Renogy Portable Suitcase Solar Panel

The Renogy 100 watt folding solar panel is light, easy to handle and very easy to set-up.  It's a true plug-n-play system.

The Renogy 100 watt folding solar panel is light, easy to handle and very easy to set-up. It’s a true plug-n-play system to give serious consideration to.

In a recent post I told you about how my friend Dandelion mounted her 200 watt Renology Solar Power Kit on her conversion van and instead of mounting them on the roof left her panels down on the ground. It’s working really well for her but it’s a little bit of a pain to have to take them in and out whenever she wants to take a trip in the van. If you’re going to leave the panels on the ground instead of mounting them on the roof, Renogy offers another solution you might want to consider: their Portable Folding Suitcase System. Because the panels fold in half and the controller is mounted to the back of the panel, it’s a much smaller system and is much easier to install and set-up. It’s so easy that from picking up the system inside the van to charging your battery should only take 5 to 10 minutes, the same with putting it away.

However, that convenience comes with a price and it costs more per watt than the non-folding normal kit.

So they charge an extra $60 for the convenience of the folding kit and if you need 200 watts then you double the extra cost to an extra $120 for two suitcase kits. You get a lot more convenience but at a high price. Only you can decide if it’s worth it to you.

The controller is mounted on the back panels so there is no permanent installation in the van.

The controller is mounted on the back panels so there is no permanent installation in the van.

Let’s look at what you get for your extra money:

  • Because it folds, it’s smaller and much easier to handle. That mean that packing and unpacking it will be be faster and a much more pleasant experience. It also means it will be much easier to store away inside the van when you’re traveling. That’s very important if for some reason you can’t set the panel out and you have to live around it for an extended period time.
  • It uses a better quality quick connects than most suitcase panels so they should last much longer. It also means that connecting it to the battery is super fast and easy.
  • It has a built in stand so having it tilted correctly is very simple.  Tilting it to the sun will give you a lot more power into the battery.
  • The system (especially the controller) appears to be high quality and has a very good display of information. The people I know with them speak very highly of it and it has nothing but great reviews on Amazon.
  • With the alligator clips that connect to the battery, you can easily move it back and forth to different batteries or even to different vehicles. For example, if your starting battery is getting low from sitting too long, you can just clip this onto it and charge it right up.
The Potable kit fold down into a small size and fits into this suitcase.

The Portable kit fold down into a small size and fits into this suitcase.

Once folded up, it easily tucks away in the van so you lose very little space while you're driving between camps.

Once folded up, it easily tucks away in the van so you lose very little space while you’re driving between camps.

I haven’t owned one of these personally so I can’t give you my direct experience, but I do know several people who own them and they are all very happy with them. It also has exceptional reviews on Amazon so those two factors together, combined with what I see as very good quality and craftsmanship in the product itself, allows me to highly recommend it. If I couldn’t mount my panels on the roof, this is probably what I’d buy, the convenience would be worth the few extra dollars to me.

One great reason to buy a suitcase system is it allows you to park the van in the shade and place the panel far away in the sun. That way  the van stays cool in the shade but you still charge your batteries. Something that will help you with that is a good extension cord so soon I’ll do a post about how to modify a standard 110 volt outdoor extension cord and use it for your solar panel.

The legs are very solid and hold the panel at the optimum angle for year around use.

The legs are very solid and hold the panel at the optimum angle for year around use.

Most portable panels come with cheap SAE controller that will soon fail; this o the other hand is a strong connector and will last many years.

Most portable panels come with cheap SAE controller that will soon fail; this one on the Renogy is a quality connector and will last many years. Plus, it can’t be connected wrong.

I like everything about this system! It has quality components at a very good price that offers you a lot of convenience. Highly recommended!

Who it’s for: It’s for you if … 1) You can’t afford to pay to get it installed and can’t do it yourself 2) You’re a boondocker who spends a lot of time on Public Land 3) You want to be able to park in the shade and still have the panel in the sun 4) You want to get the maximum power out of the panel by turning it to follow the sun and set it at the perfect angle.

Who it’s NOT for: If you live in the city then these really won’t work for you. If you set them out they are very likely to be stolen! If you don’t want to be be bothered with them they may also be a bad idea for you.

The PWM controller had an exceptionally nice display.

The PWM controller has an exceptionally nice display.

For an inexpensive controller, it has an exceptional number of features.

For an inexpensive controller, it has an exceptional number of features.

Posted in Electrical, Solar Power

Traveling to Visit Family

Even though we live on wheels, our limited budgets can make it hard to travel around the country to visit our families. For example, should I drive home to Florida to visit my mom or should I fly?

Even though we live on wheels, our limited budgets can make it hard to travel around the country to visit our families. For example, should I drive all the way across the country to Florida to visit my mom or should I fly?

One issue that stops some people from adapting the mobile lifestyle is the question of how will they stay close to their family? We all love the idea of moving away from cold country in the winter (especially with the terrible winter many of you are having now!) but it has the down-side that you also have to move away from family and friends. That’s bad enough but for many of you ladies the worst part is having to move away from the grand-babies—now that’s a tragedy! Many vandwellers have very strong maternal instinct toward their grandchildren and need to see them often.

In this post I want to try to reconcile our longing for freedom to travel and our equal need to stay connected to family. We’ll do that by exploring different options you have to connect and visit with your family. I know that sounds weird, I mean, we all live on wheels so why wouldn’t we just drive back to see them? While it’s true we all live on wheels but it’s equally true the majority of us are on fairly tight budgets and the cost of driving across the country is prohibitive to our already stretched checkbook. We need to find the most cost effective way to visit without breaking the bank.

