Energy

Choosing the Best RV Solar Panels for Off-Grid Camping

For many, recreational vehicles or RVs are the perfect marriage of freedom and convenience. They have many amenities, from plumbing to cooking appliances; some even have AC. But whether you want to take your home on wheels off the beaten path and away from crowded campsites and trailer parks, or you’ve bought the perfect plot of land far from any utility lines, you may decide it’s time to upgrade your setup to keep the lights and gadgets running.

Before leaping into the world of free and clean solar energy, let’s pause and explore which of the countless options best suits your lifestyle. From understanding the basics to selecting the ideal setup for your needs and a look at the many solar RV kits available, we’ll cover what you need to know to embark on your solar-powered adventure with confidence.

Solar panels seem like a perfect complement to the freewheeling RV lifestyle, but they’re still a significant investment that can feel daunting.

RV solar panels operate much like their larger counterparts on residential and commercial properties, albeit on a smaller, more portable scale. They harness the sun’s energy to power your RV’s appliances, lights, and sockets. They are a renewable and eco-friendly alternative to traditional power sources, especially in areas with limited or nonexistent access to the electrical grid.

At the same time, consider whether they align with your travel style and needs. Unlike conventional homes, RVs typically have more modest energy demands. Even during off-grid adventures, the built-in batteries that come with larger RVs can usually handle short periods without external power, such as overnight stays in Walmart parking lots or remote campsites. Investing in a complete solar setup may not be worth it for travelers who use their camper for a few weekends a year at full-service campgrounds.

So, who stands to benefit the most from RV solar panels? Well, if you enjoy off-grid camping or “boondocking” in remote destinations, you live on your own off-grid plot of land, or maybe your RV is part of your disaster prep strategy, installing solar panels on your RV could be for you. Rooftop solar setups work great on various RV types, including motorhomes, camper vans, fifth-wheel trailers, travel trailers, and bus conversions.

If you’re unsure whether solar panels suit your RV lifestyle, consider starting small. Portable solar units offer a cost-effective way to dip your toes into solar power without committing to a complete installation, letting you supplement your built-in battery with plug-and-play solar energy without any installation hassles.

In addition to panels, many low-cost solar products, such as solar lights, portable solar-heated showers, and even solar ovens, can add off-grid convenience to your adventures.

When outfitting your RV with solar panels, one of the first decisions you’ll face is whether to opt for traditional rigid panels or their flexible counterparts. While regular rectangular rooftop panels work fine on your mobile home, trailer, or van, they add more wind drag on the road and extra weight to the rooftop. Alternatively, flexible, lightweight panels offer a sleeker solution, contouring to your vehicle’s roof and minimizing drag.

Backyard Revolution

There are three types of solar panels to consider: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and amorphous. Monocrystalline panels reign supreme in terms of efficiency, generating the most energy in the least amount of time, and are less affected by partial shading from treetops. Adjustable mounts can angle your panels towards the sun for better performance. Polycrystalline panels are a less efficient but reliable alternative for the budget-conscious. On the other hand, amorphous panels may be less efficient, but their thin, light, and flexible construction makes for easier installation.

If durability and longevity are top priorities, rigid solar panels are the way to go. While they may be more challenging to mount, especially with curvy roofs, rigid panels boast a longer lifespan of up to 40 years. Flexible panels, on the other hand, offer easier installation and conform to rounded roofs like those found on Airstreams. (They’re also a more subtle choice preferred by urban van-dwellers.) Remember, though, that they come with a higher price tag and a shorter lifespan.

For those seeking versatility and convenience, portable solar panels offer a flexible solution. Foldable and lightweight, these panels are perfect for temporary setups and can double as emergency generators for your house. However, they can’t withstand permanent outdoor exposure or harsh weather conditions and they can’t charge your batteries when you’re on the road.

When evaluating solar panels for your RV, pay close attention to the efficiency rate, with the best panels boasting rates of 23 percent or higher.

While choosing the right solar panels is important, there’s much more to building a complete solar power system for your RV. Here are the essential components to ensure your solar setup runs smoothly and efficiently.

The solar inverter plays the vital role of converting the solar energy captured by your panels from DC to AC power, making it usable for your appliances. If you need to power electronics and sensitive appliances, it’s preferable to have a pure sine wave inverter, which produces less electrical interference than the cheaper modified sine wave type.

The charge controller acts as the gatekeeper of your RV’s battery, protecting it from overcharging and optimizing its lifespan. Small systems usually employ a pulse width modulation (PWM) controller rather than the more advanced and expensive maximum power point tracking (MPPT) controller. Other desirable features in a controller are temperature compensation, which adjusts the charge rate depending on the battery temperature, self-diagnostics, and an LCD display for easy monitoring.

