Stupid-Easy Portable Solar Panels for RV, Off Grid, Boondocking and Camping

Want to learn how to get started with portable solar panels for RV, off grid, boondocking or even camping? We’ve been living off the grid full-time in an RV for over a year now, and we thought we’d share what we know to help you with YOUR solar power needs!

We’re actually working on building a full-blown home, but for now, we’re using a small portable solar panel setup to harvest free power from the sun (watch the video to see our current portable solar power setup!), and to our surprise, it was quite affordable AND we’re offsetting our generator fuel bill in the sunny months. Win!

On this page you’ll find our personal reviews of industry-leading portable solar power units, but also our personal story with solar power and the solutions we’ve found for our personal needs. Read some, read all, but either way, we built this page for YOU!

The Best Portable Solar Panels for RV, Boondocking and Off Grid Use

In our search for a setup that fit our needs, we considered a few different companies and products as there were many options available. The best portable solar panels for your needs might differ from ours so we’ve included a few different models and our thoughts on each.

gopower 120 wall portable solar panel kit Go Power! 120W Portable Folding Solar Kit 3.9 Stars
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GoPower! 120-Watt Portable Solar Pannel Array

It’s hard to beat the balance of quality, output and price with the Go Power! lineup. A division of Carmanah Technologies, Go Power! knows their 12v systems and features power offerings up to 480 watts for RV’s.

In their portable systems they’ve simply shrunk down the panels, added a sturdy suitcase design and made their easy to operate systems available in smaller wattages.

Offering monocrystalline panels shows the focus on quality.

An 10 amp LCD display PWM (pulse width modification) charge controller with hinge for easy readability, sturdy folding legs round and proven Anderson style connectors make this panel a safe investment.

While priced higher than similar power output panels you’ll find the small things like wire size (10 awg), cord length (12’) and sturdy construction more than justify the added cost. We’ve been using our 120 watt panel for over a month as of this writing and we couldn’t be more pleased with the array.

So simple to operate, easy to setup/stow away and we get every bit of power promised and then some from the array! We average about 7.4 amps (12v) during full sun which is higher than the rated output. Can’t beat that!

The ballistics style carrying case is reassuring when stowing the array so as not to scratch or damage the glass which is exposed when the setup is folded for storage. A swing hinge on the charge controller is so helpful and makes reading the LCD display much easier without having to stoop and bend. The data output on the LCD is also helpful as you can roughly calculate the power you’ll capture that day and either ramp up power use during the day or conserve.

Overall we highly recommend this panel and feel for most people in the mid-range of power needs, budget and size this panel does it all.

80 watt portable solar panel kit for rv Go Power! 80W Portable Folding Solar Kit 4.3 Stars
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GoPower! 80-Watt Portable Solar Pannel Array

Ideal for limited storage space and conservative power needs the 80 watt panel from Go Power! is the little brother to the more popular 120 watt system.

With all the same high quality features like monocrystalline panels, LCD 10 amp PWM (pulse width modification) charge controller, 10 awg wire and Anderson connectors you can be confident this panel will perform and last for years.

We use the 120 watt system on our off grid homestead and regularly see 7.4+ amps on sunny days meaning the array is overproducing based on the rated power output. With this small 80 watt panel you’ll likely get a similar experience.

At 4.4 amps max current you’ll have to be conservative with power demands if using a single panel. If you have tight storage space, but need more power, consider two panels for twice the power.

LED lighting is a must with these panels to keep power draw down. You’ll be able to conservatively use 12v pumps, fans and heaters, but extended use will likely outrun the panels production. Can be a great way to maintain a battery during the day to offset generator use. For heavy power demands a small portable generator may be best.

Want more freedom to park in the shade? Look for the available 30’ extension cord available to give you that extra reach for full sun.

All Go Power! Panels include a ballistics style case which provides more than adequate protection during storage. Two connection options are included which are classic style clamps as well as lug style connectors to give you options for quick or semi-permanent setup. We prefer the lug style in tight spaces so you can simply connect the Anderson plug and you’re up and running. Needing to reach back into tight battery compartments, around propane tanks etc can result in accidental reverse polarity or a weak connection.

portable solar panels and kit for boondocking ECO-WORTHY 120w Portable Solar Panel Kit 4 Stars
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ECO-WORTHY 120w Portable Solar Panel Kit

On the budget end of portable solar panel options the Eco-Worthy products feature a slightly less efficient panel technology that is polycrystalline.

While the power ratings are similar to monocrystalline panels you’ll see a slight drop in efficiency which can exceed 20% in some circumstances. Most noticeably during low light and partial shade conditions.

If you intend to use your panels infrequently or having max power isn’t critical for you the Eco-Worthy may well give you freedom from your generator while also putting some money back in your pocket.

At 120 watts the system can handle moderate power consumption such as moderate LED lighting use as well as moderate use of 12v pumps, fans and accessories like tvs and radios.

As the most budget friendly option for portable solar you can expect some sacrifices in other areas.

The wiring provided is quite a bit smaller than comparable models at 16 awg. The issue here is that under full power smaller wire tends to heat up and this results in even more inefficiency.

You’ll also be sacrificing wire length and connection options. The included cable is just 9’ which severely limits your freedom to park where you like and still access the sun. Think SHADE!

The only offered connection type is classic clamps. Adding to the sacrifices the clamps are nickel plates which is a slight difference, but results again in less efficiency over copper.

The included 15 amp NON-LCD PWM charge controller does not have a display to give you any information about the charging current, battery voltage or projected amps/hour as you’ll find on other models. This information may not be useful for some folks and so may not represent much of a loss in features.

No carrying or storage case is provided so you’ll need to take special care when storing the panels so as not to damage the exposed glass.

While the panel gives up many bells and whistles, it will surely help reduce or eliminate generator use for budget sensitive folks. The overall cost savings was hard to justify for our family since we heavily rely on our solar to give us max power all day long as well as many other features.

That’s why we opted for the Go Power! 120 watt array. So far we’re very happy with the power output and all other features offered.

71BYCrIujoL._SL1100_ ECO-WORTHY 80w Portable Solar Panel Kit 4 Stars
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ECO-WORTHY 80w Portable Solar Panel Kit

Offering a budget friendly option to portable solar the Eco-Worth portable panels feature polycrystalline panels and feature overall features, but excel in value.

