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A. Independent Power - Which one? A frequent and tricky question! None of the solutions are perfect with each having its own advantages and disadvantages. Solar and wind power are the greenest followed by fuel cells and then LPG generators and finally petrol & diesel generators with the biggest carbon footprints. None are completely green of course each having materials and manufacturing footprints so power conservation is important too hence the popularity of LED lighting for example!
Solar panels are more or less fit and forget with a modest but long hours output that tops up your batteries unattended - whenever parked, out for the day, on a coffee or lunch stop, or even before you get up in the morning! In combination with multiple leisure batteries for storage they work really well and especially so if you don't go too far north! Unsurprisingly they are the most popular green power solution for motorhomes. Wind generators produce more peak power but require more effort because for motorhome use you have to get them up on the roof or at least high up (they're heavy too) and then dismantle & stow them each time they are used so they are unlikely to be in use for as many hours as solar panels. They can also seem quite noisy in the camping environment. Both types can be inactive at times, in winter and when heavily overcast for solar, and on calm or even on very windy days for wind power, seems odd to have to stop using wind power because it's too windy but that's the way it is! Solar is very popular on motorhomes, wind power more so on boats where off-onshore breezes are common and permanent lofty installation isn't a problem. Solar power is steadily increasing in popularity in the UK, and if France is anything to go by, is set to become even more popular on smaller motorhomes - perhaps with our space saving slim-line panel for crowded roofs (left). Mono? our biggest seller. Monocrystalline solar panels have the highest efficiency rates since they are made out of the highest-grade purest silicon. As a result they are also space-efficient and require the least amount of space compared to any other types. Their rigid mountings also allow best air-gap cooling which is important for high efficiency. Mounted 'monos' produce up to four times the amount of electricity as thin-film solar panels. Mono panels tend to live the longest with most panel manufacturers putting a 25-year warranty on their monocrystalline solar panels. Also they tend to perform better than similarly rated 'poly' solar panels in low-light conditions.
Finally why should you pay more for a branded panel? Its about confidence and peace of mind I think, a bit like insurance. Some cheap generic imports do perform reasonably well but they're just put together on a bench and not tested on a body twisting motorhome like the Zamp. That might be fine but the hassle of replacing them if not is a real pain in the bum! Every car sells but some are notoriously unreliable, those of us looking for more peace of mind tend to do a bit of research so we only choose from the reliable list, others trust to their (usually?) good luck, it could be the same with solar panels and controllers. I bought a reputable brand myself and am often pleasantly surprised at how they outperform adjacent panels on site.
Fuel cells and 'Gennies' are completely independent of the elements and can run at any time you feed them with fuel. These can be free standing for ad-hoc use or built in and automated for convenient low user input. Fuel cells are virtually silent and seen as very green with their extremely low emissions but are very expensive to buy while in contrast generators are relatively cheap. Unfortunately the petrol and diesel gennies have a strong and well known tendency to pollute the local environment with fumes and noise! All generators require fuel so you've got to carry and manage this of course, the lpg and diesel types can be installed to take fuel from the motorhome's on-board tank/s. Portable LPG 'Suitcase' Generators and some built-in generators are fairly quiet in use especially if running on an 'eco' setting as is standard supply with our Hyundai LPG versions (example pictured right) and the emissions are much lower when using LPG. One great benefit of the Hyundai-LPG is that it will both start and run on pure LPG so no petrol smell required! Other generater types tend to be noisier and may be very unpopular on some campsites. Increasingly their use is time restricted - on a recent trip we found they were significantly restricted - to 10-12am and 2-4pm on one site we visited recently - so not much use for powering an 800/1200W microwave for breakfast and dinner as some customers wish! Even so, for charging-only that's 4 hours at 8A so a very welcome ~30AHrs of charge going unto the batteries.
Beginners Guide to Solar Power: Out of the great mass of information I've waded through recently there seem to be a few solid and useful guidelines for the less technically inclined ...
1. Don't worry about different cell technologies, the 'mono-crystalline' type are the most common for motorhomers because they give more 'bang for your buck' in most circumstances and so suit most people most of the time. With bigger sales volumes they tend to be competitively priced too. They are also said to be longer lived. But - if you want polycrystalline we sometimes those too. Manufacturers of each claim various benefits for different types but it makes little difference to most of us. Often the most important choice relates to size and shape - to fit onto increasingly crowded roofs! Flexible panels are great for novel applications but output and life is again inferior to mono panels in part due to cooling problems.
