Portable Solar Trackers

Build Your Own Portable Solar Tracker

install nuts
If you intend to provide solar power for your home, you may not find this information very useful.  The solar tracking component of this build may be extremely useful because it can be applied to any system out there with two degrees of movement. If you are looking to construct an off-grid system for your home, then you already have a number of options that can make that a reality.  However, if you own an RV, or are looking to provide portable solar power to an outbuilding, you might find this information to be very useful. When we choose to go portable, we limit what we can use and how we use it.  We sacrifice quantity with quality because we still have to stow it in a relatively small space while still keeping the weight at a minimum. Some RV’ers choose to install a solar array on the roof of their vehicle,  not only am I not willing to do this,  I urge you to consider a number of other things first before you start drilling holes in your roof.  Wind, motion, look angle, solar degradation and liability issues are but a few things to consider,  read more here.  What I am suggesting is an alternative to mounting a solar array on your roof. I am suggesting the only reason people mount solar panels on their roof is that nobody sells a truly portable system at a reasonable price. So, why not build your own?

What Currently Exists

We live in a world where information is at our fingertips, there is nothing we can’t research on our own and at least attempt to build for ourselves.  If you are a DIY’er then you can, and should, build your own portable solar tracker.  Why? Why not!

Do a search of the Internet for “portable solar trackers” and you will find large, heavy and expensive systems that are anything but portable. The few that are truly portable, do not generate much power and are expensive.  Only one of them is considered to be portable, by definition.

The Aspect Solar Socket is probably the most portable unit, with enough power to charge an RV battery in a reasonable time frame, but it cost $2800.

Another system that is identified as portable is the Wagan Solar Cube.  It boasts 80-watts of solar panels and it has a 1500 watt AC Inverter.  It has a 55 AH AGM storage battery. It weighs 100 pounds.  Something that weighs 100 pounds is not portable, it is an anchor. wagan solar cube

By definition, the term portable means: “to be easily carried or moved”.  You can build a portable solar tracking system for around $480 that will produce more power than either of these units.

If you have a serious interest in solar power and are willing to dedicate a couple of hours of your time, you can build your own portable solar tracker from a set of plans.

Don’t just buy a large solar panel and prop it up against a tree and expect it to produce boundless energy, it won’t. If you consume power you must replace that power. This is made more difficult given the number of solar days for our geographic locations and the view we have of the Sun. So, it is critical that we produce as much power as we can in the shortest period of time. One solution is to make your system track the Sun.

I have designed several tracking systems over the past 7 years, some portable and some stationary, all of them functioned “brilliantly” (yup..that’s Watt I said) but they still seemed a bit awkward and not well suited for RV use.  A 100-watt rigid framed solar panel is not easily stowed in an RV.

I settled on a design that is truly compact, lightweight and portable.  It is constructed with t-slot extrusion, steel tubing, and a single axis tracking mechanism. The mount is for a flexible 100-watt solar panel that weighs only 4.4 pounds.

This particular model tracks in azimuth and the inclination is manually adjusted. A portable system does not really need to be a dual-axis system because the tilt angle would be set by the operator each time it is put into operation.  Dual-axis is better suited for stationary systems.

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Build Plans Include:

– Drawings w/ dimensions – Step-by-step instructions – Detailed parts list using Amazon Affiliate links

Extrusion Assembly

Adaptable Design

Remember, you are building a portable solar tracker for your RV using very light components so that you can pack it away quickly, this means there will be some compromises. Your system can be modified to suit your needs, as long as it can still be easily assembled, easily positioned and easy to remove when inclement weather strikes.

The method I use in the build plans is designed around a TV tripod base, it is stout and lightweight. It can easily be secured to the ground with a ground anchor like the “Ground Grabba“. Simply drive one of these screws into the ground directly below the center pipe and attach the pipe to the anchor. I always bring an impact drill for my stabilizers, this would make quick work of this.

Ground Grabba

You can also mount your system to the side of your RV ladder. The Flag Pole Buddy mounts to the side of your ladder and you simply insert an antenna mast with your solar tracker on top. I would not recommend using this method if you want to modify your mount to handle a larger solar panel, it might become a problem on windy days.

Flag Pole Buddy

This next method is the most practical way to mount a portable solar tracker for an RV.  If you have a towing vehicle you have a receiver.  The vehicle provides a secure base and it can still be removed quickly, Ecotric makes such a system. I would choose this method over the others.  This might also be better for mounting larger panels and perhaps even two panels.  The build I am proposing can be made larger, at least large enough to handle 2 panels side by side.  I would recommend adding a second gear motor in-place of the third “L” bracket.

I am actually working on another design that will be built on this hitch mount.  It provides a good base and can handle more panels.  I believe I can modify the mount to handle (2) 150-watt solar panels, and still track.
Universal Hitch Mount

The electronics I call out in the parts list are recommendations and nothing more. Please feel free to make it your own. I would love to see photos of your version.

Complete Plans

What makes these plans so unique is that they serve as a general guide on how a single axis system works. The key to making a solar tracker is to provide a pivoting motion in azimuth (on its own axis) and to provide a means to set the proper tilt angle (depending on the Season).

The instructions are detailed enough to walk you through the process but you have several options to modify this system to fit your specific needs.  Follow this link if you would like to subscribe and download your FREE plans.

Assembly &  Storage

The mounting system is made with aluminum t-slot extrusion and is easily assembled with a T-wrench. The entire system collapses and packs relatively flat; it weighs only a few pounds.

