One Man's Journey to Off Grid Independence
This story happened on: 03/08/2019
If you think Off Grid Caravanning is somehow low brow, I invite you to read my experiences
I have been caravanning since 1985. The journey has been full of joy, some downs, it has to be said, but generally I wouldn’t have changed a thing, Caravanning for me has given me and my family so many new and wonderful experiences. It did have a strange start though-
Back in 1989, having 4 children, and not having a chance, financially speaking, to get my family on holiday, I was always looking for ways to do it. I had always fancied a caravan and thanks to a small legacy that came my way, I was able now, to look at buying one - not a new one, but certainly a decent one. For instance, with 4 kids, It had to have hot and cold running water! So I approached the other half about the possibility of getting a caravan. She looked at me as though the last marble had just dropped and rolled down a drain-
“I’m not going in a caravan!” she said, “Oh no, not a caravan! ”- it was said with such disdain, you would have thought I had asked her if it was OK if we joined the local travelling community! It was obviously no good trying to convince her so I left it alone! Some weeks later, she came sheepishly to me while I worked in the greenhouse and said ”you know your idea of a caravan? “Yes” I said with hope rising in me “well I’ve been thinking, perhaps we should take a look” To cut a long story short and not being one to hang around, we bought our first caravan that very weekend! I was the proud owner of a Avondale Leda Pennine 5/6 berth and our caravanning life had begun.
I had been happy up to 2011 with the 'status quo' as everyone had to be, and that was purely due to the fact that we had no choice in the matter in those days. If you wanted everything working in your caravan, you simply joined the queue, collected your 2 Calor cylinders (after paying your contract money for each one of course) and had a 240v hook up stuck in the side of your van. That was the way it was, and like hundreds of thousands of others, I was happy to do it as I knew no different, I knew that was the only way I was going to give them a holiday and, it has to be said, we had some crackers! Finances were fairly tight back then, so, financial circumstances made me keep an an eye on the price of my caravanning.
I remember we did do the odd bit of off grid caravanning but only for a weekend now and again- usually, that was at the Caravan Clubs Off Grid Round Spinney site at Milldenhall for the yearly Air Show, which was for us, without a doubt, one of the highlights of our caravanning year. Even then, I remember the problems I had with Lead Acid batteries. I must have spent a good time on my knees praying that the battery lasted and the red LED didn't come on, which, it invariably it did! The battery was obviously less than healthy but we always had the car to plug up to if we really needed it. Lights and pumps was about all it did- No LED’s in those days! If only I had realised then, that that form of caravanning was to become the norm for us today and that with the right technology, that was waiting in the wings, it would be as comfortable and as easy to do as if with an EHU. If I’d been told that by someone I would have laughed him off site- how things change!
For me, my journey to 'power independence' started in 2011 or even perhaps a little earlier. It wasn't because I was blessed with an endless knowledge of modern tech and gadgets, - a guy rapidly approaching his 60s is unlikely to be ‘down with the kids’!. No, in the early days it was about money but now in 2011 it was rearing its ugly head yet again. Although still a few years off retirement tax changes started to have an effect on pension funds. I had to seriously think about my caravanning! If I was to realise my expectations and caravan at the intensity that I had promised myself post retirement, it was obvious I had to find some way of either paying even more contributions into my pension, or, the other side of the equation-finding some way of reducing my costs for our caravanning. The question was simple - How? The first option of paying more in was not possible - it simply wasn’t an option and I had serious doubts that I could shave even a small amount off my caravanning costs. Prices for CC 'Certificated Locations' with hook up, which were the type of sites I normally headed for, were fairly standard in pricing. I had never, as I’ve said, ventured onto an off grid site for any length of time as the only way of powering the van would have been getting a a generator or worse still, running the engine on the tow-car and I wasn't going down that road! Oh- the complaints! Then there were Caravan Club site. - they were definitely out, I’m sorry - It just wasn't my type of caravanning- Lines of regimented caravans, pegs, lighting bollards and the early morning walk to the washroom just wasn't our bag! So, how was I going to do this? - in 2012, things looked pretty bleak!
