Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Travel Trailer Solar Panel Install Detailed Guide and Tips



OUR SOLAR STORY

From the moment Lauren and I decided to buy a travel trailer, we knew that we'd want to add solar panels.  From the various amounts of YouTube videos that we subscribe to and the large amount of reading and studying up on RVing, we knew that solar panels were just going to be a necessity for us.  If you read my last post about our first trip out in the trailer, you'll know that we are TRAVELERS and not so much campers sitting in the middle of the woods "camping."  

We plan to use our trailer as a rolling hotel room on wheels that keeps our personal possessions with us as we explore America.  We're not in a position to quit our jobs and travel full time (although it's nice to dream!) so to use our RV the way we want to requires that we flip the script sometimes and make it more about the DESTINATION rather than the JOURNEY.  

Couple all that with living in the North Eastern USA hundreds or thousands of miles from areas we wish to spend a lot of time in, getting there is often the name of the game.  To do so requires our ability to stop for a quick night in a parking lot (Wal-Mart) or a highway rest area before getting on our way.

This is where the solar panels come in.  They'd allow us to run the lights, charge our electronics, and even run the TV for a few hours in the evening in a place where electric hook ups aren't available and saves us from running the noisy generator for hours on end.  So, in essence, it's a necessity for what we want to use our Jayco Trailer for. 

Unfortunately, it's also a very expensive necessity.

After purchasing the trailer we kept our eyes out and one day I noticed a large price drop on a Renogy 200 Watt Solar Panel Kit with MTTP Charge Controller on Amazon.  We immediately pounced on the price drop and a few days later we were selfishly pleased with ourselves to see the price go back up quite a bit.  At the same time I purchased a Micro Solar brand INV-1000PS Pure Sine Wave Inverter that puts out 1000 watts (2000 peak watts) of AC power.  The kit sat in our guest bedroom for quite a few months and finally I had the time to install it (and we're glad to have the space back!)


As I mentioned, I researched solar panel installs and had a difficult time finding a detailed explanation on the install process itself.  There are a few good videos on YouTube if you can find them, but they are mostly on Class A RV's or large 5th Wheel trailers done by professionals or other RV experts that are very well done but not an easy comparison to our Jayco Travel Trailer.  

Hopefully this post will be helpful or an inspiration to someone else looking for a way to install their solar panels on a Travel Trailer.

SOLAR BASICS 

Let's cover some VERY basic Solar Panel and Electric info here.  Your trailer batteries store DC electricity.  Anything that you plug into an outlet inside the trailer (phone charger, laptop, TV, microwave, refrigerator, etc) requires AC power.  Your trailer receives AC power when you plug it into the power provided by the campground, RV park, or from your generator.  Easy enough?

Your trailer comes from the factory pre-installed with a CONVERTER.  This converts the AC power from the campground or generator to DC so your trailer's battery (or batteries) can store it to run a few items on your trailer without needing electric hookups such as your electric hitch jack, a few lights, the water pump, etc.  

An INVERTER takes DC power from your batteries and inverts it to AC power so that you can use your electronics.  I purchased a Pure Sine Wave inverter to provide a clean, stable, output that won't ruin my electronics while using our solar set-up.  

I'll let you do your own research (I'll post some links below) on why pure sine wave inverters are best for sensitive electronics.  You'll also want to know the mathematical reason you most likely won't be able to run your Air Conditioning or Microwave off a basic solar set up similar to this.  

Also, you'll need to do some research on how much electricity each item uses, how much you personally plan to use, and how much you can expect to get out of your solar set up.  I did TONS of research on this before hand and I recommend you put similar effort in before spending money on an expensive setup you may not need or may not be enough for what you want and are unhappy with your results.  

It's easy once you understand what you need for YOU.  Nothing is cookie cutter in the world of RV'ing, but hopefully this guide helps you understand a bit better.  Also, please know that by doing this you may void your warranty.  Working with electricity could be dangerous, so please be careful!

SOME CAVEATS ABOUT MY INSTALLATION

Wiring the Inverter There are several options and ways to go about actually getting the AC power to the entire trailer from the inverter, ranging from very basic to very difficult. 

