I get asked by a lot of Vanagon owners how should they get started in adding a solar panel solution to their current setup. Many times they're overwhelmed by the amount of information, options and custom setups that have been described online. I wanted to find a good all around setup that anyone with a screwdriver and a pair of wire strippers could install in less than an hour without having to rip their hair out doing a ton of research online.
Another reason to find a quick, inexpensive and simple solar panel install option is that many people looking to add a solar panel setup to their van may not have a complete understanding of electronics. Manually piecing together a kit which includes wiring, solar panel(s), solar controller and other miscellaneous parts for the installation may be way over their head. I feel the option I'm about to describe will make things so much easier to understand.
The option I chose was the least expensive clocking in at about $285 total and was also the most efficient in regards to its portability. Having a portable solar panel setup allows you to setup camp in the shade and run the solar panel on a tether and placed in direct sunlight. I know here in Texas, especially in the summer we try to camp in any little bit of shade we can find. lol.
This post includes 5 sections... What I Used, Unboxing, Installation, Field Testing and Final Thoughts. If you read through all 5 sections you'll have a greater understanding of where to buy, how to install and how to use this solar panel setup. After reading the post, once you've gotten the parts I've laid out you can have your solar panel system up and running on your van in less than an hour. That's less than an hour from the point you take it out of the box until you're harvesting sunlight into your battery! Exciting right? Let's get started...
What I Used
- Renogy 100 Watt 12v Monocrystalline Foldable Solar Suitcase (With Controller)
- Battery Tender 081-0069-6 Ring Terminal Harness (Two of these are required)
- Battery Tender 081-0148-25 25' Quick Disconnect Extension Cable
- Innova 3721 Battery & Charging System Monitor (Not necessary but nice to have)
I purchased the Renogy 100 Watt Foldable Solar Suitcase from Amazon for $259.99 which also had FREE Prime 2 day shipping. If you're not a Amazon Prime member and frequently order from Amazon I highly recommend you consider a membership. I know mine has paid for itself many times over in just Free Shipping...
This is how the package arrives from Amazon.
The solar panel suitcase arrives in a stock Renogy cardboard box with styrofoam cushion end caps for protection during shipping.
Once the solar panel is removed, you'll notice its nice padded case that is used to help protect the solar panel itself when stored in your van.
The riveted heavy duty, spring loaded handle is what helps you carry the 28lb solar suitcase around.
The padded case is definitely better than I originally expected. I assumed it would be much thinner and more bag like. I am pleasantly surprised that it is a very nice quality padded case.
The solar panel fits nice and snug into the padded case. No sliding around that's for sure.
The one thing I have not been pleased with during my 6 weeks of field testing is the lightweight aluminum latches. They're very dinky and cheap for lack of a better word. They just don't close very well. I understand that in order to make this entire kit available at a good market price that some corners have to be cut in regards to the quality of included components. It's a necessary evil I suppose.
The handle on the other hand feels very strong and sturdy in my mind. I have no complaints about it even though I've noticed other users would like a beefier option. I feel this handle is adequate and functions just fine.
Corner protectors are a nice touch. They'll offer some protection in the every day use of this panel when placing it on the ground and rotating it around in order to follow the sun. They're not meant to absorb a large impact if the panel is dropped on the ground for example. I just don't think they offer that level of protection nor do I feel that was Renogy's intent. So in short, don't go dropping the panel on the ground. lol.
The hinges aren't much to write home about either but they do their job just fine. No complaints.
With the solar panel opened you can see all that is included in this package. Its a very nice, well thought out kit. Everything from the Solar Controller to the adjustable legs and wiring can be housed within the folded solar panel so its all self contained.
The kit I purchased includes a 10 Amp PWM Solar Charge Controller. Renogy does offer suitcase kits without the charge controller for a little less but in this review I wanted to choose a kit that a complete beginner to solar charging can purchase and get going in their system relatively easily.
The backing support plate of the charge controller has velcro on it in order to keep it fixed to the back of the solar panel while its setup and operating. The velcro is a very cheap grade and can't hold the weight of the controller to the back of the solar panel. Is this a bad thing? Well honestly, I don't think so. In fact I prefer it this way. I'd much rather have the solar controller hang off the back of the solar panel and not in direct contact with it. Having that space between the two allows the controller stay cool and not transfer heat from the solar panel itself.
