We were able to order our fifth-wheel with almost everything we wanted already installed. We added a few other items when we picked up Annie in March, such as our battery monitor, and wifi and cell extenders. Solar panels were the last thing on our list that we wanted to add. I’m not aware of any solar installers with great reputations in Wisconsin (or even the midwest). Since we were heading to the Oregon coast, we decided to wait and take advantage of one of the most recommended solar installers in the country, AM Solar, located in Springfield, Oregon.
But let’s back up. Why did we want solar? Our fifth-wheel really likes 50A hookups, but we made sure that we could also camp comfortably if we don’t have hookups. For example, many national parks don’t have hookups, and we’ve seen plenty of places where the most scenic campsites (overlooking water, for example) also don’t have hookups. Also, hookups usually mean that you’re close to other RVs, and we prefer some distance from the neighbors, given a choice. Without electrical hookups, you can live off of your batteries for a while, depending on the size of your battery bank and how much electricity you use. In our case, we can survive on our four batteries for only about 24 hours before we have to start recharging them. We tried to ensure that we had hookups on this trip prior to reaching Oregon, but even so we still had three nights of no hookups.
There are two primary ways to recharge a larger rv battery bank without electrical hookups: a generator or solar. They are not mutually exclusive – we’ll have both. Generators are the most common solution. They work everywhere and can be relatively inexpensive to buy. They do require fuel to run, but even at today’s fuel prices the cost isn’t terrible unless you are running it for hours every day. We included a generator when we ordered our trailer. The cheapest thing for us to do would have been to use our generator for all of our dry camping (that is, camping without hookups).
The big problem with generators is that they are noisy. We love nature – hearing birds, water, the wind and other sounds of the outdoors. Being in a beautiful place and having to listen to our generator run is not what we’ve dreamed of all these years. It’s also a courtesy thing – the only thing we hate more than listening to our generator is listening to someone else’s generator. Many campgrounds have generator hours, sometimes limiting generator use to only a few hours each day to minimize the time everyone else has to listen to the noise (a good thing from my perspective, unless we need to run our generator longer or we aren’t “home” during those generator hours). There are also convenience issues; if we run the generator a lot, then we have to spend time refilling our propane tanks frequently.
Enter solar panels. Free energy from the sun. No noisy, smelly motors. No fuel to refill. “Green.” Nirvana.
What’s the catch? You need sun – heavy overcast or rainy days won’t generate as much power. Shade from trees or other objects will also cut your power – because of the way a solar/battery system works, even a little shade on a panel can completely kill its output. There is a finite amount of roof space on RVs, which is shared with vents, skylights, air conditioning units, antennas and other odds and ends. Historically, a lot of installers have done a lot of bad solar installs. And while solar installs are getting cheaper, a larger install is still quite expensive, and is questionable to break even financially unless you spend much of each year off-grid or need very little power.
For us, solar was a lifestyle choice. We want to travel and see the USA and Canada. We made a necessary compromise with a 31′ trailer. It will fit many places, but certainly not everywhere we might want to park. But we did not want more compromises – assuming we fit and can make it there and back, we want to be able to stay wherever we want whether or not there are electrical hookups, and – as long as there is sun on our roof – not have to run the generator for hours each day.