The year passed with me considering my options from time to time and slowly, but surely, a plan started to take shape. Fortunately, I had always been interested in new ‘gadgets’ and that led to a well informed decision. I had to make my caravanning cheaper- and as the idea grew, I also wanted to be completely independent of anyone else short of supplying me a patch of grass to put my van on. These two desires were the bedrock of where I am today. I wanted to produce a caravan which was not only cheap to run, but was comfortably equipped and usable and had minimal impact on the environment. It was a desire that got stronger as time passed.
The photovoltaic cell had come of age and the mighty Solar Panel had really started to make its presence felt, but more than that, research had improved them. Now, we had panels that would work in decent light instead of needing direct sunlight to generate amps. I asked the question- “What if I could produce my own power with a solar panel and survive on 12v?” It meant sacrifices of course in the fact that I couldn’t use various appliances on the van, the obvious one being the microwave, and, if I could do this, it would rid me of the Electric Hook Up and allow me more freedom by allowing me to visit sites at a third of the price into the bargain! However, at that time, I knew that the LPG situation could not be altered- I would still need to rent cylinders and they were not cheap having seen them rise year on year but that was how it was. There wasn't anything else on the market so I had to accept the status quo and that was, when swopping a rental cylinder - 'pay up and shut up'. I sat down and did a few calculations- I wouldn't be paying for electric but I would be using more gas but there would be a definite saving. The figures definitely added up so I pressed on with my plan to become hook up free.
At last, in November 2012, I put my money where my mouth was, took the first step of the journey, and had a 135w panel fitted to the roof of my caravan. A second 110ah battery was fitted and wow, what a revelation. Some advantages started to make themselves obvious immediately. For the first time since I had started caravanning, I found myself no longer running backwards and forwards to the storage site with a newly charged battery every few weeks to keep my alarm and tracker alive and thereby keep my insurance valid -my battery was fully charged all the time - so how much time and diesel was that saving me and indeed, continues to save me?- the first stage of the project was complete. However, as is sometimes the way with these things, someone else obviously thought my caravan was very nice and 3 months later, my caravan was stolen from a CaSSOA, panel and all. I was not to be put off, so I started again.
In May 2013, having purchased my replacement caravan, a 2011 Bailey Unicorn Valencia, I found myself going to the first 'rally' I had ever been to, -the Caravan Clubs National at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire. To be honest, it was a test run for me and my new toy - with my solar panel on the roof, and having seen what it could do, I was very confident that flat batteries were not going to be an issue. Of course, I went off grid at the rally and I was right, I had a wonderful weekend for many reasons, not least of all that my batteries stayed fully charged. It was whilst I was there, my plans to cut my caravanning costs further, received another shot in the arm. On wondering among the various trade stalls, I spotted some very modern looking cylinders - made of a resin type material. For a start, I didn't bother asking about them but I had made a mental note to return to that stall. What were these LPG cylinders? -were they for rental? I needed to know. On returning to the stall, I soon discovered that they were Safefill cylinders. - these, I discovered you bought and owned and filled them yourself.- and at much reduced cost! They were fitted with the same connection as gas powered cars. They had the 80% cut off requirement for an LPG cylinder and other safety features . I discovered that these cylinders had only just entered the market place in the previous 2 years- This was an answer to a prayer. This new cylinder was in my locker in quick order and I still love it as much today as I did then, not only because it has handed me the chance of much cheaper LPG, but it has given me choice- a choice which I have never had before, it has empowered me. No longer am I subject to the dictates of large LPG concerns and their rental demands. I didn’t need their expensive cylinders anymore!
Now, with a Safefill on board I saw my overall costs for my hobby drop again- this time on the LPG side of things - what a marriage- Solar Panels and Safefill cylinders- It goes without saying -They have both been one of the best investments I have ever made - They just keep on saving me money! The miracle for me was that they had both appeared as though by magic and just when I needed them! . So now, I could make my own electric, and, have my own cylinder which meant no more heavy rental charges- I was now paying for the actual gas- at a quarter of what I had been, and not for what it was stored in - OK, I still couldn't use my microwave or indeed my slow cooker, or my electric blanket but from where I had been a few months earlier, I had made a quantum leap in the art of Off Grid caravanning. I returned home a happy man.
