Solar Panel Mule Wagon

The Lost Sea Expedition as viewed from a New Mexican wind mill. The dark square is the 100-watt panel that charged all my recording and filming equipment.
The Lost Sea Expedition wagon as viewed from a New Mexican wind mill tower. The dark shape on the roof is the 100-watt panel that charged all my recording and filming equipment during the 14-month voyage across America.

The Lost Sea Expedition is the first documentary filmed from a solar powered mule wagon. Over the next few posts, I want to share some of the tech that allowed me to film the 4-part documentary using pretty much only the power of the sun. Today, let’s look at the solar panels that breathed the spark of life in to my recording equipment.

Wagon energy

When I talk energy needs on a mule wagon, most people think whale oil, candles and kerosene. You know, all that stuff they hauled around in those prairie schooners to keep the wagons lit up at night while they jotted down their adventures with a turkey quill.

Fair enough.

There’s one difference though. Those old boys were out to cross the Great Plains. I was out to film them and document the folks and animals that lived there. And for that, I needed lots of recording equipment. All sorts of gear that run on electricity, not juice you squeeze out of a dead whale or oil well.

Since it was just me doing the filming (and mule wrangling, water hauling and question answering) I hit the road with a minimum of gear. Then there was the matter of horse, er, mule power. This was a flesh and blood voyage. It relied on strands of muscle, not steel pistons, to move us ahead. Mule Polly, not a chase vehicle, was going to haul all my gear. There’s only so much an 800 pound mule can pull (technically, between 1600 and 2000 pounds depending on terrain and distance).

In the end, I hit the road with this: my laptop, two external hard drives, a digital audio recorder, a DVD player I used as a feed back monitor and a set of wireless mics.

The interior of Bernie's wagon.
The interior of the wagon as it looked before I loaded it up with all my recording gear. This is the fold down desk where I wrote in my journal and logged my film footage.

Everything else

Then there were the personal effects. Beards on guys in wagons scare people so I shaved every day. Instead of a straight razor (sorry John Wayne) I carried an electric razor. Much easier and compact than carrying shaving cream, extra water and razors. Besides, frozen Dakota ditch water on your face is REALLY cold if you’ve ever shaved with it….

For reading at night, there was a tiny lamp. Yes, I carried a few candles, too. But they were more for heating than light.

Candle inside Bernie's wagon.
One of the candles I carried in the wagon. The wagon was well insulated. Between my body heat and three candles, it was pretty snug down to about 32 degrees.

Charging it all

I knew my voyage would take mule Polly and me to some of the remotest parts of America where the closest thing to an extension cord plugged into a socket was a rattlesnake curled up under a mesquite bush. Staying at camp grounds was out, too.

So was charging my gear with a gasoline generator. Too heavy (remember, mule Polly had to pull all this gear). Oh, and too stinky and noisy. At the end of the day, I wanted to hear night fall and Polly chewing her feed, not my generator beating fossil fuel in to amps.
So I settled on solar power.

I bought a 100-watt solar panel. Screwed it to the roof of my wagon. Then wired the panel to a battery which lead to a small electrical panel. Here are some photos of how the solar panel was installed.

The frame to Bernie's wagon.
I welded the wagon body up myself. I started by building a lightweight metal frame in my friend Mel’s garage in Southern Pines, NC.


Construction of the wagon roof.
Next I added a roof. I used two layers of 1/8″ plywood. Between them was a layer of hard foam insulation. Amazing how snug this sandwich construction proved to be.


The roof of Bernie's wagon.
The plywood was covered in canvas and yellow paint. The canvas kept the wood grain from separating. This is an ancient old way of covering the decks of ships.


Roof vent on the wagon roof.
I added ventilation ports (aka PVC pipe) to the roof. In cold weather, the cap covered the hole, keeping things toasty inside. A ready supply of outside air kept the tiny wagon smelling fresh and airy. Yeah, that seems like a sorta lofty touch. Trust me on this one, though. You live in a 21-square foot tiny rolling home for 14 months and little touches – like breathing air that doesn’t smell like wet leather hiking boots – make all the difference.


Frame for Bernie's solar panel.
This white frame serves as a support for the solar panel. It also keeps the panel cool. A cool panel produces more energy than a hot panel (really, it’s some law of electro-thermodynamics. Yes, I made that law up. Yes, cool panels produce more.)


The solar wagon from above.
The panel as it looks from my buddy Keith’s house. Keith and wife Melinda operate the online news source in Oriental, NC. I used their home as a base for my shake down tour before heading out across the Great Plains. The gray haze is a window screen.

Life after solar

The solar panel proved to be a great solution to my energy needs. It was quiet, had no moving parts and proved plenty of power to charge my equipment.  Plus, it’s pretty cool I was able to film a 4-part Public TV series using just the power from the sun. WIthout that technology, this is a story that would have never been captured on film.

The only downside is, after moving back in to my cabin and getting my first power bill, I thought, “this is a CRAAAZY way to make our power.”
I still haven’t added solar panels to my roof. One thing is sure, though. When the power grid goes down, I’ll just roll my solar powered wagon up to the back door and plug my cabin in to that.

Okay, here are a few more photos from the road. Man, I’m starting to miss those solar panel days …!



Mule Polly in South Dakota.
Hard to imagine but here’s the wagon with all the pieces bolted on and heading up the road. Here, mule Polly heading through the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Not only did the solar panel provide Polly and me with power, it doubled as a great filming platform. Here, I’m filming a South Dakota prairie dog town.

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