Boondocking in Quartzsite Solar Notes

It’s the middle of January 2019, the sun is low on the horizon and we are dry camping about 10 miles north of Quartzsite, AZ on BLM land off Plumosa Rd.  We camped with quite a few others, hooking up with David Botts’ group.   Tuesday, the afternoon we arrived, was pouring down rain and the dips on Highway 95 were running rivers of muddy water.  When we saw that, I  knew we would be in for some fun pulling out into the muddy desert, and suspected the two washes we had to cross would be flowing pretty good.  You always have to wonder how deep they will be when they are full of water.   They weren’t too bad, but the next day I must admit, I had never seen the coach so dirty.   The skies cleared within a couple hours of us getting there and deploying the slides, carpet and chairs. 

The following morning turned out to be a gorgeous day, and amazingly each day afterward was very nice too.   Warm and sunny till we headed back to San Diego. 

On our first full day here, the panels put out a respectable 160 amp hours of power,  2.15KW.  Pretty phenomenal for 640W of panels lying flat on the roof of our RV in mid-January.   But as it turns out, only about 80 amp hours made it back into the batteries, and the other 80 or so amp hours produced were consumed real-time by the loads running in the coach during those 9+ hours of daylight.   We did get the batteries juiced back up to 87% SOC, so that was pretty decent, although not what I was looking for.    So It was time to set up the solar suitcase I built last spring to provide those extra 8 amps every hour the coach consumed during those 9+ hours.  Hopefully that will allow all the power being generated by the roof panels to go into the batteries. 

After building that solar suitcase last spring, I returned the small 15 amp controller and purchased a larger 50 amp model that would handle the load from 640 watts of panels.  Fast forward to now and I did not have a controller to use with those 200 watts of panels.   They run at a different voltage from the roof panels, precluding me from hooking them into that controller, meaning I had to go out and buy one before I could hook them up.   So that afternoon,  Friday, I drove around Quartzsite looking for a 15 amp controller that could handle the 44 volts my suitcase was wired to produce.   Discount Solar had nothing to work with that voltage, and Bill’s Solar had something they said would work for about $300.  I decided to wait till the show that was to start the next morning to search for a solution there. 

We hit the big show tent early Saturday morning, trying to get in and out prior to the crowds.   Parking there can be a real pain, but someone was pulling out of a spot as we were about to pass them, and we pulled right into that spot!  We wandered all around the tent and spotted a booth from which had a  Victron SmartSolar 75/15 controller on their table, and the cost was within a buck of what they cost on Amazon.   I bought that one.  And while I was paying for it, Chris’s girlfriend’s parents greeted us and we snapped this picture!!

Afterward we headed back to the coach to install it.  Turns out I didn’t have enough wire with me to complete the install, so I had to head back in to Quartzsite to a hardware store I had noticed on the way back to the coach that afternoon,  picked up a couple lengths of 10 gauge red-and-black wire.   

That allowed me to complete a temporary setup at around 4pm Saturday afternoon, a couple hours prior to sunset.   I could see that it would really help the situation tomorrow, our last full day prior to heading back to San Diego.   

Saturday night was the potluck dinner, and the band showed up before 7pm and started a few-hour gig.  They were fabulous as they had been last year.  The band is Notes from Neptune,.  They play the clubs in Phoenix. 

Sunday, our last day in the desert, was hazy with high clouds most of the day, lowering the amount of solar irradiation.  Thankfully the suitcase helped by adding another 5-8 amps of power all day long.   One note about using a suitcase is you need to remember to reposition them about every couple hours to point toward the sun as it moves across the sky.  It makes a fairly large difference in watt output each time you move it.  

Now we will need to wait till our dry camping adventure in Tucson during March to test again.  Should be a lot more solar power available by then. 

We saw this little fireplace while we were there.  It’s a wood burner and had a small adjustable blower fan in the orange box on the side to adjust the amount of heat being produced.   It was kind of clever.    This other device was hooked to David’s Komodo Joe cooker.   It was a temperature and WiFi enabled air blower that will keep the temperature you program for cooking in your KJ.  David was using it to smoke some ribs at right around 200 degrees.   Now that’s some slow cooking  🙂  

It’s now the middle of February and I finished the permanent controller installation for the suitcase this week.  




First Boondocking experiences after installing Solar on the RV

Let the testing begin!    Our first camping trip after I installed 640 watts of flexible Renogy solar panels and a Victron 100/50 charge controller was at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta campground October 3rd till the 14th.     We had signed up for an Escapee’s HOP (Head Out Program)  late last year when I couldn’t find more than a couple days in a row of available reservations.  Turns out they open the Balloon Fiesta Camping reservations up about a week after the last one ends so I was a couple months late to the party.  Luckily I found the ad for the HOP and they had a few openings.  I reserved a spot right then.