The 80 watt version will provide enough power to handle conservative use of LED lighting and most smaller 12v items such as pumps, fans, tvs and radios. At 4.4 amps you’ll see perhaps about 30 amps total power gain through a good sunny day.

While this panel won’t handle heavy demands on power, it can certainly maintain a battery through the day and help reduce overall generator use.

Be aware that the price point does mean you’ll be sacrificing features available on other models.

The 15 amp PWM charge controller does not have any readout so you’ll be unable to determine just how much current is coming in, the battery voltage or cumulative power gained. Wiring size is smaller than other panels at 16 awg which under full load can begin to warm up resulting in power loss.

Cable length is shorter as well at 9 feet which limits options for connecting to your RV or other use while still having freedom to access the sun. No extension cables are offered. A competent person could modify the cable if needed.

Nickel plated clamps are the only connection offered so you’ll need to have reasonable access to the battery you’ll be charging for setup and takedown. No carry case is provided so you’ll need to exercise care when stowing the panel to protect the exposed glass.

The included polycrystalline panels offer a budget alternative to monocrystalline panels but do suffer from lower efficiency in low light (dusk and dawn) as well as partial shade as in cloudy days.

Some users have complained about the sturdiness of the leg setup and have improvised to get the panels to be secure. Be advised during stiff wind more stabilization such as sand bags etc may be needed.

renogy 100w portable folding solar panel kit and suitcase Renogy 100w Portable Solar Panel Kit 4.6 Stars
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Renogy 100w Portable Solar Panel Kit

As a leading company in solar at all levels you can be confident when investing in a Renogy product. With the lowest cost per watt for a monocrystalline panel you’ll find the output of these panels to be on par with the more costly models.

At only 100 watts you’re on the edge of being able to power your RV or boondocking effort with ease and needing to be conservative.

Most panels in the category are 120 watts which give you a small amount of power in reserve in most cases. With the 100 watt array you’ll need to be more energy conscious with use of LED lighting pretty important and moderate use of 12v accessories like pumps, fans and tvs.

Through a day you can expect approximately 40-45 amps (12v) of power to be provided in good sun. Putting your panels out early in the morning will result in even more power as the monocrystalline arrays can begin collecting power in low light so keep them out overnight or get them out early for max power collection.

An easy to read LCD 10 amp PWM charge controller is standard which provides information like amps being generated and battery voltage.

SAE connects and classic clamps are included. Many RV’s are now coming factory with a plug for an SAE connector so you may be able to plug the array straight into your RV!

The included 15 feet of cable gives you much more freedom to park your RV and still be able to access the most sun. A sturdy carrying case is provided which helps protect the glass during storage.

Aluminum frame and legs means the array is light at 29.8 lbns enough for most all folks to manage and will stand up to winds without toppling. Fits well in tight storage areas as well measuring 30x27x3 inches when folded. Two of these arrays could be a wise investment for those needing more power. Offering 200 watts of total power at nearly half the price of the Zamp 200 watt system and without needing to pack around nearly 50 lb panel.

Customer reviews are good. Some do complain about the strength of the legs with some commenting they needed to add some support during high winds. Renogy has done some work to improve the leg design with users commenting that it’s working much better.

Overall value, features and user satisfaction the Renogy 100 watt panel is hard to beat.

However the size is the biggest limiting factor. 120 watts is what we consider a minimum for full time off grid or boondocking. Remember you’ll only be able to offset your generator use with even a 120 watt panel.

Moving down to 100 watts means you may be reaching for the generator more often lacking those additional 150-200 watts afforded by a slightly larger panel in a day.

renogy 600 watt folding solar panels off grid Renogy 60w Portable Solar Panel Kit 4.6 Stars
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Renogy 60w Portable Solar Panel Kit

The smallest portable solar panel available is the 60 watt Renogy setup. Really this panel is for those who have extremely low power needs or are very conservative.

This panel, or two of them, could be used to offset generator use during the day or to simply maintain a battery for any systems that might draw off the battery during the day. Expect to be very conservative with LED lighting, 12v pumps and fans.

Unlikely you’ll be able to run even tv’s or radios for long with the small panel without discharging the battery.

With the monocrystalline panel you’ll be able to collect power even in dusk/dawn low light conditions and in partial shade such as cloudy days so even though it’s smaller you may see a power gain over a slightly larger polycrystalline panel.

At 3.37 amps you can expect somewhere around 25-30 amps of power per day. Enough to roughly charge up a single deep cycle RV battery.

For extremely tight storage needs this panel offers a clean, quiet power to generator use! The lightest array available means no heavy lifting. Two of these panels could produce a 120 watt equivalent without needing to manage a larger, heavier array.

The included 10 amp PWM charge controller has an LCD for monitoring current and battery voltage. 10 feet of cable means keeping the array close by and will limit freedom to access sun while parking in the shade.

SAE and clamp connections are both included which may allow you to plug directly into new RVs which offer SAE ports for solar. A ballistics carrying case is also included for safe storage.

Some users have complained about a weak leg design. Renogy has responded by improving the leg structure, but in some conditions such as high wind some reinforcement like sandbags may be needed to prevent toppling the array.

zamp 200 watt solar charging kit Zamp 200w Portable Solar Panel Kit 4.4 Stars
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Zamp 200w Portable Solar Panel Kit

This system is borderline for portability. We’d classify this as a semi-permanent portable kit due to the size and weight.

Fully erected it’s nearly 5 feet wide and 3.5 feet tall. Add in that you’ll be wrangling a nearly 50 lb. array it could be challenging for some to tackle.

In some cases it may be more wise to opt for a dual panel setup with a couple 120 watt arrays. There are some bonuses though!

Power output is substantial. At over 11 amps DC 12v it has the highest output of any portable solar panel we know of on the market. For someone with serious power needs who doesn’t plan on setting up daily this setup would be great!

Also a good choice for boondocking or off grid in the winter when solar potential is lower. Having an oversized array helps get every ounce of available power during the limited daylight hours.

