Last week, Amazon paid me in RV gear instead of money.
Well, not exactly. Amazon paid me about $550 as usual, and I turned around and spent that $550 back at Amazon, buying the solar suitcase kit and LED lightbulbs I wanted for boondocking this winter as well as Marine-Tex putty, a carbon monoxide detector, and a new converter.
First the solar stuff.
This will be my first long term off-grid experience in the Casita and I don’t really know how much power I’m going to end up needing/wanting. I didn’t want to spend a lot of money and then figure out I don’t like boondocking and have it all go to waste and I didn’t want to drill holes in the roof of the Casita or do any other modifications.
With those two thoughts in mind, I did some research and found multiple bloggers and forum aficionados who endorsed the Renogy brand suitcase kit. The 100 watt kit is affordable at $250 (as of this posting), and has everything a person needs to get started. For those who are electric-savvy and don’t mind putting their own system together from scratch, I’m sure there are more energy efficient and better optimized options out there, but for someone like me who wants to keep costs and effort at a minimum, it seemed like the best deal.
I know you’re all chomping at the bit to know how well the panel performs, the truth is I’m not sure yet.
It’s not a hard “install”, if you even want to grace the initial setup of the panel with that term. The solar panel is split in half (panel part on the outside) and folds up like a suitcase, with the charge controller mounted to the underside (inside, when folded). A little cloth bag is inside the “suitcase” that has the wires that hook up to the RV battery with alligator clips. The other end of those wires need to be connected to the panel assembly before you use it for the first time. I think the copper filaments that are exposed on the end need to be screwed down to terminals on either the panel itself or the charge controller – haven’t looked at it real closely yet but it doesn’t seem difficult. Note: while the panel is waterproof the charge controller is not, so the kit needs to be put away when rain is in the forecast.
The charge controller also needs to be set up before it can be used the first time, and I have heard the occasional grumble in reviews and on forums that the directions aren’t super helpful, it’s probably the most common complaint I’ve seen. Luckily enough people have these where you can find directions on other reviews on Amazon, a lot of other Casita owners on the forum I’m a part of have this kit too and they’ve posted better directions there as well.
Once the charge controller is set up and the wires are connected to the panel, it’s ready to go. Just unfold, secure the legs, set in direct sunlight, and make sure you attach the correct alligator clip to the correct battery terminal so that nothing gets damaged.
The problem, and I knew this long before I ordered the panel, is that the battery compartment in a Casita is extremely cramped. The alligator clips are big and unwieldy, and they won’t fit inside the the compartment well. A couple months ago I contacted Little House Customs to set up an appointment to get work done on the Casita after Amazon was over, and I included attaching Anderson clips to the terminals of my battery to the list of things I wanted done. Larry has done this simple modification to several Casitas to make it easier to use these portable solar kits.
The LED lights I bought are Brightech brand, a small business that uses Amazon for their order fulfillment. The exact name of them was “Brightech – 2nd Generation BA15s LED Light Bulb Replacement – Warm White Color – Single Contact Bayonet Base – 10-30V DC – Replaces #1156… etc. etc.”, quite a mouthful, but they work really well and have come down in price recently from $10 to $9 each (I think they were even cheaper the weekend of Black Friday, oh well). Again, finding them was a matter of going on the Casita forum and seeing what other people had replaced their bulbs with, that way even though I know little of lighting I could be sure if they worked in other Casitas, they’d work in mine.
Scrutinize this picture of my bed in Cas closely. On one end is the new LED bulb, the other end still has a standard incandescent bulb in it. Can you tell the difference? I sure can’t. The hue and brightness seem the same to me which is exactly what I wanted. Here’s the link to them on Amazon, but please know that if you don’t have a Casita, you may well need another kind.
Next up, the converter.
Remember back in October how I was still having battery issues, even after going back to the Casita factory to get the wires hooked up correctly after the water heater install in April? A blog reader offered to come out and check the battery with his fancy voltmeter doodad and confirmed that indeed the battery was only about 70-80% charged. When we plugged back into shore power he tested again and the voltage was still reading 12.2-12.4.
In short, yes the battery was damaged, but the converter was putting out too low of a voltage to effectively charge the battery. Better than the no charge I was getting from April until October, but if I bought a new battery I’d still have issues again before long.
Now, I could have replaced just the charging unit and left the rest of the converter, it would have been cheaper, but like with the water heater, putting a new part in an aging piece of equipment just didn’t seem like a great idea. I had money in my maintenance budget to replace the whole thing, and this way I shouldn’t have to worry about it for a good long time.
What I got is an upgrade, a 45 amp model from Progressive Dynamics to replace the stock 25 amp model. It’s overkill, but wasn’t that much more expensive and this way if the boondocking experiment this winter goes well and I decide I want to upgrade to a better solar array I won’t be limited by the converter. Again, I picked this particular one out of the crowd on the recommendations of other Casita owners.
Today around 9 am that same blog reader who did the initial battery testing came back out to install the converter for me. It took a little over two hours and required changing out the board (panel?) with all of the fuses and wires on it as well as the converter unit itself. I felt a little bad, I didn’t realize it was going to be that involved of a process, but apparently he actually enjoys projects like this – he said it was a nice break from having to do inventory at work yesterday.
Wow, this post is getting long.
I still need to talk about the Little Buddy heater (and CO2 detector to match), and the Marine-Tex project, but I’m running out of time. I feel like I had to rush this post a little and am not 100% satisfied with the quality and detail but rest assured I’ll put up more info (especially about the solar panel) once I’ve had a chance to test it and seen how it all works “in the field” as it were. Have a good weekend everyone!
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I wanted to give a special shout out for using my Amazon affiliate link and PayPal donate button this holiday season. Your purchases and donations this time of year help me during the first quarter of the next year when I don’t have a paying gig.
Thank you so very much for helping make this lifestyle possible.
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