- Written by Brock Butterfield
Can you run an AC unit off solar power for your Skoolie? You'll be surprised on what we found out in our research.
There's nothing worse then travelling in your escape pod during the summer and spending time in a climate that can get miserably hot without a way to cool down. Even if you've installed a couple of good vent fans and treated your roof with a UV reducing elastomeric paint, you just can't beat the heat without a way to create cool air inside your Skoolie (or other escape pod of choice).
A short Skoolie at The Bus Fair in Oregon charges off the sun during the event.
A question I commonly get asked is, "How many solar panels do I need to run an air conditioning unit?". For the longest time I used to answer that question by explaining that you would never have enough solar panels or a big enough battery bank that would fit inside a school bus conversion that would be able to run an AC unit. But, in doing some research on this article I tapped on Garret Towne, President of AM Solar to give me the technical details behind why you can't but was shocked by his reply. Here's what Garret had to say:
"When someone mentions that they want to run an air conditioner I tell them they will need at least a 3000VA inverter and 200Ah of lithium battery capacity per one hour of runtime at full power for a 15,000BTU unit.
Solar will be one of a couple charging sources for the rig, but due to limitations in the amount of power radiated from the sun per square foot on planet Earth and the limited size of a skoolie’s roof, you will never be able to park out in the desert and run a 15,000BTU air conditioner 24/7.
Here are the numbers:
For simple math, let’s say an air conditioner draws 15A of current at 120V AC. That works out to 1,800W.
If you run it for an hour, that is 1,800Wh or 1,800Wh / 12V = 150Ah. I tell people they need 200Ah because not all lithium batteries can safely discharge their full rated capacity, and because it is likely that there will be other loads running at the same time. I recommend Lithium, because lead-acid batteries have voltage sag and a battery bank large enough to run an air conditioner for a substantial length of time would be impractically heavy.
Also for simple math, let’s say a solar panel produces 3Wh per day per 1W of rated output. This number varies depending on latitude and weather, but 3Wh per day / 1W is a pretty close approximation.
One hour of air conditioner operation would require 1,800Wh divided by 3Wh/day per 1W = 600W of solar left in the sun all day.
A 170W solar panel takes up about 11 square feet. 600W / 170W x 11sf = 39 square feet.
To run the 15,000BTU air conditioner for 24 hours with no charging sources, you would need 3600Ah – 4800Ah of lithium capacity.
To run the 15,000BTU air conditioner, continuously, from solar, you would need a battery bank large enough to serve as an energy buffer from peak production hours through the night, roughly 3000Ah and a 14,400W solar array. The solar array would take up 936 square feet.
If your roof mount array was 8 feet wide, your skoolie would need to be at least 117 feet long.
You can run an air conditioner for short periods of time, but you will need to plan to hook up to shore power, run a generator, or use an alternator charge to help your solar array top off your batteries in between uses. Of the rigs I’ve dealt with where air conditioning is a major concern, they have had between 400Ah and 1800Ah of lithium battery capacity.
It's also worth mentioning that in testing we've seen impressive results from alternator charging systems. One we tested got 129A at idle. That’s the equivalent of roughly 2000W of solar panels."
I had to read over that a few times before the numbers started to click for me and a visual image started to form. While it IS actually possible to run an AC off of solar panels and a battery bank, it's not for very long due to the lack of square footage needed for panels and batteries to make it happen.
Hypothetically if you had a 117 foot long bus and a big enough lithium battery bank, equipment pricing alone for a system with a 3000VA inverter kit, 3600Ah lithium battery kit, and 80x 170W solar panels, along with other system essentials would work to roughly $90,000. Not really the coin that many of us have on hand. Unless you're friends with Oprah? "And you get solar! And you get solar! And you get solar!"
An impressive and massive power bank by Broccoli Bus as displayed at The Bus Fair
An alternative to an AC unit that I just learned about the other day is an RV swamp cooler or evaporated cooler made by TurboKool which uses very little energy. Granted it would only work in dry climates due to how swamp coolers are designed and a little looking into I learned it uses on average 10 - 15 gallons of water per day. My bus only has a 30 gallon fresh water tank so for me that's not really an option unless I knew I was close to a fresh water tap that I could top off each day.