A few Zamp exclusives that you could live without but really enhance the solar experience include a exterior plug system to simplify setup of your solar panel. Install the permanent exterior plug port once and you’ll not need to fiddle with attaching the panel to your battery.

A bonus if your battery local is difficult to access or cramped. You’ll also love the flip out leg design. No nuts or bolts to tighten or flimsy leg supports to blow over in a stiff wind.

Finally the LCD display 15 amp charge controller is easy to read, displays super helpful information such as current (amps), voltage and estimated amps/hour and is hinged for easy reading saving your back from stooping and bending. A traveling case is included with each Zamp portable solar kit.

zamp 200 watt solar charging kit Zamp 160w Portable Solar Panel Kit 4.4 Stars
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Zamp 160w Portable Solar Panel Kit

If we had to choose a perfect array, this just might be it!

It’s on the large side for most boondocking or RV needs, but for winter it’s just enough. Summer time you should be able to handle moderate power usage.

Don’t get confused here. You’ll likely not want to run your blow dryer, vacuum or microwave here. However LED lights, 12v pump, small tv, and fans are no problem in good sun.

The array fully erect is manageable at about 3.5 feet square and it’s heavy enough that it won’t topple in a stiff wind. The 16’ cord allows parking in the shade but still getting good sun.

Want more freedom? Be sure to invest in the available extension cord for extra distance.

Bonus features on all Zamp portable systems include an exclusive power port so you can quickly setup your array without needing to access your battery compartment, hinged 15 amp LCD display charge controller for easy, won’t-break-your-back, viewing and a quick setup leg system.

A traveling case is included with each Zamp portable solar kit.

zamp 120 watt solar charging kit Zamp 120w Portable Solar Panel Kit 5 Stars
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Zamp 120w Portable Solar Panel Kit

Ideal for the average boondocker, RV or budget minded off-grid starter this kit provides enough power to feed basic daily needs including most RV needs like LED lighting, which is pretty essential at this power level, 12v pumps and fans.

In strong summer sun you’ll also be able to power a small LCD or newer style TV, but that’ll be about the max for this array. Keep in mind most small TV’s at in the 2-3 amps range so if possible use them while the array is in full sun!

Zamp exclusives include a plug system that eliminates the need to access your battery each time you setup the array, hinged swinging 10 amp LCD display controller for easy viewing and sturdy bolt/nut free leg system that’s easy to setup/stow away.

A traveling case is included with each Zamp portable solar kit.

zamp 120 watt solar charging kit Zamp 80w Portable Solar Panel Kit 5 Stars
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Zamp 80w Portable Solar Panel Kit

On the smaller end of the portable array spectrum, this array will offer noise-free charging for the most basic power needs.

LED lighting and conservative use of pumps and fans is essential to keep your battery charged with this array. Two of these arrays could be used to provide options without the bulk of a larger array.

Also as the lightest panel it’s easiest to transport and maneuver. If you expect to be in heavy wind environments you may need to sandbag or secure this array as it’s light enough that a stiff wind could be a problem.

Tight camping spaces and small stow compartments aren’t a problem as this array is 3.5 feet wide fully erect and less than 2 feet when folded. A great way to offset generator use and keep power systems running all day.

Zamp panels have a higher cost per watt than other panels in this category but justify that added cost with features you won’t find elsewhere including bolt/nut free leg system, hinged 10 amp LCD charge controller with data readout and a Zamp exclusive plug system eliminating the need to access your battery compartment to plug in your panel.

A traveling case is included with each Zamp portable solar kit.

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Things to Consider When Choosing Portable Solar Arrays

1. Efficiency

There really is an array for just about every budget, but keep in mind budget-minded products will require some sacrifices.

As an example, a monocrystalline array (typically very black in color) of equal size can be as much as 18-20% more efficient than a polycrystalline array (typically have a blue color). So the ratings might be the same, but efficiency is considerably less.

2. Durability

Another consideration is connector quality, style and durability. We move our panels quite a bit so unlike a stationary solar setup, you’ll want to give consideration to the durability of construction, wiring and connectors.

Materials are equally important. While you won’t find any gold in these setups, copper is the next best thing.

Budget models often sacrifice copper for a nickel-plated alternative in the connectors. While nickel is conductive and gets the job done, there is more power loss than with copper. Again… small sacrifices.

3. Connection Options

Have a super tight battery compartment? Consider a unit that offers a permanent exterior plug as an alternative to the clamps.

You’ll only find this feature on the Zamp systems and it’s included with each kit.

This will make connecting your panels much less of a hassle and prevent accidental reverse polarity or even poor connections.

4. Read-Out Displays

While you won’t find highly-sophisticated reporting on the portable solar arrays, some models do offer an LCD display which can give you instant data like voltage, amps and even an estimated amps per hour on some models.

Why is this helpful? Solar really is about trying to moderate your energy consumption. Use what you produce or better yet, use a little less. Use too much power and you’ll deplete your batteries, leaving you without power or needing to run a generator.

These displays help you stay informed and are very empowering when you become energy conscious. Having a super solar day? Use up that power! Cloudy day? Better conserve.

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Solar Power Recommended Reading

Tiny House Engineers Notebook: Volume 1, Off Grid Power

This book is described as being not too simple but not too complex – the perfect place to get started for your off grid needs. The author is an engineer that is able to use laymen terms to deliver the best information. Complete with easy-to-understand information, this book also contains a series of charts to help you size YOUR solar power system. Great reviews overall… take a look for yourself.

Photovoltaic Design and Installation for Dummies

51XGBP29bkL._SX395_BO1,204,203,200_Like most of the “for Dummies” books, this aims to give you not only an introduction to solar power, but is aimed at giving you the ability to design your own solar power system. If you really want to know more than just the basics, this book gives you the option to delve into the depths of solar. This may be a bit over the top if you just want a small system for you RV or for camping, but it should give you great insight to solar nonetheless.

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Why We Waited So Long to Jump Into Solar Power

Going off grid and solar seem to be ubiquitous, but not for us. We sketched out many scenarios during the pre-work before arriving to our property last fall. Let’s be honest – we really wanted to get solar right away. Soalr is SO EXCITING!

However, reality had a different flavor. The conclusions for every solar scenario amounted to a few things.