The bulk of the build is done with a T-wrench and depending on the length of the extrusion you purchase you will need to do some cutting. I am also working on a folding frame.

First Prototype

A few years ago I designed a portable solar tracker that was wheeled into position, it came with a compact power pack.  It worked…but it was not easily stowed and it was certainly not suitable for an RV.  If I do not consider this to be portable then you can certainly understand why the two systems described above are not portable.

It was actually a nice system that came as a kit. It included a power pack with a 100AH battery (heavy) and it had a small Inverter for AC power. Even though it was easy to wheel it into a position it was not very practical. I viewed this more as a semi-portable unit. It made more sense to have a bank of lead-acid storage batteries in a garage or outbuilding with a short run of wire going to the panel.

First solar tracker
First Portable Solar Tracker

I ended up burying a galvanized post in cement, grounding the entire system and moving the solar panels on to the new mount. I had several storage batteries that fed a 1000 Watt Inverter and installed motion activated LED interior lights. If you would like to attempt this build you can find it here.

Solar Panels

The panels I recommend for this build are flexible solar panels. They are extremely light-weight and can be stowed just about anywhere…even under a mattress or on an interior wall. They also do not absorb as much heat as rigid solar panels, excessive heat decreases the performance of solar panels.

Renogy 100 Watt Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel

Renogy 100 Watt $193.17

Most solar panels are only 15-18% efficient, but there are some that are as efficient as 22-25% like the Sunpower flexible panel.

SunPower® 100 Watt Flexible Monocrystalline High-Efficiency Solar Panel

Sunpower 110 Watt $275

Function & Design

The mount is designed specifically for a 100-watt flexible solar panel. The entire system can collapse and pack relatively flat and weighs only a few pounds.

Flexible solar panels are ideally suited for RV use. They are light-weight, low profile and are easily stowed against an interior wall or in a storage bin. They can even be stowed under a mattress. If you have a stock mattress you will not notice a thing, you could park a “Smart” car under our mattress and I wouldn’t feel it.

portable design

Rigid panels can be used with this mount but they are better suited for semi-portable applications where space is not an issue.

This is not a complicated project, it does not require welding or soldering and it can be built in a couple of hours, provided you have everything on-hand. Before you decide to build this project consider what your solar needs are. Solar is not some boundless energy source that will power everything onboard your RV. If you need help sizing your system please read this.

The old adage “You can’t get something for nothing” holds true especially when it comes to solar power. Know what it is you intend to use it for. Determine how many storage batteries you will need and realize how much weight that will add to your towing vehicle.

If you own an RV and are looking to provide DC power for LED lighting or a water pump occasionally, then this system is ideal for you. If you are looking to provide AC power to small appliances, you will need to purchase an Inverter that is suitable for the task. Note: When choosing an Inverter, remember that a 120 VAC load drawing 5 amps equates to 600 watts of power.  The 12 VDC battery, in an effort to produce that same 600 watts will require 50 amps.  If you ran this load for 1 hour you would have depleted your battery by 50 AH (ampere-hours). A 100 AH lead-acid battery should not be depleted more than 50 AH.

As limiting as this system may seem it actually allows you to expand on the design to make a larger system. In other words, once you understand the concept of solar tracking it can be scaled up very easily. Remember, the larger the system, the less portable it is, and the more difficult it is to stow it in an RV.

Storage Batteries

The storage battery is probably the most critical component in a solar system when it comes to RVs because space and weight greatly impact you’re towing ability. A typical 100 AH lead-acid battery weighs about 80-90 pounds and it should not be discharged below 50%. This means if you require 200 AH you will need 400 AH of storage batteries. I address some of these issues in my ebook.

Lead-acid batteries have been the primary source for solar because they are affordable and they are readily available. A new battery has emerged called a LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate). These should not be confused with Hover Board batteries that can catch on fire.

LiFePO4 are about 3 times more expensive than lead-acid of the same size but the advantages are far greater. If you are serious about camping off-grid and want to be able to provide power without adding a lot of weight then you must consider using this battery in-place of lead-acid.

The greatest advantage this battery has over lead-acid is that you can charge it very quickly. To charge it quickly you need a power source capable of producing a higher current. Unfortunately, even if you are using (2) 110 Watt Sunpower solar panels you still will only produce about 12 amps; under ideal conditions.

Read more here.

RUIXU LiFePO4 12V 200Ah LiFePO4 Battery 

This battery could satisfy a lot of boon-dockers needs. It weighs only 60 pounds and it is only slightly larger than a 100 AH lead-acid battery. This battery can be discharged down to 75% of capacity giving you 150 AH to work with.

The downside to having this much capacity is the limiting amount of power you can produce with only a single 100-watt solar panel, even if it is auto-tracking.

LiFePO4 200 AH

  • 200AH / Size:20.5″*10.6″*8.7″/60lbs
  • 100 amp continuous output,300 amp surge output
  • 3 years warranty
  • 70-80% lighter than equivalent Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) batteries
  • 5 times longer life (2000 charge cycles vs. 400 on SLA)
  • 75% higher effective capacity than SLA batteries
  • Includes Battery Management System (BMS) protection circuit.
  • 3000-5000 cycles – Acceptable Charging voltages 14.4 to 14.6 volts
  • The battery is perfect for deep-cycle applications including electric vehicles, solar/wind energy system, UPS battery backup, telecommunication systems, medical equipment, and more.

Cost Comparison: A typical 100 AH lead-acid battery that is suitable for solar (VMAX SLR100) cost $259. You will replace this battery every 2-3 years. A LiFePO4 at $720 will last between 8-10 years.