How Much Solar Do I Need to Work from the Road?
After listening to a former university colleague loudly complain about the state of affairs at our institution for far too long, I finally asked, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” He replied, “Complain for 16 more years and then retire, of course!” Perhaps you’ve heard a similar line echoing around your employer’s break room, perhaps you’ve uttered something like it yourself? Perhaps it’s time to take your show on the road, as it were?
Since we hit the road in 2012, we’ve gotten a ton of questions about working from the road, and powering our lives with solar. While we love to travel, we hate the idea (and expense) of staying in RV parks with electrical service just to do our work. Solar has literally saved us tens of thousands of dollars and freed us to be and work anywhere we want. We are currently sitting in a national wildlife refuge in central New Mexico, surrounded by tens of thousands of birds coming to roost for the winter!
If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably been dreaming about this lifestyle for a while now. You’ve seen all the vans, 5th wheels, and RV’s tricked out for full-time, off-grid living and working, but how do you get in the game? Building out a solar panel system robust enough is one question, but the other question is how to find the work that will facilitate your roadlife dreams. In this article, we’ll tackle both – we’ll dedicate the first section to sizing a solar system to meet your needs, then provide you numerous resources for finding that mobile or seasonal job in the second part.
This blog contains our affiliate links. As Renogy Solar Ambassadors, we can offer you an additional 10% off nearly every product in their line by using our promo code CANLIFE at checkout. It’s win-win…WE get a small commission, and YOU get a discount. This income helps keep us on the road and all of our resources and solar coaching free of charge. As a part of our business model, we support a variety of nonprofit organizations focused on reducing carbon emissions, environmental education, sustainability, and youth/community development. Thanks for your support of our carbon negative mobile business!
Part 1: How Much Solar Power Do I Need to Work From the Road?
There are lots of products ready to jump into your shopping cart, but none of them will actually answer how much energy YOU need in order to power all the things you want. Of course you could hire someone to install a several thousand watt solar powered system for you, but the only way you’ll know that it is both enough, but not too much, power is if you do a little bit of easy math. And keep in mind much of what you’ll need to power will depend on the type of work you end up doing.
During our 11 years on the road, our power needs have changed and we’ve upgraded accordingly. During the first few years of our adventures, we only needed to power our interior 12V DC appliances: LED lights, vent fan, and charge phones. We occasionally used the 400W inverter to charge up our laptop, but our 97Ah deep cycle lead acid battery wasn’t up to much more than a few hours of work. Since we were mostly working seasonally for other organizations, we always made do with what we had – and it worked most of the time.
|Hamlet's Solar Power Diagram
Since we started working solely for ourselves, we’ve bumped up our solar game significantly but it still fits neatly into a small space under one of our dinette seats. We’ve settled on an appropriately-sized system for our current needs. Here’s the stats on the modern solar power system inside our vintage rig:
- 100W Flexible RV Solar Panels x 2
- 100W Solar Suitcase w/o Charge Controller (we use this solar suitcase on low solar gain days, or during the winter months when the sun is at a lower angle)
- Solar Panel Extension Cables x 2 (10AWG/20ft).
- 12V-100Ah Smart LFP Self-Heating Batteries x 2
- 40A Rover Elite MPPT Charger Controller
- 700W Pure Sine Wave Inverter
- Renogy ONE Core Monitor
- Bluetooth Module (BT-2) x2 & DC Home App
Build a Solar System That Works for YOU
Here’s where you dig in and start making a list of the appliances you want to power. And we’ve actually got a worksheet to help you do that. This is a free download from our website.
Just a quick heads up, when you want to start adding your own numbers to this worksheet, be sure to click on the “enable editing” notification at the top of the spreadsheet. This way it's all yours for what you want to do with it!
Calculate YOUR Total Daily Watt Hours -- YOUR Magic Number!
The second page on the worksheet walks you through adding up all the things you want to run, both DC and AC appliances. Each appliance wattage needs to be multiplied by the number of hours per day that you’ll use it – known as Watt Hours. A high wattage appliance like a hair dryer might only be used for 5 minutes per day (.12 hours) while a much lower wattage appliance like a laptop computer might be used for 8 hours. Just enter the time you intend to use the appliance as a whole number or decimal, and the worksheet does the rest. See our example worksheet below.
