If you are thinking of purchasing conventional, wet type batteries, most Motorhomes will require two. One for starting and one for powering the Motorhomes domestic lighting, refrigeration, pumps and accessories.
For the best performance and life, the starting battery needs to be the type that allows high cranking amps with reserve for starting. If you are purchasing Wet Type Batteries, or Flooded Acid Type as they are sometimes called, they have more plates per size (thinner) than a Deep Cycle Battery to give higher cranking ability. They are not suitable for powering the domestic requirements, as they are not designed to be deep cycled and recharged.
They will fall apart internally in a short time if used for this service and are not a good investment in the long term. For the domestic requirements in a Wet Type Battery, a true Deep Cycle Battery is required for good life and reliability. These types of wet batteries have fewer (but thicker) plates and heavier duty separators for cyclic use, deep discharging and charging. They will give good service if charged and maintained properly. If charged properly, they will require water regularly.
There are some newer types of battery technologies available, which have definite advantages for motor caravaners over the wet types for both starting and deep cycling applications. For one, they do not require any maintenance at all, other than charging correctly (i.e. you never have to add water). They do not discharge themselves like wet batteries if left standing. For instance, they can be left for 6 months or more when fully charged and still be able to start your engine or power your Motorhome requirements. Conventional wet batteries will discharge themselves as much as 5% or more per week, whereas the newer technology types discharge themselves less than 1% per month! The wet Deep Cycle type will require an Equalisation Charge regularly to get good cyclic life. The newer technology types do not require any equalisation to achieve long life and good cyclic ability. These new technology batteries are generally referred to as VRLA (Valve Regulated Lead Acid), Sealed Type or Recombination Batteries. There are two main types, GEL and AGM.
GEL Batteries are exactly as they are called. Their electrolyte or acid is combined with silica and other chemicals to "immobilise" the acid in gel form. They have the advantage of not stratifying the normally liquid acid, and generally do not require any equalising. They are quite efficient compared to wet batteries but require a very careful charging regimen, and will give good long life if charged and discharged within their prescribed regimen. They do not have, for their size, as high a cranking capability for starting, and cannot be charged as quickly, or accept charge as well as wet type or AGM. GEL types tend to be more expensive than either wet or AGM batteries.
AGM stands for Absorbed Glass Mat and are sometimes referred to as Starved Electrolyte Batteries. They have specially constructed plates, which have been wrapped with a strong, micro-porous glass mat, and the electrolyte is held tightly to the plates. These plates are also compacted within the battery, which makes them very strong and rugged. There are a number of different varieties of this type of battery, but the better ones have the ability to operate in both a deep cycle mode with very high cranking ability for starting, and also have the ability to accept charging quickly and efficiently.
In other words, they are a true dual purpose battery, and you do not have to buy two different types of batteries which require different charging regimens to properly keep them charged. Another plus is that they are a very safe battery as they are allowed to be carried on aircraft and they are not classified as Dangerous Goods. Both GEL and AGM do not give off gas when charged normally within their specifications, so are not dangerous like wet batteries when charging and discharging. They can be safely mounted anywhere inside, and do not have to be upright.
All being equal, AGM's will give better service, longer life and cost less to operate in the long run. Additionally, if you are considering putting Solar charging on your Motorhome, the additional charging efficiency gained and the low self discharge of AGM's ensures they will more than pay for themselves in the long run.
Have a look at our range of AGM batteries
SLA (Sealed Lead Acid) batteries come in a number of types: AGM, GEL and 'so called' Maintenance Free types. Because these batteries are sealed, you cannot use a hydrometer to measure their STATE OF CHARGE or SOC. They either need a very accurate DC Voltmeter (digital preferred), or a true Ampere Hour Meter, which is by far the most accurate and easily understood way. If you are going to use a Voltmeter, you will need one that has a resolution and accuracy of one tenth of a Volt or better. Your battery will also need to be in a steady state, that is, not to have been either charge or discharged for at least 6 hours previous, for reasonable accuracy. This Steady State, for all practical purposes, is hard to achieve in the real world. Most installations require a battery input most of the time, like powering gas alarms, monitoring systems, or the memory back-up for a car type stereo. Also, all forms of charging must be disconnected during this period. Disconnecting the battery, in most cases, is really not practical for the measuring of its SOC.
