing through the wires, if need be. The Fluke meter is an even better unit because it is true RMS.
Monitoring the battery voltage with a multimeter is not scientifically accurate, because batteries have personalities and memories and only tell the truth about themselves when they have not been under load for a long time and have been cleaned of their surface charge. However, checking your batteries’ health with a multimeter can still give you a good indication of how they are doing.
Early in the morning, before the sun has gotten over the horizon, measure the voltage between the battery terminals. If it is 12.3 or higher, you’re okay. If it is lower than that, go outside and play and leave the indoor appliances alone for a day or two (and hope for sunshine). If that’s not possible, start thinking about finding a place to plug in.
Likewise, check out the voltage sometime right after sunset before you get the TV or laptop going. If it is 12.6 or more, you are golden. If not, then rethink your evening’s activities a bit.
A Portable Solution with NO INSTALLATION NEEDED!!
Portable solar panel kit that folds into a hard shell suitcase!
One very slick option for adding a small solar power system to your RV without going through the trouble of installing the panels on the roof is to get a folding portable solar panel kit. These wonderful kits are pairs of panels that are hinged together on the long side, and they fold together to form a hard shell suitcase that has a handle for easy carrying.
The beauty is that the panels are naturally protected when you store them away, and they have built-in stands that support the panels at a tilted angle when they are set up, so you can aim them south for maximum efficiency.
They come with a small solar charge controller so the batteries don’t get overcharged, and they have alligator clips that make it easy to clip the leads onto the battery terminals.
This is not an upgradeable system, but if you are simply looking to enjoy some dry camping and boondocking in your RV and want a little solar boost for your batteries, this is an all-in-one 120 watt system that will get the job done!
Most portable suitcase kits don’t come with an inverter, so remember to buy that too!
Most of the components for an RV or marine solar power installation can be purchased at Amazon.
Shown here is a complete "weekender/vacationer" kit (far left), a small charge controller (middle) and a small inverter (right). More comprehensive listings of each component type can be found at the following links: