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how rv solar works

Off The Grid – How RV Solar Works

We’re no “Solar Experts” but we practically have our PHD in Trial and Error.  When we take on a complicated subject, such as off-the-grid solar applications, we research online, call the manufacturers of the products and take in as much information as we possibly can.

When we first began researching solar power for our RV (about 6 years ago) we came across numerous resources that would go into overwhelming detail.  Maybe we understood the first paragraph or two but by the end we were completely exhausted and would go into information overload.  Learning how solar works has been a frustrating and enlightening experience for us over the years.

However, with all those years of research and experience we’d like to think we’ve gained a solid knowledge on most things solar related.  From this we do our best to share what we learn in a fun way that “Normal People” (not engineers or scientist but average Joes like ourselves) can understand.

So, if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed and confused about how RV solar works like we were just a few years back…this video is for you.

 

 

Solar Gear we’re working with:

Extras you may have noticed:

Equipment used to film this video:

 

If the video above didn’t sear the idea of How Solar Works here’s a our attempt at an infographic:

how rv solar works

This basic idea of how our solar works in our motorhome can also be applied to a Tiny House, Sail Boat or off-grid cabin.

  • The sun hits the surface of the Solar Panels creating energy.
  • The energy is routed through Thick Wires from the roof to our storage compartments.
  • The Solar Controller “controls” the power going into the batteries to keep the batteries from overcharging.
  • The batteries store the power in what we call a Battery Bank.
    1. In general, the more batteries you have in your battery bank the more power you can store and use.
    2. Most battery banks provide 12-volt power. You could use all DC plugs (the car style “cigarette adapter” plugs) and power devices directly from your batteries.
    3. If you want to use a Household Plug (the standard 2 & 3 prong plugs we use in North America) the power needs to change from 12-volt to 110-volt.
  • A Thick Wire runs from the batteries into an Inverter and the power gets changed from 12-volt to 110-volt.
  • A wire runs out of the inverter and connects to a breaker box inside the RV.
  • From the Breaker Box power is distributed to outlets inside our RV, however not every outlet is wired to run off the inverter.
  • Now we can plug an electronic device into the Outlet inside our Motorhome.
  • It’s important to monitor the power coming in and out of the batteries and this is where a Battery Monitoring Kit comes in handy, but we’ll save those specific (and intricate) details for another article and video.

When your feeling ready to take in more information, you can learn more and see our progression on our Solar Page: https://www.gonewiththewynns.com/solar

 

We really hope you found the video and info above helpful in your off-the-grid solar adventure.  If there’s something we missed, if you have a question or if you think it was pretty easy to understand please share in the comments below.  We appreciate every comment and do our best to answer as many questions as possible (and hey, if you can answer someone’s question go for it, it’s good karma).

Famous for my "how-not-to" videos, and typically the man behind the camera, sometimes I’m forced to be here in the “spotlight”. When you see my face you’re probably reading something more technical than adventurous, but either way I do my best to tell it like it is and infuse my opinions into the commentary…after all this is a blog and not MSN.

Comments (69)

  • Ben Gardner

    We are looking for a new motorhome. Live off the grid. Have an older class c Greyhawk with solar but looking at the shorter Jayco precept 31ul class a gas. Need to pull into tighter spots for fishing. Did you guys end up with gas class a. What is your best recommendation. We are retired with little dog. Could probably purchase anything out there. Use to have an allegro bus 40′. Just too big to pull off the roads. Would appreciate any recommendations. May not set up as intensely as you guys but we do live off the grid. Thanks

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  • Zachary A Burgess-Hicks

    Kingtech?
    I am about to undertake a rv solar overhaul rather than pay 7 grand for a new genny. Has anyone tried using Kingtech? I am looking for something that uses both solar hot water (to help with super-heating the refrigerant rather than using a compressor to do it.) and regular PV to push the refrigerant along so you should have max efficiency and can use a hybrid pv/t panel to do it. One reviewer said they took out their old 16k btu unit and had dropped from 2.8kw to 800 watts using Kingtech. It seems Ideal but I don’t know anyone who has actually tried to but solar hot water in their rv.