2. Whatever size you think you'll need it may not always seem enough in practice! This is especially true for use out-of-season and further north. You can make all sorts of calculations but all have to assume some sort of balance between good and bad weather so in practice you should go for the biggest you can sensibly fit and afford. For general holidaying that will be between 50-100W and probably 80-140W or more in the UK. That said do remember that their fairly modest output is available all the time and the many hours of steady but modest solar charging will usually be adequate for ordinary electrical use as long as you have the batteries to store it. It is also worth remembering that you always benefit from solar to some degree so even if your panel/s aren't big enough to satisfy all your needs they will always extend the time before you have to add some extra charging. Also with some controllers you can start with one panel and easily add a second if and when you wish to. For example it may be a better idea to start with say a 200W MPPT controller and one 100W panel, adding a second 100W panel later - to make up to the max wattage the controller can handle; in this case starting with a 120W would make the later upgrade more difficult.
3. A good size battery or battery bank is pretty much essential because we use power in bursts and generally more of it in bad weather and at night and rather less in good weather. As a result you will need at least two leisure batteries or one big one (>160Ahrs) to make the best of your solar power by storing all that good-weather energy for use when the light deteriorates. We use twin 110AH leisure batteries ourselves. The standard fitted 75AH is of course usable - it just won't last long once the sun goes down.
4. Flat panels are the most convenient being 'fit and forget' apart from an occasional wash. On some moderately curved roofs the corner mounts may be preferred to long flat aluminium extrusions. The Zamp mounts are very good at accommodating a degree of curvature. Our Flexi panels can be glued directly onto the roof, they are lighter weight but also dearer than equivalent flat panels.
5. Quite apart from overall capacity, there is some extra advantage in having two panels rather than one. The sheer size and weight of the bigger panels makes them more difficult to install, applies high point loading to the roof and may be vulnerable to longer term damage from normal motorhome body flexing or branch strikes. Roof layout can be a bigger problem with big panels too, I've gone for twin panels myself. There are some clever tricks that can be played with twin panels in winter too but those are for the techies amongst you,
6. You can get four or five or even more times the normal output from a panel by making it constantly face the sun. Auto-elevating and tracking units claim to provide up to 5x the daily charge of flat mounted panels. Tilting & tracking arrangements show much greater gains in winter when the panel elevates to face the low sun. These units can be very expensive, often more than the cost of installing substantial twin panels, so are usually only for the heavier user with a big payload. You'll also need a lot of roof space to allow the unit to elevate and rotate. Although technically very interesting this is not a popular option for obvious reasons. Smaller panels fitted to the back of a satellite dish are interesting, popularity as yet unknown. NB: Although helpful you can't get this much extra from a 'DIY move it now and then', you do need constant tracking to get 5x!
7. To complete a kit you need a regulator & wiring and some high-bond Sikaflex sealant and a waterproof cable entry box. Regulators may be fairly simple and cheap one-unit affairs or sophisticated digital units for twin panels, for wet & gel batteries and other batteries including Lithium, and also for a secondary 'overspill' connection to the starter battery. It can be hard to find every feature at an economic price but don't forget you can add something like a Votronic or Sterling unit to provide the overspill charge. NB: Don't under-size the panel-controller-battery wiring it can limit charge rates - we recommend 6mm².
Newer premium controllers may offer 'MPPT', these use electronic wizardry that sacrifices a little charge in bright light to get more charge in lower light conditions. They are getting cheaper so increasingly popular for winter and all-year use. There's no magic wand though - do remember that basic charge rates can be very low at that time of year so that impressive sounding 20-30% gain is on very little winter charge and so still amounts to not a lot of extra amp-hours - as ever miracles are still in short supply! Nevertheless this is good technology and now affordable, our Victron versions are top notch.
