Thursday, July 25, 2013

Solar Power Time!!

This past year has been one large learning curve for me and this post begins with my new found knowledge of proper battery charging and health. The beginning of this story occurred several months ago when I discovered the voltage regulator on my alternator needed replacing. The shop that I took it to replaced the old one with an adjustable one that I later found out was the reason for my failing batteries. After my main starting battery as well as the secondary house battery had failed I knew there must be something wrong and discovered it was probably over-charging. A somewhat quick check discovered that my alternator was pumping out almost 15V to both batteries, this eventually dries the batteries out and causes them to fail. So after fixing this problem and turning down the regulator to a healthy 14.2 volts I was ready to start my newest project.

The Internet and the Vanagon mailing list I am part of have been incredible resources for both fixing, modifying and improving our camper. After a ton of research, I decided that I wanted to install a solar panel for the camper so that we can have extended periods of "off-grid" camping and not worry about starting the engine or plugging in. It's also a good idea if Zombies ever take over and we need to hide in the middle of nowhere. Ideally I wanted a panel that would fit in the front luggage rack as I have yet to use that particular space and wanted to keep the rest of the roof free as I have future ideas of a roof rack to put "toys" on. The problem I found was that the vast majority of panels were too wide to fit in the luggage rack or they were too small and didn't have enough power to handle my electrical needs. After many hours of searching the Internet, I finally discovered the ideal panel on eBay that fit almost perfectly and had 80W of power which was even more than I was hoping for originally and at a great price of $178. The panel was not sold separately and came as a kit with wiring and a charge controller which was fine with me as I needed them anyway.
Here is a picture of the panel the day it arrived
The hardest part of the whole project was mentally preparing the steps for this installation. I was initially worried that the eBay seller had the incorrect panel dimensions even though I e-mailed them twice to ensure the exact measurements. As you can see, I didn't need to worry and it was almost as though the panel was custom made for the Vanagon luggage rack
The kit did not come with any type of mounting hardware so it was off to Home Depot to see what kind of custom brackets I could come up with. Simple "L" brackets screwed into the luggage rack as well as the sides of the panel did the trick and we were good to go without any fear of the panel making any movements

I then routed the wires down through the existing rear drainage hole so no more holes were drilled into the luggage rack. The second hardest part of this was the emotional toll of drilling a hole in the roof of the camper. I thought about feeding the wires under the pop-top canvas but thought it would look messy and as long as I sealed up the hole, there shouldn't be any issues with water leakage

Here you can see the wiring as it passes through my newly drilled hole in the roof and below you can see where I made another hole in the inside and ran the wiring down behind the sink.
I then installed the charge controller behind the drivers seat and beside the inverter
The last difficult part of this project which took the longest was getting a proper deep cycle battery to fit my needs. I decided on a Universal Power Group, sealed lead acid 50Ah battery. I know I could have gone larger but 50amps should be more than enough to satisfy my power needs and at only $88 I couldn't go wrong. When I say this was the longest part of the process it was all due to the company I found on the Internet that I was dealing with. I'm not one to put down a reputable business but this was by far the worst interaction (or lack of) I have encountered with any company. I at first called the company but was unable to get anyone to answer so after a few more calls, I left a voice message. I didn't get any response back so the next day I ordered the battery I wanted on-line from their website. At this point I felt I was okay as I received an automated e-mail with my order number that I could look up on-line. After a few days with no further updates I decided to try calling their number again but was put through to voice mail. I literally called approx 10 times per day and left several voice mails to return my call as well as e-mails. After two weeks of absolutely no contact or replies I simply wanted to cancel my order but couldn't even do that as they wouldn't return e-mail, voicemail or answer the phone. Miraculously after 2 weeks of calling, somebody actually answered the phone and informed me that my battery was shipping tomorrow and I should receive it by the end of the week. Another week went by and I still had yet to receive any shipping information let alone the battery but I did receive an e-mail from the owner stating that they thought my battery had arrived but will actually be arriving tomorrow and to e-mail him back if I still wanted the battery. I e-mailed him back to ship the battery asap as well as let him know my displeasure with the extreme lack of communication I had received. I didn't receive any further contact from anyone but today received the battery which turned out that it was shipped directly from a warehouse in Texas and not from the store I bought it from which is located in San Marcos CA. The company is Battery Concepts and I didn't really mind waiting over 4 weeks, it was the extreme lack of communication that was upsetting. Anyway, long story short, the battery has been received and installed and I'm happy. Here is a shot of the battery in place under the driver's seat
Below is the final product with the luggage rack back on and panel installed

I think it looks great and fits perfectly. It's also quite stealthy and unless you're over 7 feet tall you wouldn't even know it's there.
Another voltage check in the sunshine shows over 21 volts coming off the panel and 14 to the newly installed and healthy battery

Finally I wanted to thank all the people that helped with this project. From the several people that gave ideas and suggestions on the Vanagon mailing list to my parents that were visiting from Canada and helped with the entire install and as always my wife for putting up with me. I look forward to our next camping excursion to test everything out.