- Written 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? Our friend Garret Town of AM Solar is here to demystify the process with our "Solar Sunday" series to get you connected so you can start your off-grid adventures. In this article, he'll cover a series of frequently asked questions from how many batteries you need, basics for how to connect them, and if it's worth your time to clean your panels for a better charge. If you are new to solar energy or already warmed up to it, we hope this article sheds light on some of your questions!
Garret Towne has worked in the solar industry since 2009 starting with a company that developed dual axis solar trackers. After solar panel prices plummeted, making the ROI on trackers less attractive, Garret became a Senior Engineer and Technical Sales Manager for a solar panel distributor. Garret joined AM Solar in 2015 and became President in 2016. As President, Garret has grown AM Solar from 11 to 23 employees. Garret has a BS in Electrical Engineering and MBA from Oregon State University. When not at work, Garret enjoys studying foreign languages (Spanish, Portuguese & German), competitive archery, beekeeping, and raising chickens on his mini farm with his wife and son. His greatest joy in life comes from writing fake bios for his employees that get published on his website.
How many panels do I need?
It depends on the wattage. I wouldn’t recommend less than 400W for a simple DC fridge, LED lights, and fans. If you have a residential refrigerator, get at least 600W. If you want to run an air conditioner or minisplit, get as much solar as you can afford/fit.
How many batteries do I need?
If you just want lights and fans, you can get away with 200Ah of AGM. If you plan on using a microwave or blender, you’ll need at least 300Ah of AGM, or 200Ah of lithium. If you want to run an air conditioner or minisplit, get at least 300Ah of lithium, but plan to add-on.
What's the difference between AGM and lithium batteries?
This page goes into a lot of detail on that topic: https://amsolar.com/diy-rv-solar-instructions/edbatteries/
The main factors that I consider:
-Lithium batteries don’t need to be topped off weekly like lead-acid batteries and give you a little more flexibility in often you charge.
-Lithium batteries might twice as long as AGM batteries.
-Lithium batteries give you about 4x usable energy per weight and 2x per volume compared to AGM batteries.
-Lithium costs about 50% more than AGM.
Does tilting my panels towards the sun give me more power?
Yes, but maybe only 15%, and depends on the time of year. I would only consider tilting if you plan on parking for a week or more.
Should I clean my panels?
If you have a leaf or bird mess on a panel, the production of the panel will go down to about 0W. You’ll definitely want to clean anything like that. As for dust, it probably isn’t worth the effort.
If I have a 300-watt panel why am I only getting 175-250 watts when looking at my Victron Energy app?
It is unlikely that you will ever get the full rated output of your panels. That rating is meant to guide circuit protection decisions for system designers, not advertise real-world energy production. You will get 300W of power from a 300W panel, when you have 1000W per square meter solar irradiance at 25 degrees C, with no line losses. This isn’t practical for someone living in North America with flat panels, looking through a lot of atmosphere on top of a hot skoolie roof.
If my panels are a little in the sun am I getting the full charge?
You actually get a lot of solar production from a bright blue sky. You don’t need the full sun to generate watts. On the other hand, if you have shade close to the panel, it will dramatically reduce the output. I like to imagine that you have a fisheye lens on the panel looking upwards. How much of your view is obscured by shade? How much is bright blue sky and the sun? The ratio of shade to sun is roughly the percentage of rated output you will get. But, if there is a part of the panel that has zero light on it, that part will bring down the entire panel.
What are the standards you follow for fuse and cable connections?
Without going too deep, here are some standards we follow:
12V battery system, all parallel solar arrays:
Up to 200W of solar: 15A charge controller, 8ga cable, 20A fuse
Up to 300W of solar: 20A charge controller, 8ga cable, 25A fuse
Up to 450W of solar: 30A charge controller, 6ga cable 40A breaker
Up to 700W of solar: 50A charge controller, 4ga cable, 60A breaker
Up to 900W of solar: 70A charge controller, 2ga cable, 80A breaker
Up to 1200W of solar: 85A charge controller, 2ga cable, 100A breaker
Up to 1600W of solar: 100A charge controller, 2ga cable, 120A breaker
12V Inverter systems:
Up to 1200W, 2ga cable <10’, 150A Class T-Fuse
Up to 2000W, 2/0 cable <10’, 300A Class T-Fuse
Up to 3000W, 4/0 cable <10’, 400A Class T-Fuse
We are using Nissan Leaf or Tesla batteries. Can you answer our questions?