Electronic Communications 

The modern world has so many wonderful means of communications we can stay in pretty close contact with our families electronically so that’s the first step.

  • Phone Calls: Long distance on our cell phones is so cheap it’s easy to stay in touch from anywhere. Voices carry so much more emotion than any letter on a screen it’s well worth taking the time to make a phone call.
  • Skype: Actually being seen and heard real-time during a video chat is a big step forward that it’s worth figuring out how to do it!
  • Email: Adult family members are probably content with an email, but children less so.  Their lives are changing so fast and they literally need to periodically see and touch the members of their family for them to be real to them. Otherwise they could see you as just another character in a book or TV show. We want to be more than that to them.
  • Letters, Cards and Post-Cards: Anything handwritten, even if it’s short, has a strong impact on other people far in disproportion to the amount of time and work they take. They really are a good habit to get into with your loved ones.

Doing all those things are invaluable and they do work to keep you in touch. But they probably aren’t enough for most of us. Every so often your loved ones need a hug and kiss from you to keep the fires of their love burning bright. None of us want our grandchildren to grow up not knowing who we are.

Go for a Visit

I’m writing this in my mom’s living room in Lady Lake, Florida, which is about two hours northeast of Orlando.  I know many people have strained relationships with their parents, but I’m not one of them; I love spending time with my mom and try to do so as often as I can! Of course she’s in Florida and I’m out West so we live pretty far apart. I don’t see her as often as I’d like because of the distance and cost, but I try to get over there at least every other year, and hopefully every year.

The question I want to address in this post is should we drive or should we fly? Even though I live in a van, I almost always fly. I drove back one time to see my mom and ever since then I’ve been flying because of it’s many hidden costs. We all think of the cost of gas but there are many other costs that aren’t obvious so we overlook them. Let me show you what I mean:

  • Cost of Gas–$1,012: It’s about 2200 miles one-way (or about 4400 miles round-trip) so it’s an expensive trip. I’m assuming your van gets about 15 MPG and with gas at $3.45 it will cost $1,012 in gas. But as we all know gas is exceptionally cheap right now, so if it were today and gas cost $2.29 a gallon it would only cost $671. I only get 12 mpg, so at $3.45 a gallon I’d have typically spent $1265. That’s a lot of money!
  • Oil Change–$50: I’ll need an oil change afterwards so that’s at least $50. If you change oil every 3,000 miles it will be 1 ½ oil changes or $75
  • Wear on tires–$60: Another cost that’s easy to miss is the wear on tires. If your tires last 44,000 miles then this trip of 4,400 miles is 10% of their life. Replacing the tires will be about $600 so that’s $60 toward new tires.
  • Mechanical Wear: But that’s not all, there is also wear and tear on every part of the van but especially the engine, transmission and brakes. It’s nearly impossible to quantify that into a number but let’s look at my van as somewhat typical. Money’s tight for me so I have a 2002 Chevy van with 165,000 miles on it. Based on past experience I’m assuming I’m likely to get to 200,000 miles before I start having to put major repairs into it. That’s only 35,000 miles away so these are very important miles—once they’re gone I’m planning to either decide to start putting lots of money into the van or getting rid of it for a newer van with less miles. This trip is almost 15% of the trouble-free miles I have left—do I really want to bring on those repairs that fast?
  • Time: I don’t like driving long days so driving the 2500 miles from Quartzsite, AZ to Lady Lake, FL takes about a week of tedious, boring  driving to drive each way. I usually spend three weeks there so it takes me 5 weeks including driving. That’s a big chunk of the winter and almost doubles my total trip time.
  • Driving is hard on your pets:  Long drives of multiple thousands of miles are hard on your pet who is bored and stuck in the van all day for almost a week. I didn’t want to put Cody through that so I left him at home with Judy who loves him and he loves her. He’ll miss me while I’m gone but he’ll adapt quickly–and I’ll be home before he knows it. If you have pets and don’t have anyone to leave them with then you would need to factor in the cost of boarding them while you’re gone. If I couldn’t leave Cody with someone who loved him, I would have driven rather than board him. It would break my heart to think of him feeling abandoned and hopeless while I was off having fun without him–I couldn’t do that to him! I’d rather spend the money and time driving and keep him happy.

So you can see that the total cost of driving is pretty high. At the minimum it’ll cost me $1200-$1500 hundred to drive and a lot of boring miles of driving.

They must have greatly relaxed Airport Security because I didn’t have to unload anything out of my bags and I was carrying a lot of electronics. The whole thing was quick and easy.

