Flexible solar panels: how NOT to buy them for your Alto

From the moment we put the deposit down on our Safari Condo Alto F1743 trailer I planned to cover the roof with solar panels and install lithium ion batteries so that I would not have to burn any propane to heat the trailer or cook meals. I wanted to go 100% electric. That’s extremely unusual in the RV camping world, where running gas-powered generators and  using propane is the norm. But after almost four years of driving only electric cars there was no way I was going to go back to fossil fuels.

The Safari Condo solar options are puny

The solar options offered by Safari Condo were inadequate to achieve my goal; either 100W or 200W of flexible panels on the roof and no high capacity battery. With zero practical experience installing solar panels and all the associated hardware I did not want to attempt the installation myself. Fortunately, a web search revealed a company not far from me, Quality RV Solar and looking through the project portfolio quickly convinced me I had to go talk to them. Located in Fremont, California, not far from the Tesla factory, I immediately warmed to owner Dan Reshatoff. We discussed my goals and over the next several months finalized on a plan for the maximum possible solar panels on the Alto roof and two 300Ah LiFePO batteries.

Although Dan had not used flexible solar panels before, he had done many rigid panel installations on RV roofs. I volunteered to source the flexible solar panels and purchase them directly, and he would procure all the other necessary hardware.

My first thought was to buy the panels direct from Sunpower, as they offered very high efficiency flexible panels and had a reputation for quality. Plus, I had a good friend high up in management there! 🙂 Unfortunately, I soon learned that Sunpower had discontinued US sales of their 110W panels and the only size they offered was 100W. The dimensions of the Alto meant that I could get a maximum of maybe 6 panels on the roof and there would be a lot of unused space. I wanted more…

And then I found Elfeland panels

A web search revealed that a Chinese manufacturer produced a wide range of flexible panel sizes under the name “Elfeland”, and serveral resellers sold them on eBay. An Israeli company, AlexNLD, also sold the panels but their prices were significantly higher.

So after developing a list of all the available Elfeland 18V panel sizes and carefully measuring the Alto roof dimensions to figure out the different sizes I need to cover as much roof area as possible, I started ordering panels from several ebay sellers. What could go wrong?

Answer: EVERYTHING. Do not buy flexible solar panels on eBay from Chinese resellers. Here’s what happened:

  • I got panels that were a significantly different size from the dimensions shown on the ebay product page. The seller, anglestore, blamed a “unit conversion error” and didn’t want to take them back.
  • But the panels were also not the advertised voltage, which was 18V, they were 48V! The seller said they would give me a $25 so I could buy a “transformer” and use them. Unacceptable. I used the eBay complaint process and was able to return the panels for a full refund, less shipping.,
  • A panel purchased from seller greatoutdoor arrived with two large holes in it. See the photo below. They had packed up a severely damaged panel and shipped it to me. Who would accept that? Not me. It was returned for a full refund, less shipping.
  • Ordered the same size panel from another seller, mhestore2009, and it arrived damaged with signs of fracturing in some of the solar cells. Also returned for a full refund after going through the eBay complaint process.

In each instance the seller resisted my request to return the panels and came up with absurd excuses and reasons why I really should be able to use them. It was almost comical, except that it was really just incredibly aggravating. It also delayed the completion of the solar installation by several months. Dan was very patient and worked around the delays.

Ultimately I got the panels I wanted in the sizes I needed, through eBay seller ouyou2010 and through AlexNLD. My recommendation is to only use AlexNLD. You will pay more but I think you will get better customer service and no problems. Here are the panels I used and their dimensions in inches:

  • 20W 16.5×11
  • 35W 16.1×20.1 (two panels)
  • 40W 33×11.2
  • 140W 46.5×21.25
  • 200W 57×31.14 (four panels)

With those panels I was able to completely cover the available roof space I had to work with, allowing for the central vent fan (standard on the Alto), the small plumbing vent pipe on the port side by the roof edge, and few other items that Quality RV Solar installed at my request.

Next: details of the 1035W solar and 600Ah battery installation using an Vectron MPPT charge controller and Vectron 3000W inverter.

Some of these panels fit so well into the available space it looks like they were custom made. They were not. Serendipity.

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6 thoughts on “Flexible solar panels: how NOT to buy them for your Alto

  1. Pingback: For Alto enthusiasts: factory options I recommend | Electric Travels

  2. Pingback: Camping 100% electric = no propane | Electric Travels

  3. It appears to me that the Alto roof has fewer factory items on it than the Airstream roof, which has an AC unit (or units?) and multiple vents. I spent hours researching the many sizes of Elfeland flexible panels and working out how they would fit together on my trailer roof. Here’s a list of the available 18V sizes that I did NOT use:

    Elfeland 50W 21×21
    Elfeland 80W 34.6×21.25
    Elfeland 100W 41.3×21.25
    Elfeland 250W 62×36.2

    With so many sizes to chose from it was possible to design a layout that came pretty close to covering all the available area on my trailer roof.

    With so many choices, I think you could get well over 400W of panels on your Airstream if you switched to Elfeland flexible solar panels.

    That said, the flexible panels may not last as long as the rigid panels. So that is a potential trade off. And replacing one of my flexible panels would not be easy given how tightly bonded they are to my roof with the 3M VHB tape.

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  4. Based on your photo, I think that using a variety of flexible panel sizes that you could increase your total panel output by as much as 50%.

    But the difference between us is that my goal was 100% electric, no propane. For that I needed to maximize the solar output on my relatively small trailer roof. So that’s what I did. You are still burning propane so whether you have 400W or 600W of solar on your roof you will still be burning some propane.

    That said, if I’m at a camping location where it’s really cold and cloudy I would likely not have enough electrical power. Fortunately for me I don’t have an interest in those camping locations. 🙂

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