August 18, 2017
We have a few #vanlife questions that always come up, either in person or through messages on social media or email. Some of them are “where do you poop?”, “how do you deal with winter in the van?”, but most commonly we get asked about our solar setup.
While we do love receiving messages and helping people work towards building their own dream adventuremobile, I figured it was time to attack some of these questions on the blog.
This one is going to cover the second question we get asked the most, the first one being “what is Sero?”
The thing about a solar setup, is that the short answer doesn’t cut it. There are so many options out there, it is overwhelming. How you set it up and how you use it is what really counts when you invest in solar.
I want to walk you through our setup, why we did it and how we use it in this blog. I hope it helps you in making your choice for a solar setup.
The panels are arguably the 2nd most important part of you setup, behind your batteries/solar generator choice, but it is where a lot of people focus and there is no shortage of options. You can go with hard panels or folding panels.
Folding panels are typically less efficient than a hard panel but offer the ability to fold up for storage. Many Westfalia owners love these as they can store them in the back of the pop top when driving. The main advantage of panels that stow away is that when you get to your campsite you can set them up and move them around for maximum efficiency. The downside is that they are not charging when driving because they are stored away.
We choose to go with a rigid panel that is permanently mounted to the roof. You do gain a bit of efficiently over the same size folding panel, but of course loose the ability to stow them away. That is why we mounted them to the roof permanently. There are many ways and places to mount your panels. Many people mount them flush to the pop-top. This wasn’t an option for us as our Thule Box and SUP boards took up that space. Travis Burke has mounted his panels onto his Thule Box but I was hesitant to do so. I was afraid the hinges on the box wouldn’t be able to handle the weight.
That is when we decided to mount 2 Goal Zero Boulder 90 Panels above the storage stow area of the Westfalia. We did give up our open storage area on the roof, but we didn’t have any other options.
The panels are mounted to a custom slider that was designed and built by Adam Chappell at Diesel Rover. The reason we put the panels on the slider was so we could pull them forward for the poptop to open, then push them back when driving for reduced wind noise.
We also discovered that we could get a better charge with the panels pulled out, so we often pull them out when parked regardless. We believe this is because we pull the panel away from potential shade created by the SUP boards and Thule Box.
There are a few downsides to flush mounting the panels on the roof though. You need to be aware of where you park the van. It needs to be in the sun, which is less than ideal on a hot day when you are trying to keep the van cool.
We also discovered that keeping the panel at the same angle as the sun is the most ideal. Since we cannot change the angle of the panels we have to make the most of mid day sun. If I did it again I would try to create a bracket that tilts as well as slides.
Another important choice. What is a solar generator anyways? Essentially with any solar setup you need your panels, batteries, charger and inverter. You guy buy all these separately and mount them around the van, but Goal Zero offers a few “all in one” kits they call solar generators.
What I like most about it is how clean it looks and how simple it is. It requires one wire from your panels to the unit. There is no need to mount small units everywhere in the van and find spots to hide ugly batteries. We simply put the unit behind the passenger seat. The Yeti 1250 is small enough that it doesn’t block the isle from the front and low enough that you can still swivel the passenger seat. It even works as a great footrest!
The unit offers server inputs and outputs including 3 AC plugs, 3 USB (most commonly used) as well as Anderson Powerpole and 8mm pin.
The best part of the Yeti 1250 is how it is just plug and play. No crazy setup. No wiring. No figuring out what is going on. Simply charge it with solar or AC and plug what you need into it.
It also displays input watts, output watts, battery level and errors on the small screen.
If you are less power intensive Goal Zero offers smaller packs as well, which could be a great option for weekenders or people that spend more time plugged in.
Don’t cheap out on this. You want to purchase the largest gauge wire you can to run from your solar panels to your generator. A smaller wire will have limitations as to how many watts it can move and you may not be running at max efficiency because of that. A smaller wire will also have more resistance and lower the transmission efficiency.
As for how we ran it, it did require some drilling and removal of our fibreglass storage stow at the front of the van. It was a great time to clean it out anyways. We drilled through the storage stow roof at the high point so it is most unlikely to leak. We also filled the holes with PL Premium once we ran the wire through. The panels above the holes also help prevent water from getting in.
Once the wire was inside the van we pulled down the headliner and fished the wire out. Another hole in the headliner was drilled for the wire right ablove the passenger side door pillar. The cable runs down the outside of the pillar and is held on with P clips. If you are really finicky you may want to run it inside the pillar, but outside didn’t bother us.
Note: The wiring for our LED bar runs along side the solar wiring, so if you are thinking about adding a light, it’s a good thing to do at the same time!
If you are going to setup a solar, you might as well have a good use for it. Our biggest and most consistant draw is our fridge. We have ditched the stock Westfalia fridge, as so many have for various reasons.
We went with the Truckfridge TF-49 AC/DC. If I did it again I would save the money and only get the DC version. We very rarely have a opportunity to plug into AC, plus our solar system is robust enough to keep the fridge running unless we get into 5 straight days of rain (Vancouver, we are looking at you).
The best part of running a fridge of solar is that typically, days your fridge runs the most are days that are hot and sunny. You draw more but make more power. Overcast days seem to run the fridge less.
We did add a back up plan though, as to not have food spoil. We installed a light switch behind the driver seat that allows us to switch the fridge from our Goal Zero system to the stock Westfalia house battery. This means when we drive, we can run the fridge off the alternator with a flick of a switch. We can run it off the same battery while stopped as well, but because we don’t have a level output we try not to run it too long. Running a car battery too low is hard on it.
This is our other big draw. The laptop really drains us. It pulls more than our fridge. Why is that? Well we are running a 13 inch MacBook but charge it with AC power. We need to run the inverter to charge the laptop. It is going from stored DC power in the Yeti, to AC in the inverter than the Apple AC cable converts the power back to DC to charge the laptop. Every time you switch currents, you have a power loss of about 50%. Since charging the computer is a double inversion, it is a big power loss. It makes it tough to keep the computer charged up, but who ever said that road life was easy?
I hope that helps everyone looking to add solar to their van. It is a big investment but so worth it. Keeping the fridge running as well as camera batteries charged keeps us going on the road.