Another alternative that I've used now for a few summers and like is the Icy Breeze Cooler that also acts as an air conditioner and runs off 12v or 110v, draws very little power and circulates the icy cold cooler water through a "radiator" and uses a fan to blow out cold air with an adjustable "elephant nose" to point it where you need it.
If you're looking to invest in solar for your bus conversion, van conversion or other escape pod, the crew at AM Solar (an employee owned company) are a great resource to reach out to with questions. They also now offer solar kits for Skoolies that are designed around three types of needs. Weekend warriors, those who want a little more juice and be out a little longer and those looking to full time.
AM Solar Skoolie Kits
Short Bus Kit
340W 200A 220AhAGM 500VA
680W 200A 400AhAGM 2000VA
Full Timing Bus
860W 200A 600AhLi 3000VA
AM Solar Skoolie Kits
Short Bus Kit
Full Timing Bus
If you're interested to read more articles that the president of AM Solar, Garret, has contributed you can do so here:
Articles By Garret Towne
Your big off-grid solar questions, illuminated. Ever feel like harnessing the sun's energy is more magic than it is science?… Read More
There's more then one type of solar panel... How do you choose the right panel? The short answer:Forget all that… Read More
- Written by Brock Butterfield
Your Complete Guide To Life On The Road In A Van
John and Jayme from Gnomad Home just dropped a great little article on the ins and outs of Vanlife that's worth a read if you're still trying the make that decision on whether a van conversion or bus conversion is best for you.
These two have been living vanlife for quite some time now and the insight they provide in their article is a vault of knowledge for anyone that is completely new to making the lifestyle change.
Here's a quick preview of the topics they cover:
What is Van Life?
- Why Would You Want to Live in a Van?
- What Are the Challenges of Vanlife?
How to Live in a Van
- Converting a Van into a Mobile Living Space
- Where to Park Your Van at Night
- Bathrooms, Showers, and Laundry
- How Much Does Vanlife Cost?
- Making Money on the Road
- Getting Mail on the Road
- Insurance (health, auto, property, etc)
- Resources and Community on the Road
Taking your pets with you on the road
Guest Writer: Angie Hill
What could be better for having the best pet-friendly travels on the road than a vehicle that comes complete with all the creature comforts of a house, but on wheels instead? Waking up in new locations for you and your pet to explore is what life’s all about!
One of the primary benefits of travel in a converted vehicle is that your pets can get some real enjoyment from the great outdoors during the day and then get to sleep in the same comfy spot at night; just like in a regular home.
Offering them that consistency is a super way to get your pet relaxed and at ease with this type of environment.
Travelling with your pets in a converted vehicle can also throw up some different challenges that you wouldn’t have to consider in a stationary home. This is all part of the ride though, and with the tricks and tips we’ve picked up to keep pets smiling, safe and content, you can use them to help you and your pets on your travels.
Top Tips for Travelling on the Road with Pets
1. A prepared packing list
Before you set off anywhere, set aside a decent amount of time just to go over all the things that you will need to pack for your pet. To help you out, we’ve listed the main ones already, and then you can add in more that might be relevant to you later on.
- Food and doggy treats
- Drinking water
- Travel food/water bowls
- Up-to-date ID tags
- Photos of your pet
- Copies of health records and vaccinations
- Carpet cleaner (just in case!)
- Some toys
- Any required medication and/or supplements
- Poop bags
- Pet insect repellent and sunscreen
- First aid kit
Read more on Woof Dog to pick up the supplies you need.
2. Research where to go
When you’re on the road with pets, you have to think about their needs as well as your own, but being pet owners, you probably put them first anyway! That’s great, and it’ll help you figure this point out more effectively.
Essentially, you just want to take the time to make sure that wherever you are headed has a lovely range of pet-friendly places for them to explore, as well as places to eat so that no member of the family is left behind.
3. Staying safe while driving
As tempting as it might be, you shouldn’t give in to the temptation of having your pet on your lap while you’re driving. At the same time, having a pet roaming about in the back can also be risky as they can cause a distraction.
You need to have total focus on driving for everyone’s safety, so pets should always be safely buckled up in an appropriately fitted, crash-tested seatbelt harness or alternatively, in a carrier that is fastened in place.
