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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Solar, Or Not?

Boondocking, living off the grid, enjoying the vast open areas of nature found in BLM lands, National Parks and the great West.

Of course, it requires a way to power your RV.  Plugging the electrical cord into the ground doesn’t work very well, for some strange reason, there is no juice available there. ;c)

So, you can do without, run a generator or turn to the power of the sun…with solar panels.
All the research I’ve done showed me to generate the amount of electricity with solar for our fulltime needs would cost about $4000. 

The first thing needed would be to upgrade and add batteries to the Journey.  Currently, we have three 12 volt house batteries.  They do fine for limited time off the grid, but we have to recharge them daily with shore power or generator run time.

To properly have enough battery power to meet our needs, I’d have to change the three 12 volt batteries to six 6 volt batteries paired up to give the 12 volts, plus add another two to three pairs of 6 volt batteries.  To do so would require welding new mounts for the batteries, after some pretty serious engineering.  There is not enough space in any of my basement compartments to handle additional batteries.

On the roof would go four solar panels, each one at least 100-130 watts, plus the mounts and tilt mechanism.  Cable to run from the panels to the heavy duty charge controller mounted on the interior, with additional cable to run from the controller to the batteries.

The Journey already has a 3000 watt inverter, so that is one area I could save some money, as long as it worked well, if not, it would have to be upgraded, and it too is an expensive item.

So the basic question comes down to will the solar charging system save any money over the long run?  Maybe,  if I keep using the system after installation for the next 30 or so years (or if diesel hits $10/gallon).

The solar charging system is not economical in that sense.  It is a convenience, to allow you to boondock off the grid, with little to no generator run time.

So, are we going to install a complete solar system to enjoy “free” electricity?


After analyzing our travels and our needs for electrical power, it would not be cost effective and necessary for us.  The past four months, in our 7000 mile dash around the country, we ran our 8KW quiet diesel generator six nights to generate heat in the Northern states.  Then in Quartzsite, AZ, where we stayed for a week, we ran the generator during the evening hours. 

All tolled, we used about 150 hours of generator run time. The generator uses 1/2 gallon of fuel under load per hour, for about 75 gallons total.  At $4.00/gallon, (not that we paid that much during the travels) it cost about $300.  The rest of the time, we were in full service campgrounds,  with no generator run time.

Looking ahead, we will be staying 99% of the time in full service campgrounds and our travels will consist for the most part east of the Mississippi River, where there are fewer boondocking areas and much more tree coverage.

Solar won’t be worthwhile for us, the generator will work just fine for the limited times we’ll need it.  Maybe someday things will change and it will be worth having it.  But for now, we’re going to pass.

However, our day would not be complete without a picture of our little sunshine.


Thanks for visiting and feel free to leave a comment.



  1. I love the pictures of your little sunshine. She sure is getting to be a cutie.

    We've had the same solar debate over the last 3 years trying to justify the cost. Every time we debated we've not been able to justify the cost for our usage either. We do usually end up upgrading something to make boondocking easier.

    We've come to the conclusion it's not really the cost. There's just something about it. We don't have it yet. We do have a Honda 2000 that we run instead of our on-board generator. That little workhorse can get by on less than a gallon a day. We don't feel the need to upgrade the inverter. Most folks we know have an inverter less than the 3000k. If we needed the air conditioner, we could always turn on the generator or get of out that hot place.

    We have added a trimetric and we have added 6 six-volt batteries. We're thinking we may add the controller. Heck, we may even add the solar panels. Who knows what we might do. We certainly don't. Will solar pay for itself? Probably not for us. We'll just have to see. We are thinking .... maybe.

  2. Paul, the look on Annabelle's face leads me to believe that she just read what you wrote above.

  3. We, too, have determined that we can't justify the cost of going solar. We are off the grid so infrequently that it just doesn't make financial sense.

  4. Put us on the side of not having solar because of the cost and our lifestyle. It really would be nice to have but definitely not a necessity for us. And with your little sunshine, you don't need anything else.

  5. "Plugging the electrical cord into the ground doesn’t work very well, for some strange reason, there is no juice available there. ;c)"

    Maybe if you had the right ground wire...