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  • Anthony

    Love how you put what equipment you’re using and explain it all, it makes it pretty easy to understand. Also as I am a tree hugger I love that you use green energy, you rock!

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  • William Segui Jr.

    I have not researched the lithium batteries so I am not sure of how to set up my 29′ Itasca Sunrise
    motorhome with solar.It has 1 central ducted rooftop a/c unit and a gas fired furance,1 microwave oven,
    1 lp gas/electric refridgerator,gas water heater,gas oven and your normal ac receptacles and 12 volt lighting.
    In my home I have a Xantrex 1800 powerhub with 5 100 watt Grape solar panels,a 35 amp Xantrex charge controller and 4 100 amp hour AGM batteries.The only things that are connected to this so far is a large enegery star freezer that is 5 amps and a couple of small led lights.This is a modified sine wave system so I do not plan on using it for any sensitive electronics,but I still have extra power for other things.The only problem is that my solar panels are mounted facing east/n.east,but they still get lots of sun.I am going to add 1 more panel,maybe about a 265 watt one facing south and a charge controller for it.As for my motorhome, I want to use a pure sine wave inverter, and as far as batteries and solar panels go I am not sure what would be my best option.Any feedback and comments would be greatly appreciated.

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  • suzanne

    Very awesome read! Just beginning to look at options in RV and off grid solar powered!

    reply
  • Leon

    Is it possible to charge your batteries with your solar panels while driving?

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    • Yes, they do charge anytime there is sun…parked, driving and anything else in between. There isn’t anything you need to do, once you have your system in place, its cranking.

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  • The video is really nice. Thanks for sharing this useful information.

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  • Guy Owen

    Videos and articles like this are simply a fantastic find for those of us approaching retirement and considering adding RV adventuring to our new lifestyle. I retire mid-July of this year, and am researching as much as I can. Your blog is — by far — the most valuable of any I’ve come across. Thank you both so very much for sharing. You seem to pick subjects that you know help people. That’s truly appreciated by most (if not all) of us.

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    • Thanks so much! We really do try and cover subjects that we wished we knew more about starting out. Any adventure is more fun when you know and understand your gear.

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  • Dianne Worthington

    I’ve been following your blog for years. Thanks for all the info. When I started full-timing 8 months ago, I decided to install solar. After consulting with Go Power, I purchased what they recommended – an Overland kit, expansion kit, & 30 amp controller. I have a Fleetwood Discovery 37R (residential frig). I have 6 flooded batteries. I have never been able to make it through util morning without the generator kicking on. With the sun at the highest point on a sunny day, I only pull in between 6 & 7 amps .I am finally in phoenix for the winter and had time for someone to take a look. He says this system is completely inadequate and wants to install a whole new system. Can you help or put me in touch with someone who can, so I can be sure what the problem is and make sure I’m not being taken advantage of? He says I need at least a 45, if not a 60 amp MPPT controller, and 2 or 3 260 watt panels. He’s saying I basically threw away the money I paid Go Power, who when I contact them still insist this system is what I need but can’t tell me why it isn’t working adequately. Thanks for your time and consideration

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    • Illya

      I wouldnt say you thru your money away, but it does sound like a small kit for your size rv. Its dependant on a lot of things though, are your batteries fully charged by the start of the night? If thats the case and you cant make it thru the night then your battery capacity is the problem. You do maintain your batteries right?
      Assuming your inverter is supplying all your needs without overloading that should be fine and not need replaced, i would say you need to add to more than just completely change. So figure out where you are falling short and add on from there.
      It really depends on what you need more than anything, if you plan on wild camping much i agree one panel is not enough. But that doesnt mean throw that panel away. if you have a mpt controller yes that may need to be replaced, but you can sell it on ebay or something anyways. Hope this helps

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  • Very inspiring and the perfect thing for me to read as I am researching doing an off grid RV here on Kauai where I live. I have not been able to add up what the solar equipment would cost to do what you are so magnificently and wisely doing now. Would appreciate being educated on the investment so I can budget for my project. Thank you so much for all your help – I am very humbled. And happy for you!

