In the course of our RV plans my wife and I talked about the possibility of boondocking. For those that don't know boondocking is taking an RV camping without the comforts of a park. The only water is what you bring with you and the only electricity is the electricity you can generate.
This can be a costly and limited proposition. However the advantages of being able to take your home while you job hunt can not be understated, and not everywhere we would be applying had nearby parks that were affordable. Still, Running a generator full time to power and charge electronics can be an expensive process, not only in fuel costs but also in maintenance costs. Additionally, generators can be a bit loud, and as such ruin the reason people often go boon docking, to go somewhere unnoticed. After some discussion about cost savings and the ability to have longer stays 'out' Stephanie and I agreed to get a solar system up and working on our 1985 Holiday Rambler. After scouring the internet and designing my own setup I compared it to the other available setups that could be purchased.
Here is our build out:
2 x 80 AH Deep Cycle Batteries - $75 ea
2 x 320 Watt 24 volts Residential Solar Panels - $144 ea
1 x MPPT Solar controller rated to 800 Watts @ 12 volts* - $235 + $50 SH
1 x 2000 watt / 4000 watt peak Harbor Freight Modified Sine Wave Inverter
2 x home-made panel tilt mounts. $60 in hardware
When you add in some loose wires and other items it comes to about an $800 system. Lets talk about the components individually then we will move to how they are actually performing. The first thing is that this battery configuration is extremely small, and that is done on purpose.
Battery banks can get very large and very expensive very quickly. Since my wife and I were only concerned with operating a few laptops during solar hours and not an AC or other large devices it didn't make sense to have a huge battery bank. Also for 150 dollars we can abuse (take levels below 50%) without feeling like we are damaging our investment. Further we didn't have to deal with finding new places to store a larger battery bank. This is a corner we definitely cut, but so far we are not sorry about saving the money and hassle. If we were going to full-time boondock instead of periodically this would be a place we upgraded.
Solar Controller. I am really happy with our controller. I found it on ebay and it had a lot of good reviews. It mounted above the driver's seat and basically does a great job of turning solar energy into the proper voltage to charge our batteries. Because its a MPPT it does so in low-lighting conditions as well as direct sunlight. The relationship between the controller and the panels is key for this low-level charging. Notice that the MPPT charger can service a 48, or 24 or 12 volt battery system. Also notice that the panels are producing voltage for a 24 volt system. What that looks like is actually a voltage of about 40v per panel in good sunlight. The panels are wired together in series so that they produce 80v in direct sunlight. This configuration accomplishes 2 things. First the higher voltage means we can keep the wires relatively small, but it also means that even in horrible light conditions we still are producing much higher than the 12V needed to charge batteries. So the worst voltage I have seen was in the fading evening light with only 32v being produced, but we were still charging batteries at 9PM!!! We lose some on capacity because of this configuration but in the Pacific Northwest the low-level charging is much more important.
Solar Panels are the workhorse of the arrangement, and the costs can pile up. Look at the price per watt before making a decision and look into the cost of shipping. Basically you will pay around $1 per watt for premium 12V RV panels. For the two panels I wanted to order the shipping and handling would have been more than the actual panels, but the price per watt was .65. So i drove down to Los Angeles before I left California. When i go back for my van I will swing through and pick up more panels in preparation for expanding our solar array. (2 more which will be in parallel). I do not want to understate the size of the panels.... they are huge. 6 foot by 3 foot or close to that range for mine, if they were 12v panels they would have been half that size. Some things to know when you are purchasing. The rated watts and voltages are under ideal conditions. It is really important to research the area you will be in. For Washington if we are getting 50% of our rated power then we are doing good. This is why I feel comfortable doubling our total number of panels. There is a lot of cloud cover here and we are pretty far north which lowers the productivity of our panels too. If you are building a rig for Arizona you might want to stay well below your controller's rating, for us I feel comfortable unplugging our second array if things get too bright.