These systems are cool, but as a business with liability insurance and long term customer support, we can’t help with Nissan Leaf or Tesla-based battery systems. This is because they are typically used batteries. I don’t recommend this approach for the novice.
How do you know that it's electricity your bus is harnessing and not magic? (It's clearly magic.)
It is magic. You should see my old Electrical Engineering notebooks from when I was a student at Oregon State University. 500 years ago, I would have definitely been burned at the stake. That’s why this information is so hard to convey to the uninitiated.
Contact Garret and his team at AM Solar here.
Thank you to Stu the Bus for use of the image of their tilted solar panels. Watch a full tour of their bus here.
There's more then one type of solar panel... How do you choose the right panel? The short answer:Forget all that… Read More
AM Solar Skoolie Kits
Short Bus Kit
Full Timing Bus
- Written by Guest Writers
Ramblin Farmers share why they chose Havelock Wool as safe, sustainable insulation for their off-grid skoolie.
Logan Hailey is an ecological farmer, writer, and co-owner of Ramblin Farmers LLC. She lives full-time on the road with her partner Cheezy and three adventurous pups. Find them foraging wild plants & mushrooms, working on organic farms, and off-grid boondocking in their self-converted 2008 Chevy Bluebird short bus. Full Disclosure: Ramblin Farmers paid full price for their wool insulation over two years ago - no discounts, no promotions, and no affiliate linking. After seeing the results, they sought out collaborations with Havelock Wool because they love their products and their company. Logan was paid to write this blog post sharing her honest personal experience. All opinions expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Havelock Wool or Bus Life Adventure.
Written by: Logan Hailey of Ramblin Farmers
When my partner and I set out to convert a bus into a tiny home on wheels, we had absolutely no clue what we were doing. All we had was a dream to build a safe haven for life on the road and on farms with our three pups.
Like many, we taught ourselves carpentry, plumbing, solar electrical, and interior design along the way. It still amazes me how far we’ve come. What we didn’t realize is how much we would learn about the downfalls of conventional building products, namely insulation.
Breathing Clearly On the Road
I was diagnosed with chronic asthma and allergies from a young age and unknowingly suffered from Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) throughout my life. Indoor air quality can be up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air, often causing symptoms like headaches, brain fog, asthma, allergies, dizziness, nausea, eye & skin irritation, and muscle aches, collectively known as Sick Building Syndrome (https://www.cpsc.gov/Safety-Education/Safety-Guides/Home/The-Inside-Story-A-Guide-to-Indoor-Air-Quality/).
From day one, we knew that our bus needed to be free of chemical toxins and allergens so that I could breathe clearly and enjoy the road. But all around us, we saw skoolie builders proudly installing Spray Foam, Reflectix, and Polyisocyanurate foam board.
In my search for the perfect insulation to keep our bus warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and free of excess moisture and mold, I got lost down a rabbit hole of frightening studies on the health impacts of standard insulation options.
Toxins in Conventional Insulations
From fiberglass to spray foam to foam board, conventional insulations are some of the most toxic and carcinogenic materials on Earth. They are laced with cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde, isocyanates, polyurethane, and VOCs (volatile organic compounds).
They harbor mold, mildew, dust, and allergens. They seal in moisture, creating a lack of ventilation (which is a key factor causing SBS). Many require specialized equipment or protective gear to install. Not to mention, the production of these synthetic materials has a horrific impact on the environment, as well as factory workers exposed to them. No thanks!
The Ideal Alternative
Our insulation had to be:
1.) Simple to install by ourselves
2.) Affordable for a high R-value
3.) Non-toxic, allergy-free, without any cancer-causing chemicals
5.) Able to prevent moisture buildup or mold
It took countless hours of research before I finally found insulation that fit the bill: Sheep wool batts from Havelock Wool!
