Camping off the grid for extended periods of time has always been a major motivation for our nomadic lifestyle, long before we ever hit the road with our Airstream.
With an initial itinerary that led us to the New England coast, the Southeast, then the Gulf of Mexico, we didn’t have many opportunities for extended stays off the grid until just recently, when we finally turned our silver wagon westward for the summer. Solar quickly became a priority with all this wide-open public land to explore!
I’m just going to throw it out there: energy independence is sexy. It’s much greener, opens up lots of peaceful, beautiful camping options, and saves tons of money on campground fees. Over the last month, we’ve been living “off the grid” the majority of days we’ve been in Colorado and we’ve saved about $900 on campground fees – which more than paid for a solar panel kit!
Our trailer, being only 26 feet long and 7 feet wide, has a narrow, highly curved roof (more so than new Airstreams) that has very little open real estate for solar panels amongst all the other rooftop RV necessities – an air conditioner, two fans, a skylight, and a powered HD TV antenna. We weren’t sure we could even find a solar panel that could fit our unique roof!
Flat, rigid panels are great for newer motorhomes and trailers, but just aren’t made to accommodate a curve as extreme as our roof’s. Not to mention a rigid panel would be extremely visible from the ground – not something that most aesthetically conscious vintage trailer owners would be happy about. We’d love to have flat panels that tilt to capture more of the early and late-day sun, but that just wasn’t in the cards for our 50-year-old trailer!
In a lucky Goldilocks moment, we did find one panel that fit juuuust right: the GoPower! 100 watt Solar Flex panel.
GoPower! solar equipment was highly reviewed by our friends Gone with the Wynns, who are using the new flex panels on their RV. With the straightforward DIY installation, a 10 year module/5 year controller warranty, and great technical support (by native English speakers!) just a phone call away, we felt that their products were the right starting point for us to be gently introduced into the complicated world of mobile solar power without lots of time and monetary investment.
Our energy needs are pretty meager, which helps: charging our laptops and phones so we can work a few hours every day, playing some tunes through our stereo and speakers, powering our freshwater pump and electric ignitor on our water heater, running two ventilation fans on warm days, LED lights in the evenings, and sometimes our Mac Mini and LED television. We decided to start with 100 watts and add more panels later if it worked well for us.
Without further ado, our step-by-step novice experience installing a Solar Flex Kit on our Airstream (and if we get any information glaringly wrong please do chime in and correct us, dear readers – like I said, we’re complete newbies at this, but that should give you hope that you can do it too!):
Step 1: Do a happy solar dance when your kit arrives in the mail, followed by a leisurely stroll around the campground, pretending you’re just enjoying the fresh air but actually scoping out other peoples’ campsites for a ladder you might borrow.
Once you find someone with a ladder, enthusiastically promise him that you will not hold him responsible in any way if you fall off said ladder. Plan B was to buy a ladder at a hardware store and return it when we were done. We were glad plan A was a success, because we felt kind of guilty about the other plan.
Step 2: The unboxing, and this is when the real fun begins! Go ahead, immerse yourself in that new solar panel smell now, because soon you’ll be covered in caulk and sweat on a roof and you may or may not be bleeding by the end of the project. We’re not trying to scare you off installing it yourself, we’re just being realistic that projects on RV roofs that involve sealant are pretty much guaranteed to get messy, and anything we do with power tools has a strong potential for bodily harm, especially while on a trailer roof.
In the box was a GoPower! 100 watt Solar Flex panel, 30 Amp digital solar controller (for 80 – 480 watts of power), 50′ of #10 MC4 output cable, and mounting hardware for all of the above.
Step 3: We had already very carefully measured, and in our situation, found only one suitable installation location for our panel. If you have multiple options we’d recommend doing what Tim at The Vintage Airstream Podcast did during his installation and use the box the or a piece of paper to cut a template the size of your panel and try different configurations before installing it.
You’ll want to be especially aware of any potential shadows cast from rooftop air conditioners, vents, etc, as they will decrease the efficiency of the panel. Some of them are unavoidable, but anything you can do to lessen the amount of time the panel is in shadows is better than losing a big chunk of your panel’s efficiency. Sometimes that means parking in a way that you know the panel will get maximum exposure. When you’re wild camping, you have a lot more freedom to park facing whatever direction you’d like.