Fast forward ten months and we were camping there with our barely tested new solar panels charging our house batteries.    First thing I noticed was around noon the first full day there, they stopped charging the battery.  I checked the side compartment with the charge controller and I saw that one of the breakers on the battery side of the controller had tripped.  The devices I bought were supposed to be 50 amp breakers,  but from what I could tell, it tripped around 30 amps.  Not a good sign.  I clicked it back on and we started charging again.  

I started researching breakers and determined that I probably should have bought 60 amp breakers for that part of the circuit and better quality ones.   So I started calling local distributors, but none had them in stock, so I gave up for a bit.  

Next day it happened again, the same breaker tripped.  I could see this was going to be a chronic problem unless I replaced it.  Again I started looking online for a replacement and at the same time wondered where I could have it delivered.   After all, I was in a sea of RV’s.  No way for UPS to find us. 

A few  days went by while I called just about every electronic and electrical supply house within 90 miles of Albuquerque.    I also kept googling.  And then unexpectedly about 30 pages of results later, I found an ad for a 60amp breaker at an unlikely place called Sportsman’s Warehouse.   I called their local store, and to my surprise, they had a bunch in stock!   That afternoon I drove over and bought one immediately.   Turns out they were in the fishing section of the store for trolling motors, MinnKota MKR-19 Circuit Breaker 60A.   I replaced the faulty breaker that afternoon.  

Of course, once that was in place, the next day the breaker I had previously installed on the negative side of the circuit tripped.  I had only put that breaker on there as a switch so I could turn off both the negative and positive sides of the circuit.  Humbug!  So I went back to the store and bought a second one and installed that on the negative side of the circuit.   The issue with these particular breakers for me was no button to trip them manually, which is one of the main reasons I bought the problematic ones.  They had a button to press to trip them, so in effect they were also a switch.   I had seen other solar install pictures online where those same cheap breakers were used for solar hookups, so I figured they would work.   Geez,  was that a wrong assumption.

By now we are just a couple days from the end of the fiesta, so I decided to shop for one online that had the manual trip lever to install prior to us leaving for our next trip.   I eventually pulled the trigger on the Bussmann CB185-60 breaker and had it shipped to the house once we arrived back home.   I will be leaving the MinnKota on the other side of the circuit till I can find a suitable surface mount switch.

Now that I was no longer tripping breakers, I could really see what the panels were capable of.   One of the days I happened to look at the console and see over 540 watts of power being generated and almost 40 amps going to the batteries.  That was pretty amazing because the panels are flat mounted on the RV roof and the sun was getting low in the sky as it’s the middle of October.    Solar panels should be angled toward the sun for optimum production, but I decided early on in my research that I wasn’t climbing up on the roof to tilt them up and put them down each time we moved.   Once I committed to flexible panels that was fairly moot anyway.

While we were there, I experimented using the generator in the morning to charge the batteries up to around 80% SOC (state of charge), which is around the point the onboard charger drops out of bulk charging mode.  At that point I shut the generator down to let the solar panels attempt to top the batteries off during the rest of the sunny day.  Only using the generator while the charger is in bulk mode should be the most efficient use of the diesel generator.   Once the charging switches from bulk into the absorb charging mode, the charge amperage drops fairly quickly.  Even when the charger is only pushing 10 amps into the batteries, the generator seems to be under the same load as when it’s charging them at 125 amps in bulk.

I am now starting to more fully understand the difficulty of fully charging our batteries via solar . Adding more panels will help, but in reality I probably can’t fit enough panels on the roof of my RV to get it done in the middle of winter. 

The chemistry of batteries prevent them accepting the full amperage of the panels once they get above 80% charged state where the controller shifts into absorption mode.   More panels will get you to 80% quicker, but then the battery chemistry kicks in and effectively starts pushing back and the controller starts dropping the amperage going to them.  So if you calculated you could push 40 amps for 4-6 hours of the day (240 AH) and less AH before and after those hours, then in theory I figured we can push all those AH into the batteries during those six hours,  but that’s not reality.  As soon as those batteries hit around 80% SOC, the amount of charge accepted quickly drops.  So if your batteries are depleted below 80% SOC,  say at 60% SOC, you can really push in those amps for a while; but when they hit that 80% threshold, the amps  drop, and they drop in an almost linear line down to just a few amps and then hit float charging.

