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Posts tagged ‘AM Solar’

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.

Solar Panel Installation (Part 2)

Coming off the heels of last week’s solar panel activity, I was feeling pretty good about my remaining to-do list.  My plan was to haul the Airstream to Santa Cruz early Saturday morning, set-up shop at my buddy Tim’s place and together, he and I would finalize the installation.  Surely we would be clinking beers by Sunday afternoon admiring our accomplishments.

That was the idea anyway.

Around lunchtime Sunday it was abundantly clear that the clinking of beers was not happening as we’d planned, but we remained cautiously optimistic that we’d be complete by dinnertime.

Yeah, that didn’t happen either.

While we did make good progress over the weekend, we found ourselves – both rookies in this world of solar panel installation, slowly prodding along.  Nearly every decision was made only after some amount of extended collaboration.  This approach proved to be a good one, but not particularly expedient.  Further, there were multiple visits to the hardware store.  And finally, I/we under-estimated the time needed to complete certain tasks such as running wires, measuring/fabricating cables, and completing other miscellaneous tasks … those which are simple, but important and painstakingly time-consuming.

Then, before we knew it … POOF … the day’s afternoon was turning to evening.  We had to accept the cruel reality that the installation would not be completed this weekend.

Looking at our watches in a state of panic, we immediately shifted gears – focusing our attention to only those tasks which should be completed before departing Santa Cruz.  More specifically, the plan was to complete anything I could not do by myself next weekend at my home base here in HMB.  In the end, Tim graciously allowed my to borrow some of his hand tools which will prove useful as I finish things solo.

So, if we didn’t finish, what exactly did we accomplish?  A lot actually.  Allow me to explain…

Our first order of business was to route the primary 6/2 wire coming from the roof through refrigerator vent and then to the utility cabinet under the wardrobe, across the hallway into the pantry, and finally into to the bathroom.  Did you get all of that?

Fortunately, Airstream has dedicated a subfloor chase which simplifies this task somewhat, but the process remains a nice sized pain in the ass.  To illustrate my point, within the following pictures, follow the Orange and Black 6/2 cable as it routes from the utility access to the bathroom.

6/2 wire from the from the combiner box into the chase

6/2 wire descending from the combiner box into the subfloor chase beneath the wardrobe

6/2 wire emerges from the chase

6/2 wire emerges from the chase behind the primary power center below the pantry

6/2 wire, RJ11, and 18/2 fished to the bathroom

6/2 wire, (later joined with RJ11 and 18/2 wire) routed through a wall and into the bathroom

The “brain” of our solar solution is the charge controller – an otherwise nondescript, boring looking box of circuitry which will be mounted under the bed near the batteries.  This charge controller captures a lot of useful data which will allow Kelly and me to accurately know what is happening with our batteries in real-time.  Among other things, by way of a realtime remote display panel, we’ll be able to view how much power we are consuming at any moment, how much battery power (i.e. amp hours) remains, how quickly our batteries are recharging,  and how much power we are collecting from the panels.

The question then became where to mount this display panel so that it remains easy to see/access without introducing unsightly aesthetics.  Airstream simplifies the answer to this question as there is dead space in one of the overhead cabinets which makes for an ideal mounting location.  Factor in that this dead space is affixed to the pantry and affords an easy cable run to the primary 6/2 wire, this location is practically begging to be used as a mounting surface.

And that is exactly what I did.

Pantry cabinets removed in order to run wires down to join the primary 6/2 wire

Pantry cabinets removed in order to fish a pair of control panel wires downward to be joined with primary 6/2 wire

Accessing the backside of the mount surface

Accessing the backside of the mount surface

Tim preps the 18/2 wire which powers the remote panel.  Note the square hole for the panel

Tim preps the 18/2 and RJ11 wire which powers the remote panel.  Note the square hole for the panel

The mounted remote panel

The mounted remote panel

All wires in the bathroom, awaiting next steps

All wires in the bathroom, awaiting next steps

Once I had all the wires together in the bathroom, the next task was to get them outside.