I choose to Fly Instead   

When I did the math and saw how much it costs to drive, I wanted to compare the costs to flying because I was sure it would be less expensive. I found out it was much cheaper and was going to be much less stressful than a very long drive through bad weather, so that’s what I did. Here are my costs:

  • Cost of Airline Ticket–$420: I flew out of Phoenix because it’s a  hub and therefore it’s cheaper.  I searched for the best fares on Orbitz and the cheapest to Orlando was about $360. But, they all  involved multiple stops along the way and flying overnight or at very early or late times. My mom is 80 so I don’t want to have her picking me up or dropping me off in the middle of the night so I went ahead and spent the money to get a non-stop flight that departed and arrived at very reasonable hours. It also makes the flight much less stressful and pleasant for me so I consider it money well spent. That ticket cost me $420.
  • Airport Parking–$105: Because we are about 150 miles from the Phoenix airport, I didn’t want to ask Judy to make that long round-trip twice; especially with how stressful it can be to get into and out of airports.  Instead I found a long term parking garage and left the van in it. I’ve done it before and they make it as painless as possible by having shuttles constantly running right from your car to the terminal. In the time I was getting my baggage out of the van and covering the windshield three shuttles drove by. I pre-paid the bill which cut the cost in half so it was $105 for 21 days in Long-Term Storage.
  • Gas to Drive to Phoenix–$75: I had to drive 300 miles round-trip to Phoenix to get to the airport so I’m counting that as a cost. However, on the return trip home from the airport I’ll stop and shop in Phoenix so I could probably count it as a shopping trip instead.
Normally flying is an ordeal, but this trip everything was so smooth and easy I actually enjoyed it. I attribute that to the non-stop flight. But the ease of parking in the long-term lot and  taking the shuttle to the terminal probably helped as well.

Normally flying is an ordeal, but this trip everything was so smooth and easy I actually enjoyed it. I attribute that to the non-stop flight. But the ease of parking in the long-term lot and taking the shuttle to the terminal probably helped as well.

The total cost of driving was at least $1200 and the cost of flying was half of that at $630. That left no doubt in mind I would fly.  An equally large part of the decision was that I wouldn’t enjoy that long of a trip. I enjoy driving  if there are things along the way to see and do, but there were none on this trip—it would just be covering miles. Plus, the Polar Vortex was clobbering the  south with ice and snow and I did NOT want to drive through that if I could avoid it.

The bottom line is you can be a nomad who stays connected to your family! Here’s a simple way to do it:

  • To fly home once a year, save $50 a month, $600 a year.
  • To fly home once every other year, save $25 a month, $300 a year.

Most of us can do that. Get started today and show your family how much you love them!

Posted in Travel

How to Add a Microwave to Your Van

My new (used)  microwave.

My new (used) microwave.

When you move into your van to live in it full-time, you give up a lot of things that you had always taken for granted.

  • Light at the flip of a switch.
  • Human waste going down the drain.
  • Heat or Air Conditioning at the turn of a thermostat.
  • Instant hot water to wash your hands or take a shower.
  • A microwave oven.
  • Lots of room to collect more crap!
  • Cable Television

Fortunately, there’s a way to solve most of those problems even if it is much less convenient than in a house. And if I can’t find a solution, well, I just consider the mild discomfort from losing it as a minor sacrifice for the far better life I’ve found as a vandweller.

Of those above, however, one thing I really do miss from living in a house is not having a microwave. I’m aware it’s a pure luxury, but boy is it a nice one to have! You’ve got to understand, I moved into a van to be happier, not to prove a point of how uncomfortable I can make my life. I’m more than willing to do without the things I don’t value, but not the things I really enjoy. So I have Direct Satellite TV and now I have a microwave; they make my life easier and  happier!

For a compact microwave it still has a lot of room inside. That's because of the rounded back corners.

For a compact microwave it still has a lot of room inside. That’s because of the rounded back corners. Over 90% of the things I cook go on a plate or a bowl and they fit perfectly on the carousel.

I’ve wanted to have one for a long time and a few years back I tried using one, but it worked badly. I didn’t really have enough solar panels or enough batteries, but the biggest problem was that I was using a cheap Modified Sine Wave (MSW) inverter. It turns out that microwaves are very fussy about the quality of power you feed them and it would barely work on the poor power from my cheap 2000 watt inverter. It did run and heated food a little bit, but it did such a bad job I soon gave it away.

Since then I’ve been steadily upgrading my system to make a microwave work. I found a good quality 2000 watt inverter that was a Pure Sine Wave (PSW) at Amazon and ordered it about 2 years ago and it has worked flawlessly for me ever since. It was surprisingly affordable for a good brand name. You can currently buy it from Amazon for $375 here: Xantrex PROWatt 2000 PSW Inverter,
Last year I found a great deal on a 240 watt solar panel and went ahead and picked it up with a separate controller and a pair of golf cart batteries.  That brings my total to 570 watts and six, 6-volt golf cart batteries. That’s more than enough to run a microwave and my satellite TV.

All I was missing was the microwave!

One of the main problems with having a microwave is—where do I put it? Most of us just don’t have enough room to give up that much space. But because I tow a converted cargo trailer with an extended van I have much more room than the average vandweller and, I had built the trailer with a microwave in mind. But it still needed to be as small as possible because I didn’t have that much room. So I’ve been searching for a small, compact one for a while and I finally found the one I thought would work for me. It’s a compact 700 watt cooking power micro made my Whirlpool.

What makes it truly distinctive is that it has rounded back corners so it can tuck back into a corner and use the minimum amount of shelf space. It got great reviews on Amazon and as soon as I saw it I knew it was the one I wanted. The only problem with it was that it cost $150.  You can pick up a cheap microwave for $50 or less at Walmart so that made it a lot more expensive than normal. I just wasn’t willing to spend that much money. You can buy it from Amazon here: Whirlpool Compact Microwave

Looking down from the top you can see it is very curved. That allows it to tuck back into a corner. That way it has all the room inside I need, but takes up less space on my counter.

Looking down from the top you can see the back is very curved. That allows it to tuck back into a corner. That way it has all the room inside I need, but takes up less space on my counter.

