Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Camping Season Has Begun!

So we're through the May long weekend and we survived!  The weather wasn't always the best but we managed to have plenty of fun.

We arrived on Thursday, May 18, as the park allows in seasonal campers the day before official opening to spread out the load a bit.  After check-in we headed to our site, #2 in Bison Hollow (the unpowered campground at Sask Landing).  It took a bit of time to get level, but eventually we were set up.  In the photo below you can see the view from our site (before the wind screens went up).  We're very close to Lake Diefenbaker!  It's a beautiful site, very close to water supply and bathrooms, too.



There were a few steps to get the solar system setup again.  Due to how it's arranged, it meant removing the batteries from the box, unloading and placing the box, then replacing the batteries.  With each battery weighing more than 60 pounds, the box is too heavy to lift with four batteries in it.  But once that task was done, it was just a matter of running the cables out to their various locations for reattachment.  That would be the inverter ground wire, 12-volt lines, RV AC power cable, and of course the panel lines.



Of course the weather can never be perfect on our first weekend camping and it wasn't long before we had to set up our wind screens.  We're more sheltered from wind from the west and northwest, but we ended up with strong winds from the south and southwest this time, so you can see those screens in place in the photo above.

But other than the wind, we love our site!  As you saw above, it has a beautiful view, is so close to the water for the kids to play on the beach or to carry our kayaks down for some paddling.  And it's also very nicely shaded to protect both us and our trailer from summer heat!  Although we have plenty of solar power, it's not enough for running the air conditioner so I'm hoping we can have enough shade to avoid running a generator.



All that shade did present somewhat of a problem for our solar panels.  After the first day I realised I had to move them further ahead of the trailer.  When I first set them into place, they were in a perfect position, for that time of about 1:30pm!  What I didn't realise was that both earlier and later, two trees shaded them a lot.  Our charge rate can be cut in half with the shading we had. I ended up moving them forward of the trailer another few feet.  We still encounter some shading, but not nearly as much.  It's not usually too much trouble to be fully charged by noon if we get a sunny day.

We're not pushing the system very hard.  It's running the freezer full time powering the console on the fridge which is using propane for cooling.  Other incidentals are charging phones and laptops, a decorative light with a CFL bulb (the green light hanging over the site) in the evenings and running the 19" TV and DVD player one night.  We've run the microwave for a minute one day to defrost hotdog buns, and Carla has used her hair dryer a couple of times.  And a couple of cold mornings (one night close to 0C/32F!) had us run the furnace.  It's all working great!


Sunday, May 07, 2017

Running On Solar Power

In my last post I described activating our solar system.  Since then we've been testing it in the yard.  How has it been going?  Pretty good I'd say!  Sure, it's running the simple things.  The clock radio is on, the radio works and the LED interior lights are shining!  But that's not really putting a load on the batteries and inverter.  So what have we tried?

The first item we turned on was the small apartment freezer.  This is a four drawer unit, and with a family of five we appreciate having that extra freezer space in the trailer!


This freezer, a Danby model, pulls five to six amps of energy while running.  Obviously it will run more often when it's hot out.  On cool days we've seen it take about 5% of battery overnight (when the panels aren't providing charge) and as much as 10% when it's very warm (a 29C day).

One day we decided to cook supper using solar power!  Carla put together a slow cooker recipe with chicken breasts in a mushroom sauce and alongside she cooked some rice in an electric rice steamer.


We didn't run them at the same time.  When the slow cooker was done Carla shut it off and turned on the rice steamer.  It was a sunny day so we had plenty of energy coming in to run the cookers, using about 8-10 amps of power, but with all the sun, by the time we ate, the batteries were only down to about 96%.  And it was back to 100% a bit later!

We enjoyed a delicious supper under the awning outside!



Today we gave the ice maker a try.  It's an Igloo branded machine, medium sized, and holds about 2.3 quarts of water.  When we first plugged it in, it hit 30 amps on startup but settled down to about 9 amps when running.  We let it run for a couple of hours and it used 2% of the battery capacity.  This was evening and very cloudy and raining a bit so we weren't getting any more charge at the time, but the results were good.


And here's the solid results...


We made enough to fill two medium freezer ziploc bags to store in the freezer. Great for using in the margarita machine!

Further testing will be coming up this week, such as the fridge.  It will run on propane but the control panel runs on 12-volt power.  I might try it on the inverter, just to see what will happen.  

It's great fun to watch the energy put to use, then be replenished by the sun!  We roll out to Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park in 11 days, when the system is put to work for real!


Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Road to Solar, Almost There!

Well, it's been a while since my last report, but since then I've been slowly building up our solar system in preparation for camping season.

