Sunset in the Valley of the Sun

Key West Solar: How did we live on Solar when at Key West?

Key West Solar: As a recap, this is the geeky version of how well our solar system performed while boondocking in Key West without outside electricity. It also covers 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 miss several aspects of Key West. Especially the sunsets, which I covered in this post. Key West Sunsets

Key West Sunsets
Key West Sunsets

(Author note: Since pictures of electricity are tough 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).

Corrupted data

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 that 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 bringing or making 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.

Our campsite at Key West
Our campsite at Key West

Others will say that boondocking is camping at zero expense. Nothing at Key West is at zero cost. 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 place without a view would be more than $200 a night. To live comfortably, we had to make our electricity. This is our report on how we made our 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). It would be best if you also had a big solar array (true for us) and a big battery bank (also true). It would be best if you also were 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 arrived on December 28, Key West was “unseasonably” hot.

Too many solar panels! Picture is still one short of the full array.
Too many solar panels! The picture is still one short of the entire array.

It was warmer in Key West than many of our friends said they ever remembered. With heat 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 other campers doing this.

Key West Solar picture after sunset.
Jefferson County Lake near Rigby, Idaho.

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 would we 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 daily.

Since we installed solar, this was the most generator run time we have ever used. During that first week, we ran the generator every afternoon and every evening. Two four-hour periods. During this first week, the generator contributed about 800 amp-hours to the batteries. Plus, the generator contributed hours of air conditioning simultaneously.

Next three weeks

After that first week, we still ran our air conditioner in the afternoon using the electricity we built up in our battery.

For the next three weeks, we ran the generator only for about one to two hours per day, only in the evening. We used it right after we took our showers. This run aimed to top off the batteries before bedtime and 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 running the generator, we also ran the air conditioner to cool the RV before bedtime.

San Diego California Campground Sunset
Our campsite at sunset in San Diego

We can run everything except our electric water heater from the batteries. I rewired the circuit breaker panel during our big battery installation 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. This was because batteries at that time were assumed to be lead-acid, not lithium.

Did we need more batteries?

The answer to this about 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). I can say 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.

Lion Energy UT1300 Lithium Battery
Lion Energy UT1300 Lithium Battery

We could have used more solar panels. To go without our generator, we would need enough solar to recharge our batteries and run our air conditioner. We have one of the biggest battery banks installed in any RV; 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 lithium and lead-acid batteries. If I were to replace the lead acid with more lithium, perhaps I could do better. Perhaps I will do that when the lead-acid batteries are no longer working. Even then, I would still need to max out the solar and do some convincing testing to see if the new batteries would be better than my mix. I won’t be 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 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 produce a full 330 Kilowatt-hours from solar energy, 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.

Our RV at Manatee Springs and our new Hurricane Prima Kayaks
Our RV (and our new Hurricane Prima Kayaks). I would first need to remove the satellite antenna to install more panels. I would hit full coverage at about nine additional panels. The only area free of panels would be around the skylight.

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 complete air conditioning from solar don’t equal the expense of doubling the cost of the array. Said another way, a little solar is excellent, lots of solar is good, and paying for something you don’t (routinely) use is dumb.

Incorrect orientation

While in Key West, our RV was facing north (with a great view). We could have made more energy from our array if the RV had been pointed east or west. This is because I could have tilted the panels. We may have made 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 hadn’t measured our electricity consumption and, more importantly, how much electricity we already drained from our battery, living on solar power 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

Sunset at Placid Lake
Sunset at Placid Lake in Montana


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. Our fresh water tank was nearly empty when we departed, and our waste tanks were not full. Thus, if we had added more fresh water, we could have stayed longer. When we refilled our freshwater, a few of our neighbors got together, ran a very long hose to a water spigot, and refilled all the neighboring RVs. This technique worked fine at Key West, but it isn’t something that is going to work in Idaho or Montana.

Water Softener and Filter
Water Softener and Filter

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Components List

Lion Energy UT1300 Lithium Iron Phosphate Batteries

BMV-712 Victron Battery Monitor w/shunt & temp sensor

Zamp Obsidian solar panel. Zamp

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14 thoughts on “Key West Solar: How did we live on Solar when at Key West?”

    1. The maximum rate we can recharge is 100 amps per hour. In Key West, because the panels were not aligned to the sun, we rarely achieved 60 amps per hour.

    1. We can run one air conditioner from the batteries, either the front one or the back one, but not both at the same time.

    1. We have 900 amp hours of lithium and 600 amp hours of lead-acid. for the lead-acid we can use 300 amp hours without hurting the batteries. For the lithium, we can use the entire 900 hours.

  1. Running your generator for 81 hours in a month is way better than running your generator for 162 hours. That is less than three hours per day. I bet some other people ran their generator for ten or more hours per day.

    1. Near us, one RV ran its generator from 8 am until 10 pm every day. I am very glad we didn’t have to do that.

  2. We camped just a few doors down from Scott and Tami on Sigsbee/Key West. Scott is not exaggerating about the heat and humidity we had in late December. Generator use was allowed from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. and many campers ran them the whole 16 hours, spending most of the day inside. Kinda defeats the purpose of being in paradise.

  3. Thanks for mentioning Lion Energy Lithium Batteries being on sale at Costco. We had just purchased and also noted that the sale is now over. Maybe we can double up next time they go on sale.

  4. Pingback: RV Electricity the Hard Way

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