  6. interesting thoughts on the 'haves and have nots of solar power'!..$4000 is a ton of money that is for sure..good to weigh all the options before taking the plunge!

  7. If there's no practical reason to go with solar, then that's that. Mind you, practicality is a relative term.
    Those who have taken the leap figure it has to do with the peacefulness of the whole experience. I wouldn't know.
    I only dry camped at the race track with the cronies, and we'd run the generator a couple hours in the morning to charge things up (house batteries, cameras,phones) and to make toast. Those toasters like 110. Gotta have toast!
    And that was it. Probably used maybe a couple bucks worth of gas?

    Loved the little sunshine...

  8. We have discussed solar options and as with you, it is not in the plan right now. We will be east of the Mississippi most times, so not so many boondocking opportunities. Your generator analysis was very helpful!! But it would be nice to be able to dry camp without the the noise of the generator, but not for $4000;o))) You know the more time we spend out here in natural areas, the more noise really bothers us. Even the air conditioner and heater, though necessary, tend to annoy us;o( Thanks for good post!

  9. Thanks for your analysis. We've been debating the same thing. For now, the decision is to stick to the generator if we need it and see what our travel style will be before we go ahead and plunk down a serious chunk of change.

  10. We thought about it too, but the extra cost vs the usefulness doesn't make sense to us now. Rather save up the money for emergencies at this point.

  11. We've talked about solar... been living in this rig for 11+ years now... haven't found the need. We can boondock a week with no problem... but still have to go somewhere to dump and get water. Weight is a big factor as well... solar panels, extra batteries... all add weight and we're probably at our limit now. We have a 27' Lazy Daze... no slides, gasoline powered... and the generator (which has only about 200 hours on it all these years later) and batteries and propane fridge work for us. And isn't that what it's all about? Whatever works for you...

  12. I don't think it is about the cost. It is a lifestyle choice. Some folks really want to be "off the grid". We are not those folks :)

  13. Before we started fulltiming, we thought we may need/want solar, but now we realize it isn't something we least not while we're in the east.

  14. Solar is only worth it if you are willing to change your lifestyle.

    To install that much capacity means you still want to live your life as though you are plugged in, and dry camping for extended periods of time isn't about that. It's about conservation, something most Americans (and Canadians) aren't willing to consider.

  15. Good post and good comments too. It would be nice to have a quiet way to keep the batteries charged but it sure is a lot of money. Our generator will suit us fine for quite a while.

  16. Good analysis Paul, we have the system you describe and it is purely a convenience, never thought it would pay itself off, unless you consider sitting outside enjoying the outdoors without the hum of a generator payback. We do, but then we boondocked more than half of our time on the road.

  17. Great topic Paul.

    Like JB I would like to boondock half or more of my time on the road. Like Syl and Nancy, I like it QUIET and don't care for generators. SO I'd love to have solar. Finances and weight may not permit a big set up. Looks like I'd better talk to JB to find out the facts.

    We've boondocked as much as 2 weeks and would love to have stayed where we were muchy
    longer but were afraid we were damaging our batteries. The generator won't charge that last little bit no matter how long you run it. For that you need solar. And I hate the generator noise. I love natural places and don't want to hear engines.

    We have a small solar unit for that trickle charging purpose but haven't had a chance to try it out with the change in our plans. Still hoping "maybe next year". I do agree with Kevin that to boondock you really have to be willing to change your lifestyle and use much less water and electricity. Not a problem for me.

  18. I was just going to say but JB kinda said it already lol. We love to boondock. Hate RV parks so it was a very good investment for us. It works great and I don't even know that I don't have hookups. I really depends what your preference to tr is. its not for everybody

    We are also not full timers so that makes a difference as well I think.

    That Anabelle is just so stinking precious

  19. Anabelle is precious!!! She is so cute....we don't boon dock enough to warrant the generator works fine for us...

  20. I'm a self-professed 50A FHU princess. So, we've haven't even considered going solar. But, I can definitely see how it could appeal to some.

    The big money question we're considering is installing MCD shades. Now, for me, that's a no brainer! ;-)

    Different strokes for different folks!

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