Key West Solar: As a recap, this is the geeky version of how well our solar did while boondocking in Key West without outside electricity. Also covered is some detailed information on how we lived with limited water. The last part will introduce you to my supplemental water plan.
We already covered the wonders of Key West in several posts. We had a great time and met so many amazing people. I also have to say that we really miss several aspects of Key West. Especially the sunsets which I covered in this post. Key West Sunsets
(Author note: Since pictures of electricity are really hard to get. Most of the pictures in this post are simply decorations. Nice picture, blah-blah-blah, nice picture, blah-blah-blah… you get it).
I almost didn’t write this mostly because all my solar data was corrupted by needing to run our generator. How much solar energy did we make in over 28 days? I can answer that — not enough. It is not that our solar failed but rather the weather and most importantly the humidity required us to supplement, our solar electricity with our generator.
Boondocking in Key West on Solar
Boondocking is often described as remote camping. Key West is remote but only because it is surrounded by water and very far from the mainland. Our campsite was less than a mile from the highway. So in that regard, it wasn’t remote. However, another aspect of boondocking is that you bring or make everything you need during your stay. We did that.
During our stay of 28 days, the only thing we needed to add to the RV was two extra tanks of water. When we got there our water tanks were full. Then after the first week, we refilled our water without moving the RV. Then after two weeks we moved the RV through the dump station to dump our grey and black water tanks and refilled the water. Then after another week, we refilled the water again without moving the RV. I will discuss the water-related aspects later in the post.
Others will say that boondocking is camping at zero expense. Nothing at Key West is at zero expense. In fact, everything in Key West is more expensive. This includes our camping site. The only thing we got for our $26 dollars a night was a view of the ocean and a community bathroom. I feel very good about paying $26 per night to have a spot right on the Gulf of Mexico. In a commercial campground in Key West, a spot without a view would be more than $200 a night. To live comforably we had to make our own electricity. This is our report of how we made our own electricity using Key West solar.
Key West Solar
If you want to live in Key West on nothing but the sunshine hitting your solar array, you first need to be there in mid-winter (we were). You also need a big solar array (true for us) and a big battery bank (also true). You also need to be lucky with the weather (not completely true for us). As for the weather part, we did well for three weeks but also failed during the first week. When we got there on December 28 Key West was “unseasonably” hot.
It was warmer in Key West than many of our friends said that they ever remembered. With heat in Key West comes humidity. Our solar array couldn’t keep up with the air conditioning needed to overcome the heat and humidity. During the first week operating without air conditioning wasn’t an option. So we did what we could with solar. Much of the time, we ran our generator to make sure we had air conditioning.
We also ran our air conditioning from our battery bank (mostly while sleeping) for the entire time we were in Key West. During our stay, we didn’t meet any other campers who were doing this.
Depending on your style, some of the campers lived without far more than we did. Some were in tents. Others didn’t run their air conditioners at all. We didn’t do that nor do I think that we would want to do that. So depending on how you tolerate heat and humidity, you could do better than we did.
Better than the first week
During the next three weeks, we did far better (living on solar) than we did during the first week. It was not as hot, or humid, and had a steady 24 hour a day breeze. We still used our generator, but the use was cut from about eight hours a day to less than two hours a day.
Since we installed solar, this was the most generator run time that we have ever used. During that first week, we ran the generator every afternoon and every evening. Two four-hour periods. The generator contribution during this first week was about 800 amp-hours into the batteries per day. Plus the generator contributed eight hours of air conditioning at the same time.
Next three weeks
After that first week, in the afternoon, we still ran our air conditioner using the electricity we built up in our battery.
For the next three weeks, we only ran the generator for about one to two hours per day, only in the evening. We used it right after we took our showers. The purpose of this run was to top off the batteries before bedtime and to run our clothes dryer to dry out our towels. Without our clothes dryer, our towels would have had a mildew smell in less than one day. Of course, while we were running the generator we were also running the air conditioner to cool the RV prior to bedtime.
We have the ability to run everything except our electric water heater from the batteries. During our big battery installation, I rewired the circuit breaker panel to enable this operation.
