Can You Rely On Solar Power For Your Tiny House RV?
The short answer is - YES, but you'll need to determine which solar system will work for you. Do this by calculating: 1) Your energy needs, 2) Your expected sun hours based on your geographical location, and 3) The optimal weight and size of your system
First, try using a solar calculator to determine your current electrical usage. You can also calculate your energy needs using this appliance chart. Next consider energy efficient or alternative powered appliances for your Tiny House RV to reduce your electrical usage and the overall size of your solar system.
Can you use an energy-star refrigerator or a propane refrigerator?
Can you switch your lights to LEDs?
Can you heat your space with a wood or propane stove?
Can you heat your water with propane?
Can you cook with propane instead of electricity?
Do you need a blender? A coffee machine? A microwave? A washer / dryer? A big TV?
If you plan on traveling with your Tiny House RV, it may be difficult (or impossible) to determine your average sun hours. You may want to purchase a larger solar system or reduce your electrical need. If you are caught in bad weather on your trip, and your solar system can not keep up, you can rely on campgrounds for an electrical outlet. You may also want to carry backup power - such as a gas generator.
Solar panels, batteries and inverters are usually heavy and bulky. This is an important consideration when determining the preferred system for your Tiny House RV. If you do NOT plan on moving your Tiny House RV, you can build an external shell for your batteries. You can then park your Tiny House RV in an ideal sun exposure location and mount solar panels to your roof, or mount your panels on a swivel rack that can turn for optimal sun exposure.
If you intend on traveling with your Tiny House RV, you will need to take care when considering the weight and storage of your solar system. I'm going to speak from my personal experience, as I travel with my solar powered Tumbleweed Cypress.
My Portable Solar System
I use the Goal Zero Yeti 1250 Solar Generator with four solar panels (two 100 watt panels and two 90 watt panels). I have one panel mounted to each side of my Tumbleweed for transport and the other two are stored in the bed of my truck. The panels in my truck charge my Yeti Solar Generator as we travel down the road.
You can see one of my panels mounted to the side of my Tiny House Rv in the above photo. The mount is also a hinge, and I add telescopic legs to prop the panel for ideal sunshine
I do not suggest mounting solar panels to the roof of your Tiny House RV if you intend on traveling, for two reasons: 1). You may not always park in an area with optimal sunshine. Having my panels separate and portable allows me to position and clean them easily. 2). Damage may occur from low hanging branches to panels mounted to your roof.
What I Love About the Yeti Solar Generator:
- It's an all-in-one system. The inverter, batteries and charge controller are combined to create a "solar generator." *Note: the Yeti generator cannot generate power without solar panels.
- It's extremely portable. It's on wheels! We store it in the cab of our truck when we are on the road.
- I can recharge it from a regular outlet if there is no sun.
- It weighs only 103 lbs. That may sound like a lot, but lead-acid batteries are heavy.
- It powers almost everything in my Tiny House RV. The Yeti can keep my computers, phones, and cameras charged, as well as my LED lights and water pump powered forever, as long as I have sunshine. It's a small system - only 1250 watt hrs, so I cannot use my hair dryer nor my space heater. I use alternative appliances to lower my electrical need: propane water heater, propane stove top, propane refrigerator, and a wood stove heater.
Tank water heaters vary is size and capacity (6, 10, 12, 16 gallons, etc)
Tank water heaters keep the water hot within the tank at all times, which can use substantial energy
Make sure, no matter which model you choose, that your heater is covered under warranty for DIY installation or hire a professional to install your water heater.
Electric Water Heaters & Solar Power
If you plan on powering your Tiny House RV with solar energy and prefer electric water heaters, your solar system needs to be able to accommodate your chosen appliance. Many of our solar customers choose to go with a propane RV water heater to conserve electricity.
Brittany Yunker's Electric Water Heater in her Tumbleweed
Brittany's Electric Tank Water Heater
Brittany Yunker owns a Tumbleweed Cypress with a six gallon RV tank electric water heater. This model retails at $270. In an effort to conserve energy, she switches her water heater on before showering and switches it off immediately after. It takes about twenty minutes to heat the water in the six gallon tank, therefore planning your hot water needs ahead of time is necessary with this method.
Jeff and Megan from Room To Spare Tiny House just produced a detailed video on their compact tankless electric water heater: the Heatworks Model 1. This product retails for $469. The price, specs and size make this model a real option for Tiny House RVs. We can't wait to hear how it's working out for them.
Propane water heaters require propane tanks to be stored on the exterior of your Tumbleweed. One model that we recommend is the Precision Temp RV-550NSP, which retails at $1,150. The major advantages of this water heater, aside from its ability to heat water in five to ten seconds, is that it provides 80 degrees of temperature rise and has an internal function that prevents freezing (more on that below).
No matter if you choose to have one propane appliance or more, we recommend storing at least two propane tanks on the exterior of your Tiny House RV - one in use and one as a back up. Maintaining full propane tanks requires some effort, but once you have a routine in place, it’s easy.
