Review: Zamp Solar 200 Watt Portable Solar Charging System - ZS-200P
Sarah and I purchased our trailer with the intent of using it anywhere, including places with no hookups or only partial hookups. We will take and pay for hookups if we have to, but we did not want to be limited to places that only had hookups. There are many scenic locations that have no hookups at all, and our trailer has holding tanks and batteries for a reason!
Batteries alone are not enough for an extended trip without hookups, we need a way to supplement our power and re-charge the batteries. The two most common methods for this are generator power and solar power. Sarah and I own a Yamaha EF2000iS portable generator. It works great, but at the end of the day it's still a generator. Even though it's a "quiet" generator it's only quiet relative to other, louder generators, it still puts out a decent amount of noise. It's smelly and requires regular maintenance and a constant supply of gas (we may look into converting it for propane use for convenience). Though it is loud and smelly, it can be used to quickly bring our batteries from 50% to 80%, and works whether the sun is out or not.
We wanted to supplement our generator with solar power. Actually that's not true, we want the generator to supplement the solar, and only be used when we do not have access to sunshine due to weather, or a completely shaded campsite.
Solar is clean and quiet and largely maintenance free (solar cells usually have warranties of 20-25 years), but requires direct (non-shaded) access to sunlight to work.
We currently have two 6 volt Lifeline GPL-4CT 220 amp-hour AGM "golf-cart" batteries, wired in series for 220 amp-hours at 12 volts (this is an upgrade over 160 amp-hours that came with our Airstream). In general we try to be as conservative as possible with our power use, but even being conservative, we will not last more than a few days without having to add more power back in (especially if we want to keep the batteries healthy and not discharge them more than 60%). Note that whenever we talk about amps we are talking about DC (12-volt) amps.
Fixed Or Portable?
You can get fixed solar panels that are permanently mounted to the roof of your RV, and have the option to "tilt" them to face the sun. You can also get portable solar panels that connect to your batteries, that you can move around your campsite for optimum sunshine.
How are they different?
Fixed panels are hassle free. Once you install them you're done. You may occasionally want to tilt them, and very occasionally wash them off, but that's it. Portable panels require constant setup and tear-down, and need to be rotated throughout the day for maximum performance.
Fixed panels are harder to steal. Portable panels are easy to steal, you are less likely to leave them unattended for that reason.
Fixed panels work when you are driving your RV, portable panels only work when you are setup at your campsite.
Portable panels can be moved around your campsite, and located for optimum sunshine. Your campsite may be shaded (and you may want it to be shaded to be cooler), but you can still find bits of sunshine for your portable panel. Fixed panels can only face one direction, unless you want to move your RV (you probably do not want to do this). Shaded campsites are the enemy of fixed panels. The difference this makes cannot be overstated - portable panels, when placed in ideal locations, are much more efficient in catching sun than fixed panels.
Portable panels are easy to install, there is no installation! Simply hook the cord up to your battery. The solar controller is integrated with our portable panel. Fixed panels are much more difficult to install, although we could do it ourselves (at a glacial pace with a lot of cussing), we would prefer to have an experienced installer do it (and installs are not cheap). There are many installation design decisions you need to make, such as where to put the panels on the roof so that they will not shade each other or be shaded, where to put the solar charge controller, and where to run the wires. The actual installation can be at the very least time consuming if not tricky.
Sarah and I opted for a portable panel to start with, to get a feel for solar power and our electrical needs, and because it was cheaper than doing a full-fledged solar install. We will get fixed panels eventually, thereby reaping the benefits of both. We are also likely to upgrade our battery bank as well.
The Zamp Solar 200 Watt Portable Solar Panel
We looked for the largest capacity portable solar panel we could find and settled on the Zamp Solar 200 watt panel.
