Living in an RV full-time comes with some unique challenges. Doing it on the cheap, without hookups, and while working adds a few more. We have had such a blast working through these challenges over the last year and wanted to layout what we've learned and how we're doing it. Yada Yada Yada.....
Our RV is a 2006 Fleetwood Tioga 31M. It is honestly way more room than we need most of the time, but not having enough space was a pretty big fear of ours as we were RV shopping. The funny thing about a rig of this medium size is that it either feels too big or too small depending on the size of the rigs around us. Luckily, most of the time there's no one camping around us and it just feels like home.
Now, one of the essential parts of living in a motor-home is having a vehicle to get you around with once you're set up (often called a 'toad'). We don't have one of those. It's honestly not that bad most of the time, but it would be nice to be able to drive around some back-roads to explore our surroundings.
During the week, we are happy to just stay put around the RV, we get our work done during the day and then are always happily kept busy in the area around our camp in the evenings. The weekends are where it becomes a little more challenging, but we have found easy solutions to this problem. We like to move spots every weekend anyway, so during our travel we take the RV to whatever National Park or hiking destination we are visiting. Often there is parking for RVs and many National Parks offer shuttle services, and when that doesn't work we quickly realized that rental car companies practically give away their inventory on Saturdays! Although it would be nice to have a car, I definitely believe that we have learned a lot of tricks that nearly make up for it. Not to mention the serious financial savings of not owning a car, installing towing systems to it, worse gas mileage with the RV, harder to park places and get gas, etc. It was a decision that we weren't sure about when we made it, and still aren't sure about. I'm pretty sure I wasted enough of my 20's sitting in traffic with my last car to be fine not owning one for a little while.
For all the ups and downs of RV ownership, we love our house on wheels. Would we buy the same one if we were doing it all over again? Probably not, but that's not to say that we're not happy and lucky for everyday that we get to call this thing home. Certainly there the occasional thing to break and need fixing, but I am very handy and sometimes look forward to trouble shooting a furnace error code.
RV Solar Power
A typical week living in the Nomadic Neighbors household involves generating 100% of our electricity needs directly from the sun. Now, there are instances where a string of rainy days will render our solar panels insufficient, just as there are days when a relentless heat wave will force us to use a little A/C to stop the brain melting. But aside from these rare occasions where we plug in or run the genny, we are almost always completely solar powered.
There is no doubt that the topic of RV solar installation is a very dead horse. There is a ton of information out there, some good but most of it bad. Luckily I have a pretty extensive electrical background and we were able to install just the right system for us without overdoing it like many other's end up doing.
Knowing that our refrigerator ran on LPG and we didn't need to power the A/C we were able to get our entire system installed for under $1,000! Consider that the 2 brand new golf cart batteries came with the RV and the cost of our system is still under $1,200. Although this seemed like a decent chunk of change before hitting the road, we can now figure that the last 46 weeks worth of RV parks would have cost over $9,000!! Not to mention that we have far fewer neighbors and vastly better views, I'd say that our solar for boondocking investment has worked out perfectly!
So with that little backstory, here is a quick rundown of our system.
We have 4 x 100w polycrystalline solar panels. They are 12v system panels and are wired in parallel, meaning that once combined the voltage stays the same and the amps from each panel are summed together. In ideal conditions I get about 16 amps out of these panels. I installed them with some custom mounting hardware that left the door open for the ability to make the panels tilt in the future.
Here is where I feel that many people over buy on their system. If you have a big, powerful system then by all means get a pricey MPPT controller that does some really impressive things. But for a system like ours, a simple and old school PWM controller suited us just fine, and at only $30 the price difference is staggering. I figured that we could get started with this cheap one and if in the future I wanted to upgrade to squeeze out a little more power I could do that. The thing is that this simple controller has worked perfectly to keep our batteries in tip top shape over a year of heavy use now.
The last year's worth of electricity that we've used flowed through 2 golf cart batteries. Although that may sound strange, golf cart batteries are cheap deep cycle batteries that are made to take some serious abuse. These are called flooded cell batteries, meaning that they consist of lead plates in a sulfuric acid solution (which is just water and sulfur). As you discharge the battery, sulfur bonds with the lead freeing up electrons and turning the liquid into just water. Then when you charge them, the sulfur gets booted off the lead and back into the sulfuric acid. Now, there are some other types of batteries that work better and are lighter - but those come at a huge cost. Again, I would love some lithium ion in my life, but these antiquated pieces of flooded battery technology just keep working so darn good for us!
Here we use a 1.8Kw pure sin wave inverter from Zantrex. The pure sin wave designation essentially just means that the power this unit makes is identical to household power, whereas cheaper models have a modified wave form that may annoy certain electronics. We have this thing wired up so that a simple push of a button turns it on and supplies all the AC outlets in the RV with power - the only thing we need to be careful of is to ensure that the air conditioning doesn't try to kick on while we are powered from the inverter.
That's it! Aside from wiring and mounting hardware, all solar systems regardless of size and price-tag will have these 4 main components. The harder part is balancing your equipment with your needs. We use a lot of power for our computers, watch a couple hours of TV at night, and run some other appliances. In addition to this, we use power for the lights, water pump, furnace, and fans. With all that added up we are able to easily meet our needs with our solar system, but it isn't without a few sacrifices. We can't run our A/C as mentioned previously, and we make coffee with a pour over cone and tea kettle, but all in all we live very normal lives often without even noticing that our power is fully self generated.