When our RV came from the factory, running the air conditioners or clothes dryer from the batteries wasn’t possible. When the RV was designed this was not a consideration. The reason for this was that batteries at that time were assumed to be lead-acid not lithium.
Did we need more batteries?
The answer to this pertaining to our time in Key West was no. At the same time, no one has ever said that they had too many batteries (or too many solar panels). What I can say is that we managed to use what we had and never ran out of electricity. We also never had electricity from our solar panels and no place to store it. So we had enough battery capacity.
What we could have used are more solar panels. To really go without our generator, we would need enough solar so that we could recharge our batteries and at the same time run our air conditioner. We have one of the very biggest battery banks installed in any RV and battery wise we were doing fine. Here is a link to our article about our battery setup. I call it the Hybrid Mongrel Battery and the Massive Electric Bucket
One of the things you will get from these articles is that we have a mix of both lithium batteries and lead-acid batteries. If I were to replace the lead-acid with more lithium, perhaps I could do better. Perhaps when the lead-acid batteries are no longer working I will do that. Even then, I would still need to max out the solar and then do some pretty convincing testing to see if the new batteries would be better than my mix. What I won’t be doing is getting more lead-acid or replacing my batteries with lead-acid batteries.
Why did we need more solar panels?
During our 28 day stay in Key West, our solar panels produced almost 168 Kilowatt-hours of energy and we used all of it. Plus our generator contributed about 81 hours of air conditioning. This was while it was running and recharging our batteries. This “created” an additional 162 Kilowatt-hours of electricity that we did not have to withdraw from our batteries.
To make a full 330 Kilowatt-hours from solar we would have to double the size of our solar array. Of course, this would mean that we would have to squeeze an additional 1800 watts of solar panels onto our already cluttered roof. There is room for perhaps 900 more watts but not 1800 watts.
The additional problem with twice as much solar is that most of the time we have not fully used the solar that we already have. Doubling the solar array runs into the same cost-benefit analysis as getting solar in the first place. The benefits of occasional full air conditioning from solar don’t equal the expense of doubling the cost of the array. Said another way, a little solar is great, lots of solar is good, and paying for something that you don’t (routinely) use is dumb.
During the entire time, we were in Key West our RV was facing north (with a great view). Had the RV been pointed east or west then we could have made more energy from our array. This is because I could have tilted the panels. We may have been able to make perhaps 30% more electricity from solar.
Tilting the panels is something I am prepared to do and is part of the design. The overall design of the array allows tilting half of the panels so that the entire array will be pointed south. This only works when the RV is pointed east or west. Since we were pointed north, there was no benefit of tilting. The fact is that every solar array has this problem except tracking arrays. Solar panels are as always pointed incorrectly.
Measuring our electricity consumption
If we didn’t measure our electricity consumption and more importantly how much electricity we already drained from our battery then living on solar power when at Key West would have been folly. This one device made our electricity manageable. Here is a link to what I consider the critical component. Battery Monitor
One of the limits for boondocking is our water capacity. With frequent use of the RV park toilets and showers, we only needed to refill our water tank one time. We also only dumped our waste-holding tanks one time. When we departed our fresh water tank was nearly empty and our waste tanks were not nearly full. Thus had we added more freshwater, we could have stayed longer. The time we refilled our freshwater a few of our neighbors got together and ran a very long hose to a water spigot and refilled all the neighboring RVs. This technique worked fine at Key West but that isn’t something that is going to work in Idaho or Montana.
So, I have been working on how to refill my water tanks without a hose. So consider this an introduction to something I haven’t tested yet. If I had a portable water tank that I could put in the car, and then go get water, I could bring the water to the RV and refill our tanks from the water tank in the car. The water tank I chose is the same one that we used in the Navy and is often used by fire departments. It is very robust.
Here is a link to the tank I will be using to refill our freshwater tank. Fol-da-tank
This is what we used. We do not get commissions on the links and are provided only to help our friends.
Lion Energy UT1300 Lithium Iron Phosphate Batteries we also have other batteries in addition to the Lion UT1300 but I mention them specifically because they are currently on sale at Costco.
BMV-712 Victron Battery Monitor w/shunt & temp sensor
Zamp Obsidian solar panel. Zamp