Solar panels are a popular upgrade for RVers of all stripes, particularly those who enjoy remote camping without hookups, also known as “boondocking.”
And it’s an attractive upgrade for a reason. RV solar panels can help you run the features and fixtures that make your RV feel like a real home away from home no matter where you are, without the noise, smell, and expense of running your propane generator — that is, so long as you’re somewhere the sun is shining.
That said, there’s a lot of confusion about how, exactly, to implement an RV solar system to generate power. How do RV solar panels work in the first place, and which are the best kinds to get for an RV roof? How do you hook them up to your onboard system to get the power from the sun into, you know, your lights and cell phone charger?
Have no fear! In this post, we’ll walk you through all the ins and outs of RV solar systems, covering the best solar panels for RVs, common confusions about installation, and more. Let’s dive in!
Are Solar Panels Worth It on an RV?
While many campers are aware that RV solar panels are an option, they’re also usually a little wary — because the word is out that RV solar panels are expensive. So before you get into all the nitty gritty, you may already be wondering if they’re worth it in the first place.
To find that out, let’s start with an even more basic topic: what, exactly, are RV solar panels, and how are they used?
What are RV solar panels and what are they used for? RV solar panels are devices that convert light (sunlight) into power (electricity).
In the diagram above: The sunlight hits the solar panels, creating an electric current. The electric current feeds into a charge controller, which controls how much current goes through the battery. The batteries produce DC power, and an inverter changes the power from DC into AC power. AC power is what runs things like your blenders, laptops, and phone chargers.
For most RV users, there are two main reasons you may consider adding solar panels — or attempting to purchase an RV with them already installed:
- To charge your “house” batteries — Solar power provides a slow, steady charge to your batteries. This is actually the way batteries are made to be charged, which in turn maximizes the life of the battery. It is the same concept as a car battery. If it sits too long, it loses its battery life, and it may not be able to hold a charge even after being charged back up.
- To provide electrical power — Whether or not you are in remote locations, wanting to explore breathtaking views, or as back-up power for emergencies.
So, are they worth it?
While RV solar panels are certainly not necessary, they do have a lot of benefits. If you’re hoping to cut the cord, go off-grid, live more greenly or get off the radar, then installing RV solar panels may help your cause.
RV solar panels can also help extend your battery life, cut down on generator use, and even save money in the long run on propane. Here are some of the benefits to adding a solar-powered system to your RV:
- It’s a cost-effective means of power.
- The resource is pretty much inexhaustible, even during the winter months, and on cloudy days we still see some sunlight.
- It’s clean, quiet, and it is good for our planet. It does not burn fuel, therefore does not put off waste or smells.
- RV solar systems are virtually maintenance-free. No moving parts means nothing to break, and once systems are set up, they can last for decades when well cared for. Plus there are practically no recurring costs. Even if in the future you decide you want to expand your solar panel system, to produce more power. It can easily be done without a whole revamp of your system.
- RV solar panels can extend the life of your battery. Most RV batteries will last anywhere from two to three years, and they are expensive. With using solar power, you can expect that to increase from 50% to 75% longer. That means not having to replace that battery for 6, 8, or maybe even 10+ years — particularly if you upgrade to lithium batteries while overhauling your system.
- RV solar panels allow you the freedom to enjoy living in natural settings with breathtaking beautiful views.
How Many Solar Panels Do I Need to Run an RV?
So, if you’re on board with the idea of solar, let’s get started with the details! How many solar panels does it take to run an RV’s electric?
Obviously, the answer will depend on the size of your RV and how much electric power you’re trying to generate. A modest travel trailer that draws 30 amps and doesn’t have that many appliances is not going to need as many solar panels as, say, a 40-foot diesel pusher.
Even so, it’s important to understand that solar power may not be enough to generate the kind of power you need to, say, run your HVAC system. (Of course, RV solar panels appeal primarily to boondockers and off-grid RV campers, who are likely to steer their rigs to a place where the weather doesn’t necessitate any internal temperature control!)
Furthermore, RV solar differs from at-home solar setups in that you can’t sell excess power back to the electric company. All your solar panels are doing is charging your battery… and once it’s fully charged, you’re just creating excess! Thus, having the smallest amount of sollar wattage possible to get the job done is preferable, as the panels are both costly and heavy.
