Monday, November 17, 2014

My “Skinnie” Solar System

I’ve added a new tab to my blog’s home page called “Skinnie Solar” which shows pictures and product links to the 300-watt MPPT rooftop bendable solar panel installation on my Skinnie Winnie’s roof.

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Before becoming a full-time RVer, my previous portable solar setup did a fine job whenever I used it (mostly summertime when days were longer), but I often found myself not going through the hassle of setting it up if I was just staying somewhere for a couple of days.

The portable system started out as just (2) 60-watt panels, which I soon realized was underpowered for my 200 amp-hour 6-volt AGM battery bank, so last winter I added a third panel to bring my total output to little better 180 watts. This did o.k., but still involved the hassle of setup/take-down, and the extra bulk of 3 panels were now starting to crowd my external storage bay.

So when I prepared to start full-timing this past summer, I knew I needed more power, and also knew I was now ready for a roof-mounted system.  But what kind of system? 

I could have easily just purchased another one or two 60-watt panels to add to my existing array, but after weighing my rig and discovering I was seriously overweight, I needed to reduce cargo weight any way I could.

Thus, the decision to go "skinnie" was made!

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There’s been a lot of buzz about these new-style semi-rigid bendable panels this past year for rooftop RV use, some installing them and singing their praises (such as Gone With The Wynns) , while others deciding against them on the roof and to only use them in “portable” mode instead (Technomadia).

Honestly, had my rig been able to handle the extra weight, I probably would have gone the same direction as Technomadia—using traditional panels on the roof and bendable panels on the ground to supplement if and when needed.  But since weight savings was so critical, and the price difference so negligible, I felt I had to give the skinnie panels a try.

And the result?

So far, I’ve been extremely impressed!  A few weeks ago, I had a brief opportunity to test my 300-watt Skinnie system (using Renogy panels & a Morningstar 15 amp MPPT controller) side-by-side with a recent 300-watt AMSolar system (using GS100 rigid panels, a Blue Sky 25 amp MPPT controller, and hard-wired to eliminate all the MC4 connectors).  I thought for sure the AMSolar system would dance circles around my system.  But surprise, surprise…. both systems were pumping the same amps at the same time (late morning) whether the sun was fully shining, or if it was hidden behind clouds!!  Needless to say, that was proof enough for me that the Skinnie system is performing well!

Is rooftop Skinnie Solar for everyone?

Probably not.  Watt for watt, it’s still cheaper to buy traditional solar panels, so if your rig can handle the weight, stick with the “tried and true.”  There also have been concerns raised by AMSolar and others about the long-term durable of these new bendable panels, particularly related to rooftop RV installations.   The jury might still out on some of those questions,  so if you must go Skinnie, and have a fiberglass or metal roof, I highly recommend mounting them with 3M Dual Lock with VHB backing (and avoid using glue or caulk).  This way, if anything might go wrong with a panel down the road, you can easily remove and send it back to the manufacturer for warranty replacement.

Only a few weeks after buying my panels this past summer, Renogy contacted me to advise me of a recall (the original run of panels had junction boxes that had neglected to be sealed for waterproofing before leaving the factory).  Renogy immediately sent me 3 new panels as well as return labels to ship my originals back to them.  I was pleased with their proactive & customer-focused attention (but even happier that I had not permanently installed the panels with glue or caulk—it would have been a major mess to remove them!).

Well then, is portable Skinnie Solar for everyone?

Absolutely!  Throw one across the inside of your RV windshield when you go to store your RV this winter—it will keep your batteries nicely charged.  Or buy one or two to use for car/tent/van or small trailer camping.  Lightweight and easy to stow.  Boating folks are finding lots of uses for these panels too (from powering simple trolling motors on fishing boats to recharging battery banks on yachts).  The uses for these lightweight, relatively affordable panels are practically endless.

Would I buy the same components again today?

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I already had the Morningstar MPPT controller & remote panel from my previously system.  The controller is tiny and fits perfectly into the small nook of my passenger door footwell.  But, I’ve since learned that many suggest just a basic PWM controller for smaller arrays such as mine (i.e. less than 400 watts).  So, if I were buying these components new today, I likely would go with the 25 amp Morningstar SunSaver Duo system.  A lower cost, higher powered controller with the same nice, simple remote display panel that I currently use.

Ah, the quiet delight of the dawn of another sunny day of solar-powered boondocking!

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8 comments:

  1. Great write up... I've linked to this post in our talking about the Renogy recall as well :) And awesome that they're performing so well.

    We so wanted flexible/bendable to work for us.. we'll continue testing them as a ground deploy system, and have 2 Renogy 100w panels in our Amazon basket to catch up to us to add to the testing against GoPower and GrapeSolar's flexible panels.

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    1. Boy, I just checked AMSolar's site today and see they now have the Grape bendables for just $249. I probably would have gone for those instead of the Renogy panels had they been that price this past summer! But I guess that's the cool thing about using Dual Lock and MC4's-- if something better comes along, I can just swap a panel out in a matter of minutes!

      Still, I drool over your 800 rooftop watts. Wish I had the roof space and cargo capacity for that!

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  2. I have been considering these panels for my camper, which is just an over sized camper shell. I like that they are so light weight. Now I have more to go on. Thanks.

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    1. Yeah, I think they'd be great for many of my T@B trailer friends too that have curvy small trailers and not much cargo capacity for heavy, bulky stuff.

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  3. I've heard in the past that people steal portable generators - especially at Quartzsite. This year I was told it's solar panels. I was glad mine are attached to my roof. People who have portable panels that they set out should keep an eye on them. :) Such a bummer, right? I don't know if you can somehow lock them to something, but maybe it's easy to just bring them inside if you leave the campsite. Just a FYI.

    I love the idea of the skinny panels. They weren't out when I got mine, but sure would have been something I would have looked at. :)

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    1. That's kind of a neat thing about these skinnie panels. Even if you set them out as a portable system and are concerned about theft, just lay them up on the roof for a while (with a rock or two to hold them down if it's windy). Super lightweight to carry up and down the rear ladder, and they're so thin, no one will likely notice that they're up there!

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