Photos of a Peterbilt with solar panels on top and a Batman logo on the side of the sleeper have made their rounds online with sightings and posts from Pennsylvania to Arizona. Social media trucking groups are buzzing as many wonder “who’s truck is that?” and “how do you put solar panels on a truck?” Well, The Trucker tracked down the owner of this striking Peterbilt and luckily, he was willing to share the details of what he says is “just a work truck.”
First things first, what’s up with those solar panels? “That’s what everyone talks about —those panels,” Chad Fowler, a native of Conway, Arkansas, said with a smile. He suggested making a small sign with all the details and standing it in front of the truck while he is parked at the truck stop. He gets lots of questions.
“When I was a kid, we would get these magazines that always had things in the back for sale, and I always saw these solar panels and I thought ‘why isn’t everybody doing that?’” Fowler said. “It is free energy.”
As he got older, solar panels became more common and more affordable. After a long career as a diesel mechanic, Fowler was ready for a change and decided to buy a truck and go over the road. He purchased a 1996 379 Peterbilt with a simple black and chrome design, but only a couple of years after he bought the truck, it was hit in a truck stop parking lot. He took the downtime for repairs as an opportunity to design a truck that would be as cool as it is comfortable. And he remembered that “free energy” he had seen advertised.
“Everybody said ‘you can’t put solar panels on a truck,’” Fowler said. “To my knowledge, I’m one of the first ones to do that.”
Fowler debunked that myth quickly with the help of a few friends who were up for a challenge. Within 90 days, a damaged 1996 Peterbilt was transformed into the striking, energy-efficient truck that is catching eyes all over the country.
Simply put, the panels funnel energy into a charge controller underneath the sleeper that charges a battery bank. When the batteries are fully charged, the controller shuts the panels off. That means Fowler doesn’t have to idle when he isn’t on the road — at least not for about 10 hours.
The energy banked from the solar panels is enough to power everything in his sleeper, including a television, cooking equipment and even the air conditioning system. Fowler said he also saves fuel. How much fuel? Fowler said in the first year the energy from his solar panels kept nearly $20,000 in his pocket.
After the accident but before the work got started, Fowler took to Texas where the company he is leased to, Generic Trucking, is based. He found the owner had recently purchased two trucks with 110-inch double eagle sleepers. He asked to have one, and that sleeper now dons a large Batman logo as a tribute to his ex-wife’s son who passed away.
The truck’s 255-inch wheelbase is stock, but with a sleeper that size it should be somewhere around 270-inch, so Fowler said someday he would like to stretch it. To accommodate the sleeper now, he had to move his fifth wheel all the way to the end of the frame, which has yet to cause any problems.
Seemingly Fowler’s favorite part of the truck is the hood. He is sure to use the proper voice inflation to stress that it is a SHORT hood Peterbilt, but with a few adjustments.
“We took the hood apart and redid it because on a short-hood Peterbilt, the hood is sloped,” Fowler said. “We got some extended Peterbilt hood panels and cut them down to fit my front end and took all of the slope out of it. There’s only a couple of guys who have ever walked up to it and said ‘man, that’s a short hood.’ It’s just one of the subtle details.”
The EKG design that runs along the hood is an actual heartbeat pattern, and placed on the hood for a good reason. Fowler said, “It represents the power under the hood — that’s the heartbeat.”
The heartbeat Fowler refers to is a 700 horsepower 3406E model Caterpillar engine with a 13-speed transmission. It averages 8.4 miles per gallon. All in all, Fowler said his truck is a “brand new 1996 Peterbilt,” which has served him well as he spends most of the year on the road hauling trade show equipment from coast to coast.
Next question: “Why pink?” The answer will surprise some: “Pink is my favorite color,” Fowler said. “It’s different.” He admits that he’s often gotten some comments about pink being his favorite color, but he’s been told it sets off the color of his eyes.
The speed with which Fowler and his crew completed the transformation of what he calls his “solar Peterbilt” was in hopes of completing the job in time to show it to his dad. Unfortunately, his dad passed away before the truck was completed.
“[My dad] saw it originally when it was black and silver and he loved it,” Fowler said. “I talked to him on the phone and he said, ‘you’re where you belong’ because my dad was a worker and he said, ‘get the truck done, get back on the road and get to work.’ So, that is what I did.”
Even though Fowler didn’t initially jump right into truck driving, he and his brother basically grew up in the cab of a Kenworth as his dad hauled chickens for 47 years. He held back tears as he fondly remembered being raised by a single truck driver. During the school year, he and his brother stayed with their grandmother, but when school was out, they were right there in the truck with their dad.
“I don’t see how he did it, because you know how toddlers are,” Fowler said. “You’ve got two kids in the cab of a little bitty truck, I don’t see how he didn’t kill us, but we made it work.”
Fowler’s background as a trucker’s kid put a specific idea of a truck’s décor in his mind, so naturally there are hints of old-school trucking throughout his solar Peterbilt including chrome accents and lots of chicken lights.
“I grew up on that stuff,” he said.
Fowler didn’t skimp on the interior details, either. Inside the truck, the floors are real hardwood which Fowler installed himself for a lot less money than the $1,300 he was quoted for the job.
“I was raised different than that, so I went down to Lowe’s and got ¾-inch solid wood floor, tongue and groove and made my own wood floor for a couple hundred bucks,” Fowler said.
Unique but subtle is the overall look that Fowler sought, and he topped it off with a Batman emblem on the front of the truck where most feature a Peterbilt logo. The emblem was specifically designed for him and the “1 of 1” marking on the back ensures that the design will not be duplicated.
The part of the truck that makes Fowler’s eyes light up the most is among the most common additions to any trucker’s rig — his CB handle on both sides of the hood. Fowler goes by Phantom 33, but his dad had the title first.
“Someday I hope I’m half the man that he was,” Fowler said.
The latest detail Fowler has added to his truck is a replica Rubber Duck hood ornament (from “Convoy,” of course), but even that purchase was one that Fowler thoroughly thought through.
“I don’t shop like a lot of people. I pick stuff up and I look at it and then I put it back,” Fowler said. “It took a while to get the hood ornament, but that was the final touch to the outside.”
As for the questions Fowler gets while he is one the road, he doesn’t mind too much. He does, however, get asked often if his truck is a show truck. He doesn’t have any immediate plans to go that route, but he does hope that he can help to show that everyone should take pride in their work.
“I take a lot of pride in my ride; I take pride in everything I do,” Fowler said. “If I can inspire a few people or the next generation, I’ve done my job. I want people to get active in the trucking community again. Years ago, people out here would go out of their way to help one another. People would even tell their kids ‘if you have a problem out on the road, just flag down a trucker. They will help you.’ Somewhere along the way America has lost all of this.”
Wendy Miller holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in strategic communications. Wendy has been a journalist and editor for nearly 15 years and has specialized in niche publications for the past eight years. Wendy draws her love for the trucking industry from growing up as a trucker’s daughter.