1. We had no idea what kind of solar potential we’d actually have on our property.

We basically arrived on our property right before winter, so we had no real chance to experience summer sun.

Solar potential was a huge factor in choosing our property (and heaven almighty did it have a huge Southern ,non-obstructed view!).

That said, we still didn’t know the reality of how much sun we would get. Would it be a decent amount, or a MOTHER LOAD?land-layout

2. We had no idea what our power needs would be.

Coming from on-grid, we simply had no clue how to live with alternative energy.

While we had run endless solar and energy calculators and tried our best to understand what our laptops, cameras, cell phones, lights, fans, heater and power tools needed daily, we just couldn’t really get a solid baseline.

Even carefully reading our power bills for months prior left us unsure of what our actually energy needs would be living an off-the-grid lifestyle.

3. Solar panels, while somewhat affordable, are nothing more than collectors and are not a complete system without various additional components.

Without an equally suitable storage medium (batteries) and a properly suited extractor (inverter) the system isn’t worth much.

It’s hard to harness something as unpredictable as the sun. In fact, it’s quite sophisticated and thus, the technology that’s needed to properly and safely capture the sun and store it is sophisticated as well.

The batteries and inverter, along with the necessary heavy gauge cables, are the most expensive components to any solar power system easily running into the $5,000+ range.

4. It was expected that at least for a little while, we’d need a lot of on-demand power, regardless of weather or time of day.

Being handicapped in any way (having to time our energy usage for sun-heavy days) would seriously impede progress at crucial moments.

Solar and on-demand power are nearly antonyms.

That proved VERY true during Windstorm 2015 when upon arriving home late at night in a driving hard rain our home was mangled by a microburst wind.

5. Despite all the development in solar technology, the major components to this day are still not emphatically scalable which makes it hard to “tip toe” into solar.

Once you get married to a component, it’s very expensive to upgrade as it typically requires full replacement.

Since a system is no small investment, we just weren’t comfortable gambling that we’d miss the mark and pay dearly down the road in upgrades.

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The Conundrum of Scalability of Solar Power

Winter ended early for us this year and we had full sunny days as early as March. Each day we were running our generator while the sun was shining and it just seems so absurd.

To top it off, fuel prices had increased 20% since January which motivated us to finding a better way. We were burning money left and right!

taking-care-of-generator

With a few months sans power bill under our belt, mostly winter months at that, we had a pretty good idea about how much power we needed each day. At this point, we realized that off-setting ALL of our power needs via solar still wasn’t going to be viable.

However, our day-to-day needs had turned out to be so minuscule that we thought if we could just REDUCE our generator usage, of which is mostly just charging our RV battery and a few electronics, we’d be miles ahead in fuel expenses and wear on our generator!

We decided to take another look at solar stuff and see if we maybe missed something or if there was some innovation that might fit our needs.

Basically, we found confirmation of what we already knew – we were stuck in that hard spot been the low-wattage portable camping setups and the relatively substantial RV setups which can easily run $5-10k with a properly sized battery bank.

A low-wattage camping setup wouldn’t work for us yet we weren’t ready to “go big” as our power needs are minimal on a day-to-day basis AND we still require frequent on-demand power which is met by our Honda generator, even though it burns more fuel than we need to meet our needs.

In our research we stumbled upon a company whom we’d looked at before and discovered they’d have a booth at an RV convention within a few hours’ drive. We’d always wanted to take a drive that direction as the views are spectacular (plus it was in wine country!) so we made last-minute arrangements to attend the RV convention.

Even if we didn’t come home with any epiphanies or grand new ideas, the drive to the RV convention would be worth it.

Our thinking was maybe if we asked someone who understood both our current RV boondocking lifestyle and our future full-home solar needs maybe they’d have an idea!?!

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Being Introduced to Portable Solar Panels

After taking in some totally-amazing scenery and chasing our tail trying to locate the convention we finally made it.

Straight to the GoPower! booth we went. There we met Stefan, and by “met” we really mean pinned him in a doorway so that we could talk to him.

He was super nice and we had a great conversation about our current living situation, power needs and goals. Stefan quickly grasped our conundrum and could see how we were stuck between a rock and a hard spot.

gopower-rv-convention

The problem is that smaller solar setups often are designed to operate on 12 volts. 12 volts is perfect for our RV, but as soon as we attempt to move towards even a cabin-sized system we’ll run into inevitable upgrades.

There are simply limits to the amount of power you collect, store and extract in a 12v system.

Most larger solar power systems are designed for daily, long-term use are 24 volts minimum. This allows for more economical cables to be utilized and less voltage drop which means more efficient systems.

Sadly, one can’t upgrade easily from a 12 volt RV system to a 24 volt full-home system. As mentioned earlier, many of the critical components aren’t compatible with the two differing voltages such as charge controllers and inverters.

Some of the high-dollar stuff is, but that goes back to the cost vs. benefit.

Stefan asked us a question that seemed at the time almost overly simple which was “What are your daily solar needs today?”

After chatting about this and how we were using our generator to basically top of our RV battery which was powering our off grid internet, charge laptops, cameras, cell phones and running critical RV systems, Stefan suggested we give another look at the larger portable solar panel setups.

This was something we had overlooked because we figured they would be too small to meet our needs. We simply didn’t understand their potential.

opening the 120 portable solar kit

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Our Goals and Uses for Solar Power

1. Meeting Our Day-to-Day Power Needs

To keep the math and figures to a minimum, I’ll keep the numbers short.

Basically, we knew we were using approximately 1000 watts of power per day from our generator which is sad because our generator is capable of a 3000-watt output and we’re running it for 6 hours which means we had 18,000 watts available, but our battery just wouldn’t charge that fast.

This is why solar would be a great fit for us – it can charge all day long at a lower current (amps) and we get the same outcome which is a a charged battery!

using-generator

With a 120-watt array we estimated on a good day we could collect about 1000-1200 watts easily as we get sun from about 5am until 7pm.

Now do you see why we just couldn’t accept that solar was out of the question?! SO. MUCH. SUN. Keep in mind that solar panels, controllers and wiring aren’t 100% efficient, especially when the outside temps increase, so you’ll never get all of the rated power.

