My Yak Camping Solar Solution

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My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#1 Post by paulo » Sun Aug 24, 2014 8:19 am

When I started doing multi day trips on the AI it became obvious I needed a solution to manage the myriad of electronic devices we seem to gather on our yaks.

The two obvious renewable energies were wind and solar. After a bit of investigation there appeared to be very few wind charging options for small 12v systems. Those that I did find, didn’t seem as though they would stand up to the harsh salt water environment experienced on the AI. It became fairly obvious early on that solar was the solution for a yak.These may be of interest if wind power takes your fancy. ... rbine-kit/

As most of the earlier expeditions were hit and run style, where we didn’t camp in the same place for more than a day or two, I looked for a solar solution that was capable of charging batteries and devices on the yak. Subsequent expeditions see us spending multiple days in the one location, so for the most part I now use the same setup on land with far better results than on the water. I do occasionally use it when I want to drive the hobie live well all day to keep precious slimies alive.

My solution is designed to charge VHF Radios, Gopros and Smart phones for six people over a seven day period. For a personal solution simply reduce the amount of 12V charge battery used. The remaining charge and discharge theory described below applies. I would not recommend anything less than a 14W panel regardless of how small your 12V charge battery is. The maximum possible output @ 12V from a 14W panel is 900mA. It is also the current used in the initial charge stage of an SLA battery.
If you find my explanations confusing or too light on, a friend recently pointed out there is a similar article buy a member of the kayak fishing NZ forum, in which he has pretty much come to the same solution as myself. He uses a water and pipe analogy to describe how currents and volts flow. The article is in the Do It Yourself section and has been marked sticky. As a supplement to what I have written here, his article is well worth a read.

Before I begin, it is prudent I provide a warning to those wishing to do something similar.

I did a fair bit of DC theory in an Electrical Engineering degree I did at uni, back before the light hit the earth. However, I left engineering for IT pretty much straight after qualifying and I can only claim to have a working knowledge of what’s going on here. Many of you are far more qualified in electrical\electronic theory\practice and as stated in previous posts, I am happy to be corrected where ever you see blatant porkies. The only thing worse than no information is mis-information.

1. You need to Fuse ALL of your circuits. I achieve this by connecting an inline 3A fuse holder between the battery +ve terminal and the external connection point on the battery box. I carry a good few spare fuses. Get the multimeter connection wrong and you will blow a fuse every time. Better than frying a radio or camera.

2. If you know little about DC theory I would recommend gaining a rudimentary understanding from one of the many good tutorial sites on the web. This is just one: ... /DC_5.html

3. I also highly recommend you gain an understanding of the battery technology you are going to use and in particular its charge\discharge behavior and requirements. Get this wrong and the results will at best reduce the life of your batteries and destroy your equipment and in extreme cases cause your batteries to heat up and possibly explode. This is a really good resource for information on all of the battery technologies you are likely to be using.

These are the basic ingredients you need to get going
  • 12V Solar Panel
    Solar charge regulator
    Battery(s) (SLA or LIFePO)
    Solder Iron
    Connector plugs and sockets
    12V USB Port
    Step Up Transformer (Optional)
12V Solar Panel
When I began looking four years back there were very few players in the flexible, water-proof solar panel market place. Investigation shows there are many more options available now but I still believe the Powerfilm range of rollable panels are the most rugged, light weight, efficient solution for my situation. I shipped mine in from the US but they are readily available in Aus now.

Most panels are made up of smaller discrete panels that are connected together within the fabric the panels are bonded too. These connections are prone to breakage and the loss of power when one panel is damaged or disconnected, is one over the number of discrete panels in your charger. One in six and you have lost one sixth of your power output. If the 12V panel is made of three parallel connected sets of 2 x 6V cells in series, one third of your panel's output may be lost or the panel may no longer operate at the required 15 odd volts to charge 12V batteries and effectively be useless. It all depends on the manufacturing process and the materials used to produce the panel. The likelihood of damage to fragile equipment is magnified when you add it to a yak in a saltwater environment.

