RV Solar Power System Explained | Design the Perfect RV Solar System
Imagine having the freedom to roam wherever you please without worrying about finding electrical hookups for your RV! Picture a campsite in the middle of nature, surrounded by mountains, beaches, desert or forest where you are able to use the electronic devices inside your RV without having to run a noisy generator!
Harnessing the power of the sun is not only eco-friendly but can also save you money and enable exciting off-grid adventures where you have enough power enjoy life on the road. Solar panels provide an added sense of independence while traveling as they are becoming almost standard in most RVs these days.
In this guide, we’ll explore the ins and outs of choosing and setting up an RV solar panel system tailored to your needs.
- Understanding RV solar systems allows you to benefit from virtually unlimited renewable energy that can supply more than enough usable electricity for your needs
- Any RV solar panel system simply involves solar panels and a solar charge controller connected to your battery system
- Three types of solar panels are available: flexible, rigid and portable, each with its own benefits for various RV setups.
Understanding RV Solar Power Systems
RV solar panels convert sunlight into direct current (DC) electricity, providing a renewable energy source for your recreational vehicle’s appliances and battery charging needs.
As more people embrace the RV lifestyle and the importance of being able to be self-contained to be able to enjoy unique off-grid camping opportunities, solar power systems have become increasingly popular, making many wonder how to design a solar system for their camping needs.
And while the topic may seem a bit complicated at first, there are really only a few things that you need to understand about solar panels in order to determine and design the best solar panel system for your RV.
- There are 2 main types of solar panels: monocrystalline and polycrystalline
- There are 3 main solar panel designs: flexible, fixed and portable
- There are 2 primary ways to install solar panels: fixed/permanent and portable
We’ll break down these topics in more detail in the section below.
How Solar Panels Generate Electricity
Solar panels work by harnessing the photovoltaic effect, where certain materials generate an electric charge when exposed to sunlight. These panels are made up of solar cells that convert the sun’s energy into usable electricity in the form of direct current (DC) power.
This power is then piped into a solar charge controller, which communicates with your house battery bank to determine how much solar power to deliver to the batteries to keep them full.
Benefits of RV Solar Power Systems
By installing solar panels on your RV, you can tap into a sustainable energy source that saves money over time and allows for off-grid camping experiences. Portable RV solar panel systems can power lights, charge devices like phones and computers and maintain a full state of charge for your house batteries.
There’s a sense of liberation when you’re no longer tethered to electrical hookups, giving you the flexibility to explore remote locations and truly connect with nature.
Types of RV Solar Panels: Monocrystalline vs Polycrystalline
When it comes to the technical types of solar panels, there are 2 main types: monocrystalline and polycrystalline.
Without going into too much detail, polycrystalline solar panels use cells comprised of multiple silicon crystals, making them more affordable but less efficient.
Monocrystalline solar panels, on the other hand, use cells made of single crystals and are more efficient but also more expensive.
You can typically determine the difference between the two types of solar panels based on the color of the solar panels. Polycrystalline solar panels will have a blue color to them while monocrystalline solar panels will be black in color.
Although there has historically been a significant difference in price between these two types of solar panels, because the efficiencies of monocrystalline panels are so much greater than those of polycrystalline panels, you will almost only see monocrystalline panels when shopping these days.
And because solar panel technology, like many technologies, is rapidly advancing, there are many competing manufacturers that are constantly driving prices down. You can typically expect to pay around $1 per watt for monocrystalline solar panels.
Types of RV Solar Panels: Flexible, Rigid and Portable
When it comes to the design of RV solar panels, you have three main options: flexible, rigid, and portable. Each type has its own set of advantages and is suited for different RV setups.
Understanding the characteristics of each type and how they can benefit your specific RV and travel needs is essential to making an informed choice.
Flexible Solar Panels
Flexible solar panels are exactly what they sound like: they are typically thin panels that are resilient to bending and can be shaped to fit a variety of subtle curves in the shape of an RV roof. While not as common and popular as rigid solar panels, flexible panels offer a variety of benefits under the right conditions:
- Lightweight and versatile, capable of contouring to your RV’s roof
- More resilient than rigid panels, making them well-suited for the elements
- Able to withstand strong winds and other harsh weather conditions
- Often easier to mount using glues and adhesives rather than screws
Consider these circumstances if you are considering investing in flexible solar panels for your RV.
Rigid Solar Panels
Rigid solar panels are constructed from solid materials like glass or plastic and mounted onto a rigid frame. They offer greater durability and efficiency than their flexible counterparts, making them ideal for permanent RV installations.
Rigid panels are by far the most common type of RV solar panels. Older versions of these panels were bulky and cumbersome, taking up lots of space on the RVs roof. However, with time, rigid solar panels have become smaller and smaller while producing the same and oftentimes more energy production than older models.
It takes a few more parts and a little more time to install rigid solar panels, however. You will need to invest in mounting brackets - most commonly, Z-brackets - that bolt to the solar panel and then are screwed into the RVs roof. And anytime you drill into the roof, you will want to make sure that you have a proper watertight seal using butyl tape and self-leveling RV roof sealant.