My experiment running the generator in the morning was my charge controller switched from bulk charging to float charging way too quickly, almost no time was spent in the absorb phase of charging from the panels, which should be the bread and butter of solar.   I started to search for an answer to that, and what I found out so far was the amount of time the charge controller stays in absorb is determined by the voltage the charge controller sees when it wakes up due to first sunlight in the morning.  The higher the voltage it sees when it wakes up, the shorter the time it stays in the absorb phase; and the generator made the controller see much higher voltage when it woke up, so the absorption time was cut to almost nothing.  

But that was learned a bit too late in the game, so this will continue when we dry camp in Quartzsite the middle of January.


Modifications to the RV prior to leaving for the Balloon Fiesta.

After getting back from the NW trip I had a list of things I wanted changed or added before departing for the Balloon Fiesta trip.   First modification was to move  the living room TV/Couch from the driver’s side to the passenger side, thus allowing the chairs to be moved to the larger slide behind the driver.  This switch simplifies the tasks needing to be done when arriving and departing.  Also allows someone to sit in those chairs while driving now that there are seat belts although the ottomans are normally seat-belted in.  Currently those seat belts hold on to the ottomans.  I’d hate to get hit by one of those in an emergency stop.

Next thing was to install a motion light by the inside stairs.  I happened to find something on Amazon that now after using it a few days is the perfect solution.  Motion LED light.   It’s rechargeable via a micro USB cable.  And to make it even simpler to install, it has a metal plate with 3M tape to mount it to your surface.  Then you can remove the light at any time to charge it as it’s magnetically attached to the plate you installed.   It only stays on 18 seconds, which is perfect for entering or leaving the RV.  It’s affixed to a flat surface under the passenger-side pullout drawer.  I like it so much I want to buy more, so I am trying to figure out where I need them first.

After installing that, I tackled installing some drip channel above the windshield.  A buddy told me he had done that and it really helped keep that huge piece of glass clean while parked.  Prior to adding this, water and dirt from the roof would streak down the windshield after just a day or so, making it necessary to clean it almost every day.   Since adding that a week ago, I haven’t had any dirt streaks on the windshield at all.  Now if I could only figure out a way to keep the bugs from splattering while driving!

I then drilled a large hole in the dining room cabinet to install a power tower that can pull up or close down when not needed.  The only outlet in that area was under the table, very difficult to get a plug into.    Power Pop-Up Station, three outlets      I also installed a small 8″ square piece of sheet metal on the roof to act as a ground plane for our  Cell Phone Signal Booster

The last thing I accomplished during the time between trips was to install   640 watts of solar panels on the RV roof.   Last year I installed a Bogart Trimetric Battery Meter that measures amps into and out of the house battery pack.  That helped me determine how much energy needed to be put back into the batteries after a 24-hour period,  giving me a starting point to determine what I might need.  First I built a 200w portable suitcase, documented in an earlier post last spring.   I sorted out the controller details and approximately how much wattage I needed.   I then installed a controller in the coach that was sized for the panels on the roof; but while I did more research on what panels to buy, I could use it for the portable panels I have stowed in the RV basement till I pulled the trigger on the roof- mounted panels.

Fast forward to now.   I first tested each panel with a voltmeter laying in the back of the pickup truck to see if I had any DOA panels.   Then I did what I call a “sidewalk test”, laid them out on the side walk one morning and hooked them up to the coach’s controller to see if they put out amps.

I installed 4  Renogy Flexible 160w mono solar panels, all serially connected to keep the amperage low and the voltage high, allowing for much less voltage drop on the 35′ cabling runs from the roof to the controller via the rear cap.   I wanted to line them up along the passenger side edge but there were some things sticking up on the roof that would create shadows on the panels so a couple of them were moved further inboard the others.

I used 2 tubes of Sikaflex 252 for gluing down the panels to the fiberglass roofing.  Renogy recommended that as it would stick to their ETFE material.   All in all it was a simple process to install and cable them.  The only actual difficult part was fishing the cables down thru the inside of the rear cap.   You cannot see what you are doing as all you have is a 1″ hole and it’s not a straight shot to the bottom.   I eventually found a 1/4″ x 10′ piece of threaded rod that was stiff enough and flexible enough, and long enough to come out the bottom.   Everything I had that might have worked was only 6′ long.  Not enough to come thru the bottom of the compartment where I could grab it and pull it further down and over to the Controller storage compartment.

It’s all done and it generates a lot of power!   Next week we will be dry camping at the Balloon Fiesta for 12 days.   That should give me a lot of empirical data to work with for any future modifications.

Yes,  flexible panels were more expensive than rigid panels; but after I figured in the costs of the mounts and extra time it would take to install, not to mention the piece of mind while driving down the freeway that those heavy rigid panels might have become decapitation projectiles to an unlucky car following behind….  I am very happy with my decision.   The rigid mounting brackets I wanted to use were from AM Solar, and they were about $80 per panel.

We will see how they hold up over time.