The Zamp Solar panel is very easy to use (see the video at solardealZ). The panel has a zippered nylon case for easy storage, folds up easily, and has an attached handle for carrying. The 200 watt panel is not light at 47 lbs., and this may be too much for some people to practically use but it's fine for me now (check back in 30 years!).
Included with the panel is a 15 Amp 5-stage PWM solar charge controller. The controller has an LCD display that shows the voltage coming off of the batteries, the instantaneous amps going into the battery, as well as cumulative amp-hours since the unit was connected to the battery. The controller has different charging profiles for different battery types, including AGM batteries which we use.
After taking the unit out of its case, unfolding it, and extending the legs, all you need to do is connect the red alligator clip to the positive terminal of your battery bank and the black alligator clip to the negative terminal of your battery bank. That's it, simple! The alligator clips can disconnect from the main cable so that you can leave them on the battery bank when putting the panel away.
The only issue we have with the design of this unit are the legs - they should be a little more robust (heavier and thicker and more securely attached to the panel). The legs are only long enough to face the panel at about 45 degrees. During the winter, especially, it would be nice to angle the panels even more (say 60 degrees) when the sun is lower in the sky. At 45 degrees the platform is definitely more stable than it is at 60 degrees (and should be stable in most conditions unless there is severe wind). At 60 degrees that stability would be reduced but we still wished it was an option. We will likely rig up something to allow us to tilt it a little more during calm periods. The 15 degree difference may seem insignificant but it can increase the amps going into the panel by 20-30%. A longer cord would be nicer as well, especially if you are in a shaded campsite, but you can buy a 15 foot extension cord if you find that that is an issue for you. The suitability of the panel also may depend on the accessibility of your batteries, ours are easily accessible in an external battery box on the tongue of the trailer, but if you have yours tucked inside somewhere inaccessible, the system may not work for you without modifications.
Our Results Using the 200W Zamp Solar Panel
Now the exciting part: How many amp-hours were we able to generate during a sunny day?
According to AM Solar (a highly reputable dealer and installer of fixed solar systems for RVs), it is reasonable to expect a 200 watt fixed panel to generate about 60 amp-hours over the course of a day (the math is this: 5 instantaneous amps for a 100 watt panel over 6 peak solar hours, or 30 amp-hours for the day for a 100 watt panel or 60 amp-hours for a 200 watt panel).
In the middle of winter near the solstice, we were able to get 90 amp-hours out of our portable panel. With an extra 4-6 hours of daylight per day during summer that number will increase dramatically. We continually got readings of 11 instantaneous amps. Most days had some cloud cover, and 70-80 amp-hours was more common. A fixed 200 watt panel would never generate 90 amp-hours over the course of a winter day.
One great thing about this portable panel with the LCD display on the controller is that it makes it clear what a difference angling the panel towards the sun makes in terms of performance. This difference is much more significant than we anticipated.
As mentioned earlier, Sarah and I are not done with our solar setup. We would like to get some fixed panels and a larger battery bank as well, but will always see the need for a portable panel to supplement our solar system, or to be used when fixed panels are impractical due to a shaded campsite. We highly recommend the Zamp Solar 200 watt portable panel. They have smaller sizes as well, though they cannot be easily combined together (since they have integrated solar charge controllers), so pick the size you want from the start.
During our 4 week trip to the desert (where we were without hookups), we only had to run the generator 4-5 times, and only on overcast/rainy days. We were able to stay a week in Organ Pipe Cactus National monument without needing the generator at all, and that was at a shaded campsite where fixed panels would not have worked well.
More information on the zamp solar panels
Other Solar Resources
Here are some more resources for you to research about solar if you are interested:
- AMSolar.com - A dealer that specializes in RV solar installations. Lots of good info on their RV solar educational page
- technomadia - An excellent RV blog with lots of great information on solar, batteries, mobile internet, and other topics
- Jack Mayer's RV Electrical - If you want to know the best practices for installing a fixed solar panel system, and get into the nitty-gritty, this is an excellent resource
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