My only real goal this winter was get my solar upgrade done while I was in the Quartzsite area. I had set up an appointment at Discount Solar, a place that has a reputation for doing good work, but not at a discount price. The Quartzsite area gets busy over the winter, but I was there a little before the rush. My base while I was here was the Plomosa Road 14 day BLM, chosen in the hopes it would be a little less busy. Read on to find out how it all worked out!
I stopped in Parker for a resupply pitstop. Quartzsite has a pretty good small grocery store, but you’ll pay more for less selection. The Walmart in Parker is classed as a supercenter, but it is small compared to other supercenters. It is busy though – and you had better bring extra patience for all the seniors who seem perfectly happy to contemplate their choice of canned chili for five minutes while blocking the aisle. If you are wondering what Walmarts are like in Canada, this one is a close mimic in size and selection. Only the newer Walmart Supercenters are of the giant variety you see all over the States.
I came down to the Plomosa Road BLM and found it not too crowded yet. The BLM volunteer was not in on Mondays, so registration would have to wait until tomorrow. I drove a mile down Plomosa road, and turned into one of the side roads, driving as far in as I could. If you want fewer people, drive further in. Unfortunately, you are limited to about a half mile off the road before you hit signs telling you ‘day use only beyond this point’. So I scouted right around that area, as there were not too many people around there. I found myself a nice little arm of desert pavement to camp at the end of, that even gave me a few shrubs and trees to look at out my window. Good enough for one night until my solar install the following day. There was a van across from me in the next strip over, about 50 meters away, not as far as I’d like, but I was level so far enough!
I made a bit of a pest of myself at Discount Solar. They had to tell me several times to get out of their work area. I get it, one injury lawsuit can ruin your small business in the USA. But the experience was good overall. Even though I had researched my purchase in advance, I was still not sure about a few things like my battery separator. I was pretty sure I needed a new battery separator to control the charging between the house and engine batteries as the old one was designed to sense the voltage cutoffs of a lead acid battery rather than my new lithium batteries. Basically think of a battery separator as a controller that decides what charging device (engine alternator, solar, etc) is connected to your house and engine batteries. When this little magic box works correctly, it takes care of keeping your engine and house batteries charged, without letting your engine battery go flat if you draw down your house batteries too much. I suspected mine was no longer disconnecting, so I might be vulnerable to a flat engine battery if I drew down my new lithium batteries too much.
Discount Solar verified that I needed a new separator. As a bonus, this new box is solid state. That means no mechanical relays clicking on and off when my solar is at the tipping point of putting charge into my engine battery. They also caught a wiring deficiency in my new lithium batteries. My parallel connections between the batteries were too small for the draw I was putting them on with my 2000W inverter. These are the little things you miss as a DYI person. The techs also installed a fuse at my battery junction, something I had wanted but not gotten as part of my DYI battery/inverter install. My solar was upgraded from 100W to 480W with the addition of two 190W solar panels. I get a bonus 80W from my initial plan to have three 100W panels added.
About my only gripe was the argument the staff was having over if the Victron SmartSolar controller I selected could handle having two different kinds of panels on it or not. I know it is theoretically possible with the parallel connections I was getting, but had no idea either if the solar charge controller could handle it. After a long staff debate, a consensus was formed that I could use two kinds of panels. As a store manager, I would bring up the point that these kinds of debates should be kept away from the customers as it does not inspire confidence in your expertise. I get it however, there are so many products out there you can’t be sure of every little detail all the time. I certainly appreciate that the staff was trying their very best to ensure I had components that would work together. Part of the process in fact is to spend a half hour going over your current setup to make sure that what you are asking for will work in your current electrical system. That is why I am willing to pay more here: Discount Solar makes sure they get it right, and they have the expertise to handle pretty much any solar setup.
My solar install ended up being an all day affair so I had time to get laundry down while in Quartzsite. The Laundromat is a ten minute walk down the street, so off I went with my big dry bag full of laundry. I was glad to be in town early – this laundromat is super busy during the main season down here, but today there were only a few people in the place. My extended stay meant I had to get lunch somewhere. Taco Mio fit the bill, great Mexican food, but at a spendy price. Quartzsite is definitely a mixed bag for costs – day to day living expenses tend to be high, RV specialty services tend to be cheaper as a very loose rule.
My solar was finished just before Discount Solar closed for the day. We checked everything over and found the furnace was not working. Not again, I thought. But this time the problem was related to the install – fishing the wires through for the inverter on/off switch had disconnected the thermostat from the furnace, according to the code the thermostat was giving. A quick cover removal and some wire jiggling and all of a sudden everything is working again. I can’t say I like that solution – I know a connection is loose in there somewhere. But at least I know where to go if the issue crops up again.
The Victron SmartSolar controller I chose does not have a panel, rather you access the charging information over a Bluetooth connected cell phone. That meant my old charge controller display on the RV was obsolete, thus the replacement of the panel with the switch for the Renogy 2000W inverter. Now I open the Victron app to see what my charger is doing. As a techy, I really like the graph that can tell you exactly what the charge controller was doing, and what your battery voltage was at the time. Once you know your charge state voltages, you can estimate how full your batteries are, or if they are full, you will see the unit on float, with only a few watts being drawn from you solar for your current power usage. But I think for a lot of people who want simple, the Status screen telling you if you are ‘bulk’ (charging) ‘absorption’ (almost full), or ‘float’ (full) will be all you really need. A lot of RVers I have seen will wait until their batteries are full, then use the free solar remaining for the day for running extra stuff. You still have to be careful running high power items as your solar isn’t enough to run them without drawing down your batteries as well. But I’m a data nerd, so I love all the bar graphs and line charts the app gives me. Knowledge is power, and I now have a much better idea how much power I can use. For example, I know if I’m going to have a sunny day in the desert, I can run my electric space heater for a half hour in the morning and still be fully charged by the early afternoon. Pretty good for the shortest days of the year!
Overall, I’m really happy with my new solar setup. 480 watts of solar is enough power for me. My 2000 watt inverter allows me to run my microwave. My Victron solar controller allows me to see my charging and battery states with lots of detail. Going forward, I expect my generator only to come out when I’m in really cloudy/rainy places (Hello, BC), but so far, I have yet to start my generator down here in the desert. Join me next time, when I’m back to showing you more scenery of the desert, in my visit to the Quartzsite area after my solar install.