8. Do try to balance your solar capacity with suitable leisure batteries, preferably 2x 80-120Ahr leisure batteries with an 80/100W panel e.g. and maybe 3 or 4 batteries with twin 100/120W panels. Watch your payload though because four x 120Ahr might weigh 150Kgs or more! The newer Lithium batteries offer big capacity at lower weight albeit much higher price - and newer regulators like the Zamp below are now Lithium compatible. You can of course add solar to a single 75Ahr Lead Acid battery - you just won't see as much benefit due to the limited capacity once charged. 110/120Ahrs is probably a sensible minimum battery capacity for many people - a good bit bigger that the more usual 75/85AHr usually supplied.
9. Comparison with wind power is inevitable. Wind generators have quite high output when the wind is blowing, but generally have to be set up and then stored away for each use. Some can be both heavy to manipulate and quite noisy in use, sometimes irritatingly so for both you and your neighbours. This inconvenience means they haven't really been adopted by the motorhome community, often seen on boats though. Combining Solar with a lightweight reputable wind turbine like the Rutland 504 can be a very versatile solution for those determined to be fully 'off grid' and green at all times - despite the inconvenience.
10. Fuel Cells & Generators are both worth considering. Their relatively high output and full independence from the vagaries of the weather are the main attractions. Many generators are notoriously noisy and polluting but are very good at providing bursts of quite high powered mains electricity. Unfortunately they may be relatively poor choices for charging batteries because a genny provides much more power than can be readily absorbed by most lead-acid batteries, the waste being given off as noise, heat, and pollution, for this use a small genny of say just 1KW is best ideally with an 'eco-throttle' of some sort. Another downside is that leisure batteries often have shorter lives if maintained by short intense bursts on the genny. The best choice is maybe an LPG powered genny with a 12v charging output plus an eco-throttle, these are much lower in pollution don't hammer the battery and the right ones start and run on pure LPG so can be carried in a motorhome without that horrible petrol smell, there are quiet versions too; in an emergency the mains side of maybe 1KW can be used via a high power charger to give a battery an occasional quick boost (see our Hyundai Generator range and our CTEK Smart Chargers for example). A brilliant solution when combined with our refillable LPG bottles! The Self-energy / Eco-energy / Teleco underslung generator running on LPG is a good and fuss free, if expensive, charging solution for many especially if you have refillable LPG tanks or our Gasit/Gaslow refillable bottles. Not everyone is happy with the low rumble and slight vibration coming from under floor though. Fuel cells are much greener and very quiet albeit much more expensive to buy and to run, Efoy Cells run on a very pure methanol so there is a significant ongoing cost and a storage issue there too. For all generators you must buy and manage fuel to gain that independence, albeit easily with on-board LPG Refillables but do compare to completely free solar power.
Please do for help and advice - it's this customer service that sets us apart!
5% Cashback offer on Zamp Solar Kits below, no membership required, click!
ZAMP Solar? Zamp are one of the main go-to people in the US for leisure solar, they supply OEM to the likes of Winnebago, Airstream & Jayco as well as the 'aftermarket' in the US & Canada and now here in the UK too - via us. It is plainly a quality brand with multiple sizes including slimline panels and features like quick release & adjustable panel mounts, multi-stage and multi-bank programmable 5-stage controllers for Wet, GEL, AGM, Calcium, LTO & LifePO4, plus easy roof port wiring and a 25 year warranty, all supporting their Grade-a panels with anti-reflective coated glass for maximum light absorption, all very impressive, slick too!
All Zamp panels include a 25 year warranty that guarantees they will work for 25 years at an eventual minimum of 80% of spec. They come in the usual sizes from 60W to 160W and Zamp also offer some unique mounting feet and wiring solutions well suited to the UK DIY market. The deluxe mount versions allow both slide up & down panel positioning plus quick release for maintenance or access, amazing! Add their three port roof cap for easy connection from panel to cap and from cap to controller and have spare ports remaining for expansion too, easy, versatile and yes - pretty slick. One controller will allow twin independent battery banks, not only well separated but also programmable to accommodate different battery types in the two banks, now that is pretty clever and neatly solves the problem of wet-cell under bonnet and GEL/AGM or even Lithium in the living zone! To complete the range there's even a specially narrow 35cm wide 80W panel for problem solving on crowded roof spaces. All in all a great range. Also compatible with MPPT Controllers of course, our highly regarded Victron MPPTs are below.