“PowerFilm is manufactured using internally developed, proprietary manufacturing processes. The core process is a true roll-to-roll process. The general process steps are Vacuum Deposition (Back Metal, Amorphous Silicon, Transparent Top Contact), Printing and Laser Scribing, Bus Bar/Lead Attachment, Encapsulation, and Die Cutting. PowerFilm is patterned on a 13 inch wide web on a roll up to 2400 feet long.”

Solar panel manufacturers often express the efficiency of their product as a percentage. Solar cell efficiency refers to the amount of ambient light that can be converted into usable electricity by a discrete cell. However, connecting discrete cells to form a solar panel results in a decrease in efficiency due to connections and in the case of rigid panels, covering the panels with glass (or a PET plastic material on cheap folding panels), to protect them from the elements. Powerfilm panels are etched into the panel fabric and in effect are continuous for the entire panel. Essentially, due to the manufacturing process, they could be treated as a single cell without joins, regardless of what size panel you buy. Efficiency ratings are at best arbitrary and can be influenced by many factors.

Though Powerfilm only claim 5% cell efficiency, there are many video examples showing where they outperform other more efficient, higher wattage panels of a different make in all sun conditions.

Check out this page where they compare other panels and damage their own with golf balls and even a 40 caliber glock test to show how little power is lost when parts of the panel are damaged or shaded.

The panel used in the NZ article seems much higher output but it doesn’t appear to be available in 30 watts anymore. The smallest @ 40W is comparable in price to the Powerfilm 14W I use but is capable of producing a higher output and claims 22% efficiency. Unfortunately it comes in a 0.5m square that you can’t roll or fold. Not a problem if you intend using whilst on the yak.
powerfilm-r-14-rollable-series-flexible-solar-panel-15_4v.jpg ... tID=271516
Shop around if you purchase this panel. It should be $250-$300. Prices vary widely with some asking over $500.

These are the specs of my panel:
  • Operating Voltage: 15.4
    Wattage: 14
    Current: 0.9 amps
    Width (mm): 368.3
    Length (mm): 1066.8 unrolled
    Width (in): 14.5
    Length (in): 42 unrolled
    Weight (kg): 0.445 kg
    Weight (lb): 0.981 lbs
To charge a dc device of any voltage, the charger must supply a higher voltage than the operating voltage of the device being charged, to allow current (electrons) to flow from the higher potential source(panel) to the lower potential (battery). To charge a 12v device the charger must supply more than 12V. Most solar panels have an output voltage of between 14 and 20V.

In electrical terms P=VI (Watts = Volts x Amps). Corollary I=P\V.

A 14W panel is capable of supplying (14w\15.4v) 0.9 Amps at maximum output. This is the most I can expect from my panel in ideal conditions.

No matter which panel you use, it is important the panel is angled towards the sun and I generally move mine twice throughout the day, to capture the best angle for morning, midday and afternoon sun.

The table below gives a rough idea of light intensity under various conditions. Intensity is rated as a percentage of full sun intensity (also called AM1.5)
Energy Available at Various Light Conditions Relative to Full Sun
A blocking diode is recommended between any solar cell and battery. This will prevent the battery from draining back out through the panel when cloudy conditions see the panel’s output voltage drop below the required charge level. Powerfilm panels come standard with a blocking diode.

Charge Controller
A charge controller is used to prevent overcharging. As a general recommendation, a charge controller should be used if the current output of the solar panel, in Amps, is more than 1% of the battery capacity, in Amp-hours. For example, a charge controller is recommended if the R14 panel (delivering 0.9 Amps) were connected to a battery that is less than 90 Amp-hours. I am a charging 18Ah battery so the maximum solar panel current of 0.9A is 5% of the battery's capacity.

Lead acid batteries should be charged in three stages:
1. constant-current charge
2. topping charge
3. float charge.

The constant-current charge applies the bulk of the charge and takes up roughly half of the required charge time; the topping charge continues at a lower charge current and provides saturation, and the float charge compensates for the loss caused by self-discharge.