So what happens on the first day of the RTR? I run into a friend who had bought that exact same microwave for all the reasons I listed but decided he didn’t use it enough to keep it. It was practically brand new (he had used it three times) and he wanted to sell it!

So a deal was quickly struck and now I am the owner of my dream microwave. It works exactly like it would if I were plugged into the wall at home and I am having no problem at all powering it off of my solar panels; even in January with its short days.

Why I wanted a microwave.

I must say I’m delighted to have it. In the long run it will save me a little money because I’m cooking with free solar power instead of propane, but cooking with propane is so cheap it will probably never pay for the PSW inverter and the microwave. A bigger advantage is that when it’s hot I don’t have to pump heat into the van with the propane stove.

But it will save me money in the long run if I use it instead of going out to eat fast food or at a restaurant. And I’ll be healthier!

Like many of you, I don’t enjoy cooking so I tend to eat a few things that are easy to prepare over and over again. I soon get sick of them and start craving something that’s tasty, fast and easy, that’s when I find myself at Burger King for a burger and fries because it tastes great and it’s so very fast and convenient! But with a microwave at home I can have great tasting food available instantly. It’s actually even faster and easier than Wendy’s because I don’t have to drive into town and stand in line to get it. I just open the fridge, throw it in the microwave, and a few minutes later it’s ready to eat.

Fortunately, there are now numerous frozen meals and other things that are reasonably priced, good tasting, easily microwavable and are also fairly healthy. That’s a win-win to me and if it can keep me out of MacDonald’s I come out way ahead in both my wallet and my health.

micro-watts-highight

How Much Solar—Doing the Math

You’ve probably heard people say it’s impossible to run a microwave off of solar panels but that just isn’t true.  With 400 watts of solar and 4 golf cart batteries you can use a microwave. Let me prove it to you.

First, let’s clear up a common mistake; many people confuse cooking power with the power draw of the microwave and think that since it has 700 watts of cooking power it only draws 700 watts from the inverter, but that’s not true. If you look at my photo of the electrical plate of my microwave, you can see that it clearly lists the two numbers as power input and power output. The input is 1200 watts drawn from the wall plug and output is the 700 watts put into your food. So its draw from the batteries is 1200 watts or 100 amps per hour. Actually, when you consider inverter inefficiency of 20% it’s more like 120 amps an hour.

My Xantrex 2000 ProWatt PSW  inverter is mounted in my van because it has 380 watts of solar and 4 golf cart batteries.  The microwave is in my trailer and I use a 10 gauge, 25 foot outdoor extension cord to plug it in.

My Xantrex 2000 ProWatt PSW inverter is mounted in my van because it has 380 watts of solar and 4 golf cart batteries. The microwave is in my trailer and I use a 10 gauge, 25 foot outdoor extension cord to plug it in.

That’s a lot of amps! Microwaves draw 120 amps an hour out of your battery and that is such a huge number you automatically assume it’s impossible to use. But what people fail to take into account is how little it’s being used. If it’s only on for few minutes a day, we need to find it’s amps per minute, not amps per hour.

120 amps per hour divided by 60 minutes means it only draws 2 amps a minute—which is a very small number!  Because I usually only use it 5 minutes a day, and never use it more than 10 minutes a day, it only draws 10-20 amps off my batteries per day. Since I have 6 golf cart batteries I have a total of 700 ah and I can safely draw 350 per day, 20 amps for the microwave is such a drop in the bucket that I don’t even know it’s gone.

There is one more consideration though. When the power draw is that fast it can drop the voltage of the battery so low that the inverter will shut off automatically, that’s why you need at least 4 golf cart batteries and only two may not work. My microwave will work off just two golf carts, but my inverter starts doing a buzzing sound that I don’t like. So I have the two banks of golf cart batteries connected by an On-Off switch and connect them together when the microwave is on.

So if you’ve been wanting a microwave but thought it wasn’t possible, it is. Because most of us are on a tight budget, I recommend you try adding a piece of the system as you can afford it and then after a few years you’ll be in business.

  • Step one, add a 200 watt solar kit and batteries. Currently $340 at Amazon: Renogy 200 watt Mono Kit
  • Step Two, add a 2000 watt Pure Sine Wave Inverter. Currently $375 at Amazon: Xantrex PROWatt 2000 PSW Inverter
  • Step three, add a second 200 watt solar kit and batteries. Because the batteries will be a different age than the other set they can’t tie together permanently or the newer set will be damaged. I connected mine with a 4/0 gauge wire and put an On-Off switch in it. They charge separately and are only together when the microwave is on.
  • Step four, buy the microwave. Currently $150 at Amazon: Whirlpool Compact Microwave

Welcome to the modern age of vandwelling!

Posted in Cooking-Refrigeration, Electrical, Solar Power

Installing a Renogy 200 Watt Solar Kit

My friend Dandeions very nice conversion van and her two new Renology 100 watt panels.

My friend Dandelion’s very nice conversion van and her two new Renogy 100 watt panels.

While solar power has been around for a long time now, for most of us it was so expensive we couldn’t really afford it, And if we could afford it we found it too confusing to figure out what we needed and how and where to get it.  Most of us just threw our hands up in the air and decided it wasn’t for us.

However, in the last few years all that has started to change as the price of solar has dramatically dropped. Suddenly solar prices were reasonable and the average person could actually afford it for their homes, van or RV. But that still left the problem of how to get it installed. If you paid someone else to install it the costs would skyrocket and most people didn’t know what to buy or how to install it. So it still remained out of reach for most of us.