The Inverter is the part of the puzzle that I am least happy with. I bought this inverter when my wife and I would periodically camp out of our full-size van. For powering a laptop, or even a coffee maker this inverter did the job well. But this was before I had really invested time into understanding what makes the electrical world go round (generator / sine wave pun). If you don't know about the difference between a modified sine wave and a true sine wave: here. The 4000 watts peak is just a fabrication and there are a lot of devices that buzz really really loudly or flat out will not run with a modified sine wave. Laptops are okay but the power supply in my gaming PC is not having it. Also any computers that require a constant connection like my media server and wifi-unit do not do well with the switching of power sources. So to ease that burden I brought a 1000 watt APC battery backup that has some power regulating/rectifying circuitry. The battery back up does the job and allows me to run sensitive devices and switch between power sources without losing connectivity. This would be another upgrade if we wanted to boondock full time instead of park hopping. The upgrade for a true sine wave inverter would be about $500 and would almost require a battery bank expansion. This is a corner we cut, and since we already had the power supply backup it made sense to use the equipment we already had lying around instead of spending more money on the stuff that wouldnt get used that often.
In term of performance we are able to work and perform the various tasks we need to on the solar set up, even while its raining. What does work mean? It means that we have 2 laptops, a wifi extender and a home server running while we charge our phones and laptops. Other draws on the power are charging up the motor batteries, and running various fans in the coach to keep the temp cool. Periodically we turn on the lights and mechanical pumps. I suspect that we could run the refrigerator off this solar system but its not needed since we have propane available for that chore. Further expansion would be awesome but it is a monetary sink hole that would only be worth-while if we were boon docking full time or needed AC because we were in the south or southwest of the US.
As I announce things on Facebook about our plan to move to Washington one of the most common questions is where we are going? So to help with that here is a list of places were going on the way up to Bellingham Washington from Palmdale CA:
Day 0: Palmdale
Day 1: 3 hrs : Pismo Beach (Drive Way Surfing)
Day 2: No travel
Day 3: 2.5 hrs: Prunedale CA, (KOA) Full Hookups
Day 4: No travel
Day 5: 2 hrs: Pacifica (Full Hookups)
Day 6: 1.5 hrs Sonoma County Fairgrounds (Full Hookups)
Day 7: 3.5 hrs: Los Molinos (Dryftwood RV and Camping Park) Full Hookups
Day 8: 3.5 hrs: Medford OR
Day 9: hrs: Eugene OR, Visit the Greens!!! Driveway Surfing!!!!
Day 10: Dunno
Day 11: 3.5 hrs: Seaside Resort, Seaside OR, (1000 Trails) Full Resort
Day 12: No Travel
Day 13: ????? Maybe directly to Bellingham for Linux Fest North West
This route has a mixture of off-grid boondocking sometimes in a casino parking lot, sometimes in National Forests. I used Campendium.com and 1000Trails to make the trip plans. Ill have more posts about the RV and its modifications that will help people understand how we can go "off-grid."
Relocation What and Why?
My lovely wife and I have been in Lemoore California for 12 years total. While we have enjoyed being about 2.5 hours away from our parents we have come to a decision that Lemoore is not the place we wanted to spend the majority of our lives. That sucks because we currently own a house in Lemoore....
So where do we want to go? What do we want to do?
All of this started last year around March. I was having a hard time with my life-load (like a workload but not just from your job). I was balancing the needs of my job with the completion of my college degree, and the renovation of our 85+ year old country farm house. All of which had my stress-o-meter pegged. I realized that things had to change. After trying to negotiate some changes at work and seeing that relief there wasn't possible, through no fault of the company's, I knew had to make a choice between postponing my degree or leaving work. Scared and unsure of what would happen I left employment in May.
The degree would be done in September. The original plan was to look for a job in the last few months of school and then return to employment before the Holidays. Long term decisions were to start learning about adopting kids, which is something Stephanie and I very much want to do one day. While working during the day on the house, and finishing my degree at night we came to a sudden realization. We really had no reason to stay in California, or more accurately stay in Lemoore. In fact we had no reason, and no restraints on our moving except for the house. This was a pretty amazing thought for us since up until this point we had only lived where the Navy, told us to live. Since I was no longer in the Navy and no longer employed we had unprecedented freedom to move anywhere.
