If you are looking to add solar panels and either a backup or main solar power system to your RV, there are some things that you should consider before buying an attempting to DIY. If you decided to do some research into RV solar panels before committing to buying a solar-powered system for your RV, you are in the perfect place =]
Like any RV extension, addition, or installation, there are a few things to consider before simply ordering a solar panel kit online. Because when it comes to RV solar power, a good rule of thumb is to never allow your heart to overrule your budget, power needs, and the convenience of having the right electricity source for you and your family when you hit the open road.
- The RV solar panel story
- How do the solar panels on RVs work?
- What is the best way to get solar power installed on my RV?
- How many solar panels are needed for an RV?
- A delicate balance – the “solar panels : batteries” ratio
- Adding solar panels to your RV Pros and Cons
- RV solar panels and kits
- RV solar panel kit pricing guide
- Adding batteries
The RV solar panel story
I don’t need to tell you that going solar for power is super-popular right now. Look around any campsite – whether you are a weekend RV warrior or lifelong RV enthusiast living a full-time #vanlife – you will probably see RV solar panel installations atop a vehicle near you.
Here are a few questions you might want to ask your fellow campsite neighbor who has the solar panel set up of your dreams installed on their roof.
- What are solar panels on RVs all about?
- How do RV solar panels work?
- What can installing a solar system on my RV do for me?
- Is off-grid solar for RVs worth the initial financial outlay?
How do the solar panels on RVs work?
Without getting too science-y about it, here’s a quick rundown of how solar panels provide power once they are installed on your RV roof.
Whenever your vehicle is on the road or parked in the campsite, backyard, or mall parking lot, the sun’s rays hit the panels on the roof. Each panel is equipped with photovoltaic cells that absorb the sun’s energy and convert it into an electrical current.
The current is then fed through wires into a solar charge controller. This piece of equipment does what it says on the box – it controls the direct current (DC) coming in from the panels and uses it to charge the battery or batteries inside your RV.
The energy is stored inside the batteries which then use it to power your appliances and devices whenever you or your family need electricity to power something. Solar panel system batteries in RVs typically supply 12 volts of DC power – enough to run electronics, lights, and appliances.
There’s a second option when it comes to solar powering your RV. Your system can also be set up to pass the DC through an inverter. This converts it into 120 volts of alternating current (AC). Now your solar panel system can power bricks and mortar devices like espresso machines and coffee pots – appliances that require 120-V to function.
Your RV has 120-V outlets in it already, but they will always need a generator, shore power, or a solar panel system inverter to function.
If you enjoy the independence boondocking offers you, but still want the convenience of powering your RV without the noise of a generator, it’s as easy as 1-2-3-4 with a solar panel system:
- Solar panels
- Charge controller
And that’s it – you’re good to go! 120-V power just as if you were in a bricks-and-mortar residence!
The recipe for home-away-from-home 120-V solar power in your RV:
Solar panels ⇒ Charge controller ⇒ Batteries ⇒ Inverter ⇒
What is the best way to get solar power installed on my RV?
Now that I know what RV solar power is, let’s talk about the best way to get solar power in your RV =] For those of you out there who are handy with installations and DIY RV improvements, and you have a flair for following instructions and seeing a project through to the end, then DIY solar panel installation could be the perfect project for you.
A few words of caution before thinking about DIY RV solar panels:
- Don’t attempt this if you are a DIY newbie. You could be left with a solar panel kit propped up against your garage walls as the difficulty of doing it yourself overwhelms you.
- If you live in your RV full time, it might be best to get your RV solar panels installed by professionals. In that way, you can get a functional vehicle back within the shortest timeframe.
- Because RV solar panels are installed onto the RV direct, if this is not done with a certain amount of professionalism, it could damage the integrity of the structure and lower the value of the RV itself.
- Don’t forget that a huge number of “install solar panels on your RV” online articles are there to sell solar panel installation kits to the public. Their job is to make it look like an easy thing to do. Your best bet is to do your research homework first before committing to a DIY purchase.
How many solar panels are needed for an RV?
The solar power needs of the occasional RV user will be a bit different from those of you who live in an RV full time. That is why asking the question – how much solar power do I need for my RV? – is a very important one.
In order to figure out how many solar panels you will need to install for an adequate amount of electricity supply, two kinds of information are required:
- How much energy is used in one day? This must take into account the maximum number of people you take out with you or who live with you at any one time.
- How much power (watt-hours) must the solar panels send to be stored in the batteries?
For an optimal system, you need to find the perfect balance between how many watt-hours you use and how much do you need stored. Why this is so crucial is because there has to be equal solar panels = battery storage, or else your entire system will be useless. As you can see, this might be yet another reason to leave solar panel installation in the hands of professionals!
A delicate balance – the “solar panels : batteries” ratio
Too many solar panels and not enough batteries to store the power
Not enough solar panels and too many batteries will leave the batteries undercharged
Fortunately, there are two ways you can work out how much energy you use, and this will tell you how many solar panels and batteries to install in your RV. This is for all your boondocking-only scenarios when you will have no recourse to campsite electricity or generator fuel.
