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A renewable energy station will help you Leave-No-Trace and it shows your camp is committed to good stewardship on your Placement application.
A solar station can be a weedy buggy jungle. But you don’t have to be an electrical engineer. It can be intimidating for a beginner, that’s why The Playalabs developed this tutorial for a simple playa-approved rig.
It’s not a cheap project but it’s not crazy-expensive either. You can use the kit for other events and camping trips, and possibly around the house too.
There are a few ways to skin this cat, but ThePlayaLabs' simplest, quickest kit involves this short list of items:
*It’s possible to run a solar panel directly to your electronics, but playa-testing reveals this is unreliable. Sometimes it’s cloudy right when you need power. The output from the panel is “choppy”, which can actually damage your electronics. Also, the panel is most productive around high-noon and you might not be at camp. Most people need power in the morning, afternoon, or at night (when the solar panel is not producing). Adding a storage battery allows you to capture solar energy when it’s happening and use power whenever you need it.
The panel gets most of the glory, but the battery really is the heart of the operation.
You need a 12 volt "Deep Cycle Marine" battery.
This is not a regular car battery! Look for the keywords Deep Cycle and/or Marine at auto parts stores, boating stores, camping stores, and some bigger hardware stores.
You can get these ones online. These are fucking heavy so bake cookies for your delivery driver if you order online.
The 12V batteries are rated by "Amp-Hours" or AH. That's basically how much juice they hold. More Amp Hours = battery lasts longer. Get the largest Amp-Hour you can afford. This may be a time to buddy-up with campmates as the battery is not cheap. Ideally you get 100 AH or greater. If you're frugal with power usage, a 50 AH battery can do you OK. We don't recommend anything below 50 AH for the Burn. 35 AH is just not enough to make it worthwhile.
A note on terminology, we use the Term “terminal”. That’s the metal post on the battery. There is a positive and negative “terminal”.
Get intimately familiar with which side is Positive and Negative.
Avoid touching the terminals. And don’t let metal objects touch both at the same time or you might throw a spark.
Make sure you get a panel compatible with a 12 Volt system.
Panels may be rated 12V or up to 18V and that's still OK.
But do not use a 120V household panel (for example, sometimes people sell a leftover panel from a rooftop solar setup from a house. That panel would NOT work with our 12V setup and could actually be dangerous).
Don’t worry we put some ideal panels on our parts page. These panels are playa-tested and work well with the rig.
Panels are rated by Wattage. Get the largest Wattage you can afford. Budget Bob, if you are weighing your costs on the Battery vs the Panel, it's better to get a larger AmpHour Battery and a smaller panel. Spend more on the Battery if you have limited budget.
For the panel, get at least 20 Watts for light duty (it'll run a swamp cooler a few hours a day, charge phones, and run LEDs sporadically). Upgrade to a 100W panel if you are hoping to charge many phones, or run more lights, gadgets, speakers etc.
It may sound amazing to get a 500W panel or some ungodly amount of wattage. But you can overwhelm the charge capacity of the battery. So if you have the budget and the desire, get ANOTHER battery and 100W panel and use 2 identical kits. This will get you more useful energy than simply getting a huge panel.
The panel kits come with adapters and charge controller included. If you buy the charge controller and adapters separately you end up spending more. For simplicity and completeness, we like the kits.
If you really want a piecemeal kit (Bob), you will need to buy panel, charge controller, and cable adapters separately.
Charge controller: With a ~20w panel and larger, you need this little box to regulate the flow of energy and protect your gear. Luckily the kits come with a panel and charge controller, or there is a charge controller sold separately.
12V wires. 10 gauge, at least 10 ft.
Gator clips. You need at least 2 but get a few backups.
Inverter: A boxy device that makes this whole thing usable.
Inverters are confusing. Let's clear it up:
**If all you are running is a swamp cooler, you do not need an inverter! You can connect directly to the battery terminals. See the other tutorial for getting wired.
The inverter takes power from the battery and transforms it into a usable form for your devices. There are 2 types of inverters "Pure Sine" or "Modified Sine".
The "Pure Sine" has smoother power delivery. The “Modified Sine” is a little more "choppy". For most electronics, the Modified Sine is fine. Your LEDs and USB devices will be alright. If you have advanced audio equipment, medical devices, laptops, or high tech custom gadgetry, you may want to spend extra and get a Pure Sine inverter.
The PlayaLabs have linked to a 3 different inverters models for various budgets. They all have safety-features that some other cheap inverters are missing.
Anytime the solar panel is in the sun, its collecting energy. Don't leave the panel exposed while you do this project, the wires will be live!
Flip the panel face-down ass-up. There are +Pos and -Neg wires leading from the back of the panel.
If you bought a complete kit w/ charge controller, follow the instructions on connecting the panel and charge controller. It will involve connecting adapter cables from the panel to the charge controller INPUT. Then connect the second set of cables from the charge controller OUTPUT to the battery terminals. The panel kits come with pretty good instructions and it’s not hard.
