Solar Power Woes

Why I won’t be buying a solar energy setup for my new RV.

My old RV — which we drove away from this afternoon without a backward glance — had a solar panel on the roof. The panel charged the RVs two batteries, which, in turn could power the lights, stereo, and any devices we had plugged in to the unit’s two DC power ports. This was handy when we camped off-the-grid, as we did numerous times on our way from Washington state to Arizona last summer.

The system didn’t have an inverter, though. That meant that it could not power the AC power outlets or anything plugged into them, including handy devices like the microwave. We learned to do without.

Our New RigMy new RV is quite a step up from the old one. It actually has rooms. And a desk I can sit and work at. And lots of space.

Of course, I wanted it to have a solar setup, too. But a full-blown setup that would include an inverter and be able to power any of the outlets and devices on board. Okay, well maybe not the air conditioning, but everything else.

My husband, Mike, is a solar guy. He knows how to design solar power systems. He designed the one on our old RV and designed and built the significantly more complex one on our off-the-grid vacation “cabin.” So he sat down with a pen and paper and, using the Internet, researched a solution. I’d use the panel off my old RV, match it with a second panel, add two batteries, an inverter, and a bunch of other stuff, and have a 2KW solar setup. The cost: roughly $3K.

Now $3,000 is a lot of money, especially after pouring a bunch of money into a new RV. But I like the idea of renewable energy. And I love the idea of silent energy. So I was willing to spend another $3K. I saw it as an investment in the future.

We were in Quartzsite, AZ when I picked up the RV. There are lots of RV service centers there, including two that specialize in solar power systems. So we drove over to one to get a quote.

And that’s when things started getting funky.

One guy priced up a system for us what was just a bit over Mike’s estimate. That didn’t include installation labor, though. (I insisted on a professional installation.) He quoted us labor at $55/hour for maybe four hours. I took a deep breath and nodded. So the sales guy handed us off to the order writer. She priced everything out. But suddenly labor was $85/hour and we were looking at 10 hours or more. She refused to be pinned down, but I was seeing a minimum of $4400. My “ripoff radar” — developed after years living in the New York area — perked up and started sending me signals. I told the woman I’d sleep on it and we left.

We went to the other solar outfitter. We’d bought all our solar panels for the vacation cabin and some other equipment from them in the past. They priced out our system and came up with a solid number: $4168. Ouch.

Mike and I talked about it at some length. He’d already suggested a much cheaper alternative for the times we were off the grid: a 2000-watt Honda generator that could be used parallel with an identical model to give a total of 4000 watts. If you needed a little power, you’d fire up one. If you needed more, you’d connect the second one and fire it up, too. With 4000 watts, we could power everything in the camper, including the air conditioning.

At first, I’d resisted the suggestion. I wanted quiet power. The Honda generators were known for their quietness, but nothing would be as quiet as solar.

But the kicker: I could get the Hondas for less than $1,000 each. Just one would provide as much power as the solar setup we’d envisioned. No need for an inverter or charge controller or holes drilled in the RV roof.

Yamaha EF2000iS GeneratorLater that day, we walked around the RV show in Quartzsite, where vendors were selling all kinds of things for RVers. One of them had Yamaha generators. The Yamaha EF2000iS did the same thing the Honda I was considering did, but it was 2 decibels quieter and 2 pounds lighter. And a tiny bit cheaper to buy, too.

It was even cheaper on Amazon.com.

So I didn’t go with the solar setup. I just can’t justify the added expense — after all, to get 2,000 watts with solar power, we’d be spending four times as much as the generator would cost us.

And I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels this way.

It’s unfortunate. There are many people out there who want to do the “right thing” and use renewable energy. But it’s difficult to justify the added expense. When a friend pointed out that I’d have to buy fuel for the generator, I replied that $3000 worth of fuel could go a long way at 5 hours per gallon. The solar setup would never pay for itself.

I’m hoping that changes sometime soon.

3 thoughts on “Solar Power Woes

  1. Maria,

    Nice looking RV! Congrats!

    As a “part time” off the grid person I have some experiance in the Solar versus generator issue.

    I realize you have made your choice, but thought I could give food for thought.

    In my offgrid location I have both and am hooked on solar because of the following reasons;

    1. dead quiet power generation

    2. smelly gas transferal, spillage and maint. issues.

    3. free is always good!

    yes… there are always drawbacks with both – costs of batteries and such but these days some RV Dealers are throwing in built in solar as an incentive to help sales.

    I have both and am making improvements to the system all the time and intend on a generator setup that includes a waste vegetable oil motor to run it – once again – free!

    Ira

    • Ira: Thanks! I’m really bugged about not getting the silent power, but “free” isn’t a word I’d apply to solar. I could use the Yamaha generators as needed for the rest of my life and not buy enough fuel to cover the cost of the solar setup. (Keep in mind that the RV does have batteries and will often be parked at campsites with full or partial hookups.) We need more incentives — tax and otherwise — to go solar.

      We’re likely to put our old camper’s solar panel on the roof of this new RV with a battery charger. Although that won’t give us off-the-grid AC power, it will prolong battery life, minimizing the number of times we need to run that generator.

  2. I agree with the post here regarding solar versus generators, can buy alot of fuel for the cost of a decent solar setup. I full time up here in Canada, and the winters we really only get a few hours of good sunlight, the summers yea no problem but I like to park in the shade, so that defeats the purpose. I run a Honda 3000 inverter genny, usually two in parallel to cover the heavy loads like the ac unit and washer dryer.

    I keep looking at solar as a option, and even though the prices have come down for the hardware compared to 15 years ago, but still in my situation not cost effective.

What do you think?