Ampere Hour Meters, or True Battery Monitors as they are sometimes referred to, are really the only practical way of telling accurately whether an SLA battery has really been charged enough. Most of the True Battery Monitors can also give you a lot of information about what is really happening in you electrical system. Because they count the real Amp Hours that your electrics have used out of your battery, you will know how much you will need to replace. Most give you Amp Hours removed and % left in you battery. Then when you battery is being charged it will count up to 0 and will let you know that all the power you have removed has been replaced. If they are programmed correctly (which is very easy in most of the newer units), they will automatically calculate for the efficiency of your battery type and give you a very accurate answer as to SOC. In our experience, the advent of Battery Monitors will make living with a DC system powered by batteries a pleasure and are a real necessity if you want your system to be reliable and your investment in batteries long lasting.
Recommended makes of battery monitors that we have tested and used are:
The best way to determine if a Wet Type Battery is charged, is to use a hydrometer. This, however, is not always convenient, for I have noticed that most batteries are located in locations difficult to access in order to do this properly. Using a hydrometer is messy, and can be dangerous, although it is a very accurate way of determining the State of Charge of a Wet Type Battery. There are some precautions - the reading will not be accurate if you have just topped up the water, or if the batteries have been stationary and not charged for some time, as the acid will start to stratify and become weaker at the top than at the bottom. All wet batteries need an equalisation charge regularly for this reason, besides bringing up the weak or lazy cells.
Below is an accurate table of % of charge in relationship to voltage and specific gravity in 12 & 24 VDC Wet Battery Systems, as measured by a hydrometer. To make determining charge state easier, Expanded Scale Voltmeters and Ampere Hour meters, or Battery Monitors, are the most convenient, especially the Ampere Hour meter. Expanded Scale Voltmeters are only accurate if the batteries have been static for some time, meaning no charging or discharging taking place for 6 hours or more. This is not always convenient or easy to achieve. A much more convenient and very accurate way is to use and Ampere Hour meter, or Battery Monitor as they are usually referred to. These not only give you very accurate voltage and instantaneous Amps, but will also show most importantly the percentage of battery charge remaining, how many Amp Hours have been used up, and when the battery is fully charged. Some also tell you how many days since the battery was fully charged. Lowest and highest battery voltage are also included in some units for keeping a check on how the battery is being charged and discharged. Some have total Amp Hours used, like an odometer in an automobile, to measure total battery life.
Specific gravity values can vary +-0.015 points off the specified values. This table is for a flooded battery in a static condition, no charging or discharging occurring, at 25C.
|Percentage of Charge||12 Volt Battery||24 Volt Battery||Specific Gravity|
Have a look at our range of Battery Monitors
The main function of a Solar Controller or Regulator is to fully charge a battery without permitting overcharging. If a Solar array is connected to Lead Acid Batteries with no overcharge protection, battery life will be compromised. Simple controllers contain a relay that opens the charging circuit, terminating the charge at a pre-set High Voltage and, once a pre-set Low Voltage is reached, closes the circuit and allows charging to continue. The most sophisticated controllers have several stages and charging sequences to assure the battery is being fully charged. The first 70- 80% of battery capacity is easily replaced. It is the last 20- 30% that requires more attention and therefore more complexity.
The circuitry in a controller reads the voltage of the batteries to determine the State of Charge. Designs and circuits vary, but most controllers read voltage to reduce the amount of power flowing into the battery as the battery nears its full charge. Features that can be included with controllers are:
Some systems require all of these functions, others require only one or a certain combination. We can help you select a unit to meet your specific needs.
Charge controllers are rated and sized to the systems they protect by the array current and voltage. Most common are 12 Volt, 24 Volt and 48 Volt controllers. Amperage rating run from 4.5 Amps to 60 Amps.
For Example: if one module in your 12 Volt system produces 3.5 Amps and four modules are utilised, you produce a total of 14 Amps of current at 12 Volts. Because of light reflection and the Edge-of Cloud effect, sporadically increased current levels are not uncommon. For this reason, increase the controller Amperage by a minimum of 25%, bringing the minimum controller Amperage to 18.7 Amps. Looking through our products, you'll find a 20 Amp controller, as close a match as possible to this. There is no problem with going to a larger controller, besides possible additional cost. If you think your system may increase in size, additional Amperage capacity should be considered at this time.
The chart below shows the average effective output to expect per day from summer to winter, with older technology PWM controllers, and newer MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) style controllers. While in good solar conditions the difference is not so great, in winter and marginal light the MPPT controllers can produce about 35% more from the same solar source.
