RV Solar Panels: What Every Newbie Should Know

How Tos & Tips

These days more and more RVers are interested in adding solar power to their rigs. RV solar panels provides electricity at a specific voltage by using sunlight to make energy. After the initial investment they have virtually no upkeep or maintenance cost which makes them an appealing alternative for many RVers who enjoy camping off-the-grid.

Are you interested in RV solar panels but aren’t quite sure where to start? The following guide will teach you the fundamentals of the RV solar systems including how they work and how they can help you.

Why Choose RV Solar Power

The two main reasons RVers install solar panels are:

  • They are looking for a primary electrical power source.
  • They want a system that will charge their house batteries, i.e. a solar trickle charger.

An RV solar system is like a big — but expensive — battery charger. You can use the energy it generates to power anything that runs off of your house batteries. This is the main reason why an RV solar system is so attractive to dry campers and boondockers.

Solar Trickle Chargers

When your RV has been dormant for a while, your house batteries will start to lose power. It’s important that you never let your batteries remain idle for a long period of time or you will risk permanent battery damage. This problem can be easily avoided with a solar trickle charger. This stand-alone device creates power to charge and maintain RV house batteries. It will keep your batteries fully charged for whenever you need to use them.

The installation of these devices is quick and easy. All you have to do is take the small panel and connect the battery clips and wire. Once this has been completed, place the panel in the sun and you are ready to go. If you are the owner of a late-model RV, you may already have this unit on your rig. It’s important to note though, that if you are a full-timer or a dry camper, a trickle charger may not meet your needs.

Determining the Amount of Solar Power You Need

Many solar panels supply 10 amps of power, which is roughly the same as some battery chargers. These solar panels generate about 100 watts of power. But when you add in factors like energy loss from clouds or shade, you only receive a fraction of usable power. This happens because modern solar panels only use about 6% of the energy that hits the panels.

For instance, if you own a large motorhome, you may need anywhere from 500-800 watts of power to use all of your appliances. This means that you will need about 10 to 15 square meters of space for your solar panels. This fact makes it unlikely that you have the room needed to capture the power to run your entire rig on solar power.

Thankfully, many RVers are quite frugal with their power. In fact, some can get by just fine with about 100 watts or so of power generated by their solar panels. They use this in combination with a couple other batteries to store the energy that has been collected. Combining these two options produces enough energy to power basic electrical devices and lighting. Some RVers also use propane to fill in any gaps in power, especially for appliances that use a lot of energy.

More Money — More Power

During your travels, you may have come across RVs with solar panels that produce more than 800 watts of power. These types of systems were created to capture a lot of power, store it, and convert it when needed.

While these powerful systems are quite attractive, they are also pricey as well. For instance, to have one of these setups you will pay about $200 for every 100 watts of solar power that is generated. So, if you want a system like this, you will spend about $2000, just for the panels alone. This doesn’t cover the cost of inverters or charge controllers. Still, the price may be worth it as these powerful systems will allow you to spend days without a generator or power hookups.

The Basic Components of a Solar Power System

There are three basic kinds of solar panels. They are categorized by how their individual cells are made. They include:

  • Amorphous: Each cell is made out of a thin silicone layer that is attached to backing material.
  • Mono-crystalline: Each cells is a made out of a thin wafer of pure silicon crystal.
  • Poly-crystalline: Each cell is made out of silicon that’s been melted and molded.

Amorphous cells are cheaper than the other options. They are also better at collecting solar power on cloudy days. But mono and poly cells are better at collecting energy in an efficient manner.

Trickle chargers generally use amorphous cells. This is because they were designed to maintain a charge. The other types of cells were made for both charging and powering. This makes them perfect for permanent fixtures.

Rigid or Flexible: Which One is Best for You?

Based on the information in the previous section, we know that there are three types of solar panel cells. But the RV solar panel itself can either be flexible or rigid.

Poly and mono cells are usually found in rigid frames. While, amorphous cells are usually molded into the more flexible panels. There are models available where mono cells are put in flexible panels as well. These types tend to be more expensive.

Solar Charge Regulator Fundamentals

The charge regulator is where everything happens. Also known as the charge controller, it is the command center of your RV solar system. Its job is to regulate the voltage and current that comes from the solar panels so your batteries don’t get overcharged. Trickle chargers generally don’t need a charge regulator.

Although solar panels are usually rated at 12V, they tend to put out anywhere from 16-20 volts. This is because they compensate for imperfect conditions. Thus, the engineers designed the panels so you will still be able to get the needed 12 volts out of your system.

Maximum Power Point Tracking: What You Need to Know

Maximum Power Point Tracking, or MPPT, is an electronic DC to DC converter. It changes the higher DC solar output to the lower DC voltage so that you can charge your batteries. MPPTs have improved how charge regulators interact with the different RV solar system components.

A typical charge controller may cause you to lose power. This occurs when the current charge of your battery and the solar panel’s output don’t match. MPPTs continuously tracks the panel’s output with the state of the battery charge. This allows it to optimize the voltage that will give the battery the most amps. An MPPT charge controller should definitely be on your list if you want a quality RV solar system.

Consider a Digital Monitoring Unit

When you installed an RV solar power system, it’s quite helpful to have a tool that allows you track it. A digital monitoring unit lets you read the amps, volts, and the total amp hours of your system. It’s important to note that all monitoring units are not built the same. Do the research to get the best device for your needs.

Mounting the Hardware of Your Solar System

It is important that your RV solar panels are mounted with the highest quality hardware. This ensures that they stay put when you are on the road. When it comes to mounting your hardware, you are faced with two choices:

  • Flat brackets keep the panel in a fixed location.
  • Tilt brackets that allow you tilt the panels to capture the maximum amount of sun.

Solar panels aren’t as efficient if they aren’t facing the sun directly so regardless of the type of bracket that you choose, you must take this into consideration.

The information in this guide will give you a better understanding of the RV solar power system. But, it’s important that you do more research to help you make the right purchasing decision. Happy Traveling!

Source: Do It Yourself RV