Our Airstream now has full solar power!

Published December 5, 2016   Posted in How to Think

Our Airstream is flat out electric, literally. Without even plugging in. Our little 200 square foot home on wheels now possesses the ability to generate its own power and live entirely off grid.

Beautiful solar panels!  :)

Over the Thanksgiving break, my wife and I drove Charlie nearly 3,000 miles up to Oregon and back from our home base in Tucson, AZ. It was our first major drive with our truck (Clifford) and our Airstream (Charlie). The plan? Upgrade our battery system and install solar panels on our Airstream so we can spend extended periods of time out in the middle of freaking nowhere.

Somehow, we pulled it off without a hitch.

Okay, that is not entirely true – we do have a hitch, after all. It’s a Hensley, one of the safest hitches in the business, though not cheap. It kept the Airstream right in line behind us through 50 MPH sustained winds as we barreled south through California on our way back.

We blazed a trail through all kinds of rain and wind. In Oregon, it rained every single day except for the day that we arrived. It made me appreciate the fall weather here in beautiful sunny southern Arizona. But it also taught me something kinda cool: Even in cloudy weather, solar still works. Kinda.

Our new and improved solar-powered rig

After much discussion, we finally nailed down our system. We now have 500 watts of solar on top of our Airstream (five 100 watt solar panels). These panels feed our new AGM battery bank consisting of 440 Ah of juice (220 usable). We also had a 1000 watt pure sine inverter installed to electrify our outlets.

Wait, huh? Okay, unless you happen to have solar on your home, or are intimately familiar with RV living, those numbers might not mean anything to you. Understandable.

To make it easy, look at it this way: All RVs have traditional AC outlets (alternating current), similar to those that you would find in a traditional home. When your RV is plugged into power at your campsite, those outlets are “hot”, meaning they will deliver power to whatever is plugged into them. RVs also have 12v power fed directly from the RV’s batteries. This 12v power runs the ceiling lights and any monitoring systems available. Things you don’t plug in.

Again: RVs have two different power systems: 12v (DC) and 120v (AC). 12v comes from the RV’s batteries only. 120v comes from plugging the RV into a power source (like a campsite power pedestal).

Here’s the problem: We plan to “boon dock” as much as we can, which means we won’t have “shore power” – the ability to plug our Airstream into anything. Thus, our outlets won’t work because there is nothing to provide the power. No 120v. We can’t plug anything in, like computers, cell phones or…anything.

Until now…

How these components make stuff work

That is where our inverter comes into play. The inverter will “invert” 12v power from our battery bank into 120v and deliver it to the outlets. This means we CAN plug things into our outlets even while not hooked up to shore power. We could be out in the middle of nowhere and still charge our computers or cameras, as well as watch TV or stream Netflix (provided we have an Internet connection or TV reception).

Cool so far? To recap, we are now using our battery bank to power both our 12v stuff as well as every 120v outlet so we can plug stuff in. However, how do we keep our batteries charged up when we have no power source (like a campsite’s power pedestal) to plug the RV into?

Solar, baby! Okay, a generator could do this too (which we plan to buy as well), but solar is the primary mechanism we’ve chosen to keep our batteries charged. Solar takes the heat and energy from the sun and magically transforms that energy into something usable. Like power.

Our new solar panels on top of our Airstream will constantly charge the batteries when they need it. This means that the solar will charge the batteries while we use power from those batteries. If we use less power than the solar is providing, the batteries will charge up. If we use more power, the batteries will slowly decrease their charge.

To be clear: The outlets inside our Airstream do not care where the power is coming from. Whether from a campsite’s power pedestal, a generator or solar panels, the outlets only see power (or the lack thereof).

There are many more details involved (like amps, amp hours, watts, usable charge from batteries, etc), but I don’t want this article to become so mind-numbingly technical that you stop reading.

You still there? Awesome, thanks for sticking with me. You rock.

The trip

After my wife got out of work the Thursday before Thanksgiving, we left Tucson and traveled a couple hours north and crashed at my in-law’s place that night. Friday morning we left bright and early, hell-bent on making good time. We could not be late – this install was to take place the week of Thanksgiving, and we knew that any delays might leave us sitting in Oregon for days over the holiday weekend. We needed to be there by Monday morning.