For the extremely basic setup, you can literally run a household extension cord from the inverter into the trailer and plug various items into said extension cord.  To me, this isn't feasible as I want to run all of my outlets and my TV without having extension cords running all over an already small space.  

For the advanced expert installation, you can back feed your trailer's electric panel.  I had no idea how to go about doing this and it was quite daunting to think of doing so.  My Father-in-Law, who is EXTREMELY skilled when it comes to electrical work around the house, didn't even want to attempt it.  The difficulty in running the wire from where the inverter sits to the electric panel was another major deterrent in going this route.  I know this is the most professional looking and best overall set up, but we decided to go with option three.

Option Three was to run a cable from the inverter to a 30 amp receptacle that we installed on the outside of the trailer.  Then, we plug the trailer power cord into the 30 amp receptacle, and by basically plugging the trailer into itself, we have now powered the trailer's electrical panel.  A little hack and Rube Goldberg-esque, but it works well and was easy enough to install.  

The only trick is you have to remember to TURN OFF the circuit breaker for the CONVERTER when using the INVERTER.  Otherwise you'd be using the batteries to charge the batteries (through the inverter) and most likely would end up in draining them completely.  

What Can We Power?  -  Without going into specifics of wattage, amps, and volts... we plan to use the solar panels and the inverter to power all of our electric outlets inside the trailer just like we were in our house.  Does this mean we can use a hair dryer, charge a laptop, and watch TV all at once?  Nope, but we could do one at a time depending on battery charge.  

What we WON'T be able to power is our refrigerator, microwave, or our air conditioner because they are high draw items.  If we need to, we can run the generator for a bit to cool off the trailer or run the microwave.  

We plan to use propane for the refrigerator and for any other cooking that we can get by without using the microwave.

Batteries, Batteries, Batteries - Again, I'm not going to go into the nitty gritty of battery amp-hours, but, most people go with either two or four 6 VOLT golf cart batteries because of the large amount of amps per hour they create.  Using 6V batteries wired in SERIES gives you double the voltage and same capacity.  If you have four 6V batteries you can wire them in series AND parallel to double the voltage (to meet the trailers 12V needs) and double the output (amp/hour). 

Sadly, those golf cart batteries are EXPENSIVE!  With plans for expensive solar panels, other upgrades, and the expense of the new trailer, the 6 Volt batteries had to be put on hold for awhile, even though they would provide much better and longer output then mine do.

Within days of getting the trailer, I went to Coscto and bought myself another 12 volt RV battery identical to the one that the dealer provided.  I wired these two 12V batteries in PARALLEL so I'd receive the same voltage but double the output. 


WHAT WE PURCHASED FOR OUR SET UP  

  • 200 Watt (100 Watt each) Renogy Solar Panel Kit with MPPT "Tracer" Charge Controller
  • Renogy "Tracer" Remote Charge Display
  • Micro-Solar 1000 (2000 Peak) Watt Pure Sine Wave Inverter
  • 30 Amp ANL style fuse
  • 40 Amp and 80 Amp Circuit Breakers
I also went to an electric supply store and purchased heavy rubber wrapped 12 gauge 3-wire and a heavy duty 15 amp plug to wire the 30 amp receptacle.  The Solar Kit came with 8 gauge wire to run from the charge controller to the batteries, so the only other wire we needed was to run from the battery to the inverter, so we purchased several feet of (red and black) 6 gauge wire.


It also greatly helped to already have an array of tools, and most importantly, a helpful Father-in-Law that knows electrical work well and can crimp and solder ring terminals.

I had also purchased "Rural Power Systems" angle brackets for the panels so that we could get a better angle for the sun, but upon attempting to install them, we got so frustrated with them that we opted to use the Z brackets provided by Renogy and just live with flat panels.  The Rural Power System instructions were so poorly written that it took several tries to get the brackets put together properly.  Once installed the bracket arms scraped against the roof during extension, and if you know anything about travel trailers with a rubber roof, the last thing you want is a sharp metal object scraping against your roof repeatedly!

