Solar and Heat for Boondocking

The blue pilot light at the bottom lights that white plate, which turns orange as it heats up

The blue pilot light at the bottom lights that white plate, which turns orange as it heats up

Back in November when I was working at Amazon, I placed an order for the solar equipment, propane heater (I don’t have a furnace), and other odds and ends needed for boondock this winter. I wrote quite a bit about it all when it arrived but I couldn’t give a review of how well things worked at that point as I hadn’t been able to test it. I’ve had several requests from readers for a proper review, and now that I’ve been boondocking for a month I feel comfortable doing so.

Actually, I still haven’t run the Little Buddy heater (smallest of the Mr. Buddy line) more than two nights, I have a good sleeping bag under my covers and stay plenty warm. It runs exclusively on the small propane bottles, for the larger units an adapter can be purchased to make it run off a 20lb tank and I suppose one could do that for the Little Buddy too, but you’d have to craft a stand for it as it sits on top of the bottle the way it is.

It is a very good little heater though. It’s rated at 3,800 BTU/hour and has no problem heating the Casita. When I woke up the morning the cold front had passed through and it was 37 inside I fired up the Little Buddy and in 30 minutes the temperature had risen to 60 degrees in the far corner of the trailer, warmer near the heater itself. It’s the kind of heater that warms up the air rather than the objects close to it, if you set it on the floor like I do and put your hands over it they’ll get warm pretty quick.

Comparing the size of the Little Buddy to my $20 ceramic heater. Note I didn't have the base on the Little Buddy for this pic but you get the idea

Comparing the size of the Little Buddy to my $20 ceramic heater. Note I didn’t have the base on the Little Buddy for this pic but you get the idea

It does produce CO and ventilation is required. I crack open a window when I run it, and bought a CO monitor along with it. Supposedly it has a low-oxygen safety shut off feature, but I don’t want to test it, you know? It also produces moisture, and cracking the window helps with that too. Out here in the desert the extra moisture is welcome, but in more humid environments I’d probably want a dehumidifier.

With the stand that you put around the base of the propane bottle, it is pretty sturdy despite being top heavy. While not large, it’s definitely bigger than my small ceramic heaters that run on electric. When not in use, the directions say to cover up the plate so it doesn’t get full of dust and unscrew the propane bottle, I keep it stored in its box under my bed.

The Renogy 100 watt portable suitcase kit is keeping up with my meager energy needs very well. I don’t have numbers and technical details to share with you all on it’s performance as I am not electric-savvy and I don’t have a true battery monitor, I can only say that when I use my voltmeter to test the battery in the morning before the sun comes up when it’s been resting all night, I’m always at 12.4 or 12.5, so it must be working.

It folds in the middle and makes a suitcase complete with handle with the charge controller on the inside

It folds in the middle and makes a suitcase complete with handle with the charge controller on the inside

My single battery is a Walmart Group 27 12 volt Marine battery, so it’s neither a starter nor a deep cycle but something in between. True deep cycle batteries are recommended as house batteries for RVs, but alas will not fit inside the battery compartment of Casitas.

It was actually pronounced damaged with a bad cell when I had it tested at Auto Zone last year following it’s depletion due to a mistake made at the Casita factory when installing my new water heater. Recommendations were to get it replaced, but I’m happy I’ve held onto it as it’s been a great test battery: if it turns out 100 watts hadn’t been enough I would have been damaging an already damaged battery and not really out anything.

Hooking the kit up in Texas, it plugs in directly to the battery using Anderson connectors

Hooking the kit up in Texas, it plugs in directly to the battery using Anderson connectors

For electric draws, I only have my LED lights, water pump, a tiny bit of electric to power the control panel on the fridge, charging my laptop and smartphone, and occasional use of the Fantastic Fan when cooking. I do as much of my gadget charging during the day as I can and minimize electric use after dark.

When everything arrived, I mentioned how the alligator clips that came with the Renogy kit wouldn’t work for hooking it up to my battery because of the tightness of the compartment. Well, when I visited Little House Customs at the end of December, Larry put an Anderson style connector on the wires coming from the panel and charger, and modified the way my battery hooks up to accommodate that. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve included pictures taken shortly after the modification when I was still in Texas.

A closer look at my battery compartment and modifications made

A closer look at my battery compartment and modifications made, the bit I’m holding in the left photo is the plug that fits a matching one coming from the charge controller

Through research browsing the Casita forums, I discovered I had to do a little setting up on the charge controller that came with the kit to optimize it for a Casita. By default it’s set to 200 AH and Sealed type batteries, and I heard I should change it to 96 AH and Flooded. The menu has eight options that you scroll through using the orange buttons. Option 5 is where you can change these numbers, but when you hit enter it asks for a password!

