Manufacturers looking to harness the power of the sun

By Greg Grisolano, associate editor

Kenn Zelten and his wife, Beth, love being on the cutting edge with new technology. Particularly any technology that can help them squeeze maximum value out of their truck as they roll through all 48 states and Canada as team drivers for Landstar.

“I’m all about fuel efficiency,” said Kenn, an OOIDA life member from Menominee, Mich. “To get fuel economy, you had to do whatever you could do, especially when fuel was (nearly) $5 a gallon.”

The latest efficiency-boosting technology the couple have in their 2015 Volvo VNL 730 – dubbed “Kermit” for its distinctive, lime-green paint job – is a 100-watt solar panel on top of the reefer trailer. They installed the panel shortly after seeing a demonstration at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville this past April.

“I installed it myself. It’s not very tough to do,” Kenn said.

The Zeltens are on the cutting edge of what manufacturers hope will be the next wave of energy efficiency technologies that meet a variety of power needs, from refrigeration and trailer security to hotel loads in cabs and sleepers.

Panels for your truck, panels for your trailer

For the Zeltens, the biggest reason for adding a solar panel was to combat parasitic loads.

“With parasitic draws on these vehicles nowadays, the batteries just don’t stand up,” Kenn said. “This solar panel really helps me out. It keeps my trailer battery up.”

The couple have a Carrier 2100 AX reefer on their trailer, and they initially approached Carrier about the solar panels after seeing a demonstration of the technology at MATS. Kenn said Carrier referred them to a company called Go Power!, powered by Carmanah, an LED and solar technology company headquartered in Victoria, British Columbia.

“It’s like storing your car or motorcycle or whatever with a battery-tender on it. It keeps those batteries up and the batteries last longer,” Kenn said.

Go Power! offers 50-, 80-, 100-, and 200-watt panels along with inverter solution designs that they say are ideal for applications like liftgates, hotel loads, reefers or any other application that may result in a dead battery issue.

Two major manufacturers who used MATS to showcase their latest solar innovations are Thermo King and eNow. Both companies have a variety of panels and wattages that fit trucks and trailers. By harnessing the sun’s energy to charge auxiliary truck batteries, solar panels can help reduce or eliminate costs and problems associated with idling, equipment maintenance, emissions and high fuel prices.

All three manufacturers offer lightweight, flexible solar panels that are as thin as one-eighth of an inch, and designed to stand up to the rigors of transport applications.

Minneapolis-based Thermo King is rolling out solar panel charging systems that fit both their SP and Precedent series refrigerator units. The panels weigh between 2 and 6 pounds depending on the size, and have an adhesive coating on the back that allows them to attach directly to a reefer, a cowl, or a trailer roof without the need for drilling holes.

Paul Kroes, solar business development manager for Thermo King, says the products are designed to greatly extend the service life of a variety of battery systems on trucks.

“Every time you have one less battery failure … it’s really a big deal, especially to the smaller guys who can’t afford to have their unit down for a day or more,” he said. “It could void their contracts, they could incur charges. It could be a really big deal for something as silly as a dead battery.”

According to the company, The ThermoLite solar charging solutions portfolio provides an ever-present alternative power source helping to offset the growing demand for telematics, inverters, and other parasitic loads in the transport industry.

ThermoLite’s portfolio of panels include 26-, 36-, and 100-watt sizes. Purchase and installation of a 36-watt panel by Thermo King can cost around $500. Applications range from transport refrigeration units, Class 8 tractors, medium duty delivery trucks, liftgates, electric pallet jacks, and industrial equipment.

All panels can be mixed and matched to form a single system, and are suitable for all on and off road vehicle needs. ThermoLite also offers three-stage charging suitable for both flooded and AGM batteries.

Kroes said one of the things that may surprise people is the wear-and-tear that batteries in mild climates sometimes experience.

“In our applications, mild weather is really detrimental to reefer batteries because it means the reefers don’t actually have to run to cool or heat the product,” he said. “That can mean a reefer can go half a day or more without getting a charge, and that entire time those (parasitic loads) are draining that battery very rapidly. And the solar panels can easily offset that.”

Solar panels produce about a 20 percent efficiency rate, but Kroes said advances in making the technology more energy dense allow the panels to start producing power with a lot less sunlight.

“As soon as the sun comes up in the morning, our panels are going to start producing power,” he said. “Because we can produce power from much earlier and much later into the day, our total power production is much greater than it used to be.”

eNow and Dometic are teaming up to use the former’s solar solutions to power the latter’s air conditioners and APUs. At a July 1 event at U.S. Xpress headquarters in Chattanooga, Tenn., the companies unveiled six military tribute trucks kitted out with Dometic’s Blizzard Turbo auxiliary air conditioners, each powered by eNow’s solar panels.

Jeff Flath, president and CEO of eNow, said the benefits of solar include having an auxiliary power system that’s always charged and ready to go. Even when there is practically no sunlight.

“Even during partly cloudy and mostly cloudy days, the solar panels will continue to produce power,” he said. “We have seen that even on rainy days the solar system will still generate around 5 percent of the installed power.”

Flath said eNow sells panels from 70-wat up to 340-watt, and can build a system to generate the right amount of power for a given truck or fleet’s needs. The 70-watt panels have a suggested list price of $450.

Tax savings

Along with the potential for cost savings in maintenance and uptime, another financial benefit to installing solar panels is the solar investment tax credit, which can be claimed on federal corporate income taxes for 30 percent of the cost, including parts and labor to install.

The 30 percent rate is available through 2019, and will range from 10-26 percent after that. Ask your accountant or tax preparer about IRS Form 3468.