Our solar setup for free camping
With more and more people choosing to travel on a budget, it rules out the fancy caravan parks and powered sites. Whilst we love the space and freedom of not being cramped in a caravan park, it also means we need reliable power! Considering our van came with no 12v and solar install, there was a bit of work to be done so we could live off grid indefinitely. Our entire setup cost me a smidge over $1000 and much of it has been working flawlessly for 5 years, 24/7/365.
The only changes have either been due to my stupidity (Battery fell from the back of my car) or me choosing to upgrade. Even when we were in a house, I powered our 12v fridge and several devices through our 12v setup constantly. I have used todays pricing as a reference, I can provide links to everything we used if anybody is interested. In this pricing I have included all wiring, terminals and everything required to take a caravan that has no existing 12v or solar setup in it.
Our setup consists of:
1 x 200w Fixed solar panel – $50
This is an ex house panel and has a rated open circuit voltage of 44v, when tested it puts out 43.6v. This is a Sunsolar panel that is 8 years old, Trina are a well known and trusted brand and their panels have a lifecycle of 20+ years and for $50 it was a gamble worth taking.
1 x 120w Portable panel – $150
This is a cheap ebay panel. I removed the inbuilt regulator and the 2 sides of the panel are wired in series so the rated voltage of 22v is doubled to 44v, matching the voltage of the roof panel. All panels in a solar array must be of similar voltage to ensure their maximum efficiency. The reason I run both a fixed and portable panel is because I don’t like spending the whole of summer being parked in the sun! The portable panel means I can get more power for a LOT longer than I could with just fixed panels, but it also means I can hide away in the shade and move the panel to wherever the sun is.
1 x 30amp MPPT Controller with External Monitor – $200
I have used these Tracer EPEVER regulators for 5 years and they have always worked flawlessly. The 20amp one I used on my first travels and the 3 years in between still works perfectly, I only upgraded to the 30amp as I initially intended on installing more solar. We also have a external display (pictured so we can monitor current battery voltage, as well as the power coming in and going out of the battery.
1 x 150ah AGM battery – $369 (On Special)
Aussie Batteries & Solar (Website) are a great company who I regularly recommend to people and the only reason I needed to replace my 4 year old Giant Power battery was because I damaged it when it fell from the back of my car. They have some great specials from time to time, so if you’re in the market for a battery, keep an eye on their website. Via their ebay store, they also ship OZ wide, for free!
1000W Pure Sine Inverter – $135
I don’t actually use our inverter to regularly power anything, the idea of 240v power floating around my caravan without an RCD switch is not something I am comfortable with, not to mention they are incredibly inefficient, but that’s another post altogether. We have 12v chargers for all of our laptops, phone/camera chargers, USB drives etc. The inverter is really only for our power tools (Drill, angle grinder, soldering Iron), for our Blender and for running the fridge on 240v when we’re on the move. It does power our toaster if we want, but it probably only gets used once a fortnight at best.
Fuse block, 12v plugs, wiring, LED strips and light bulbs, solar panel brackets etc – $180
Because both of my caravans started out with absolutely no 12v or solar system in it, I had to wire it all from scratch. This may seem daunting but really the hardest part was running the wiring to where I wanted it! I used a bit of free ply wood from the Bunnings “throw out” bin to mount the fuse panel, inverter and master kill switch. The panel, battery and solar regulator are all mounted under the L lounge, directly above the axles for optimal weight distribution.
Considering most of our setup is 5+ years old, we have saved literally tens of thousands of dollars on van park fees as well as considerable money by running a lot of our appliances from this setup when we were in a house between travels. Even better, we had lighting and internet when we had power outages in our house, which were surprisingly frequent. Whilst the initial outlay may seem large, when you consider the freedom a reliable solar setup gives you in regards to free camping, it pays for itself in only a few weeks of free camping!
For those wondering what we power on a regular basis, it consists of: 2 Laptops, all lighting, 3 x 12v fans and a temperature controller for our fridge that run 24/7 in warmer months, water pump, a Bluetooth speaker, modem, USB hard drives, we charge our camera, GoPro, phone, handheld UHF’s and torches, and probably a few other bits and pieces I am forgetting. Whilst not daily, we also power our 12v fridge, drill, angle grinder, soldering iron, toaster, 240v TV and our vacuum cleaner through the inverter. Whilst I could save some power by going to rechargeable items and a 12v TV, I don’t have an on board money making device, so we just work with what we have! In the van we have 2 roof mounted LED bulbs, 1 x 1m LED strip above the table, 1 x 1.5M LED strip above the cooking area and a 1m LED strip alongside both Jaidens and my bed, an LED light bulb outside, 3 x dual socket 12v plugs. 2 x External 12v plugs (One for our 12v shower and one for when we’re sitting outside).
I have a heap of video I took during the installation process and have written some very long articles (3000 words +) on planning a solar setup from scratch but I am not really sure there’s enough interest to edit the video and post the articles because there’s already SO much information out there on the internet. If you’re interested in learning more of the “ins and outs” let me know below and I’ll add it to my (ever growing) to do list!
Don’t be fooled, I am no expert. In fact, when I made the decision to sell up 5+ years ago and travel I knew nothing about solar, 12v or battery technologies. I also found that many of the forums that were around at the time were less than helpful and many of the people really had little knowledge themselves and instead paid people to do the work for them. Being the analytical (and tigharse!) person I am, I spent the next 6 months learning the ins and outs of 12v and solar so I could not only plan my fitout, but set it up from scratch and be sure it was going to do what we wanted reliably. I’ve now wired quite a few systems for myself and other people, repaired dozens of peoples systems and every other day I am offering advice on setting up or changing solar systems. To say I love low voltage solar setups is an understatement, the money that it saves us is the reason we’re able to live on the budget we do, so I love being able to help other people out and help them live more comfortable off grid and also save them some money along the way!
Whilst it seems scary if you’ve never done it, wiring up an off grid solution really is not that difficult. With a little bit of research just about anybody can do it. Even a (then) 8 year old Jaiden made a video on how to hook up a solar panel, regulator and battery!
Whilst it took me a few days and some expense to install everything, there’s something so satisfying about living comfortably in the bush with a power solution you installed using nothing but the sun to charge it!
Solar, it rocks!