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  • Teresa

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you Wynns!!

    I have solar on (in?) my little Sportsmobile and LOVE it. Interestingly, I was discouraged from getting it by several people including one at Sportsmobile. I’m glad I stuck to my guns!! It is so awesome to be able to camp anywhere for several days and have my little fridge going and be able to put the two ceiling fans up and down (I don’t have a/c) and have reading lights, even make tea or coffee or heat up soup… anytime! I only have two solar panels and am amazed how much they pull in. It totally rocks. And Sportsmobile did an awesome job of installation and explaining how to use it to me, so it was easy breezy for me to use.

    One of the major reasons I had the strength of my convictions when I was making the decision about solar, in the face of some people saying to me, “oh, you don’t want/need that,” was all the inspiration you’ve provided over the years about this issue. So thanks for that too!!

    So…even though I have all these elements in my van, I didn’t understand how they all fit together until I watched this video! I so appreciate this video and will watch it again I’m sure. LOVE IT. Did I say thanks?!?! ?

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  • Tab

    Will you guys move as much of your solar to the boat when you get it?

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    • Tab

      On:edit.
      Should have said as much of your solar as you can.

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    • illya

      I can’t imagine they could fit it all on a boat, would be awesome though, One question i have for any long time boaters is how do you deal with the corrosion on the electronics and wires? At one point i had about 1200 gallons of saltwater running in my garage selling corals and fish. Every piece of metal in the garage formed rust like crazy, my connections rusted and corroded badly on any electronic thing. Is there a hepa filter room they keep stuff in or would that even work? My setups were all controlled automatically so a lot of equipment was needed. I used to use dielectric grease on my wire connectors and wrap them good with electrical tape and any control boxes i would seal in a plastic bag the best i could. It helped dramatically but it was still an issue. An inverter you can’t put in a bag. They say when the water evaporates the salt doesn’t to an extent, but on the sea must be such a corrosive environment it seems like it would just wreak havoc on anything metal. What do people do to protect from this? Looking forward to seeing the boat 🙂 hope you guys find one soon, all very exciting for us spectators.

      Thanks, illya

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    • illya

      We must all work at the same job huh? haha 3 comments within a minute?

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  • Michael Rice

    Thanx much…informative & eazy for a numb skull like me to understand. I have enjoyed every vid. They are slick & endlessly engaging. May U have safe passage along your way.

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  • Mako B

    I like it a lot. Thanks for the clear, concise, user friendly, and nicely produced video. Safe travels!!!

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  • Joe Danigole

    Do you leave your inverter on all of the time, even when plugged into shore power?
    Thanks in advance

    Joe Danigole

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  • outwestbound

    Hi. Based on the components you have in your solar system, e.g., inverter and controller selection you made, are you getting any noticeable interference to AM, the TV or other devices like the TPMS (tire pressure) or similar stuff using the “air waves”? I’m designing a system now and considering the same inverter and controller you guys are using.

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  • illya

    Also just wanted to tell ya i love the aerial shots, top notch stuff there buddy, your blending ,music video and work is absolutely great.
    I use sony Vegas on home projects and while i feel im pretty creative i don’t have that gift like you do.

    Internet words of wisdom- You can tell the type of tree by the fruit, if if gives you a sour stomach it’s bad fruit. Posts as such should be deleted, it detracts from the positive vibe this site has, freedom of speech is one thing, nitpicking is another.

    Some of the questions here have been answered in what was written also.
    Greg V and felix-
    From the Breaker Box power is distributed to outlets inside our RV, however not every outlet is wired to run off the inverter.