The first driving day went very smoothly. We drove 535 miles (long day) and found a campsite in Bakersfield, CA. Nice enough place, equipped with showers and a hot tub, pool, laundry, etc. Saturday, we left and high-tailed it up to northern California and stayed at the Mount Shasta KOA. It was cold and rainy. Snow sprinkled throughout the campground. Coming from the 80s in Tucson, we weren’t used to this! But it was still cool – literally!

The next day, we made it to the shop in Springfield, Oregon (Eugene area). We camped overnight in their parking lot and met with the installation manager the next day to discuss our options. We told them to “maximize the number of panels“!

To our utter shock, we could have fit 800 watts of solar on top of our Airstream! That’s huge. Airstreams have a natural space inhibitor (the curves!), so we were pleasantly surprised at the amount of solar our Airstream could support.

We watched as they played little cardboard cutouts of solar panels on the Airstream’s roof, carefully situating them on either side of the skylight, TV antenna and exhaust fans. We could have completely covered the top in solar if we wanted to, but we ultimately decided that 800 watts of solar was overkill. Super cool, but totally overkill.

Once we decided that 500 watts was the right amount, we watched as they backed the Airstream into their shop and started work. This was all Monday. We left Monday afternoon to see a friend up in Corvallis, OR – about an hour north of Springfield.

We were late getting out because the installation took longer than expected. We finally got back into our Airstream at about 10:30pm the night before Thanksgiving. The installers worked long and hard that evening, and we rewarded them with a box of chocolate chip cookies. Cause, why not?

We love our new setup. Testing it is fun – it’s entertaining to plug things into wall outlets to see exactly how much power they take from our batteries. Our goal while we are still in our campsite is to figure out exactly how much we can do and still maintain enough charge in our batteries. We have the luxury of plugging into the campsite’s power pedestal if we get too low.

Of course, we definitely won’t have that luxury when we are out in the middle of nowhere. We will have a Honda 2000 generator, though, just in case of cloudy days.

Watch our adventure

We put together a couple of videos on our entire adventure for our YouTube channel. Check them out below.

Part 1: Getting up there and crashing in their parking lot

Part 2: Getting solar installed and making the trip back

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48 responses to “Our Airstream now has full solar power!”

  1. Nice to read about your setup! We have a small inverter we use for camping, although obviously in a different way than your RV. We plug it into a marine battery and voila – outlets! With power! My husband has some medical equipment he needs to use, and the inverter setup was the least expensive way to accommodate that.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Liz. Yup, those types of inverters work great too. In fact, those are the most flexible kinds, so long as you have your deep-cycle marine battery handy.

  2. Very cool write-up and video. It sounds like your almost there between this and 1 month of work. Have you decided where you will be boondocking first? What’s the maintenance look like for solar on an airstream?

    • Steve says:

      Hey FTF – our very first boon docking site might be up in southern Utah. Until then, we do have a campsite reserved here in Tucson with full hookups. We may try to boon dock a couple times around the area, but we have nothing definitive planned quite yet!

  3. Welcome to the solar club! I have officially owned panels on my home for a year now and it has been great. They’ve generated more power than my original estimates which helped us save a ton on our energy bills. Most monthly bills were actually $0 with a few in the summer were we used more energy than generated (running the AC).

    And yes, even in cloudy days they pull in some energy!

    All in all I couldn’t be happier with my decision. It is amazing how buying this panels will provide all the energy I will need for the next 25+ years! I look forward to hearing more how you like your panels and how they are working.

