Solar Power System for RV Owners: A Complete Guide
Solar Power System for RV Owners: A Complete Guide
If you just bought your brand new mobile home or are simply tired of your old noisy generator, a solar power system is one of the best ways to access electricity for RV owners in the 2020s. Industry advancements, widespread availability, and an endless supply of free sunshine have culminated to make today’s solar power systems not only eco-friendly but also cost-effective.
At Shop Solar Kits, we are passionate about practical solar solutions for RVs, vans, converted school buses, boats, homes, and so much more. So if you’re ready to hit the rubber and electrify your next adventure with renewable energy, we’ve developed this comprehensive guide on everything you need to know about solar power systems for RV owners.
Why use a Solar Power System for RV Electricity?
First things first, let’s talk about the benefits. Other than bragging to nearby campers about how many watt-hours your rooftop solar array can produce each day, there are many truly great benefits of installing a solar power system on any RV.
Advantages of Using RV Solar Power
For both weekend warriors and full-time RV residents, solar energy is one of the best ways to access electricity anywhere the road takes you. While the comfort of many people’s RV adventures requires access to RV plug-ins or gas-powered generators, solar-powered RV electrical systems can generate free, silent, and emission-free electricity anytime the sun shines.
Plus, with the right battery bank and smart usage habits, a solar energy system can always be optimized to generate more than enough power during the day to last you throughout the electrical demand of each and every night on the road.
Clean, Sustainable Energy: The environmental benefits of solar power are often one of the most common aspects associated with rooftop RV panels. And these benefits are, of course, completely valid. Solar power does not create or emit any harmful fumes when it is being generated, so your family, friends, and neighbors can continue to enjoy the fresh air of the great outdoors.
Unlimited Power Potential: If you’re out there enjoying the American Southwest or another popular summer road trip destination, the solar power potential of your RV is essentially endless in peak sun seasons. Solar panels and batteries can be sized to fit any reasonable RV electricity demand with the roof space and storage capacity to incorporate all of the necessary components.
Low to No Operating Noise: Generator noise can be disturbing, and in many campgrounds, gas generators are prohibited or restricted to limited running hours. With a solar power system, it is possible to generate and store all of the electricity that you will need to use throughout the night in a complete, near-silent operation.
Long Term Savings: High-quality solar panels can last for decades, with no additional costs to produce the electricity. While parts may malfunction and need replacement, the ongoing costs of a solar-powered system for RV owners are typically minimal when compared to ordinary expenses for fuel or campground electricity. Knowing this, solar power systems can help “pay for themselves,” by recouping some investment cost every time free electricity replaces shore or gas power.
What can you run with an RV solar power system?
If it is integrated directly into your RV’s electrical system, a solar power installation can be used to run any and all electronics and appliances within your vehicle. Vanlifers and RVs in need of a new battery or two may also use a solar-powered generator (or portable power station) in place of a traditional RV battery.
No matter how you store the energy, RV solar power systems can run anything in your RV and more, only limited by the size of the battery and inverter. Most commonly, this includes:
- Lights, lanterns, and flashlights
- Small appliances (water pumps, fridges, microwaves, etc.)
- Charging electronics (cell phones, cameras, drones, etc.)
- Entertainment devices (TVs, video games, projectors)
- Security systems and more
Disadvantages of RV Solar Power
Of course, we wouldn’t be a fair and balanced source of information without discussing a few of the drawbacks of solar power systems for RVs. While they can often be used in conjunction with other sources of electricity, long periods of cloud coverage or limited sunlight hours may indeed restrict small systems from meeting high daily electricity demands.
Aside from this, RV solar power systems may be inaccessible for some due to a relatively high investment cost. Although an RV solar kit may cost more than a gas generator initially, the sustainable systems are designed to recoup investment costs over time.
For this reason, large solar power systems are strongly recommended for full-time or seasonal RV dwellers. If your RV spends more time in your driveway than in the wilderness, then it is very easy to find a small, inexpensive solar power system to ensure there is always a fully charged battery waiting for you to hit the road.
Components of an RV Solar Power System
Although it may be intimidating for some less-than-handy men and women, an RV solar power system is actually only made up of a few key electrical components. There are plenty of resources, both in our DIY solar learning center and around the web, that can help guide you through the planning, purchasing, and installation processes of an RV solar power system.
Below, we will dive briefly into the critical components of a solar power system of which every RV owner should become familiar.
RV Solar Panels
It almost goes without saying, but the most obvious part of an RV solar power system is the solar panels themselves. There are many specifically designed RV solar panels, that combine the durability, performance, size, and efficiency necessary to create the best possible RV solar energy system.
Typically, RV arrays contain one or several 100 Watt or 200 Watt solar panels to harness the sun’s energy on the roof of a vehicle. RV solar panels may be rigid or flexible as well as permanently installed or portable. Feel free to jump down to the “Solar Panel Options for RV Systems” section of this guide to learn more about the pros and cons of various solar panel types.