From reviews of the kit, it looks like this is the number 1 complaint people have with the product. No paperwork comes with the kit that explains what the password is, but it’s always all 0’s.

Setting up the charge controller that is mounted to the back of the panel

Setting up the charge controller that is mounted to the back of the panel

If you have further questions about my boondocking gear feel free to ask. I may not know technical answers, but other people who read my blog and do might chime in!

Couldn't end this without more views from Saddle Mountain

Couldn’t end this without more views from Saddle Mountain, click for larger image

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Becky

At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

40 Comments

  1. Alane in Durango Colorado on May 26, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    I just got a Renology 100w solar suitcase as a birthday present. I hooked it to the battery in my Casita and it seems to work. My Casita is a similar vintage to yours but is a 16 footer. Now I want to be able to use my laptop. I see from a comment above that you got an inverter and plugged it into the 12 volt outlet. That’s the one in the corner on the ceiling above the bed by the TV antenna control, correct? That seems like an awkward place to be putting cables for charging my computer and phone. Have you come up with a fix for that?
    And, will any inverter do for powering electronics, or is a particular type best?
    Thanks in advance for your advice.



    • Becky on May 27, 2017 at 9:23 am

      Correct Alane. I only keep the cables there when I’m actually charging something so my bed is clear at night, I hang the inverter on my TV stand (I don’t have a TV in my Casita) so there’s a dedicated place for it. If you’re handy you could install a 12V socket somewhere else in the trailer, I’ve known people who’ve done that, but I’m not handy so I just use the one in the corner. It works fine for me.

      I’m not that knowledgeable about inverters, you might want to ask that question on a Facebook group or in one of the Casita forums to get an educated answer. I just went to best buy and showed them my laptop and asked what I needed to make it work.

      Best of luck to you!



  2. chuck brooks on November 6, 2016 at 5:21 pm

    I always enjoy your posts but ya need to add more…Im always
    left wanting more more more to read…:)
    chuck



    • Becky on November 6, 2016 at 8:58 pm

      Glad you’re enjoying IO Chuck. Maybe someday I’ll be able to afford to update the blog more often, right now Amazon takes precedence.



  3. onemoregarden on August 19, 2016 at 11:08 am

    Hi here,
    Do you have a generator? I’m thinking not.
    Are you able to charge your phone and laptop on 110?
    Also, did you use the golf cart battery in place of your house battery? Perhaps this is common practice.
    How did you make your electricity before your solar?
    I love how simple you have made your life!



    • Becky on August 20, 2016 at 10:20 am

      Nope, no generator.

      I have a small inverter purchased from an electronics store that plugs into the cigarette-style 12 volt outlet in my trailer and converts to 110 volt power to charge my phone and laptop.

      It is well-known that deep cycle type batteries work better as RV house batteries than the marine-style (half-and-half batteries), but mine is still marine style because a golf cart battery won’t fit in my compartment.

      Before I had solar, I camped in places with hookups.

      Take care!



  4. Lilian on July 5, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    Hi Becky! Thanks for this post. I purchased a Casita 17′ Spirit DLX and the Renogy suitcase and the day after the panels were delivered my dad found your interview with Bob, so I wanted to read more about your set-up. First off, your battery compartment looks very roomy…I don’t have that space so obviously the alligator clips weren’t going to work. I found this review: http://texasvanagons.com/review-renogy-100w-solar-panel-suitcase/ and copied his set-up and it seems to be working fine. The added extension cord works great too. You’re right on the lack of documentation – even the downloadable manual wasn’t much help. I will have to look at changing the Rated Value for my battery, which probably means I have to pull the battery out to know what settings to use. Also sounds like in order for me to know if the battery is fully charged I should use a meter? The SOC read-out doesn’t appear to be accurate or I am reading it wrong – both are possible :-). I also read that once fully charged, the panels should be disconnected from the battery…do you do this?

    Lastly, not to do with solar or heat :-), have you had to replace the cushions for your bed yet? Just wondering how they will hold up for me and three dogs.

    Travel safe!



    • Becky on July 6, 2016 at 3:01 pm

      You’re welcome Lilian.

      To the best of my knowledge Casita has never changed the size of the battery compartment so yours should be the same size as mine, but I agree that the alligator clips don’t fit, which is why I changed mine out as stated in this post. I switched to Anderson connectors, much less space needed.