For a DIY rig, purchase the parts separately.
Go to your panel and find the +Pos and –Neg wires. Depending on your panel, you may need cable adapters. Run the +Pos and –Neg wires from the panel into the INPUT +Pos -Neg on the charge controller (labelled with a grid Panel icon).
Cut a length of your black and red 12v power wires about 10 feet (you can always shorten it later but best to start with a nice long piece)
Strip an inch of the coating from one end of the black and red wires, and crimp the wires onto gator clips. Label these Gator Clips with tape and Sharpee: PANEL TO BATTERY
On the opposite end of the power wires, strip a half inch of insulation, twist the fibers, and connect the red and black to the +Pos -Neg OUTPUT slots of the Charge Controller (the output slots labeled with a square Battery icon).
Clamp the gator clips labeled (PANEL TO BATTERY) onto the 12v battery terminals.
Make sure everything is lined up Red = +Positive; Black = -Negative.
Flip your panel back over and let the sun hit it. The indicator lights on the charge controller should light up indicating the flow of energy.
Congratulations! You just made renewable energy.
Chose the inverter that meets your needs (read above yo!).
The inverter comes with red and black cables and clips. Label these clips "INVERTER". I know we're labelling a lot you'll see why.
Attach the included cables to the inverter (each inverter is a little different, read their instructions how and where to attach).
Clip the INVERTER clips to the battery terminals matching +Pos and -Neg.
So now you have 4 cables total and 2 attached to each battery terminal. Make sure they are secure.
On playa, you can use an upside-down crate over the battery station to keep it shaded and make sure drunkees don't kick it or run over it.
The inverter is a sensitive piece of equipment. It has a built in fan, and needs to be kept out of the sun and dust with some fresh air circulating. You should consider customizing a plastic storage tub or crate to house all the cables and inverter. Something like these:
At the very least, make sure the inverter is in the shade and not sitting in a pile of dust.
Now you can plug your electronic devices into the inverter.
Some of the inverters have USB ports and regular AC outlets.
Just because it has an outlet does not mean you can plug in anything you want! It has limitations and it won’t run a microwave, massive sound system, etc. It will run LEDs, small speakers, and it works well to charge phones and batteries. Understand that your rig has limitations.
Unclip the inverter (or turn off via the remote) when not in use to preserve battery life.
Tell your campmates how to turn off the battery station when not in use!
Unclip the solar panel or put a towel over it before working w/ the wires!
Set up your whole system at home before the burn. Make sure you know how it runs and connects. Label stuff. Make sure it works.
The items linked here all carry warranties so if something doesn’t work, return it.
Everything will run better if you start off with a fully-charged battery. We linked to an inexpensive little charger that is a great help and it will prolong the life of your battery. Worth the investment.
Wipe down the solar panel every day to get rid of the dust! This is very important.
Keep solar panel up high and in the sun (duh!). The top of a vehicle is a good spot. Optional: angle the panel slightly to face the south. This can be as simple as a rolled up towel or 2x4 frame.
Inverter: The Playa-Tested inverters have auto-shutoff features that will turn off when the battery power gets too low (this is to prevent damaging the battery). If this happens, you have to wait for a sunny day. Unclip the inverter from the battery, make sure the solar panel and charge controller are connected properly and clipped to the battery. Let it sit in the sun for a day and recharge without any usage.
Turn stuff off when you leave camp. The inverter drains a little power any time it is connected, so unclip the inverter when you’re not using it. The $85 model has a built in control switch to turn it off without unclipping (very nice).
If you end up running out of power, you can always re-charge the battery the old fashioned way: using a set of jumper cables (you should have this anyway, right?). Attach the Deep Cycle terminals to your vehicle battery, and idle your vehicle for a few hours. This is inconvenient and less-than-ideal, but it’s a suitable backup plan.
Inverter overheating: Your inverter beeps and shuts down. It is probably clogged with dust. Unclip it, blow the dust out of the fan, and put it in the shade to cool down for a few hours. Make sure your battery and inverter setup is in the shade and protected from dust drifts, and gets fresh air.
You may have a blown fuse. Each inverter has a different fuse setup, check the instructions.
You may have too many devices plugged into your inverter. Campmates may have tried to charge massive devices. Unplug everything and slap your campmates.
The playa has a way of making wires come undone. Flip the panel over (or cover with a towel), then trace all the wires and make sure everything is still well-attached and where it should be. Drunk campmates have a habit of knocking wires loose, then reattaching in the wrong location. Proceed with slapping.
You can damage your nice new battery if you run it down too much. So don't leave things plugged into the inverter or running off the battery all night. Don't be a bug, unplug.
The solar rig described here is ideal for the swamp cooler.
If you built a swamp cooler, it will run better directly from the battery terminals (bypassing the inverter) so there's a special tutorial coming on that connection soon!