Guide to getting off-grid for longer

By: Michael Borg, Photography by: Camper Trailer Australia


In a quest to stay off the beaten track for longer, Borgy gets stuck into getting self-sufficient with a lithium battery twist.

Every now and then you just need to say stuff it, I’m going camping, right? I mean, I can’t be the only one that chucks a tantrum and heads bush for a few days to relax and unwind. Now, my camper trailer is already fairly self-sufficient these days (like most). It’s got a shower, water tank and fridge on board, which means I can hang around at my local haunt feeding the fish all my bait until I run out of tucker and water, and I drain the batteries dead flat; then it’s back to reality I go for another round with civilization. But geez I’ll tell you what, these recuperation trips of mine seem to be getting shorter and shorter every time. So I reckon it’s about time I set my rig up to be a little more self-sufficient, and keep me out and about for the long haul. Now there are a few different trains of thought on what it means to be fully self-sufficient, but in my mind if I can get off the beaten track for a few weeks without having to hike back into town for supplies, I’m on to a massive winner. With that in mind, I’ll run you through my latest projects for getting off grid for a little longer next time.       

THE SETUP SO FAR

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Ok, so before we dive into the deep end, I’ll run you through the overall setup. The tow tug is a trusty old ’Cruiser, which is fitted with an auxiliary battery system; nothing fancy, just a 100Ah battery and Redarc battery isolator solenoid. It powers up a 40L Engle fridge, which is permanently mounded in the cab. There are a few lights around the 4WD and a water tank, or should I say 40L jerry can setup on board, which is gravity fed so I’m not relying on a 12V pump.

The camper trailer is where all the luxury goodies are. There’s plenty of lighting around the place, a TV and DVD player, sound system, water pumps, electric fan, and massive 90L fridge, which I now run as a full-time freezer to keep me out and about for longer. There’s an 80L water tank on board too, which isn’t massive by any means but it seems to last a good week or two between top ups, depending on how often the shower gets used. Obviously with two fridges running full time, power is my biggest concern. So, naturally it gets the full treatment first up.   

GOING SOLAR

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Solar power is the way to go these days, right? I mean, it’s literally free power in a world where caravan parks will happily slug you $40 bucks a night for the privilege of a bloody power point! So, I thought I’d get a little bit fancy and install a permanently mounted solar system to the roof of my 4WD and my camper trailer, purely because I’m lazy and whacking a foldable solar panel up every time I set up camp is just too much bloody work! Sure a 120W foldable panel will help out, but I’ve got a fair few electrical accessories on board and I don’t want to be worrying about power.

Now, here’s something you don’t hear every day – a lot of people will just bung a few extra batteries on board to help stretch the days between power-ups, but I reckon adding more solar capacity is a better option. Sure, you still need plenty of battery capacity to keep the fires burning overnight and long periods of rain, but in the grand scheme of things adding extra batteries to the mix can actually make it harder for your average solar panel to keep it all topped up. In fact, it actually becomes less efficient! So for me, I went with a 500W solar system: that’s 3x100W panels on the camper’s roof, which looks after that big freezer, plus a big 200W solar panel on the 4WD’s roof keeps the beer cold and the ego sky high. Some may say its overkill, but when you get a few miserable cloudy days in a row you’ll see my logic – if there’s only enough sunlight for each solar cell to operate at 50 per cent of its maximum potential, I’d rather have extra solar cells on board to help fill the quota!

The whole system works a charm too. I mean, I haven’t seen the main battery drop under 80 per cent charge overnight, and the battery is re-charged by the crack of a sparrow fart in the morning – you can’t beat that! Plus, if one of the systems is struggling, I can connect the 4WD and camper together via the Anderson plug and it becomes the solar system from hell!

INSTALLING SOLAR

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If you’re having a crack at mounting a solar panel, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is to keep the wiring disconnected from the battery until it’s all done, but remember the solar panel doesn’t have an off switch, so it’s always live.

Using specialised solar panel mounts will help ensure there is enough ventilation under the panel to regulate the heat. Mount them nice and securely using Sikaflex. I used Sikaflex 252 to get the job done, which is the recommended formula for this application.  

When it comes to mounting the solar regulator, make sure it’s as close to the battery as possible. The idea is to reduce the amount of voltage drop in the cables, which can cause incorrect voltage signals to be received by the controller – yep, it mucks things right up!

LINGERING ON LITHIUM

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You’ve only got to take a look at modern phones or laptop computers to see how far lithium battery technology has come over the last few years. While the initial cost of lithium battery power for your camper trailer is enough to give you a heart attack, it actually works out to be a cost effective option in the long run. Plus, they outperform your typical AGM battery in pretty much every way possible. I’ve gone with a lithium battery from InstaPower, which is a direct drop-in replacement for your original AGM deep cycle battery. In fact, it’s a lithium battery encased in an AGM cover, plus it has its own specialised lithium charger built in so there are no additional costs to set it up. I can already hear you asking how the hell it’s worth just shy of two grand, right? Well, let’s look at the advantages. It only weighs 14kg, which is less than half the weight your average deep cycle battery.

The guys at InstaPower have done the sums and say this battery will last 8-10 times longer than standard lead acid batteries too, which means it actually offers a lower cost per cycle. You can also completely discharge it safely, and you won’t damage the battery. That means you’ve got access to much more battery capacity compared to the equivalent AGM or lead acid battery, so it practically does the job of two batteries! Another major benefit of these batteries is they have a much faster recharge rate, which makes it ideal to work in conjunction with solar power.

TALKING WATER FILTERS

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Even with a nice and healthy supply of beer, you won’t last long without fresh drinking water. So it kinda makes sense to make sure you’ve got plenty of quality H2o on board, right? Now filling the water tank up on the road is risky business; you just can’t guarantee the quality of the water. Tank water can wind up harbouring all sorts of nasties over time, and if you want to fill up from a natural water source like a freshwater stream or dam, who knows what you’re getting. There could be chemicals from nearby farms, or sediment or rust, and the big one for us campers – giardia!

With that in mind I decided to install a water purifier to weed out any harmful bacteria. Now, not all filters offer the same amount of filtration, and the last thing you want is a water filter that you can’t trust – after all, a runny bum is never fun! So let’s break it down a little; all filters have a micron rating, which is designed to let you know how fine the filter is and what it will block effectively. For example, to reduce the risk of giardia and crypto in your drinking water, your cartridge needs to filter down to 0.5 micron minimum. Most reverse osmosis systems will get the job done in this regard. For my camper, I went with a 1 micron sediment pre-filter, to block the bigger stuff, and a SeaGull Water Purifier, which filters down to 0.1 micron. The water taste great, and I’ve got the ultimate in peace of mind.  

TOP UP WATER PUMP

Fresh rivers can be a great way to top up your water tank. You’ll need a hose with a submersible bilge pump and a filter. It’s pretty simple really, but obviously you’ve got to be within nice and close range to the water supply, and have enough battery power to run the pump long enough to fill the water tank up.

Check out the full feature in issue #115 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.