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Solar Panel Installation Completed !!!

In my last post, I mentioned that I had made good progress on the solar installation, but had not yet completed everything.  Well, within this post I am happy to report that I finished the installation.

The first order business was to mount the various electronics which “talk” to the solar panels and the batteries.  Principally, these devices are responsible for determining how much of the power collected from the panels will be sent to the batteries.  Send too much and the batteries will be over-charged, resulting in damage.  Conversely, if there is not enough charge sent to the batteries, the system will not operate efficiently as it is designed.  This hardware, in coordinated fashion with fuses, switches, and other surge protecting devices, will ensure that the overall system reconciles these two scenarios, delivering what should be a harmonious and hassle-free supply of DC (direct current) power to the Airstream.

In order to connect the batteries to the charge controller (i.e. the “brain” of the system), I needed to run three sizable wires from the utility bay, forward into the existing exterior battery box.  Unfortunately, there was no extra room for me to utilize within the existing cable run for this additional wiring.  This being the case, I drilled a new hole through the utility bay floor to the exterior belly of the trailer and a second hole into the battery box.  Utilizing some silicon and a leftover piece of flexible PVC conduit to connect these two holes, I quickly fabricated a weatherproof pathway for the wires (see image below).

New (gray color) flexible PVC conduit routed into the battery box

New (gray color) flexible PVC conduit routed into the battery box

Flex PVC conduit enters the utility bay from the bottom exterior

Flex PVC conduit — with lots of silicone sealant — enters the utility bay from the bottom exterior

Once all the wires were situated, I moved onto the final significant phase of the project – prepping all the wires to be connected.  This process, while very straightforward, took a lot of time … longer than I would have expected, largely because each wire was cut to size, terminated with lugs and heat-shrink insulated, before finally secured into place.  Unlike the employees on the Airstream assembly line, I tried to orient the wires in a neat and orderly manner, which took some time to complete.  Looking at the finished project, I do not regret taking this part slowly and methodically.

Electronics as installed by Airstream

Electronics as installed by Airstream

Wires installed, labeled, and ready for action

Wires installed by me, labeled, and ready for action

Protective partitian reinstalled

Protective partition reinstalled

When it was time to fire-up the system, everything was working fine, less the 12-volt DC system.  This issue had me very perplexed, so much so that I spent a few hours troubleshooting the situation to no avail.  Frustrated and sputtering curse words as if I were a curmudgeonly  sailor, this proved to be one of the low points of the entire project.  I finally accepted defeat and secured a service appointment with a local Airstream dealer in hopes they might identify the problem.

As luck would have, I was thrown a bone today (Tuesday), and was able to quickly solve my problem.  Standing in front of the Airstream after work, I noticed my mistake and I’m embarrassed at what a silly error it was.

Imagine moving a lamp from one room to another, only to wonder why the light will not illuminate.  In your attempt to troubleshoot why the lamp isn’t working you spend hours attempting to solve the issue.  During this time, you change bulb, test and re-test wires for shorts, pour over manuals and scour the internet for added insights … essentially doing everything you can to resolve the problem.  Everything.  Yet despite these attempts, the damn lamp will not illuminate.

Convinced there must be a wiring short someplace deep in the walls of you home, you reluctantly and with a heavy head schedule an  electrician to come inspect your home wiring.  Then, two days later you notice that throughout all of this, the lamp is not plugged into the electric wall outlet.

That’s more or less what I did.

Three consecutive weekends I spent on the project, only to forget a task so basic and simple.  I can be an idiot.

Anyway …

All in all, the process is completed and I can reflect back on what was a super cool and (mostly) fun DIY project.  Also cool is that I managed to learn a fair bit about the onboard electrical systems while saving an estimated $1,200 doing the work myself.  Not too shabby at all.

Remote monitor panel displaying battery usage details

Remote monitor panel displaying battery usage details

Now, as I type this, all systems are working properly and the next time we find ourselves dry-camping (Labor Day weekend), the generator can stay buried in the truck while each of the four 100 watt solar panels atop the roof bask themselves under the warm rays above.  All the while, quietly and without any additional efforts on my part, our batteries will be recharging.   So long as there is a sun above, we have an endless supply of energy to power our rig.

And that my friends, is bad-ass awesome.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Awesome job…

    Did you wire the shunt after the solar? so the amp usage displayed in that screenshot is what is being used from the batteries no matter the input?

    I for some reason wired ours the other way and am thinking about changing it to have i think you have yours. Basically ours is showing after the solar.. straight at the battery. So if we are getting 10 amps of solar and using 3 amps, the monitor with show +7amps.

    August 21, 2013
    • Thanks Tim; I’m very happy with the results. I cannot wait to give the system a real-world test over Memorial Day weekend.

      AS for your question … my wiring is straightforward – I followed the diagram provided by AM Solar. As things stand now, I am able to view the amps hitting the panels as well as the combined real-time amps draw (ie – load). Of course, when batteries are full (like they are now) and with shore power connected, the controller doesn’t push the any amps to batteries. I do think it’s interesting to casually monitor usage in order to better understand usage levels.

      August 22, 2013
  2. Marty Moore #

    Great job, buddy. When you bring the rig to DC, we won’t have to run a huge extension cord from our house to the rig that is taking up six parking spaces. We are waiting.

    August 22, 2013
    • Marty, I think we can squeeze into five spaces …

      August 22, 2013
  3. roger cayce #

    Dave, Its been exciting to follow your project. I have Lew coming in just a few days to get ours done. I really learned much from your detailed description of the job-mostly I learned that I would never have the patience to stick with it until the job was done. I am sure that I would end up with lots of expensive parts, a few holes in the tailer and no solar ability. I am proud of you for sticking to it and it done!!! Hope all\is well with you guys, Roger

    August 23, 2013
    • Roger, I’m sure you would have been ok had you tried yourself. Stretching the project over three weekends was a bit of a hassle, as was dealing with coastal moisture. I’m sure Lew will be much more efficient than I was, which will surely allow him to complete the project much faster than I did with mine. I’m sure you will love the outcome. Let me know how things work out. Happy camping!

      _dave

      August 24, 2013

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