The next year saw me at Arley Hall at the 2014 National but this time as a day visitor. Something had lured me to travel those 125 miles or so, because again, it was while I was wondering around the trade stands between the showers, that I came across my next part of the jigsaw. In a casual conversation under canvas, with a company selling all things electrical, - batteries, sat navs, reversing cameras etc, and with the rain beating down so that it sounded as though we were in a snare drum, I explained my goal and what I had achieved over the past year or so. I explained my regrets in that that I had lost the use of my microwave due to not wanting mains any longer. I could use the microwave as a bread bin! I was then asked what I had on board as regards batteries etc. . I told him. I'll never forget his reply - "With what you have, why haven't you got an inverter?" Although I knew of inverters and what they did, - sort of- I had not, at that time, considered one so naturally I asked if he thought it was something I could use and would it be useful to me. “Well you'll have your microwave back and it'll power other 240v equipment if you want them!" came the reply - I was sold on the idea and bought a 2000w Pure Sine Wave inverter. What I had wanted was to be able to run the microwave and other things like a toaster and my hand held 240v vacuum, and, with this inverter, I now realised that I could. However, I didn't want it working at its max - It was big enough to handle the large amperages (unfortunately my batteries couldn’t) and leave spare capacity - and it was Pure Sine Wave which meant I didn't have to worry about any sensitive equipment I would have with me, like phones, tablets etc, - if they needed a pure sine wave, it was there. I fitted it before our next trip away- and then the fun really started.
June of 2014 saw us leave for Devon knowing that if I had this right, this would be the most economical and independent caravanning I had ever had and with no reduction in comforts, and, it would be the first full test of the system I had pinned so many hopes on. I was excited and nervous at the same time.
The fortnight passed and was, I thought, a total success, even if damage, unseen and undetected had occurred to my batteries! But more of that later- Everything worked as it should including the microwave, vacuum cleaner and the thing I really didn't want to do without- the electric toaster! It’s so convenient and the toast it produces is so much better than a what my caravan grill produced! There I was, sitting in a field, away from the world with not an orange cable in sight and enjoying all the comforts of home at £5 a night! There were certain things however, that I felt I could do without. One was the slow cooker which I have to say I missed, another was the Electric blanket, not that I needed it at that time of year, but it would become an issue when it got colder. . We will return to those later. The two things I had invested in- my Safefill and my Solar Panel, were providing everything I needed- the panel filling the batteries (or so I thought) and the Safefill providing cooking and hot water at much more realistic cost and really importantly at that time of year, supplying the fridge!! What did I care- I was getting my gas at about 25% of what I had been getting it at! The end of the 14 day holiday came and I went to pay The cost? £70 for site fees instead of the normal £196 based on an average of £14 a night had it been an EHU site - £126 saved and my Safefill was virtually paid for in saved fees from just one fortnight in Devon! I wanted to embrace what I believe is the caravan ideology- to be able to go into the countryside with as little pollution or disturbance as possible and this was and has always been one of the driving forces behind this decision. I didn’t want to be and never have wanted to be ‘Suburbia on holiday’ - arriving with phenomenal amounts kit and equipment, plugging in, switching on and tuning in, but on the other hand I’m not a member of the ‘bucket and chuck it brigade’ either- no, just a simple but comfortable existence is my desire- with modern technologies allowing me to achieve that. However, I don’t think the EHU is under any kind of threat!