One company set out to change all that and to an amazing degree they have succeeded. Renogy (http://renogy.com/) came into existence in 2011 but in just 4 years they have revolutionized solar power. I know at least a dozen people who own Renogy solar panels or complete systems and they are all totally satisfied with them. What makes them unique is the fact that you can order a complete kit for a very low price right off Amazon.com and get free shipping on it as well. That eliminates most of the decision making and cuts the high cost of shipping out of the picture.

My friend got here 200 watt complete kit from Amazon delivered for free in these two boxes.

My friend got her 200 watt complete kit directly from Renogy in these two boxes.

Here are the boxes opened up: 2 100, watt panels, MPPT controller, wiring and mounting feet for

Here are the two boxes opened up: Two 100,watt panels, MPPT controller, wiring and mounting feet.

In fact, they are so popular and so good that my standard recommendation for most people on a tight budget is to order a 100, 200 or 400 watt kit from Amazon, depending on their budget and power needs. If you have a little more money to play with, and are willing to do your homework, I think you’re better off to spend a little more and buy higher quality individual components, but that requires a lot more learning and study, plus more money, so for most people it’s just not worth it.

You can’t go wrong with a Renogy kit but you still have to make a few choices. If your budget is tight, then that will be the deciding factor and it makes the decisions for you. In fact today we are taking a look at how a friend of mine (she’s known as Dandelion on my forum) installed her Renogy system.

These are the parts they added because they didn't come in the kit. Renogy doesn't send you any fuses and you really do need to fuse everything. They also didn't include any quick disconnects so they bought an SAE quick disconnect to mount to the controller. The rest  is to be able to use the extension cord.

These are the parts they added because they didn’t come in the kit. Renogy doesn’t send you any fuses and you really do need to fuse everything. They also didn’t include any quick disconnects so they bought an SAE quick disconnect to mount to the controller. The rest is to be able to use the extension cord.

Before you do anything else you need to answer a few basic questions. Here are my recommendations.

How much solar do I need?

Renogy mainly sells 100 watt panels which helps keep their prices low. You decide how large your system is by how many panels you buy. Here are my recommendations on what you might need:

My recommendation is very simple; buy all you can afford. Why? Because you need to plan for the worst weather conditions, not the best. You will run into storms and clouds and if you don’t want to run out of power you must have more solar than you need in good weather. If you buy all you can afford, even if it seems like too much,  you’ll be ready for bad weather and able to add extra electrical devices you didn’t even know you wanted.

For most people, 200 watts is the sweet spot with enough power to meet your needs for the least amount of money. Start there if you can afford it and if you can’t then get a 100 watt kit to see if that’s enough and if it isn’t you can add a second 100 watt kit when you can afford it. My friend Dandelion bought a 200 watt kit.

By placing tha panels away from the van, you can park in the shade while they are in full sun.

By placing the panels away from the van, you can park in the shade while they are in full sun.

Where to mount the panels?

Dandelion who has a conversion van with a high top. Like most high-top vans, her fiberglass roof is very convoluted and she had a hard time finding a place to mount even one panel much less two. So she decided to do what a lot of people do and not mount them on her roof at all, instead she carries them inside her van until she gets to where she’s camping and then she takes them out and sets them on the ground. Not mounting them on the roof has lots of advantages:

  1. It makes installation so much easier that most people can do it by themselves with a little guidance. Dandelion was fortunate in that she had a friend here in camp who led her through the whole process making it much easier.
  2. You don’t have to drill holes in the roof which is a very scary idea for a lot of people and eliminates the risk of leaks.
  3. You can park the van in the shade and move the panel out into the sunshine, keeping it much cooler in the summer.
  4. It’s easy to tilt the panels, you just lean them up against something like the side of the van.
  5. It’s easy to turn the panels to always be facing the sun. The combination of tilting and tracking the sun with your panels will give you a lot more power into your battery at the end of the day.

What are the disadvantages of not mounting the panels.

The main disadvantage is you can’t use them while you’re traveling and you can’t use them in the city. It’s also a hassle to have to store them away every time you need to run into town. We each have to measure the pros and cons for ourselves. For city dwellers or frequent travelers it’s a bad choice; for boondockers it’s a great choice. For boondockers another very good option is to buy the 100 watt folding suitcase solar panel from Renogy; we’ll talk about that in my next post.

The MPPT controller that came with the kit. It's made by Tracer and is a good quality unit.

The MPPT controller that came with the kit. It’s made by Tracer and is a good quality unit.

Should I buy a PWM or MPPT controller?

I won’t go into details but the main difference between the two kinds of controllers is that the MPPT is more efficient and will get  25% – 35% more amps into the battery than a PWM controller will. That should make it an easy decision except it costs so much more than a PWM. For example, Renolgy sells the same 200 watt kit with either a PWM or MPPT controller and the PWM controller is $320 Renogy 200W Poly: 200W 30A with PWM controller  and the MPPT controller is $480 so it costs a lot more RENOGY® 200 watt Mono Solar kit with 20A MPPT Controller.  To be fair the controller has many other nice features besides being MPPT and this kit is mono instead of poly, but they will both do the same basic job.

