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Lessons Learned: Solar and Battery Management

By Jenn

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This is the second post in my Lessons Learned series. To read the first post, on planning, follow this link.

I have a lot of gear and gadgets. I am techie, an early adopter, a geek….however you might like to put it, that’s me. Plus, work and photography bring tech requirements of their own. Keeping it all charged can be a challenge when you are boondocking or on the road. This continues to be something that I am tweaking. I always want to be more efficient, more simple, if possible, and think about power, less. I learned and confirmed some things about my set-up this summer and I ready to pass them along to you.

First off, if you have not read about my solar and power set-up, you can do so at these links:

I had a power challenge right off the bat and it came like they often do, when I was rushed. I had planned to stop and meet a friend on the drive out, stopping before the mountains. I was running behind schedule, which was going to cut our time short. She was rushed and therefore, I felt rushed.  What happened? I left the fridge on battery while I stopped to see her. What were the results of this major mistake?  I ended up with 2 worthless golf cart batteries.  I had started my trip off with a bang. With the bad batteries,  I was able to make it through the days, fine but it left me short of power at night.

Thankfully, a wonderful new T@b friend came to my rescue. It turns out, he had 2 new Trojan T-105 +’s at his house, waiting to install. He offered to meet me half way and let me buy them from him. Talk about generosity! I thankfully and humbly accepted his offer. We decided to meet half-way (I think he drove further than me, though) and made the exchange and I was good to go.  Thankfully, I had slipped the handle for the batteries into my toolbox. I had debated not bringing the strap but I am glad that I did.  First lesson learned: bring the battery strap! You can’t lift and carry Trojan batteries without one.
Other than that first blunder, my 2 golf cart battery set-up worked, very well. I had plenty of power and was able to use the batteries, liberally.  I ran the fan during the day and the TV, lights, and sometimes the Alde at night.

I also liked having extra battery packs. I used a Goal Zero Sherpa 50 and inverter and Goal Zero Yeti 150.  These powered my work devices and phone during the day.  After work, I charged them either with my tow vehicle while I was out exploring or with the T@b battery.  At night, the Sherpa 50 charged my phone and the Yet 150 charged my Surface Pro 3.  This arrangement worked well, for me, and it gave me the peace of mind of knowing that I wasn’t running down the T@b battery during the day and that I could be taking advantage of solar to completely recharge.

I also learned that I really liked flexible solar panels. They were light, easy to set up, and easy to store. Perfect! I did have a Goal Zero Escape 30 (no longer made) panel that I used to charge my battery packs at first, but it was stolen about half of the way through the summer. Lesson: your gear can grow legs. That was probably my favorite portable solar panel design, ever.  It was sleek, lightweight, and effective.

Because of the smaller solar panel theft, I am seriously considering a more permanent solution, though I am not quite sure what that would be, yet. I don’t like the idea of a cable down the T@b and I am not sure I am ready to drill, either. But, it would make life a little easier to “fix it and forget it” and not fret about theft.

I learned that the MPPT solar controller, really does make a difference in helping to charge your batteries quicker. An MPPT controller is an advantage when the sun is limited or when you are traveling for part of the day. To be honest, there were very few days that were predominately cloudy, but on one occasion, I had a three day stretch of mostly cloud covered skies and it coincided with moving campsites. My battery capacity and the MPPT controller made that stretch completely manageable.

I also learned how convenient it was to be able to get read outs from my battery and solar monitors right on my phone via Bluetooth. This was especially convenient when I was setting up or breaking down camp, on the road and filling the gas tank, or in bed before I went to sleep.  The app, which seems to be updated regularly, features some basic reporting of current and historical data. At one point, I noticed very poor solar performance so I went outside to check the panels. I discovered that one had blown over, face down. It could have been hours before I noticed and lost valuable charge time.

On a lighter note, I realized, that all of these gadgets have cords and these cords can be overwhelming, especially when there are both 12v and regular AC cords. My sister-in-law was astounded at the amount of cords I had when she joined me for vacation and joked about having nightmares about getting caught in my cords. They drive me a little batty, at times, too. In an attempt to try and improve the situation, I have recently ordered this cord case . I will let you know how it works out.

As technology evolves, I will continue tweaking my set-up and try to keep you up to date when I make changes, but, overall, I am happy with how well this worked out. Even though I had this all planned, I was afraid that I had overlooked something or miscalculated, somehow. It turns out, I had not!