Since I last posted, I purchased the last couple of big items.  SaskBattery in Regina had a sale on both solar panels and 6V golf cart batteries.  These batteries are designed with a large storage capacity and the ability to be discharged and recharged often.  I bought two 235 watt panels and 4 of the golf cart batteries, each 225 amp-hours capacity.


Here's how the batteries are arranged in the old truck tool box I'm using to contain the system.  The batteries are hooked up with what's called "series-parallel".  Each pair of batteries is hooked up in series (positive-negative).  That sums the volts of the pair, so 6V becomes 12V.  Then the pairs of connected in parallel so (pos-pos, neg-neg) so that we sum the amps to 450amp-hours.  I have a divider wall beside them as we don't want battery gases getting into the electronics in the charging compartment.

Next up is the board with all the charging parts...



In the centre of the board, surrounded by the various switches and fuses, is the charge controller.  It takes the power from the 36 volt panels and converts it to 12 volts for the batteries.  This conversion also increases the amps of charge.




I bought bulk cable and terminal ends from Great West Auto Electric in Swift Current and then did my own cutting and crimping.  The crimping tool I bought off Amazon.  It's a simple tool that uses a hammer to exert enough force to crimp the end on the wire.  It worked great for all the different sizes of wire I used, from 8AWG all the way up to the big 2/0 battery cable.  The result...



So once everything is wired up, I arranged it all nicely in the box.  Charging on the back wall, inverter in the bottom, and the batteries to the right of course.  Wire sizes as follows, 6 guage from panel junction box, to the charge controller, (through the red switch). 4 guage from the controller to the batteries, 2/0 through the batteries, and 2 guage to the inverter and the trailer 12V system.



So finally came the day to hook up the panels and try it out.   I laid out the panels and run the wires through the junction box, wiring the panels in parallel.  That maintains their 30 volts but doubles the current out to 15.6 amps fed to the charge controller.



So, did it work?  Let's check the battery monitor...


Above left we can see that we're getting 24.3 amps of charge, and we see on the right that it pushed the voltage up to 14 volts to speed the charging.  And it wasn't long before we saw this...



Yes, we're 100% charged!  We haven't tested too much yet, but Carla did test her 1200 watt hair dryer and it worked like a charm on power through the inverter.  It pulled 70 amps but we have plenty of stored energy and the inverter, which only showed about 900 watts while the dryer was running, is sized to run that kind of load, so no worries!


And now we wait for camping season!  Considering we have snow in the forecast this third week of April, I'd say it can't come soon enough!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Road to Solar, Chapter 4

So in the past couple of week...I think a week, though it seems like much longer...I've received a few more packages in the mail!  It feels like Christmas all over again!

So let's take a look at few items.


The above photo was from a couple of shipments.  The pair of items in the upper left come from Mouser Electronics.  This is a combiner block and a weatherproof box to house it.  Solar panel wires will go into one end of it to be combined into a pair of heavy wires coming out.  Those wires go to the next item to the upper right, which came from We Go Solar.  That is a Morningstar Tristar MPPT 45-amp charge controller.  This device takes the power from the charge controller and uses it to charge the batteries connected to the system.  Morningstar makes 30-amp and 60-amp charge controllers in this series but the 45-amp unit is sized closer to what I'm expecting from the panels I plan to install.

The bottom of the photo shows a Bogart Engineering TM-2030 monitor and shunt.  In the system I plan to install, all the negative cables will be attached to the shunt and the monitor as well.  It then measures the current going into and out of the batteries and allows the user to track performance of the system.  One can select a number of different things to display: amps in, amps out, battery voltage or percent of charge.  This monitor will be very handy!

And as Columbo says, oh, just one more thing...(for today)...


This is the last link in the chain of my solar system, a GoPower 1500-watt pure sine wave inverter, ordered from Amazon.  It will take the 12-volt power from the batteries and convert it to regular household AC power.  While a number of items in an RV are 12-volt powered, such as the water pump and lights, some of the items we prefer to bring to our seasonal site, such as the TV and satellite receiver, require 120-volt power.  This GoPower inverter, like the charge controller, is sized for our needs.  One can buy bigger or smaller inverters as well.  I chose it after a lot of research, including seeing some videos of the internal parts on YouTube, where it appeared to use some heavy-duty materials inside.

In a couple of days Carla and I plan to head into Regina and visit SaskBattery.  They have a sale this weekend that includes 220 amp-hour 6V batteries and 235-watt solar panels.  That's the last of the major parts I need for this system.  Hopefully I can do a write-up on those items next week!

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

The Road to Solar, Chapter 3

Well, the wind is howling outside today, and the windchill is close to -30C.  It's a good time to think about camping, right?

Anyway, yesterday I received my first package of items for our solar project.  Exciting stuff!


It doesn't look like much, does it?  But it's all important as this is all safety equipment.  So let's tour around the photo...

