In this blog we explain why we bought a Renogy 200 watt solar suitcase, and how to decide if portable solar power is right for you. You can see a great summary in our video!
Although Kathy and I have camped almost exclusively in state, county, and private campgrounds, we know that some of the most beautiful campsites in the U.S. are free. Most of these are on state or federal land, often in remote locations with stunning views. Most allow two-weeks stays. But there’s a catch. No hookups!
No running water. No electricity. No sewer connections. This is affectionately called boondocking.
Now, in our RV we can carry 100 gallons of fresh water. We have a 40-gallon black tank (for toilet waste) and a 60-gallon gray tank (for all liquid waste from sinks and the shower). We can easily go a week without running out of water or filling up our waste tanks if we’re careful.
Our big limitation is electricity. We can only get electricity from one three sources:
- Shore Power – Plugging into an outside outlet
- Battery Power – We have two house batteries under our entry steps.
- Generator Power – We have a built-in generator that runs on gasoline
When we’re boondocking, our primary source of power is our house batteries. With battery power we CAN:
- Run our lights
- Run our furnace (it’s a gas furnace, but we need electric power to run the blowers)
- Run our refrigerator (the fridge can run on propane when we don’t have shore power, but it still needs some electricity for the thermostat controls)
- Run our water pump
- Cook on our propane stove
- Heat water with our propane water heater
- Make coffee on the stovetop using our French press or espresso pot.
If we can run it off of 12v DC battery power, we’re golden!
The only way we can use any appliances that plug into a regular 120v AC outlet, such as
- Washing machine
- Air conditioner
- Coffee Maker
- Electric Heater
- Hair Dryer
is to run our generator, which provides 120v AC throughout the coach.
How long can we live using just battery power?
We have two batteries that together provide up to 115 amp-hours of usable power. That means that if we were drawing just one amp of electricity, we could theoretically do that for 115 hours, or 10 amps for 11.5 hours.
Now, in our RV, if we are running the ceiling fans or the furnace, we’ve found that we use between 30 and 80 amp-hours of power a day (depending on weather conditions). So, our batteries can last from one to four days before they need charging.
We could extend our boondocking time by adding more batteries, but batteries are heavy, bulky, and expensive.
How can we charge the batteries when boondocking?
Option 1 – Run our generator.
It’s powerful and can charge our batteries in anywhere from one to five hours, depending on how low they are. And we can even run the AC or microwave at the same time!
- It’s loud. We came to this beautiful remote campsite for peace and quiet – and so did our neighbors.
- It’s expensive. It burns 2 gallons of gasoline an hour from our coach’s gas tank. With a full tank we can run the generator for about 26 hours before we burn through our 52 gallons of gas.
Option 2 – Solar power.
For RVers who boondock most or all of the time, the ideal solution is to install rooftop solar panels, upgrade their battery bank with high-end lithium ion batteries, and install a power inverter that allows ALL their appliances – even the 120 volt AC appliances like their TV and microwave – to run off their batteries.
But that kind of all-in solar power system is going to cost at least $5,000 – or maybe much more, depending on how much power you want/need to generate.
If you boondock a lot, it can be worth it. Instead of paying average fees of $25-$50 per night, you can pay for the entire system in only 100 to 200 nights.
We don’t boondock that much, at least not now. But when we occasionally do, we like to have enough solar power to extend the amount of time we can live off our batteries without running the generator.
For us, the solution is the Renogy 200-watt solar suitcase.
There are quite a few options out there for portable solar power. We chose the Renogy 200-watt solar suitcase because:
1. It’s powerful enough for our needs. Under ideal conditions our 200-watt solar system will pump 60 amp-hours of power into our batteries each day. For us that’s enough power to fully recharge the batteries on a day when we have moderate power consumption.
Notice I said “ideal conditions.” Ideal conditions are having at least 8 hours of direct sunlight on a bright, sunny day. How often will we experience ideal conditions? Almost never! A typical day will have a mix of sun and clouds, and even with no clouds the only way to keep direct sunlight on the panels is to move them as often as necessary to keep them facing the sun. So, we estimate that on an average day our panels will generate about 30 amp-hours – equivalent to our minimum daily usage.
Many manufacturers, including Renogy, make 100-watt solar suitcases, but we decided that a 100-watt system would not provide enough power to meet the needs of our motorhome.
The only way to know how much power you need to generate is to know how much power you use. The best way to learn that is by using an accurate battery monitoring system such as the Victron BMV-712 Battery Monitor that we install and review in this video.
How long can we live on just solar power with our 200-watt solar suitcase?
The answer is, it depends.
Let’s say we have ideal conditions. We have warm sunny days and cool nights, and we’re using our LED lights and a small 12-volt fan for just a few hours to keep ourselves comfortable. Using 30 amp-hours/day and generating 30 to 60 amp-hours a day, we could go forever.
More realistically, using 60 amp-hours/day with average conditions, having the solar panels may allow us to go as long as 4 days before we need to recharge the batteries using the generator.
(For a highly detailed discussion of how to determine your power needs and how to choose the best solar system to meet those needs, you can’t do any better than this explanation on CampAddict.com.)
In practice, we’ve found that if it’s cold enough to run the furnace night and day (and of course we can’t use our electric heaters because we don’t have 120-watt availability), it’s too cold for us to boondock with our current battery capacity, and time to find a campground where we can plug in to shore power!
2. It’s easy to use. The solar suitcase is literally “plug and play.” It comes with a built-in charge controller that monitors the state of charge of your batteries and regulates the amount of power it sends from the panels so that your batteries are not damaged by overcharging. To use the system you simply unfold the panels, point them toward the sun, plug in the provided cable, and attach it to your batteries using alligator clamps (just like jumper cables). The only thing you need to do is keep the panels clean and keep them pointing toward the sun.
3. It’s easy to store. Although the 200-watt panels are fairly large, and kind of heavy, they come with a nice carrying case which fits perfectly behind our sofa when not in use.
But the system does have a few liabilities:
1. Fuse. We had a problem with the fuse in our system blowing repeatedly. Renogy’s customer service was easy to reach and quickly diagnosed that we’d been sent a cable fused for their 100-watt panels. Since they are the same cables, all we needed to do was switch out the 10-amp fuse for a 20-amp fuse, and now everything works fine. Unfortunately, I have heard of others having the same problem, so while I give kudos for good tech support, I hope that Renogy solves their quality-control problem.
2. Cable. The other thing that is a shame is that the cord Renogy ships with the solar suitcase is way too short for most applications. At only 10 feet long, you have very little flexibility as to where you set up your solar panels. Since we like to park in the shade whenever possible while boondocking (so we don’t need to run our air conditioner as much), we had to buy a 30-foot extension cable so that we can (almost) always find a sunny spot within reach of our RV.
3. Cost. At the time of this writing, the cost for the Renogy 200-watt solar suitcase on Amazon is $549.97. That’s a big chunk of change, and a lot more than it would cost to buy the individual components of this system and build your own. But since this is our first foray into solar power, we were willing to pay the premium for plug-and-play. Their 100-watt system is $259.97, if that’s a better fit for you.
*Renogy 200-watt solar suitcase: https://amzn.to/3cT4CSp
*Renogy 100-watt solar suitcase: https://amzn.to/2KEx3HD
*Redgear 30-foot solar panel cable: https://amzn.to/359KBo1
Have you had any experiences using portable solar power? Do you have any further questions about our system? Please let us know in the comments below. We love hearing from you.
*When you buy any products using the links we provide to Amazon your cost is the same as if you connected to Amazon directly, but we receive a small commission on your purchase.