As a van dweller, I used my Luci lights and loved them. The sun recharged them, so as long as I kept them in the sunshine for several hours during the day, I had light at night. I liked that I could inflate the Luci lights and hang them like lanterns or collapse them flat and prop them somewhere close for reading after dark. Each one cost under $20 and served me for a long time.
One of the perks of giving up van life to live in a travel trailer is having built-in overhead lights that come on at the flip of a switch.When we first moved into the trailer, before we hauled it out to our land, we plugged into shore power or used our generator for electricity to run our lights. Once we moved onto our land, The Man installed our solar power system, and the sun provided our light, even at night.
When we moved into the travel trailer, all of the light fixtures were outfitted with small incandescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs are the kind that most of us of middle age and older grew up with. In the article “5 Different Types of Light Bulbs” written for the Omega Pacific Electrical Supply website, Eileen Garcia explains how these bulbs work.
In an incandescent bulb, a tungsten filament glows when the current passes through it, illuminating the bulb. The tungsten filament is surrounded by a vacuum or nitrogen gas… the sudden flow of current causes the filament to heat and burn out. Incandescent bulbs only work for 700–1000 hours and…cause energy waste.
If you’ve ever put your hand next to an burning incandescent bulb (or tried to take one that’s been turned on for a while out of its socket before it’s had a chance to cool down), you know that these things can be HOT! Even the very small incandescent bulbs in our travel trailer light fixtures became very hot when turned on. When I put my hand near one of our burning incandescent bulbs, I could feel the heat even through the light fixture’s plastic cover. It was obvious that it took a lot of energy to produce so much heat.
The Man mentioned getting LED bulbs to replace all of our incandescent bulbs, but I didn’t prioritize this improvement. I thought LED light were outrageously expensive. I thought LED lights for RVs had to come from RV suppliers or at shows aimed at RVers like the Big Tent in Quartzsite, AZ. Guess what? I was wrong!
As we lived through autumn and winter drew near, we found that the sun was no longer charging our three batteries to the level we had enjoyed in the summer. Some nights we had to turn off our lights before we were ready in order to prevent our batteries from discharging to a damagingly low level. The Man thought seriously about how to solve this problem.
The first thing he did was adjust the angle at which the solar panels were placed. According to the article “Optimum Tilt of Solar Panels” by Charles R. Landau,
It is simplest to mount your solar panels at a fixed tilt and just leave them there. But because the sun is higher in the summer and lower in the winter, you can capture more energy during the whole year by adjusting the tilt of the panels according to the season.
The Man did a heck of a lot of work to calculate the optimum tilt of our panels to maximize the amount of energy they could captured during the winter. The optimum angle for our panels was based on our location. Once The Man decided on the correct angle, we moved and tilted the wooden frame our panels are mounted to. (As of now, we have not mounted our solar panels on the roof of our travel trailer. I think that will be a project for the upcoming summer.) When we positioned the frame where he wanted it, The Man fastened supports to the frame to hold it in place. It is certainly nice to have a builder for a partner. An added bonus is his ability to calculate angles.
The second thing The Man did to increase our energy capacity was to move our solar batteries to a warmer spot. According to the Solar Power World article “How to Prepare Your Solar Battery Bank for Winter” by John Connell, vice president of Crown Battery Manufacturing’s SLI Products Group,
Most batteries are rated at 77°F, and their ideal operating temperature is between 50°F and 85°F. Batteries lose about 10% of their capacity for every 15°F to 20°F below 80°F. Their internal chemistries slow down, resistance increases and capacity and charge acceptance drop. This reduced capacity is temporary. However, it can present a problem because most renewable energy systems have the shortest days (i.e. lowest solar production) and highest loads during the winter, when capacity is lower.
When The Man set up our solar power system in the summer, he put the batteries in the storage compartment at the front of the trailer and ran the necessary wires into bedroom where he located the inverter and charge controller. With temperatures dropping and winter on its way, he realized the placement of the batteries was not so good because the storage compartment did not provide much insulation for the batteries. Our batteries were getting too cold (and would get colder as winter progressed); we were suffering the effects of reduced capacity. He moved the batteries to the enclosed storage area under our bed. He built a box for the batteries, sealed it, and vented the battery box into the adjacent storage compartment. When he set up that storage compartment to house the solar batteries, he had vented it to the outside so any dangerous gases that made their way from the battery box to the compartment would escape.