In the upper left is a 300 amp T-type fuse and it's block.  This massive fuse is a fast-blow type that will be on the positive line between the batteries and inverter.  It's physically big to take the massive current from the four batteries and to hook up the (likely) 2/0 welding cable I'll be using on that line.  The posts are 3/8" on the block.

Upper right is a 175 amp ANL fuse.  It's a little smaller and will be located on the positive line between the panels and the charge controller.  There is less current and smaller lines here, and not as much need for fast-blow capability.  The posts on this block are 5/16".

On the lower left is a 50 amp resettable circuit breaker.  This will go on the positive line between the charge controller and the batteries.  The posts on here are 1/4".

Lastly, on the lower right is a battery switch.  In this case it will actually be used between the solar panels and the charge controller to shut off power if I need to service something in the system.

All of these items are Blue Sea Systems products and I purchased them from Marine Outfitters of Kingston, ON.  They have an awesome electrical section on their website with almost any product one needs for something like this.

I don't need much more for hardware.   I have a power distribution block on the way from Mouser Electronics to combine the wires from the panels.  I may yet need to get a power distribution post for all the positive connections to meet in the circuit.  Of course, I'll also need a bunch of cable and wire.  I'll sort that out when I get all the big items and can lay them out to plan lengths.

So, it's starting to come together!

Monday, March 06, 2017

The Road to Solar, Chapter 2

Good evening!  This blog post is going to be an attempt to detail the more technical information regarding our choices in attempting to set up a solar system.

So once we decided we were going to try to run some kind of solar system in Bison Hollow campground, we thought about what was out there for products.  We saw a 140-watt portable panel and a 1000-watt inverter in the Canadian Tire flyer.  Reading the reviews on their web site didn't really give me a lot of confidence in the products so I kept doing more research.  I'm sure glad I did!

The first web site I read, and maybe the most eye-opening, was HandyBob's Blog.  Bob, along with his wife and dog, live in their RV full-time and live almost completely without plugging in.  He installed his own solar system, and seems to do custom installs as a side business.  He's learned a lot a long the way, and developed some strong opinions about the industry.  But even if one doesn't necessarily agree with his commentary, it gave me a lot to think about and definitely helped me develop the system I'm working on putting together now.

What we did next was to find out how much energy we might use in a day.  What devices and appliances would be be running and for how long?  Most of them have labels with power consumption data, so we would check that and estimate time of usage.  A few items we looked online for information if we couldn't find it locally.  For example, while an RV refridgerator can run on propane, the front panel that controls it runs on 12V power.  Our fridge manual didn't have that sort of info in it.  By the way, it's still a bit of a power-hog even when running on propane!  The goal of all this is to come up with a total number of amp-hours consumed in a day.  This will determine the size of the battery bank and how many watts of solar panel we will need to recharge them.  Morning coffee, lighting, phone charging, we thought of it all.

So the number we came up with was just under 100 amp-hours, so we're using 100 as our base number.  Now that is just average daily use and doesn't take into account higher-power items we might have used occasionally, such as a slow-cooker or electric frying pan.  We knew from the start Carla's 1875-watt hair dryer would be out of the question.  Same with running air conditioning.  That would be a generator-only item.  But with some reading, I learned that we don't want to use our batteries any more than 50% discharge, as that's hard on them, and if we allow for some heavier usage now and then we decided to go for a 440 amp-hour battery bank.  It's a funny-looking number but it's because we're going to purchase four 6-volt golf-cart deep-cycle batteries and the most common type comes in 220ah size.  Two batteries will be wired in series to get 12-volts, and then those pairs will be wired in parallel to double the amp-hours.

The panel question took some thought as well.  12-volt panels (32 cell) or 24-volt panels (60-cell)?  Monocrystaline or polycrystaline?  This decision was connected directly to the choice of charge controller as well, so I'll talk about both items here.  There are two different technologies used in charge controllers.  Some use an older technology called Pulse-width modulation, or PWM.  The other kind is Maximum power point tracking, or MPPT.  PWM can only use the lower-voltage panels as they can't make use of the extra voltage or the 60-cell panels.  They would be fine in a small system, but for what we want to do, we figured the MPPT controller would be more effective as the 60-cell mono panels with an MPPT controller can supply more voltage earlier in the day and in low-light conditions enabling use to get charged up faster.  On the one hand, these panels are cheaper per watt than the smaller panels, but MPPT controllers are more expensive.    This is where more math came into the decision.  How long would it take to replace the 100 amps with a certain wattage of panel?  I'm looking at installing about 470-watts (2x235) so 470 watts divided about 12.2 volts in a discharged battery gives a amperage of 38.5.   That's what the charge controller would be putting out.  That means a less expensive 30-amp controller would not be optimum.   Something to consider.  Anyway, at that rate, we're charged up in three hours easily, keeping in mind that's a theoretical number as it will change with sun angle.  But I think it's safe to say this amount of panel would be adequate.  I'd expect to be charged by early afternoon and maintain full charge until evening.

