Off Grid RV Living – Going Solar on the Road
Last year a friend of mine and his wife sold their home, bought an RV, installed solar panels and a battery system, and then hit the road with their two dogs. All while working as a software developer from the road. I couldn’t help myself … between the solar panels, batteries, and the crazy, layered internet connections he’s using, I just had to talk to him to find out what it’s been like, and if he’s been able to successfully live the energy independent life while on the move … and without losing his mind.
There are definitely pros and cons with the tiny house, van and RV lifestyle that’s been growing in popularity over the past couple of decades. Less “things” in your life can be freeing, but pulling it off successfully can be challenging. Let alone with the added expense and complexity of adding solar, energy storage, and trying to ensure a good network connection.
My friend, Steve Haines, decided to take the plunge right before the pandemic hit. He had already been working mostly remote for his job, so it raised a bunch of questions.
“…even before the pandemic hit, we kind of decided that, why do we need to be stationary? Let’s go check out some stuff. And my wife was originally wanting to go backpack Europe, but we have a lot of animals. We have a couple of dogs, a couple of cats and a couple bunnies. So, living in an RV and kind of going around, felt like a good backup plan for exploring the United States and checking out all the landmarks and national parks and stuff.” -Steve Haines
The first step they had to figure out was finding the right kind of RV for their situation. Being a developer he was going to need a good work setup.
“We looked at bunkhouse models and all these different ones and how we could refit the spaces, and we kind of landed on this. This model, it’s a toy hauler. So, the toy hauler means it has a garage in the back. That’s where I’m at right now. And so, the garage kind of worked out as a great space to set up for an office, but we could also store our mountain bikes and other equipment and the dogs could hang out with me all day.” -Steve Haines
When it came to figuring out what they were going to need for solar is where it got tricky … and interesting. Steve isn’t an electrician and doesn’t have a lot of experience with solar, so he ended up working with a company that specializes in doing this exact kind of conversion: Northern Arizona Wind & Sun.
“So, they sell kits, but if you can get ahold of them, they will also do custom designs. And the design consultation process is all just kind of free of charge included in the bid for a kit.”
“So, they kind of work through your specifics of your model of RV, how many panels you can fit on the roof and what your specific needs are for the rest of the components.”
“I basically went and picked it up and they had a lot of the components already installed on a sheet of plywood that we pre-measured to make sure it would fit in my truck as well as in the install location. And I was just responsible for doing the rest of it.” -Steve Haines
After getting the component board and remaining parts, Steve and his dad, Frank, were able to complete the installation. When getting solar installed on a home, you typically look at your electric bills over the course of a year to figure out what your energy needs are to properly size a solar panel system on your home. In Steve’s case he couldn’t do that since they hadn’t lived in their RV to understand their exact energy needs. The best you can do in that situation is to do some back of the napkin math on the devices you’re planning on running. Making educated guesses for how much they’ll pull over tim. For Steve, he kind of went … how can I put this … a little nuts with sizing his system.
“It was pretty much just fit as many as you can on there. So, I went on the roof and I kind of measured out different rectangles and kind of, all right, how can I fit two panels here, three there, with having an even number of panels. Because for the system design, we ended up using two solar charge controllers, so having an even number of panels just simplified the wiring for that.” -Steve Haines
He ended up installing 8 REC Alpha Series 360 Watt panels on the roof of the RV. These are just standard panels like you’d install on you home. And they’re running into a bunch of Victron components for the charge controllers and 24v inverters. Overall, he installed 2.8 kW of solar on the roof of the RV. Knowing that dictated how much battery storage he’d need to ensure smooth operation, but that also came down to a pretty simple choice.
“So, it’s really just how much batteries could we fit and afford at the same time. Because we wanted to go lithium, so we ended up going with three Simpliphi batteries that are the 3.8 kilowatt hour batteries. And so, if you kind of boil it down to a 12 volt system, which most of the RV runs on, I think we’re at around 900 amp hours, if you’re comparing it to other systems out there. But the batteries themselves are also designed for houses, they’re not really specific for RVs.” -Steve Haines
“So, over the time you’ve been using them now, what are you finding for your energy needs? Is it satisfying your energy needs? Are you having to plug in?” -Matt Ferrell
“So, it kind of depends on, for me, a lot of it has to do with how late I stay up. So, I stay up and mess around on the computer a lot, so the evening usage is higher than I think most, but daily I’m only using, at least from the tools that I’m using to measure it, about 30% of the capacity. So, that’s really in the morning, I’ll wake up and within three hours that 30% is already restored to the battery bank. So, it’s a bit overkill, but on the plus side of that is if we have cloudy days, I’m getting anywhere between two to three days without even emptying the battery bank, easily. And it still pulls in a little bit of energy on the cloudy days.” -Steve Haines
When it comes to the biggest energy sinks in his setup, it’s really just their furnace and his desktop computer that he uses for work and for gaming.
“But the desktop computer is really only pulling around 200 watts most of the time. So, in the daytime, I’m not even scratching the surface of what’s coming in, to be honest. -Steve Haines
Aside from a few random cold days that threw some warnings on the system, but functioned just fine, the six months he’s been on the road with the system have been working out pretty well.
