Carrizo Plains, CA
Solar / Charging System
For anyone building a camping rig self sufficiency should be one of the highest priorities. Especially if you plan on being off grid in the back-country for the majority of your travels. Having a refrigerator, using auxiliary lights, charging electronics, airing up tires, you name it they all use electricity. Whether you're out exploring or hanging out in camp for days on end it can be difficult to keep up with all the modern electrical demands. This article will go over the basics of the electrical system in regards to charging. Each device in the article includes a concise review. If you want to skip to a particular sub system use the links below:
I always had an idea of where I wanted solar panels to be mounted but really didn't know how to get it done. I was lucky enough to find some really great panels on amazon where the dimensions worked perfectly to fill in the area above the cab of the truck. These Newpowa 175W panels are energy dense mono-crystalline panels that I've really been impressed with for the price. They even have a 200w panel now. If you're looking for a great high wattage panel I'd take a good look at these. First step was painting the bare aluminum black to match the rack a bit better.
I also had to decided what orientation I'd want the panels to be on the truck. As someone who needs to "see it" to know what it looks like we jerry rigged them in both orientations to see what looked better. We also experimented with the angle to help make them more aerodynamic. (Shout-out to my brother Ryan for putting up with my OCD!)
After picking the placement and angle we picked up some steel tubing and got to work. In order to keep some extra room for the RTT and to tuck the panel edges into the inside corner of the rack we had to a bit of fabrication on the lumber rack. I think it looks so much better this way. Again huge thanks to my bro for helping me out with this.
Welding and Modifying Rack
The last order of business was to run the wiring back to the charge controller. Both panels are connected in series and with 10 awg wire running from the panels down into the camper shell. I found a really neat product that water proofs the connection into the camper shell but also allows for more wire to be added later.
The Seaview ABS Plastic Cable Gland can be found on Amazon or possibly at a local marine store. It comes in 3 pieces; a base, rubber gland and top cap that seals everything together. Included are some specialized drill bits of different sizes to make a perfect hole for your wires. What's nice is you only drill what you need and if you have space left over you can add more wires later on. This helped out because a few weeks later I added some wires for the
Solar panels work great for keeping everything charged and topped off. However there's more to solar than just the panels. In addition to the solar panels you'll need to add in a charge controller and in our case an auxiliary battery. The charge controller regulates power coming from the solar panels into your battery ensuring a proper charge. The auxiliary battery or house battery is a second battery that is usually isolated from your starting battery and powers everything apart from starting your vehicle and a few other crucial vehicle systems.
The truck uses a Victron Energy charge controller (SmartSolar MPPT 100/30). I can't say enough good things about this charge controller (seen above). Build quality is fantastic. Solid case using metal and high quality plastic. Status LEDs are bright. It's also a great size measuring 5.1 x 7.5 x 2.8 inches and weighs under 3lbs. Literature included and available online is very detailed and thorough.
However what makes this charge controller stand above the rest is it's software. The amount of information you can monitor in real time is great. The app on your phone connects to the charge controller via bluetooth where you can access everything you'd want to know about your solar system including real time power stats, historical daily totals of energy generated (past 30 days and total since original installation) and a line graph showing different values over time that you can switch while it logs. It will also tell you the current charge state so you know if it's in bulk, absorption or float. This info can be handy to know if the battery is fully topped off or not.
Having all this solar power is great and all but without a place to store that energy it wouldn't be very useful. Enter our auxiliary battery a Full River Model DC210-12. It's a giant, heavy, energy dense Group 4D AGM battery with a 210ah capacity. It also boasts a CCA of 1180!
With 210ah of battery capacity on the truck has let me forget about worrying if the battery has enough juice. For example the one device in the truck that is always drawing power is the fridge. With this much power I can have the fridge on 24/7 and never have to worry about running out of power. One thing to factor in when calculating your battery capacity requirements is how many days you can go without the need to recharge. We've personally been in some really cloudy situations where we didn't get a charge for days on end but having that capacity kept us going.
Another advantage this battery has is it's incredible cold cracking amps (CCA). With 1080 amps available it will start even the largest engines. We've actually been in a few situations where our starter battery has been run dry or even failed completely and we've used our battery isolator to jump start the truck with a flick of a button. In addition to starting the truck if you ever find yourself trying to winch out of a difficult spot you can join both batteries to give the winch more power to get you out of trouble.
Finding durable long lasting batteries can be really tough. There are so many brands out there who do you trust? Well I can now say I've now owned this battery for over 5 years and it's still going strong! In fact I recently had it put on a professional battery discharge tester and after a long discharge test it's still testing at 100% capacity. I just couldn't believe after 5 years the battery would still have it's full discharge potential. I was able to speak with one of the lead engineers at the company and he confirmed it's actually possible. I'm still in disbelief but you cannot fake this type of discharge test. The test device puts a 75amp load on the battery and times how long it takes to fully discharge the battery. Unlike other battery testers this type of test puts a real life load on the battery so you can determine the true capacity of the battery. Here's the tool we used (BD6812) if you'd like to learn more. Just unbelievable! I'm really hoping I can visit the Full River office at some point soon and get an official load test there and speak to their knowledgeable crew.
