Living on 100 Watts of Solar

So I mention quite frequently that when I boondock, which is over 90% of the time these days, I live on 100 watts of solar. The next question asked is usually: “What can you do with 100 watts of solar?” So today I thought I’d answer that.

Why 100 Watts

First it’s probably important to bring up why I chose the solar solution that I did. In the RVing world, 100 watts for full-timing is considered the bare minimum. Most rigs, even small Casita-sized rigs and vans, choose to have more. So why 100 watts?

  • Cost. My 100 watt portable suitcase was only $250, that’s about as cheap as you can go for a kit that requires no do-it-yourself work.
  • Simplicity. There’s very little work involved with my setup. It’s just two 50 watt panels with a hinge in between. It’s easy to set up, simple to store in the back of the truck when not in use, and required no messing around on my roof.
  • Portability. The panels can be set in the sun even if the trailer is in the shade, and I can park my trailer facing any cardinal direction and still get maximum use of my solar by moving it where necessary. It also means when I switch to my teardrop (which yes, is still happening – just not until September as I’ve been saying from the start), I’ll be able to keep my solar.
  • Battery restrictions. Casitas have a small battery compartment that can only fit a single Group 27 battery. There’s not a compelling reason to have more than 100 watts for a battery of that size. Yes, I could pay to have modifications done to the Casita to have a second battery mounted elsewhere and then it would make sense to have more solar power, but I’m switching rigs soon remember and what I have now meets my needs.

It’s also important to note that as a solo RVer, I use less power. So having 100 watts for me is like 200 watts for a couple.

What 100 Watts Powers

I don’t pretend to be an electrical expert, you can find articles and videos online from people who are much more knowledgeable about 12-volt power than I. A good starting resource is The 12 Volt Side of Life by Mark Nemeth, which starts with the basics of the RV 12-volt system in part 1, and then in part 2 dives into the technical aspects of how much power various appliances draw, getting specific about how long you can run various devices in an RV based on how much power you have.

That’s all beyond me. Fortunately, you do not need to be an electrician to make use of solar power. The most important thing to know when it comes to usage is that letting your battery/batteries get below 50% charge will damage them over time. So as long as you have some sort of monitor (I use a simple voltmeter) you can check the state of your batteries and make sure they don’t get too low. Over time, you’ll get a feel for how much power you have through trial and error without having to calculate the fancy math.

With that said, here’s what I use with my 100 watts:

  • Fridge. I run my fridge on propane when boondocking, but like most newer RV fridges, the propane setting still uses a small amount of power to start up.
  • Water pump. Using running water (washing dishes, flushing the toilet) takes electricity. I don’t shower in my RV and use a minimum amount of water for dishes, so I don’t use my water pump as much as some RVers do.
  • LED lights. Replacing the default light bulbs in your RV with LED versions reduces power consumption drastically. I can keep one of my overhead LED lights on all evening without worrying about running the battery too low.
  • 12V fan. I have a Fantastic Fan mounted in the roof of the Casita, and on hot days I may run it in the afternoon.
  • Charging electronics. This is what consumes the most electricity for me. I’m on my laptop at least a few hours a day most days for work – I don’t have Netflix or watch much YouTube. I also charge my smartphone once or twice a day. Less frequently I also charge my Kindle, and other assorted devices. I do not have a TV, which can also be an electricity hog.

If this list seems pretty short, that’s because it is. I have a water heater, and starting that up would also use electricity like the fridge… if I ever used it, which I don’t. My approach to RVing is quite minimalistic and my main forms of entertainment use little, if any, electricity. Not everyone would be happy with only 100 watts of solar, but it’s worked well for me.

Getting the Most of a Small Wattage System

When you have a small solar setup, every last drop of power counts. Here are a couple things you can do to get the most out of a small wattage system:

  • Tilt your panel towards the sun. It makes a huge difference in the amount of power you bring in, especially in the winter months when the sun is at such an angle. If your panel is portable, you’ll also want to turn it to face the sun from east, to south, to west throughout the day.
  • Keep the panel clear of shadows and debris. Even a shadow over one small part of a panel leads to a drastic reduction in efficiency, so park/place the panel so that you don’t get shadows. Wipe it down regularly to get the dust off.
  • Charge your devices during the day when the sun is high and you’re bringing in power. It’s easier on the system that charging things at night and letting the battery get low.