So what have we actually chosen for equipment?  For panels and batteries we're waiting to attend a sale at SaskBattery later in March.  They have batteries for 99$ each and the panels for $250.  We'll probably purchase there as those two items would have killer shipping prices if we bought elsewhere online.  For a charge controller I chose a Morningstar Tristar 45-amp charge controller.  This will take the charge from the panels and then adjust it as needed to charge the batteries.   It's a very highly regarded controller.   For an inverter I've chosen Go Power 1500-watt Pure Sine Wave inverter to take the 12V power and convert it to house power.  I watched a YouTube video regarding this inverter and really liked how well it appeared to be built inside.  Big heat sink and heavy cabling.  Finally I also purchased Bogart Engineering Battery Monitor.  This is another highly rated product and an important part of the system as it's essential to know what's going into and out of the batteries.

Tomorrow I'll write a bit about the rest of the system.   The big parts of the system don't work to well without the little bits like switches, fuses and wires!  I got a shipment in the mail today with some of that so I'll show you some of it, too.

By the way, if anyone has any questions, don't hesitate to ask.  I haven't really provided all the sites and equipment I studied to get to this point.  I'd rather not overwhelm the reader right away!  But if anyone is interested I'll do what I can to help.


The Road to Solar Power, Chapter 1

Good morning!  And so here it is, the main reason I've revived our old blog!  Really, I probably could have written about other things before now but this is a topic perhaps a little more helpful for others.  So here it is!

This whole story gets started with our plan to book a seasonal campsite at Saskatchewan Landing Provincial Park.  SaskParks takes applications in January and then holds a draw in each provincial park in early February to assign the sites.  We had a powered site in 2016 and assumed we would do the same this year.  Much to our surprise, Saskatchewan Landing park decided they would not offer powered sites in 2017!  They had removed Nighthawk campground from the seasonal draw, and only offered sites in Bison Hollow, the unpowered campground.

So...what to do?  Carla and I weigh the options.  Unpowered seasonal camping fees are $1100.  That covers camping from the May long weekend through to the end of September.  Another option would be to apply to another park with powered seasonal camping.  Powered seasonal fees are $2100.  The third option is paying the full daily rate for powered camping.  That is $30 per night.  We quickly dismissed going elsewhere.  We love the Landing and we have a lot of friends that camp there too.  And it didn't take long to dismiss paying the nightly rate as that would either quickly approach $4000 for the full summer, or we would have to cut back a lot on our camping experience.   Bison Hollow, here we come!

To be honest, it wasn't a super-hard decision.  Carla has a coworker friend who has camped in Bison Hollow before and loved that part of the park.  It is close to the water of Lake Diefenbaker, and not far from the main beach and playground area.  Our site last year was nice but somewhat far from most of the fun areas.  So we got our application in and started planning how we would manage unpowered camping!

Our first ever application for seasonal camping was last year, and we got extremely lucky being first drawn and got our first choice of sites.  Our luck held this year, too, and we got our second choice of sites.  We're headed to site #2 this year!  It's going to have some nice morning sunshine, late afternoon shade, and it's close to washrooms and a water source.
SaskParks photo of Bison Hollow #2.  This is an older photo.  The firepit has been upgraded to the culvert style.  Lake on the left, washrooms and water source in back to right.

Anyway, that's Chapter 1 of the story, kind of how we got here.  My next post will be more technical, and go into detail of our solar power plans!

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Not Dead Yet

Well, I'm not sure I expected to be bringing this blog back from it's near-death experience.  But I realised it was so terribly out-dated, and we have something of an experiment or adventure in the works so I thought this might be a better place to write about it.  So a few minor changes here and there and the old blog is new again.

The old family photo that was up there to the right was from about 2009.  The boys have grown up so much since then, so a new photo was a requirement.  As you can tell, they are fine young men in the cadet program in Swift Current, SK.  Mitchell is a member of 605 Tarry Royal Canadian Air Cadet Squadron.  Matthew and Michael are members of 128 Prairie Schooner Navy League Cadet Corp.  And myself, David, I'm an officer with the Navy League as well!  Carla is a very tolerant and understanding cadet mom! 

The new name of this blog, The Road Most Travelled, comes directly from our cadet life.  A lot of miles are put on our vehicles travelling to cadet events.  We parade Wednesday nights, from the beginning of September into early June, but we also participate in extra training and fundraising activities on the majority of weekends as well.  Oh, did I mention it's a 50 minute drive to Swift Current?  So those miles pile up quick!

Anyway, I'll keep this short for now.  I just wanted to kick this thing back to life!  More to follow I hope!