First Time Getting Solar

We have been talking about getting solar since before we bought our rig because Lee has always been interested in Boondocking.  Boondocking is camping with no outside water, electric, or hookup to dump your black tank.  The reason Boondocking is so attractive to people is to get to the places that are really out in the middle of nowhere you generally need to give up the services. Also it is much cheaper.  For example, our average campground fee is running $25 a night, but Jim and Barb (who do a lot of boondocking) had an average campground fee of $5 last year.  A solar solution helps you generate your own electricity.  The system is sized based upon how much electricity you think you will need in a day and varies from rig to rig and person to person.  We have a generator which will use propane to generate electricity, but we only had one battery and generators are pretty noisy.  Some campgrounds have designated generator hours and others don’t allow generators at all.  We knew we would need some sort of solution, but we also wanted to make sure we had enough information to order the right system for us.  Plus, cost is a factor.  A top of the line system can be very expensive and we knew we wanted a small system to start with the ability to upgrade over time as our needs changed.  Enter our friend Greg who owns RV Solar Solutions.  Greg sat with us and really listened, helping us determine the  ideal system for our rig.  He was understanding of the fact that we are on a budget and we ended up with a quality, perfectly sized system that was affordable and met our needs.  He also designed it with future upgrades in mind, so we can add more panels if we decide to  add a residential refrigerator. Currently our refrigerator runs on propane or electricity, which is great, but it’s also pretty small, which is not so great.  They are also pretty expensive to replace, so if this one ever dies, we will probably replace it with a residential fridge.  Since those fridges won’t run on propane, you either have to be on electric hookups all the time or have an alternative way of generating your own electricity.  It sounds simple, but it’s not, and having a professional help navigate the myriad of choices  was invaluable.

For those who care, we ended up getting 4 panels and 4 batteries with an inverter and a controller.  Honestly, I don’t understand everything about it yet, but the important thing for me is we have enough juice to run my fan and noise machine all night long and the system is set up to automatically shut off when you hit below 50% charge on the batteries.  The batteries we bought are very expensive and have a shelf life, so it’s important we don’t reduce their useful life by taking them below 50% charge too often. Greg oversized our system and programmed it to shut off to ensure we would never be put into that situation. So here’s the specs…again not sure what all this means but I know it matters to some people.

  • Four 6 volt 220 amp Lifeline AGM batteries
  • Four 160 watt Grape Solar panels
  • Magnum Pure Sine 1200 watt Inverter
  • Blue Sky 3000i Solar Charge Controller

Here’s some pictures of the install.  The guys all wanted to get in on the action and learn more about solar and I didn’t mind.  Plus with so many helpers the job went really fast.

Our roof before panels

Our roof before panels

Bill helping with the install

Bill helping with the install

Closeup of one of the panels. They are rated for 70 mph winds and 1/4" hail which is pretty cool

Closeup of one of the panels. They are rated for 70 mph winds and 1/4″ hail which is pretty cool

Lee and Craig on the roof

Lee and Craig on the roof

Voila. The fourth you can't see in the shot

Voila. The fourth you can’t see in the shot

Lee drilling the hole in our closet with craig looking on. The holes are minimal and I don't even notice them

Lee drilling the hole in our closet with Craig looking on. The holes are minimal and I don’t even notice them

Craig working on the wiring

Craig working on the wiring

Greg hooking up the inverter

Greg hooking up the inverter

 

Obviously we wanted to try it out and when we left OBX we and three other couples stopped at a Cracker Barrel and spent the night.  Many businesses allow RVers to spend the night in their parking lots because it doesn’t cost them anything and they can benefit from the good will and business revenue from RVers.  One of the most RV friendly businesses is Cracker Barrel; all of their locations (excepting those in a city where local ordinance does not allow it) allow folks to spend the night.  There are different schools of thought on “Wallydocking” as it is commonly called.  Some people love it, do it frequently, and use it as a way to keep down costs.  Others rarely, if ever do it, preferring to stay in campgrounds or “Moochdock” at a friend’s home.  We were interested in trying it, and although the experiment was extremely successful from a power standpoint (we had enough juice to watch 2 hours of TV, read, and then run the fan all night) neither Lee nor I was crazy about the overall experience.  Let me be clear, the Cracker Barrel manager was really nice and allowed us to stay in the evening and into late morning with no issues but we weren’t particularly comfortable with the arrangement.  The parking lot was not level so we were at an angle (Lee said he dreamed about falling all night) and we both felt “exposed”.  Nothing unsafe happened, but we just didn’t feel very comfortable.  Also in this case it actually was not cost-effective.  We spent about $40 eating a dinner and then breakfast at Cracker Barrel and although we saved $25 on campground fees it did not help the budget overall.  It is considered polite to spend money at the place you are staying at, and although no one enforces the rule the thought is if too many people take advantage the companies will discontinue allowing it.  I will say I am interested in trying a Walmart though, because groceries are part of our standard budget, so we could buy some groceries and follow the spirit of the etiquette without any incremental cost.  We would still have the safety issue to deal with though, but we will need to try it more and see.  So even though we didn’t get the solar to Wallydock we are glad that we now have this option if we can’t find a reasonably priced campground in the area we are traveling through.  As an FYI, we have been using Passport America campgrounds on most travel days and that has worked very well for us.  We have services and generally the cost is around $17.  They aren’t always the nicest campgrounds but we have yet to run across one where we didn’t feel at least marginally safe. Again, we are very very new to this and some people swear by it, so we really need to try it a few more times before we make a final judgement.