During the constant-current charge, the battery charges to 70 percent in 5–8 hours; the remaining 30 percent is filled with the slower topping charge that lasts another 7–10 hours. The topping charge is essential for the well-being of the battery. Fail to do so and the battery will eventually lose the ability to accept a full charge and the performance will decrease due to sulfation. The float charge in the third stage maintains the battery at full charge.

A charge controller lowers a high voltage and boosts a low one to the desired level. It also modifies voltage and current levels when the various stages of charging are detected.
There are two basic type of charger, PWM and MPPT.
MPPT – ( Maximum_power_point_tracking ) tracks the output of the panel more efficiently but is twice the price of a PWM charger
PWM – (Pulse Width Modulation) is cheaper and tracks the solar panel well enough for my application
Cgarge Controller.JPG ... yIDs=k6574

I chose the Sunguard 4.5amp (PWM) because it is fully waterproof and is fitted with the plugs required to connect it directly to the solar panel. They are resold by Powerfilm distributors. It is capable of charging both SLA and Fusion LifePo4 batteries in my setup.
Cgarge Controller.JPG
I have discovered that the current flow stops if I leave the charge controller in full sun in the middle of the day. To prevent this I cover charge controller and batteries with a $2 reflective car sunshield pegged down to stop it blowing away.

Warning! – Do NOT attempt to charge the li-ion packs based on 18650 cells with this controller. Li-ion requires a different charging profile and to do this from a solar panel you will need a MPPT regulator matched to the battery pack’s voltage.

These charge Li-ion or lipo batteries and are robust and popular @ $115.
GV5-Li_50050_8x6_101612_00025.jpg ... ontroller/

If you decide to charge Li-ion or lipo batteries from a solar panel, in addition to the charge controller, I highly recommend a lipo charge bag to keep your batteries in whilst charging. On eBay they are between $5 and $10. Here's a link to a hobby store site that shouldn't disappear. ... _sack.html.
The bag is designed to contain any fire that may occur whilst charging your batteries. I have visions of my batteries overheating and starting the largest grass fire Fraser Island has ever seen, whilst I am 5km away on the yak, fishing. Not to mention losing all my food, camping gear, etc in the fire and having to sail home, followed by a trip to court and a possibly the big house for a while, no doubt. In fact I will be purchasing a few of these when my Li-ion packs arrive for charging at home. Overkill perhaps, but at $5, a worthwhile precaution when you consider the possible alternatives, especially if you live in a timber house.

Battery(s) (SLA or LIFePO)
I use SLA batteries in my setup but also charge my LifePo4 battery for my sounder directly from the panel. The fusion brand of LifePo4 battery I am using, claims twice the output of an equivalent rated SLA battery, more charge cycles and can be charged using a standard SLA charger, AC or DC (It is also half the weight and 4 times the price). My usage to date confirms the greater capacity.
fusion V-LFP-12-7.5.jpg
I use two 9Ah batteries to charge everything for 6 people. To just look after yourself, a single 9Ah would suffice. No doubt I could get away with a single 9Ah for all six people but having the additional capacity means the battery voltage isn’t dropped too low after an evening charge session and essentially only requires a topping charge for 5-6 hours to take it back to full capacity. It also means we can get by if there is a heavily clouded day and little solar charging occurs.

Parallel and Series Circuits
The most efficient way to charge more than one battery is to connect the two batteries in parallel. Batteries connected in series double the voltage but retain the same output capacity as one single battery. Two 12V 9Ah batteries connected in series provide a single cell of 24V @ 9Ah. Not what we want.
Batteries connected in parallel, double the output capacity but retain the same voltage. Two 12V 9Ah batteries connected in parallel provide a single cell of 12V @ 18Ah. This is what we are after for both charging and discharging circuits. You connect two batteries in parallel by joining the positive terminals on each battery together and the negative terminals of each battery together. Connect the positive output of the solar panel to the positive terminal on one battery and the negative output of the solar panel to the negative terminal of the second battery.
Ensure the two batteries are at a similar voltage level when connecting in parallel. Batteries of a wide variation in potential will see one batter charging the other once the two are connected. Best to charge and drain them to the same levels.