      Yes, I use a voltmeter ($15 at Walmart) to judge my battery capacity. It’s not the most accurate solution, but it is a cheap one. Plug the voltmeter into the 12 v socket in your Casita and it’ll give you a reading. With my Anderson connectors, unhooking the panel from the battery is easy, you just pull the two ends of the plug apart. I’m not sure how it works on your setup if you did something different. That being said, I personally don’t worry about unplugging my kit unless it’s raining or I’m getting ready to leave.

      I have not changed out the cushions in my Casita yet, but I don’t think it got very heavy use before I took possession. Most people end up buying a memory foam topper or something to put over the cushions to make the bed more comfortable and that’s easy enough to do.



  5. JimS on February 14, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    Thanks for sharing!



    • Becky on February 15, 2016 at 2:16 pm

      You’re welcome Jim!



  6. Dave on February 13, 2016 at 6:14 pm

    Rebecca,
    Which CO detector did you purchase?



    • Becky on February 15, 2016 at 2:16 pm

      The brand is First Alert, it’s battery operated of course.



  7. Roger Fell on February 12, 2016 at 10:25 pm

    I did some testing of the Mr Buddy heaters, the CO output is very minimal, less than what you would get of a candle. The pilot light is the main source, once the element is up to temperature, the CO levels actually drop as the catalyst cleans up the fumes from the pilot light.

    I’ve also used the 1 lb bottle refill fittings, easy to do!



    • Becky on February 13, 2016 at 4:46 pm

      Thanks for the information Roger. 🙂



  8. Gus Payfer on February 11, 2016 at 6:10 pm

    Regarding the “This site may be hacked message”: I had no trouble getting into your blog just now. That same problem happened to me on another website yesterday. Don’t try to cancel the message out. Just press and hold your power button to shut off the computer. When you restart, the message should be gone.

    Glad to see that you’re placing picture links for the products you buy from Amazon. Maybe it will get you some much-earned income. It would be great if you could avoid Workamping this year. Take Care.



    • Becky on February 12, 2016 at 4:17 pm

      Oh, it wasn’t when you tried to open the page Gus, it was if you did a search in Google for my blog, they put the message next to the search results. All taken care of now. 🙂



  9. John & BJ on February 11, 2016 at 10:49 am

    Love your Dome Rock header photo!



    • Becky on February 12, 2016 at 4:15 pm

      Thanks John and BJ!



  10. Jodee Gravel on February 11, 2016 at 8:31 am

    How wonderful that your set up is making it possible to enjoy boondocking with limited energy usage! I’m a big sissy when it comes to being cold, but am finding that if I can get nice and warm in the bed it doesn’t matter so much how cold the motorhome gets inside over night 🙂
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..Since We’re Here…….My Profile



    • Becky on February 12, 2016 at 4:14 pm

      I’m kind of a sissy about it too Jodee but with my sleeping bag I stay plenty warm even on the coldest nights!



  11. J. Dawg on February 11, 2016 at 7:54 am

    Nice write up, Becky. You’ve shown that a person doesn’t have to spend thousands on a solar setup and batteries to meet simple needs. I spent about $600 on my solar set up (two 100W panels, PWM controller, cables, connectors) and use them in a portable setup. I also have two 12V Group 24 deep cycle batteries from Sam’s Club. Not the ideal, but at $160 for the pair they meet all my needs for boondocking in my Winnebago View.
    Have enjoyed your writeups from Quartzsite.



    • Becky on February 12, 2016 at 4:14 pm

      Thanks for sharing your setup J. Dawg. Glad you’ve finding my desert meanderings enjoyable. 🙂



  12. pamelab on February 10, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    Thank you, Becky, for all the good info. You are sure learning a lot and passing that on to the rest of us. Good comments from the peanut gallery, too.
    Blooming vegetation in the desert! Very special. Thanks for all the good photos, too.
    Happy Trails. Pamela in Houston.



    • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:18 pm

      You’re welcome Pamela!

      That’s what an Occotillo looks like in bloom! They are very pretty.



  13. Gary Wood on February 10, 2016 at 11:43 am

    Fun times, I remember trying to figure out my solar panel last year when I first bought it. I spent a little more on the Zamp 120 Watt. Works flawlessly and all I need. I will be join the ranks of traveling again in March with a stay of a few days in the desert near Q and Anza Borrego on my way to California. Glad you’re enjoying the boondocking.
    Gary Wood recently posted..Vagabond’s Second AnniversaryMy Profile



    • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:12 pm

      Luckily I was out at Little House Customs before I used the solar panel for the first time and the Casita people out there knew what to do with the kit. Would have been frustrating to get out here and not knew how to get the password!