As far as  boondocking in general we will see when we get out west. I will say I am cautiously optimistic, and since we have two weeks scheduled at the farm in Wisconsin and two weeks scheduled with Deb and Steve in Glacier National Park we will get plenty of opportunities to figure it out. For me those two places drove  the decision to get solar sooner rather than later. Glacier is an absolute bucket list item for me, and I am taking a week’s vacation so we can go deep into the park.  The farm is owned by my future son-in-law’s parents.  We stayed with them with our travel trailer and had a wonderful time, but they only have 15amp service so we knew this time we would need to be able to produce our own energy to make it work.  Plus (and this is no small thing) I trust Greg and the quality of his work. Those three things drove me to dip into our contingency fund to make this happen.

As a side note we have been spending some of our contingency.  The solar and the wedding were the major factors thus far.  I am going to talk more about budgets at the end of this month, but at the halfway point it’s not looking pretty.  Being with friends for three weeks and then the rally has had a financial impact.  Would I change my decisions?…largely no… but this month is a special circumstance.  I am concerned though because next month we are visiting our home town and the month after that is the wedding, so there are two more months of special circumstances coming up. When I balance the cost with the quality of experiences it’s a no-brainer, but we will need to find  a balance  between living this amazing life and our costs.  We simply aren’t there yet, and I try to give myself a break and think of it as the “newbie” learning curve, but it’s tough. I do feel it’s important to mention to provide a balanced picture of what’s happening.

We went back to Ebenezer Park for the week between OBX and the rally and I got to spend some more time with my sister and her family.  I also scheduled a work trip and was in New Hampshire and Westminster, MA Monday through Thursday morning.  I worked in the Westminster corporate office for 12 years and had not been back since I went out on the road.  People’s reactions were pretty interesting.  Many folks knew I was doing something unusual and were interested.  Others are closer friends and they have been following on Facebook and the blog and they were VERY interested. My favorite experience was having dinner with two long-time close friends Kellie and Kathy.  They have known me forever and as we have created a support system for each other have seen me at my best and worst over the years so their opinions carry weight with me.  Both of them were genuinely happy for me and kept saying how great I looked and how I had this glow.  Kathy said if a year ago someone had said Tracy would be traveling the country in an RV she would have laughed at them…and rightly so…if you knew me before you never would have thought I would have done something this unconventional.  And they both stressed that they could just tell how happy I was.  They also mentioned I am not that good a liar so they knew it was true. Their comments meant a lot to me, particularly because these are both women who talk straight and if they thought I looked like shit they would definitely tell me…they have certainly done it before. It was an external validation of the choice I made from people who really care about me and it was a great evening.  As Kellie said, “You took a risk and it’s wonderful to see that it paid off.”  Couldn’t have summed it up better myself.

Lee spent the last three days working on a project for the RV, shooting video of an install for Greg, and hanging out with the gang who fed him in my absence.  Not that he is not capable of feeding himself, but Lee is never one to turn down good food.  When I came back into Charlotte on Thursday, Lee and I went to see my sister who made us a wonderful dinner and made Lee two whole chocolate pies from scratch.  Right out of high school Wendy went to pastry school (that’s where she met her husband) and even though she is a nurse now, she still is the best baker I know.  Plus she’s known Lee since she was a little kid and is aware that the best way to his heart is with pie.  So Lee was in pie heaven and we got to spend some quality time with the boys, the baby, and Josh.  I was sad though.  Wendy and I have spent more time together in the last six months than we have in 10 years and it made me sad that Abram (who is 11 months old) won’t remember any of it.  Since we are headed out west it may be awhile before we get to see him again, and the thought was not a pleasant one.  I am going to have to start pulling out those ideas for staying in touch with kids on the road I have been reading about, because I absolutely love the little peanut and want him to know who his Aunt Tracy and Uncle Lee are.

So it was another full week and now we are headed to Marion, NC and the reunion rally.  We scheduled this trip 9 months ago and are very excited to see Red and Pam who have been out west for the past year and we miss very much. Plus looking forward to seeing Howard and Linda again and meeting other RV Dreamers and learning from them.  The opportunity to learn in person from long-time full timers is a valuable one and I know I will have lots to add to my “Things I Learned from RV Dreams” page…so stay tuned.

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7 thoughts on “First Time Getting Solar

  1. You will really enjoy the freedom that the solar system will give you! Sounds like you have about the same set up as we do. Many campgrounds have lower price sites with no hook ups which are nice options if you are only staying a few days. Just think, every time you use it you are recouping some of your investment!

    Where in Wisconsin are you guys going? We are currently in Wisconsin and are heading into Canada on Monday.

  2. Another well written post. You always do so well at putting things in terms I can understand. Now you have me thinking harder about having our rig come prepared for solar, whatever that means.

    Being able to handle the full time job, travel and all at once is amazing. I’m happy for you that even your friends at work notice changes in you. No doubt now the life style must be good for you and Lee. Real friends tell it like it is. The ladies at the office must help to reinforce that you all have made the right decision about going after the lifestyle now rather than later.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about your thoughts and actions regarding solar.

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