I have a cheapy voltmeter from Aldi for $20. You can pay hundreds of dollars for super accurate ones but this is all you need to make surel your cables and connections are right (resistance), the panel is charging (current) and your batteries are at full charge (voltage).
By placing it at various points in the circuit you can see exactly what is going on.
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Last edited by paulo on Sun Aug 24, 2014 10:15 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#2 Post by paulo » Sun Aug 24, 2014 8:20 am

Unless you make yourself a break-out cable it is difficult to see what is going on in the 5v USB charging circuits. Then I found these for $2 odd. They show the voltage and current passing through a usb port.
USBMeter.JPG ... ver-235090

Solder Iron
You need a solder iron to make the cables. You can buy a 240V one at Jaycar, etc for around the $20 mark. You can also spend hundreds of dollars but you don’t need it for this application.
If you don’t already have one I can recommend getting a gas solder iron to take with you on your trips. A broken solder joint can cripple your whole charging arrangement. They cost from $10 upwards and if you screw off the solder tip you have a handy little blowtorch. Here is one for US$12.99. ... iron-54658

Connector plugs, sockets and cables
I chose audio\banana plugs and sockets to connect everything. I did this because my sounder, batteries and chargers were already rigged this way and they are cheap. The downside is they don’t always contact as well as other connectors and any loss of contact will see a reduction in the current flow from the panel to battery or battery to devices.

The NZ article uses SAE connectors which I suspect would be a better connection. If you are going to use your solar setup whilst travelling on the yak I recommend using a waterproof connector similar to the ones supplied with the powerfilm solar panel. There are other (possibly better) waterproof connectors on the market. In the end it comes down to the quality of your solder joints and subsequent waterproofing of these connections that will determine how waterproof your setup is. As previously stated I now only use mine on land.

With most 12V VHF radios you will be replacing the 240V lead and plug pack with a single cable connected directly to the battery. After all, the plugpack is simply converting 240V AC to the 12V DC the device requires. You could use a dc to ac inverter between the solar panel and the AC charger and cables that come with your device but inverters are inherently lossy, wasting the precious panel current, without charging any of your devices and adding the bulk of all the ac plug packs, cables and inverter to your already overloaded yak. The dc to device solution described in this post, replaces all those AC plug packs and cables with a handful of cables weighing a few grams each and maximizes the output of current from the solar panel to the charge batteries and ultimately your electronic equipment.

Most of the lowrance vhf charge cradles use the small 2.1mm 12v adapter plugs, ICOMs use the larger one (2.5mm). You could use all one size and then add adapters to convert from one to the other as the charging device dictates.
Best to take all of your devices to Jaycar and get the plugs that fit.

This is the cable I made to charge my Lowrance VHF in its cradle.
If you use these audio connectors, best to get the ones that have a female socket in the back of them. This allows you to piggy-back multiple devices off the battery connection when charging radios and cameras at night.
Speaker wire is really all that is necessary. At most, your circuits will be pushing around 1-2 amps.

12V USB Port
These are used to convert 12v to the 5v required to charge gopros, phones, etc. I recommend getting a dual port one that has a 1Amp and a 2.1Amp output to charge multiple devices at once. I carry multiple USB and mini USB cables. If you have Apple devices just add the appropriate cables to your kit.
12V USB.jpg ... 12v-268697

If you add a two\three\four way banana plug adapter to your kit, you can run more than one usb charge port or charge devices that have a ciggy lighter attachment to their 12V charge cable. No point making a 12v cable if your device comes with one.
Step Up Transformer – DC to DC Converter (Optional)
Out of all the electronics I carry, only the sharkshield requires a charge voltage that is not 5v or 12v. It requires 18V to charge and has a proprietary plug (I couldn’t find one).

It is possible to transform the 12V from the battery or panel to the 18V required by placing a step-up transformer in between the power source and the sharkshield. This device takes the 12v from the battery or panel and outputs it at the 18V the sharkshield requires.
I purchased one from Jaycar that is capable of a producing a variety of output voltages by manually setting a switch on the back of the transformer. I can’t find it on the website but this one is similar and around the same price (~ $40).
The 12v input connects to the 4 way banana socket.
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Last edited by paulo on Sun Aug 24, 2014 9:11 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#3 Post by paulo » Sun Aug 24, 2014 8:20 am

I made a lead to connect the output of the transformer to the input of the sharkshield using a spare plug from a replaced sharkshield AC charger.

