How and why we built a solar powered food truck!


How and why we built a solar powered food truck!

Why would we try and build a solar powered food truck?

This blog is about how, and why, I created our solar powered food truck. I am not an expert or professionally trained in electronics, I am just an environmentally conscious chef and self taught food truck builder.

Food trucks are a great place to test concepts that might be too risky in a brick and mortar restaurant. For the last 10 years or so, since the emergence of the food truck as a legitimate dining option, young chefs from all corners of the globe have been employing them for this purpose. Initially this testing was focused on the creation of unique or niche cuisines, leading to new and exciting dishes that were not available elsewhere. It was this culinary risk taking in these mobile kitchens that popularized the food truck movement. It is also this risk taking that keeps pushing the movement to new heights, and keeps consumers interested in the Food truck scene. Another way in which owners have pushed the status quo of #foodtrucking is by using unique vehicles, from firetrucks to double decker busses; classic camper vans to tuk tuks.

I decided to take this risk in the form of tackling the idea of a solar powered food truck. This is an idea that proved to be a real challenge, and I have spent the last two years working out the logistics of how we would need to adapt the standard food truck model to achieve our goals of powering our truck on solar energy alone. This wasn’t a simple matter of just buying batteries and solar panels, instead involving careful thought about what equipment we really needed to have on board, and endless research into lighting, refrigeration, water pumps and hood vents.

You would be right to question why we, as first time small business owners with a tight budget and no previous experience in solar energy, would decide to create a solar powered food truck. I admit that the process hasn’t been easy but I couldn’t imagine Amo La Vita any other way.

Whilst a food truck doesn’t use very much power compared to a standard restaurant, many food trucks use petrol powered generators which, as well as being terrible for the environment are also loud, smelly and unpleasant to eat near. Even if you are lucky enough as a food truck owner to operate in a place where you can hook up to mains electricity, most food truck set ups are still highly inefficient from an energy perspective and could definitely do more to be sustainable. I believe that we all need to do what ever we can to preserve the natural resources we have available to us, no matter the size of our footprint.

Why would we put so much time and money into this idea? I want to show the world that a restaurant can still produce high quality food with a very minimal environmental impact. My plans and concept can be scaled up to suit any restaurant and if the small fish in the hospitality pond can do it, then why can’t the big fish?

Restaurants are expensive to run, and power is a large proportion of these costs. If every restaurant avoided electrical bills, then they could offer meals at a more affordable price to diners AND make more profit…. not a bad side effect of saving the planet.

Another driving feature of being solar powered is the ability to operate silently in any location without the need for power cables, generators or anything else that takes away from the beauty of ones surroundings. I aim to operate my truck at the parks around Whistler and on beautiful farms in the Pemberton valley. Would you like your relaxing day at the lake or perfect wedding day to be ruined by the drone of a generator?

farm dinner large

Once we decided that it was imperative for us to be solar powered, I started the now 2.5 year mission of creating a solar plan. One might think this would be an easy task, due to the rise in popularity and emergence of scientific advancements in the renewable energy industry over the last 10 years, however this transpired not to be the case. I was surprised to find myself seemingly breaking new ground in the attempt to create a solar food truck. Im not the first solar powered food truck but there is a definite lack of information online about how any of the established food trucks did it. I was disappointed and challenged by this,as I had found the internet to be a great source of food truck knowledge. I vowed that if I succeeded in my pursuit, I would make all of my plans public, so that others can follow in our footprints. I plan on posting detailed blogs on the subject and will walk any prospective solar food truck owner through my findings and experiences.

Enough on the why, now a little on the how.

I’m not going to go into in-depth detail on technical specifications or figures in this blog, but I will give an overview of the difficulties I faced throughout the process and how I solved them. More blogs in the future will dive deeper into the specifics of the decisions we made, and other options that we had. 

When I started the planning process I went down the tried and tested model of most existing food trucks: I planned to use commercial open top refrigeration units, a big stereo,110v power throughout and every flashy option possible to create a state of the art modern food truck. I did a rough calculation of the amount of power required to run a system of this nature and started looking into solar panels and batteries, assuming that I would just be able to throw up a few solar panels and that this would be sufficient to power my truck. How wrong i was! My initial electrical figure was so large that I would have needed 10- 15 solar panels to account for the power needs of all my equipment. I had thought that, because my cooking would be from a propane range, the rest of the truck wouldn’t use much power.

This development sent me back to the drawing board, I had to re-think every component of the concept. This didn’t just put us in the position of picking more energy efficient coolers; we had to look at the truck as a whole and base our final production levels on what a solar system could handle. We had long discussions whether solar was the right choice but thankfully decided that we had to be true to our personal values and priorities and push to make it work.

I looked back at what I wanted to gain from the food truck. I never had an aim to be flashy, or to show off in my shiny food truck. I don’t need all of the new kitchen toys to express myself as a chef. All I really need is a range, an oven, a space to make pasta fresh every day, coolers to store my locally produced ingredients, a sink or 2, lights and an extraction fan. Everything else that I previously thought I wanted was in reality just added expense, clutter and demanded more power. Even with this new, bare bones equipment plan I still needed to be inventive to actually meet my power allotment. Refrigeration was the biggest power hog from my initial plan, so it was there that I started my research.

I have had an obsession with minimal living, and in particular the tiny house movement, for many years. This obsession of mine gave me a great starting point.I tried to think differently about my refrigeration needs. As I looked into low energy fridges I realized something that changed the trajectory of this project: The most efficient fridges are DC coolers designed to be used in off grid situations like medical storage in remote communities, homesteading and disaster relief programs. These coolers are robust, highly insulated and h efficient at using the least power for producing the coldest temperatures. By not using an inverter to convert the power from 12vDC, which is how batteries store power, to 110vAC, or regular house hold power, there would be much less power wasted in the system. Also the use of as little AC power as possible would lower the cost of my solar setup, as it would allow me to purchase a smaller inverter, and inverters are very expensive. With all of this in mind, I made the choice that I would run as much of my power needs as I possibly could off of DC 12v not AC 110v. This was a massive turning point, and it is the reason that I have managed to keep my energy usage so low.
solar powered food truck close up panel

Since most restaurants run off of regular 110v AC power, running a 12v system means getting inventive with where you look for compatible kitchen equipment.  As I researched DC 12v options for lighting, refrigeration and water pumps, I realized that there has been over 40 years of designers and electrical engineers working to produce the most efficient equipment as possible, they’ve just been focusing on different industries! I used random knowledge of boat building and RV’ing and found some awesome brands out there, producing indestructible products designed to be used in a moving vehicle , in crazy temperatures and in high humidity. I discovered that buying completely different equipment than a standard food truck would, in order to run solar, I didn’t need to cut back in the commercial quality of the equipment itself. Better yet, most of these products are designed to be repaired and installed by the non-trained average person and to be fixed on the open ocean with limited spare parts- doing so on the fly at an event should be a breeze!

We are one month from opening and have done extensive testing with our system, so far we have deduced that we have enough power to operate for 3 days without needing sunshine or mains power. To think that, down the line, I wont need to pay a power bill again and might be able to repair my own equipment definitely seems like a win in my books.

If you would like to read an in-depth blog on my power needs, chosen equipment and solar sizing guide check out- How to build your own solar powered food truck! (coming soon) or check out “Amo La Vita” is more than just a name for our food truck. to read more about our story so far.

 

I hope to see more solar powered food trucks out there, so if you have any questions email me direct: sam@amolavita.ca 

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