So, you think you’re ready to join the cool-kids club and get solar for you rig? Well, you’re in luck because we here at the MG RV just so happen to be part of that club and can get you in.
A “solar setup” means different things to different people. Remember when we talked about the 12V and 120V circuits in your RV? A good solar setup will power both. What the dealer tries to up-sell you on usually only powers your 12V circuit. Many rigs that come “solar ready” just have a port that connects a solar panel to your 12V battery. As you can see below, once you’re disconnected from shore power, the 12V-only setup leaves you high and dry if you want to watch Netflix, run your coffee pot, etc.
Then, why would anyone go with not-so-good solar? Because it’s much, much cheaper. You basically buy the solar panel(s) and you’re done. A good solar setup is going to require:
- Way more/larger solar panels to keep up with your 120V consumption
- An inverter that can transform the 12V electricity stored in your batteries to 120V
- A massive battery bank to store your electricity
- A bunch of other stuff like charge controllers, voltage monitors, etc.
Finding an Installer
Now, many people take the DIY route and save a few thousand dollars installing their own setup. There are already plenty of guides out on the Interwebs for that. Instead, you’re going to learn how to identify someone that knows what the hell they’re doing and distinguish between a crappy install and a great install.
A note from the author: We drove 1,000 miles and spent a week in Phoenix just so that J.R. at OffTheGridRVs could do things the right way. It took five days to do it right and that gave us plenty of time to pick his brain for this guide. He came highly recommended and if you want top quality, he’s your man.
Ask About the batteries
You’re going to end up upgrading your batteries so you can store all that juice coming from the panels. If the installer is just going to add additional 12V batteries by running jumper cables between the two, RUN. This would result in the batteries not charging/discharging equally.
“It’s pretty hard to screw up 6v battery installs but it’s very common for the 12v’s to get screwed up. 99% of the time dealers will just jump the two batteries and put the solar panel cables on the positive/negative terminals of a single battery.” – J.R. @OffTheGridRVs
So, call ahead and ask “How are you going to wire the new battery in the existing system? Are you going to separate the main leads for both the incoming charging sources and the outgoing draws?” The correct answer is yes, both will be separated.
Ask about the charge controller
Dealers will, typically, use a PWM charge controller (pulse width modulation) and these usually handle a fixed voltage in and fixed voltage out. This is so they can take up to 24v in and regulate it out at fixed output voltages for different battery types. A good installer will use a charge controller that can not only handle specific battery types, but can also be configured precisely to the specs of your specific make/model of battery. The ones that J.R. puts in can be controlled down to 1/10 of a volt.
What gauge wire are they going to use?
A good installer will use large gauge wire such as 2/0 (“two aught”), where as a dealer will use 10 gauge wire which restricts your amperage and can result in a loss of juice between your charge controller and the batteries. That loss of amperage reduces how quickly the batteries can charge. So, if you have a boat load of panels but the wrong wiring to/from the charge controller, it won’t do you any good because of that loss in efficiency.
Get a look at their previous installs
You can tell a lot about an installer by just looking at their work. A few tell-tale signs of a good install are:
- Is it pretty? Seriously, are the wires hidden from view where possible?
- Are vertical runs straight and at perfect 90 degree angle?
- Are horizontal runs even with body lines, seams, and frames?
- Is there excess slack in the wires? Lines from one battery terminal to another should be cut exactly to length.
- Are wall components evenly spaced and centered with each other as well as existing structure?
- Are panels efficiently located on the roof? Will you have at least one panel getting good sunlight regardless of where the sun is in the sky?
- Are they located next to anything that might throw shade such as an AC unit or vent cover?
What does post-install support look like?
You’re going to have questions once you’re back on the road. It’s a very complex system that you’ll rely on heavily each day. How are you going to get a hold of the installer when you need to troubleshoot an issue and you’re on the other side of the country? Will you have to wait for the secretary to patch you through to the service department before you can speak to Billybob the intern?
Finding a knowledgeable installer is going to save you money. A properly interconnected and configured install will optimize the efficiency of your system, thus, requiring less hardware. It’s going to open many new doors for you and you’ll learn to rely on it heavily so take your time, do your research, and make sure you feel
good excellent about handing over your Benjamins!