The PWM Charge Controller comes with the solar panel already wired up. You just need install the wiring from the Charge Controller to your own battery system and thats it. One thing worth noting is that the solar panel itself is weather resistant but due to the open, exposed wiring connections of the PWM Charge Controller it is NOT water resistant. So if it begins to rain I'd suggest bringing the panel inside the van in order to help protect the controller from the elements.
The spec sheet that's attached to the rear of the panel.
Another way to keep costs down is to not include a printed instruction manual. The included flyer states that there is a manual available for download on the Renogy website. It took me awhile to locate the manual online since it wasn't as easy to find as it should be. For your reference the manual direct link is located HERE.
Included are a set of fused (10 amp) alligator clips with MC4 connectors and a short pigtail. This can be used to get your solar panel hooked up and working but I recommend a different approach. I found the included wiring to be way too short for my needs so I won't detail the installation of the included wiring. Explanation of how I recommend installing this solar panel to your battery system is detailed later in the INSTALLATION portion of this post.
The adjustable legs on this solar panel are one of the coolest features. They're very sturdy and easy to use. Unlike other items in this kit, these were not skimped on as far as I could tell.
Simply loosen the wing nut and slide the leg out.
Once you've extended the leg, tighten the wing nut and the leg will be locked in place. Repeat the process for the other side.
So far I'm very impressed with the Renogy 100w Kit so far. Overall the construction is very good even though there are a few things I'm not crazy about. The cheesy latches being one of them but I understand in order to achieve a certain price point some inexpensive components are required. That's just how business is... If we want a reasonably priced kit, the company still has to make a profit so sometimes less than perfect components need to be used. Just hopefully they didn't skimp on the solar panels themselves!
Once the legs are extended and the solar panel is in place, its very sturdy. This setup should do well in windy conditions as the weight and the construction of the legs should keep it nice and stable. It certainly won't be blown over.
The items I purchased for the installation to follow are a Battery Tender 081-0148-25 25' Quick Disconnect Extension Cable and two Battery Tender 081-0069-6 Ring Terminal Harnesses. All three items together can be purchased on Amazon for about $25 total and are Prime eligible so shipping is free.
One of the two Battery Tender 081-0069-6 Ring Terminal Harnesses is to be left as-is and installed onto the auxiliary battery you're looking to charge. The harness comes with a 7 amp fuse which might not be big enough so I replaced it with the 10amp fuse that was included in the Renogy alligator clip wiring that I mentioned earlier. Now our wiring has the correct size fuse installed. Installing this harness is very straight forward. Black ring terminal (-) gets installed onto your negative battery post. Red (+) ring terminal gets installed onto your positive battery post.
The second Battery Tender 081-0069-6 Ring Terminal Harness is to be modified. This harness will be installed at the solar controller mounted on the solar panel. Since the solar controller has connections for bare wire we simply need to cut the harness and remove the portion of wire that includes the ring terminals and fuse holder as shown in the photo. Strip the wire back about a 1/4" inch and you're ready to install.
My auxiliary battery is located under my driver's seat so the 18" long harness is plenty long enough to route near the door opening. This is where one end of the Battery Tender 081-0148-25 25' Quick Disconnect Extension Cable will connect to. Anytime the solar panel is not connected be sure to use the protective rubber caps to cover the ends of the SAE plugs so that there is no chance of short circuiting anything. This is a must just to be safe.
For now I simply run the wire out of the van and along the ground to where my solar panel will harvest the most sunlight. I can still close the door on the wire if I'd like to or thread the wire through the small door vent window in order to connect to the Ring Terminal harness. It's totally up to you how you'd like to route it.
This next portion is the most complicated part of the installation so pay close attention.
Since we're using another Ring Terminal Harness for the solar controller that's made for connecting to a battery we have to install it a little differently on the solar controller. We have to flip the polarity of the wiring so that it matches the rest of the system that we've already installed. Sounds confusing but it's not...
