RV Solar Power System Maintenance
RV Maintenance – What an oxymoron. Recreational Vehicles are for recreating, not something to be constantly working on. Put those tools down and go relax! But even while driving a car you have to pay attention to your gasoline levels, and that’s a form of vehicle maintenance. So, by definition, everyone performs some kind of service on their primary vehicle fairly regularly.
What about an RV? Well, that will vary from rig to rig. But solar charged batteries on an RV require some extra care. Here are some maintenance suggestions along with the minimum frequency these “services” require. After reading, see how you can fit these basic chores into your RVing lifestyle.
FYI – Calling for a tow when you’re stuck out in the woods, is also not RVing…
There are the three categories or pieces of an RV’s Solar System that may require maintenance:
Solar Panels (either mounted on the roof or portable)
Solar Charge Controller System (and the remote if installed)
Battery Bank (Flooded, AGM, GEL, or Lithium)
(Fuses and potential wire connection oxidation are also areas to check, but these items are included in one or more of the three solar categories listed above.)
Solar Panels – Clean the solar panels as desired for optimum performance. After a hard rain, clean them. After a drive through dust or dirt, clean them. Sitting in a dry nearly wind free area – they can still get dirty from birds, plants, trees, and flowers that secrete sticky goo – clean them using water or 92% alcohol or a combination. Infrequent cleanings won’t harm the panels, but performance will suffer if dust or other debris is preventing photons from reaching silicon cells.
WARNING: Solar Panel Glass has an Anti-Reflective coating – abrasive cleaners may damage this surface.
The easiest way to check the cleanliness of your solar panels is to read your solar charge monitor and take note of any steady decline in solar electric input. Sometime during the first two days after setting up a long term camp, write down your solar activity at morning, noon and pre-dusk. Then in a week or so, write these numbers again, comparing them to your initial readings. Keep comparing every week or so. When the performance decreases, clean the panels and start your list all over.
A leaf or a bird mess will create a very noticeable reduction in solar panel output.
Solar Charge Controllers require little in the way of actual elbow grease, but it is a good idea to keep an eye on them. Every week or so (weave this into your schedule so you can officially avoid a worse chore) grab the big wires going in and out of the charge controller(s) and make sure they are tight – easy here, don’t pull anything loose. Do not tolerate loose connections. Either tighten them or get them tightened. If/When you find a loose connection, fix it then make a note of it or take a picture and monitor it closely during the next couple of inspection cycles. If the connection stays tight, good. If it continues to loosen, then have this item inspected by a professional.
As for corrosion, that can be an even bigger problem. White powder on any electrical connection is cause for concern. That powdery substance is oxidation (in iron this is called rust). This powder indicates a poor connection or a failing component in the wire run. Once again, seek professional assistance to locate and correct this situation quickly. Near batteries, the powder could have shades of green or blue mixed in. This is usually the remnants of evaporated battery acid.
Battery acid is a mixture of water, sulfur, and some other compounds that should be avoided.
Battery Bank Inspections come in three varieties based on which of the three types of batteries being inspected. Flooded batteries have liquid acid sloshing around – but they can be re-filled. GEL / AGM Batteries have their acid stabilized (it won’t slosh) but can’t be re-filled. Lithium batteries have a paste-like substance that absolutely cannot be re-filled. Inspecting batteries is pretty straightforward and all battery types have some checks in common.
Check for loose cables. Check for corrosion (powder). Lastly, and only with flooded batteries, check the water level. Never overfill flooded batteries and always keep the cell water levels equal. Never let the top of the material in the cell get dry (the finned “stuff” is called the plates and that’s where the reaction takes place).