If your pet is new to all of this, it might be worth going out for a few small rides first of all to get them used to how it feels and then they’ll see this as normal routine when the time comes to go further afield.
4. Factor in more breaks
When you are eager to reach, discover and enjoy a new location, it can be really tempting to just keep on truckin’. If you need to stop for a quick stretch and a toilet break, your pet needs the same consideration as well.
Just factor in that they need some little walks and toilet breaks so that they can be great travel companions and make the most of your journeys together. It’ll help break up long drives and that way it won’t feel like your whole day has been spent behind the wheel.
5. Stay aware of the temperature
We all know about the dangers of pets overheating in cars, but even in your super comfy converted bus, the weather can become a little pesky if you’re not on top of it. Just bear in mind that you should keep an eye on weather forecasts and be aware of high/low temperatures where you are heading.
It might be worth just fitting a temperature gauge in your vehicle as a precaution. This will give you the opportunity to have peace of mind about the exact temperature in your vehicle. That way, you can rest assured that your pet will be perfectly comfortable while travelling, or while you’ve popped out for something.
6. Be an exemplary travelling pet owner
With the rise of digital nomads and people escaping standard homes to travel on the road more, so does the number of pet-friendly welcoming spots to travel to.
Policies are always changing and improving to help pet owners enjoy life with their extra family members who are by their side enjoying the trip with them. To keep this trend going, we all need to be the best pet owners we can and lead by example.
Stay on the right side of any leash laws that need adhering to, follow local pet guidelines, and always ensure that you pick up after your pets.
Hopefully, these pointers are useful for your future adventure and your pets can have an amazing time on the road travelling with you as a family!
Breaking down on the road -
How to be Prepared
Contributing Writer: Elizabeth J W Spencer
Breakdowns in the bus are something all bus owners will have to deal with at some point.
Some of us are less prepared and capable than others but even if you are a diesel mechanic, breakdowns, flat tires or some other kind of roadside trouble could still find you. From our bus breakdown track record, you would think we didn’t do anything to prepare for engine trouble, but we had the engine looked over before setting out, we had a diesel mechanic spend hours teaching my husband how to do regular maintenance, check fluid levels and what problems to look for on this type of engine.
We also had spare parts galore with us on board, as well as all kinds of fluids and tools. Obviously, you can’t be prepared for everything, but we at least comforted ourselves by the fact that we tried. We didn’t have any extra fuel lines with us, which was a mistake!
So we set out from North Carolina and not two hours after we left, fuel was spraying out of the back of the bus. I wish I could say that this was the last breakdown on our maiden voyage across America but we broke down again in Nevada with the same problem. After the first breakdown we had taken the bus to Cummins engine dealer in Nashville to have them rework the spaghetti of fuel lines. The only good news with the second breakdown is that it was still under warranty from Cummins. They had put one of the lines in backward, which put too much pressure on the rest of the lines, and then it finally busted outside of Las Vegas. We are still novices at bus living but our crash course in bus breakdowns has us a little wiser on road trouble.
Here are nine tips to help you prepare for bus breakdowns.
1. Food and Drink:
Always, whatever you do, have good food and even better drinks with you on the bus. On our first breakdown we had beers and brats. On the second breakdown we had Moscow mules and a charcuterie board with aged meats and cheeses. These combinations of food and drink—as well as others—are a sure way to lift the soul in dismal circumstances on the side of the road. Be sure to stock that fridge before heading out.
For our next breakdown, I plan on having red wine and steak.
2. How to Deal with the Cold (or Heat) Off-Grid:
One major mistake we made in our build was not putting in a propane heater.
So, when we broke down in the winter in 25-degree weather on the side of the road for two nights, we weren’t prepared for how to deal with the cold off-grid. The first night we all climbed in bed together; my husband and I with the baby and even the dog! The baby and the dog thought it was awesome! I got every blanket, sleeping bag, and rug we owned to cover us and insulate the floor and doors. The second night we got a portable indoor propane heater to heat the place up and then we turned them off while we slept. I just wasn’t sure how safe they really were inside. Point being, if you are traveling in the winter, have an off-grid heat plan or be okay being cold.
