Over five years ago I made the leap and purchased a “suitcase” solar panel. It wasn’t an easy decision for me due to the cost and my lack of knowledge. As it turns out, I can now camp at less expensive alternatives and I made back the price of my purchase very quickly.
Personal Review: I’ve now been using my Zamp 120 watt Portable Solar Package for over Seven years for many hours. I’m a happy camper and glad I made this purchase. It has lived up to the reviews and information I was able to find at the time of my purchase. It was fairly easy to install, taking only a couple of hours at the most even though I was a novice. I see they are now selling 140 watt systems, but I think I would even upgrade to a 200 watt.
You can find less expensive alternatives, but I chose Zamp 120 watt “suitcase” solar package for the following reasons:
- Panels are made in Germany – Not China
- Assembled in Oregon USA
- Support is available by phone and you speak directly to a knowledgeable person in Oregon.
- The three-stage controller is part of the package.
- 120 watts is the minimum I need for my usage.
- The package is sturdy, weighing at about thirty pounds.
- The only negatives are the legs could be stronger and the clips that keep the unit closed in storage have rusted a little, but everything is still functioning okay to date.
LED Making Solar Work
At the same time I was making my solar purchase I converted all the lights in my fifth wheel to LED. There were over thirty-five lights that I needed to buy to accomplish this. I searched around and found a pretty good price at Amazon. It’s been two years since I purchased them and they are still performing as I expected.
When I originally bought my fifth wheel, I negotiated for an extra 12 volt deep cycle battery. That gave me a total of two 12 volt deep cycle batteries on board. This would now be critical so I have enough power stored during the day, to get me by the long nights while dry camping or boondocking.
Installing The Zamp Solar Portable Suitcase
I researched a lot since I’m not an electrician and knew nothing about battery charging and usage requirements. The solar package was easier to install than I thought once understanding the principle.
- Basically, all I needed to do, was drill a hole through my fifth wheel wall near the batteries. In my case, this was at the front of my fifth wheel. Then I installed a Zamp sidewall/roof port that I bought separately at the same time and ran the wires to the positive of one battery and the negative of the other. It’s best to put an inline fuse here too.
- The Zamp Solar 120 watt Portable Suitcase comes with a fuse between the controller and the end of the cable provided.
- I also bought an optional fifteen-foot Zamp extension cable with the package. That gives me a reach of thirty feet if I’m parked in the trees. Note: the longer the cable the less efficient the solar panel will be.
- Finally, I upgraded my two wet cell 12-volt batteries to two Optima Yellowtop AGM batteries.
Important Note: Your setup may be different than mine. Calling Zamp’s support to get a confirmation for the wiring method was the only support I needed. They were very helpful.
If I am dry camping or boondocking and need solar power. I just bring the package out of storage and open it up, then I plug the cable into the inlet on the front of my fifth wheel. I can move it several times a day if needed as the Sun moves.
The 120-watt output on a sunny day is able to produce enough energy to charge my phone, laptop, sensors, refrigerator fan (on propane), lights, fans, propane heater fan (for ducted vents and basement in cold weather) and water pump.
I have had numerous cloudy or rainy days over the last two years and camped in a number of tree-covered campsites. I found that my solar suitcase was just barely able to keep up during that time, even when I watch the electricity I was using very closely. Being careful on rainy or cloudy days still wasn’t enough to fully charge my batteries at times.
The second year I ended up saving enough cash to buy a Honda 2000i generator to supplement my power. It’s not ideal since my onboard battery controller isn’t a three-stage, but it works for the days I can’t get enough sunshine. Also when using the generator, I can splurge and run my vacuum, microwave oven or even watch a movie.
My next purchase will be a Three-stage controller/inverter so I can fully deep charge my batteries with the generator and use some of the appliances. I’m still researching this, but it’s in my future.
What My 120 Watt Portable Won’t Do
It will not run my Air Conditioner, Television, Coffee Maker, Vacuum or a host of small appliances. I could run these, but I would need to purchase better batteries and an inverter, as I mentioned above.
Also, the Atwood furnace couldn’t run for any length of time when it’s not sunny until I upgrade to the Optima Yellowtop AGM batteries in my third year of travel. Now the heater will run all night if needed off of my charged batteries.