Sizing of Deep Cycle Batteries is critical to the performance of electrical items. Insufficient capacity results in systems failure, poor battery performance and shortened battery life. Remember that a battery only stores power. Charging capacity with the number of hours is equally as critical to good battery performance. Periodically ensure your battery is fully recharged. Establish the power consumption of each accessory (in watts or amps), the number of operating hours you will use it and the electrical systems voltage
|Watts / Volts = Amps Amps x Hrs in use = Amp / Hrs|
|Circuit||No.||x||Watts||/||Volts||=||Amps||x||Hrs / Day||=||Amp / Hrs / Day|
|TOTAL 26.59 AMP / HRS PER DAY|
For this example, the total usage is 26.59 Amps between charging periods, if charged every day. For safe assurance and longevity of battery life multiply the usage (26.59 Amps) x 5 ~ 6 = 132.95 ~ 159.54 Amp / Hrs. Therefore, you will require a minimum of a 130 Amp Hr battery.
When you connect your
batteries in either series or parallel, you don't get double
the Voltage AND double the Capacity (Amp-hrs):
In series you get double the voltage, in parallel you get double the capacity.
When connecting batteries in series, you get double the Voltage at the same Capacity. For example, if you have 2x 6V260Ahr batteries, when you connect these in series, you would end up having 12V power with 260Ahr capacity.
Another way of thinking about this is if you have 2x pipes that are 6 units long and 260 units in diameter. If you put both these pipes into series (one after the other) then they are a total of 12 units long, but their diameter doesn't change.
So if you look at batteries like this, if you put 2x batteries in series, you will add the Voltage together, where the Capacity (Ahrs) doesn't change.
When connecting batteries in parallel, you get double the Capacity at the same Voltage. For example, if you have 2x 12V130Ahr batteries, when you connect these in parallel, you would end up having 12V power with 260Ahr capacity.
Another way of thinking about this is if you have 2x pipes that are 12 units long, and 130 units in diameter. If you put both these pipes into parallel (one beside the other) then they are a total of 130+130 in diameter, but their lengths doesn't change.
So if you look at batteries like this, if you put 2x batteries in parallel, you will add the Capacity (Ahrs) together, where the Voltage doesn't change.
Solar modules and Motorhomes with batteries are a natural match.
Since batteries are charged when travelling, Motorhomes normally depend mostly on the vehicle's alternator for the primary power source. Power to charge the battery bank is also provided through a battery charger when plugged into mains power. However, for those who like to spend days, weeks or longer not travelling and not plugged in, Solar Panels can mean freedom. And because a Solar array can put as much power into you batteries during an hour of bright sun as a small petrol generator, it can also mean reclaiming peace and quiet. As well, the Motorhome's existing battery bank and fused box make the transition to Solar a smooth and economical one.
While most Motorhome systems utilise 1 to 2 modules, it is important to analyse your power needs. Just as with all Solar systems, you need to consider the Wattage of appliances and lights you are powering, as well as the average hours used each day. Unlike most other systems however, Motorhomes travel through different regions of climate, park at varying angles to the sun, sometimes in shade and sometimes not. People with similar vehicles can have very dissimilar power usage and patterns of travel. These factors should all be considered when deciding on which, and how many, Solar Panels you need. If you have any question about how to go about this, please give us a call.
Your Solar charging system will pay for itself several times over by increasing battery life and reducing the amount of time you spend on camp-ground hook-ups and generator maintenance. Batteries that are Deep Cycled too many times, or sit idle for several months, can be permanently damaged. Solar modules provide a daily maintenance charge for your batteries and eliminate this problem. By recharging every day, the depth of discharge is reduced, and your battery life and performance are greatly improved.
Solar Panel output is dependent on light intensity and exposure time in the sun. You'll be amazed at how much power your system provides on a bright day. And even in cloudy weather, your panels will produce power although at lower output.
The more Solar Panels you can fit onto your roof, the better your system will be. This does not need to be done all at once, but can be spread over time. If you have no heating or cooling loads (i.e. refrigeration is running on gas when freedom camping) then you could start with a single 90 Watt or 120 Watt Solar Panel. See how you go. Are you running out of battery power on a daily basis and having to start the engine to boost you batteries? Then you need more Solar Panels. As long as you initially install a Solar Regulator large enough to take additional panels, and leave sufficient extra cable length up top on the roof, you can easily add more Solar Panels when needed.
Have a look at our Solartech Solar Panels
While on the subject of using Solar Panels for power, it might be a good idea to explain how much power can really be produced by a Solar Panel to charge batteries and how that equates to usable power to power your loads.