The Charge Controller
Often included with the purchase of solar panels, charge controllers are necessary to safely handle the uneven electrical charge provided by the varying intestines of the sun’s energy. Charge controllers may be found on the back of panels or mounted in a safe place in an RV, regulating the amount of charge that is sent to the battery.
There are two main types of solar charge controllers: pulse width modulation (PWM) and maximum power point tracker (MPPT). In general, MPPT charge controllers are more efficient in charging a solar battery. However, lower-cost PWM charge controllers can also perform as needed for simple solar energy systems.
Solar power systems for RVs are designed to be a full-circuit, completely self-sustainable off-grid electrical source with the help of a storage battery. RVs with existing batteries can be used in conjunction with new solar panel systems, though many owners choose to upgrade to specifically designed solar batteries.
RV Solar power storage is best accomplished with a deep cycle battery, 12V, or 24V battery. Today, solar batteries are available in a few different chemistries to help meet budget and use demands. Most commonly, this includes gel, flooded, sealed, and lithium-based technologies.
Solar Power Inverter
Solar energy is generated in DC power, so an inverter is required to use the AC power (ordinary wall plugs) in a recreational vehicle. Inverters may be independently mounted within the interior of your RV, or packaged with the battery and electrical outlets in a solar-powered generator.
Finding the right-sized inverter is as easy as finding your expected electrical demand, and most units are clearly rated to handle approximate running and surge wattage capacities (such as 1000W continuous and 2000W surge). Giving yourself a little bit of wiggle room, simply add up all of the wattages of your RV’s electrical components to make sure that normal operating loads are below your inverter’s total capacity.
Wiring and Mounting Materials
While panels, batteries, inverters, and charge controllers are sort of the “big 4” components of solar power systems for RVs, the other smaller pieces, parts, and equipment are just as important to the performance and safety of your installation. Wires must be properly sized and the quality of the installation and weatherproofing are vital for your investments and ongoing electricity access.
To make it easier for other solar enthusiasts, we’ve developed dozens of solar panel kits designed with everything that is necessary to safely produce tons of usable solar power. With complete component customization available, our solar panel kits always include the perfect wires and mounting materials for a long-lasting and high-performing off-grid electrical system.
How to Pick the Perfect Solar Power System for Your RV
Are you overwhelmed yet? We hope not. Our goal is always to make it easy to find the ideal solar power system for any of our customer’s unique electrical demands. If you’d like to talk to an expert, feel free to contact us anytime about finding the perfect solar system for your RV.
Not sure where to get started? Well, here are a few things you’ll want to consider as you shop for the right solar panels and parts for your RV.
Personal Electricity Demand
The most important thing to consider when going solar is your own personal electricity demand. Your energy consumption and usage habits will dramatically affect the appropriate capacity of your solar panels, battery, and inverter.
To quickly see an approximate estimate of your own personal RV electricity demand, feel free to use our solar load calculator. With this, it is easy to calculate battery and inverter capacity based on the wattages and approximate runtimes of typical RV appliances and electronics.
Choosing the Number of Solar Panels for Your RV
Once you’ve figured out your personal electricity demand, you will need to find the appropriate amount of solar panels that will be necessary to meet your needs in typical sunlight conditions. No matter where you are on the planet, solar panels can generally expect to receive about 4 to 6 hours of direct sunlight on sunny and partly cloudy days.
Although some RV owners are hopeful to install large 300+ watt solar panels on their roof, it is much more likely that intentionally-sized 100-watt or 200-watt solar panels will better physically fit the vehicle’s space constraints. If your budget allows, it is always recommended to add a bit more solar generating capacity than you expect to use in order to account for unfavorable weather, system degradation, and added appliances.
Sourcing the Other RV Solar Power System Components
After you’ve found the perfect solar panels, battery, and inverter for your RV, you will need to source and connect all of the necessary wires, cables, and components necessary to ensure safe and reliable solar energy production. Here, cutting corners with cheap and mismatched parts can lower your system’s efficiency and potentially damage its components.
To mitigate this, Shop Solar Kits has developed several small solar panel kits and large solar power systems with perfectly paired components to produce tons of renewable energy ready to serve a variety of electrical demands.
Solar Panel Options for RV Systems
With every great solar power system, RV owners have the choice of two main kinds of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels: rigid and flexible. While both technologies can be permanently installed on an RV roof, it is also possible to power an RV’s electricity with completely portable solar panels.
Below, we will outline the pros and cons of choosing rigid, flexible, and portable solar panels for your RV’s renewable energy system.
