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Solar Panel Installation (part 1)

For years I’ve been coveting solar panels for our RV – both on our previous rig and now the Airstream.  Despite the fairly hefty upfront costs and inherent inefficiencies (versus gasoline generators), I’ve found myself longing for an ability to re-power onboard batteries via the sun.

More and more, Kelly and I find ourselves preferring to visit BLMNational Forest, or other unsupported destinations.  Typically these locations are primitive in offerings, but plentiful in natural beauty.  These areas also tend to be quiet.  For the past year or so we’ve been using a generator to recharge our batteries and despite having sought and purchased a ‘quiet’ generator, it is too noisy for our liking, especially so when the surroundings are otherwise serene.  The dull rumble of the generator tends to be obnoxious for us and to our neighbors.  I also hate estimating how much gas to carry each trip.

Something had to give.

When I first started investigating solar options, it didn’t take long to conclude that all roads point to AM Solar.  Based in Oregon, this solar retailer specializes in solar needs specific to RV’s and is also known for their outstanding customer support (which I confirm).  Amongst other things, AM Solar quoted 10-12 hours for the installation.  At $100/hr, the labor portion would be run me roughly 50% of the materials purchased.  Further, I’d need to take time off from work to drive ten hours to their shop … and I couldn’t secure an appoint until October (yes, October).

Motivated by the thought of keeping a cool grand in my pocket, vacation time used elsewhere, and desperately wanting to have solar installed in time for two trips later this summer, I decided to proceed with the installation myself.   Following a few phone conversations with the folks at AM, I finalized my purchase and two days later all parts had arrived.

Keep in mind that I have zero experience with solar or electricity in general.  Fortunately, YouTube is the instructional tutorial for damn-near anything … including the many solar related questions I found myself in need of answering.  The videos, coupled with the excellently detailed diagrams AM Solar provided, I was feeling pretty good about things.

Additionally, the Airstream online community proved to be extremely helpful to me.   I located two threads in particular which were hugely informative – each submitted by users who own the exact unit and floor-plan as Kelly and me … and they both also purchased from AM Solar.  Imitation being the best form of flattery, I set out to mimic much of what these owners did for their rigs.

I have no desire to reinvent the wheel.

Equipped with what I figured to be the basics, I jumped into things.  I spent all of Saturday and much of Sunday standing on a ladder running wire, cleaning and prepping the roof, and finally – positioning and wiring panels.  My aching back and sore feet aside, I think phase-1 of this two-part DIY project turned out quite nicely.

Rooftop junction box combines individual panel wires (10/2 awg) into a single heavy-guage wire (6/2 awg)

Rooftop junction box combines individual panel wires (10/2 awg) into a single heavy-guage wire (6/2 awg)

6/2 wire down the refrigerator vent;  will be routed forward to the battery box.

6/2 wire snaked down the refrigerator vent will be routed forward to the battery box.

Once the primary 6/2 wire was installed, I began focusing in earnest on the panels … the primary focus of the weekend.  My goal for the weekend was to mount each of the four panels and complete all related exterior wiring.

Unpacking the first panel

Unpacking the first panel

Decisions ... where to positioning panels

Decisions … where to position panels

Panel mounts prepped with waterproof sealant.

Panel mounts prepped with waterproof sealant.

Close-up of the combiner box wiring

Close-up of the combiner box wiring

Combiner box completed, vent covered re-installed.

Combiner box completed and vent cover re-installed with rivets.

A fully wired and tidy rooftop

A fully wired and tidy rooftop

I made some silly rookie mistakes and had to redo a few things, but considering I didn’t have a full array of project specific tools available to me, overall I’m happy with my work.  Most importantly, all the effort appears to be a success.  As evidenced by the multimeter reading, the four (100 watt) panels are pumping plenty of juice, despite the otherwise thick overcast coastal skies.

Cause for celebration  - everything works

Cause for celebration – everything works

I’ve enlisted a buddy to help me with phase-2 of this project (next weekend).   Mainly we’ll be running the wire forward to the battery compartment and connecting the solar charge controller to the batteries.  With any luck, a week from now Kelly and I will have a fully functioning solar equipped rig.  And we’ll be that much closer to our ideal full-timing set-up.

Phase 2 of this DIY project to follow…

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. roger cayce #

    WOW! I’m jealous, both of you getting your job done and of you having the nerve the nerve to tackle it yourself. It looks like it was done by a real pro!!! Congratulations, Roger

    August 6, 2013
    • Thanks Roger – the process was fairly straightforward, but like I mentioned in the post, I leveraged a lot of information others provided. Without this content I would have been completely lost. More, I did leave a couple aesthetic blemishes AM Solar or any other experienced professional likely would not have, but since very few people closely inspect my roof, I’m willing to live with a few warts. 🙂

      August 6, 2013

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