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.