RV Solar Panels
Written by: Amber Friedman
Using solar panels with your RV is becoming more and more popular, so we want to help RVers understand when they are useful, why people use them and break down the pros and cons of using them.
Why Solar Panels?
Solar panels have many benefits, including keeping your RV batteries charged for longer (if it’s sunny), helping cut greenhouse gas emissions, and fulfilling the desire to be self-reliant. For RVers who like to boondock – to stay in areas where there are no electrical hookups – beaches, city parks, state parks, the desert – a solar panel system can be an excellent addition to your RV lifestyle. Not only do solar panels provide silent power, they can also minimize the need for a noisy generator to recharge your batteries.
Pros and Cons of RV Solar Panels
Solar power can be helpful for RVers in certain situations, but isn’t necessarily worth it for everyone. For example, if you spend most of your time camping on normal campgrounds with electric hookups, solar panels won’t be of much benefit to you, but those who take their RV off the beaten path, and need to be self-sufficient, find solar panels to be very handy.
If you are the type of RVer who sees their RV itself as the “destination”, and therefore watch a lot of TV, keep the air conditioner on all the time, and like the lights to be on and bright, solar may not work for you unless you are willing to cut a significant amount of energy usage.
A common misconception regarding solar panels is that many people think all solar panels will power their entire RV the same way being hooked up to electricity would, but this is normally not the case. Most solar panels just help to charge your RV batteries, so if you travel very frequently and therefore give your batteries fresh juice via your truck on a regular basis, solar panels may not benefit you much. However, if you are the type of RVer who likes to stay put for a week or so, and fully charged batteries last you 2-3 days, then solar panels can help extend your battery power, depending on what appliances are being used and how often. Air conditioning, in particular, is one appliance that can’t really be run with just solar power, so for some, using solar panels may be a seasonal attribute.
Cost and Maintenance
Having a solar panel can be a great accessory, but this technology isn’t an inexpensive option. We suggest doing thorough research to properly calculate whether the benefits are worth the cost in your particular situation.
Some RVers enjoy the cost savings that RV solar can provide. The savings start to add up when you switch from paying approx $45 a night to stay at campsites with electric hookups to staying away from campsites because of your solar panels. For example, if your solar panel installation costs $2,500, then 56 nights of free camping would help you recoup the cost of the solar panels.
Keep in mind that the cost of solar panels can vary greatly. Some base expenses to know about are:
- Solar Charge Controller: $100-$200
- Wiring: ~$20
- Batteries: If you need more storage capacity than your RV currently has, then a decent battery will cost you $200 each. (you should probably be fine using just your current batteries though, at least at first)
For those who are serious about living off-grid, a general estimate of what you will likely be spending on panels is approx $2,000, depending on your needs. Putting everything together, with installation and all, will likely run you a total of $2,500 or more. If you are merely interested in extending your battery life while camping by using solar panels, then you have some more flexibility when it comes to price. How much solar capacity you install is totally up to you.
One good thing to keep in mind is the difference between solid panels and flexible panels. The flexible solar panels are more adaptive to curved surfaces, can be more aerodynamic, and are more out of sight than the traditional boxy, board panels. This luxury feature can be quite a bit pricier per watt. So, unless having your solar panels out of sight is very important to you, it may not be worth spending the extra money on flexible panels.
Implementation and Upkeep
The bare minimum that a solar system needs to work are the following:
- Solar panels
- Battery Monitor
The solar panels make the electricity, the batteries store the electricity, and the controller makes sure it all works properly. The controller is a must-have part of the solar system. Its job is to keep the flow of electricity within a safe range and to keep your batteries from frying.
The batteries are an important part of the system because, depending on the time of year and weather you encounter, the sun may only brightly shine a few hours a day. When building your solar power system you will want to take into account the fact that many days are cloudy for part of the day, and that the sun’s rays are only really strong for a smaller part of the day. Typically, you will need to generate all of the electricity you need for 24 hours in just 10 or so hours of the day, depending on your location.
To determine how much solar capacity you need, we suggest reaching out to an RV dealership or technician for specific recommendations depending on the type of RV you have and the type of camping you plan to do. At the end of the day, you can always install more panels later, so starting small never hurts.
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