For more info:

Solar and Heat for Boondocking

Boondocking Answers

 

Related Posts

Becky

Forget about what the world tells you your life should be like. At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and go full-time RVing before retirement. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.

37 Comments

  1. TumbleweedMaggie on May 5, 2018 at 7:16 pm

    Your suitcase solar panel looks a lot like the 100-watt Renogy suitcase we have. There are 8 of us, two adults and six kids/teens, and we get by just fine as long as the sun’s shining. No TV, so all we need to power is LED lights and the water pump. We’ve been really happy with ours.



    • Becky Schade on May 7, 2018 at 5:19 pm

      Yep Maggie, that’s what it is! It does its job very well, the only problem I have is the wires going from the charge controller in the back to the battery slip out of their terminals sometimes – and yes I tighten them as much as I possibly can. Otherwise, great little unit! I’m impressed that your family of eight makes 100 watts work, as teens my brother and I were too much electricity hogs to have done this!



  2. Sherri Burris on May 5, 2018 at 6:04 pm

    Thank you for blogging about solar. I think it is a great idea and I plan on checking into it for my situation. Low cost makes this a great way to go.



    • Becky Schade on May 7, 2018 at 5:19 pm

      Glad you found this helpful Sherri!



  3. Genard Hernandez on May 3, 2018 at 9:21 am

    Hi Becky! Thank you for sharing such informative post. We just bought a solar and I’m definitely excited to use them for our next camping.



    • Becky Schade on May 3, 2018 at 5:06 pm

      Congrats Genard and I hope it works as well for you as it has for me!



  4. Upriverdavid on April 26, 2018 at 1:20 am

    Any clue to the best solar controller?..No AGM batts….Just a 200 watt solar panel..And 2 6 volt T-100’s…..
    Thanks to anyone’s advice…
    Upriverdavid



    • Becky Schade on May 3, 2018 at 5:05 pm

      For the sake of simplicity I bought the solar kit that had the charge controller mounted right on the back of the panel. Hopefully someone else will have some advice for you! You can also try searching for “RV solar charge controller” on Google or your favorite search engine and look for advice that way. Good luck!



    • frater secessus on May 3, 2018 at 7:49 pm

      Best in what way? I’ll riff on this while waiting for clarification.

      Best industrial grade / survive a nuclear war: Morningstar Sunsaver MMPT is 15A and can tolerate overpaneling. ~$240

      Best user interface: Victron 100/30 30-amp controller w/BT dongle, ~$250. If you are feeling brave you could go with the smaller Victron 75/15 15A MPPT with BT dongle (or BT built in). It has a lot of admirers, but Victron says overpaneling that series is _no bueno_, and it’s right on the edge of the controller’s rating. . ~$120

      Best value: EpSolar/EpEver/Tracer/etc 2210A 20-amp MPPT w/MT50 meter, and temp probe: ~$125 off the slow boat. Large heat sink wicks off heat associated with overpaneling.

      Best controller you can buy for $10 🙂 — a configurable 20A shunt (on/off) controller like this:
      https://www.amazon.com/dp/B071GY6HY7/



  5. Lindy on April 22, 2018 at 10:44 pm

    Hi Becky,
    I may have missed a post, but I thought you were going to get a new camper. Did you change your mind?



    • Becky Schade on April 23, 2018 at 1:13 pm

      “It also means when I switch to my teardrop (which yes, is still happening – just not until September as I’ve been saying from the start), I’ll be able to keep my solar.”



  6. Norm H. on April 20, 2018 at 9:17 pm

    Love your new (website) look! 👍👍

    Thanks for explaining how you function using 100W. Appreciate the explanation.



    • Becky Schade on April 23, 2018 at 1:14 pm

      Thanks Norm and I’m glad you found this post helpful.



