The Efficient PV Cabin, RV or Van Computer

Post by blogger | December 20, 2017      
Efficient 12 volt computing.

Efficient 12 volt computing. Can you spot the PC in the photo?

This backcountry cabin computer project isn’t so much about saving the planet (though perhaps it helps) as it is about avoiding the expense of PV system battery replacements and larger solar panels — as well as increasing our “no-sun” use time.

The numbers prove out nicely. My Amazon sourced efficient computing system demands a rough average of 0.42 amps, while my former system, based on a tiny old Acer netbook optimized as much as possible, still demands a full 3 amps. That’s nearly SEVEN times the power! What is more, we had our Hughes Net satellite internet upgraded to the latest version, which also draws surprisingly less power. Prior to all this I only got a few hours of non-sunshine online computer time out of the system. I now enjoy an astounding six or so battery powered hours with zero sunlight on our panels!

I’m excited, mostly because of the huge increase in no-sunlight use time. But more, knocking down our power demand will easily get us another year or more out of our cabin batteries. Those cost about $1,000 to swap out, on average every 5 years, thus costing $200/year. If I can squeeze another year out of them I’ll thus drop that to $167.00/year, or bump it up to 7 years at $143.00/year. As listed below, my component built system cost at most $156.00 (and about 6 hours of my time obtaining parts and customizing connectors for our cabin system), so the payback time on that in terms of increased battery lifespan is a couple of years. Not fantastic in one sense, but delaying a $1,000 expense by a few years has value, not to mention delaying the physical process of swapping and re-wiring big heavy batteries.

I’ve come to the understanding that literally hundreds of thousands of people, worldwide, constantly mess with attempting to do low power computing on 12 volt PV systems. Hopefully some of these ideas will help. Check out the components and how they fit together.

First step in this was finding an inexpensive computer that ran off 12 volts. I wasn’t as successful in this as I’d have liked, as nearly every system I found with a 12v input was expensive or had problems running Linux. However, I did find the affordable “computer stick” genre that runs off USB power (5 volts), and thus can be powered fairly efficiently from a “buck” type solid state voltage reducer hooked up to a 12 volt PV system.

By using a lean version of Linux (Lubuntu), not only do I save the OS cost premium added to any Windows PC, but end up with less software overhead, thus enabling the use of a minimalist computer. For now, my choice is the Intel Compute Stick STCK1A8LFCR. Works fine for internet based work, light word processing and photo editing. Available memory can be easily increased by popping a USB stick into connected USB hub. (Warning, if you’ve never used Linux you will need some time to do the installs and learn the ropes, allow at least half a day, and know that many of these “mini computers” claim to be “Linux compatible” but actually are not due to Linux not having the correct drivers for components such as wireless and audio.)

Not every 12 to 5 volt “USB” converter will run or charge a given item. The simple solution, or so I thought, was to find a 12 volt powered USB hub with “high power charging” slots and and use one of those slots to power the Compute Stick. That was a fail. For what reason I do not know, the Stick just sat there with power indicator light flashing, but never booted up. Luckily I have a variety of voltage converters sitting around from other projects; a sweet little CPT Agile-Shop DC Converter Buck Module did the trick. This little thing is well engineered. When connected and under zero demand my amp meter shows it as requiring zero current, the CPT then appears to only demand whatever current is needed by connected items. Efficient, though ideally you want to run every item directly off 12 volts, without converters.

Metering the new system.

Metering the new system. It seems to average out at about 0.42 amps. This is incredibly efficient for a full-on desktop style PC. As a basis of comparison, I could indeed do some of this work on my Samsung Galaxy smartphone, when hooked up to charger it draws an average of about 0.47 amps — nearly the same as my larger screen system with full keyboard and mouse.

Next challenge, an efficient monitor that runs directly off a 12 volt source. Not many suitable choices in this. You can find plenty of automotive LCD and LED panels but most are small and often expensive. After much searching I found the Sceptre E165W-1600HC E 16″ Screen LED-Lit Monitor. I cobbled up a direct 12 volt connector lead, yep, runs fine on cabin electricity. Sixteen inches isn’t particularly great in terms of size, but it’s usable and being LED does sip rather than gulp electrons. Another advantage of this screen is it does not have speakers, which I’d guess are an extra power drain even when not in use. Instead, it’s got an audio-out jack that pulls sound from the HDMI connection and works fine with headphones or external speakers if you so desire.

Compute sticks don’t have a keyboard (nor any other peripheral for that matter). While the Intel does have Bluetooth connectivity, rather than fiddling with that unknown I opted to the simple solution: cordless keyboard and mouse that connect via USB dongle. Nothing crazy here, though both keyboard and mouse require AA batteries, which are said to last for years but should be noted as an expense if you get picky.