After that holiday, we had more breaks off grid but any joy at my achievement was to be short lived. As early as 2016, the year I finally retired, it was obvious that the batteries were not performing as they once had. Had I known then what I know now about Lead Acids, the inverter would not have been bought. It would only serve to damage my batteries. It was again, by visiting the shows and asking questions, that I learned Lead Acid batteries are damaged by asking them for large amperages as I had done. Plates warp and distort- I was very disappointed that I had not known that before but at least I knew it now and I would use that knowledge to my advantage. Eventually, the lead acids had got to such a state, that it was no longer possible to even think about putting the inverter on, the microwave and the toaster were once again redundant. The power just wasn’t there, the batteries were dying. The bread was back under the grill! They were OK for 12v LED lights and pumps but little else. This was not what I wanted and I was now looking at another 2 batteries of £140 each......or was I?. Over the years since starting my off grid adventure, I have been very keen to keep abreast of all the new technologies that have come our way- what I mean by that is the technologies that benefit the caravanner and motor-homer. One of those was the rise and rise of the Lithium Battery. This technology, invented in the 1970/80s but only recently made available in Leisure batteries has interested me from the first moment I found out about it. I have watched about every YouTube video there is to watch, read technical reports, been on webinars and generally bored the other half to death with lithium batteries. Like others, I knew of this type of battery bursting into flames and suffering from ‘thermal runaway’ but that was Lithium Ion, - enter stage right lithium phosphate or LiFepo4 batteries - perfectly safe lithium technology - like Lithium Ion The initial price tag is where many people lose interest - too expensive - but wait- hear me out. It was high- very high compared to a Lead Acid and the price was even more inflated due to other vital electronics needed to protect the battery like a Battery to Battery Charger and a decent MPPT solar controller both with Lithium cycles- but even knowing this extra expense, I never dismissed it completely- I wanted to know more. What were the advantages of lithium - they were many! As I struggled with failing batteries over the next year or two, it became apparent that I would have to change them as a matter of course, but if I bought Lead acids, even quality ones, I had to ask myself one question- do I want to be paying out and changing them again in 2 or at best 3 years time and every 2-3 years from then on?
So it was easy to make my next decision. Lead Acids we’re out of the question- they were not suitable for the use I wanted to put them through so I was damn well going to fit a Lithium Battery to my caravan if it was possible - it really was the only choice I had. From what I knew about them now, I couldn’t see any problems.
I found myself a 30 minute drive from Roadpro at Daventry , a company with a very good name in the industry. Having spoken to them and having found out that it was perfectly possible to fit a lithium battery to a caravan, and against the advice of those who saiid my caravan would burst into flames, I had more questions to ask. I was again fortunate in that the company who were the manufacturers of the battery I was looking at buying were sending two guys, their chief technician and a rep, from Italy to Britain-Roadpro was on their inventory to have a business meeting - I was invited down to ask all the questions I wanted to ask- I didn’t hesitate and spent a most informative 2-3 hours having my mind put at rest! Thank you Roadpro. After all, I was contemplating spending serious money on a power plant and I needed to know what my options were. Was I, after all my expectations re off grid living, doomed to return to the hook up once more? Not after that meeting!
So, in the summer of 2018, very early one beautifully sunny morning I arrived with my caravan at Roadpro having chosen the battery I wanted ( or more honestly, what Roadpro had recommended ) I had the now useless Lead Acid batteries removed and replaced by a single 100ah Lithium. At 60% of the weight of one of my lead acids and with the same amount of useable power of both - I had embraced this new tech with a feeling that this time, it was going to work and keep working. Yes, it wasn’t cheap but I had done my homework and calculations which were not difficult. If I had to change my Lead Acid batteries every 2-3 years so that I could be off grid and able to use what I wanted to use, then I was going to spend something in the region of £260-£280 every time I changed them, and have all the inconvenience that entails but how much would that be over the 20 -25 yr life of a lithium of £1000? Added to that, I would have the advantage of extra safety- no fumes and the weight saving is amazing - It was a no brainer really. The Lithium, over time, actually worked out cheaper.
However, the proof of the pudding as they say, so, in September 2018 off we went to Wales and spent 3 glorious weeks living with our new lithium battery.- The battery performed perfectly and performed all tasks with aplomb!
February 2019, saw me again at the NEC. What had happened in the previous month was one of the deciding factors although I would have been there anyway,- damp ingress in the washroom floor of the old girl had made me think that a new caravan was in the offing! On 8th May 2019 I made my second trip to Roadpro. This time towing my new caravan.The lithium and attendant electronics had been removed from the old van some weeks before. The 135w panel on the roof went with it as I had negotiated a show offer of 100w up to a new solar array of 300w in 2 panels of polycrystalline at 150w each. I wanted monocrystalline but as these were already far better than I had had, I didn’t argue too much! Coachman fitted one and Broad Lane the other. This was just the ticket for a lithium as they not only have the ability to give a large amperage but they can take it as well. The 135w had certainly been adequate to keep the lithium charged. I now wanted faster charging which I knew the lithium could take with no problem and as the panels were ‘free’ - why not?.