The number of solar panels you need on your RV roof will also depend on how heavily you use the electricity you’re generating.
However, generally speaking, most RVers travel with between one and three 100-watt solar panels, which can generate approximately 6 amps per peak-sun-hour on average, or around 30 amp-hours daily.
You can also utilize an online calculator, like what is found here by Go Power. Another way is to use AMSolar’s System Sizing by actual use. It has some great examples to determine your average use. Once you know about what you use, then you can decide how much power you need to generate.
RV Solar Panel Installation
While an RV solar system is simple to maintain once it’s installed, getting it set up isn’t as simple as slapping some panels on top of your RV and calling it a day. There are other parts involved which are necessary to convert the solar-generated power into usable electricity, such as a controller and an inverter.
Basically, the RV solar panels route to a solar charge controller, which sends the energy your panels have created to the on-board battery system. It’s called a “controller” because it modifies how much energy reaches the battery, so as not to overcharge them.
Then, the inverter is used to convert the energy from DC to AC power, so you’ll be able to utilize all your onboard appliances and gadgets.
Here’s an overview of the basic parts you need to install and run an RV solar setup:
Panels: Along with the information above, they do come in various sizes, and you can even purchase additional ones, and add more later, without a whole system overhaul.
Charge controller: This controller is to regulate the flow of electricity to your batteries. You don’t want them to over-charge your batteries.
Battery monitor: This is great to keep track of your battery levels. They act just like a fuel gauge does to your gas tank. If you want to know exactly how many more amp hours you have, this is the monitor you need.
Inverter: To convert the DC power from the panels into AC power, which is used to power things like your coffee maker, phone chargers, vacuums and TV’s.
Wire harness: To carry the charge from the panels to the batteries.
(For a full blog post about how RV solar power works and the setup and installation needed to achieve RV solar power, click here.)
What is the Best Solar Panel for RVs?
It’s also important to understand that there are a variety of different types of RV solar panels out there, which each have their own unique drawbacks and benefits. RV solar panels also come in both rigid and flexible versions, and this is another factor to add in when you’re considering what, exactly, to purchase.
What are the different kinds of RV solar panels? In the RV world, there are presently three types of solar panels on the market.
Let’s take a look at each one –
Mono-Crystalline solar panels are made from a single crystal. Individual cells are a thin wafer of silicon crystal.
Poly-Crystalline solar panels contain several smaller crystals.
Amorphous solar panels are thin film panels. Cells are made of a thin layer of silicon, and is attached to a backing material.
What is the best RV Solar Panel you might ask? The roof of your RV is like prime real estate, so when deciding what may be the best solar panels for your RV, you must consider size, as well as efficiency.
While Amorphous is the cheapest, and does have a high-efficiency rate, it is twice the size of poly-crystalline and mono-crystalline. Mono-crystalline is also high efficient, and is said to produce more power in low-light conditions than poly-crystalline or amorphous. Poly-crystalline, however, is the most popular, and takes up half the space of the amorphous, and produces just slightly less power than mono-crystalline panels. The best solar panels for your RV is one that fits your needs.
Flexible Solar Panels for your RV – What is the difference in flexible RV solar panels vs. rigid RV solar panels?
Flexible solar panels, which are known as thin film panels, are the newest to come out in the field of solar energy. Let’s take a look at some of the advantages, and disadvantages, of these.
Advantages: These type of solar cells are extremely lightweight, and more of them can be installed in a larger space and not add additional weight, unlike your traditional poly-crystalline or mono-crystalline solar panels.
While they are still made of silicon, they require less to produce, and are capable of generating just as much energy as the traditional panels.
Flexible panels can be installed directly on your RV roof, which makes them more streamline and pleasing to the eye.
Disadvantages: While some companies advertise this as okay, it is not smart to walk on your panels. They can develop very small cracks under pressure, and that in turn will reduce their power output, and shorten their lifespan.
Most tend to come with only a 10-year warranty, which is only a third of their counterparts.
Heat buildup is also something to consider. Essentially, the more space you have between your panels and the roof, the cooler they will stay and the more power you will generate. As flexible panels get hotter, all that heat buildup goes right into the interior of the roof they lay on. While in winter months this can be a great thing, as far as the hot summer months, not so much.