Still, 1000-1200 watts/day is impressive for such a small system.

This approach to calculating our energy needs was far different from our previous method of attempting to calculate consumption per device multiplied by the number of hours of use etc.

It just got to be a rat’s nest of numbers. Knowing our generator usage was far easier.

2. Charging and Maintaining Our Battery Bank

A few months back we had an opportunity to pick up a few large L16 deep cycle batteries. The price was right for us and we knew that even if we could get a couple of years out of them it’d be a good value.

used l16 solar battery bank

Remember… batteries are one of the most expensive parts of a solar setup.

Down the road we’ll very likely buy a new bank, but for now this one was a good find. We really don’t want to run the generator to top of the bank and keep it charged so that we can reduce sulfation and other issues from a persistent low state of charge.

Keeping our battery bank maintained is perfect for the small 120 watt GoPower! portable array.

When not in use for our day-to-day needs, or if we get a particularly intense solar day, we can move the array over and add some juice to the battery bank while still having enough to meet our daily power needs.

3. Meeting Power Needs of Odd Jobs Here and There

Recently, we completed a DIY wood fired cedar hot tub project and one of the struggles we knew we’d face was keeping the tub cleaned. Most hot tubs have power circulating pumps which require substantial power… something we clearly lack!

We invested in a large pool filter which has been doing a fantastic job of removing debris, but it requires either a high volume pump or extensive slower pumping to move the water.

wood-fired-hot-tub

Not just the location of the tub, but the length of time the pump needs to run, make this a great job for solar instead of our generator. We’ve found a really sturdy 12 volt bilge pump that’ll take whatever power we give it and can filter all day long if the sun will shine. Keeping our hot tub clean is the perfect job for solar power… what a win!

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Unexpected Perks to Starting Solar With a Portable System

Once Stefan introduced us to the idea of getting started with a portable solar panel setup, we quickly realized that there were other benefits to starting this way which we will outline below.

1. Stowability

The portability of a solar system is very beneficial to us.

Like so many RVers and boondockers, we lack any substantial secure storage on our property. For all intents and purposes, we’re perma-boondocking at the moment. As such, security is something we have to give added attention.

Leaving valuables lying around is a surefire-way to never see them again! Stowing the panels when we’re away is convenient.

This lends to peace of mind. If you’re considering solar power for boondocking, this too should be a benefit as the solar panels fold up into a suitcase which easily stows in your RV or tow vehicle.

suitcase-solar-pannel-array

2. Stupid-Easy Setup

While to some it might seem lazy or apathetic, we’re not electrical tinkerers nor to we like the idea of being a back yard electrician. With solar, getting things like wiring, connectors, array size and charge controller sized properly is extremely important.

Are we capable of figuring all this out? Of course. However, it was a relief to find that these small portable systems have all of this sorted out perfectly. No guesswork needed. Literally, all you need to do is set the portable panels up and plug them. Done.

What a relief it is to know that we can just collect sunlight and charge our battery without all the fuss.

plug and play easy setup solar power

3. Long-Term Asset

Finally, we can see how this small system is actually a good investment.

Even after we move on and make upgrades toward our cabin, and eventually whole-home solar system, we’ll surely have a use for this little array, even if it’s just odd jobs around the property or even a little camping adventure. Because it’s an all-in-one system, it has so many uses so we doubt it’ll ever become a dust collector.

getting started with solar off grid, rv or boondocking

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Live Updates! How Are Our Portable Solar Panels Working Out?

If you’ve been following our journey, you know that many things we do are very calculated.

We’re bootstrapping this project and every penny and ounce of energy has to be accounted for in some way. To this end, we publish our homesteading expenses monthly for all to see.

Hopefully it inspires others to establish and stick to a budget. Solar will be no different.

sunny-property

Our goal is to offset the cost of our solar array within 4-5 months.

Our fuel consumption has averaged 1 gallon per day for over 10 months. Currently fuel is $3.69/gal for premium, non-ethanol fuel. We’re pretty confident we can do this and want to keep track so you can see how we’re doing. We’ll post updates below.

Update #1: One Month In

We’re nearly a month into using our portable solar panel system and so far it’s been exactly what we had hoped. We’ve been mainly focusing on off-setting and understanding our daily energy needs and it seems that everything is working great.

lcd-display-solar-power

It’s been a bit of an adjustment to use as much power during daylight hours while the solar is strong instead of charging things up at night, which drains the battery, for example. It’s a small adjustment, but seems to be doing the trick. We’ve run the generator twice so far in the past 3 weeks. That’s right, twice! But for what?

portable-solar-panels
Sneaky us… because these are portable, we can wiggle them into sunny spots! SCORE!

As mentioned before, there are some on-demand uses that we simply can’t meet with solar power yet. Even if we had a system 10x bigger, we’d still struggle.

Those come down to our power tool needs like saws, the air compressor, shop vac, cat food meat grinder (we feed these lil stinkers a raw diet) and finally the transfer pump we use to get the water from our IBC tank to the hilltop cistern we installed back in May.

In all, however, it seems our generator use is negligible in comparison. We were burning about 7 gallons of fuel per week on average. Three weeks ago, we had 3 gallons on hand and just yesterday Alyssa purchased fuel.

So our usage has dropped by 22.5 gallons in that time. Since January, fuel prices have increased over 20%. Cash savings to date is $83/month at present pricesquite a substantial reduction!

Additionally, we find that a bit of convenience has been added to our day. We often run our internet into the evening hours and would have to run our generator first thing in the morning to bring the battery back up. Since the sun is up by 5am, our battery is nearly topped up by the time we wake. This makes our morning routine a little more enjoyable to say the least! We get to enjoy our coffee without the hum of the generator in the background.

Update #2: Four Months In

We published this video update after having our portable solar panels for about four months or so.

In a nutshell, they worked great, keeping up with and even exceeding demand! However, in this video you’ll see that we have the opportunity to test our a larger system and that’s meeting our needs even better. More in the video!

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solar-pinterestIf you made it this far in the post, you’re a real trooper! You get a virtual high five and you’re well on your way to finding the best solar setup for your needs!

We hope we were able to give you a tidbit or two to help you in your decision-making.

If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments below! We’ll try to answer what we can and update this page with anything we may have missed.

