Can my new Zamp Obsidian solar array, and my “Massive Electric Bucket” eliminate my need for both external power hookups and running my generator? This year we will find out by personal experience. The installation is going well and these are the first pictures.
If you missed the post about my battery, here is the link. Massive Electric Bucket
I first saw Zamp Obsidian solar panels one year ago and I was impressed. The panels are much stronger but only about half the weight of typical solar panels… yes I said half the weight. Most solar panels are made in China — it is important to me that Zamp Obsidian solar panels are made in Bend, Oregon.
As you can see Tiffin installed two rather large, low-wattage panels in the open area at the center of the roof, between the front air conditioner and the bathroom vent fan. After I am done, this area will have seven high-efficiency panels.
These Tiffin panels were installed with small aluminum L-brackets at each of the four corners of the panel. When I called Tiffin to ask what was under the grey sealant, they told me that each bracket was glued to the fiberglass. To remove the panels I had to cut the brackets. The brackets on the outside edge were easy to cut. The brackets between the panels were very difficult to cut. Since the panels were still functional, I gave them to a friend.
For my solar install, problem number one is the skylight at the left. Problem number two is the two small tank vents in front of the skylight. My design is going to have to work around these obstacles. I think I have a good plan.
Notice the clean edge of the roof, designed to allow water to run off anywhere along the roof. This will also change. This is where I will be installing the track that will serve as the feet for the panels. After installation water is going to be channeled so that it only runs off the roof in a few choice locations. Hopefully, this will keep the areas above the slides looking much cleaner than they currently look.
Zamp Obsidian Solar = Much better
Until I saw the Zamp Obsidian solar panels, I concluded that all solar panels were pretty much the same. These new Zamp Obsidian solar panels really outclass the other panels available on the market.
These solar panels have a unique aerodynamic frame that has a low profile. The frame has an integrated mounting system. This allows me to attach mounting brackets to each panel exactly where I want them. The frame also allows me to adjust the bracket position even after they are mounted by sliding them ever so slightly, as necessary to get a pleasing layout. My track system for mounting the panels works the same way.
The frame mounting system also allows me to remove and replace a panel without disturbing the rest of the panels. On my previous RV, once the panels were in position, they were there to stay. Good luck cutting through the stainless steel mounting brackets. If for some reason my new Zamp Obsidian solar panels need to be removed, they can be by just removing the mounting bolts.
On our last RV, we installed and were happy enough, with poly-crystalline panels, mounted directly on the roof. I mounted these panels by drilling through the frame on the side of the panels.
Other panels I have seen have a pre-drilled hole for mounting. How would they know where I would need the hole? Additionally, after I threaded the bolt through the hole and position the panel close to the roof, how am I supposed to reach the bolt to tighten it, after I have mounted the panel on the roof? The Zamp T-nut slot on the back of the frame is the best mounting method I have found on the market.
Zamp Obsidian solar panels are monocrystalline panels that should outlive the RV and may outlive us. Not only are the Zamp Obsidian solar panels monocrystalline they also have extra diodes to help a panel that is experiencing partial shade. These solar panels are way better than my old, panels in every way.
Old RV Solar installation
This is not my first solar install — actually, it is far from my first solar install. My first solar panel install was in 1979 in Colorado — on a house, to create heat. In the early 1980s, I installed a few hundred panels, then began Navy Flight School. I also installed solar panels on my previous RV and I knew that I would do it again on our current RV. Here is a link to some very brief installation details on our 2013 Tiffin Open Road.
Even though the panels on our old RV fit between the air conditioner and the edge of the roof, they are too wide. The width prevents walking around the panels. They are also mounted too close to the air conditioner. Frequently the panels would be in the shadow of the air conditioner. Any shadow destroys the output of a solar panel.
The power needs of our 2013 RV were much lower than our new RV, and to compensate for not tilting the panels, I increased the size of the array by about 30%. This worked fine in the summer but in the winter – I should have provided for tilting. The tilt of my old RV solar panels was just enough to let the water runoff.
