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More power, more problems: Life on the road with just 100 watts

I’ve met a lot of people in my travels with massive solar setups—sometimes more than 2,000 watts. Every time I hear these astounding numbers, I can’t help but wonder if that level of solar power is truly necessary. They tell me how they can run their air conditioners and microwaves while boondocking. This always leaves me, with my 100-watt panel, in awe.

In many ways, RVing has always been about simplicity. My fiancée and I traveled for a year-and-a-half in our pop-up Aliner camper with just one suitcase solar panel. While we certainly didn’t have the luxury of infinite power available to us, we made do just fine.

This is the story of how we made it work.

From cold mountains to sunny salt flats

When we first set out in our little camper, we didn’t have any intention of becoming full-timers. My fiancée and I had just graduated from college, and we were eager to take some time and explore the country. We bought the biggest camper our Jeep Liberty would comfortably pull, and patiently waited for our lease to end.

Solar seemed like an afterthought in retrospect. We’d been avid tent campers for years and intended on taking that approach to our new setup. We figured we only needed enough power to run our lights, charge some devices, and occasionally use the propane furnace when it got cold. Calling our camper’s amenities barebones would be an understatement—but we loved it.

The pitfalls of only 100 watts

Aliner Camping in the Cold Utah Mountains

I won’t lie, our lack of solar got interesting at times. We’d been traveling down through Utah after just completing the Beet Harvest up in Montana. It was mid-October, so not quite winter, but the temperature was certainly dropping.

We set up camp in the National Forest outside of Park City, and over the course of 24 hours, a significant storm rolled in. Whatever sunlight there was quickly became covered in clouds. Our battery was already sitting at a low voltage, and we knew we were going to have to run the furnace overnight—at least a little bit to not completely freeze.

That night it got down to -5 degrees outside. We woke up to ice-lined camper walls and frozen noses. I scurried outside to check the battery’s voltage and was relieved to find we were sitting right at 50%, the lowest you should ever drain a lead-acid battery without damaging it.

We quickly learned that our solar setup simply wasn’t cut out for winter conditions. The next morning, we packed up and headed straight to the Salt Flats, where we enjoyed unlimited sunlight and 70-degree days for a week straight.

Maximizing a single 100-watt solar panel

Along the way, I learned that there were a lot of little things I could do to make life with limited power easier. Living with a small amount of solar means you need to travel with the weather. We never had a single issue during the summer traveling up and down the West Coast, and during the colder winter months we “cheated” and stayed at an RV park, all while snowboarding our hearts out.

Reducing our electrical appliances to the bare minimum helped tremendously. Instead of an electric coffee maker, we used a stovetop French press every morning. To reheat food, we warmed it up in a pan over low heat. Everything took a little more work but consumed absolutely zero power.

Challenges and sacrifices

One of my favorite memories was boiling water so that I could take a warm, outdoor shower in the North Dakotan chill. Living with 100 watts means you make sacrifices, and while it can be fun at times, it does get frustrating.

We didn’t have running water or a pump in our camper, so all our dishes were done with a gravity-fed sink that drained into a removable 6-gallon water jug. One time, I was making a DIY roof rack and needed to cut some metal piping with a Dremel. There was no way I was going to use up the little power we had in the RV battery, so I was forced to run an inverter attached to the car battery, with the car running. It was unconventional, but it got the job done.

Looking back and moving forward

Nowadays, I consider myself spoiled. My fiancée and I have since upgraded our rig and have 525 watts of solar on the roof of a slide-in truck camper. Transitioning away from seasonal jobs and into online work requires us to have more consistent power. We also learned our lesson in those cold Utah mountains, that 500+ watts ensure we can run our furnace even on the coldest of days.

Despite this, the lifestyle we lived with 100 watts still prevails and we strive to keep our setup as simple as possible.

How much solar are you running?

At the end of the day, everyone has different needs and lifestyle requirements, so your power consumption will vary. I hope that this testimonial will convince others that you can live the RV life even with a considerably basic solar setup.

For those that already have their solar installed, how many watts are you running? Could you ever see yourself living with just one panel? Let me know in the comments.

Jeff Clemishaw is a traveling freelance writer, passionate RVer, and snowboarder. He and his fiancée travel in their truck camper, chasing powder and seeking adventure.

RELATED

Part 1: What is the best solar panel for my RV and how many do I need?