Once The Man adjusted the angle of our solar panels and moved the batteries into a warmer environment, our batteries began holding their charge longer. Success! However, The Man wasn’t finished with his solar power system home improvements just yet. He had one more trick up his sleeve.
The Man started talking about LED lights again. They would really help conserve our energy, he said. I asked him to figure out what lights we needed, where to buy them, and how much they would cost. I figured once we had that information, we could make an informed decision about whether any savings would be worth the cost.
He got on eBay first. He found a listing for 20 “cool white” 12 volt LED light bulbs. The price? $10.50, including shipping. Even a tightwad like me couldn’t argue with that price. We ordered the LED bulbs.
We were excited the day we picked up the bulbs at our mailbox. When we got home, The Man installed them in the two fixtures above our sofa. The lights weren’t very bright, but we decided they would do. They would help us save energy, so we were on board. However, when The Man tried to install the lights in the rest of the fixtures in the house, he ran into a big problem. Our new bulbs did not fit in the other fixtures. Yep, our one travel trailer had two different types of fixtures that took bulbs with two different types of connectors. Frustration! It was back to the drawing board for The Man.
(We discovered later that the first LED bulbs we bought also fit in the reading lights installed above our bed. We were very glad to exchange the very bright lights we had dubbed “interrogation lights” for the more subdued lights from eBay. In other good news, we were able to use a local Facebook group to sell the remaining 16 bulbs we couldn’t use for $8.)
The Man’s next stop was Amazon.com. There he found the appropriate LED bulbs for the rest of our light fixtures. This time we bought ten “super bright” 12 volt “soft white” LED bulbs for $15.49. (I’m not sure if that price includes shipping, if we paid a shipping fee, or if we were using a free trial of Amazon Prime when we placed that order.)
Again, we waited for our bulbs to arrive in our mailbox. Again, we were excited to install the bulbs in our light fixtures. This time: Success! The bulbs not only fit in the fixtures, but they were in fact, “super bright.” They were so bright that in fixtures where we before had two incandescent bulbs, we now only needed one of our new LED bulbs. (I can’t find any information on how many lumens the first bulbs were, but the bulbs in the second batch are 600 lumens each. If you need help calculating how many lumens you need to light up your life, check out the Language of Light article “How to Determine How Many LED Lumens You’ll Need to Properly Light Your Space” by David P Hakimi. Of course, this article is about lighting a conventional home, not a travel trailer since I couldn’t find any articles about how many lumens one might need in an RV.)
The rooms in our travel trailer are so much brighter at night since we put in the new bulbs. The Man can do his detailed artwork now even after the sun goes down. I like having the place well lit too. The quality of the light is better as well. I can best describe the new light as “crisp.” Only in retrospect did I realize that the incandescent lights in the travel trailer when we bought it were yellow and dull, even somewhat hazy. The new lighting seems to be better for my mental health.
The new LED lights also solved our original problem: they don’t use as much energy. I can tell this is true because when I put my hand next to them, I feel no heat. The Trailer Life article “Making the LED Swap” by Kristopher Bunker explains why this is the case.
“Typical halogen lights that are used in the RV industry are either 10 or 20 watts,” said Mike Camarota, president of ITC RV, a company that offers interior lighting products for the RV industry. “In contrast, the LED equivalent lights are 4 or 6 watts. This reduction on energy consumption of 70 percent means less draw on the power circuit of the RV…In dry-camping situations the battery will last longer.”
But the benefits of LED technology go beyond power consumption. Ever notice how hot the interior of your trailer gets when all the lights are on? “Lights produce heat,” said Camarota. “The process of converting energy into light involves two byproducts, heat and light. The difference between LED lights and non-LED lights is not that LED lights produce no heat but instead that they use less energy to produce light. In that conversion process, a greater percentage of energy goes into light emission than heat emission.”
Do I recommend you replace the incandescent lights in your RV with LED lights? Absolutely! If you have $10 to $15 to spare (or even $30, if your RV is larger than ours and you need double the number of bulbs), get yourself some LED bulbs. They will make your solar power last longer, keep your rig cooler during hot times of the year, and require replacement less frequently. Just be sure you check all of your fixtures so you will know if you need bulbs with different types of connectors and determine if you are getting the number of lumens you need to keep your living space as bright (or dim) as you desire. I think you’ll thank me for this advice once your new LED bulbs are in place.