These are the tools I carry when using the solar solution in the field. A single failed solder joint could render your charging solution useless.
From the top:
• Gas solder Iron\Blowtorch
• Leatherman Crunch for the vice grip it comes with.
• Tweezers
• Solder and Sodder Wick
• Spare fuses, battery terminal sockets and spare lead plugs
• Spare wire
• Multimeter
• Wire Cutters (Not in Pic)

Putting It All Together
As discussed earlier, parallel up the two batteries to form a single 12V 18Ah cell for the solar panel to charge. Place the solar charge regulator between the panels and connect the positive output of the regulator to the positive terminal on one battery and the regulator negative output to the negative input on the second battery. It is possible to charge batteries and devices at the same time. Everything should be parallel connected directly to the battery. In the picture below, I am also charging a radio at the same time.

A fully charged new 12V SLA battery can be around 13.6 volts (6 x 2.27V). An overnight discharging session usually knocks each battery down between 1 and 1.2 volts to around 12.4V. Under full sun, with the panel at optimal angle to the sun, it takes approximately four to five hours to bring them back to 13.6V. I generally charge my sounder battery from sunrise until about 9am, connecting the two 12V charging batteries for the remainder of the day. Even a small amount of cloud will dramatically affect the panel’s ability to return the batteries to maximum charge.

The initial charge stage of an SLA is at a constant current (~900mA). When the voltage set by the charge controller is reached, the current begins to drop as the battery starts to saturate and full charge is reached when the current decreases to the three percent level of the rated current.
The blue lead joins the battery’s negative terminals, the green lead the positive terminals. The additional plugs connected to the battery are charging a vhf radio in the rear of the picture.
Charge Circuit.JPG
This is the connection diagram for the above picture.

Discharging is also best done with the batteries in parallel. This keeps the two SLA voltages in line. Connect devices to charge in parallel by plugging one cable’s plugs into the back of plugs of the previous device connected to the battery.
In the picture above, all devices to be charged are connected in parallel to the 12V battery source by connecting all device cables directly to the battery, piggybacking plugs as you go.

The 4 way banana socket has a 12V AA battery charger and a 12V USB dual port charger connected. The usb ports deliver 5V and are connected to a gopro battery and a smart phone. I have a second USB dual port charger that can be inserted into one of the two remaining sockets. The additional plugs connected to the battery are for each of the VHF charge cradles. I usually charge three radios and 3 gopros at the same time
Discharge Circuit.JPG
This circuit diagram reflects what is happening in the picture above. I have added the Step-Up transformer and the SharkShield to show how they would connect to charge.

Measuring Voltage and Current
Loose fitting connectors, a dodgy solder joint or a less than ideal angle of the solar panel to the sun can all lead to a reduction in the current flow from the solar panel to the 12V charge battery. To get the maximum output from your panel, check the voltage and current by connecting the Multimeter at various points in the circuit and adjust things accordingly.
By connecting the meter’s leads across the battery it is possible to see the open circuit voltage of the battery. Plugging the solar charger output into the battery will see the voltage on the meter rise. This is a quick test to see if the panel is working.
In this picture, notice the different orientation of the leads from the previous picture (showing voltage being measured) from both the solar regulator and the multimeter. To measure current flow, the meter must be connected in series. The positive connector of the solar charger is connected to the positive Ammeter input on the multimeter. The multimeter common input is connected to the positive socket on the battery. The negative connector of the solar regulator is connected directly to the negative socket on the battery.