Most RV propane water heaters require a side vent, which can be an eye sore on the side of your Tiny House RV. Venting to the outside means that some piping will be exposed to freezing temperatures. The water inside the pipes can cause the pipes to burst if frozen. This particular problem is usually not covered by the warranty. Some models need to be mounted outside the Tiny House RV and are even more prone to freezing.
The Precision Temp propane water heater has a built in thermometer (available optionally), triggering the unit to fire up when the temperature falls below freezing. It also vents through the floor, so the vent hole will be hidden from sight.
Wouldn't it be nice to travel anywhere with your Tiny House RV without worrying about "plugging-in?" Ariel McGlothin just purchased a Tumbleweed 24 Cypress, and she customized her Tiny House RV to be completely off-grid, even in the cold winter climate of mountainous Wyoming.
"The propane heater built into my RV does an excellent job of providing steady, even and comfortable heat," Ariel explains. "The only thing I would prefer comfort wise is a heated floor as my feet have always tended to be cold, but I chose not to go with that due the the power use and knowing that (my Tiny House RV) would be off-grid."
Ariel's lofted bedroom
Ariel chose the 24 foot Cypress model, and her layout was customized to have a large kitchen for cooking meals from scratch. Some other customizations include: converting her closet into a pantry, adding a double sink and creating a smaller custom shower stall in order to make her kitchen larger.
"I use my oven and all four burners," Ariel explains. "So it (the full range appliance) is absolutely worth the space for me."
The benefits of being off-grid include self-sustainability, a lower carbon footprint and reduced utility bills, but it's not for the faint of heart. "(Being off-grid) is a commitment." Ariel admits, "I don't mind that, but it does require more thought than being plugged into the grid somewhere. I just have to be mindful of things."
When it's sunny out, Ariel is able to provide the electricity for her Tiny Home RV with solar panels. On a cloudy day, she switches on the generator to recharge her batteries. "I take an extra minute in the morning to run up the bank behind my RV to dust the snow off the solar panels," Ariel explains. "I recharge camera batteries and my laptop, while the generator is running."
2). Propane Appliances
Ariel's heater, water heater, stove and oven are all powered by propane rather than electricity. "I need to monitor my propane tanks and fill them as each one gets empty so I'm not suddenly without heat," Ariel comments.
Ariel's Tiny House RV has a 26 gallon water tank hidden under the kitchen sink. She fills this weekly by hauling jugs of fresh water to her RV and pouring them into the exterior water inlet. The tank could also be filled using a garden hose, if she had one nearby, and if it wasn't frozen.
Consumption wise, Ariel uses about 140 gallons of water a month not including her showers that are usually taken at the gym. "It's been fun to measure my use of things." Ariel tells us. Because of this, she has become very conscious of her usage.
Ariel has a Nature's Head composting toilet, the fan favorite for manufactured composting toilets in the Tiny House RV world. She dumps her urine container about once a week. The "solids" compartment is rated for 90 uses before dumping.
"None of this is hard, it's just a commitment to extra regular chores that people typically do not have any experience with these days." - Ariel McGlothin
For more details on Ariel's tiny house or off-grid living tips, check out her informative website here.
All photos provided by Ariel (who is an excellent photographer)! More of her work on her website.
I once met a vegan who ate plants because they were closer
to the sun. His reasoning: if plants get power from the sun, animals eat
plants, and we eat animals or their byproducts, we get shortchanged in the sun
department. By simply eating plants, therefore, he figured would close the gap and be fortified
with much more solar energy.
Luckily, the universe has finally come to its senses and
allowed cheese-lovers like myself an opportunity to harness the power of the
sun in a less calcium-deprived way: solar panels.
Soaking up the sun
It's hard to think of a better way to power a tiny house. After
all, you can get sunshine pretty much anywhere you bring your home. Install a
panel or two on the top of your house and boom! Good to go! Or, you can try my personal favorite and use a plug
and play system. This way, you can place your panels wherever you'd like.
Given the small scale of a Tumbleweed, a little
energy goes a long way. On a sunny day you've got yourself a pretty bright
little space already, and you'll probably want to spend your hours basking
outside on whatever gorgeous piece of land you're currently calling home. Then,
when the sun moves on to power another hemisphere, you tap into your stored
supply of solar juice, turn on a couple light bulbs, plug in your two or three
necessary electronics, and live it up.
That said: yes, the sun is great, and with some smart
investments, we should be able to do all we want electricity wise. But the
first way to save money and help our earth is to scale down our usage in general. Just because the sun shines fairly
reliably doesn't mean we should go crazy with it- after all, our usage of
electricity goes beyond what's powering our devices. We have to think about who is making
them and how, what they're contributing to on a larger scale, and if we
actually need all of them on a regular basis.
Start by figuring out what uses the most power, then figure out if there's another way you can swing it. For instance, an electric water heater will use a good amount of electricity. Instead, why not try a simple passive solar water heating system?
You can read about how Laura decided which appliances made the most sense here.
In a tiny house, you'll probably find it easy to realize exactly how
little you need- the rest will seem like clutter in no time. So live simply
with solar power, and live simply with your solar-powered devices. But more
importantly, get out and run around in that sun!
Have a good story about your solar powered tiny house?