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  • Dan Faiello

    This was a very good video,

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  • Jim Short

    Hi Nikki and Jason,
    I have two questions:
    1) (a two part question) Do you believe that the money invested in Lithium batteries was worth the return?; and where did you locate the supplier?
    2) What did you name the Bounder? (perhaps Dino for a resurrected dinosaur)?

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      • Jim Short

        Jason, Thanks for your quick response. But what is your assessment of the value of Lithium batteries? Better way to go Amp hour per $ spent?
        We will happen to the Bounder and when will you return it to the Mfg?
        PS would have loved to met you when you slipped thru Central California Fresno area.

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  • Sue

    Love the videos I am learning lots. I consider myself challenged when it comes to electricity and I appreciate you breaking it down simply for me. I am in the medical field and we have to teach things at 5th grade level I know how difficult it can be, so I appreciate it!

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  • Jeff

    Nice, just like all your videos! We’re thinking through our solar system for our Airstream right now. Planning on starting full time adventure in a few months and will probably upgrade after a month or two on the road to better estimate our requirements.

    A quick question: What is the small solar panel on top of your roof vent in the beginning of the video?

    Thanks for all the inspiration!

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  • Richard Skaff

    I think you guys are great, whether you educate us with the correct language when you describe “power” or “energy”, you got it right in that most everyone not only doesn’t know the difference, they really don’t care. Most folks coming here to learn how you set up your solar panels and solar system aren’t going to install a solar system themselves, but want just enough knowledge to talk to people who install solar systems in RV’s and trailers so they will know enough not to get “screwed” by a devious solar system installer. At least that’s my take on what you’ve provided.

    Thanks for your fun and interesting videos and putting such a great web site together. My family has always tent camped (for over thirty years in the Sawtooth Mountains – Stanley Basin – Lake Alturas), but many years ago, I ended up in a wheelchair from a fall and while for many years camping in a tent worked for me after my accident, I’m now 73 and just don’t enjoy having to lift myself up into my wheelchair from the ground. So, I just bought a 16 foot LivinLite VRV Basecamp toy hauler and had a local auto repair shop power the back ramp door most folks with toy haulers use to drive their “toys” into and out of their toy hauler. I use it as my accessible entrance! And, I’ve added a wired camera on the back of my Ford E350 van and have a trailer hitch on the back of my van that allows me to hook up my trailer all by myself!

    Anyway, you two are great! Please keep the great videos coming and having both the good and bad experiences not only makes the videos interesting, but very helpful. Maybe you two should think about going into movies!

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  • Alban

    Hi
    Great video and nice use of your drone when you’re climbing on the RV.
    The breakers don’t protect your appliances from surges but avoid melting and burning of your wiring in cases of pulling too much amps or short circuits (infinite amps).

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  • Ursula

    How many lithiums do you have to have to make the best use of the 960 watts?

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  • Greg V

    … and , oh yea, in reference to Bill Weaver’s question, I believe you guys already kind of did a very helpful video about that, when discussing inverters. Another favorite.

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  • Greg V

    All of your solar videos have really helped me more then most any other info I have found, BECAUSE you don’t overwhelm me with info. You guys really inspire me.
    Questions. I see you replaced the GoPower inverter to the MagnaSine. Why?
    Second question, does your solar power only go to certain breakers in your house panel? Or to all and you have a transfer switch to shore power and generator?

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    • Felix

      I had the same question!! 🙂 “does your solar power only go to certain breakers in your house panel? Or to all and you have a transfer switch to shore power and generator?”

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    • Todd Click

      Same question here too! 🙂 It sounds almost like all of your power goes through the invertor, or do you have a transfer switch?

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  • Deborah Kerr

    Thank you so much for the helpful “basic building blocks” of using solar power using the kiss principle (keep it simple stupid) lol 🙂 Now this is something I can understand and springboard off these basics – and the info graphic will stay imaged in my brain!!