“It’s funny because we pull in the RV parks that actually we’re paying for electricity hookup and I don’t even plug it in, I don’t need it, it’s kind of cool. But we’ll hook up to the water. The one I’m at right now, we didn’t plug it in. Awesome. It’s pretty cool.” -Steve Haines
Viewing and managing the system is all through a Victron Energy dashboard. There’s a dashboard that’s installed inside the RV that they can check, but there’s also a web portal they have access too for a deeper dive on the data.
“What we’re looking at here is the Vectron dashboard from the web portal, so from the kind of brain component that I hooked up.”
“So, this gives you kind of the high level view that pretty much shows identical to what I see on the touch screen, where it shows like right now, we’re at 100% charge.”
“But it shows you what’s coming in from the solar, what you’re using AC, what you’re using EC.”
“And then on the charging part, it’s kind of a net of that, the total minus the two. If I had the generator on, or if I was plugged into shore power, it would show that what’s coming in from the AC and it can do both simultaneously, switch back and forth. So, say I was actually plugged in and it’s nighttime and the shore power went out, it switches so fast that my computer wouldn’t even register it as a power outage. It’s much instantaneous, so it’s really cool.” -Steve Haines
As for the shift from living in a house to living the road? That’s been an easier shift for him than it probably would be for me.
“I’ve always enjoyed camping and being on the outdoors, so it wasn’t too big of a shift for me. Of course it was a smaller space, so it was just kind of getting used to that.”
“We try to switch spots every couple of weeks, so we’re kind of just working our way around the country right now and checking things out.” -Steve Haines
I’d love the change of scenery too, but like I said, adjusting to such a small space would be really tough. And I’d really miss my gigabit fiber optic internet connection, which is handy for uploading massive files to YouTube. But Steve has a solution for that too that really surprised me how well it works. And no, it’s not Starlink … even though we did talk about that.
“So, primarily we’re off of cell phone technology and what I’ve found is, the main thing is having multiple layers of backups because every location you go to is different.”
“I have two different AT&T SIMs, we have our cell phones on Verizon and we have an iPad also hooked up to Verizon unlimited.”
“We’re using a Pepwave modem, which is LTE modem and it has the ability to disconnect and swap antennas. And so, I have an omni-directional antenna that I leave on all the time.”
“So, if we’re in a situation where, say we have a really weak signal, I have a two-by-two MIMO Yagi antenna set up, which is a big directional antenna that I hoist up a mast on the side of the RV and that I can point it at the best signal that I can find basically. And that’s got us through.”
“Right now, what I’m on is really just my Verizon cell phone tethered into the computer and it’s got, I think, 5G right now. So, last I did a speed test when we got here, it was at a hundred megabits per second.”
But … what about Starlink? Well, right now Starlink is only for stationary homes, so he’s not able to take advantage of it yet. But that’s not stopping him from trying.
“I have done the pre-order, for sure on that. The early indications, they’re saying that they’re going to lock you to a location, but I figured get in line anyway, we’ll see what happens when they actually roll it out.”
Just as I was putting this video together, news broke that SpaceX is seeking regulatory approval to go mobile. They’ve applied for a blanket license authorizing operation for “Earth Stations in Motion.” 1 Elon clarified this in a tweet stating that, “This is for aircraft, ships, large trucks & RVs.” So it looks like Steve may be getting Starlink up and running. If and when he does, I’m really interested to hear how well it works out.
And finally, being energy independent has it’s pluses.
“When we were coming to this location, because in Texas, they just had the winter storms and power outages and all that, and the only thing we really had to worry about was, can we drink the water and can we buy food at the grocery store? Otherwise, power and everything, we were covered.
“But yeah, it just changes the conversation around that. We were even like, we have relatives here and it was like, you want us to come by? Because we’re pretty much bringing… We have a portable generator, we can just hook up to your house potentially and get you back online for a bit.” -Steve Haines
“That’s pretty cool. You’re ready for the zombie apocalypse, that’s what this is.” -Matt Ferrell
“Yes, exactly. That’s actually what everything has been specked for, for the apocalypse. For sure.” -Steve Haines
If you’re thinking of doing something like this, don’t forget that … it’s an important factor. But seriously, in the end Steve has a great setup for traveling the country, changing the view from his front door whenever he wants, all while still being able to do his job effectively. I don’t know if I could what he’s doing, but there’s a part of me that’s pretty jealous.
Main Components of Steve’s Setup:
- 8 – REC Alpha Series 360 watt solar panels (2880 watts total)
- 2 – Victron SmartSolar MPPT 250/60 solar charge controllers
- 1 – Victron Quattro 5000 watt 24v inverter & charger
- 1 – Victron Orion 24v to 12v converter
- 1 – Victron smart battery monitor
- 1 – Victron Cerbo GX (this is the brain that connects everything)
- 1 – Victron GX Touch 50 (touch screen monitor to view system information)
- 3 – Simpliphi 3.8kWh Lithium Ferro Phosphate (LiFePO4) Batteries
- Pepwave Max transit Cat18 LTE modem
- Poynting 7 in 1 antenna (4×4 mimo, wifi, GPS)
- 2×2 Mimo Yagi antenna with antenna mast
- Weboost Drive Reach RV
- Unify dream machine router/secure gateway
Other tech we use they may be of interest:
- Fi smart dog collars for tracking dogs if they get lost.
- Tabcat cat trackers for tracking cats if they get lost
- Arlo for video security.
- Haloview camera system for RV for viewing sides of RV and behind RV while driving and parking.