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Old 08-13-2011, 12:15 PM   #1
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Solar panels vs Generator

Do solar panels on an airstream negate the need for a generator.

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Old 08-13-2011, 12:21 PM   #2
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Not if you want to have Air Conditioning.

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Old 08-13-2011, 12:29 PM   #3
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I have a 53 watt solar panel. It does a very nice job of keeping the two AGM batteries topped off. But, as Wsmith indicated, you won't be able to run any heavy duty appliances. For that, I have two Honda 2000i generators.
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Old 08-13-2011, 12:33 PM   #4
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That depends on what you expect, what solar panels you add, and what batteries you use.

If you want to run your air conditioner while boondocking - no, they do not. You'll need either 2 generators or one huge generator for that. No amount of solar that you can fit on a trailer will operate your AC in any reasonable way.

If you want to run forced-air heater overnight in cold weather... maybe. It depends on how much battery capacity you have and if you add enough solar to replace during the day what the heater drains at night.

If you want to run lights, water pump, vent fans, and other light-duty electrics, definitely yes. Solar will do a great job.

The important thing is to size the solar system to your power needs, and to match the battery capacity as well. You need enough solar to replace your daily power use during the effective hours, and enough battery capacity to make up for the gaps when there is little or no solar output.

We have a very large solar system installed on our Airstream, and we have never owned a generator. We could boondock indefinitely (from a power point of view) as the solar system keeps our batteries well charged. We run lights (LED), pump, heater, TVs, laptops/chargers, espresso machine, microwave, wifi router, stereo, and other small electric/electronic appliances. We cannot run the air conditioner or blowdriers while boondocking. We camp in the Pacific Northwest where direct sun is not plentiful, and where most campsites have at least partial shade. We sized our system accordingly.

Our system was installed by AM Solar - it is 5 panels (3x100W plus 2X50W), a MPPT charge controller, an inverter/converter/charger, and 6 AGM golf-cart size batteries. It cost substantially more than a generator, but it is silent, trouble-free, maintenance-free, and clean.
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Old 08-13-2011, 01:25 PM   #5
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tfmkevin pretty well sums it up

We have a 250 watt system and it meets most our needs. I do carry an old 600 watt Honda during the winter when days are shorter and we camp in the forests in Florida a lot.

If we stayed out of the woods solar would probably take care of all our needs all the time.

WE only have 2 golf cart batteries but do quite well except under heavy tree cover
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Old 08-13-2011, 02:10 PM   #6
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Figure that solar panels on an Airstream might be able to produce 1 or 2 kWh per day.

The typical battery bank on an Airstream has a bit over 1 kWh of usable energy. (2 batteries, even those famous 'golf cart' ones).

An Airconditioner in the afternoon would use about 5 kWh while one run all day would need maybe 25.

The furnace needs maybe 1 kWh on a cold night.

Alarms, gas control boards, water pump and an occasional light might need maybe a quarter kWh or less per day.

A microwave used 20 minutes for dinner would need maybe up to a half a kWh.

Watching a DVD with low lights in the evening might need a half a kWh.

kWh - kilowatt hour. At home, you use 30 to 60 per day (most folks re gov site) and the grid price is ten to twenty cents per kWh in most places.
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Old 08-13-2011, 03:01 PM   #7
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Kevin summed it up pretty good, with a first class system installed, only thing I would add is if you are in a windy area, add a windmill, it will work 24/7 but you still won't do resistance heat or a/c. Taking for granted you are not in the shade or deep in the forest as neither will do it.
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Old 08-13-2011, 03:48 PM   #8
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My son gave me a 60W panel for my birthday a couple of years ago, thinking we could use it while boondocking. Our 19-foot Bambi doesn't have much clear space available on the roof for mounting panels, so I ended up carrying it around in the bed of our pickup for several roadtrips. I finally got it out and had fun playing with it one day, but it doesn't put out enough current to do much more than just that -- play with it.

I can see where it might keep your batteries topped off in storage, but our Airstream is parked next to our house with the shore power cord plugged in 24/7. Plus, it didn't make sense to drill holes in the roof to mount it when it couldn't actually fully restore the charge used overnight. That's why we now have two Honda's.

Perhaps, solar panels work better on larger trailers that have more real estate on the roof; but our single panel is still in the box. I may find some project in the back yard where it can power some landscaping LED lighting or an attic fan, or something like that. Or, one of these days when we are stranded in the woods, I can use it to power my cell phone; that is, if I remembered to bring that panel along, and we aren't out of range of a cell tower.
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Old 08-13-2011, 03:56 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by SilverRanger View Post
I have a 53 watt solar panel. It does a very nice job of keeping the two AGM batteries topped off. But, as Wsmith indicated, you won't be able to run any heavy duty appliances. For that, I have two Honda 2000i generators.
We have the same setup.
We use our trailer during archery season in Colorado.
Night tiime temps often fall below freezing.
We find that we need to run our generator for a couple of hours each day to keep the batteries charged, particularly if it is cloudy. The furnace motor is an energy hog. If temps are below freezing, the furnace runs a lot even to keep the temperature in the trailer at 55 degrees.
We just got back from a summer camping trip where temps were warmer. In summer conditions, the solar panel will charge the batteries if it is sunny all day.
We use a micro wave and a coffee maker. For those to run without the generator, you need a 2000 watt inverter and a bigger battery bank than the two twelve volts that live in our battery box.
An air conditioner requires shore power or a 4 kw generator.
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Old 08-13-2011, 04:26 PM   #10
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We have found the fall is the time when solar may not be enough. Last year at Yosemite with lots of trees, short days, in a canyon with high walls, there wasn't a lot of sun. We had to run a 1,000 watt generator for one to one and a half hours per day to have a enough juice for the furnace. But this was with a 96 watt solar panel that was beginning to go bad and batteries that weren't holding a change so well.

