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Old 06-23-2013, 04:04 PM   #1
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Solar System Upgrade

Hello All.

I thought I would take a few moments and post the completion and initial test of our new Solar Upgrade. I am insatiable about knowledge and the experience of others when it comes to trying something new. There is surprisingly little information on the forums regarding solar upgrades. There are some very bright folks who have taken the time to put together a lot of information for those of us endeavoring to stay away from generators, but very little firsthand experience and photo documentation of upgrades. John Mayer has an excellent write up on the entire process. You can find it at http://www.jackdanmayer.com/rv_electrical_and_solar.htm. John is very thorough in his write up and though lengthy, contains a terrific primer for getting started.

My wife Jodie and I are new to the world of RVing. We have been tent campers for years, but thought we were ready to evolve. High on our list of "gotta stay away froms" was generators. Some of that bias comes from tent camping in campgrounds that had so much generator noise, we gave up and headed home. Even the whisper quiet ones were "no way" items for us. I don't mean to sound like a purist here, we just know what our preferences are.

Anyway, I set out to convert our travel trailer and last week we took it out for the first time to "give it a go." We knew we would be camping in the trees on the Mogollon Rim in Arizona, so a solar panel mounted on the roof would not work for us. We would need at least one panel to be “portable” enough to be moved around as the sunlight moved. As we had no idea how much power would be needed to keep the batteries at a useful level, we started out with one panel that we could move.
Location of the components was the next item of concern for me. I wanted everything to be relatively compact, easy to access and troubleshoot and as close to the load center as possible. The load center in our Jay Flight is under the oven right next to the dinette. Since we are using a pair of Trojan 31-AGM batteries, I knew out-gassing would not be a problem so I took a hard look at the space under the bench seat next to the oven. It looked perfect to me. I attached a photo of the space with all components set up so you can see how it worked out.
I placed the two batteries as close to the aisle as possible to keep their weight near the centerline. I mounted the Blue Sea battery switch in the front of the bench seat where it is out of the way, yet easily accessible. I then mounted the 1000W PSW Inverter next to the batteries and the solar controller on the wheel well cover. I wired everything together with battery cables from an auto parts store. This was incredibly convenient because two of the cables have small sensing wires coming off the main lug clamp. I used these to wire the temperature sensor and the voltage sense wires from the solar controller. Battery cables come in a wide variety of lengths and with 4 AWG wire costing $2.50 per foot (plus ring connectors), they are a good value to boot.
I installed the fuse between the batteries and the inverter and screwed it to the floor. I also installed the shunt for the remote battery monitor and screwed it to the floor. Next, I used a hole saw to cut a hole through the back of the seat and the end wall of the stove cabinet to route the DC output wires and the AC wires from the inverter to the load center. Out of uncertainty, I completely disconnected the converter because I didn’t know if the solar controller and converter would compete with each other, plus the battery on the trailer tongue is a wet cell I intend to use for the power jack and brake disconnect.
The one mistake I made was disconnecting the common output from the converter distribution board. Apparently, there is a buss somewhere in the trailer wiring that needs the common left connected along with the output of the new batteries. The great news is that I didn’t let the smoke out of anything when I turned the batteries on for the first time… grin!
The next item to be done was running the wires and mounting the remotes on the end of the upper cabinet wall next to the trailer door. With the components located under the bench seat, this turned out to be surprisingly easy. Using a smaller hole saw, I cut a hole in the bottom of the upper cabinet over the dinette. Then through the cabinet end wall into the cabinet behind the microwave, through the other side and easy access to the mounting location. Knowing Jodie won’t tolerate any hack jobs in her trailer, I strain relieved all wires and tie wrapped them together for neatness. I also ran the wires from the bench seat up the wall to the overhead cabinet in a piece of wiremold from Lowes.
Once the remotes were installed in the end wall, I mounted a piece of ¼” birch plywood on the end wall as a false panel to hide the backs of the remote monitors.
Everything worked very well. The only thing left to do was try it in the woods. The MC4 wiring that came with my Carmanah 160 Watt solar kit worked well enough, but there is too much voltage loss in 10 AWG wire, so I knew I would be upgrading that as well. The recommendation is 4 AWG. During our 4 day stay up on “the rim,” the panel charged the batteries just fine. One weird thing was that the remote meter would show a voltage of 13.2 VDC on the batteries, but as soon as I disconnected the panel for the evening, the voltage would drop back to about 12.7 or so. It didn’t worry me because that is a fully charged battery anyway.
We had previously replaced all incandescent lights with led lights, so we could run them all at the same time with no effect on the batteries. We had the Bose wave going, charging on the ipad and laptops at the same time, and never had the batteries drop below 12 VDC. All in all, the system was a huge success.
This week, I wired up a 30’ 4/2 jumper cable and mounted receptacles on the side of the trailer (right outside of the bench seat storage location) (photo’s attached), and the back of the solar panel. Now I can put the panel anywhere with the length of the cable and easily connect / disconnect it for storage.
