Solar Power

We quickly came to the conclusion that the boogie van should enable us to go farther out than a weekend at the mountains.  We could see road trips to Tofino, up to the Yukon, or down into the U.S. – where ever we could envision to drive, the van was to be the platform for our simple view of travel and lodging. Far more inconspicuous and fuel efficient than a full-sized RV, but still carrying sufficient kit and provisions for our adventures, It also needed to be ready to meet the demands of being off the grid for at least a few days at a time at a remote hot-springs. Off the grid need not equate to primitive.

But how to best achieve this? I researched RV forums to see what others were doing and three-way refrigerators appeared to be a common item. We did not have propane, but were not specifically against installing it. External tanks would not really fit well anywhere on the van, and a custom built under-carriage propane tank was not easy to source. It was possible to put propane inside the vehicle, but there were considerations about venting and flammability.  If we got propane then why not a propane stove? Yet why a propane stove when we had a naphtha one?

We sat down and talked about what we really were looking for.  We needed a method of keeping food on the drive, which our 12v thermo-electric cooler provided given we could generally get ice and we had the internal 12v power off the vehicle.  Power when we were moving, ice when we stopped, the cooler would keep everything reasonably the way it needed to be for a long weekend away. The caveat was how hot it was outside as coolers are not refrigerators and cool relative to ambient temperature.

But what about other considerations?  Lights were a very useful item, but unfortunately the interior lights were not working due to a short in the vehicle wiring. A 12v-to-120v power inverter would give us some flexibility for my wife’s bullet blender and her hair dryer, as well as my clippers to keep my dome well groomed. If you are gone from home for an extended period there will always be times you need to keep up with normal maintenance and we didn’t want to be forced into a motel just to be presentable. We wanted to keep it as simple as possible.

If we kept to the idea of multi-use kit we could discard propane. To get past the limits of the cooler we needed a 12v refrigerator. In order to allow for small appliances we needed an inverter. Power was clearly the answer; a solar panel with a small battery array that did not produce flammable gasses.

After a bit of research into solar panels and batteries I settled on a single 250w solar panel (limits of roof space came into play) and 2x 6v AGM batteries at 260ah each. AGM meant no gassing and so we could fit them inside the boogievan. Tied in series this battery array gave us 12v at 260ah, half of which we could consume daily without damaging the array. Our cooler worked at 12v x 5 amps which equaled 120 amp-hours (ah), or just under half of our battery array, leaving us 46ah to play with. Space and weight were considerations when purchasing all items…there are bigger 6v batteries available and 12v batteries in parallel are also an option, but you have to put them somewhere. We had space for two batteries just behind the driver’s seat.

To this we added a power inverter which again was only envisioned to provide short bursts of power, not to run major appliances. We settled eventually on a Power Bright 2300w unit which gave us the constant wattage required for a 1800w hair dryer. The wiring plan post covers how it all was linked together.

The Project.
We did not chronicle in pictures the entire solar installation. One can easily find video instruction on how this works, which is what we did, and we are not experts on this topic. We did look at options for solar control boxes and choose an MPPT unit over other styles. These units are apparently very efficient, able to convert volts to amps, and also to equalize batteries which is important for long battery life.

Below is the label from the back of the solar panel. The panel itself measures 64.5″ long by 39″ wide, it takes up a lot of our roof. Overall it cost under $1000 for the solar install including the remote. You need the remote for programming the controller and for starting the equalizing process so it is recommended to buy it.

Here is the installed solar panel. To affix it to the roof required that we remove the inner roof panels and bolt it onto the roof metal sheet. We bought one item to add to the kit which was a box that affixes to the roof to run the wiring through; you can see it on the top-left of the picture below. It was purchased from Amazon and cost under $25, but was the best way we could see to get the wires into the control box while keeping the water out. Both screws and silicon were used to affix this item to the roof, but it should be mentioned that another hole needed to be made in the roof to get the wiring through. Take care here to ensure you wires will not be cut or abraded by the cut metal.

This is a close up picture of the remote. We tend not to rely on the battery level indicated in the battery icon as it drops fairly quickly when using battery power. The volts left in the array are a better indication. From left to right you have the amount of power coming from the solar panel, the status of the battery array, and finally on the right the amount of power currently being used by accessories. Keep the book in a safe place for future use.

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