  7. jevowell on April 19, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    Going with 100 Watts given how much you boondock is really impressive. We are solar fanatics and have a 1200 Watt system that we consider massive. We haven’t plugged in to any “shore power” in over five years. There is a noble dignity you have that we don’t in the way you are “watt-wise” in your lifestyle!



    • Becky Schade on April 20, 2018 at 5:46 pm

      I am quite happy with what I’ve managed to accomplish with 100 watts, I’m not sure I’d go so far as ‘noble dignity’ though. On a cloudy day when I turn my laptop brightness way down to conserve power and have to stick my face right in the screen to read it, it’s not very dignified, haha!



  8. GK Lott on April 18, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    Sounds like you are WattWise. 🙂 Thanks for the excellent post. We enjoy having solar, and with our new lithium battery, our boondocking limit is potable water and blackwater.



    • Becky Schade on April 19, 2018 at 3:09 pm

      You’re welcome GK! Everyone I know who has lithium batteries really likes them. The black tank has always been my limiting factor.



  9. Chris on April 18, 2018 at 11:13 am

    Becky,
    Very much enjoyed this post. I am experimenting with solar. For testing, I bought HF new 100 W system. I never intended to hook up permanently but one thing led to another, and VOILA! I wired the camper (I have some DIY skills but was surprised at how easily I was able to do this.) I did have to purchase some 10g wire, connectors, and hinges but now have a pretty efficient system (at least, I think it is). Headed out west for the summer so it will get a good test.



    • Becky Schade on April 18, 2018 at 1:12 pm

      Congrats Chris and I hope your testing goes well! Solar was a huge game changer for me, I hope it works just as well for you.



  10. Charlene Swankie on April 18, 2018 at 9:50 am

    Good job. Good review. My issue with my portable suitcase (160 watt) was getting it in and out, setting up, rotating it a few times day, was becoming to difficult with a bad shoulder. Facing a total reverse shoulder surgery and a long recovery, i decided to mount it on top the van. It weighs 45 pounds. Weight and bulkiness is a factor peole should also consider depending on their physical abilities.



    • Becky Schade on April 18, 2018 at 1:10 pm

      Wow, I didn’t even know 160 watt portable suitcases existed, I can imagine it was quite bulky! Glad you found a solution that worked for you Charlene.



  11. Tom Fitch on April 18, 2018 at 9:46 am

    Hi Becky, I missed that you were going from the Casita to a tear drop. Can you steer me to where you may have explained that? Thank you!



  12. Rob K on April 18, 2018 at 9:34 am

    I used 96w on my 16′ Casita. I had an ordinary plug on the end of the panel wires and just plugged it into the wired receptacle going into the charge controller. Worked great for me, though one of the 12v plugs went bad in the Casita. Why do they have them under the cabinet?
    I’m in a different trailer now and 200w works just fine in summer. I do have that 96w that I use as a portable in winter since my other panels are fixed.
    I like your new blog layout too!



    • Becky Schade on April 18, 2018 at 1:04 pm

      My older casita only has a single 12v plug – located where the TV stand is. It does get annoying sometimes. Glad you like the changes!



  13. Bill Maier on April 18, 2018 at 8:46 am

    I have been using a 75 watt panel for some 17 years and have never run out of power. I have 2 deep cycle six volt batteries which I’ve replaced 3 times in 17 years. I have a sat radio, laptop and a small DVD player. I don’t use my pump often. I have an outside shower, no header…great in the summer. I’ve lived with solar for the last 25 years on the road and wouldn’t even thing of having a generator. GO SOLAR. Bill



    • Becky Schade on April 18, 2018 at 1:02 pm

      Solar is a game changer for sure, Bill!



  14. William Hesse on April 18, 2018 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for another fine post Becky.
    How does solar figure into your teardrop? Are you taking your suitcase setup with you or starting over?
    -Bill-



    • Becky Schade on April 18, 2018 at 1:01 pm

      I’m taking my suitcase with me, as alluded to in this post. The teardrop will also have 80 watts hard-mounted on the roof (and a bigger battery) so it’ll actually be an upgrade over the Casita.