Which should you get? An MPPT controller will give you about 33% more power into your battery  but will cost much more, so many people argue that instead of buying the more expensive controller, you should just buy a third solar panel which will give you 33% more power. But that means you have to have enough room on your roof for a third panel, which dandelion didn’t have, or she has to carry and store a third panel and take it in and out every time she drives. She didn’t want to have to do that so she ordered the kit with the nice MPPT controller that is currently $480 at Amazon  You can get it from Amazon here: RENOGY® 200 watt Solar Panel Kit Mono 20 amp MPPT Controller

The kit includes :

  • Two Renogy 100 Watt Monocrystalline Solar Panels
  • 20 Amp High Quality Renogy MPPT Charge Controller
  • Uniquely Designed Z brackets for Mounting on Flat Surface;
  • UL Listed 20′ Solar MC4 Adaptor Cables: AWG 12

Because she didn’t mount the panels on the roof the Z brackets were unneeded and to make it easier to connect and disconnect the panels she adapted a standard 110 volt outdoor extension cord instead of the MC4 extension cord so she didn’t need the it either. Fortunately, Amazon sells a 200 watt kit with a PWM controller and without the feet or extension cable for $309: Renogy Solar Panel Bundle 200 Watt. For many of you on a tight budget, this kit is your very best choice. The kit doesn’t come with fuses so you will need to buy them separately. Get them from Amazon here: In-line Fuse Holder – 10 AWG–$3 

dand-cnrller-mnted-use-001

 

Dandelion’s Installation:

First thing to do when you start the installation is to decide where you are going to mount the controller. Because you don’t want to draw the voltage of your battery down below 12.2 volt (50% of capacity) you need to monitor it’s voltage every night. For that reason I recommend you put the controller somewhere in easy eyesight so you can see it’s voltage at a glance. Also because she wasn’t mounting her panels on the roof she wanted to put it close to a window that opened so that she could just put the cord through rather than drill a hole. She had a wall near her back door that was perfect.

The extension cord ready to use.

The extension cord ready to use.

She wanted the extension cord to be easy to connect and disconnect and also be very strong and durable. So rather than use a common solar power extension cable she decided to use a heavy duty outdoor 110 volt extension cable like the heavy duty yellow ones you see at construction sites. She wanted to be able to park the van in the shade and set the panels far enough away so they could be in the sun and that meant a long extension cable.  To be sure it didn’t have a voltage drop out to 50 feet she bought a 10 gauge cord. You can buy a 50 foot, 10 gauge cord here at Amazon: Coleman 10/3 Vinyl Outdoor Extension Cord She used a standard SAE Quick Connector to connect it to the controller. Get it from Amazon here: 10 Gauge SAE Quick Connector

In a laer post  I’ll give you details  on how to adapt the 110 volt cord to use it with your solar panels. I’ll also talk about connecting your panels in series instead of parallel  to reduce the voltage drop over a distance.

She stripped and crimped regular 110 plugs onto the wires so they plug directly into the extension cord.

She stripped and crimped regular 110 plugs onto the wires so they plug directly into the extension cord.

The two panels come down and connect to the extension cord. A good option would have been to  connect the panels in series which would double he voltage and reduced the voltage drop over a long cable.

The two panels come down and connect to the extension cord. 

This is a diagram from Renology. You can see they suggest combining the panels in series.

Posted in Electrical, Solar Power

Getting Stuck: How to Avoid it and What to do if it Happens

Being scared of sign like this will greatly limit you as a boondocker. With just a little knowledge and a few tools, you can laugh at these signs.

Being scared of sign like this will greatly limit you as a boondocker. With just a little knowledge and a few tools, you can laugh at these signs.

In this post I’m going to try to give you some tips about how to get just a little further into the back-country than most of the camping hordes. I’m assuming none of us are hard-core 4-Wheelers and we just want to go places that are a tiny bit risky. If that describes you, then these tips might be all you need with minimal risk. Because this is just a quick overview I highly recommend you talk to experienced back-country explorers for advice and that you pick up this book as an outstanding introduction: “4-Wheel Freedom: The Art of Off-Road Driving” by  Brad DeLong. Get it from Amazon here: 4-Wheel Freedom: The Art Of Off-Road Driving. I own it and consider it essential to everyone who wants to boondock on public land.

They aren t kidding, a lot of roads become impassable with enough rain!  In this post you can learn how to navigate them.

They aren’t kidding, a lot of roads become impassable with enough rain! In this post you can learn how to navigate them.

Many of you are preparing for or are just starting out on your new vandwelling life and part of that might be exploring out-of-the-way places  in the back-country. If you are on a tight budget, the cheapest way to live is by boondocking on Public Land. Both the National Forests and the BLM allow “Dispersed Camping” which means that you just find a place you like and pull over and set up camp. You aren’t in a formal campground and there may not be anybody else around for miles. Best of all, it’s free and there are no hosts to boss you around.

Here I am stuck in the mud about 20 feet from the above picture. This was before I knew to air down my tires or use sand rails. Had I known I could have gotten myself easily. Instead, I had a friend snatch me out.

Here I am stuck in the mud about 20 feet from the above picture. This was before I knew to air down my tires or use sand rails. Had I known I could have gotten myself out easily. Instead, I had a friend snatch me out. My friend with the 4×4 van at the beach below got stuck also and even 4×4 couldn’t get him out. Nobody could reach him to snatch him out. So he pulled out his come-along, and got right out. A few cheap, simple tools are all you need.