FINALLY... THE INSTALL!

One of the hardest tasks was figuring out how I was going to run the cables from the roof to the batteries.  Lauren didn't want any cables visible from inside the trailer (and I didn't really either) so rather then run the cables straight through the wardrobe down the wall and into the top of the night stand, I decided to run them behind the wall between the 2x2 studs.

Our Street Side Front Wardrobe Closet

I began the install by finding studs built into the wardrobe closet on the left side of the bed.  Using a basic stud finder, I located the studs and drilled a 3/4" hole at the top of the wardrobe closet.  Using a wire snake and a piece of bright yellow (for easy visibility) nylon rope, I snaked the rope down towards the pass through storage.


After snaking the line, I tied it off so it didn't accidentally get pulled through.  

In the pass through under the bed, I pulled away the thin wall panel (it was just stapled onto the frame) to locate the bright yellow rope.  Drilling another 3/4" hole I pulled the rope through and now had a perfect path for our solar panel cables.


Now... for the scariest part of the whole thing:  I had to drill a hole up through my roof.  Most people run the lines through a vent or some other pre-cut hole, but, all of those are in the back of my trailer and I'd need well over twice the length in cables to run back towards the batteries and have a much harder time running the wires through the trailer.  So, after a bit of measuring for the right spot, I took the same 3/4 drill bit and drilled up through my roof.

Luckily, when I went up on the roof to look, the drill bit was right where the factory had left a large amount of Dicor Lap Sealant where it joined the rubber roof to the sheet metal frame.

You can see the drill bit hanging through the ceiling...

... and poking through the roof.


Once that task was completed, I used the two pieces of the cardboard box the panels came in to plan out the location of the panels and made sure the wires would reach.  I also made sure to include enough room to be able to walk around the panels safely should I need to get up on the roof.


Next up, I began assembling the aforementioned angle brackets.  My first mistake of the day occurred here.  It was 95 degrees in the middle of July and I'm up on the roof of the Jayco (rather then in our air conditioned home just feet away) assembling these complicated swivel brackets that came with very poorly worded and illustrated instructions.  A little sunburn and a lesson learned!

Once they were assembled I realized I had assembled them incorrectly and had to take them apart to reassemble them. When we finally got them together right and found out the arms scraped against the roof, we scrapped the whole plan and began installation on the standard Z brackets that came with the Renogy Solar Panels.  

Once the brackets were attached to the solar panels, we placed a small square of Eterna-Bond tape directly to the roof and then a generous helping of Dicor Self Leveling Lap Sealant before even drilling.  We placed the bracket in place and using the screws provided with the Solar Kit, drilled the panels in place.

I later went back and applied a ton more lap sealant to cover the whole screw head and area around where any holes are in the roof.

Once the panels were fully installed, we identified the positive and negative wires with a piece of white tape and fed them through the roof.  We purposefully left the panels unconnected on the roof as they were already generating power in the hot July sun and didn't want to deal with any live wires.  Once through the roof we used electrical tape and attached them to the bright yellow rope I had previously run through the wall into the pass through storage.  Happy to get off the hot roof, we headed down into the shade of the trailer and after giving the rope a simple tug, we easily snaked the wires from the panel down into the storage area.

The positive and negative wires that come off one panel.

I had purchased a piece of 3/4" sanded plywood at Home Depot and cut it into a 24" x 24" piece.  Using a pencil (that you'll see in photos below) I diagrammed out onto the board the placement of the charge controller, the inverter, and the breakers.  Using a spade drill, we made a hole in the floor of the trailer that went clear through the "winter insulation" that came with the trailer to the outside.  The hole had to be big enough to feed the large wire to the inverter, plus two sets of 6 gauge wire.  This was another faint of heart moment as I put yet another large hole into my Jayco...

This is the plywood with electronics after installation.  You can see my original pencil sketches underneath.