If you find this page useful, feel free to share the love by sharing it on Pinterest (pin the image on the right!), Facebook, Google+ or even Twitter! Or, learn how you can give back by supporting the blog.

Comments

  1. says

    I did 3 years off grid in a home I built using only my own 2 hands and parts scavenged from other building site dumpsters… thought I’d pass on a tip. I had a well, and with a well I needed a gen big enough to turn on the well twice a day and pressurize the system. The Gen I got was too big for the job… which was a good thing because… I had a battery bank of 4 truck batteries that by doing garage sales and buying each battery a charger… whenever I started my gen I charged all 4 batteries simultaneously… and… I picked up AA, AAA, 9 V., C & D battery chargers (used for like $3 a piece) and charged 12 of those sized batteries also simultaneously every time I fired that gen up. I also over insulated by at least a factor of 2. In the summer months, I’d fire up the gen with the AC on full, leave it run for 15 minutes and then leave the doors shut for hours of a cooled down house… reverse procedure for heat in the winter. Hot water is always a wonderful thing too… I had access to 3/4″ copper tubing so I soldered together a “ladder” style collector, sat it in a 2″ X 4″ framed, plywood back and mylar lined box that I just laid a piece of glass over… water so hot it’d remove flesh… but it wasn’t enough so I laid 200′ of black hose on the roof in a looping pattern and connected it to the panel… that gave me about 5 minutes of decent hot water to take showers with when I added a lot of cold to it at the faucet. Another tip is to quit turning the battery power into AC… get 12V devices instead… you’re losing about 1/3 of your stored power just to transform it to AC…. that’s too much to lose. I had 2 – 6 pack cardboard coke bottle holders with empty coke bottles in them which I used to transport my $2.50 ea. sidewalk solar lights into the sunshine every morning and then I’d bring them in every evening for ambient light. A 55 Gal drum that fills from rain is a good thing to have too. Us a 12V water pump, like the one in your RV to pump the water anywhere you need it… like to the toilet… or, what I did was take an RV water resevoir and mounted it in my attic. I then used the AC Elec well pump to pump water up into it, giving me gravity water all day long. Put you 55 gal. drum high and it needs no pump. Another is that the fans used in desktop computers, when wired in series blow a lot of air for an elec. cost of almost nothing. I took a piece of 1/2″ square aluminum tubing and attached 10 or those fans to it side by side… wired it up to work with a switch… and had a room fan that was hard to beat. I’m in Ohio so I also welded together a wood stove. I used the same style fan configuration on it to blow the hot air out of it. And remember, when your well starts to smell… pour a few cups of bleach down it. The bleach will dissipate in a few days but in the meantime it will kill all the germs. Don’t drink it right after you bleach it and don’t over-bleach it or you won’t be able to do anything with the water until it sits and airs off for days! Life’s a journey… not a destination…. Aerosmith.

    • Debi says

      Love your ideas, especially the coiled black PVC pipe on the roof. When I was a teen my family had a small farm where we raised a lot of our meat and all our veggies. My dad did that coiled black pipe thing on the roof of our out building and the water could cook pasta it was so hot. I thought that idea was awesome. I am going to install a “poop man’s” hot tub at my place this year. I plan of running black pipe a lot the top of my wooden chicken fence with a pump that will continuously pump the water through the pipe. So when I want to use the tub I’ll kick the pump on for a few hours and get the water warmed……. love this site.

  2. says

    Oh yea… I also went for the kerosene lights too. The old ones are great once you learn how to properly trim the wics… see a youtube video. Lamp oil back then was $27 a gallon…. kerosene was $4.30. Guess which one I used.

    And on cold winter nights… get a few rocks about 8″ to 10″ across…. big enough they’ll hold a lot of heat but small enough that you can carry them pretty easily. Heat them up for about an hour before bed time… wrap in towels and throw in bed (I suggest you give them a thorough washing first though) … depending on the type of rock, I’ve had some still giving off heat 7 hours later.

    And for coffee… there’s nothing I have ever found off gridding that makes coffee as well and electrically cheaper than a French Press and a microwave.. They really make great coffee too. $20 at your local Meijer store.

  3. joseph neidhart says

    I am possibly buying an old school house If i get the financing I must firstly put a roof on it Then i must install new electric services Someone stole all copper from the building I am considering to put solar panels on the new roof I would use an inverter to switch the dc power to ac and not use batteries I am not needing a portable system but a fixed system on roof I would also like to learn how i could tie it into my water heating systems as tenants in apartments need hot water As i read your post i got jealous of what your doing in the mountains I live in central ohio and am wondering if i get enough sun light here to warrant the cost of the system And how would i know what company to hire and install it Would love to hear back from you Thanks Joe

  4. Silas says

    Somebody may have mentioned it, but you can get all of your lighting from the very cheap solar yard lights. Walmart sells the small ones for $ 0.97. They each put out about what a candle would. The larger solar spot and flood lights at $10-30 are plenty for room or reading lights and most have switches. I converted a 22 light motion detection security light into a permanent ceiling light. The solar panel already had a long cord for permanent mounting outside.
    You can take the other lights out every morning for charging or detach the solar panel and add more wire and mount them on the roof.
    There are lots of other possibilities for using those cheap little landscape solar panels for charging batteries by hooking them in series, or in peralell to just charge AA and AAA batteries.
    If you are on the grid and just want to be prepared for emergencies, get several little lights for the yard, and just go outside and get them when the power goes out. I may never need oil lamps or lanterns again.

  5. says

    I so enjoyed your information and am a little jealous of what you are accomplishing. (Just kidding). Being retired, I wish I was off in the woods and being off grid. But, just living in a small trailer, but want to go to solar badly. You have given me the push I needed to get started. How much did you spend on the batteries and incidentals (not including the panels)? I have a very, very small budget and need to get all my costs together to see if I can afford the whole kit and cabbodle. I checked the prices you gave and decided I can get the panels. (Thanks for that). But don’t want to have them sitting around a year til u get enough together for the rest of requirements. Will continue to read your stories (life). Be safe and healthy.