New RV — New bigger plan
Our new RV uses much more electricity than our old RV so we needed a new (bigger) plan. All plans are subject to change. The plan for our new RV changed as soon as I took the first panel up to the roof of the RV. The size of the system remained the same, but the first layout wouldn’t work.
Originally all the panels were going to be arranged so that each panel would be end to end with a slight tilt toward the outside of the RV. The design would have left the center of the RV roof unused. The design change was required to avoid the skylight that I mentioned above, and to avoid the tank vents on the roof.
The steel slot-track is glued to the fiberglass along the outside edge of the roof. In the center of the roof, more track is glued to the roof. Mounted to the track, in the center of the roof is the rack that supports the middle of the panels. Since we have a fiberglass roof, the track worked great. Other RVs that do not have a fiberglass roof may need a different mounting method.
Here is a picture of some of the panels in the new layout. They are positioned to take the best advantage of the available space and to work around the skylight and roof vents.
Notice the mounting track on both sides of the roof and rack in the middle of the roof that supports the panels. You can see that I have one panel, still with cardboard corner protectors on it, slipped under the panels on the right. Under the closest panel on the left, I have a rolled-up rug. This is just for temporary storage during installation.
To take the above picture, I was standing next to the rear air conditioner. Six more panels are going to be installed where I am standing. When completed, I will install the last panel next to the tank vents. I am saving that one for last because under it all the wires will come together at a junction box.
One “cost” of the new layout is that we increased the height of the RV a little more than one inch. One “benefit” of our new layout is that all the panels are bunched up at the rear of the RV (shading nearly two-thirds of the roof). We have room to add more panels in the future in the front, and a couple more in the middle. More is better, right?
My measurements show that I have room for at least eight more panels. If I covered the air conditioners with panels and filled in all the open spaces, perhaps I could fit in 18 more panels. This would double the system size. Perhaps I could charge an electric car using the solar from my RV.
Remember the previous article I wrote about Scott Helmann? (Destructive Lithium Battery Testing) In the summer, while at home, Scott uses the solar panels on the roof of his RV to send power to his house.
The first design goal was to mount all the panels without drilling any holes in the roof. I was able to accomplish this goal because the weight of a Zamp Obsidian solar panel is very low, thus I could make, and use a steel mounting rack for the panels. (Other RVers may opt for a different design and lower weight aluminum mounting option)
Keep them cool
Solar panels work better when they are cool — yet they sit in the sun. Solar panels convert light energy into electrical energy. Heat decreases the energy capture of the solar panels. Solar panels don’t like to be warm. The only way for us to keep the panels cool is to allow for airflow around and under the panels. Some designs ignore the cooling issue mistakenly. Some panel designs are even made to be glued straight to the roof. Performance suffers measurably. The best installations are not close to the roof. My panels are mounted so that even in their storage position there is plenty of room for air movement.
Shading is a huge issue
Another design goal was to not have any panels shaded at any time during the day. Shading needs to be avoided. Shading can come either from other solar panels or from objects on the roof (or trees). If I had only installed one panel, then avoiding shading would have been easy — but I want eighteen panels, all without shading.
The panels on our old RV in the above picture are not in the shadow of the air conditioners. If the panels were installed on the right side of the RV, then the panels would have been in the shadow. Likewise, had the RV been facing east, the air conditioners would have been shading the panels. This photo was taken in the middle of the day in February and shows how shadows can be a real problem if the panels are behind any object relative to the position of the sun.
Any direct shadow, no matter how minor, if in the wrong location, can destroy the output of the panel. It is better to have a solar panel pointed to an open bright sky, without direct sun, than it is to have a panel with a partial shadow. So to compensate for this in our old RV, we always tried to park the RV facing west. This would put the air conditioner shadow on the north side and expose the panel to full sun.
There were two ways to achieve a shade-free array on my new RV. The first would be to put all the panels flat, increasing the height of the RV by few inches. Flat panels hold water and honestly are at the wrong orientation all the time.