As usual, Roadpro did an expert job on reinstalling my lithium ‘power pack’ and attaching it to the Solar array. There was one addition to the electronics in that I had a ‘priority switch’ fitted. This device simply searches for 240 volts and if it can’t find it- and in my case never can, and now, never will- switches its attention to the inverter. Since then, we have enjoyed 73 days away and although it’s early days still, I haven’t noticed any deterioration of the power available and the electronic display that came with the battery backs that up. The toaster has been used on virtually every one of those days and sometimes twice, the microwave has heated meals and drinks, the hoover has been on when needed and generally, we haven’t worried at all about the state of charge of the battery- we haven’t needed to. The power used has been quickly replaced by the solar array and on sunny days- really quickly! Had that been the Lead Acid batteries, damage would have occurred and been noticed I’m sure. Even in storage, I no longer have to take a flask or a gas cylinder with me. I get a mug of water, add coffee, milk and sugar, pop the inverter on and microwave it for 2 mins at full power- one very hot cup of coffee- and the battery? - still at 97%!
For me now, after travelling the off grid road, I believe I have arrived at where I wanted to be when I started this project back in 2011/12. It has been an interesting journey. I have learned so much and , made my mistakes (lead acids) but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. So now I am confident- thanks to modern technology and a good company at the back of me, that I won’t have to cut down my caravanning in my autumn years and indeed, as a barometer of my efforts, the OH loves it too so no complaints from that quarter. She switches the ‘transponder’ on as she calls it (bless her) - she’s been watching too much Star Trek!- and uses the facilities that the Lithium offers her.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this journey. What an amazing time the last few years have been for the caravanner and his ability not only to be able to create his own power but save power too! - Solar panels, LED lighting, highly efficient power saving devices, new materials for batteries making it possible for them to hold more charge at much less weight, and last, but certainly not least, - the brilliant, money saving refillable cylinders like Safefill - never again do I have to worry about how much is in the cylinder- I can top it up and know It’s full every time I get away.
I often wonder what would our forbears would have thought of being able to go into the wild completely independent in power? As knowledge and research improve the future can only get better for the off grid caravanner as batteries improve and solar panels become even more efficient. The technology in every field moves on to improve what was there before. Composite cylinders which have extra safety features the old heavy steel ones never had- such as open the valve and no gas escapes unless a tail is fitted- how good is that with inquisitive children about?- I honestly believe that the refillable will become the default cylinder. The new cylinder and valve technology has been so liberating for me.
As far as my 'losses' were concerned, The slow cooker was replaced with a Mr Ds Thermal Cooker, which, again, saves power by cooking the contents in their own heat - the modern equivalent of the haybox which allows us to return after a strenuous walk and have a hot meal waiting for us. As far as the electric blanket is concerned, I’m sure the battery could and will handle it, but, what's the problem with a hot water bottle at night if things are a little nippy in Autumn or winter? - not that it should be with the brilliant Alde heating now using my much cheaper gas and using only 1 amp to power the pump! - There has never been a time in the history of caravanning where things have been made so convenient for us power wise! I often ask , ”Why would I want to have an orange cable anymore?” - and why oh why would I want to rent cylinders of gas where 70-75% is the cost of hiring the cylinder. However, some things we all want- I believe that if we all want to change the system that has had us straight jacketed for so many years, we need to buy things like Solar Panels and refillable cylinders. The LPG giants have had their time with making us pay for a cylinder that has probably been paid for with rental charges 20, 40, 60 times? We can make things better and cheaper. Thinking outside the box has certainly paid dividends for me and I’ve enjoyed every moment of improvement. I am no longer using electricity that someone else provides through a cable, created by burning the dinosaurs or even worse, by splitting the atom- and the freedom of that is truly uplifting. I hope I have given you food for thought
Moderator Comment - Unfortunately political comments have had to be edited out of this story.