    • says

      Hey Susie! Hope our blog can serve as a valuable “getting started” resource! I guess to be budget-friendly, I’d first try to figure out how to consume as little power as possible. We really do run off our RV battery for our day-to-day needs, and we try to use electricity in the day when the sun is shining rather than at night. Our battery bank used was $760, but the batteries individually new are about $425 each. We really didn’t need these today but thought they would be a great transition to having a whole-home setup. The Go Power! 120w portable solar panel kit can hook straight to a single RV battery to keep it topped off… certainly within most budgets! Thanks for the kind wishes and best of luck with your research!

      • Sherry says

        What if I already have a solar panel system hooked up only to my battery and lights (no outlets). I have two 12v batteries already in the RV and hooked up. How do I know what to do about inverting that power to use my microwave, coffee maker and water heater, the computers, t.v. It is confusing for a person who isn’t technically inclined…

    • Mary says

      wow, you all need to do more research, you scare me. My husband and I built our entire farmstead 20 years ago, bit by bit, up to code, all legal. We used a portable generator to charge the battery bank on low sun days for one hour. There are so many online sites for every budget. Safe systems, not cobbed together waiting to combust! Nothing is cheap or easy, bottom line. Stop listening to people who tell you “I did this and this”Speak with reputable companies. Harbor Freight, Northern Tool, Tractor Supply,Windy Nation are a few places to purchase a small system to get going with little money. You need special batteries. Golf cart type. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you will be in trouble. Risking burning your house down or getting electrocuted to do it on the cheap is foolish and irresponsible. Yes, someone of you will get mad and disagree, tough luck. We lived this great life for along time. We’re seniors. Heading back to the country and doing it again. Research! Check with code enforcer before you begin, not only do you endanger yourself, but others if things go wrong. We had solar and microturbines. Started with basics and added as we had money. 24 volt, 12 deep cycle Trojan batteries(yes,they cost about $1,400.00)take good care of them and they last 19 years. Please, don’t bother contradicting me, as we sponsored open houses for years, spoke at public venues. And we’re featured in newspapers and magazines. We did all this as an older couple. My husband is an old farmer with practical knowledge. We had low paying jobs and worked our rears off, trading, bartering and learning and networking. Think before you do something that will cost you dearly.

    • Eric says

      Here is where it gets highly custom for everyone. Every setup is different based on what you do most. Basically, you don’t want car batteries or marine batteries. If the battery has a CCA (cold cranking amps) rating, it’s worthless for solar. You want 6v golf cart batteries. They hold more energy and you can find them used for much less.

  6. says

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Not only was it very informational but very detailed! Thank you all again. I wish the two of you the best of luck and future! You all keep doing what your doing and you two will be able to accomplish anything you all set your minds to and want to achieve!! Thanks again!!

  7. Brenda Ryals says

    We have a 28 foot Keystone four season Bullet and need to add solar for boondocking . Could you just tell us what we need to purchase ( we are a retired couple) we might also need someone to install it for us . We won’t be camping in snow and ice , but will need to have some heat during winter . PLEASE HELP ! Thank you !

  8. ty tower says

    I wondered if you have checked the battery terminals for the actual voltages they are being charged at . You will notice the lead ( thats the first in line) battery input voltage is likely higher than those further down the line so it protects the batteries to swap them round from time to time.

    Never let them get over 13.2 Volts and many will tell you that’s fine but my advice is don’t . They gas excessively which is what your batterys appear to be doing in your latest video ,heat up and lead falls off the plates down to the bottom of the case. These days they are made with so little lead in the cross plate connectors inside the battery that they become thin and charge capacity drops quickly if you can’t get charge in. If you are feeding 1 amp into your batteries at any instant of time then that 1 amp flows all the way through each cell in each battery to get to the other side . If it didn;t it would not work.

    So a good controller will be adjustable as to peak volts output and if you can’t buy one its an easy kit construction project and you can adjust it as you like that way. Much cheaper . The kits I use are about 10 USD a piece.

  9. Heidi Blalack says

    Hello guys, I’ve started watching your vlogs on YouTube and I’m really glad I did because I didn’t know you could mill your own lumber until I saw what you folks were doing.
    I was doing a ton of calculations just as you were about what I would need to get an idea of what sort of power set up I would need and reading your post just made me relax so much. This seems like a great solution for my middle of the road needs coming up. I’m working on buying property and I’ll be setting up a boondock style of homestead in about a year. You just took so much of my stress out with this information. Thank you so much.
    I do have a question about if you ever considered wind power at all?

    • says

      Glad you found some peace in our posts! We all need a lot less power than we think for our basic needs, especially when we’re mindful of our usage. That’s what we found, at least. We haven’t considered wind because we really have none and when we do, they’re strong gusts. I’ve heard that consistent winds are good for turbines, not what we have, but we’d love to play with a turbine anyways one day!

  10. Ed says

    Good that you aren’t considering wind. I have a turbine as I got a free 50′ triangular tower but would not have tried it otherwise. As you said & I have, lots of wind in the winter but it is gusty & not at all a consistent speed, hour after hour. What is needed for good power production & to charge batteries is consistency & high wind speed. Large turbines & towers are just too expensive compared to solar, unless you have consistent, hour after hour after hour of the right wind speed. Solar or hydro are better choices IME, again depending on your situation. Solar is probably the most versatile & economical IME, unless you perhaps get very little sunshine. Don’t even bother with wind, especially with the small “affordable” turbines, as the output is just plain poor even in high winds, unless you have high winds, hour after hour after hour after hour, but who would want to live with that kind of wind? Large turbines, towers, cables, etc. are just too expensive & require maintenance. I’ve been procrastinating climbing my 50 foot tower to see why my turbine has stopped outputting power. Hopefully just a wire has come off, but it’s still a PITA to climb & remove & or fix up there. Uggh. Wish I had spent the money on solar panels.

  11. shelly says

    Do you have an opinion after your research on inverters that would work best for your application. My application will be similar but have found a wide range of prices for inverters so curious what brand and rating you went with and if you would do it differently. Thanks!