I love dispersed camping and do it year-around, but it does come with a disadvantage that you are at much greater risk of getting stuck.  Many of the roads you’re traveling on are not maintained and at certain times of the year can become impassable. When I first went full-time as a boondocker on public land I was in a 4×4 truck and never got stuck. After 3 years I sold the truck and bought a van. In the 3 years since selling it I’ve been stuck six times; three times in the mud in the NF after a rain and three times in sand on BLM land.

Would you like to be able to drive or camp on beaches? My friends van is a 4x4, but you can safely do it with a 2x4 using these few tips and buying a few items.

Would you like to be able to drive or camp on beaches? My friends van is a 4×4, but you can safely do it with a 2×4 using these few tips and buying a few items.

For some people the answer is to just stop taking risks and only go where you know for sure you won’t get stuck. While that is the safe way, the problem is every other camper is doing the same thing so they are all camped close together in the “safe” areas, while just a little ways down the road the “risky” area is empty. If you don’t mind being surrounded by others, you will be very happy there. My problem is, I’m not happy with being surrounded by strangers, I want to step out of my trailer and not see anyone around me except the people I’ve invited to be there.

Here I was stuck in sand later on with the exact same tire. This time I aired down and rolled right out of the hole. Notice the lugs on the sidewall are laid right down into then sand. That makes the tire wider adding flotation and also gives it greater traction.

Here I was stuck in sand later on with the exact same tire (I’m unstuck in these pictures). This time I aired down and rolled right out of the hole. Notice the lugs on the sidewall are laid right down into the sand. That makes the tire wider adding flotation and also gives it greater traction. By airing down your tires you can safely drive on most beaches. This was only 15 PSI, had I not gotten out I would have dropped it to 10 PSI, or even lower. 

For example, I was camping outside of Moab, UT once and I headed down a road that was well known as a boondocking spot. About a mile back it ran into a 30 foot wide dry wash that was sandy enough no one except the Jeeps and ATVs crossed it. If I had my 4×4 truck I would have crossed it no problem, but with my van I wasn’t willing to take the risk. So I camped with all the other campers. Had I been able to cross that wash I would have gone another 1/2 mile and been all alone. That’s what I want! At that moment I very much regretted not having 4×4.

You MUST NOT drive on highays with tires this low, so you must carry a 12 volt compressor. This is my MV-30 that I've been using for 7 years. I also carry a newer MV-50 because I think it's that important it's worth carrying  redundancy. Plus, the're slow, this way I can air up both tires at once with the engine runnning.

You MUST NOT drive on highways with tires this low, so you must carry a 12 volt compressor. This is my MV-30 that I’ve been using for 7 years. I also carry a newer MV-50 because I think it’s so important to have, it’s worth carrying redundancy. Plus, the’re slow, this way I can air up both tires at once with the engine running.

But, even if you resign yourself to always stay in safe areas, there is still a risk you still might find yourself stuck. All over the  country there are roads that once they get soaking wet, they turn into a type of gumbo mud that you can’t drive through. Often those roads are posted with a warning telling you that, but just as often they are not. And sometimes the area can get an unusually great amount of rain and roads that typically would not be a problem are suddenly impassable and you’ll be stuck instantly if you try to drive on them. Or, a desert area might look perfectly safe, but all of a sudden you’re in deep, loose sand, and bam, you’re stuck.

How to Not Get Stuck, or Get Unstuck if You Do:

1) The single most important thing to do is to carry an air compressor and air down your tires. That alone will do more than even 4×4 to get us into the easy places the majority of us want to go. As soon as your tires start spinning, stop!! You’re not stuck yet but digging a deeper hole will only make things worse and you will be stuck! Get out, go back and air down your tires to 10 PSI, then try to very slowly get out again. The majority of times, this alone will be enough to get you out and you never really did get stuck. After you’re out, air your tires back up.

2) Get more aggressive tires on the rear axle. The combination of airing-down your tires and having aggressive tires will make it much more likely you get out before you get stuck. Notice in the pictures of my tires that they have lugs on the sidewalls; when I air them down the sidewalls are down on the ground and bear some of the weight adding flotation to the tire; they also provide more traction.  That’s your best hope to avoid getting stuck in the first place.

These are Goodyear Wrangler Mud tires. You can see they have very deep and wide treads. But just as important are the lugs on the sidewalls.

These are Goodyear Wrangler Mud tires. You can see they have very deep and wide treads. But just as important are the lugs on the sidewalls.

tires-slicks

But if you don’t air them down they won’t do you any good. Here they’re packed with mud and accomplishing nothing. Had I aired them down, I’d have come right out. Throwing rocks behind the tire did me no good at all.

3) Learn to read the terrain. The best solution is to avoid getting stuck at all and you do that by trial and error of learning where you’ll get stuck and where you won’t. Unfortunately, there’s no way to do this but to practice. Reading books and looking at pictures help, but nothing beats actually driving on different terrain and either getting stuck or not. If in doubt about getting stuck, stop, get out and walk it first before driving it.

  • Is it deep, loose sand? That’s always a risk but even if it looks hard packed, you can still get stuck. I’ve done it lots of times!
  • Is there a deep ditch or tall knob you can high center on? Can you drive around it?
  • Has it been raining with water standing on the ground?
  • Can you get a running start and keep your speed up across it? Airing down and keeping your speed up will get you through some pretty bad stuff.
  • If it’s a puddle or sandy wash, how deep and wide is it? Are other people getting through it?
  • Is it a steep hill? Can you drive it without 4-wheel Low Range? If you don’t have that, avoid steep hills.
  • Are there any boulders that can break something like your oil or transmission pan?