  15. Rose F. on April 17, 2018 at 9:31 pm

    Thanks for the rundown on how your solar kit works for you. We just got an A-liiner and a 100 watt kit and I was getting a little worried reading anout fancy set ups. But we have been minimalist campers for years making do with just a propane stove and cooler with ice. I feel more confident now about our solar choice after reading your blog. Thanks for taking the time to tell us!



    • Becky Schade on April 18, 2018 at 1:00 pm

      I’m so glad you found this helpful and reassuring Rose. 100 watts can definitely be enough. 🙂



  16. Linda Sand on April 17, 2018 at 9:24 pm

    Excellent summary! The hardest part for me was remembering to charge my devices early in the day so my solar panels would have time to recharge my battery.



    • frater secessus on April 18, 2018 at 7:37 am

      It’s the other way around in many cases. Devices that can have their charging time-shifted are best charged in Float stage or once current has started falling off in Absorption. In this way we use “excess” energy the system isn’t otherwise using to charge. This is the logic behind Becky’s advice to charge devices when the sun is high in the sky: not only is the system making more power then but the bank has very likely finished Bulk by late morning.

      Charging devices earlier would be compete with Bulk charging, which is “no bueno”. That would extend the period of time the bank suffers the negative effects of Partial State of Charge.

      Q. “What do we want????”
      A. “100% State of Charge!”
      Q. “When do we want it?”
      A. “As soon as practical! We will not compete for power while the system needs to deliver significant current to the battery bank!”

      Ok, so I wouldn’t be a very good protest leader. Admittedly, I am posting pre-coffee.

      Here’s an overview of why timing one’s elective loads works so well: http://rvwiki.mousetrap.net/doku.php?id=electrical:solar:nonessential
      Here’s a Gentle Introduction to Solar for folks new to the concepts: http://rvwiki.mousetrap.net/doku.php?id=electrical:solar:gentle_intro

      Exceptions:
      * Lithium-chemistry batteries don’t care about when you charge them or about partial state of charge.
      * if running a genny morning is the best time to do it. And it is most efficient to max out the genny’s capacity: charging everything, running drip coffee maker, whatever. Then after Bulk, cut off the generator and let the panels finish the “long tail” Absorption and Float stages.



    • Becky Schade on April 18, 2018 at 12:58 pm

      Glad you found this helpful Linda. Frater has the right of it though, I’ve always been told that early afternoon is the best time to charge electronics – guess I could’ve been a bit more specific in the post. I never knew exactly why though, I’m not electrical savvy as he seems to be. Although I think morning is still better than after dark.



      • Linda Sand on April 18, 2018 at 3:22 pm

        Guess I should have qualified my statement too. I am a night owl. Early morning for me is 11 AM. So by the time I get functional enough to remember to plug in my electronics it is early afternoon. 🙂



  17. Kit on April 17, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    Hi Becky, I like the new website, it’s clean and simple. I too use 100 watts and minimize my power consumption by not using the HWH, but this winter the furnace was a drain on my battery, it was cold and cloudy, snowy for three days and the battery just couldn’t recover. I have since found out that the 100 watt solar panel (flexible) I used for 3 years failed. I replaced it with 175watts, and will be replacing the group 24 battery soon. Next winter in Colorado I’ll add another battery and the set up should mean I can run the furnace. I also bought a heater buddy, propane portable for in a pinch. Most of my camping is in sunny Utah and Arizona so this is the first time since 2013 I’ve had solar issues.

    Can’t wait. to see the new rig.



    • Becky Schade on April 17, 2018 at 8:20 pm

      Thanks Kit! Sorry to hear about your solar woes but glad you’ve found a new solution. I don’t have a furnace in my Casita, I’ve heard they are big power hogs. I have a Little Buddy heater that I use when it gets cold, which isn’t extremely often since I like to follow the nice weather. My size uses the little 1 lb propane cylinders but a friend gifted me an adapter that lets me fill them using a larger propane tank, super handy!



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