You can see that our "magic number" is 1265Wh -- this is what we need to power on an average day. Our battery bank is 200Ah, so we'll need to convert Ah to Wh, and we do this with the old formula, Volts x Amps x Hours = Watt Hours (or simply, Watts x Hours = Watt Hours). By the numbers: 12.5V (LFP) x 200Ah = 2500Wh.
We have one small adjustment to make to this number, that is to figure in the safe depth of discharge. LFP batteries can be safely discharged to 20% capacity, so that is a usable capacity of 80% or a factor of 0.8 (2500Wh x 0.8 = 2000Wh). So, with our battery bank we can safely use 2000Wh without potentially damaging anything, almost twice as much as we need to use on an average day. For comparison, all Flooded Lead Acid or Sealed Lead Acid (Gel, AGM) batteries have a safe depth of discharge of only 50% -- so LFP batteries automatically have 30% more capacity at the same Ah rating.
Between our 3 methods of charging (1. Solar, 2. DC-to-DC charger while driving, and 3. AC-to-DC charger when plugged into shore power as a last resort), we can usually bring back a depleted battery bank within a few hours -- even in the winter.
It’s important that you need to use the wattage numbers for your own appliances. Get as specific as you can because there can be a lot of variance between models and styles of the same appliance. For instance, we have two laptops. One is small for simple tasks and uses just 60W, while the other is our video processing computer and uses up to a whopping 240W! Let’s look at coffee makers, a large 12 cup auto drip machine will use a lot more wattage (1500W) than a small 2-4 cup model (600W). A simple insulated French press, on the other hand, uses none! The worksheet will automatically calculate your Total Daily Watt Hours.
Once you know your Total Daily Watt Hours, you can begin to build out your system. We always recommend this website from alt-E Store, as one of the better and easiest to use solar calculators out there. This link is also available on our worksheet in the Resources Section on the second tab.
What we like about the alt-E Store calculator is that it starts with your Daily Total Watt Hours, and then walks you through many circumstances that might affect the size of your system, such as how many days you want/need to run without any solar gain, lowest temp you might encounter, system voltage, battery type, and average solar gain per day (depending on your intended location). As you change some of the factors around you’ll get a better idea of how it works. Based upon your total daily watt hours (and specs), the calculator tells you what you’ll need – the number of solar panels (based on the wattage you choose), the battery bank size (in total amp hours), and the charging capacity of the charge controller (in amps).
Then work through each tab for each of the major components along the bottom to start choosing components. Look up and enter the current prices along the way, and the final tab of the worksheet will help you calculate your total cost for the order. Before your components arrive, check out our installation resources on our YouTube channel to begin the next phase of your project! Be sure to subscribe while you are there as we add new videos regularly.
REGO Installation Playlist (See Our Complete System Installation)
Our Solar DIY Playlist
Part 2: Finding Work on the Road
Finding new work on the road requires that you look at yourself as a collection of skills applicable to a variety of settings, rather than just a list of previous positions. Think outside of the confines of your well-grooved career path, and you’ll discover a whole host of new, challenging, and fun opportunities.
With a bit of creativity, a heavy dose of resourcefulness, and some dumb luck, we’ve found plenty of paid work opportunities (both online and in-person) while traveling in our little vintage canned-ham camper named Hamlet over the past decade. We’ve also found ways to volunteer and do work-trade, allowing us to give back, meet new friends, and stretch our travel budget.
Has every job been awesome? Not a chance. Some were truly challenging, while others were super fun and rewarding! No matter how it shaked out, we’ve always learned something important from each experience. Below is a menu of general options, which can be combined or mixed and matched depending on you and/or your traveling companions’ needs and interests:
- Seasonal jobs and side gigs are the name of the game if you seek to work full or part-time in beautiful parts of the country. From campgrounds, outdoor outfitters, state/national parks to retail stores, to lodges, restaurants, and more. We see “Help Wanted” signs literally everywhere!
- Online jobs are plentiful and can be full or part-time. This type of work in a wide variety of fields allows you to be wherever you want to be. Since the pandemic, this category has truly exploded!
- Work-trade and volunteer opportunities abound in national/state parks, as well as through Workamping, organic farming, and various volunteer opportunities which cover your stay in exchange for a few days per week of work.
- Starting your own mobile business. Millions of people have figured out how to do this while traveling – including ourselves with Freedom in a Can, LLC. We do writing, photography, videography, and seminars – all from the convenience of our camper, without any electrical hook-ups.