After some discussion about moving closer to family to have children we determined that San Diego where my older sister lives is too city; Palmdale, where we both had family was too familiar for us. We wanted something new. Short of moving across the country to be close to our extended families we had no one that we could be close to but my younger sister who lives in Seattle. Washington was immediately appealing to me as I had traveled there while in the Navy for various adventures. There was also a couple of active Lido 14 fleets in the north that would satisfy my need to sail a boat that had been a part of my life since childhood. All of this was really exciting, but we needed to formulate a plan.
Planning is one of the things that I learned how to do in the Navy, then afterwards refined in college and at Del Monte. Stephanie and I sat down and worked out what we were going to do and when on ProjectLibre ( a free and open source alternative to Microsoft Project) and on wekan boards. A general overview looked like this:
May-Jun: Bathrooms and inside of the house.
Jul: Outside Landscape and Van repairs
Aug: Recover RV and Stage and List house
Sep: Graduate College.
October: Purchase and pack household goods into Inter-modal Container. Finish RV
November: On the road!!! Arrive in WA, Start Jobs while living in RV. Start looking for houses to settle in.
Several of you will notice that there is a line with asterisks above that line shows the waiting line. We SHOULD not start the stuff below unless we have a job in Washington or a house sale imminent. That line is where we sat from September through the end of December... 4 months!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Which, as I type it doesn't sound so bad, but when your monthly costs are around 3k you start to see why living out of savings after spending so much money on the house can be difficult. I was not willing to get a job for only a few months, since I believe that would be unfair to an employer if I didn't tell them that I was planning on leaving. As December came Stephanie and I were nervous wrecks. Stephanie landed a temporary and part time job with a church friend that owns Autowerx. She started working as an office/marketing manager and that eased our savings drain.
We stuck to our plans: Plan A sell the house, move to WA. Plan B get a job in WA, move and leave the house on the market; Plan C was to wait for Plan A and Plan B. Now some people are going to be unhappy about the next part: The world didn't stop moving around me during these months. I have turned down in excess of 10 really good jobs, 4 of which were over 100k a year. These were interesting jobs, with good benefits and perks. Some jobs were in the wrong state (Amazon interviewed me for several jobs in Texas after I applied to a job in Seattle.) Some of these jobs were in Food Manufacturing all over California. There was never a shortage of viable employment opportunities. Now I look back at a huge whole in my employment record and shudder. In a few more months I will be unemployed for a year...
In December we resolved that if we weren't into escrow by the end of January we would bail on all plans and find local employment then re address the idea of relocation in a more traditional manner in a few years. Of course as soon as we made the plan we were approached by two parties that wanted to by the house. It's bitter sweet, and while I don't think that i would have wanted to try all this activity leading up to relocation while still working for a company like Del Monte I'm not actually sure that any other way would have been less hectic or stress filled.
Today, the first day of February I finish this post. Today we will find out if the current buyer of our house is going to back out due to the well report. We have adjusted the price, made repairs and even agreed to leave behind my 1948 Ford 8N tractor. All in the hopes of holding this deal together. All of this has transpired while we have lived like monks and reduced our monthly spend to crumbs and suffered set back after set back in our personal lives and with our RV outfitting adventure. Finally this week we resolved no more Plan C, no more waiting. Even if this sale falls through we will take one of these awesome jobs that have been sending job placement professionals my way. We will vacate our residence, rent it out and go somewhere else while we refill our savings. Stephanie and I know we will eventually get to Washington, or find somewhere else so cool that it doesn't matter. If we have to carry the burden of the house as a rental for a few years then so be it, but this adventure starts now!
The biggest thing I can say is: how cool is it that I have a partner that will roll the dice with me on this craziness? We definitely didn't play it safe. We have risked a lot. Money (down 40k so far). Job security (almost a year unemployed) Serenity (how do you think our nights have been?) Opportunities (so many good ones!). Time (we would be on our way to adopting right now) I'm proud we didn't have to resort to anything underhanded, and we never compromised or took advantage of anyone regarding this whole process.