  4. That’s really cool! Amazing you won’t have to worry about power anywhere you go. I’m very interested in installing solar panels on my home sometime in the future. Glad to hear you had a good experience and everything worked out well!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, Go F Yourself. Like you, I’ve always been interested in solar power too, but the cost was the primary factor in not really doing anything about it…until now, where the convenience factor has overcome the cost! 🙂

  5. Miss Mazuma says:

    Awesome!! I love the idea of off grid living and love to see you guys actually accomplishing the steps to get there. I can’t wait to meet Charlie at FinCon!! I think may of us will be lined up for a tour. 🙂

  6. Great update, Steve. I applaud your wisdom is having “The Professionals” do the work. I’ve watched a few YouTube videos on solar installation by “Do It Yourselfers”, and felt uneasy about tackling it. You’ve motivated me to hire this out to professionals, when the time comes. I think I’ll avoid the mega-drive, tho. Aren’t there local folks who can do the work around the country? Any comments on how best to choose an installer? (We’ll be buying our 5th Wheel in the Spring, with plans to FIRE in 2018, perhaps something we should go ahead and pay the dealer to do when we but the RV?).

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Fritz. If the dealer will install them, I’d probably have them done there – because they will probably warranty their work. Then, you have somewhere to go if you start having issues with them in the future.

      There are solar installers in my area, but none that have installed panels on Airstreams before. AM Solar, the company that we chose up in Springfield, has done Airstream installs before and they come highly recommended on RV forums. That’s how we first found them – forums. It definitely was a haul to get up there, but it was fun, too. We had never taken a trip like that before, so it was cool to get “out there” with Charlie a little bit and explore the country with our house in tow! 🙂

  7. Mrs. Groovy says:

    15 years ago did you imagine living off of power that was “magically” created? What a plus to find out Charlie could support 800 watts. Not that you needed it, as you said, but that would give me extra confidence. Thanks for taking the time to break down and share all the specifics.

    • Steve says:

      Oh man…15 years ago, I would never have imagined that we’d be in the position that we are right now, ready to hit the road full time. And generating energy from the sun? Totally awesome. Thanks for your comment!

  8. Very cool Steve! I already watched the videos…but I do have one question. Why do this in Oregon?

    There *must* be someone in Arizona that could have done this for you! That’s a long drive…was it substantially cheaper to do this in Oregon?

    • Steve says:

      Hey Mr. Tako – yup, there are solar installers in Oregon. In fact, we also selected a guy about an hour north who could do the work. Ultimately, we traveled all the way to Oregon because these guys are one of the best RV solar installers in the business, and we wanted to get it done right. We were willing to foot the bill for the peace of mind that our system was put together by extremely competent people who actually care about the work that they do. Unfortunately, that’s tough to find these days!

      And the drive was fun. Long, but fun. It gave us an opportunity to finally get out and about with Charlie.

  9. Cool setup! That will make for some luxury camping out in the boonies.

  10. This is AWESOME. I think solar really is the future, and it’s amazing to see that Airstreams can be outfitted for renewable energy. How long would you guys want to be off the grid with your Airstream?

    My dad often goes hunting in the woods for days at a time, and he rigged a small solar charging system to power fans at night and to charge his phone. It is so, so useful, especially if you’re away from civilization. I also think it’s great to have in case of an emergency.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mrs. Picky Pincher. We plan to be off-grid for weeks at a time – though we may be forced into a campground from time to time as the weather requires. We’ll need to dump tanks and take on water, too, occasionally. And yup, solar is super duper useful. Amazing technology.

  11. Congrats on getting your solar power installed successfully! I have to say, I really enjoyed watching your videos. I could totally relate, as it reminded me of many of our cross country road trips with our trailer in tow. Gas stations, city traffic, and rough roads…oh my! We use a truck stop app to help us find gas stations we fit into – if nothing else, the reviews left by truck driver’s are totally entertaining. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Amanda! Yup, it was quite the experience, but glad that it all worked out okay in the end. We use the All Stays app to find places to stay and truck stops along the way. We’ll be focused on Loves, Pilots and Flying Js as we travel, that’s for sure…especially the ones that have RV lanes.

  12. Mrs. BITA says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this post, and I’m not disappointed. Cool stuff Steve. I’m curious about a few things (pardon my ignorance, I know next to nothing about solar):

    1. How hardy are the panels? If you were out in a hail storm would they be ok?
    2. Do you need to buy extra insurance coverage for the airstream to cover the panels in case of an accident?
    3. What is the expected life span of the battery bank? How often (or not) will it need to be replaced?