We next mounted and grounded a 30 amp receptacle in a metal gang box mounted to the frame of the trailer.  We then fed the wires needed to reach the battery through a flexible waterproof conduit towards the battery.  Next we used large black zip ties to hold it in place around the A-Frame of the trailer and then used a little electrician's putty at the ends to ensure it remained waterproof.


The 30 Amp Receptacle.  


We later added a cover to the gang box to keep it waterproof and protected from anything that gets kicked up from the road while towing.

We then finished wiring up the system by connecting the solar charger to the batteries and the positive lines to the two circuit breakers.

We added a 30 amp ANL style fuse in line coming off the solar panels to protect the charge controller in case the panels put out an abnormal amount of power.

We added a 40 amp circuit breaker coming off the solar charge controller headed for the batteries as added protection in case it exceeds the 30 amps of the trailer system, which it should regulate itself anyway, but just in case.

Finally we added an 80 amp circuit breaker in line with the return from the batteries to the inverter.  We went with 80 amps based on our 1000 watt inverter.

Since Volts X Amps = Watts, 1000 divided by 12 (volt) gives us 80 amps.  That was our figuring, anyway.

At the bottom of this post, I've included my original diagram I created in Microsoft Paint to help my father in law understand the installation.  Hopefully it's of some help to you!

Our final step was to connect the panels to the charge controller by connecting the cables on the roof.

Clicking the Renogy supplied quick connectors together, we were in business!  

The panels were powering the charge controller, the charge controller was charging the batteries, the batteries were powering the inverter, and the inverter was powering the receptacle which powered the trailer's entire AC power system!

The last step of the day was to use the Eterna-Bond tape to adhere the wires to the roof to prevent them from moving as well as adding a bit of protection from the sun and rain.  I then added maybe a bit-too-much lap sealant to all of the holes I drilled in the roof.  As far as I'm concerned, in this instance you can never protect your roof against water penetration enough.  I also used basic household spray foam insulation that you can purchase at any hardware store to close up the holes in the roof and pass through storage where the wires had been fed through.

Taping up (and plenty of Dicor) the Solar Panel cables to the roof.

That was enough for one day after working nearly 9 hours in the hot summer sun!

The next day I went out to the trailer and drilled two small holes in the back of the night stand above the plywood board that holds our solar charge controller and inverter.  I fed the wires for the Renogy "Tracer" remote display for the solar panel system and the remote on/off switch for the inverter.

Inside the trailer, a quick measurement and a few screws later, I had mounted the remote display and control switch!  The nice thing about the Renogy "Tracer" display was that it was just a simple phone-type jack that plugged into the Charge Controller rather than running all sorts of wires to the battery and to the solar panels that some other remote displays require.  It was a simple plug-and-play!




A closer look at the remote display for the Charge Controller.

A closer look at the remote on/off switch for the inverter.


After a quick vacuuming of saw dust and some straightening up, Lauren and I were happy to see the trailer back to rights!



The finished product up on the roof!

I'm currently waiting on a steel wire guard type metal cage to arrive in the mail to protect the inverter and charge controller from items banging around the pass through storage during travel.


 This is how the Flying Morkies "help" Grandpa wire the trailer for solar power!


Below is my original wiring diagram.  I created it so that my Father In Law would know how I wanted the trailer wired.  While he's very skilled at electrical work, he has no experience with RV's and little solar experience, and I hoped this would help.  After it was made I saved it figuring it would be helpful to post here to explain the wiring that went into my solar setup.



This is how our panel board turned out: 


So, there you have it folks!  Our solar panel installation on our Jayco Travel Trailer.  I hope it was useful to you.  I'm happy for any and all feedback, including suggestions on how to improve this article to help others.  Have a link that should be included?  Please send it our way at 

TraileringAlong (at) Yahoo.com

or leave a comment below.  Thanks for reading!  Happy Trail(er)s!




 HELPFUL LINKS:

Explanation on Batteries in SERIES and PARALLEL:

DIY Inverter Install:

A Very Detailed and Technical Description of How Solar Works:

A Detailed Battery and Inverter Guide:

Chris and Cherie's (Technomadia's) Detailed Solar Guide:






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