Another consideration for panel placement is how you’ll be routing the wires to your batteries. Minimizing the length of wire between your panel, the charge controller, and your batteries is best to avoid an additional drop in power, but most people will also want to do it in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing, both on the roof and indoors.
In our instance, we don’t have a rooftop refrigerator vent, which is the usual method of cable entry for most RVs. We installed a counter-height 12V fridge, so our vent is just a louvered panel at the trailer floor, which of course rules out running the thick wires all the way down the side of our trailer!
Instead, we drilled a hole in our roof – gulp! – and ran them through a waterproof cable passage in front of our skylight , into the living area, and along the wooden end cap in the front of our trailer, which is conveniently right above our batteries, housed in the front sofa. This is inconveniently where the dogs would prefer to be sleeping.
Step 4: Find a location for your charge controller that’s close to your batteries. You don’t want it to be hidden away so much that it’s hard to check the display, but the closer the controller is to the batteries the better. We haven’t yet installed a separate battery monitor, but we plan to, so we intentionally left a space for it next to the charge controller.
We picked an open spot below our couch, next to our breaker box/fuse panel/charger/converter.
Taping the template to the wood, we drilled large pilot holes at the corners then used a hand saw to “connect the dots.” This was neither the best or right way to do it, but again, we have limited access to tools!
Step 5: Install all the things! Once everything had a clearly determined mounting location and we’d measured multiple times, it was time to make things permanent. We started on the roof first with the flex panel. We were afraid of the panel ripping loose from our roof while driving if we only screwed it on, so we used a combination of adhesive/sealant (Sikaflex or Trempro 635 work well on metal) and stainless steel screws, paying special attention to sealing the front edge of the panel that faces into the wind while driving.
We only applied the adhesive around the edges of the panel, to prevent wind and water from getting underneath and to make it easier to remove if we ever had a warranty claim. A quick call to the friendly folks at GoPower confirmed that the warranty does not cover any destruction to the panel caused by removing it to mail it back for inspection, and removal damage may void the panel’s warranty. That was plenty of reasoning for not using anything that couldn’t be pried off in the future. We’ve removed this sealant before and know that it comes off with a putty knife and lots of patience, with minimal collateral damage other than our mental health.
Because our trailer’s electrical system is so unique, having been designed by us for our customized rig, and the instructions from GoPower! are pretty clear on how to attach everything, we won’t go into too much detail here. Be sure not to shock yourself connecting the wires if your panel has been exposed to the sun. It’s a good idea to throw a blanket or cardboard over the panel while you connect the wires so you don’t find out the painful way that your new panel works! We did not do this, of course, because Jason loves to play chicken with electricity and we’d already given the ladder back.
Step 6: Wait two days for it to stop raining so you’ll finally know that your new solar panel actually works. We installed ours in the New Mexico desert during a drought and it still rained for two days, starting the exact moment we finished the installation.
Step 7: Go find a quiet, beautiful place to camp off-grid and enjoy your new energy independence!
Warning: checking your solar charge level can very quickly become an addiction. If your spouse goes missing, check near your charge controller and battery monitor first. Seeing that free electricity pouring in is exhilarating!
Special considerations for fellow tin can owners:
Pick your installation time and day wisely. A polished aluminum trailer has this effect when you’re on top of it on a sunny day:
With any solar panel, heat is a major factor in the panel’s ability to produce power, and aluminum roofs get very hot. We haven’t been in extreme ambient temperatures yet, but we know that when we do, the panel’s efficiency will suffer and it might possibly even stop working if it reaches its maximum operating temperature.
Pad your ladder very well with towels where it touches your trailer. Move gingerly while on the roof, and spread your weight across the solid “ribs” of the trailer. Airstreams aren’t meant to be climbed or walked on. We used a yoga mat on the roof to keep us and our ladder from sliding off the slick metal.
An Airstream flexes. A lot. Without a straightforward recommendation from the manufacturer on how to install the panels on a metal roof, we made the decision not to caulk/use adhesive on more than just the outside edges of the panel to leave some room for flexing underneath. On hot and cold days, we hear our outer skin “pop” as it expands and contracts. We didn’t imagine this would bode well for a solar panel that had most of its surface area glued directly to the roof. We may be wrong, but we didn’t want to find out the hard way!
More RV solar resources:
Disclaimer: Our solar kit was sponsored by GoPower for the purposes of testing it on a vintage Airstream, but they did not pay us to write a positive review. Our opinions expressed here are based solely on our experiences.