      Glad your kit is working well for you. I bet you can’t wait until March gets here. Enjoy the desert!



  14. Jim@HiTek on February 10, 2016 at 8:18 am

    Excellent post, Becky, and it really sounds like you’re getting a hang of your equipment.

    I’d bet you’re soon to be a ‘boss’ with the electrical tools and testing too!
    Jim@HiTek recently posted..Let’s go boating…My Profile



    • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:09 pm

      I don’t know about being a ‘boss’ Jim, maybe in another three years? Haha. Glad you enjoyed this.



  15. David Ainley on February 10, 2016 at 8:06 am

    I attended your seminar at RTR 2016 and have since been reading your blog. I have to say you are one of the better bloggers. IMHO. Excellent info and great pictures. Keep up the good work. Thanks for sharing.



    • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:08 pm

      Glad to hear you’re enjoying IO David, thanks for reading.



  16. Gary on February 10, 2016 at 6:41 am

    Great article Becky. I have always used group 27 batteries with great success. Jerry made some good advice regarding re filling the 1LB bottles, but be careful. I found that the Ozark trail bottles on occasion would leak after being refilled. I never had a problem with the Coleman bottles. I like the Solar charger, still on my bucket list as I cheat with the generator on occasion.



    • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:07 pm

      Glad you found this helpful Gary. Those group 27’s get such flak in the RV community for not being “ideal” batteries, but they’ve worked fine for me.

      I’ll keep what you said about the bottle types in mind. As I responded to Jerry, I’ve heard it can be dangerous to refill them so I’ve avoided it so far.

      I really don’t know if that charge is a good one or not, I just know it does the job and that’s good enough for me!



  17. Holly on February 10, 2016 at 6:16 am

    Thank you Becky for the controller info. I arrived in Q yesterday and set my panel up for the first time. The book isn’t near as helpful as what you posted. I hope to meet you I enjoy your blog and highly recommend it too.
    Suze (Yorkie) and I are in he middle of the upper ridge with the sun flag.



    • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:05 pm

      First off, it was nice meeting you today Holly!

      Second, I’m glad you got your controller set up properly. Looks like we got a good group at the rally, should be fun. 🙂



  18. Ray Hawkins on February 10, 2016 at 6:06 am

    The charge controller for the solar panel is unnecessarily complicated for what you are doing, in my honest opinion. Try looking for 12 volt mpp (maximum power point) charge controllers on amazon (where I bought mine) and a controller that can handle 10 amps (well above the kit you have) will cost about 10.00. Hook up the wires and you’re done, no programming required.



    • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:04 pm

      Ray, it all came together as a set with the charge controller. Now you can buy the kit without the charge controller and I think it’s $30 less or something? But I wanted the all-in-one package, min-maxing just isn’t my thing. Thanks for this advice though, may help other readers who like to put things together themselves!



  19. Jerry Minchey on February 9, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Becky,

    Thanks for more beautiful pictures and for the information about setting up the solar controller. I need to follow your advice and get mine set up correctly.

    Two comments. First, the Mr. Buddy heater puts out some carbon monoxide which is CO instead of CO2.

    Second, You can get a little $10 adapter to connect to a small propane tank and use it to refill the little green propane canisters from your larger propane tanks. You do have to turn your BBQ grill tanks upside down, so the liquid propane will go into the little canisters. It runs about 70 cents to refill the little green canisters.

    I have been doing this, and it works great. I have a little 1-gallon propane tank that I use to refill the little canisters. It costs me about $3.50 to fill up the one-gallon tank, and I can fill five or six of the little canisters from it. Yes, even here in Florida, I still need a little heat some mornings.



    • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:01 pm

      Note that this was for my Casita Jerry, other RVs very well may have different optimal settings.

      Fixed. I knew it was carbon monoxide so I don’t know why I put the “2” in there but oh well, haha.

      Yes, I’ve heard about that adapter but I’ve also heard refilling the small canisters can be dangerous (according to the warning labels on them it shouldn’t be done). Any thoughts on that? Is there a ‘safe’ way and an ‘unsafe’ way?



      • Jerry Minchey on February 10, 2016 at 7:14 pm

        The people who are saying that refilling the small canisters can be dangerous are the ones selling you new canisters. I don’t think anyone would consider them to be unbiased.

        I’ve refilled a lot of canisters and I don’t see anything dangerous about the technique. It saves a lot of money.

        And yes, I knew that you knew that it was carbon monoxide.



        • Becky on February 10, 2016 at 7:25 pm

          Thanks for the advice!



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