Finding Havelock Wool was a godsend. They spent hours on the phone with us answering all my questions (best customer service ever). They were completely transparent about their production processes, sourcing, and customer experiences. They talked us through measuring our square footage, preventing thermal bridging, maximizing airspace, and different install options.
At last, I thought. By then, I was desperate to insulate and move on with our build. We instantly ordered two bags of Havelock’s “Van Life” wool batts (which cover about 200 square feet) for $240 plus shipping.
The batts are 2” thick with an R-value of seven. It was more than enough to cover the ceiling, area above driver, and back walls of our 25-foot short bus. Unfortunately, we had already insulated our subfloor using pink foam board (huge regrets there). In hindsight, I wish I ordered four bags and insulated the whole bus (approximately 300 square feet of surface area on the floor, walls, and ceiling) for $480. That’s $1.60 per square foot.
Installing Sheep Wool
Our wool shipped quickly and arrived pristinely clean, soft, fluffy, and without any chemical smells. I could literally rub my face on it. No other insulation could make that claim, except maybe recycled denim, which is of course cotton, and we all know how jeans feel once they get wet (sounds like a moldy mess! but I digress…)
The wool felt dense and durable, ready to withstand all the crazy roads and unpredictable climates we travel through. After all, sheep wool has been used for thousands of years to insulate doors, walls, homes, and barns, as well as blankets, jackets, and socks. Wool has been found perfectly preserved in Egyptian tombs.
The batts were super easy to install and no protective gear was needed. Isn’t anyone else freaked out by the Hazmat suits they wear to apply spray foam? For more information see this article on why foam fails.
We simply slipped the batts between the aluminum roof and our cedar ceiling panels as we anchored each click-and-lock piece to the beams. Of course, this means we fully gutted our bus (every damn rivet) and we are very glad we did... the old school bus insulation under there was nasty, yellow, and moldy.
If I had a van or a framed ceiling structure, I would've used the cross-rope method. Then you can secure all the insulation in place before installing your ceiling or walls.
Benefits of Wool in a Tiny Home on Wheels
As we worked with the batts, I quickly discovered all the benefits of wool beyond the non-toxic, insulative capacities:
- It is naturally fire-resistant with zero flame retardants. We have tested this ourselves by attempting to light our insulation on fire several times... nothing happens.
- Wool is remarkably sound-deadening and often used for recording studio walls. It significantly cuts down on road noise in our bus.
- The wool is completely bug and insect resistant due to the naturally-occurring lanolin (produced by the sheep) and small additions of natural boric acid (borax), which is basically what your grandma used to wash clothes.
- I have investigated the wool in our ceiling several times over the past years by pulling out the ceiling lights and peeking underneath. It is just as pristine as the day we bought it! No bugs, no critters, no mold, no nothing. Speaking of mold, that was a huge worry for us. Having built our bus in the rainy PNW, we were all too familiar with the gnarly mold problems in nearly every conventionally-built home in Oregon. We also knew that lack of ventilation is a key threat to living in any vehicle, especially a bus.
- Metal and glass repeatedly accumulate condensation, regardless of how many windows are open or fans are running. One person exhales more than a cup of water into the surrounding air every day just while breathing normally.
- Wool simply absorbs excess moisture and slowly releases it back into the interior air over time. Havelock uses this as part of their marketing, but I have witnessed it work firsthand. Even during the longest, rainiest, 100% humidity months of PNW winter, the wool has never shown any signs of mold or mildew. It always feels dry and soft to the touch.
Wool-Insulation two Years Later
It took us one year to convert our skoolie into a non-toxic, eco-friendly space with clean, allergen-free air. We have been living in Magpie the Bus full-time on the road for nearly two years now, rambling from high mountains to warm deserts and everywhere in between.
Our dogs can safely stay in our bus home in most any weather while we are working on farms. The temperature and humidity levels stay comfortably moderated year-round. My lungs are breathing clearer than they have in two decades and I’ve ditched the asthma medications that I took every day since I was a toddler. I’ve got Havelock Wool to thank.