Installation of flexible panels means you will need to glue them to your roof, and it is not an easy process to remove them later, and can result in damage to your roof or to the panels.
While, individually, these disadvantages would not be a deal-breaker, they are worth looking into for your individual needs.
Rigid RV solar panels are hard and firmly fixed. They are constructed using glass panes within an aluminum frame. Let’s also look at the advantages, as well as disadvantages, of rigid RV solar panels.
Advantages: The most obvious, of the advantages of rigid over flexible, is the durability. They can withstand the harsh conditions associated with travel. Rigid panels are by far the best choice for long-term.
For those with the environment in the back of their minds, silicon is more environmentally-friendly, when it comes time for disposal or recycling.
Another benefit includes a high resistance to heat. Also, as we talked about earlier, the more space you have, between the panels and your RV, the less heat it will produce. These can be mounted with a space between them and your RV roof, and they usually have a lower installation cost.
They can be mounted to hinge and tilt. so you are still able to take care of normal roof maintenance, without worrying about stepping on them.
Disadvantages: Rigid panels do weigh more than the flexible ones, thus adding more weight to your rig.
Rigid panels do stick up above your roof somewhat, and can be an eye-sore when looking at your rig. They can also be harder to place in-between AC units, antennas, and other things on your RV roof.
While they are regulated to withstand the high winds, hail, and even extreme temperatures of RV life, they are made of glass, and glass is breakable.
Finally, there are portable solar kits. Portable solar kits allow you to move your solar panels, to get the most sunlight, even when your RV is under the trees. They are great for smaller campers and RVs. They can also be used in addition to your larger permanent system. These portable kits come with cables, to allow you to move the portable panels around with ease.
How Much Does it Cost to Install RV Solar Panels?
Alright, let’s get to the painful part. We all know RV solar is expensive… but how expensive is it, exactly?
As with anything, the total cost of your RV solar system will depend on your needs, and what your specific RV solar setup will look like. It is very customizable, and what may work for you, may not work for your fellow RVer. Generally, prices for systems start at a few hundred dollars ($500-$700), and go up from there. Also, as solar power gets more and more common, and as we have seen, in just a few short years, the prices have dropped.
However, you may also want to take this opportunity to upgrade other portions of your RV’s system, such as switching to lithium batteries, which will extend your battery life and lower your overall maintenance requirements, but will add quite a bit to your overall solar installation total.
How to Hook Up RV Solar Panels to RV Batteries
The specifics for setting up your RV solar panels will vary depending on the make and model of your rig, what type of panels, controller, and inverter you purchased, and more. While you should always check with your owner’s manual or a trusted professional, however, there are some great tutorial videos up on YouTube with step-by-step installation instructions! Here’s one of our favorites by the fine folks over at Totally Trailer.
RV Solar Panel Pros and Cons
So, now that we’ve gone through all the basics on RV solar power, it’s time to make the decision. Are they worth it?
While they can be costly to set up, RV solar systems do generate free power for the lifetime of your system, and they’re pretty low-maintenance after the initial installation. As long as you have enough light to cast a shadow on the ground, your panels are capable of producing power, and you’ll be free to move around in the country and take advantage of boondocking spots without annoying smells and sounds (and in a way that’s much friendlier to Mother Earth!)
Keeping some basic RV solar panel tips in mind can help you extend the lifespan of your setup and get the most bang for your buck. For example, keeping your RV panels clean will also have an effect on power. Even the least bit of dust or debris will lower your power. Make it a routine practice to check on this.
And while you can find reputable companies to buy RV solar panels and systems from, it is important to know that some companies will not warranty panels that are installed on an RV. Look for dealers that specialize in either solar panels for RV roofs and/or systems that are made especially for RV’s and campers.
In our opinion, solar panels are a great addition to your RV investment. Not only will they allow you to extend your camping experience, they are great for our environment, and will save you some money in the long run. Talk to experienced companies to find out what options you have for your setup, or if you are a “Do-It-Yourself-er,” research what products will best fit your needs. You may also consider renting an RV with solar power capability to get a real feel for how, exactly, these systems work. As always, Happy Camping!