The initial goal of this experiment was to get free.
2020 was a rough year, and blew many of us into transitions that were contrary to what the working plan that our individual lives was outlining. For many in the West, this year is a great example of what others around the globe on some level have been experiencing for decades in ways that wealthy nations cannot fathom.
For me, I went from having a house, a city I lived in, and all the trappings therein, to living with my mother, and then a sublet in the town where she lives.
The ingredient I had was a job. And so I spent the time during which I was living in my mother’s town saving up – not even sure what for. I spent the last 2 weeks of that job crying an average of 2 hours a day. I hated it but I did it and as soon as I could I left honorably.
Then, long story short, I bought an RV. I bought first a very small mini tear drop which ends up being great as a travel trailer and scout mobile, and not as great to live out of. Then I purchased a larger RV.
At the moment, I am camping out in an RV park, and pay $300 a month rent for just water. I pay separately for propane and phone.
This is a story of how I got my system working such that I am able to work on the internet and live for less than $500/month including all of my utilities (not including food and incidentals).
Laying out the systems:
An RV is wired with essentially what amounts to two separate circuits (12 volt / 120 volt) that you can see and interface with vis a vis a control panel. The control panel allows you to view and check the fuses for the 12 volt system, and it allows you to switch open and closed different parts of the 120 volt system.
The 120 volt system operates the electrical plugs, and the AC, water pump (only needed if you are using the fresh water tank and refilling it when it is low manually), etc, which require 120 volts. In order to use the 120 volt system, you generally need to be hooked into ‘Shore Power’ which just means plugged into a 30 amp or 50 amp system that comes with some RV sites. My site does not have this, and part of this blog is about how I can power 120 volt applications without it.
The 12 volt system charges some of the lights, the bathroom fan, the fridge, the heater fan and ignition for the heater, the tank heaters (but often not the hot water heaters), and if your trailer is equipped with a slide, the battery will often move the sliding compartment back and forth.
Typically, there is not an inverter that connects the 120 volt system with the 12 volt system, unless you purchase something that specifically has that inverter listed, you cannot assume it is there, and it typically is not.
Phone has been challenging for a few reasons. The first is that my bars are very low even though I am contracted with a company that shows this area as spotty but that services this area.
I work online and so I need internet enough to be able to work and participate in Zoom meetings.
Satellite internet requires an investment of around $500 to start and then requires a monthly fee with a provider which I was hoping to avoid. In my mind, it’s one thing to invest in infrastructure, but quite another to get on a service plan that hemorrhages money in a way that is ongoing. I already pay for monthly telephone/data. I do not need another utility payment. In the solution I came up with I was able to avoid it entirely.
2 portable solar panels
2 12 volt deep cycle batteries rated at 110 amp hours / 1 inverter or 1 12 volt deep cycle battery rated at 110 amp hours & 1 power box
2 power controllers
1 cell phone/account with the capacity to hotspot
1 cell phone signal booster that works with my provider
Solar Power 101
A basic solar power system consists of components that are simple to understand.
1. Solar Panel. Most solar panels, particularly portable ones, generate 12 volts of power. They also create a flow or current of power that is measured in amps.
2. Battery. The battery gets charged by the solar panels and stores that energy for use later. It is possible to overfill a battery, and so if you connect a battery directly to a solar panel, it will continue to fill up in volts higher than the typical 12 volts. The battery should have amp hours (ah) value listed on it and ideally should be rated for RV. Marine starter batteries that are not deep cycle or car batteries do not hold power well. Sometimes the Marine battery comes with an ‘overflow amperage’ number that is different from it’s listed amperage, but this does not mean it has that number of ‘amp hours’ associated with it.
3. Power controller. To avoid overcharging the battery, you need to put a ‘Power Controller’ between the solar panel and the battery that will send current when the batteries need it and will stop once they do not. The power controller needs to be rated for more amperage than your solar panel will produce in order to not burn it out. The amperage produced by the panels and the amperage rating for the controller should be printed on the controller or panel itself.
The 12 volt system in my RV that is connected to the battery requires only these three things.
If I also want to be able to charge my laptop/etc or use appliances that plug in that are 120 volts, which I do, I need another system if I am not connected to ‘Shore Power’ (which I am not).
That system requires all the components listed above with the addition of:
4. Inverter. An inverter takes the 12 volts from your battery and converts them to 120 volts. As I mention above, you can also get a ‘Power Box’ which is a battery and inverter that come as a unit. In any case, the inverter takes the 12 volts of power and amplifies that into 120 volts of power so that you can use it. It also comes with places to plug appliances and such in directly (both the power box and the inverter).
I chose to get two batteries (exactly the same) and an inverter because then in a pinch I can substitute them out or join them to create a larger power bank.
In general the rule of thumb with panels and batteries is that mixing and matching is bad, and will give you the performance rating of the lowest performing item in your system. You don’t want that.
I do not join batteries in this application, but I could and if I did I would want to join them in PARALLEL in order to keep the voltage the same, and just increase my amp hours.
So in my second system for 120 volts, the only difference is that I have an inverter connected to the battery I am charging that has places to plug in. I keep it simple and have a computer desk next to the door so that I can access the outdoor power and battery without making holes in the trailer that will reduce it’s resale value.
Now I can power my computer but still only have internet on my phone. To change that, I bought a signal booster that works with my cell phone company. You can purchase them anywhere that sells electronics (don’t have to go through your carrier).
When mine came, it had a plug in chord with a box where you plug into a 120 volt system. I wanted to avoid the 120 volt system for this because I wanted to make it operable if for whatever reason the 2nd 120 volt system goes down.
The plugin power box on the signal booster has one job and one job only and that is to take the input 120 volts and convert it to 12 volts. When I am off Shore Power, none of my 120 volt electrical boxes work. I cut the box off, because I do not need it to connect directly to the 12 volt system in my trailer.
Then had to look for a place in my trailer where I could easily connect to the 12 volt system.
Most trailers come with a USB plug (of not a 12 volt power port). In my case, I lucked out and found one near the window. I unscrewed that USB port and connected the cut off power chord for the signal booster directly into the wires powering the USB so that both can be used at the same time. My signal booster is super low amperage (2 amps), and so it’s not a big drain to my 12 volt system.
There is a cable that connects the inside controller for your signal booster with an outdoor antenna. In my case, I cut through the very bottom of my screen to allow a hole for the antenna cable to go outside, and then hooked my antenna up to a broom pole that I strapped with plastic cables to the top of the awning hoist by sending the cables under the hoist and though the channels that the siding on my trailer create naturally. I used a shit ton of cables to ensure it is secure. So far it has held up in 30 mph wind gusts.
Most trailers come with ports for TV cable, but they are a different size than the signal booster, and so they would not work for this application.
The only system left is sewerage, which I have figured out by purchasing a large holding tank on wheels and connecting it to the black water, and porting it to a place designated for dumping. I am working on a system that will turn the black and grey water into non-potable water for the garden.