The connector located on the modified pig tail that we shortened has polarity markings, a + and a - symbol. In this case we need to install the wire marked with a + to the solar controller connection marked with a -. Then we need to install the wire marked with a - to the solar controller connection marked with a +. That will in turn make the modified pigtail match the polarity of the rest of the system we've already installed.
Use a small flat head screwdriver in order to tighten down the the set screw onto the bare wire and make a good solid connection.
Now your solar panel should be up and running! See, that wasn't so hard right?
I've used this solar panel for about 6 weeks now on 3 different long campouts. I wanted to run the solar panel kit through its paces before putting my thoughts together in this review.
I store the 25ft extension cord in the solar panel which makes it very convenient. One less step to worry about when setting up and/or breaking down.
Once the shortened pigtail is installed onto the solar controller you don't ever have to mess with that connection again. Leave it as is connected to the extension cord.
The following test was done while camping on the beach in Port Aransas, Texas. Plenty of sun, no clouds and no other obstruction of the sun. Your results may vary based on your conditions of course. Having the long extension cord allows you to camp where you like and place the solar panel where it'll harvest the most sunlight. Very efficient.
Okay let's run through some usage numbers and time frames so you can get an idea of how this solar panel setup works.
I attached the solar panel to my van and the auxiliary battery's State of Charge is at 46%.
The solar panel voltage is 14.4v and it's currently outputting 5.7amps to my auxiliary battery.
The charge controller has a built in timer as well. Shown here it's been 1 hour and 10 minutes since I first plugged up the solar panel to my van's auxiliary battery. This timer will reset every time you disconnect and connect the panel to your auxiliary battery system since it uses the auxiliary battery to power the charge controller.
The current State of Charge is now 91%. That's a huge jump in only a little over an hour.
The solar panel voltage is 16.3v and it's currently outputting 3.9amps to my auxiliary battery. Amount of sunlight hasn't charged so I assume that it's starting to ramp down the output since it's getting closer to a full charge.
Now 2 hours and 25 minutes have passed.
The current State of Charge is now 100%.
The solar panel voltage is 17.9v and it's currently outputting 2.8amps to my auxiliary battery.
Even though the solar controller says the battery has fully charged in the 2 1/2 hours its been hooked up I still opt to leave it out all day and keep the battery topped off. This helps offset the amount of battery I'm using for my Engel fridge, phone chargers and other miscellaneous 12v accessories. If the sun's out... so is my solar panel! Can't pass up free power!
All in all I am VERY pleased with this Renogy 100 Watt Foldable Solar Suitcase. For a total price of about $285 anyone can enter the world of harvesting sunlight in order to charge your batteries. Even with the few little things I wasn't too crazy about like the dinky latches I still find the overall product very well done and very efficient. I can easily look past the minor imperfections as the product as a whole is a winner in my book.
The only downside I can see would be storing this solar panel as you travel. I have my top bunk removed so I store my panel in that area. Others that need that upper bunk could just store the solar panel suitcase in the back of the van on top of the deck lid cushion.
See... it's not as expensive or as hard as you thought it would be to set up a solar panel system. Sure there are other more expensive and more complicated options out there but the purpose of this article is to find a good kit that's efficient and reasonably priced that can be installed quickly by anyone regardless of their level of skills. I feel that the Renogy 100 Watt Foldable Solar Suitcase fits this bill perfectly.
One last little item I'd like to recommend to go along with your solar panel setup is a Innova 3721 Battery & Charging System Monitor. It's simply a meter that plugs into your cigarette lighter socket in order to measure the current voltage of your battery system. It runs about $12 on Amazon but comes in very handy for me in checking my battery voltage.
Here's an informative chart you can reference to gauge allowable battery levels. It states that down to 11.9v is still in the green but I try to never let my batteries get that low. 12.1v or 12.2v is what I consider my lowest allowable voltage.
I hope you've enjoyed this writeup on the Renogy 100 Watt Foldable Solar Suitcase and it's installation. If you have any questions about anything you've read here or maybe have a question about something I may not have covered feel free to leave a comment down below and I'll respond directly. Thank you.