A good 85 Watt Solar Panel mounted flat on the roof of a Motorhome will produce an average of 255 Watts per Summers day charging into batteries. This would be the usable power available from the batteries to run appliances, after all losses including regulators, and the efficiency of batteries. In Winter it would be a little more than half that figure.
Now, how does that equate to the Amp Hour storage in the batteries or what your loads are. If we take the figure of 255 Watts per day and divide that by the nominal charging voltage of 14 VDC for a 12VDC system, we could have replaced approximately 20 usable Amp Hours into our batteries. That would be enough for a very basic electrical system.
If, for instance, though you have an average 80 to 110 Litre fridge, which requires about 40 Amp Hours per day (running 24 hours) you would need at least 2 x 85 Watt Solar Panels to sustain the fridge only. In other words, a good installation would normally require 2 x 120 Watt Solar Panels to power both a DC fridge and other essential electrics, if there was no other charging source to keep the batteries well charged. In Winter, the above system would run at a deficit, and another 120 Watt Solar Panel would be needed in order to be completely independent. If might also require a bit of extra electrical conservation.
You can increase the average output of Solar Panels per day, especially in Winter, by aiming more at the sun. That is not as difficult as it sounds. A number of Motorhomes do this, and get almost twice the power in Summer, and 3 times the amount of power out of their Solar Panels in Winter, especially in the South Island. Most Motorhomes also have provision to charge their house batteries while driving, and if you drive for a few hours every few days, that will help put some Amp Hours back into the house batteries, especially if the system has been set up correctly. Most Motorhomes also have a 240 VAC charging system, and if this is a good Deep Cycle Battery charger, it will fully charge the batteries over night. This would, of course, require going to a Camp-ground and plugging in. It could be that the washing need to be done to, as a good excuse. Some Motorhomes also carry Generators to supplement their power usage, and also for emergency. With the new type of Inverter-Generators and a larger charger, this can be a reasonably efficient and quiet way to charge the house batteries when you do not have enough Solar Panels or you have lots of rainy days.
The size of a battery for an alternative power system is an important decision too. Too little storage will cause the battery to be too deeply discharge often and will drastically shorten its life. A rule of thumb here is to take you average consumption per day in Amp Hours and multiply that by at least 4 or even better 6 times, to get good battery life. In practice, this means that if your average daily consumption is about 50-60 Amp Hours per day, then you would need a 200 to 360 Amp Hour battery system for a reliable system and reasonable battery life.
Totally alternative power is possible, and practical (no LPG or Generators), if one is willing to spend enough money on Solar Panels, Batteries and a large Pure Sinewave Inverter.
One such installation is our own converted 9 meter Hino Bus. It is all alternative power, meaning everything is electrical operated including all of our cooking, except for barbecuing, which is wood power of course for flavour. Even the Solar Panels are raised electrically by the push of a button. The only other charging source is a very large heavy duty 24 VDC alternator with a very smart 3 stage regulator which will produce 70 Amps with the Hino engine idling, and up to 200 Amps it needed when running. We have had this system operating for 6 years now, and would do it all the same again if we did another bus, but would probably include a built in Inverter-Generator in case we stay somewhere for more than a week and it rains every day!
Solar Panels are very sensitive to shading. Unlike a Solar Thermal Panel, which can tolerate some shading, many brands of Solar Panels cannot even be shaded by the branch of a leafless tree.
Shading obstructions can be defined as soft or hard sources. If a tree branch or roof rack is shading from a distance, the shadow is diffused or dispersed. These soft sources significantly reduce the amount of light reaching the cell/s of a Solar Panel. Hard sources are defined as those that stop light from reaching the cell/s, such as a tree branch, bird dropping, or the like, sitting directly on top of the glass. If even one full cell is hard shaded, the voltage of the Solar Panel will drop to half of its unshaded value in order to protect itself.
Partial shading even one cell of a 36 cell Solar Panel, such as our AAS-85W, will reduce its power output. Because all the cells are connected in a series string, the weakest cell will bring the others down to its reduced power level. Therefore, whether half of one cell is shaded, or half of a row of cells is shaded, the power decrease will be the same and proportional to the percentage of area shaded, in this case 50%.
When a full cell is shaded, it can act as a consumer of energy produced by the remainder of the cells, and trigger the module to protect itself. The module will route the power around that series string. If even one full cell in a series string is shaded, it will most likely cause the module to reduce its power level to half of its full available value. If a row of cells at the bottom of a module is fully shaded, the power output may drop to zero.
The best way to avoid a drop in output power is to avoid shading whenever possible.