If you’re not sure, and don’t have the time or knowledge to get yourself unstuck, don’t risk it. But, if you have the time, and you want to learn enough to be able to travel freely, you’re going to have to take some risks and try things out and risk getting stuck. It’s better to do this with someone else along who has a winch or can snatch you out. After trying different terrains, you’ll build up a database in your mind of where you can safely go and where you can’t. Just be careful and slowly build up your risk-taking so you are never in any danger, just inconvenienced.

This is my "Portable Tow ruck."  The're thin enough that you can dig  under the tire and slide this under it. It hus stubs on both sides so it bite into the ground and won't be thrown out and the tire grips it tight and can pull itself out.

This is my “Portable Tow ruck.” The’re thin enough that you can dig under the tire and slide this under it. It has stubs on both sides so it bites into the ground and won’t be thrown out and the tire grips it tight and can pull itself out.

3) Travel with a partner and carry recovery gear. With just a few simple tools you can get yourself unstuck with a partner and  or with the right tools you don’t even need a partner, just a tree or buried anchor. This is a very basic introduction, do your research to learn the details.

  • Air Compressor: Nothing will do you as much good as airing down your tires to 10 PSI. But you can’t drive at speed with tires that low, so you MUST fill them with air before speeding up. I highly recommend a MV-50, 12-volt air compressor to every vandweller!! It’s by far the best bang for your buck and I’ve never had it let me down. Many Jeep-ers carry them with complete confidence. Buy one!! I bought mine from Amazon here: MV50 High-Volume 12-Volt Air Compressor
  • Snatch Strap: With a friend along he can pull you out from your hole. A tow strap will work but a snatch strap is better. It is designed to be slightly stretchy so he can get a running start and “snap” you out. Get at least a 3 inch strap rated for 30,000 pounds and 30 feet long. Having a tow strap along is also a good idea. I bought mine from from Amazon here: Smittybilt 3″ x 30′ Recovery Strap – 30,000 lb
  • Come-Along: If you are alone a simple come-along will get you out as long as there is a nearby tree or rock to anchor to. If worse comes to worse, you can deeply bury your spare tire and hook up to it. You do have a shovel, extra tow straps, clevis pins and chains don’t you? I bought this one from Amazon: TEKTON 4-Ton Dual Gear Come-Along
  • Portable receiver winch: If you take a lot of remote back-country roads, you might consider a winch. Instead of permanently mounting it, you can buy them that slide into and out of your receiver hitch. I put a receiver hitch on both the front and back of my van so I can put the winch either place. Smittybilt is a very good name at a very good prices. I haven’t bought one of these yet because they are expensive, heavy and bulky. You’ll have to decide for yourself if they’re worth carrying.  Smittybilt Winch – 9500 lb. Load Capacity
  • Sand Rails: These are plastic or aluminum strips you place under the stuck tires to drive up on. I own the “Portable Tow Truck” brand and so far I’m very pleased with them. I’ve driven over them several times and they are very strong and bendable. They have little nubs on both sides that bite both the tire and the ground so they grip hard. I’ve not used them when I was stuck, but I think when I do get stuck again, they should work well. I bought them from Amazon here: Portable Tow Truck (orange)
They are very flexible and the nibs really grip the ground and the tire tight!

They are very flexible and the nibs really grip the ground and the tire tight! They were designed for snow where they would excel, but I believe they will work equally great for sand and mud.

I was in this fairly deep hole with the sand rain under it and drove right out. It was totally undamaged and my van is pretty heavy.

I was in this fairly deep hole with the “Portable Tow Truck” under it and drove right out. It was totally undamaged and my van is pretty heavy.

4) Put a locker on the rear of the van, a couple inches of body lift on it and bigger, more aggressive tires. You’ll be spending some big money but you’ve also turned your van into a very capable off-road machine that can take the sandy washes no problem without getting stuck, and laugh at most mud. It’ll cost several thousand dollars  but still less than a 4×4! A 4×4 costs much more up-front to buy, gets worse MPG and has higher maintenance expenses than a van with a locker. In the long run, a van with a locker will cost much less to own, operate and repair than 4×4 and yet will take you to 90% of the places you want to go. It’s an option to seriously consider.

Now, do some shopping, get these few essential tools, and get out there and have an adventure!!!!

Posted in Adventure, Boondocking, Travel, Which Vehicle to Live In?

If you use this search bar, I’ll make a small percentage on your purchases and it’ll cost you nothing! Thank You!

Check out this Documentary I was in:

Stay Connected With Me!

My Solar Store

I recommend RENOGY SOLAR COMPLETE KITS from Amazon. They are the very best value for the price. Use these links and I'll make a small percentage and it will cost you nothing:
* Renogy Solar Complete Kits
* Renogy 100 Watt Complete Kit
* Renogy Foldable Solar Suitcase 100W
* Renogy 200 Watt Complete Kit
Renogy® 100W Mono Bendable Solar Panel

Find everything you need to know to start vandwelling in my book! It is available in paperback for $6.71 from Amazon.com here:
PAPERBACK: How to Live In a Car, Van, or RV: And Get Out of Debt, Travel, and Find True Freedom

Or as an eBook for the Amazon Kindle for only $2.99:
KINDLE VERSION: How to Live in a Car, Van or RV--And Get Out of Debt, Travel and Find True Freedom

Book_Cover-001

Products I use and Recommend to Every Vandweller

Highly Recommended Products to Increase Your Cell & Data Signal