`IT'S just like magic,'' says Ben Eckhardt as he points proudly at the solar panel resting next to his recreational vehicle. ``I don't know how these little cells pick up the rays of the sun and change them to amperage, but they sure do a great job of it. Gladys and I wouldn't take a vacation without our solar panel coming along. It lets us visit places where there is no electricity.'' The Eckhardts are among the growing number of travelers who now harness the power of the sun to operate all the appliances needed for a relaxing trip - color televisions, lights, fans, water pumps, cassette players, microwave ovens - whatever.
Solar panels also have helpful applications for boat trips. Bob Dennis went on a five-day canoe trip on the Victoria River in Australia carrying six solar panels on his canoe. While the four other canoes accompanying Mr. Dennis depended on human paddle power, Dennis's ``Solar Can Do'' glided along, propelled by a 12-volt outboard motor run on solar power. Although the sun couldn't stop his canoe from rolling in numerous rapids, Dennis recalls his adventure with enthusiasm.
``We covered 56 miles,'' he says. ``And I did it mainly with solar power.''
Alfredo Barragan sailed from the Canary Islands to Venezuela on a primitive log raft, with only sails to assist with propulsion. The design of Mr. Barragan's craft, the Atlantis Expedition, dated back 3,500 years. Barragan, however, carried two solar panels on board to run the boat's lights and radio systems.
Although the trips made by Dennis and Barragan could be classified as once-in-a-lifetime adventures, many boaters routinely use solar panels. Doug Epperson, a California businessman, mounts a small solar panel in his Catalina 22 sailboat to run the radio, lights, and 12-volt coffee pot.
``I haven't charged the boat battery since I bought my panel two years ago,'' says Mr. Epperson. ``I used to have to carry the battery out to shore to be charged, which was a real pain, considering where it's located.''
But the most popular use of solar panels among travelers is to power a recreational vehicle (RV). Jim Bean mounts two solar panels on the roof of his trailer for his annual elk-hunting trip in North Dakota. The panels run his television, lights, and catalytic heater. ``I used to operate a generator in the pristine woods, but the constant noise ruined the remote quality of the place,'' explains Mr. Bean. ``I consider the panels a great improvement.''
The number of panels needed on an RV depends on the quantity and type of appliances travelers want to run while on vacation (see box below). When Ben and Gladys Eckhardt drive their RV to Mexico every year, they tote one solar panel to operate the lights, black-and-white TV, bathroom fan, stove exhaust fan, and a 250-watt inverter, which they use occasionally to run an electric can opener and a mixer. ``My one panel puts out two amps per hour, and that's as much juice as Gladys and I can use in a day,'' says Eckhardt.
Beverly Knauss, who has made trips in an RV since 1948, has higher energy needs than the Eckhardts. She uses four panels to run her lights, color TV, and electric drill. ``Now I can stay in a remote location as long as I want,'' says Ms. Knaus.
The number of panels needed and the cost of a solar system are directly proportional to the number of 12-volt appliances a traveler wants to run.
If you want to operate a black-and-white TV and a couple of lights, you can easily get by with a one-panel system, which should cost under $500. But if you use fans, soldering irons, catalytic heaters, air conditioners, blenders, hair curlers, color TVs, blow dryers, and chain saws - all available in 12-volt models - you will need a larger system.
To further entice the solar enthusiast, there are now inverters that can change 12-volt solar power to 110 volts, without a loss of efficiency. With an inverter and two or three solar panels, travelers can run 110-volt circular saws, drills, computers, VCRs, and small microwave ovens while vacationing in the woods hundreds of miles from the nearest power line pole.
Solar aficionados can also consider hauling their panels by llama, as students and faculty from Colorado Mountain College did on a recent trip into the Rockies.
For those who prefer to carry their own gear, there's a portable solar panel that folds to the size of a school notebook and fits into a backpack. Even though this unit is extremely lightweight, it can still power a portable computer.
Because solar panels are cheaper than using a generator (10 times less expensive over a five-year period), solar-powered camping, boating, and hiking are becoming increasingly popular.
``I don't know why more travelers don't use panels,'' says Eckhardt. ``People will run a generator to power their lights and TV at night and bother every other camper with the noise. I wish they'd all switch to solar. Even if they don't understand how those panels work, they'd still be doing the right thing.''