- Many careers offer traveling opportunities. While the medical field offers opportunities for traveling nurses, doctors, radiologists, and veterinarians, we’ve also met accountants, construction workers, financial advisors, videographers, graphic designers, occupational therapists, writers, sales people, photographers, and many others.
Let’s break down some of these options for you…
Paid Work Opportunities
Mobile & Online Jobs
Do you already have a job that allows you to work from anywhere with an internet connection? With reliable wifi* and a robust solar powered system, you’re good to go! If you are seeking to do online work while traveling, no one knows this type of work better than the folks at Escapees RV Club - it’s who they are. While there are thousands of remote work opportunities listed on various websites, be sure to check out the RVer Job Exchange and join the Xscapers Community if you plan to move around the country. In addition to career services, they host community gatherings all over the nation, offer a mail forwarding service, general RV resources, and more. *Note: There are many options for having wifi on the road, ranging from using a mobile hotspot to WeBoost to Starlink. We discuss these options in detail on our website.
Seasonal opportunities can be full or part-time and include campground hosting, working at national parks & state parks, guiding for tour companies, managing B&Bs, teaching at environmental education centers, working at ski resorts, restaurants, and retail stories…and so much more. If you are traveling as a couple (or with a family) one person may choose seasonal in-person work while the other works online at “home.” While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some great options for finding this type of work:
- Amazon Jobs - Wide Range of Jobs Across the U.S.
- Cool Works - Cool Jobs in Beautiful Places
- Kelly Services – Variety of Jobs across the U.S.
- National Park Service - Jobs in the U.S. National Parks
- Recreation Resource Management of America - Camp Hosting Across the U.S.
- Workamping - Campground Jobs Across the U.S.
- Working Couples - Seeking 2 Person Teams for a Variety of Jobs
Side Gigs & Odd Jobs
If you are partially-retired or just seeking some additional income, pick up a side gig or odd job while traveling. Craigslist, community bulletin boards, or libraries are a good place to begin. We’ve had great luck finding odd jobs by simply posting a well-written ad on Craigslist. We’ve done yard work, light construction, website design, home repair, painting,and cleaned homes prior to sale/rental – just to name a few. Hutch also made some extra cash busking at farmer’s markets – the customers and vendors loved it! Haven’t figured out your side gig yet? Lots of great ideas can be found on Side Hustle Nation!
Work-Trade & Volunteer Opportunities
Work-trade and volunteer opportunities are simply great ways to extend your travel budget! Again, this could be a great option for couples in which one person is not yet retired, and the other is seeking something meaningful to dig into each day.
You’ll not only get a place to park your rig, you’ll likely meet a great community of people. Some organizations also provide some meals, as well as bathroom, laundry, and wifi privileges. We’ve found that having these amenities can drastically lower our living expenses for a few weeks while we give of our time.
The best part about these opportunities is that you don’t have to be an expert and you don’t need to work full-time, in fact, most are just part-time or for a week or two. You just need some related, transferable experience and a willingness to try new things. Here are just a few options we’ve found while traveling around the country:
Love to garden? Try organic farm work at small, family-owned farms – we’ve volunteered on farms from Maine to Hawaii. Check out Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms for details.
Love music and festivals? Many festivals hire people and provide them an RV spot in exchange for their time. Check out Music Festival Wizard for a list of opportunities. We recently volunteered at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta for 11 days and had a blast!
Have construction skills or want to learn some? Join a Habitat for Humanity RV Care-A-Vanner Group Build! These builds are held all over the country and many offer RV spaces and even hook-ups.
Want to help with disaster relief? Join the DOVE program – a partnership between Escapees and the American Red Cross. When disasters strike, RVers are deployed to assist with a variety of critical needs.
Have teaching experience and love the outdoors? The National Park Service and many state parks around the country need educators to lead interpretative tours for visitors. We’ve volunteered as Environmental Educators in a couple different parks.
So why even consider waiting around for another 16 years in a job you don’t like when you can simply jump into your RV and hit the road? You may not be ready to retire, you may not want to stop working, or maybe you need to support your road trip…the opportunities are out there. But we guarantee you that they won’t come knocking at your door, you’ve got to go out there and find them!
In 2012, Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named "Hamlet." What began as a short break from careers and responsibility quickly turned into a love affair with roadlife. They have parlayed their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking gigs 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, LLC.”