  12. peewee henson says

    SCORE, BIG TIME, WITH THE GO-PRO EQUIPMENT. OUR MISSION CONTINUES AS WE SEARCH FOR A PIECE OF TERRITORY TO NAME AND FORTIFY. I’LL BE SURE TO THUMBS UP THE GO PRO GUYS

  13. peewee henson says

    LEFT A THUMBS UP & KUDOS FOR GO POWER ON THEIR WEBSITE. I’LL LOOK FOR A PROGRESS REPORT LATER GOOD LUCK STAY WARM STAY SAFE

  14. says

    My husband and I are building an off-grid homestead, also. Right now we are powered mostly with solar with generator back-up. We are pumping water from our well into a holding tank with solar, powering both a freezer and refrigerator with solar, and also a Dish TV receiver with a large flat screen TV (2 of them, actually), lights, fans, and recharging phones, laptops and Kindles – all with solar. Our home isn’t built yet, but when it is we will be purchasing an entirely new system to run it. The old systems (the ones we are using now) will be repurposed to power our garage with small guest house above it in the future. You can see how my husband set everything up on my blog: http://makingoursustainablelife.com/a-solar-powered-freezer

  15. Terry says

    Hello!

    It’s understandable to me that most people are confused about what exactly is meant by “power” and what is meant by “energy.” Because they are not at all the same in a technical sense, IMO you might benefit from an accurate understanding of what these mean. I am sure there is lots of info online.

    Thanks for sharing your project!
    Best wishes,
    Terry (former electrical engineer)

    P.S. I apologize if this has already been discussed above :)

  16. Brenda Ryals says

    I need a solor system ( folding-portable) for full time boondocking winter and summer in a 28″ camper trailer ( Keystone premier Bullet , thermal package ) I will need to run the heat and air ! I don’t know what I need !!! PLEASE HELP !

    • lavonda carter says

      WOULD LOVE TO BE TOTALLY SOLAR, AS I AM DISABLED, AND MY HUSBAND ON S S, WE CAN’T AFFORD TO BE , NEED MORE SOLAR, LESS FUEL OF ANY TYPE TO BE USED, ENJOYED READING YOUR INFORMATION !!!!!!

  17. Bill Reinbold says

    Back in the middle 1990’s we did a lot of dry camping and preferred out of the way places, of course they had no electricity. We had 5500 watt generator but that was a hassel to run very much. S o I tried to look into solar power. I found that information for RV s was non existant and had a very hard time finding any information on the subject. I finally ran on to a company in Glendale Az. The gentelman was very helpful in helping me select panels and equipment to get me started. in adding up all the usage in watts Frig., TV. radio, small appliances etc. we came up with two 75 watt panels, four 6 volt golf cart batteries, a regulator (one with a dial read-out not idiot lights), invert er. I later added a 75 watt panel that when I camped in the trees I could move it around to follow the sun. The only problem was, the inverter put out a modified sine wave and the microwave oven would only operate at 60% so when we needed it we just ran the generator a few minutes.
    We no longer do dry camping but still use it to keep the batteries charged in the winter. I installed the system myself, a very interesting project. At that time the cost was $1800, not counting the added panel. We rnjoyed the convenience of solar power very much and considered it well worth the time and expence.

  18. Martin says

    Dear Jessy Alyssa

    nice to have found you on our path. Your blog is been great and we are lately following you more and more as we about to go for the same life style.
    We are about to start our new life experience in the tropical island of Sumba Indonesia where we are about to go live off the grid in the middle of nowhere in front of the sea where we just got a land. Notice that we will build some huts instead of living in a RV so we will buy a fridge and others with no 12V line compare to what you have in your RV.
    We are a young couple of 35 and 33 years old italians and we need your help :)

    Few question

    • While the battery is giving power to an electronic device (like a fridge) is it possible to charge at the same time the other batteries with the solar panels?
    I know it seems a stupid question but if you can give few info about how it works would be helpful to understand more.

    •• How many batteries can be connected under 1 portable solar panel? Example 100 watt or 200 watt

    ••• Which are the different components that a portable solar panel needs to provide electricity compare to a fixed solar system?
    Like : portable panels > controller > batteries > 12V output devices (if not : inverter?!)
    Fixed solar system : panels ?
    And why is it cheaper? Less components right?

    We are at the same point were we are stucked before making the “decision” and many companies suggested to go big trusting them and let them do the job but we are really afraid to lose many and make mistakes.

    Best, Martin & Silvia

    • chris parrish says

      Ciao,

      The number of solar panels and amount of battery storage depends on how much power you need. I assume that you will receive a large amount of sunshine in Indonesia, so you will probably need fewer solar panels, but you may have long periods of rain with little insolation, so you may need more batteries. In any case, make sure to use an MPPT battery charger to maximize your charging.

      How many batteries can be connected under 1 portable solar panel? Example 100 watt or 200 watt

  19. John says

    first ty tower your info on only 13.2 volts will ruin your batteries quicker!!!a fully charged battery on a charger will be between 13.5 and 14.1 volts depending on size of the battery and the charger. The batteries need to gas. The bubbles mix the acid back up if you don’t only part of the plate will be working (with strong acid)and it will wear down quicker. A good automatic charger or charge controller will do this automatically!!! Buy a 3 stage automatic charger or a MPPT charge controller. The battery manufacturer has guide lines for what voltage to charge with. ie bulk/absorption charge, float charge and equalize. Use them!!! some manufacturers will not warranty a battery that is not charged correctly. they can tell how it was charged by the condition of the plates when they inspect them (if their is uneven wear on the plates it means it was not charged right, then the warranty is void and then you are out a lot of money )

    you can save a lot of money doing it yourself or waste a lot too!! most sites that sell solar will help you in you design and selection of components. Some will even set up all the settings on the charge controller and the inverter/charger if you buy it all from them so then its plug and play even with a bigger system!!! With batteries, bigger is better but make sure you have enough amps from your solar and charger to charge it properly . Proper charge current ie amps should be 5 to 10 percent of the amp hour rating of the battery bank for the proper and efficient charging conditions.

    the systems I have set up they use 30 percent max of the battery charge in 24 hrs. Most though are designed for more like 20 percent depends on how much they want to spend!!!! The reason for this is battery life and having 2 days of power without a charging.

  20. Chris says

    Have you heard about or know anything about the patriot power generator it is solar also Thanks

    Ps iam trying to figure out a way to run my camper

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