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Solar - roof system

With a solar system, RVers can camp for free

We started full-time RVing six years ago from South Florida.  We did not know what to expect other then we would be living in our fifth wheel RV full-time driving from campgrounds to campgrounds and touring the most beautiful places on the planet.

Electricity was never a concern, or even a thought, at that point.  I just assumed that we would always be plugged into shore power just as if we were living in our house.

However, once I realized that sometimes campgrounds are not always an option when traveling, we started overnighting in Walmart parking lots as we would travel from one place to another.  Our two 12-volt DC batteries would do fine until the one night we camped in a Walmart in northern Florida where we had to run our furnace to keep warm.

Our batteries were down to about 50 percent at 11 p.m. when we went to sleep.  At around 3:30 a.m., I was awakened by the camper shaking violently back and forth.  I naturally got up to see what was happening and discovered that it was 40 degrees in the RV.  The shivering of the RV was caused by my wife and children’s shivering and chattering teeth.

I attempted to turn on the furnace when I discovered that our batteries were dead!  None of the lights, refrigerator, or furnace would run.  I covered everyone up nice and tight and we made it through the night.

The next day, I went to our local hardware store and purchased a generator.  I thought this would ultimately solve our problems with our batteries being dead when not being plugged into shore power. This did help, but we were lacking on battery amp hours. I could charge those batteries to 90 percent, turn off the generator and by 4 a.m., the batteries were dead again.

At this point, I went out and purchased four 6-volt golf cart batteries and wired them in series parallel.  This setup would last us through the night and we were satisfied with that.

After using the system this way for about a year, we got the idea to spend five nights dry camping in Quartzsite, Ariz., while attending the annual RV show held their each winter.  We were going to be off grid for the first time for so many nights.

At this point, I was introduced to solar power. I purchased my first two Kyocera 80-watt solar panels, a cheap solar charge controller, wiring, and a small inverter.

I had planned on powering our 110-volt residential refrigerator with that system and charging our batteries.  I remember telling a solar expert what I was going to do, and he told me that was not enough solar power to accomplish what we were trying to do.

Being on a budget, and not totally believing the experts, I purchased the system anyway.  This system did work great, but it would not keep my batteries charged enough to make it through the night.  I would have to run the generator for four hours every night and we’d still wake up to batteries that were about 25 percent full.

We lived with this system for about three years until we decided as a family that we wanted to do a lot more boondocking and less campground camping.  We wanted to save money and park in the most amazing places on the planet.

Boondocking opens up so many opportunities as you can get the best views, places for the kids to run and be loud without campground owners and other guests getting upset. We love being remote and alone so we have time to enjoy the landscape around us.

But, in order to accomplish this, I knew that we needed a much larger solar setup.  I started researching the best hardware options and configurations available for RVers. Here’s what I settled on:

  • Four 260-watt Canadian solar panels wired in series parallel
  • Midnight Solar breaker box and breakers
  • 2 gauge wire from roof to batteries and solar controller
  • Morningstar TriStar MPPT 60 solar controller
  • Six Fullriver 105-amp hour 12-volt AGM batteries
  • Xantrex PROsign 2.0 2,000-watt inverter wired with 2/0 wire
  • Sirus Solar DS-201 network enabled monitor

With this system, we are able to run two residential refrigerators, all the electrical outlets in the RV, charge our batteries, and make it through the night in any environment.

The item’s we cannot run include our air conditioners, electric heaters and central vacuum. These items have too much of a load and either our batteries would drain too quickly or the inverter would overload and shut off to prevent damage.

If we need to run these items, we can run our generator. We also substitute the solar with the generator on cloudy days where the sun is not producing enough electricity to charge our batteries.

Solar - TristarAfter owning a Morningstar TriStar MPPT 60 solar controller for about a year now, the one thing that the device is lacking from the controller is reporting and monitoring.  Yes, the Morningstar has a built in webserver and does have reporting features but it is very hard to get any useable reports and graphs from the device.

The Morningstar has two ways to communicate with it.  You can connect to it by RS232 serial connectors or you can use the built in local area network adapter.

Most computers today do not have RS232 serial ports on them, so you will need a serial to USB device to connect to the unit, if you choose this method.  LAN is much easier, but you will need a Windows computer with the MSView software that you can download from Morningstar’s website.

The software is not supported on any other platform but Windows operating systems. If you are not familiar with the software, you will find it very difficult to configure and run reports, graphs, and other data metrics that you may want.

Solar - DS 201In order to combat this issue, I found a third party add-on piece.  The Sirus Solar DS-201 Network Enabled Monitor.  Sirus Solar also has a DS-202 model for those using two Morningstar solar controllers.  This device connects to the RS232 serial port on the Morningstar solar controller, an AC adapter or DC hardwire connection for power, and an Ethernet cable for network communication.

Setup of the monitor is quick and simple. After you have all the wires connected, you go to a computer or mobile device to access the webserver.  You will find the setup tab where you then can either choose DHCP or static IP addressing, serial port configuration, device user name and password setup, time and time zone/NTP configuration, and email setup for system reports and alerts that can be delivered to your inbox.

Solar - Sirus 1a

After your configuration is complete, you can start having fun with the DS-201.  As you can see from the image above, you have all your important views on the “main” tab.  This includes battery charge status, solar charging amps, amp hours and kilowatt hours. It even reports as to how much avoided CO2 emissions you did not generate due to using your solar system for charging batteries.

You’ll even see other important status notices regarding your solar controller and a graph overview of kilowatt-hours and emissions avoided.  All this data is reported to you in real-time as well as the “monitor” tab discussed below.

Solar - Sirus 1

If you click on the “monitor” tab, a small meter comes up with battery charge status, battery volts, battery temp, array volts and charge amps.  This shows the amps going into your batteries from your solar controller.  You also have total watt-hours for the day, amps hours, controller state, and if the controller has any faults going on.

Solar - Sirus

In my opinion, the strongest feature that the Sirus DS-201 offers is the graphing capability. This was my biggest complaint with the Morningstar MSView software and Sirus Solar has nailed this!

As you can see from the screen capture below, you get a seven-day to five-year overview all in one spot with an easy to understand output.  You get battery status, array current and avoided emissions on one simple page.

For us, installing a solar system has given us the freedom to take RVing to a whole new level — off grid and completely away from crowds and expensive campgrounds.

About Chris Travaglino

Christopher Travaglino is a full-time RVer and founder of Fulltime Families, a support group for RVers with school age children. He and his wife, Kimberly, have four children and travel the country in a fifth wheel. Christopher is a web developer by trade and also works as a health coach for Take Shape For Life. He can be reached at

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