The meter shows 580mA flowing into the battery from the solar panel. Change the angle of the solar panel towards the sun whilst monitoring the current on the meter. The maximum reading on the meter will be the ideal angle of panel to sun. This photo was taken at approximately 9am without the optimal angle of panel to sun.
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Last edited by paulo on Sun Aug 24, 2014 8:56 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#4 Post by paulo » Sun Aug 24, 2014 8:20 am

Future Investigations
In the quest to reduce weight on the yak I have been investigating alternative options to charge the 5v devices. The advent of smart phones and their lousy battery life has seen a plethora of lipo ‘PowerBanks’ become available, offering charging and discharging via 5V USB ports. Using a smaller, cheaper panel (with built-in USB Charge port), a cheap USB hub and one or two powerbanks should be adequate to charge the 5V devices for a party of six. The white one in shot is9Ah and charges 5 gopro batteries from flat before it shuts off. This setup would replace the second 12v 9Ah SLA battery and lighten the load as planned.
The stated capacity (Ah) and price vary greatly amongst the Powerbank offerings on the web. I am currently running tests on three separate Powerbanks to see if their capacity is enough to charge the required number of devices and if the panel is able to fully recharge the Powerbanks each day within the window provided by the sun.
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Last edited by paulo on Sun Aug 24, 2014 9:18 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#5 Post by paulo » Sun Aug 24, 2014 8:20 am

Though not solar, this is another solution for charging your 5v devices (or will be if it gets off the ground) that I thought was pretty impressive for the price. I havent seen a personal hydro electric solution before. It could be a viable alternative when the sun doesn't shine.

The HydroBee promises to charge 6 x 2500mA NiHi batteries in 2-4hrs depending on the waterflow. Fully charged it will provide you with a 15Ah powerbank, about the size of a coke can and weighing only 368g. It can charge your phones and cameras via a waterproof USB 2.0 port @ 5V and 1A output.
It claims to work with any form of running water from streams, being towed behind a boat and even from a running tap. "Water flowing at a fast walking speed (about 4 mph) has enough energy to charge the 6 AA batteries in the Hydrobee can in about 2 hours." Towing it behind the AI might cause issues with trolling lines but I could see it mounted on one of the akas without interfering with fishing and not too much drag. If it could be securely mounted, I see no reason why it couldnt be charged in a river when the tidal flow gets going.

I also note that the prototyping work has been done using 3D printing. We should see an explosion in useful stuff hitting the market now 3D printing is affordable and readily available. ... ower-to-go

Always attracted to things that harness the elements we have available to us and not seeing the environmental value in charging it under a running tap, I have had an interest in ram pumps for a while.

Pumping water uphill without any motor is pretty cool and probably about as close to a perpetual motion machine as you get. I have seen some videos where it is almost a closed system with the water continually being pumped around. Perhaps this could be used to charge the HydroBee without wasting too much precious water or any other natural resource.

These guys have put an instructable together to make one for about $60 ... z2nIXhJyub

Or if you wanted to have a crack at a DIY one. There are tons of videos
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Last edited by paulo on Sun Aug 24, 2014 10:16 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#6 Post by Jamie D » Sun Aug 24, 2014 9:07 am

Now...... that's impressive !

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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#7 Post by tonystott » Sun Aug 24, 2014 10:30 am

Thanks Paulo, your research is priceless!
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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#8 Post by Biggles » Sun Aug 24, 2014 11:34 am

Nice work Paulo, great post for those wanting charging on the run :cool:


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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#9 Post by cuda_kev » Sun Aug 24, 2014 12:28 pm

Very impressive Paulo, the HydroBee sounds very viable.
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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#10 Post by arpie » Sun Aug 24, 2014 6:25 pm

Terrific post, Paul - not just for Yak Campers - but campers in general!!

LOVE the Hydro Bee ....... have you got one or made one?

Keep 'em comin'!!!


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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#11 Post by Yaktricity » Sun Aug 24, 2014 6:49 pm

Fantastic post, thanks heaps for putting it all together.


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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#12 Post by paulo » Thu Aug 28, 2014 6:24 pm

Thanks for the comments. Hopefully someone else can make use of what I have learnt along the way.
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Re: My Yak Camping Solar Solution

#13 Post by Wombat280 » Tue Nov 25, 2014 7:59 pm

Man just read your post top work mate
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