Batteries are essential for storing all that valuable solar energy. The best options for RV setups are Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) and Lithium Ferro Phosphate (LFP). These lightweight, fast-charging batteries are safer and offer a longer lifespan than traditional lead acid (AGM) batteries. Although they may come with a higher upfront cost, their longevity makes them a cost-effective choice in the long run.

Self-heating batteries are worth considering if you plan to venture into colder climates. Particularly useful for lithium batteries, which are sensitive to frigid temperatures, they ensure optimal performance in all conditions.

A good quality battery monitor is a must for extended periods off-grid. Many RVs come with built-in monitors, but they tend to be simple and lack accuracy. Look for a monitor that tracks vital statistics like charge rate, capacity, and consumption rate and can alert you about low capacity and other critical issues.

While batteries may suffice for most days, having a backup power source doesn’t hurt when solar energy alone may not suffice. Many opt for gas or propane generators as a reliable, if noisy, backup, ensuring they have access to power even in cloudy or shaded conditions.

Finally, don’t forget the cord to plug into the grid when available. While the beauty of solar power lies in its independence from traditional power sources, having the option to recharge your batteries when needed can provide peace of mind during extended travels.

Now that we know the essential components for an RV solar setup, it’s time to tackle the crucial question: “How Much Solar Do I Need for My RV?” Determining the right size and capacity for your solar system involves a bit of number-crunching and careful consideration of your energy consumption habits. The efficiency of your panels and the daily amount of sunlight they receive on average also play a significant role.

DIY Home Energy Secrets

Solar systems start at 100 Watts for basic systems, but 400 Watts or higher is more likely to meet the demands of all your fans, appliances, and devices. To start, calculate your power needs during peak usage scenarios. A small system will suffice if you only want to run some lights and charge your devices. However, if you plan to run power-hungry appliances like a portable refrigerator, you’ll need to look at bigger, costlier setups. As for running an RV air conditioner on solar power, it’s technically possible, but the high electricity demand makes it impractical in most cases.

Just as you would do when calculating your solar needs for a conventional home, note the Wattage of all the appliances and devices you use and record how long you use them on an average day. A battery monitor is handy for tracking consumption. The total is your daily power consumption, measured in Watt-hours (Wh).

The amount of sunlight your panels receive will likely be even more variable than on a traditional home since different locations will have different sun exposures. Whether you use your RV year-round or only in summer will also make a big difference.

To ensure you have enough solar panel output to meet your needs in all conditions, it’s necessary to have enough panels to exceed your consumption rate by about 50 percent. Some retailers offer online solar calculators to assist in sizing your system. They can be helpful but may tend to overestimate your needs.

For example, a mobile home and office setup with a laptop, TV, and fridge would need two to four solar panels generating at least 800 Watts of power.

Having enough battery capacity to store all that free power is no less important. The capacity of your batteries, measured in amp-hours (Ah), should be about twice your daily power consumption for optimal performance.

The cost of solar panels varies depending on factors like efficiency and material. Expect to pay anywhere from one to several hundred dollars per panel, not including components. A complete RV solar panel kit with inverter and battery may cost three thousand, but larger systems can easily exceed this amount.

A good approach is to start smaller and expand your solar setup as needed. You can connect more panels over time to meet your evolving power demands. Thrifty DIYers can look for used panels to reduce costs but check them carefully for excessive wear and tear. Be sure to inquire about government clean energy rebates if the RV is your primary dwelling.

You might feel overwhelmed with all the different panels and components by this point. If that’s the case, you might want to look at one of the many solar packages sold specifically for powering RVs and campers.

RV solar panel kits offer cost savings and convenience by combining many elements for your solar setup. They take the guesswork out of selecting each part of your system and come with RV-specific instructions, making them great for DIY solar installations. They start at around $500 for a 200W system with a PWM charge controller, cables, and adapters. Watch out for bundles with low-quality parts, though. Thin wiring, for example, can reduce efficiency and lead to energy loss.

While kits include many essential components, you will likely need additional wiring and fuses to meet your particular setup unless you get a portable option. Also, only the more expensive kits include batteries or inverters. Ensure your built-in house batteries are compatible with your solar kit, or consider upgrading. Don’t forget to check if your kit is expandable so you can add more panels if needed.

If you’re looking for an even simpler option, plug-and-play portable RV solar panel kits offer renewable power with no installation. They’re great for pop-up campers and situations where rooftop panels are impractical. You can charge both your built-in batteries and portable power stations. They can even work in full sun while your camper is in the shade!