Now we have 200 watts from much better panels and much better batteries, so I don't know what will happen this fall.

We consider the generator to be a back up if all else isn't enough.

If you want to run 120 v. appliances, you can either run them directly from a generator (2,000 watts would be better; this is a pain to do with an extension cord) or get an inverter to use the 12 v. system and convert it to 120 v. You can do it, but you'll need to supplement with a generator or a gigantic solar system. A gigantic solar system will cost a lot—check out AM Solar's website for prices for panels. If you want to boondock in hot places in summer (or all year in the southern states), A/C is a problem and you need a 3,000 watt generator for one A/C. You'll use a lot of fuel and possibly annoy your neighbors. You could probably fit 600 watts of panels on a 25' trailer, but that still may not be enough for more than a few hours of A/C with all the other things you'd want to use. Given that Airstreams don't have particularly good insulation, and many models have many windows which provide nearly zero R value, once the A/C is off, the trailer heats up very fast on a hot day.

The decision what to do is driven by money, what you want to use in the trailer, what you think about generators and the noise they produce, and where you plan to boondock. Everybody has different needs. You can wait and see what you do and what you'll need and then you can make a more educated decision.

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Old 08-13-2011, 06:14 PM   #11
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I think having both is a good thing!
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Old 08-13-2011, 08:00 PM   #12
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I went with just the generator. I sometimes watch costs. I just could not see a couple of special batteries, a replacement converter, a solar controller, heavy duty wiring, and solar panels, and then have to carry a generator too. Several 3 day stays in 35 degree rain and windy in a number of places and a taste for early spring and late fall trips makes me not inclined to solar.
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Old 08-14-2011, 06:03 AM   #13
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We live on a small island, a foreign country. We pay 50 cents per kWh from the local power company ( outrageously expensive) and so have been keeping an eye on solar and wind technology for some years now for our primary residence here. Solar photovoltaic technology just has not gotten to the point where we feel it is cost effective to install it. We have been thinking of wind, which we have in abundance, too. But the problem here is that if we go solar or wind, the power company will immediately cut us off completely. No net metering here. So we have to be sure of what we are doing as we will have to live with it, literally.

I am going to suggest that people looking for something more than just the basic trickle charge buy a generator now, and wait a year or so to see what's coming down the pike with solar if you are looking to go completely solar. There are a lot of people on the very edge of some serious breakthroughs with PV. It's going to become cheaper, lighter, and more efficient, 'any moment now'. Buying an expensive system right now doesn't make sense to us, as we would be wanting to replace it for the new, much better stuff within just a few years. And there will be no market for the newly obsolete used glass panels.

Now, solar hot water, that works just great.
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Old 08-14-2011, 11:11 AM   #14
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I started with a small, high quality, 5 watt solar charger from Solargizer to give a little back to the dual batteries in my '77 Excella when I used her during hunting season. While the panel did OK, when I ran both factory fans, I knew I would have to go with a larger panel. I found a cheap 20 watt panel which helped. When I purchased a '86 Sovereign, I kept those panels/chargers but decided that I wanted something I did not have to lay out and keep pointed at the sun. I went whole hog and purchased a Sunrunner kit from AM Solar which had two 100 panels, a good, wiring, mounts, 3M tape to attach the mounts to the roof, tilt bars and everything I needed to complete the job including INSTRUCTIONS. It was and still is a great kit. I documented it on a thread on AM Solar install best I can remember. It has been in service over 5 years with not a single problem. Sometime after the two panels were installed, I purchased a used 65 watt panel from AM and put it on the roof also. The Sovereign has fans running during the day and I never have to worry about battery power even from the single Trojan battery in this unit.

I do have a Yamaha 3000i SEB generator which takes care of the A/C unit when it gets so hot that the fans do not keep the interior cool enough. I chose solar first to keep batteries charged when and if the trailer is off grid (95 % of the time) and generator for those times I expected it to be so warm I would not be able to sleep inside during the hot portion of the turkey hunting and September bow hunting season.

We have also had power outages twice that lasted over a day in length so I also rationalized that the generator could be used to power our two refrigerators and one chest freezer but nothing more. We also have a wood burning Mother Earth stove to help supplement electric heat so if power were not available in the neighborhood during winter then we would be OK. Some of our neighbors had to leave town during one 4 day power outage due to an ice storm/lines down but we hung in there. We had plenty of propane for the gas grill for cooking and two propane stoves for heating water or other food. Everything seems to have a place in the scheme of things at least for us.


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