Sometime before COVID hit, we decided to remodel our home and in doing so we ended up with an upgrade our solar panels. This left me with a stack of 230W Sunpower solar panels with no real home. I gave my dad a few for his RV, kept a few for myself, and sold the rest on Facebook. My plan was to mount them on my Jayco Featherlite Camper to provide a little extra power when camping (the tunes play, the lights on) and to keep my battery healthy while it’s in storage. Solar power systems are actually pretty easy to install yourself once you are comfortable with a drill, screwdriver, and careful handling of relatively high DC voltages.
Before I started I researched what would be needed online, pulled out the tape measure, and started making some purchases on Amazon:
Solar panels – 2x 230W / 45V – $ 150
If you already had this, you can find some really cheap panels online at low prices. On site, I can still see a row of 200+ watt panels for about $ 75 each. What to look for here are the dimensions (make sure they fit in the empty space on your trailer roof), the voltage (easier if they are the same output voltage), and the wattage (note the wattage per square foot, there it is limited.) real estate). The two panels I bought realistically have a maximum power of around 450W. But remember, this is only top power, full direct sunlight. To be honest, that’s completely enough for my needs.
Solar Charge Controller – Victron 100/30 – $ 260 $
The solar charge controller is the “brain” of your company, it takes the high voltage from your panels and feeds it into your battery storage system, it decides when the batteries are switched off (to avoid overvoltage / overheating). There are cheaper controllers out there, but I’ve heard really good things about Victron. Compact, really solid and the best app control / configuration for my money. The Victron has cheap battery monitors that you stick to the side of your battery that track individual battery voltage as well as temperature to keep the battery at a safe temperature and to preserve its longevity (more on this later). The maximum voltage and the maximum amperage are to be found here. With Victron, this is easy as it’s part of the model name (100V / 30W) – I chose the 100V max voltage unit so I could connect my two panels in series (which causes the voltage to add up becomes). I could have hooked them up in parallel which would keep the voltage the same but would have required a little more cabling / plugs. 30W is more than enough, normally you’d want to exceed the max wattage by 20% or more, but at 5W per panel I’m fine even if I want to add a few more one day.
Cabling / mounting system
I measured the length of the cable I would need with a tape measure and recorded where I would put my cable through the roof, run it down, and where I would place the controller. You need a good thick cable to have low loss DC power and not worry about overheating. Weatherproof or external cables are also useful for the roof section. I went with 30 ’10AWG which also had the correct SAE connectors to make it easy to connect to my panels. Fortunately, I had the remaining extruded aluminum rails from my existing system for assembly. These were really solid in the end, and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this in order to be able to cruise the freeway at 60+ MPH with solar sails on the roof. To make my roof waterproof, I bought white Flex Seal tape and Flex Seal Spray. To hook everything up I also bought some O-ring wire terminations and some clamps for connecting the power supply.
In total it probably took me 3-4 hours to install the panels as this was the first time I did something like this.
The first step for me was to drill my roof holes, mount my installation brackets, and run the power cord through the camper. I selected a location for my panels, laid out where my rails would go, and then recorded where the mounting brackets would be placed.
The rails are firmly screwed in. Look through the bolts
The best way to secure your panels depends on your roof type, and for mine (rotten plywood) this seemed like the best way to secure them. If you can find bolts or drill into aluminum frames, it might be even better.
I also angled the rails so they were lower in the front and higher in the back to create a bit of a “profile” to hopefully hold them together.
For the wiring, I drilled 2 holes in my roof, just above where we have a floor-to-ceiling closet, the cord at the back of that closet, under a sofa (next to some heating ducts), and in the storage space at the front of the closet, RV near the battery and power systems. I think if I had to do it all over I would have used a nice junction box rather than rough circles where the cord went into the camper but that will probably be enough. I held it in place in a few places with an insulated staple gun that I have for securing cables to things I use on every occasion.
A couple of pieces of stained veneer and it would be a completely invisible installation
Connect the solar controller
Be careful when connecting your solar controller, connect the battery (negative first) and then the PV (solar cables, ideally before connecting them to the modules) and make sure the connections match up properly (Victron had a positive outside and a negative pole inside)) because a mistake here could melt your beautiful controller and the magic smoke could come out (don’t ask me how I know that)
You should also get this bluetooth network to your Victron controller for each of your batteries (I only have one, but I might end up buying more) to provide charging and temperature information and to greatly extend the life of your batteries.
Blue thing with thermal tape on the battery
When everything is connected, you can connect your solar modules and configure your victron (via the iOS app), add your intelligent sense with your controller to a virtual network and you generate electricity! (Screenshot came from after the sun was mostly set but produced 350W when the sun was higher)
Victron Smart Solar App
Final Mount Down
The last thing I did was screw the solar panels into the rails, zip the cable off so it wouldn’t bounce around, and spray flex gasket on all of the screws I ran through my roof and the little holes that opened for my power cables To keep the roof airtight, put flex tape over any cables that have been exposed to the sun and clean / vacuum the work.