Based on a survey of online reviews, the following kits arguably offer the best combination of value, reliability, and convenience on the market today.

Basic Kits

HQST 100W 12V 9BB Monocrystalline Solar Panel Kit

Includes one 100W monocrystalline panel, a 12V/24V 30A PWM charge controller, two 20ft. 10AWG solar cables, two 8ft. 10AWG battery cables, and mounting hardware.

Renogy 100 Watt Solar Flexible Kit:

Renogy flexible solar panel kit.
Renogy’s flexible kit is lightweight and features a waterproof charge controller.

Includes one 100W flexible monocrystalline solar panel, 10A waterproof PWM charge controller, 8ft. 10AWG battery tray cables, and 20ft. 10AWG panel to controller adaptor kit.

RICH SOLAR 200 Watts 12 Volts Monocrystalline Solar Kit:

Includes one 200W monocrystalline panel, 20A MPPT charge controller, two 20ft. color-coded 10AWG solar cables, two 10ft. color-coded 10AWG battery cables, 15A fuse with holder, and mounting hardware.

WindyNation 100-Watt Monocrystalline Solar Panel Kit

Includes one 100W monocrystalline solar panel, 30A PWM charge controller with battery temp. sensor, 40ft 12AWG solar cable, optional 100Ah AGM battery and 1500W inverter.

Premium Kits

ACOPOWER 500-Watt Monocrystalline Solar Power Kit

Acopower monocrystalline solar power kit.
Acopower’s expandable kits incclude MPPT charge controllers and smart app monitoring.

Includes five 100W monocrystalline panels, 40A MPPT charge controller, 30ft. 12AWG solar cable, 8ft. battery cable, branch connectors, cable entry housing, and mounting hardware.

BougeRV 400W Solar Starter Kit

Includes one 100W monocrystalline panel, a 12V/24V 30A PWM charge controller, two 20ft. 10AWG solar cables, two 8ft. battery cables, and mounting hardware.

HQST 400W 12/24V 9BB Monocrystalline Solar Panel Kit:

Includes four 100W 9BB solar panels, 40A MPPT charge controller with Bluetooth, two 20ft. 12AWG controller cables, two 8ft. 10AWG battery cables, 3 solar branch connector pairs, and mounting hardware.

Newpowa 440W 12V Mono Solar Panel Kit:

Includes two 220W monocrystalline panels, 40A MPPT charge controller with Bluetooth, one 20ft. 10AWG cable, one 3ft. battery cable, fuse, one 1ft. branch connector set, and mounting hardware.

Renogy 600W 12V Solar RV Kit:

Includes three 200W rigid or flexible panes. 50A MPPT charge controller, branch connectors, panel to controller adaptor kit, battery tray cables, rooftop entry gland, mounting hardware, optional package includes Bluetooth module, fuse set, LiFePO4 battery, and pure sine wave inverter.

WindyNation 400-Watt Monocrystalline Solar Panel Kit

Includes four 100W monocrystalline panels, 40A MPPT charge controller, 40ft 12 AWG solar cable, solar branch connectors, mounting hardware, optional wireless communication adapter or remote meter.

Portable Kits

Go Power! 130W Portable Solar Kit

Go Power! Portable Solar Kit
The fold-out solar panels from Go Power! can be connected to a backup unit or directly to RV batteries.

Includes two folding monocrystalline panels, a nylon case, 10A PWM charge controller, 12ft. cable, battery clamps and ring connectors, SAE and XLR adapters.

Zamp Solar Legacy Series 140-Watt Portable Regulated Solar Kit:

Includes two 70W monocrystalline panels with nylon case, 10A hinge-mounted charge controller, 15ft. ATP cable, battery clamps and SAE adapter.

A solar-powered RV is a great way to embrace the off-grid lifestyle, but remember to do your homework. Carefully calculate your energy use, including your peak time use, and make sure your components can handle the demands of your appliances so you can enjoy an efficient, low-maintenance power supply. Just as there is an endless variety of RV setups and lifestyles, there is a vast variety of power solutions to meet your needs.

Both seasoned DIY enthusiasts and solar newcomers can benefit from expert advice and insights from other users. For help on specific questions, rvforums.net has been answering solar queries for years, and the Reddit “RV Living” community has plenty of insights from off-grid enthusiasts. The blog loveyourrv.com has reviewed many solar components, as well.

Most importantly, a good solar retailer will support you with comprehensive guides, tutorials, and customer support to get you up and running with ease.

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