New: Bargain 75W Panel Kit for just £185 - click here to go there now
New: Victron Ultra-fast MPPT Blue Solar Charge Controllers: MPPT technology at a remarkable price. MPPT stands for Maximum Power Point Tracking and this class of controllers are renowned for giving extra charge under more difficult conditions including lower light levels and cooler temperatures. In the better ones clever electronics can also adjust charge levels to optimise the relationship between panels, controller and battery. This ultra-fast version will respond rapidly and intelligently to changing light intensity, as in a cloudy sky, yielding up to 30% more power than a standard PWM controller and even 10% more than slower MPPT chargers. Once costing several hundred pounds this leading edge technology is now available to all for less that £100, amazing! Can be just fit and forget but has configurable features for the more technically minded too. Operates on 12v and 24v and up to 200W** on 12v, secondary 'load' output with auto disconnect e.g. inverter at 15A, now accepts up to 75V in, (including twin 12v panels in series for optimum low light charging of the 12v batteries in parallel!), reverse & short circuit proof and can power inductive loads like inverters. ** if more than 200W is connected power is simply limited to 200W, (100V & 440W for the new 100/30), very handy maybe if big panels are desired to gain more charge in low light especially in winter. Click for datasheet.
PWM-Pro Regulator/Controllers also available, click here for pwm datasheet in new window.
How to choose between conventional PWM and MPPT controllers? It is a bit tricky. Victron make both types of regulator and say: about PWM "a good lower cost solution for small systems and when solar cell temperature is moderate to high 45C to 75C" : and about MPPT "To exploit the full potential of the MPPT controller the array voltage should be substantially higher than the battery voltage ... it is the system of choice for higher power systems ... will also harvest substantially more power when the cell temperature is below 45C or when irradiance is very low", i.e. a larger system in winter. Buy Below >>>
Victron BlueSolar Monocrystalline Panels: Data Sheet Here • Low voltage-temperature coefficient enhances high-temperature operation. • Exceptional low-light performance and high sensitivity to light across the entire solar spectrum. • 25-year limited warranty on power output and performance. • 2-year Limited warranty on materials and workmanship. • Sealed, waterproof, multi-functional junction box gives high level of safety. • High performance bypass diodes minimize the power drop caused by shade. • Advanced EVA (Ethylene Vinyl Acetate) encapsulation system with triple-layer back sheet meets the most stringent safety requirements for high-voltage operation. • A sturdy, anodized aluminium frame allows modules to be easily roof-mounted with a variety of standard mounting systems. • Highest quality, high-transmission tempered glass provides enhanced stiffness and impact resistance. • Pre wired quick-connect system with MC4 (PV-ST01) connectors. (But NOT on 30W panel). Buy Below >>>
Add our Votronic or Sterling Standby/Auxiliary Charger (automatic overspill charger or battery master) to your 'van too and get convenient automatic starter battery maintenance too. Easy install. Even works if there's power from a hook-up or genny or whatever! Fit & forget. Buy Below >>>
Wiring Note: Where possible we recommend the use of 6mm² cable - this is big enough to ensure very low loss even when charge rates are low but the cable is still just small enough to be able to use standard yellow crimp connectors which suit regular 'spades' and this size also suits our cable entry box (as does larger cable too). You can of course go up in size but then you'll have to use solder terminals.
Going down in size may mean lower charge rates in lower light conditions so not so good. We think 3mm is too small but in practice the more readily available 4/4.5mm² may often be fine. If needed you can bind tape around it to give extra sealing through the cable entry box glands - only if required. Our own choice was 6mm² and we can highly recommend that, our cable entry box listed below is suitable for that size too.
Wiring exposed on the roof should be a UV resistant grade or simply in a sheath of some sort.
Please do for help and advice - it's this customer service that sets us apart!
Elektroblok? These units often provide for Solar connection so if utilising that you don't always need a one of our regulators. Many of these systems can be by-passed without problem though; our own Hymer has a Veetech regulator feeding direct to the batteries without problems - it works extremely well in fact. But the are three Elektrobloks known to object to this, EBLs 101, 220, 264. These have been known to shut down the 12v system when seeing an alternative charge voltage at the battery. In this case it is necessary to connect panels via a Schaudt regulator and Electroblock leads, these aren't much dearer than a standard regulator and of course also use the vehicle's display panel to show amps in. We can point you towards a source and may be able to supply if ordering a system from us.
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