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Adding a Solar Panel To Your Camping Electrical System

April 15, 2021   |   By Brendan Seymour Adding a Solar Panel To Your Camping Electrical System - image 190214-HighCountry-Blowering_DJ-Resized-402-of-792 on https://www.4wdsupacentre.com.au/news

What options have you got for adding a camping solar panel to your existing camping 12V setup? And more importantly, what’s the correct way to do it? Let’s take a look at this often-asked question and the right way to use a solar panel to keep your battery charged while you’re camping. This is a must-read for all campers looking to take their camping experience to the next level!

Q: WHAT SHOULD I USE, MY DC/DC CHARGER’S SOLAR REGULATOR OR THE ONE IN-BUILT INTO THE PANEL?

A: Depends what the rest of your setup’s like. Generally speaking, if you’ve got a choice of both the panel’s own regulator and the one built into your DC/DC charger, then use the most modern, high tech regulator of the two. If it’s a PWM controller fitted to your solar panel then use the DC/DC charger, and vice-versa. However, should you want to bypass the panel’s own regulator, don’t ditch it permanently. Use switches to wire it up in a way that you can bypass the regular, or still choose to use it. That way, you’re not limiting the solar panel’s usefulness to your own vehicle, and your bum mates can borrow it too.

HARD-MOUNTING YOUR SOLAR PANEL FOR CAMPING
The other option you have is hardmounting your solar panel and permanently wiring it up. This can be as simple as pop riveting to your roofrack, or can be done with   set of drawer slides mounted to the underside of the roofrack. The ideal setup would still allow the camping solar panel to be tilted to chase the sun as the day progresses, via the use of hinges, but that’s where some good old fashioned Aussie ingenuity comes into play.

SOLAR POWER METERS
For about $50 or so, you can pick up trick little solar power meters that you simply fit inline with your solar panel, typically via the use of Anderson plugs. These take the guess-work out of solar panels, allowing you to see exactly what sort of amps and watts your solar panel’s putting out. It’s particularly useful in learning how to best angle your camping solar panel towards the sun and the difference that angles of misalignment or shade make, but other than that it’s just a bloody cool gadget. And  let’s face it, who doesn’t like gadgets?

WHAT BATTERY TO CONNECT TO
The first thought is obviously ‘the auxiliary battery’, but hold on a minute. Let’s say you connect your solar panel – with its built-in regulator – to your crank battery. It then charges the crank battery,  which in turn makes your dual battery isolator think the engine’s running and the alternator’s charging. It then allows power to flow through to the auxiliary battery, making sure that all receive charge. The only downside here is many isolators and battery chargers won’t kick in til around 13.5V. In the middle of the day it shouldn’t be an issue to get that out of your solar panels, but towards the end of the day you might find that the isolator cuts out and only the crank battery receives charge.

PORTABLE SOLAR POWER
For the majority of 4WDers who escape for a night or two every month or so, the simplest solution is to stick with an off the shelf portable solar kit that uses alligator clips. It’ll come with its own storage bag that carries the panel plus the cabling, along with a carry handle for easy storage. The downside is that,  assuming we’re talking a traditional folding solar panel, when folded away it’s still quite large and bulky. Think one of those bi-fold camp chairs that folds up into a square and you’re roughly on the money.

How big a panel’s big enough for your setup? The general rule when it comes to solar power for camping, is ‘as big as you can afford and fit’. More is always better than less, especially these days when fridges, fr eezers, and all sorts of 12V gear finding their way into 4WDs.

HOW MUCH POWER DO YOU NEED?

First up, figure out what you want to draw off your battery. Here’s a bit of a guide as to what some of the most common 12V accessories will draw.

Obviously not everything will be running the whole time. On an average day, let’s say your camping fridge runs flat out for 24 hours, and it’s working pretty hard because for at least 14 of those hours it gets opened a couple of times an hour. That’s probably going to draw about 24A or so, maybe another 5A to run your LED lighting and 15A for the inverter. Now you’re looking at trying to replace about all that power per day back into your batteries – which is why a bigger camping solar panel is always a good idea!

PEAK POWER HOURS

The problem lies in the fact that out of the entire day, you’ve probably got somewhere around six hours where the panel will be producing peak power, and that’s assuming it’s a sunny day. So, if you’re looking to develop about 60A over that six hour period, you’ll need something that can produce at least 10A/hour which would roughly equate to about a 120w solar blanket. Generally speaking, you want something that can produce about 30% more power than you need, so a fair bet would be up around the 160W solar panel mark for a panel that gives you room to spare.

Adding a camping solar panel to your existing camping power setup is one of the best things you can do to improve your camping experience! These are crucial bits of camping gear that will let you camp better and for longer, because you’ll be able to keep your battery charged the entire time and keep your camping fridge and its contents nice and cold.