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Eddie D.
19 days ago

I’ve gone two weeks with 215 AH battery bank and 80 W solarpanel

Linda
20 days ago

Even though I have 2 – 100w solar panels, I am beginner learner about my system. What I think I am realizing, if I want to run my propane heater with it’s electric fan, my single battery is not sufficient. The 200w panels easily cover the small amount of electricity I will use for every thing else. It is the heater I am concerned about and I guess I will spend a night when the temp drops at my house to see just how long my battery will last at night. Daytime no problem. Anyone have suggestions for me? Do I need to add another battery and somehow fit into my small 13′ Scotty? Thanks.

Left Coast Geek
22 days ago

That 50% maximum discharge ‘rule’ for lead acid really only applies to ‘marine/rv’ style batteries. True deep cycle batteries like golf cart batteries can be discharged down to 25-30% without damage, as long as they are recharged within a few days and not stored at this deep state for too long…. So, that 100AH Group 31M is really only good for 50AH or 600 watt-hours, but those two GC2 golf cart batts at 220AH are good for 165AH, or almost 2000 watt-hours, if you discharge them to 25%.

Tom
22 days ago

Welcome.

cee
22 days ago

My energy needs are minimal for my 25′ MH; between 200W of solar and a Jackery I can boondock until I run out of food, water or need to dump my tank… whatever comes first. If the situation calls for it I have an onboard Onan 4000 but mostly I only use it for an hour every 4 weeks just to exercise it. Great article and welcome to RVTravel.

Steve H
22 days ago

Thanks, Jeff. For decades, few RVers had solar panels but had no problems with camping in a no-hookup National Park or Forest cg for several days. Those who had generators could seldom use them between 10:00 pm and 6:00 am. But we still loved camping simply in scenic locations.

If you want to test solar without spending much money, there is a cheaper alternative to a “solar generator” (which generates nothing–it is a battery!) and “solar briefcase” panels. I bought a nearly square, 15#, 100w, aluminum-framed, monocrystalline solar panel with legs at Harbor Freight on sale for $89. When I tested it at my CO home, it produced 145 open-circuit watts while oriented directly facing the 4:00 pm April sun. If your RV came “solar ready”, you can combine the HF panel with a $10-12 solar controller, a fuse, and some wires and connectors to create a <$150 portable solar system to recharge your existing battery (-ies). No major investment needed!

Van Smith
22 days ago

Excellent article, thanks and welcome! I’m looking forward to the next one.

Bill
22 days ago

We’ve been using a 100w renogy panel I made portable along with a group 31 115ah deep cycle for about 4 years .. No issues. We follow the sun but can go 3 days easy on just the battery. Full timing at that in a 24′ BTCruiser.

Neal Davis
22 days ago

Welcome, Jeff! Glad to meet you and have you here! We failed to add solar to our previous RV because we planned to trade after 5 years, which we essentially did. We now (?) have our last RV and will strategically add solar panels to the roof and go to lithium when our AGM batteries die. Your experience with solar is just the thing I want to hear (lithium too if you have that as well). Happy trails and safe travels!

Ray S.
22 days ago

We travel south to escape the Colorado winters and originally started with 600 watts but now have 1000 watts of rooftop solar and a Epever 60 MPPT charge controller and
400 ah of lithium batteries on a 35′ fifth wheel. Each 200 watt panel is capable of 10 amps charge under optimal conditions ie, June on a cloudless day although I’ve seen over 52 amps charge on a cloudless day, end of May. But, in December when the sun is on the far horizon we’ll be lucky to get 2 amps charge from each panel. So if you’re boondocking with a single 100 watt rooftop panel in December your batteries might only receive 1 amp charge. FYI, most people on the RV forums say that if you’ve got at least 400 watts of solar, you’re golden.

Warren G
22 days ago

We do well with a 120w solar suitcase in our 25’ TT. We do most of our camping in our home state of CO or the SW for a month or so in the winter, so we normally have plenty of sun. No AC needed, so the tv, microwave and 120v outlets aren’t available, but it’s no hardship. Our 8’ refrigerator is 2 way and works very well.

Larry Lee
23 days ago

Since our class A DP came with a residential refrigerator I added 2 solar panels at 160 watts each. Its not quite enough so I will add 2 more but having trouble deciding on roof mounted versus portable. No attempt to power A/C here. Just need to keep food from spoiling, and run the microwave, furnace, bed warmer, lights, TV, lighted make-up mirror, radio, built in whole RV vacuum, air purifier, ultraviolet bug zapper, musical keyboard, and charge phones, computer, drill and 800 AHr of Lithium batteries. (We gave the electric knife to the thrift store. Ha!)
Yes, we are full-timers, we sold our house, and now focus on maintaining our RV and our sense of humor!
Enjoying RVTravel every day.
Thank you all.

