The 12-volt battery in Troop 14’s trailer often drained, forcing adult leaders to jump it if the troop wanted to use the interior and exterior LED lights. For lighting in camp, the Metuchen, N.J., troop relied on propane lanterns. The Scouts also used propane for cooking. For a troop of more than 50 Scouts who love to go camping, that means a lot of propane. Adult leaders estimated the troop used as many as 20 20-pound tanks in a year.
How did Troop 14 solve both costly, time-consuming problems? They used solar panels.
After installing the panels to the trailer’s roof, the troop cut its propane budget, solved its battery issue and helped Scouts accomplish a few merit badge requirements. So, how did they do it?
Twenty years ago, Chris Katz bought two used 75-watt solar panels from a shuttered resort in Belize. He gifted them to his father, an electronics technician, to use for a landscape lighting project at home. The project never happened, and the panels sat in his father’s garage for two decades.
When Katz’s son joined Troop 14, he found a new project for those panels: the troop trailer. Katz also received a 230-watt solar panel from his employer. That donated panel had been sitting in the company’s storage for about a decade.
Each panel is made up of small photovoltaic cells that convert sunlight into free electrons, which are then flowed through a circuit, thus creating an electrical current. Each cell typically generates half of a volt of electricity.
Scouts and adult leaders helped install the solar panels to the top of the trailer and route the wiring to a solar charge controller. Adding a fuse block, circuit breaker box, disconnect switches and battery chargers completed the system, which could charge multiple batteries and LED lanterns.
Reducing their carbon footprint
When you use a propane bottle, like for a lantern or camp stove, carbon dioxide is released into the air. It might be miniscule, but for a large troop, the amount of propane burned over the year can skyrocket into thousands of pounds.
By adult leaders’ estimates, Troop 14 was releasing as much as than 4,200 pounds of CO2 over the course of a year.
“As CO2 is an invisible gas, it’s something you don’t think about while you’re camping in the woods,” Katz says.
To be better stewards of the environment, Troop 14 switched to rechargeable electric lanterns that run on D batteries. Equipping the trailer with chargers for other battery types allows the Scouts to have more gear ready to go. Recharging turned into a much more long-term economical choice than regularly refueling propane tanks at $20 each.
“Haven’t run out of batteries yet,” says Laura Cincotta, troop committee chair. “We charge a number of items throughout the day — from flashlights to rechargeable fans we use during summer camping.”
Since much of the parts were donated, the total project cost about $1,000. A day’s worth of work went into installing everything, which the Scouts helped with. The trailer can now be not only a source of power and light, but also lessons for merit badges. The Scouts who aided in the installation learned about electricity, energy, engineering and sustainability.
The troop isn’t done exploring improvements that could be made.
“A small inverter can be used to charge cellphones and laptops for any leaders that may need to work during a camping trip.” Katz says. “Or perhaps a coffee maker. The sky’s the limit.”
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