-Durable and proven long lasting
-True deep cycle battery
-Fully sealed and maintenance free
-Many different sizes and capacities to choose from
-Incredible cold cracking amps
-Record breaking discharge cycles
-5 year warranty
-Great price per capacity value
-Lacking newer lithium technology
-Finding a distributor with fair price
If you're looking for a solid auxiliary battery look no further than Full River. You won't be disappointed.
Keeping a battery healthy can be a difficult task especially if you're working with tight margins on your battery capacity. Lead acid batteries do not like to be discharged low or it can permanently damage the battery and limit how many times you can recharge the battery in the future if at all. One way to keep a close eye on your batteries is to use a battery monitor.
The Victron BMV-712 has been watching our auxiliary battery for over a year now and I would never purchase another deep cycle battery without one. The amount of crucial information you need is easily accessible with an included digital display and with a smart phone app. I have the display mounted at the tailgate so when I'm working in the back of the truck I can monitor battery usage in watts and a few other parameters like battery voltage, state of charge, cumulative amp-hours, temperature and a second battery (which I don't have connected). There's also a backlit display that activates when you press any button.
Battery mounted in tailgate area
In order to monitor the battery an included shunt must be installed on the negative side of the battery. Then an ethernet wire connects the shunt to the display. It's larger than it looks like in the photos online. It was a little difficult to fit into my electrical panel but I was able to make it fit.
Terrible photo of the shunt amongst badly routed wires
While the display is very handy Victron has produced a really clean app with every parameter you would need to see. Just like the charge controller listed previously it does a great job displaying what you want to know. Below are some screenshots taken from the app while I checked on my full battery.
Battery monitor app screenshot
AC to DC Charger
The AC to DC charger. AKA "shore power". Great when you are parked for extended periods of time and you think the solar might not keep up. Worked great when we had the truck parked in Telluride and there was a good foot of snow covering the solar panels! I chose to install the IOTA Engineering charger as it has a nice 30A charge rate. I have an older model so I had to purchase the additional IQ Smart Charger to ensure the charger knows how to do the 3 stage charging (bulk, absorption, float). It connects via a telephone cable to the body of the charger as seen in the picture below.
AC to DC Charger tucked under the cell booster
Wiring the charger is fairly straight forward. On one side you have the positive and negative you connect to your battery and on the other side is a normal 120v AC plug. I used a heavy duty jacketed 2 wire (2 wires plus ground) and ran the wire out the bottom of the truck, along the frame to the rear bumper. At the rear bumper it meets a covered Journeyman-Pro 5278 recessed male outlet so I can connect a normal extension cord from the truck to an outdoor outlet.
Rear outlet hidden behind license plate.
All in all a great product that has lasted since June 2017 when I installed it or 35000 miles of driving. No issues so far. Just one of those things that you don't use very often but can save you ruining a battery because the voltage dropped to low. Highly recommend.
When you have two batteries in a vehicle that are connected you have to be careful not to have them connected while under any significant load otherwise the batteries try to equalize. For example I have a small starter battery connected to a large deep cycle aux battery. If I kept them connected all the time the larger battery would start to equalize with the smaller battery and loose capacity over time. For charging you can connect two different batteries of the same voltage but different capacities without the need to worry about equalization.
There are a few types out there I wont get into but my National Luna"smart" battery isolator really is just a large amperage solenoid with a 5 minute timer along with a simple low voltage detection. When the truck starts a timer begins and counts down from 5 mins then closes the solenoid so both batteries can charge off the alternator. The idea behind this is to let the starting battery get the full amount of power first before splitting it between the two.
Need photo of solenoid
The second feature to the solenoid is the low voltage detection. When the starting battery stops charging and gets below a certain voltage (think turning off the truck) it disconnects the two batteries so they do not equalize. I've noticed however if I turn off the truck and the solar is charging it will continue to charge both batteries since there is enough voltage on the starting battery from the solar power.
Picture of monitor
Lastly this kit comes with a handy battery monitor that includes LEDs showing approximate battery voltages, an alarm if either battery gets too low and a button to combine both batteries together. The last option can be quite useful in a situation where your starter battery is dead and you can jump start your own truck with your aux battery. Unfortunately the wiring harness that connects into the monitor has started to pull away from it's plug and can show incorrect voltage values or even sometimes disconnect completely. National Luna wasn't helpful in getting a new part and wouldn't warranty it as well.
This kit is getting quite long in the tooth. I believe it's now at least 10 years old if not more and I imagine there are some better battery isolator kits out there. However it is serving it's function for the most part so I'll probably keep it until it fails. If anyone reading this has any experience with a different setup please shoot me a message on the contact page.