Tap the Sun! Solar Camping on Playa with RASPA

Dave Marr was Burning Man’s web team project manager back in the day (think late 90s – early aughts), and he now makes a spectacle of himself volunteering for Media Mecca. And well, he’s hopped on the solar bandwagon, and (like every good hippy) now he wants to share the gospel with YOU. Here’s Dave:

“O’ is my power to capture the sun and control the lighting!”

Dave's slick solarized camp
Dave’s slick solarized camp (photo by Dave Marr)

Since 1998, I’ve camped in Black Rock City every way imaginable. I’ve slept in tents, in the back of trucks, in RVs old and new, and even atop of a hay bale on burn night — at a close but safe distance from the fiery embers.

I’ve been a member of small camps and large villages on The Esplanade, on the Center Camp grid, deep within street-sign-required territories, and even once went rogue and guerrilla on the back-side, aka the outer ring, also affectionately referred to as The Assplande.

Electricity, bitches! (photo by Dave Marr)
Electricity, bitches! (photo by Dave Marr)

In all of my adventures, I’ve learned the greatest comfort of all on the playa is, without a doubt, not cigarettes or aged whisky, but having electricity. That mysterious life-feeding juice required by lights, music, A/C, air-pumps, electronics, cameras, batteries, etc. In short, everything annoying, addictive and unholy in our modern world. Apologies to those from Darktardia Village. You live in a world I do not understand.

For me, each year is another opportunity for a new experience or personal journey. This year I decided to go solar by participating in the inaugural RASPA (Radically Affordable Solar for Playa Artists) program provided by those industrious non-profit do-goers at Black Rock Solar. $50 per panel rental, from Aug 18 to Sept 2. Not bad. Not bad at all.

This was my setup:

(1) 235w Solar Panel (1) 750a Deep Cycle Marine Battery (1) 500w Inverter (1) Solar Charge Controller

The panel gathers the energy, the charge controller moderates and monitors the energy flow, the battery stores the electricity, and the inverter is what you plug devices into. Basically it’s less than a milk-crate of gear not including the panel. With this I created my own personal electrical grid to power a handful of LED lights, Bluetooth speakers, iPod, iPad, phone, my MacBook Pro and bevy of camera batteries. I was working on a 20-day documentary project. So I needed power every day, all day, and without fail.

Dave's camp is totally LIT. (photo by Dave Marr)
Dave’s camp is totally LIT. (photo by Dave Marr)

The upside of individual solar: it’s basically plug ‘n’ play, totally quiet (no obnoxious generator sound!), and best of all it’s self-sustaining with no gasoline to buy, refill or spill. No clogged air filters either.

The downside: you have to maintain your deep cycle battery, i.e. continuously use it or put it on a trickle charger year round to keep its integrity. Personally, I consider this a good reason to set up a string of LED lights on a timer in my backyard.

In honesty, I did have one major hiccup … I didn’t properly plug my solar panel into the charge control at the start. For four days I watched (via the charge controller) as my battery level slipped from green to red until it went dead. There aren’t many things that can go wrong with solar but I found an important one. Hook your shit up right foo! When I corrected the wiring mistake it took (no lie) ONE afternoon of sunlight to fully recharge my battery.

One. Afternoon. Bitches. Then, my battery stayed in the green until I packed it out. Oh, and the cost of my solar setup was less than a ticket to the event.

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase

Will Chase is Burning Man's former Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He was the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Burning Man Journal, and content manager for Burning Man’s web properties. He also oversaw the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social media presence. Will first attended Burning Man in 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art HQ) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004 until he transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009. He is now the Director of Content and Community for Maker Faire.

8 Comments on “Tap the Sun! Solar Camping on Playa with RASPA

  • Pedant says:

    Nice setup! Mine was similar. Thanks for sharing.

    A pedantic point: The important measure for a deep cycle battery used like this is amp hours (Ah), not cold cranking amps (CCA). The 750 A number you quoted is CCA, and is the short time current that the battery can deliver – the peak. You want the total power stored, which is probably something like 50 to 100 Ah.

    A super pedantic point: Ampere and Watt are both abbreviated with upper case letters. An easy way to remember for SI units is that the ones named after people get big letters, while the ones that aren’t usually get little letters.

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  • Harinama says:

    I bought a little 35ah marine battery, a 60watt solar panel and, using a charge controller and a dimmer, kept my camp nicely lit all week using 2×16′ pcb led strings. Total cost about $250.

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  • Tall Steve says:

    At the smaller end of the spectrum, I took a 5W solar panel and no batteries. My goal was to run a couple of fans to keep my tent cool during the day. One fan blew out near the top of the tent, and the other blew in at ground level, from inside the tent’s vestibule. I never did get the top fan properly aligned with the vent up there (the fan was mounted on the tent frame, the vent was on the tent skin), but the ground-level one worked amazingly well. It didn’t blow in any dust, just surprisingly cool air!

    I was also equipped to charge some stuff — a cell phone, an air mattress inflator. But with just 5W to work with, I had to switch off the fans if I wanted to charge anything. Next time, I’m thinking 10W or even (if it isn’t too over-the-top for Burning Man) 15W.

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  • Dave Marr says:

    Thanks for the tip. For the record my battery is 55AH with a reserve capacity of 120 minutes (25 amp discharge, 80°F (26.7°C), to 10.5 volts cut-off).

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  • SparkyCat99 says:

    I just purchased a small solar setup (16 watt) to charge my 400 watt Wagan Power Dome. Keeps the air bed inflated, phone/camera charged, supports a work light other than my lantern and keeps an LED light string lit at night.

    I hope the pricing of these things comes down and more people can use them.

    Still, I’d much rather be in a solar campsite than one run by generators. Battery disposal can be an issue, so I’m not sure which has the most environmental impact. Its pretty clear we all need our power!

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  • Doctor Pancakes says:

    For our camp of 8, I’ve had pretty good experience with:

    – My 110Ah marine battery/100w solar panel for camp power (lighting, sound, recharge station);
    – My 40Ah/15w to power swamp coolers & fans for 2 hexayurts;
    – And a couple of smaller LA batteries to power mattress pump, more fans, and my bicycle!

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could designate a section of the city to be No Generators/No RVs? We usually escape these by camping near the rim on the 3 o’clock side. Still …

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  • Fiver says:

    ^^Doctor Pancakes, there is already the “Alternative Energy Zone aka AEZ” village that is powered using 100% renewable energy. There are still RV’s there, but at least while on site they are powered by the sun and wind…

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  • Holly Pywell says:

    Everywhere we want to go outdoor camping, there are some standard regulations to go by. First, depart as little affect on the property as you can. You should also practice great blaze basic safety when creating your campfire and cooking location. So you have to be sure the food doesn’t draw in bears and other critters. Needless to say, you must go with a campsite prior to these rules apply, so read on for our own help guide planning a good, comfortable campsite exactly where you can aquire a good night’s sleeping

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