Ah, the good ‘ole days. It wasn’t that long ago when having a 240 watt solar power system in our truck camper was the bees knees. The occasional use of a light, the water pump, a fan, and the inverter barely put a dent in our camper’s 220 amp hour 12 volt battery system. Even heavy use of the furnace during winter rarely dropped our system’s voltage less than 12.4 volts.
All of that changed with the recent purchase of a Northstar Laredo truck camper equipped with a Dometic CR-1110 compressor refrigerator. Suddenly, our daily 12 volt power needs soared from a measly 20 amp hours in the summer and 60 amp hours in the winter to a whopping 70 amp hours and 110 amp hours, respectively. Our new camper’s 240 watt solar power system was more than capable of handling this surge in usage when the sun was out, but when the clouds rolled in and the temperatures dipped below freezing, it couldn’t quite keep up.
Another solar panel panel was the obvious solution, but choosing the specific type of array proved difficult. We had two basic options: install another rooftop solar panel or buy a foldable solar suitcase and use it parallel with our camper’s existing solar power setup. Truth be told, we like rooftop solar panels. Once they’re installed there’s not a lot that you have to do to maintain them, just the occasional inspection and cleaning. You don’t have to worry about theft with rooftop panels either. On the other hand, there’s no denying that having a portable array has its pros. Unlike rooftop arrays, a portable array can be both tilted and aimed directly at the sun to maximize output. This is a huge benefit, especially during the winter months when the angle of the sun is at its lowest point in the sky. Not only that, but a portable array can easily be moved to avoid shading from nearby trees.
After much deliberation, we decided to go with a portable solar array and one of the highest rated units in today’s market is the Renogy 100 watt monocrystalline foldable solar suitcase. If you’re not familiar with this product, it’s pretty neat. It consists of two 50 watt monocrystalline solar panels wired in parallel, a 10 amp ViewStar PWM charge controller with an LCD digital display, a 10-foot (12 gauge) cable with alligator clips, and a padded suitcase for storage and transporting. The two panels, which generate a maximum operating current of 5.71 amps, are physically connected with a hinge that allow you to open and close the panels in seconds. The portable array is equipped with two extendable, aluminum arms that allow it to be adjusted to obtain the optimum angle toward the sun. When folded and stored in the protective suitcase, the unit measures 19.9 inches tall, 27.2 inches long and 2.4 inches thick. The total weight is a manageable 27.65 pounds.
While the Renogy 100 watt foldable solar suitcase is ready to operate directly out of the box, we did need to make one important modification. The wiring that came with the unit comes with a pair of alligator clips. These work well for travel trailers and other RVs with exterior battery compartments, but not so well for RVs with interior battery compartments like ours. Using Renogy’s OEM wiring meant we would need to leave a window or door cracked open to pass the wires, a big problem. Some kind of external 12 volt interface was needed for my truck camper. After evaluating our options, we decided to install a SAE socket on the back of our camper and run a pair of 12 gauge wires from the SAE socket to the battery compartment. For the portable array’s wiring, we removed the alligator clips and soldered a standard SAE plug in their place. Using the SAE socket and plug allows us to connect the foldable suitcase to my camper’s batteries quickly with no fuss (another benefit is that the SAE interface allows me to recharge my batteries using my Wind Walker 250 wind turbine as well).
So how well does the Renogy 100 watt solar suitcase perform in real life? Very well. It transports easily, deploys quickly, and works well either individually or in parallel with another solar power charging system. When connected directly to an old, RV/Marine 12 volt battery, the array generated an output of 5.8 amps on a sunny January afternoon, higher than the panel’s maximum rated output. On another particularly hazy winter afternoon, in parallel with my camper’s existing solar power system, the unit generated 2.8 amps which increased the total charging output to my batteries by 50 percent. One feature that I really like is that the controller is mounted to a hinged plate that hangs vertically when the array is in use, this feature makes reading and adjusting the controller easier than most of the competition.
Overall, we’re impressed with the performance, quality, and looks of the Renogy 100 watt foldable solar suitcase. Monocrystalline solar arrays are the best that money can buy and the frames that come with the two 50 watt solar arrays are rugged and durable. Constructed in Germany, Renogy’s monocrystalline solar panels provide a very high module conversion efficiency of 15.5 percent. Each panel is EL tested with no hot-spot heating guaranteed. The ideal output of the pair is 500 watt hours a day which can fully charge a 50 amp hour battery from 50 percent in three hours, depending on sunlight conditions. The warranty is a 25-year transferable power output warranty: 5-year/95 percent efficiency rate, 10-year/90 percent efficiency rate, 25-year/80 percent efficiency rate. The panels also come with a five-year material and workmanship warranty.
We’re particularly pleased with the quality of the Renogy ViewStar 10 amp charge controller. Most solar companies go cheap when choosing a charge controller for their portable units, but not Renogy. The ViewStar is a quality unit that is fully programmable and features an LCD display which shows not only voltage and amperage, but also total charge time. Plus, unlike most PWM charge controllers which provide only three stage charging, the ViewStar provides four stage charging (Bulk, Boost. Float, and Equalization). Moreover, the controller is fully compatible with Wet Cell, Gel, and AGM types of batteries. These and other built-in features of the controller provide valuable protection against overcharging, over-discharging, overloading, short-circuits, and reverse polarity connections.
Are there any cons or legitimate issues with the Renogy solar suitcase? Aside from the aforementioned concerns about theft, there are only a few. Because of the attached charge controller, you can’t leave the portable array out in the rain, the moisture will ruin the controller’s electronics. So if there’s any chance of rain you’ll need to store the unit away (as an option Renogy offers a similar solar suitcase model but without the ViewStar controller). If you have back or shoulder issues, then hefting the 27-pound suitcase could be a problem. Personally, we found the suitcase easy to transport and maneuver into place. However, the size of the unit when not in use could be an issue if the amount of storage space you have is limited. We keep ours stored in the backseat of our truck and that works well for us. Of course, these concerns are moot when it comes to a rooftop solar panel and there’s the rub. If having a portable unit that can be maneuvered and angled at the sun is important to you or if a permanent rooftop installation isn’t an option for your RV, then the Renogy 100 watt monocrystalline foldable solar suitcase is made to order.
So which company makes the best foldable solar suitcase and provides the best value? There are several portable solar units in the market today, but if you’re looking for quality, coupled with a terrific warranty, then look no further than Renogy. If you’re not familiar with this relatively new company, Renogy, is American-owned and was founded not too long ago by students at Louisiana State University (unfortunately, all of their products appear to be foreign-made in China and Europe). While Renogy offers a diverse range of products, they’ve really made their mark in the boating and RV communities with their affordable solar power starter products. Indeed, almost single-highhandedly, the company has made solar power affordable for the average RV owner with their solar starter kits. What used to cost $900 for a 100 watt system can now be purchased for less than $180. What rating would we give for the Renogy 100 watt monocrystalline foldable solar suitcase? As it stands right now, we’d give it a rating of 4 stars, but if it had a waterproof charge controller and an SAE plug, we would have given it a full, 5-star rating.