1– Estimate power consumption
Find out how much energy your devices use and then multiply that by how many hours you use it for.
For example, one gaming console uses 100 Watts an hour; the family games for 4 hours a day; 100W x 4 = 400W per day.
Calculate the energy usage of every appliance, device, and the electrical item you use in the RV that doesn’t run on gas and it will provide you with an idea of total Wattage=hours used per day. This, in turn, can guide you as to how many panels you need to install.
Remember to factor in HVAC for both summer and winter months if you live in your RV full time.
2– Calculate the energy generation + battery storage
On average, 1 x 100W solar panel generates 350W energy every day (depending on shade and sunshine that day). There is a way to calculate accurate photovoltaic Watts or PVWs.
1 x 100Ah 12V battery can contain and store about 1200W.
You can find a solar panel = battery calculator on professional solar power system installation experts’ sites, such as this one.
Adding solar panels to your RV Pros and Cons
- If you are committed to a greener lifestyle, then solar is the only way to go.
- Boondocking and dry camping off the beaten path? There’s no better way to be generator and campsite free then having solar panels.
- If your family grows or your electricity demands change, you can upgrade your existing system to meet these new demands.
- You can start out with a basic solar panel setup within your budget and add on to it according to your budget and power needs.
- As solar power demand increases, component prices will decrease over time.
- If working out how many solar panels + batteries is worrying you, you can hire someone to do your energy audit for you. This will also give you a good idea about how much equipment you will need for you initial installation.
- RV solar power reduces your camping fees and can even get rid of them entirely, depending on where you camp.
- Say goodbye to noisy, gas-greedy generators.
- Solar power installation has a positive effect on the battery inside your RV engine because it’s required to provide less power overall.
- Not every budget can stretch to the initial costs installation demands. Even DIY kit RV installation costs can be steep for anyone on a budget.
- Love to go boondocking in the forest? You will still have to setup and park in the sunshine.
- Something else to consider in the summer heat – no parking in the shade when you have solar panels.
- An affordable solar system professional installation of $1,000 is probably not going to be enough to service all your power needs.
- You might miss the community of staying in a camping site if you want to take advantage all the dry camping having solar panels offers you.
- It will be a considerable length of time before you recoup your initial investment.
- You might find you need to resort to hookups and campsites on those occasions when your power consumption exceeds your solar supply.
- The additional weight of the panels might increase fuel consumption if you love to travel long distances.
As you can see, the benefits of having a solar panel system installed on your RV are significant if the setup suits your power requirements. And there is no denying that renewable energy has a positive effect on the environment.
Also, while other energy sources can end up costing you quite a bit in fuel and maintenance, the parts that need replacing in an RV solar panel system are not prone to breaking or wearing out.
RV solar panels and kits
Monocrystalline: Made from a single crystal (Mono – single) + a thin layer of silicone. Performs well in lower light conditions. The most expensive material.
Polycrystalline: Made up from smaller, multiple crystals in a cell. These solar panels have rectangular, slightly bluish cells on the surface. Less efficient than monocrystalline, but cheaper.
Amorphous: The very latest solar panel technology. It comes in a thin film of silicon cells which are flexible and have an adhesive backing similar to double-sided tape. The efficiency is lower than that or mono or polycrystalline cells, but amorphous solar panels are by far the most affordable in price. Because of the lightness of amorphous solar panels, they are considered to be the best choice for RV solar panel system installation.
RV solar panel kit pricing guide
Kits under $200: Single panel solar kits can be found under the $200 price mark, but they are extremely limited as far as providing comprehensive solar energy needs. You can expand the system by adding more panels and batteries as your energy requirements change. I also added a solar generator recommendation at the end here because if all you want is to have some small things charged, this generator would totally work!
Kits for $200 – $500: The mid-price range of solar panels can offer a surprising amount of power. They most typically include 1-2 x 100W panels + installation additional kits such as adapters and controllers.
Kits for $500 and up: When you start getting into the over $500 price range for a solar panel DIY installation kit, it usually contains the basic solar panels + adapters + controller, but with additional panels and quantities. Most kits will contain 4 x 100W panel + additional setup pieces.
If a nice DIY solar panel kit sounds like the ideal sunlight-powered solution for your RV, this guide gives you a good idea of what your initial costs will be. If you buy your kit and then decide to have it installed by a professional, you will have to factor in installation costs on top of that.
A great way to expand your Kit is to add additional panels and batteries, later on, that’s what we are doing with our new rig, we are adding a few more panels and changing the battery system completely because it was used for a long time in extreme temperatures, so the safest thing to do in our case, was to get new batteries. If you are looking for batteries, here are the ones we purchased and what we recommend for colder weather as well.
Remember that batteries have a recommended temperature, so you should look into keeping them in a temperature-regulated place, or get self-heating batteries if you are in extremely cold temperature places.
I hope this post was of help, and remember that if there’s anything that you would like us to expand on, just email us =]