I knew from reading other blog posts that behind the water tank pictured above, lies a nice spot to drill through the subfloor.  Coupled with a separate hole cut from the exterior, the wires can be exited from the bathroom through to the exterior.  Such a task is easier said than done as the space is very cramped and maneuvering my hands and the drill into position proved to be hard – too hard.

Finally, after a lot of swearing and only after incurring a few scrapes to my knuckles, the hole was cut.

Through the floor

Through the floor (no I didn’t vacuum the wood shavings

Of course before I could insert the wires, Tim and I had to cut a hole into the underbelly of the rig.  Together the two holes would provide easy passage to the outside.  Following a fair bit of estimate measuring, we finally settled on a location and I cut an access hole.

A bit of nervous laughter before cutting the hole.

A bit of nervous horseplay before cutting the hole.

Then I had to be serious again

Getting serious about the task at hand

Before routing the wires through, I decided to insert a piece of flexible PVC through the hole to act as a protectant against future rub/wear damage to the wires.

Wires routed through the floor

Wires routed through the floor

Obviously, being the underside of the coach, protection from weather is important.  To solve for this, I opted to route all the wires through weatherproof flexible PVC, which was then clamped and screwed to the chassis frame rails.

Wires exiting the coach

The wire bundle exiting the coach

You can see in the picture below how once finished and in place, all the wires are completely protected from the elements and safely secured to the frame chassis.

Wires fully protected from the elements

Wires fully protected from the elements

The floorplan of our Airstream utilizes about a third of the space under the bed as storage, accessed from the outside.  Within this space, a sub-portion is further dedicated as an electrical control panel.  I chose to run the flex PVC into this bay.

What you are looking at below is:  fuse for inverter (top left), the black box below the fuse is the bus for brake lights, running lights, electric brakes, etc,.  Just beneath the wood board in the middle of the picture is the main power relay, and beneath it another positive and negative battery bus.  Finally, the big box on the right is the (600 watt) inverter which converts DC battery power into household AC electric power.  A small partition wall (which I’ve removed) separates this utility area from the main front storage area.

The forward garage/utility area

The forward garage/utility area

Looking at the picture above, it seems clear to me Airstream doesn’t give a damn about securing these components in a clean and orderly fashion.  Sadly, another example of sloppy craftsmanship I sometimes find throughout the coach.  Yes, everything works fine as it should, but for as much as an Airstream costs, details like these could and should be executed far better than they are.

But I digress…

For my installation I will need to fit a variety of items into this space.  Accordingly, far too much time was spent rearranging the placement of items and cutting back unnecessarily long and sloppy factory cable runs.  Once I had things a bit better situated, I proceeded to cut a hole into the floor for the cables to re-enter the trailer through the bay .

Awaiting wires from the bathroom

Awaiting wires from the bathroom

Wire bundle in and awaiting permanent tightening.

Wire bundle in and awaiting permanent tightening.

And that is also about when we starting running out of time.

I figure that I have about half a day remaining, which means in reality, probably one more full day.  I continue to remind myself that doing this work myself is good.  I saved a lot of money (I estimate about $1,200) and learned everything about my particular installation, the latter of which may likely serve me well sometime in the future if/when repairs are needed or if we decide to pursue a system expansion.

In the meantime, I remain committed to completing this project with a smile.

Lastly, I cannot express enough how grateful and thankful I am that Tim and his wife Katie allowed Kelly and me to squat in their front yard all weekend.  I would have been in big trouble without Tim’s knowledge, assistance, and awesome cache of tools.  Thanks again Tim and Katie!

Fingers crossed that phase 3 is the final chapter of this project.

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…

In Preparation of Solar

These are the four big boxes I received today – each containing a 100 watt solar panel.  The other box includes all the miscellaneous parts completing the installation kit.

I have one seriously kick-ass DIY project in my future and it’s going to be awesome.

More to follow…