Clarification: Sheep Wool is NOT Rockwool. Keep in mind that Sheep Wool from Havelock Wool is FAR DIFFERENT than the health-harming Rockwool insulation, which is made with industrial waste and toxic slag. Havelock Wool comes from sheep freely roaming pastures of the New Zealand countryside. Rockwool is a synthetic, carcinogenic, and completely un-natural industrially manufactured product of melted basalt rock and “recycled” slag (aka industrial waste). Don’t get the two confused when insulating your bus conversion.
More Articles By Elizabeth Hensley
- Written by Guest Writers
Crackle and pop in a snap with these wood stove pro tips.
Written by: Elizabeth Paashaus, Deliberate Life Bus
Elizabeth has been heating her bus with wood since 2017 while traveling the country with her family in a self-converted 1994 Thomas Saf-T-Liner. Starting in 2018, she has been working remotely for Tiny Wood Stove helping people source and install wood stoves in their own tiny, mobile, and unconventional living spaces. The pictured stove is a Dwarf 5kw.
The stove is the thing people notice first when they come in our bus, especially if we have a fire burning. We chose wood heat for our bus conversion for the je ne sais quoi that wood fires have. A fire in a wood stove makes people want to gather ‘round and play games, eat a meal, or just sit by chatting. We like that if you put in a little work (finding wood, cutting wood, building tinder up nicely for an easy to start a fire), you can have the coziest space for very little to no money spent on fuel. And you don’t have to have any insider knowledge to figure out how to fix it if something goes wrong like you would with propane or an electric heater. Here are some tips for how to choose and install a wood stove for your bus
Get the Right Size
A properly sized stove can provide longer burns, plenty of heat for even the coldest winter days, and can even help manage the humidity in your home. Tiny Wood Stove has a BTU Calculator where you can put in the dimensions of your skoolie, how well you insulated it, and the coldest temperature you plan to stay in to get a sizing recommendation for whether you plan to use your stove as your only heat source or as a supplement.
A stove with an insulated firebox will help your fire burn hotter and more efficiently, a baffle and separate air controls to aid in secondary combustion will allow the flue gasses to burn more completely and add to the efficiency of your stove, and airtight construction of the firebox will give you longer burn time and more heat with less fuel consumption. Read more about how to compare efficiency between wood stoves.
Ah, the elusive tiny stove with an all-night burn. Longer burn times mean less work and larger wood stoves may even be able to keep a fire going all night, though selecting too large a stove for your space will overheat your bus. Some of the same features that increase a stove’s efficiency also increase it’s burn time such as separate air controls, a baffle for secondary combustion, and an airtight firebox.
Outside Air Supply
If your stove is not connected to an outside air supply, then it is using your pre-heated room air for combustion. Any air that's used from inside the room needs to be replaced with air leaking in from outside, so a wood stove can sometimes create cold drafts near leaky windows and doors. To avoid drafts, connecting your stove to its own outside air supply is a good option.
Where to Put Your Stove
In order to keep your bus cozy, you’ll want to consider where in the bus you’ll place your stove. Selecting a spot near the door is convenient for bringing in wood and sweeping out ash while a centrally located stove heats your space most evenly but doesn’t always align with your layout. If you need to place your stove further toward one end of your bus or you have walls that will make it harder to get the heat to one area, a heat-powered fan on top of the stove can make a big difference in heat dispersion.
Don’t trust pictures. People do frequently violate clearances and post the results online. Just because someone did it doesn't mean it's safe. Adequate clearances are one of the two most important safety features of any wood stove installation. (The other is proper materials.) But cheating on clearances can create a very dangerous situation. In most cases, clearance violations will not cause a fire immediately. As material is repeatedly heated, it deteriorates on a molecular level. After months or years of repeated heating, a surface that "hadn't had a problem yet" can spontaneously burst into flames. Because the actual clearance requirements for wood stoves are impractical for buses and other small spaces, most people will use a heat shield to significantly reduce the clearances. There are many ways to build a safe heat shield for clearance reduction but the most effective and most common is an air-cooled shield. That can be both simple to build and an attractive surround to your stove.
Is Wood Heat Right for Me?
Just like with any choice you make in your bus conversion, there are pros and cons of heating with wood. The questions you need to ask are: do the added work of chopping wood, lack of thermostat and mess of ashes outweigh the cozy feel of a wood fire, the dry heat that controls moisture in the bus, the simplicity of burning wood to stay warm, the ability to cook on top, and the freedom from reliance on propane?
