Considering upgrading your RV power system? How about adding a little solar? In this article, I’ll share how I was able to successfully upgrade our power system with lithium batteries, a new converter & inverter, as well as a basic solar panel installation. I’ll also list all of the component costs, and my thoughts on the performance of the new system so far.
A few months ago, we were at a location for a project and found ourselves with little to no power for a few weeks. We quickly tired of going to the gas station every single day to get gas for our on-board generator. This prompted some serious research into a completely new electric system including lithium batteries, more powerful inverter/charger, new power converter, and a solar set-up.
After serious searching, we decided to go with Battle Born Batteries as our source for all of our components. As you will see below, we were very impressed with the customer friendliness of Battle Born Batteries as well as the assistance from the RV community. They were helpful from the initial design of our system based on our needs and support through the installation.
Because I’m also trying to learn more about my RV and its systems, I thought a DIY project would be the way to go.
Electricity is not something I was very familiar with, but I enjoy a challenge and enjoy learning. Although initially intimidating, this ended up not being a difficult project. I took my time and was sure to read the manuals as I went to each component. There also are some RVers out there that are very good at this stuff and are also very helpful. Dan from Always on Liberty, Justin from Opting out of Normal, and Gary from Pau Hana Travels were very helpful and really gave me the confidence to get this started.
In addition the folks at Battle Born Batteries were very responsive to all my questions during the process. Some companies wash their hands of you once the sale is done, but Battle Born Batteries is not like that and were very quick to help when I had a question. Overall, I would rate this as entirely possible for anyone to tackle as a DIY project.
I completed the upgrade in 3 parts:
Part I consisted of replacing our 2 original lead acid batteries with 4 lithium batteries for increased capacity. I also replaced the original converter.
In Part II, I installed a new inverter/charger and battery monitor.
Finally, in Part III I added solar panels and a solar charge controller.
UPDATE: About a year after this post, we purchased a new RV that was “solar ready.” Read here for the upgrade I made to that system.
I have nothing but good things to say about the performance of the products so far. I did have to reset the battery monitor after installing the solar because it was stuck on 62% even though the batteries were fully charged. It has worked perfectly ever since. I also had a bad fuse that took some troubleshooting. It ended up being my fault and was not any of the core products, but was a fuse I installed between the solar panels and the charge controller.
As far as testing the system components, I have run the batteries without any additional power and was impressed with the performance. They have no problem maintaining a steady 13.2 volts for many hours. I have used the inverter/charger with the batteries and they charge incredibly fast. I have used only the solar panels, which let me know that I need to at least triple my solar to maintain the batteries with how I use them. 200 watts is not enough juice to keep the batteries charged with our usage. I also used the converter and it performed as expected. After running the system for a few weeks, I really think the entire subject of performance comes down to how well the batteries are designed and perform. They really are the key to a successful system, in my opinion.
Let’s now talk about the costs. We will admit up front that it was not what we consider an inexpensive project. All of the components, except the solar panels, were purchased from Battle Born Batteries. Although I did not have them do it because I wanted to do a total DIY install, if you purchase the main components from them, they can do all of the programming so it becomes a plug and play system and saves some time and costs during the installation.
Costs of the Major Components
|Battle Born BB10012’s LiFePO4 Batteries (4)||$3,796|
|3000 Watt Victron Inverter/Charger||$1,400|
|150/85 Victron Smart Solar Charge Controller||$ 800|
|Victron BMV712 Battery Monitor||$ 220|
|Progressive Dynamics Inc 9180LV Converter||$ 351|
|Battery Guard Autoselect||$ 175|
|Victron Mk3 to USB to program the inverter||$ 81|
|HQST Slim Design 100 Watt Solar Panels (2)*||$ 218|
|Major Components Total||$7,041|
*In our new RV, we went with Zamp solar instead of the panels listed above. Click here to learn more about that project.
Costs of the Miscellaneous Items
Besides the major components, there are other things I had to purchase in order to complete the installation.
|Renogy Pair of 30Ft 10AWG Solar Cable||$ 38|
|Renogy MC4 Assembly/Disassembly Tool||$ 7|
|Dewhel Battery Switches Battery Disconnect Isolator||$ 18|
|Dicor White Non-Sag Roof Lap Sealant||$ 12|
|Pico Battery Cable 3/8″ Lug||$ 21|
|Panel Mounting Brackets w/ Nuts & Bolts||$ 115|
|Ultra-Flexible Car Battery/Welding Cable-4/0 Ga||$ 81|
|Premium Extra Flexible Cable 600V-4 Gauge||$ 40|
|Other miscellaneous items||$ 249|
|Miscellaneous Items Total||$ 520|
These items consisted of all of the wiring, screws, nuts, bolts. Basically everything needed to get the components connected and mounted on the RV. Depending on what parts and pieces you have already, this miscellaneous cost may be a little more or a little less.
This brings the Grand Total for the install to right at $7,561. If I add the additional 600 watts of panels that I need to get it where I want it, the total will be around $8,257. This is a large expense by our definition, but there is some scalability as you will read below. This means the overall expense can be broken-up over time as it becomes affordable.
Is it worth it?
I can definitely say that the batteries and inverter upgrades were 100% worth it. We took our RV in for service and did not worry about it sitting in a bay for 6 or 7 hours because we knew the batteries and inverter would keep our refrigerator running. In fact, the batteries did not go below 70% during that time. We would not have been able to do that with our factory installed batteries and inverter. This is not a knock on the factory equipment, it is just that they are not designed to be compatible with that type of use.
I definitely recommend updating the batteries and inverter for peace of mind. I think the solar will end up being extremely beneficial for us when we make stops in areas without hook-ups and for a few days of boondocking. We never expect to go several days or weeks without power, so not going overboard in building an elaborate system was important to us. I think this system is a nice balance, giving us flexibility without totally wiping out our maintenance budget.
The other major benefit that we are passionate about is that solar is an environmentally friendly source of electricity. Even though we are at a campground with full service, I am using the solar because I can use a little less of the planet-destroying type of power that is connected to the pedestal at the RV park. We want all of the beautiful scenery we are experiencing to be around for future generations. Solar power is one small way to protect the environment from destruction. The next thing that needs to be made in to a consumer product is an affordable, alternative-powered vehicle that can pull the fifth wheel!
So, if you are considering going through the upgrade, but do not have the money to do all of this, start with Battle Born batteries and an inverter/charger. These will provide you with a much more reliable 12-volt power source. Then, upgrade further to solar when you have more money to invest. The entire set-up is scalable, which gives the flexibility of scaling up everything from the number of batteries to adding solar when it is affordable and makes sense for you travel style and budget. Ending-up with a complete solar system will provide the ability to stay unplugged for extended periods of time and is an environmentally friendly source of power.
Additionally, try and tackle it as a DIY project. You can always pay someone if you get stuck, but I am confident you will get through it. Succeeding provides a great sense of accomplishment and you will end up knowing more about your RV and how it works.
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