“Hey, Is That a Solar Panel?”  And Other Fun Questions from Curious Campers.

It’s only been 8 years since we started living full-time in our tiny, solar powered adventure rig, and the questions we’ve received from curious campers around the country have changed significantly in this short time. What began as cautious wonder has turned into specifics and planning that indicates a far more savvy and informed, energy consciousness in our fellow camping enthusiasts. While we might not have been the first to run their rig on a small solar panel, we’ve been in the vanguard of those who’ve discovered a better quality of life by living on the power we can generate ourselves while traveling. For our entertainment, and perhaps yours, we’ve developed a timeline of the evolution of questions we’ve gotten over the past 8 years.

2012: “Hey, is that a...solar panel?”

For whatever reason, this question usually came from men between 55 and 65 years of age, and we got it over and over again as we traveled around the country. They would make one pass of our campsite and see our 80W panel propped up on our guitar stand, return for another slow walk by, and then finally amble up like some shy cowboy and ask their question. Our answers often led to an engaging conversation about how many batteries we had, and what we chose to run off of our system. Most were just curious, but we would occasionally find one individual who knew a whole lot more than we did at the time and wanted to talk shop. As educators by trade, it seems that we had extended that role into our new life on the road.

2013: “Does it work?”

This question would usually indicate the level of skepticism of the person asking. We resisted the temptation to answer sarcastically, “No, it doesn’t at all. We just like to haul around a non-functioning piece of glass and aluminum just to bring attention to ourselves.” As if our 1957 camper didn’t do that already, right? Instead, we’d smile, invite them over and say, “Of course it does, we run just about everything we need on this little panel.” This often led to a conversation about using less energy, not having a TV, satellite internet, microwave, air conditioning, and surround sound stereo.

2015: “What can you run?”

In those early days, we were really just trying to find out what we needed to not only survive, but to thrive. Our initial 80 watt panel and 12V deep cycle marine battery ran what we needed -- our ceiling vent fan, our lights, and charged our phone and laptop. We didn’t intend to be advocates for solar simply because we’d put out our panel in front of our trailer; we put it there to find the best charging location. But it did bring attention, everywhere we went, from campgrounds to gas stations to grocery stores (perhaps because we store the panel in a homemade rack on the back of our truck cover). Maybe it’s because back in 2012, solar panels on vans, campers and RV’s were still uncommon enough, and most rigid and flexible panels were installed on the roof and not as visible as our portable Renogy 100W Folding Solar Suitcase. Maybe our little canned ham camper was just cute and inviting enough that people felt comfortable approaching and asking questions?

But oh, how times have changed! Although the first solar cell was developed nearly 140 years ago, solar power has really become an increasing sector in our nation's collective energy solutions during the past 20 years. Improvements in efficiency and the lowering of costs have made small installations within reach of most consumers. Federal and state tax incentives also make now a good time to invest as the incentives cover installations on primary homes, second homes, RV’s, and boats -- it does not have to only be your primary residence. Even very small projects like ours are covered by the tax rebate programs. We’ve noticed panels going up on folks’ roofs in neighborhoods from Arizona to Massachusetts and everywhere in between. As a result of this expansion, the questions we’ve received in the last 4 years reflect a changing consumer attitude toward solar panels and their effectiveness.

2016: “How well does it work?”

Great! Now, on the surface, this question sounds a lot like previous inquiries, but with one important distinction. “How well” is a question that asks about the quality of its efficacy, not that it works at all. Folks want to know how it works for us, and if we are getting what we need. While we cannot assume that people are necessarily interested in going solar themselves just because they ask, it does indicate that they believe it works and are taking in a wide range of opinions on the subject. Our conversation just might be the thing that tips the scale.

2017: “So, wait, you don’t need to hook up to electricity...you can just be wherever?”

Absolutely, the whole point of our Freedom in a Can platform is to celebrate the lifestyle we’ve discovered when we walked away from our demanding careers, sold our comfortable home, and fell in love with a life of travel and exploration. Along the way we discovered a new concept of freedom in this path, when we reduced our over-reliance on fossil fuel energy. We could focus on the places we wanted to be, spending time in the natural environment, choose working where and when we wanted rather than obligation.

2018: “How many watts are you pulling in with that thing?”

Technical questions are on the rise in the past 2 years, which means that folks are really starting to pay attention to what they need to generate for themselves. Maybe they've been using a gas generator and are considering alternative options, or maybe they’ve been looking at solar panel systems so they can break free from full hook-up campsites and go boondocking? We do both.

2019: “Do you have a Lithium battery and how big is your inverter?”

Battery technology has also increased right alongside their solar panel cousins, and there’s lots of talk about Lithium Iron Phosphate house batteries these days. We have a Renogy 12V 50AH Lithium Battery, providing us 600 usable watt hours, which is one-third more available energy than what we previously had in our deep cycle marine battery -- it charges faster, and its lifetime is 3x longer. In addition, we recently upgraded our inverter to a Renogy 700W Pure Sine Wave, which fits the needs of our small system quite well -- and is so much quieter than our previous one.

2020: “Can you help me convince my spouse?”

We sure can! We offer numerous videos, as well as seminars and open houses across the country. This is where we’ve learned about the particular need for people to have it broken down from an engineering level to a consumer level. People want to understand how it works, but if we go into a detailed explanation of watts, amps and volts, we’ll start to see eyes glazing over. We’ve discovered a certain niche in our role as solar ambassadors, that of educator. It is our goal to remove barriers to understanding and using solar in the personal lives of everyday people. While this helps us address concerns over global climate change, our motivations are also somewhat selfish -- it is our goal to rid every campground of gas generator noise! We invite you to join us in that quest.

Of course, the questions usually don’t stop there. Once you get your head around the idea that you too can go solar, the questions just keep popping into your head, right? For you, we’ve recently written a comprehensive guide for RV / van life newbies: Going Solar: The Complete Guide for New RVers.

If we’ve inspired you to go solar with Renogy, please use our affiliate link and promo code “canlife.” You will get a 10% discount and we will get credit for the sale. It’s win-win! And, as always, contact us directly with any questions. We love to hear from our readers!

Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison have turned their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking tours from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com. Or, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as “Freedom in a Can.”