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mrs. BITA! Regarding your questions:

      1: Hardy. They’ve been tested in hail up to golf ball size I believe. People have scratched up their panels, though, by backing up into tree branches, so we’ll need to be extra careful to ensure that doesn’t happen. There is a piece of plexiglass-type stuff over each panel for protection.

      2: Honestly, we haven’t tackled this one yet. We do have insurance on the structure and a certain value for everything inside. We’ll need to find out the specifics about how our panels affect our insurance coverage.

      3: Several years, but it depends on how you treat them. These AGMs need very little maintenance, so they should be good for four or five years, at least, without them showing signs of deterioration. The idea is to never let them drain their voltage down below about 50% to maximize life expectancy.

  13. Awesome! We’re still in the process of researching an RV to purchase, but I’m very interested in the topic of solar. Seems GREAT – except for the costs, which appear to be dropping into reasonable ranges. I love that you pulled the trigger on this system.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Coach Brad. Yeah, solar isn’t cheap, but it sure is convenient. If you plan to spend a lot of time around campgrounds, then solar probably won’t be much of a benefit. But, if you do see yourselves getting out into nature a bit more outside of the comfortable bounds of campgrounds, then solar is just super convenient. Generators work too, but they are also loud and require gas. Boo!

  14. TJ says:

    I love it! I had no idea you could generate so much power from the top of an Airstream. The amount of power generated from an actual house rooftop must be huge….

  15. Tawcan says:

    That’s a great set up. Solar power will save you quite a bit of money in the long run and allow you to be self-sustainable.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for your comment, Tawcan. The self-sustainability of solar is definitely one of the primary reasons why we chose this route. The ability to generate our own power without the need to run a loud generator is just amazing. And convenient. And eco-friendly. It’s a win-win-win! 🙂

  16. Adam and Jane says:

    Congrats! How long can you live off the grid when all batteries are fully charged?


    • Steve says:

      Hi Adam and Jane – it really depends on how much we use inside the RV. With all batteries charged and without ANY power source (including solar), we could probably live a few days. This would require us to be extra careful with the electronics inside, though. No charging computers or cell phones, for example. But we could do it. With solar, however, it extends our sustainability almost indefinitely. Of course we’d need water and tank dumps every once in a while.

  17. You made your carbon footprint on the environment small by moving your family into an RV and now you just upped your game with Solar. Great post and very helpful

  18. Whoa! You two never cease to amaze me. Your spirit of adventure and resourcefulness are incredible. Loving the videos!

  19. This is so freaking cool! I always love hearing how people implement solar. A while back when I was researching the tiny house movement, I came across a few tiny house stories where people were trying to be more off the grid so they powered their house with solar. The cost was around $10,000-13,000. The setups would work good as long as they had a propane powered refrigerator and didn’t use AC too much.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Colin! Yup, that’s about the gist of it. We don’t plan to use AC much because we plan to “follow the weather” as much as we can. And we have two separate 40-pound propane tanks too to power the fridge and stove. 🙂

  20. So awesome! We don’t have much solar on the roof of our RV but we would like to add more. I do have a question, though, is there a reason you went so far away to get it done? I feel like Arizona would have some solar options but I could be wrong.

    • Steve says:

      Hey Michelle! Good question. There are options here in Arizona, yes, but the place we went to in Oregon specializes in solar for RVs, and they come highly recommended by a large segment of the RV community. Since this is such an important installation, we wanted experienced and reputable folks to do the work. Ultimately, we felt is was worth the trip. And it was fun, too. 🙂

  21. I once mounted two solar panels on my old VW van. I bought them used and they only worked for about 6 months, but they powered my Vitamix blender and my computer so I was happy. I don’t have the van anymore unfortunately, but I miss it everyday. This is Awesome Steve. Congrats on retirement and the solar life!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Millennial Money! Solar is a serious game-changer, especially if you can get the panels for a reasonable cost. It’s neat being out in the middle of nowhere but still generating power. 🙂

  22. […] lots and lots of windows. Basically, we have it all – only on a slightly smaller scale. Our solar panels that we just had installed will give us the ability to camp out in the middle of nowhere without […]

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