We have also decided to add another panel and permanently mount it to the roof. That way, we will have the batteries charging while driving or in storage, and can charge with both panels when there is adequate sun. I am running the two panels through another Blue Sea battery switch so I can isolate a panel in the shade, or have them both charging at the same time.
Anyway, this turned out to be a much longer post than I intended, but hopefully it will help and give folks the courage to go ahead and git er done. We saw quite a few Rube Goldberg solar setups in the campground last weekend so it is catching on.
I would be happy to answer any questions if I am able. Again, I am not an engineer, but did manage to install it with minimal difficulty.
John
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Old 06-23-2013, 04:14 PM   #2
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One thing I forgot to mention is that I also installed an automatic transfer switch in the void behind the load center so that shore power would be detected and the inverter turned off. We also put in a remote inverter switch so we could turn it off at night and when not in use.
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Old 06-24-2013, 05:14 AM   #3
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Great write up John. I enjoyed reading about the process you went thru. I recently read about a solar install in the Trailer Life magazine. I'm not sure about this but I remember reading that AGM batteries still have the ability to gass if for some reason they need to and having the controller in the same compartment may be an issue. As mentioned I'm kinda new to this too and may be completely wrong. In any event this has increased my interest in this and look forward to reading more of your posts. Btw great looking install.
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Old 06-24-2013, 06:21 AM   #4
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Very nice quality of work and design....thanks for sharing!
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Old 06-24-2013, 07:39 AM   #5
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Thank you Richard. Yes, you are correct, the batteries can still out gas in the case of extreme over-charging. I was very concerned about that being a problem as well until I read several articles about the same batteries being used on yachts and cruising boats and placed in small enclosed wells located in the living spaces. It is apparently a very common practice on boats and I figured if they could safely do it, we could as well. I do plan on installing a low revolution "muffin" fan in the back of the bench seat and putting a round hole on the front of the seat to pull air through just in case. I do believe the location and batteries are safe, but would rather err on the side of caution. Take care and happy trails.
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Old 06-24-2013, 05:34 PM   #6
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I think you've done a great job! I would still be concerned about the battery placement. Especially being so close to the stove but then, I'm pretty paranoid about such things
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Old 06-24-2013, 08:16 PM   #7
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Hi Skip. I really appreciate your concern. Safety has to be top of the list for a system like this. I have read extensively on the subject and while I am far from an expert, I believe I have covered the bases when it comes to how I have laid out the system.
This is a quote from a German study on Hydrogen gas management in flooded cell batteries. They covered VRLA (AGM) batteries as well. This is from one section of the study: "In most cases, VRLA batteries do not require special ventilation considerations, and small to medium size systems can often be installed in system enclosures, racks, or cabinets using the available building ventilation system."
The recommended ventilation was 1 CFM per square foot of battery space to keep the potential hydrogen/oxygen gas mixture well below the 4% threshold where it becomes flammable. I am using a muffin fan from Amazon that moves 44.73 CFM per minute and is extremely quiet. You actually have to put your hand in front of it to make sure it is blowing air.
I guess my point in all of this is that we should not be frightened away from making the best use of the limited space we have, but instead to exercise normal and prudent caution when it comes to protecting our families and property. By the way, I work for a global fire life safety company, so I am very fire aware and cautious... grin!
Thanks again for the safety reminder and your concern.
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Old 07-23-2013, 06:58 PM   #8
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I recently added a second solar cell to my setup. This one is roof mounted and as such can charge the batteries while underway of while the trailer is in storage. I'm very happy with the install and the way it is working. I checked the trailer an hour ago and the battery meter is showing 14.0 volts. That concerns me a bit as I was under the impression the charge controller would stop charging when the batteries reached full charge status. I sent a note off to my favorite RV Solar guru (Jack Dan Mayer). We'll see what he has to say.
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Old 07-24-2013, 08:00 AM   #9
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Hope you have done something to prevent the solar panels from "walking" away.. even at noon if you are away for a min they can grow legs..
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Old 07-26-2013, 09:05 AM   #10
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The 14 volts is normal for the charging process. This voltage is common when the unit is in the "ABSORPTION" state. My Tristar MPPT hits 14+ volts each day in the charging process and levels out (FLOAT) at about 13.2VDC from about 2 or 3 PM. I also have a concern with the batteries enclosed in the living area WITH the controller next to it. Cant you build a frame under the TT and mount the batteries there?
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