We might be crazy enough to leave our home and jobs behind to drive around the entire world. But, c’mon, we don’t want to do that in the dark. Like anyone else we want to be able to flick the light on, put our phones to charge and grab a cold drink out of the fridge before we get ready to go to bed.
And as Vanda only produces energy while we are driving. If we stay in the same place for a few days we start risking running out of battery. One way to get around that problem would be running the engine for an hour or so every day. But generating unnecessary pollution is not really our cup of tea and we decided to go for something a bit greener instead.
Adding a solar panel to the roof
One of the best ways to produce energy while stationary is using a solar panel. And as prices have come down they’ve become increasingly popular amongst campers. In very simple terms it transforms sunlight into electric energy, which can then be used straight away or stored in batteries.
You would need a few panels to power your entire home, but as we live a pretty minimalist life and all we need to power is our fridge and a few gadgets, one single panel does the job. So we got a single 125W unit off eBay for AUD $169 and put it on the roof. Then we simply hooked it up to our Redarc BCDC1225 and voilà. Now our second battery is charged from our alternator when the engine is running and from the solar panel when the car is off.
Tips to do it yourself
Alright, so you are a keen camper and would love to extend the time you can spend outdoors before worrying about beers going warm or snaggas going off? You have seen other people driving around or camping with their solar panels and now you want to get one as well… but you’re just not sure where to start?
This guide intends to clarify aspects that matter to the average camper, and de-mystify things that don’t matter that much. That way you can hopefully make a better informed decision when installing a solar panel without getting confused.
First things first. If you don’t yet have a second battery, go get one
Relying on the battery that starts your engine to run your camping appliances is NOT a good idea. I could list a hundred reasons why not to do so but it’s pretty obvious. So if you don’t have a second battery yet I really don’t see the point of even considering buying a solar system.
On the other hand, if you want to buy a second battery and need help picking the right type or size, have a look at (link: text: Picking the Right Batteries).
Solar charge regulators
Solar panels are not meant to be connected directly to anything, not even to your battery. You will necessarily need a charge regulator. If you don’t yet have one, your options are:
– Buy a solar panel with an inbuilt regulator
– Buy a solar panel and a standalone solar charge regulator
– Buy a solar panel and an in-vehicle charger with an inbuilt solar charge regulator
Unless you already have a regulator or have any specific reason not to, I would advise for the third option. Not only will the integrated system charge your second battery from both engine power and solar power as you turn the car on and off. It will usually turn out cheaper when compared to standalone systems of similar quality.
When setting Vanda up we decided for the Redarc BCDC1225. The unit is made in Australia and designed to withstand the roughest driving conditions of the Australian Outback. It’s an in-vehicle charger with inbuilt MPPT solar regulator. Able to charge our second battery at up to 25A either from Vanda’s alternator or our 125W solar panel. There were cheaper options on the market, but as reliability is a most for us it was a bit of a no-brainer.
MPPT Vs. Non-MPPT
If you decided to buy something else, be aware that there are two main types of solar regulators on the market. Without going into too much detail, MPPT (or Maximum Power Point Tracker) regulators are on average 30% more efficient than non-MPPT as they can adjust the voltage to maximise charge. So, really, make sure you get a good MPPT regulator.
What size solar panel?
To figure out what size solar panel you will roughly need it’s important to have an idea of:
1. How much energy you use every day on average
2. How many hours of sunlight you will get per day
3. What size battery you have
Fixed vs. mobile panels
If you’ve got the space within your vehicle to store mobile solar panels, then go for mobile or foldable – this means you’ll be able to move the panels to where there is sun (especially handy if its super hot and you want your vehicle in the shade).
Unfortunately for us, we didn’t have the space inside our van to do this. Our compromise was to fix our solar panel to the roof at an aerodynamic angle (in front of the rooftop tent). We made the bracket unscrew-able so that if we really need to move the panels we can (we carry an extra 15m of cable to connect the car with the panel in order to do this). After four months on the road however we haven’t needed to do so yet.
Where to buy your solar panel
We bought our 125 watt panel off eBay and paid a total of AUD $169 including delivery. We have been super surprised with the efficiency and quality of the panel considering how cheap it was. It was durable enough to stay in tact during a hail storm with golf-ball sized ice falling from the sky, and hasn’t failed us in terms of charge.
We find we can completely charge our Engel fridge for a good week off the panel without having to drive the car for back up charge. In addition we can also charge a few accessories like phones/computers during this time too. Not bad for $169!!
We hope this article has helped a little at answering some of the doubts you might have when wanting to install a solar panel. If you have any further questions regarding this subject feel free to write a comment below and we’ll do our best to answer and further doubts you might have. Good luck!