Currently Wandering » Outdoor Family, Adventure Travel, Simple Living - Family of 5 Traveling the United States in an Airstream.

Solar Power Upgrade: Cost Breakdown

IMG_20150223_162758Let’s talk about costs.

Cost Description
$2070 Solar Kit from AM Solar
$157 Misc solar install expenses (including a $75 ladder)
$2227 Solar Subtotal
$428 Batteries (
$783 Inverter, remote, and automatic transfer switch
$413 Misc Battery/Inverter install expenses
$1624 Battery and Inverter Subtotal
$3851 Grand Total
$1155 Solar Tax Credit (30%)
$2696 After Tax Total

Self-Install vs Professional Install

When I originally planned solar, I was going to have a professional do the installation. I decided not to, partially because the conversations got weird, and partially because I got a deal on the panels. At the time, AM Solar was running a sale on their 135 Watt panels. I could get the larger panel for only $50 more than a $100 Watt panel, allowing 3 panels to provide 400 Watts instead of 4 panels. The installer I was talking to wouldn’t extend the same discount, despite using AM Solar panels.

The estimate for only 200 Watts of solar panels installed was $3,005. I installed 400 watts of solar for a total of $2,227 and two long install days. Along the way, I gained an education in DC power systems and RV wiring. The easiness of the install is easily credited to the completeness of the kit I got from AM Solar. It included nearly everything I needed. Note that my $157 of additional expenses included a $75 ladder that I passed off to a friend at the end of the project.

Misc Install Expenses

The AM Solar kit came with almost everything I needed, and the Inverter/Battery came with nothing extra. For both projects, I bought things like wire lugs, some tools that I didn’t already have, wire, caulk, and things like that. It is worth noting that I extended the height of the battery box with the help of my Welder Brother, and unless you have one of those in the family there will be some related costs.

As in all things, your mileage may vary. I include my costs as a way to plan to help you estimate your own.

Cost Benefits of Solar

Have I saved money because of my installed solar? Yes. Has it paid for itself? Let’s do some math:

Rounding the effective cost to $2,700, that should pay for itself in 270 days of $10 savings per day. How is this saving realized? Staying in dry camping sites instead of full hookups for a cheaper fee, boondocking longer, and easier truck stop/Walmart overnights.

I’ve not counted, but I estimate roughly 50 or 60 days per year where having solar made a financial difference for us. At that rate, we’d need savings over years and years to pay for the costs of our power upgrade. Note that this savings realization is heavily dependent on your travel style and may be far greater for those who boondock more.

To really evaluate the cost savings of solar, we must compare with the costs of running a generator. A $700 generator leaves about $1,500 for gas, and assuming a cost of $3 per gallon, buys 500 gallons of gas. A gallon will keep us recharged for about 2 days, so that’s about 1,000 days of charge for the same cost, or longer than we’ve been traveling at the point I’m writing this.

Is a solar install worth the investment for cost savings alone? For our traveling style, No.

Why then install Solar? I’ll say more on this another time, but the answer is convenience. We are able to leave our house overnight when taking backpacking trips (like this one out to Cumberland Island) and not worry about the fridge running out of power and melting all our ice cream. We also don’t have to pull out the generator and run it but instead our batteries just recharge themselves from the sun. Jess is also able to run her BlendTec blender off the inverter instead of lugging the generator out of the truck post-workout. Overall we have thoroughly enjoyed having solar power and are very happy we upgraded!

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