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  • Robert Lighton

    Bill Weaver has the right question that the Wynns have not answered yet. That is how much power do you need. I have a Leisure Vans B+ with a 160 watt solar panel and 232 amp hours of batteries. I looked into upgrading the system with a better charge controller and another solar panel and switching to AGM batteries. The cost would have been about $3500 installed. I didn’t want to spend that much money as I had only used the RV for a year and not taken any long trips.
    I realized that I really didn’t need more power for my limited needs. So Wynns…what do you do with all that power?
    Take us through a typical day and show us what you use.

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  • Ronnie Rhyne

    Can I ask how many and what is the name of the lithium batteries.

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  • William (Bill) Weaver

    I hope that your future posts include how to determine your power needs and the components needed to meet that need. From what I have read, there is some math involved. If math is not your friend, you will need someone to design your system. On one web page, I saw a worksheet used to walk you through the basic math to determine the capacity requirement of each of the components that you have listed in this post. Going through the process will help you get familiar with the Amps, Volts, Watts, Amp-Hours, etc of the electrical components of your RV and the solar power system. Some day we will all have a solar power system for part or all of our electrical needs. I am confident that the Wynns will find a way to help us understand solar power.

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  • Unfortunately the video does not correctly describe what is technically occurring with those wonderful electrons in your solar panel system. Solar panels convert energy.They don’t make power. You are confusing power with energy!. Power and energy are not the same thing! Power is energy per unit of time. Perhaps this tutorial will help.
    http://cleantechnica.com/2015/02/02/power-vs-energy-explanation/

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      • Thank you for responding Jason. Actually, I watched the video several times. I didn’t realize until you told me that I was not a normal person using normal terms.

        Engineers would probably tell us that confusing power and energy is a common phenomenon, not normal.

        Writers normally have an obligation to educate their readers, not reinforce their ignorance, For example, as a photographer would you let pass a statement that the aperture setting of a camera determines the brilliance or contrast of a picture? Since we’re just talking about controlling sunlight it really shouldn’t matter, should it? Would specifying a specific shutter speed indicate how fast you can take a picture? We both know the answer to both questions is, of course, no. Teaching the implementation of solar power for RVs is no less demanding than teaching the art of photography. With accurate language we can better understand, work safer, and make smarter choices. You could help your readers by not assuming they are hopeless simpletons, but are able to learn both the beauty and language of science.

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        • BoxinTheCompass

          Bob
          Clearly the Wynns stated several times that they were stating in simplest terms at very basic levels a solar setup (basically a high level block diagram). There are other websites that you can have that discussion in more technical indepth terms, that was not the intent here. Dont take umbrage at what was clearly stated… enjoy the video and move on.

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          • Vickey

            Agreed! Thank you, Jason and Nicki, for all your inspiring, helpful, beautiful videos. I for one need to take this learning solar power thing in baby steps, and I’m plenty intelligent.

  • illya

    This is an excellent video and very valuable information. When i first started looking into solar i was like anyone, I had very little real information about it. I was lucky enough to know a lot about electrical in general and inverters anyways. However i knew little about what inverters are good and what are bad. I learned after having a cobra 5000 watt shoot a flame out across the interior of my brand new truck from the internal fuses melting together though. Stunk for a month in there. It would be great to break off into each little section you briefly covered with in depth coverage of say batteries, types of panels themselves, wiring to use, inverters, breaker boxes/fuses. You guys do a fantastic job keeping this site up and Amen for that. I love your positive outlook and always look forward to new videos. In the learning process I joined a few forums and found them to be the least helpful. I would ask a question, give a brief overview of what i was trying to accomplish and my replies were nothing but criticism of my goals and how wrong everything im doing is. Otherwise i would recommend you add a forum to your site, but it would end up like the rest of them i’m sure. Maybe an ideas section for people to post their ideas? like the tilting panels video, that’s the one thing i see in the replies here, brilliant ideas for modifications and making them simple. Either way this is a great site and you guys make it that way by sharing so much of your lives.
    Thanks, illya

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  • Nice, easy simple write up. I like it.

    Nina

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