Admin
RV Staff(@rvstaff)
22 days ago
Reply to  Larry Lee

Thanks, Larry Lee. Love your sense of humor! (But you do know that you can cut through foam with an electric knife, don’t you? You may regret giving it away to the thrift store. Just sayin’. 😆 ) Take care. 😀 –Diane

Stephen Willey
21 days ago
Reply to  Larry Lee

I did not need a generator, so instead added 4 additional batteries in the generator hatch. 600 watts solar does it well, more than needed in summer but then still enough in lesser winter sun. Careful with panels not roof mounted, many have reported tripping on the wires and shattering a panel that falls over. Also you can create an aluminum angle frame on the roof just above the air conditioner and vents which shadows the roof and keeps things cooler.

Donald N Wright
23 days ago

Jeff, I have one folding solar panel for my Aliner, and a different one for my Airstream. Both also have the little “battery tender” solar panels. I dream of a Water Lilly wind turbine. Folks with popups and teardrops will appreciate your article, but you may upset folks with monster rigs.

BryanC
23 days ago

Jeff, thank you for an enjoyable read! We have to be realistic about the compromises we’re willing to make to achieve the lifestyle we want. Your statement, “Everything took a little more work but consumed absolutely zero power.” isn’t quite correct. You consumed zero electricity, not zero power. I realized I’m nit-picking but even as spartan a living as you were doing requires power. Still, I am an energy hog compared to you!

Lorelei
23 days ago

I don’t have much to use power. No electric appliances. I have a 12 volt electric throw, about 45 watts. But it’s a teardrop trailer. I use an ice cooler and don’t stay out more than five days. I use propane to cook with an 11 pound tank. The battery charges while traveling. I have a 500 watt Jackery and a 100 watt folding solar by RockPals. I’m in the northwest with lots of trees. I probably don’t need solar, but sometimes need the throw and charge phone, electronic book, and camera batteries, so will put out the solar just to top off the Jackery

Traveler
23 days ago

People’s definition of “needed” varies tremendously. From a “ I’ll get it figured out” to “ I need everything I’d have ( or it is) home”.
Thanks for adding a more adventuresome perspective.

Betty Studzinski
23 days ago

I have a 2019 Casita and when I picked it up new I knew I wanted to mostly boondock, so I had a 325 watt panel installed on the roof, 4 lithium ion batteries (400 amps total) and 3000 watt converter. I never run out of power and can run my AC or microwave whenever I need to.

David J
23 days ago

Our solar setup is modest. Two 100 watt suitcase solar panels and a 100ah lithium battery. What has made a really big difference is adding a 20 amp DC-DC charger to our truck. It charges our lithium battery on our trailer as we drive. So, the battery is always at 100% when we arrive at our destination! Also, in a pinch, if we run our battery to zero, we can connect the truck to the lithium battery and run the engine to charge it back up.

Leonard Rempel
23 days ago
Reply to  David J

Agreed on the DC-DC charger! I put a 50 amp Redarc on my unit, and it is truly a game changer! Charges just as fast as a generator, with no hassle at all!

Bob Palin
23 days ago

Last winter I spent several months in Arizona and New Mexico with 400W, it wasn’t quite enough to keep my batteries charged and I had to run the generator every 2-3 days for a few hours. The only way I was even able to do that was because my furnace is broken, chilly nights! This year I have Starlink so I have added 400W more panels and replaced the AGM batteries with Lithium (600AH), I’m hoping that will limit or eliminate my generator usage. (33′ Glendale Titanium 5th wheel)

Curt L Coffee
23 days ago

Looking into a “Solar Generator” How do I know what size is needed. 26′ TT

Steve H
22 days ago
Reply to  Curt L Coffee

It’s different for every RVer. Calculate how many Ah you use each day to run those appliances, devices, etc., that are required for your lifestyle. And don’t forget the time of the year you will be using the RV. Obviously, MN ice fishermen have completely different power requirements from boondocking Quartzsite AZ snowbirds!

For example, we took a 9,000-mile, 3-month Alaska trip with no solar or generator for our travel trailer. We had only travel days for the truck to recharge two 6-volt deep cycle batteries. So, we generally averaged about one night in a state/provincial/city park or private RV park for each 2 nights of dry camping. And, similar to this author, to save battery amps we used a manual Melitta pour-through coffee maker, only used the microwave when we had hookups, used gas to cook and run the fridge, used blankets instead of the furnace, used hair curlers instead of a blow dryer (my wife, I don’t have enough hair to bother!), charged our devices in the truck cab during travel days, etc. But that was what we were willing to “suffer” for the RV trip of a lifetime!

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