More Articles By Elizabeth Hensley
- Written by Guest Writers
One night and you're home.
Lynne Larson explains the perks and process of becoming a South Dakota Resident
When traveling around the country full time, choosing the right state to call “home” for tax purposes is important. According to Bankrate’s “Best State for Retirement,” if you choose the "best state" to call home when traveling full-time or retiring, it will be about 20 degrees on Christmas, about 1,300 miles from either the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean and the state will have fewer people than the 15 largest cities in the United States. You only have to spend one night in this state, with a receipt using your South Dakota address, to start the residency process.
Becoming a South Dakota resident does not mean you are planning to live or be here for days or weeks or months. You are choosing South Dakota for your resident state to save money, (and because the Black Hills of South Dakota are beautiful!). South Dakota has no state income tax, no pension tax, no inheritance tax, no personal property tax, and there are no vehicle inspections. According to our Governor, Kristi Noem, South Dakota has the friendliest tax and regulatory system in the nation. It is one of the lowest taxed states in the country. According to the State Business Tax Climate Index, South Dakota ranked second in tax burden, which was driven by a lack of individual taxes.
Getting Set Up
Establishing residency in South Dakota can be done in three steps, which are outlined on our website, www.choosesd.com. You can also call me, Lynn Larson, at the South Dakota Residency Center office at 605-722-5270.
The first step is getting a physical address. Even if you don’t want to establish residency here, you may need a mailbox when you are traveling. Here you can sign up for a digital (virtual) mailbox. Your mail will be sent to us here at the South Dakota Residency Center. We then send pictures of the envelopes or packages to your smartphone, tablet, or computer by scanning them to you. On an app or on our website, you can see what envelopes or boxes are here for you. You then reply back through the app or website what you want done with your mail (scan the contents to you, forward it to you, or recycle/shred it). The basic digital mailbox service plan is $9.99 a month with no initial fees or set-up fees. You can be sitting in your bus reading your mail anytime and anywhere in the palm of your hand.
One Night Rule
Now that you have a physical address, which is not a P.O. Box but a real address, you need to spend at least one night in South Dakota at a campground or hotel using that address as your home address. Get a receipt from the campground or hotel because you need it to take it to the DMV to get your new driver’s license. Currently, in South Dakota, the DMV is requiring an appointment to get your new driver’s license and establish residency. You can book appointments at a South Dakota DMV at dps.sd.gov. Our office is located in beautiful Spearfish, SD, which is in the Black Hills and close to hiking and biking trails. Spearfish is also close to many areas with rock climbing, both water and snow skiing, and several Black Hills attractions. The award-winning KOA Campground is open year-round here in Spearfish.
For those who want to license and register their bus or another vehicle while in Spearfish, South Dakota, the treasurer’s office is only 17 miles away in a quaint town named Deadwood. You will need to have a weight slip for your bus after the conversion, the old title, and an affidavit of what you did to the bus. If you want to get an idea of what it will cost to register the bus in SD, you can call their office at 605-578-1862. If you have already paid tax on your bus, then you pay the difference up to 4%. This is because motor vehicles registered in the state of SD are subject to a 4% motor vehicle excise tax.
If you are homeschooling your children while traveling, you can stop in a school administration office to pick up a “public school exemption certificate” if you have established South Dakota residency. Or, you can get the certificate on the website, https://doe.sd.gov/. South Dakota requires a standardized test to be given at the end of 4th, 8th, and 11th grades. If you have questions about homeschooling as a South Dakota resident, you can contact Jill at the Spearfish School System administration office in Spearfish, SD at 605-717-1201.
If you love freedom, personal responsibility, feeling like part of a community, and a government that works for you, South Dakota is the place to be a resident. I encourage you to look up recent videos that Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota has placed online. She believes that “Freedom, not government, is the best friend of innovation.” If you are ever in the area, visit us here at the South Dakota Residency Center in Spearfish, SD, located in the beautiful Black Hills. We would love to meet you and hear your story.
More Articles By Elizabeth Hensley