Other items:

An inexpensive USB hub is necessary, as most of my work is creative output and is always backed up one way or another, so I just pop a thumb drive into the hub and backup to that. Incidentally, the model of Compute Stick I used is USB-2, USB-3 is much nicer, but later versions of tiny computers that boast USB-3 are likely to have wireless and audio that may be difficult to get working under Linux. (For anyone reading this and running into Linux challenges with built-in wireless and audio, rather than spending hours if not days trying to get things working, the probable best solution is to cut bait and just use tiny inexpensive USB wireless and audio adapters that Linux recognizes.)

Most of our cabin electrical connects with either standard automotive “cigarette lighter” plugs or “Anderson power pole” connectors. I happen to have the Anderson crimping tool and a variety of connectors, so I converted everything to the Andersons. Cost of doing so was minimal.

In all, this is an exciting little bit of computer hardware. Incredibly inexpensive, sips power and is easily hooked up to a 12 volt photovoltaic system.

— Sceptre E165W-1600HC E 16″ Screen LED-Lit Monitor, True Black (E165W-1600HC) $66.00
— Intel Corp. BOXSTCK1A8LFC Compute Stick STCK1A8LFC $39.00
— Cordless keyboard/mouse Logitech Wireless Combo MK360 – $21.00
— USB 2.0 hub – $12.00
— USB power supply for Compute Stick: Agile-Shop DC Converter Buck Module 12V convert to 5V USB Output Power Adapter $8.00
— Various electrical connectors etc. – $10.00
Total system cost – $156.00

Following are a few power demand demand measurements normalized for what they draw when I hook them up at home on grid power, measured with a watt meter at the 110v source. Calculations illustrate how little any of my computer systems cost using grid power (based on 325 days use, 6 hours a day). What this shows is just how incredibly expensive PV power with battery storage actually is compared to being on the grid at around ten cents a kilowatt hour. In other words, spending money on an efficient computer will save insignificant cash when calculated on the basis of grid power — but reduce power use on a PV battery system and the numbers are much better due to cost of battery replacements or adding extra PV panel capacity. (Electrical engineers, please help if my math is wrong.)

— Office computer system, 73 watts, x 6 hours = 438 watt-hours per day, x 325 days = 142,350 divide by 1,000 for kilowatt hours = 142 x $0.10 = $14.20 per year

— Laptop, 28 watts, x 6 hours = 168 watt-hours per day, x 325 days = 54,600 divide by 1,000 for kilowatt hours = 55 x $ .10 per = $5.50 per year

— Cabin super efficient system, 7 watts, x 6 hours = 42 watt-hours per day, x 325 days = 13,650 divide by 1,000 for kilowatt hours = 14 x $0.10 per = $1.40 per year


19 Responses to “The Efficient PV Cabin, RV or Van Computer”

  1. Jack December 20th, 2017 2:47 pm

    Wow, Lou, that’s a pretty cute little minimalist rig, and Linux is the way to go. You’ve successfully hacked your way through the driver/hardware underbrush.

    By way of comparison, the first atomic reactor, the pile built under Enrico Fermi’s direction at the University of Chicago (under the athletic field) produced a whopping 430 milliwatts of power. Enough to demonstrate fission chain reaction.

    I’m not suggesting that you power your tiny hut via a homebuilt nuclear reactor. Absolutely not! hahahaha. though that would be low carbon footprint.

  2. Jim Milstein December 20th, 2017 5:18 pm

    I am suggesting, contra Jack, that Lou design and build an atomic pile to power his little cabin. Go, Lou!

  3. Lou2 December 20th, 2017 5:58 pm

    Perhaps we can bring back the Utah uranium boom?

  4. Lou2 December 20th, 2017 5:59 pm

    Jack, I’m loving Linux, what a breath of fresh air. Lou

  5. Jim Milstein December 20th, 2017 6:00 pm

    Closer to home, Lou, Monarch Pass

  6. Miro December 21st, 2017 12:33 am

    I’m wondering why go to a cabin with a computer… The point of a cabin is escaping from IT hassle for me 🙂

  7. Lou2 December 21st, 2017 7:52 am

    We’ll the short answer is I’m blessed by having been a pro blogger for years now, but like many such things one has to watch out what they pray for as they just might get it (smile). Lou

  8. Jim Milstein December 21st, 2017 7:59 am

    The longer answer, Miro, is that modern humans degenerate horribly when deprived of internet access. It used to be like that for hunting and gathering, but we got over that. Now we hunt and gather on the internet.