Or instead of putting the panels flat, I accomplished a shade-free layout by raising the panels to an elevation equal to the highest obstruction. This caused a twelve-degree tilt (estimate) on all the panels when they are in their lower position. In half of the panels, the tilt will be towards the sun and in the other half of the panels, the tilt will be away from the sun.
In my new installation half the panels are tilted towards the sun anytime we park facing east or west with no effort other than parking. In the winter, this means that the other half of the panels would need to be tilted to obtain better orientation. Tilting is not necessary for the summer, but will really improve total performance in the winter. In the summer, parking facing north or south will provide some interesting results; half the panels would have an ideal orientation during the morning and half the panels will have an ideal orientation in the afternoon.
Notice the horizontal panel (second from the left) that is next to the air conditioner. This is the panel that I mentioned earlier that needed to be move closer to the air conditioner. I don’t really have to move it, but will anyway, just because I can. Even though this panel is not as high as the vertically mounted panels, the sun would have to be extremely low in the sky for it to be in the shade. I don’t plan on going anywhere near the arctic circle in the winter.
Exactly one week after the first panel went up for measuring, I proved the design that the tilt function worked as desired. This is the first picture of the panel I tilted to test the design.
There is no reason to obsess about the angle. Plus or minus ten degrees doesn’t make much difference and the ideal angle is only ideal at one latitude and only on one day a year, the rest of the time it is a compromise. I don’t have an economical way of making an automatic tilting system. If you had one, you could adjust the angle every day, or even multiple times a day.
At each end of each panel, there are two hinges (one at each corner). Pivoting on the hinges accomplishes two important functions. Number one is that the hinges allow for different angles at the mounting track. Even though my rack is perfectly straight to the roof — the roof is pitched to allow water runoff. The tilt of the roof means that my track is also tilted. The hinges allow for this angle on the track.
Number two reason for hinges is that I can adjust the angle of each panel to a different angle. In the winter the panels on the sunny side of the RV will remain in their lower (stowed/travel) position, yet still fully functional. The panels on the other side of the RV will be tilted to optimize the sun angle on these panels. I would love to have a watt-meter on each panel, but this isn’t necessary and only be entertaining for a little while. My guess is that in the winter, the lower panel will have a 30% lower output compared to the upper (tilted) panel.
Like a mirror
Tilting enhances performance because the panel is orientated directly towards the sun. In my case, the tilting will enhance the performance of the system by capturing reflected sunlight from the lower panel on the upper panel. This is like using a mirror to bounce sunlight onto the panel. In my design, the lower panel is the mirror. Raising the lower panel to a more optimum angle isn’t possible, because it would shade the upper panel. Capturing reflected sunlight on the upper panel will offset some of the loss caused by the incorrect angle of the lower panel.
Another design point is that I needed to position the panels so that I can still walk on the roof. I don’t need to walk end to end but I can go on the roof in front of the forward array and work towards the rear. Or to get to the rear array or aft part of the front array, I can put the ladder in the middle of the RV. The only components that will be difficult to work on are the air conditioners. When I need to access the air conditioners, all I need to do is tilt the panels.
Tilt without going on the roof
This design even allows me to tilt the panels — without going on the roof. Rather I can do all my tilting while standing on a ladder next to the RV. I hope to be able to tilt all the panels without using any tools. This no-tools-part is a little uncertain because I haven’t proven this ability — yet. It is however part of my design.
So I can tilt any of the panels to maximize solar gain. In the winter I can tilt half of the array as necessary either toward the driver’s side or the passenger side and this allows me to park east or west depending on factors other than the sun angle.
First Installation Step
Cleaning the panels
Similar to tilting, without walking on the roof, I can also clean all the solar panels from the ground, just like I clean the sides of the RV. This however is going to require a much longer cleaning pole and just like tilting, the slides will have to be in.
Conclusion (not hardly)
The next post will be about wiring our system. At this time, seventeen of eighteen of the panels are on the roof. I could mount number eighteen, but if I delay, running the wire will be easier. The wiring route goes into the roof right where number eighteen will sit. It will be easier to work without reaching under the panel.
Here is a link to the Zamp website explaining the Zamp Obsidian solar panel. Zamp
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