By Russ and Tiña De Maris
As you stroll through the miles of aisles at the big RV shows, be prepared for a new offer from some of the RV manufacturers. At first glance it might seem like something far more practical than the usual “bling” thrown at RV shoppers – it’s the feature that calls itself “Solar Ready!”
Most shoppers would be savvy enough to recognize there probably aren’t any solar panels up on the roof. “But maybe, just maybe,” some reason, “there’s truly something in this new rig that’ll make it easier to take advantage of Mother Nature’s great Power Cell in the Sky!” Well, maybe yes, maybe no.
Most often what this new feature points to is a small electrical “port” fitting on the outside of the rig that facilitates plugging an external “suitcase solar system” into the RV’s electrical system. Zamp Solar provides manufacturers with an available setup that allows the builder to put an outside “plug in” port, and a wiring harness that leads back to the RV battery bank. The promotion from one RV manufacturer (Forest River) reads this way: “We are constantly looking for ways to create a better product for you, our customer. That’s why we went the extra mile and pre-wired your RV with a Zamp Solar pre-wired solar port. Solar is a great way to keep batteries fully charged and cut the cord giving you freedom to explore.”
Kind of gives the customer a warm and squishy feeling inside to know that their seller is really looking out for them.
But as the old adage goes, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” That “extra mile” may not prove to be what you really need. Much depends on your particular RV lifestyle, how much time you spend away from hookup campgrounds, and certainly how much power you use. Here’s how:
The Zamp system portrays itself as a “solar system in a suitcase.” Instead of having solar panels up on your RV roof, the system stores away in a protective case. Once on site, dig out the case, open it up, pull out the solar panel system, and expand a set of attached “legs,” if you will. Point the solar panels at the sun, unstring a connection cable, and plug it into the Zamp power port on the side of your rig. Make an adjustment to the solar controller – located on the solar panel array – and you’re good to go.
Here’s where lifestyle comes in: Consider the extra time that it takes to dig out the system, set it up, plug it in, adjust it, and keep it pointed at the sun. Add the time that it takes to unplug, pack up, and store away the system when you’re ready to go. That may not be an issue, particularly if you’ll be “in place” for a number of days. But also take into account the concern you might have if someone rolls in, unplugs your system, and strolls off with your investment. One Zamp retailer suggested the list price of a 200-watt system was nearly $1,100. Would you be interested in having your portable generator walk away?
Lifestyle issue two: How much power do you use? If you’re heavily invested in electronics, like televisions, computers, and using your lights at night, or running things like the microwave oven on an inverter, a 200-watt system may, or may not, be able to support your needs. “Adding on” more panels might not be as easily accomplished as an “expandable” system kept on your roof top. We called the Zamp’s home office and asked about just how much one could expand the system. Simple answer: 200 watts maximum through the wall port. If you wanted more power, you could buy another 200-watt system and direct connect it to your RV battery using battery clips. For some this might work.
But if you’re not familiar with the realities of just how much power a solar panel produces, get educated. We found one RV dealer with a YouTube presentation on Zamp’s solar system. It was a slickly produced 7-minute video that said their 120-watt system that put out 6.4 amps in one day of charging would produce “50 to 60 amps.” Sorry, but the definitive description of that claim is “Baloney!” Reputable solar dealers will tell you figure six to six-and-a-half hours is a good summertime measure to be used when making output calculations. So, provided the package does kick out 6.4 amps, multiply that factor by 6.5 hours and a far more likely expectation would be a little over 40 amps. In winter, or on days without full sun, your power output will be far less.
Here’s our advice: If you’re a reasonably good do-it-yourselfer, use your internet resources to educate yourself on the topic of RV solar. Then buy what you need, piece by piece, and install your own custom system – one that has room for future expansion. If you’re not a DIY sort of person, find a dedicated RV solar installer, get a bid – then compare it with bids from other RV solar installers.
we are looking for a consultant to advise us on Solar and a/c systems for a mobile hotel unit – any suggestions?
If you are ready to invest in solar, search “Handy Bob’s Solar”. Although very opinionated and at times wordy, this gentleman lives with solar. He offers real world experience and very practical info. Read his entire blog and it will save you heartache, time and money. He knows what he is talking about.
Another problem with the portable system is that it takes up too much storage space for anyone in a Class B and many Class Cs.
While most of you know me from my articles on 120-volt AC power, I actually have a strong background in 12-Volt DC batteries and charging systems. I’ve recently developed an interest in solar systems as they relate to battery charging, so I’m going to study up on it and ask a few manufacturers to send me some demo products. That way I can gather empirical data on how well they work, not just regurgitate some marketing department hype. This information will show up in a future RV Electricity Newsletter, so watch for it.
Thanks,Mike,look forward to your analysis.
After reading as much I’ve read, it is still confusing to me. I truly want to go solar. We’ve only been RV owners for three weeks. Two of those we were burglarized, twice in one week. Now we are more interested into getting security for our Jayco 30′ . If anyone has advise please let me know. It’s still in the repair shop.
Jayco has a deadbolt on the door use it. If you are in the RV have a bear spray mounted with velco next to the door and spray it on anything trying to get in. Remember if you get a gun, You have a one in seven greater change of hurting someone in your family or acquaintance than a intruder.
I used a portable solar system for a while before getting rooftop solar. That system could either be attached to the battery with spring clamps, or even plugged into the “cigarette lighter” plug. Hookup was convenient, but the unit was heavy to lug around. It is now available cheap if someone wants to come to my house to pick it up.
Couple years ago we visited a solar installer in Quartzsite, AZ. Complete 300 watt roof mounted system with newest panels, charge controller and installation (promised in 4 hours) totaled $1500 out the door. Their lot was crowded with low end as well a expensive rigs from as far away as Boston. All those folks were customers based on recommendations of very happy RV’ers they met during their travels. I recall their business name beginning with the word “discount.” For us, that business is a benchmark of surpassed expectations and old school quality. The easy peasy solar systems are fine for a couple LED lights at your mountain cabin. The most economical decision is to do it right the first time.
Our Arctic Fox (2012) came ‘solar ready’, which meant there was a little plug on the roof leading to – uh – nowhere. The dealer said I just had to plug a solar panel in and VIOLLA – solar charged batteries. WRONG! [That dealer is out of business now – go figure]. I removed our wall mounted stereo system and found the two wires wound up – and going nowhere. Two more wires were wound up there as well, and they ran down near the batteries – also unattached to anything. That’s all fine because I installed our 375 watt roof mounted solar array myself, running my own wires (much bigger than the ones supplied by the mfg). I’m thinking of someday using the wires down ‘near’ the batteries to hook to a volt meter next to the stereo.
But what about those of us who like to camp in forested areas. Trees provide great shade to cool RV’s in the summer. Roof mounted systems are pretty well useless in the shade. I can locate my portable system in the sunny areas and move it accordingly to follow the sun. Your article mentions nothing about that.
Although handy, a Zamp proprietary solar outlet has led to much confusion as the Zamp outlets and plugs are not wired the same as many other solar panels or smart chargers for that matter, making it more convenient to purchase their over-priced panels. Zamp also places their charge controllers at the panel instead of closer to the battery resulting in voltage drop/loss. You end up using adapters and rewiring the system if you wish to optimize your solar output. It is nice to have a convenient port to “plug n play”, but be aware of the nuances of this marketing strategy.