  9. Miro December 21st, 2017 8:26 am

    I’m a programmer, so I do outdoor sports to get some rest from the technology, but frankly I like to have a cellphone around to take photos and use GPS, or read climbing topos…

  10. Lou Dawson 2 December 21st, 2017 8:58 am

    Believe me, I’m entirely comfortable with unplugging when I can, but at the same time due to business need internet available 24/7, in my case having cabin sat net is super relaxing as I don’t have to be up there worrying about website, and doing tedious stuff like calling a helper on satphone to find out if site is working. For those of you who are not involved in website management, these sites are not set-it-and-forget-it, they require constant upkeep due to dozens if not hundreds of factors. Wildsnow is actually one of the leaner simpler configurations you’ll find, but I still deal with a constant stream of issues behind the scene, lots of times just small little things that nonetheless can break the site. Oh, and our huge IT department for some reason is always bouncing the ball back to me (smile). Lou

  11. See December 21st, 2017 9:12 am

    Very cool, thanks. I may have to spend half a day learning LInux (!?). I think it’s also worth considering the externalized costs of that “cheap” grid power, e.g. rising snow levels, extreme weather, mountaintop removal mining, energy wars, etc..

  12. Lou Dawson 2 December 21st, 2017 10:19 am

    “learning” meaning in my case doing just enough to get myself into trouble! For what it’s worth, most of these minimalist computers come with unregistered Windows 10 installed, which could work fine for some things. Lou

  13. Craig December 21st, 2017 1:31 pm

    Since working in a PV powered office I have always thought that computer designers were working backwards. Yes every year computers do more and more but also use more and more power. Real progress would see us doing more with less Power.
    Cheers to you guys for the low powered system experimenting!

  14. Lou Dawson 2 December 21st, 2017 3:22 pm

    Craig, what’s using the excessive power isn’t actually individual computer systems, but rather the enormous server farms and other infrastructure that support the internet and cloud computing. For example, just the criminal bot attacks that are making up around half of internet traffic suck up enough electricity to power the entire UK! What is more, mining digital currency is said to be taking enough power now for another medium sized country. It’s actually gotten a bit ridiculous in my opinion, and is an amusing example of the law of unintended consequences for those who thought the www and computing were somehow going to save the world from excessive energy consumption. Lou

  15. James December 22nd, 2017 3:14 am

    Impressively low wattage there, looks like a great setup. My only thoughts are why have an additional processor when you already carry one which is definitely powerful enough in you pocket? It’s not hard to replace the stick processor with an android phone keeping the peripherals you already have, and almost all of the apps you need for work are available/possible. Saves having 2 devices to power!

  16. Crazy Horse December 22nd, 2017 7:44 am

    Lew, don’t kid yourself. The real purpose of those giant server farms is to collect and store information about people. That information serves two purposes: sell crap that people don’t need and control deviant thoughts and actions.

    As in so many other areas of the future, the Chinese are an eye blink ahead of us. They are rolling out a universal Gen 2 FICA score that includes not just credit history, but buying habits, social media contacts, parental status, and travel history. That score is used to determine what area you can buy a home in, whether you are allowed to buy a car, what school your children can attend, who you can be introduced to socially, and whether you can travel to a foreign country.

    Orwell would roll over in his grave at the sight of the NSA information center in Utah or the ones in China.

  17. Lou Dawson 2 December 22nd, 2017 9:26 am

    But wait, at least one person has told me we should be using China as a utopian role model…

  18. Lou Dawson 2 December 22nd, 2017 9:33 am

    Hi James, I did experiment with using my Android phone for this, and did measure power consumption for only using the phone, without external monitor screen. As stated in post above, the phone alone draws about 0.47 amps (Samsung Galaxy Note), while my minimalist system, with screen and full-sized keyboard as well as USB hub, draws about 0.42 amps and in my opinion has a better operating system for my desktop style use in heavy content creation (writing and photo editing). Where my minimalist Linux system falls way short, as well as would simply using a phone, is in video editing, but I’ll cross that bridge later. These sorts of projects are never done — that’s part of the fun.

    In any case, when I need to do a quick web browse I do use my phone or Ipad, rather than hooking up the desktop system.


  19. Lou Admin January 5th, 2020 3:15 pm

    Comments are closed on this post.

Lou's Recent Posts on

Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's personal website. Lou's passion for the past 50 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about ski touring and is known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners.

All material on this website is copyrighted, the names Louis Dawson and Lou Dawson are used here for authorship and content creation and are trademarked, permission required for reproduction (electronic or otherwise) and display on other websites. PLEASE SEE OUR COPYRIGHT and TRADEMARK INFORMATION.

We include "affiliate sales" links within this website. This means we receive a percentage of a sale if you click to a shopping cart from our site (at no cost to you). We also sell display "banner" advertising.

Ski Touring and mountaineering are dangerous. You may be killed or severely injured if you do any form of ski mountaineering, skimo randonnee and randonnée skiing. The information, news and opinion on this website is intended only as general information. Due to human error and passing time, the information, text and images contained within this website may be inaccurate, false, or out-of-date. By using, reading or viewing the information provided on this website, you agree to absolve the owners of as well as content contributors of any liability for injuries or losses incurred while using such information. Furthermore, you agree to use any of this website's information, maps, photos, or binding mounting instructions templates at your own risk, and waive owners and contributors of liability for use of said items for ski touring or any other use.