Rigid Solar Panels
On the roofs of many modern campers, RV, vans, and converted school buses, rigid solar panels are the most common type of solar collector that is used to generate electricity on the road. Beyond mobile systems, permanently installed rigid solar panels are the most widely used method for generating solar energy on homes, boats, and other applications.
Pros: In general, rigid solar panels are considered the most durable, efficient, and long-lasting technology available on the market today. Unlike flexible solar panels, rigid solar panels allow for heat to escape below properly installed units, which prevents potential damage to your RV.
Cons: Because they are tough and meant to remain in one place, rigid solar panels can be difficult to install, may require holes drilled in your roof, and limit solar power generation strictly to where your vehicle is parked.
Bottom Line: With tons of options and endless availability, rigid solar panels are a tried and true method of obtaining long-term access to solar power generation. If there is a large chance that your RV adventures will lead to an encounter with potential hazards like trees and harsh weather, then rigid solar panels are the best choice for permanent installations.
Flexible Solar Panels
With increased popularity over the last ten years, flexible solar panels (also known as bendable solar panels) are a lightweight and convenient alternative to bulk rigid solar panels. Flexible solar panels are defined as being able to contour their shape (typically up to around 30 degrees) for easy incorporation on curved surfaces such as the roof of some RVs.
Pros: As flexible solar panels are very thin, you will hardly notice that they are even on your roof once installed. Not only does this provide less wind resistance than rigid solar panels, but it is also great for stealth camping in vans and cities. Most flexible solar panels are very easy to install, detach, and mount wherever solar generation is possible.
Cons: Compared to rigid solar panels, flexible units are much more prone to scratching and damages which may lead to a less efficient or shorter overall product lifetime. Flexible solar panels are also typically manufactured to be less efficient than rigid alternatives and are more likely to overheat and cause potential damage to the surface upon which they are mounted.
Bottom Line: As a low-key and easy-to-use technology, flexible solar panels can be a good purchase for weekenders interested in establishing small-scale solar setups. For a further debate between the two options, feel free to read our complete look at flexible solar panels vs rigid solar panels.
Suitcase & Portable Solar Panels
Last but not least, there are a tremendous amount of portable solar panels that can be used to generate solar electricity anywhere in the world. Foldable solar suitcases from reputable brands like Lion Energy, Go Power, and Renogy Solar, make it easy to pack solar panels into an RV and set them up in the best possible sunlight conditions.
Although there are many great solar suitcases to choose from, Renogy solar panels are some of the most popular and best-performing units that were not already featured in our best solar kits section above.
Pros: Portable power means electricity anywhere. Suitcase panels can typically be installed at varying angles to accommodate the sun’s position and are only limited by the length of your wires and cables leading to the rest of the system.
Cons: With constant packing and unpacking, the convenience of solar suitcases is sometimes lost on full-time RV owners that must transport their systems on a regular basis. Solar suitcases may also get blown over by heavy wind gusts or become damaged by people, pets, and other potential dangers on the ground.
Bottom Line: Portable solar panels are perfect for seasonal and part-time RV dwellers, who would like to use their solar energy while boondocking, camping, tailgating, and more. Although they are not ideal for generating tons of long-term electricity, solar suitcases are one of the most convenient ways to harness the free power of the sun.
RV Solar Power System FAQ
Before we wrap things up, here are some answers to some of the most commonly asked RV solar power system questions.
How much solar power do I need for my RV?
The amount of solar power that is necessary to run all of an RV’s electrical system varies heavily depending on the size of the RV and expected energy demand. Solar panel capacity, charge controller amperage, battery storage size, and inverter ratings can all be specifically geared to a unique RV system. To make it easy, pre-made RV solar kits are sold with estimated power production and appliance runtimes.
Is solar on an RV worth it?
For both full-timers and weekenders, solar on an RV is totally worth it for accessing long-term, sustainable electricity. Solar represents years of free electrical production, with the freedom to power your RV every time it is parked (or driving) in the sun. While some people may be turned off by the high investment costs, solar power systems for RVs are worth it for most rubber tramps saving money over time.
Can you run an RV on solar power?
Until they create fully electric RVs, it is impossible to run an RV on solar power alone. Today, RV owners use solar power to provide easy and cheap electricity for interior lights, electronics, and appliances, but not that actual RV itself (i.e. the gas-powered motor).
How much does an RV solar system cost?
RV solar systems typically cost between $600 and $2,500 depending on the size and quality of the components. While it is possible to experiment with small-scale solar electricity using just a few hundred dollars, RV systems are generally seen as an investment in long-term energy generation and storage.
How do I hook up solar panels to my RV battery?
If you do not have any electrical experience, it is highly recommended to consult a professional before hooking up solar panels to an RV battery. There are many videos such as this 10-minute guide from RverTV, that can break down the process step by step for those doing it themselves.
Final Remarks and Next Steps
We hope that this complete guide was able to help answer questions and draw inspiration for your next RV solar system.
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