I probably wouldn’t have been as worried about the cold but we had our baby with us so that seemed to complicate my worry.
3. Towing Insurance:
On the first breakdown we didn’t have any type of roadside assistance or insurance. That was a mistake for obvious reasons. Because we didn’t want to pay for a 50-mile tow, we tried to fix the bus on the side of the road. As soon as we got back on the road I called to get us roadside insurance from Good Sam in case we had any more trouble along the way. There are all different kinds of packages with Good Sam, but in light of the most recent breakdown, I got the Platinum Membership that included tires, roadside mechanic, 100-mile tow and lots of other perks. So, when we broke down a month later in Nevada in the middle of the desert close to sundown, Good Sam offered to either send a towing service or a roadside mechanic. Because we knew what the problem was and that the fuel lines really needed a shop to do an overhaul (again?!) and not just a roadside fix, we went with the tow. It was a 60-mile tow to the closest shop and I was so glad that we had the towing insurance!
4. Make Friends:
I can’t say this enough. You can prepare all you want but at the end of the day you will probably need some help out on the open road. During our first breakdown, where we were stranded on the side of the road, the nicest mechanic came out to help us at 10 pm at night and kept working on the engine with my husband until 3 am. It ended up that they needed a new part. The closest place where we could find the new fuel line was a three-hour drive away. We weren’t towing a car so we had to find transport to get the part. As luck would have it, where we were in Tennessee (TN) there weren’t any rental cars, taxis or Ubers. I couldn’t even get to another town to get a rental car without walking 50 miles. The nice mechanic from the night before said we could take his truck. I couldn’t believe that a stranger would let us drive their truck. We met so many other guardian angels out on the road—people that didn’t have to be nice to us—but were—and offered a lending hand.
5. Keep That Water Tank Full:
On the first breakdown we did have a full tank of water and on the second breakdown we didn’t, which was another reason we didn’t want to be stranded out on the road for a few days. The great thing about a bus is that if you do breakdown, you hopefully have most of what you need to wait for help or parts. There are things you can do without in a pinch, but water is really essential.
6. Embrace the Adventure:
When your bus breaks down it is going to be hard to remember why you ever had this ridiculous idea in the first place—what a horrible idea to put your home in a bus that breaks down! But most of us probably didn’t pick bus life for more dependability and certainty. Most of us probably picked a bus conversion for more freedom and adventure. And breakdowns and mishaps are just part of the bus adventure. I know it is expensive, time-consuming, and uncomfortable, but you are going places and taking risks, and this is just what happens.
7. Build in a Wide Margin of Error:
We quickly learned to not make any plans on our cross country road trip. When we first set out I told my grandmother we would be there on Tuesday in Memphis, TN. Well, we got there five days later due to the breakdown. From then on, I would just call people the morning we would be arriving in their town and see if they were available, we could park outside their home and if they wanted they could have dinner with us in the bus. Breakdowns weren’t the only thing that slowed us down though: traveling with a baby made for more stops, sometimes we wanted the freedom to relax, weather got in the way, campgrounds being full changed our plans, and regular maintenance on the bus would eat into more time than we were expecting. Even if you don’t breakdown, there are other reasons that you might want to change your plans as you go. As a bus dweller/traveler, you don’t want a schedule to take away from all the freedom that the bus affords.
8. Stop Before Dark:
This might sound ridiculous to some people, but after our first breakdown we decided that if we could stop before dark we would. If you breakdown (hypothetically) or get a flat tire it is much easier to deal with it in the light of day than on the side of the road in the dark (and less dangerous). Obviously, it doesn’t always work out, but we don’t keep pushing on if there is a place to stop before sundown.
9. Have a Breakdown Budget:
This is kind of like an emergency fund but specifically for when the bus breaks down. Some people need more money in their breakdown budget—like us!—than others, who can fix stuff themselves, so you can figure out how much you want to set aside depending on if you can do your own repairs and how much you travel. If you can, always set aside more than you think you need, and then you will be surprised when there is extra. We didn’t have this breakdown budget in place for our first road trip, but you had better believe it is a part of this year’s budget, and we are setting aside money for the next mishap every month.
Have you broken down in your bus? What tips would you share?