Related: Check out this post on the pros and cons of flexible vs rigid solar panels.
Portable Solar Panels
Portable solar panels offer the advantage of being easy to set up and move, allowing you to position them for optimal sun exposure. Also called “suitcase solar panels,” these solar panels typically fold together like a collapsible table and take up the size of and can be carried similarly to a suitcase.
Most portable solar panels have a built-in solar charge controller so you simply connect the solar panels to your battery bank and you do not have to worry about monitoring the levels of energy being delivered to your batteries.
While not as efficient as fixed panels, their versatility makes them an excellent choice for occasional off-grid camping. Consider portable solar panels for the following reasons:
- You do not want to have to permanently install them on your RV
- You may camp in places where you may want to shift the panels to follow the sun throughout the day
- You do not need a substantial amount of power
Portable solar panels are popular among small RV and van owners as they pack away nicely and can be useful when parking in the shade but wanting to capture backup power for their RV.
Determining Your RV's Energy Needs
Now that you understand the basic types of solar panels the most natural question becomes, how much solar power do I need for my RV?
Calculating your RV’s energy consumption before investing in a solar panel system is crucial to determining the appropriate setup. This involves identifying power-hungry appliances, estimating daily energy usage and considering the type of RV you have and the space you have available for solar panels.
Identifying Power-Hungry Appliances
Some appliances in your RV consume more energy than others. Examples of power-hungry appliances include:
- Air Conditioning systems
- Water heaters
- Electric stoves ovens
You may also be surprised about other common AC appliances you might keep in your camper, such as Instapots, air fryers and space heaters - all of which use a substantial amount of power as well.
Knowing which appliances consume the most energy will help you prioritize your energy needs and make informed decisions about your solar panel setup.
Estimating Daily Energy Usage
To calculate your RV’s daily energy usage, follow these steps:
- Determine the watts used by each device.
- Determine the amount of time you’ll use each device daily.
- Multiply the watts used by the hours of use to calculate the watt-hours consumed per day.
For example, if you wonder how much power a television uses, let’s say it’s 90 watts, and you watch it for 2 hours a day, it consumes 180 watt-hours per day (90W x 2h).
Repeat this process for all your appliances and devices, and add up the daily watt-hours to estimate your total energy consumption.
When considering how many solar panels you’ll need, keep in mind that a 100-watt solar panel typically produces around 300-600 watt-hours per day, so you’ll need to factor in the number of panels required to meet your energy needs.
As with determining the size of your inverter and the size of your house battery bank, with RV solar panels it is usually best to overestimate how much you think you will need so you have a robust solar setup rather than one that doesn’t provide enough power for your wants and needs.
Components of an RV Solar Power System
Aside from the solar panels themselves, there are a few other components that you will need to consider when designing an RV solar panel system.
- Solar Charge Controller
- Proper Sized Wiring
- MC4 Connectors/Branch Connectors
A solar panel kit will often supply much of what is needed above. However, if you do not purchase a kit that contains these components, you will want to purchase them accordingly.
We’ll cover solar charge controllers in a section below. But you will want to have a fuse or breaker on the positive wire between the solar panels and the solar charge controller. While the controller should typically be able to handle the energy captured by the panels, this will protect the controller in the event of excessive power.
Proper-sized wiring is also important. Depending on the size of your solar panel system and the length of wire runs between the panels and the charge controller, you will need to determine the proper sized wire gauge to safely transfer the solar energy. Check out this post on determining what size wire is best for your system.
If you are connecting multiple solar panels in series and/or in parallel you may also need what are called branch connectors where you can connect multiple solar panels into one to run one wire to your solar charge controller.
RELATED: Learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of wiring your solar panels in series vs parallel.
Charge controllers, battery banks, and inverters are the key components of an RV solar power system. For the efficiency and reliability of your solar power system, it’s important to properly select and install these components.
Solar charge controllers do exactly what their name suggests: they regulate the flow of electricity from solar panels to your battery bank, ensuring that your batteries are neither overcharged nor undercharged.
Choosing a high-quality charge controller is essential for protecting your investment and maintaining the efficiency of your solar power system. We recommend only that you consider what are called MPPT Charge Controllers.
The alternative charge controller is called a PWM controller. These are much more affordable. However, they are also far less efficient and not great to use on larger solar systems.
As the solar system harnesses energy from the sun, the charge controller regulates the flow of electricity, maintaining the overall health and longevity of the system. By optimizing the charging process, charge controllers contribute to the effectiveness and sustainability of solar power solutions.
House Battery Banks
The RV house battery bank provides solar storage for the electricity generated by your panels, allowing you to use the power when needed, such as during the night or on cloudy days. Like a financial bank, the battery bank is where you can save and spend energy throughout your RV.
There are a variety of different types of batteries you can select for your house battery bank. Flooded lead acid batteries and AGM batteries are the oldest and most common for RV applications. However, they have significant disadvantages and we recommend that you consider investing in lithium batteries to power your RV.
Lithium batteries are a popular choice due to their efficiency, low maintenance, and longer lifespan compared to traditional lead-acid batteries. You will get twice the energy storage capacity and up to 3x4 times the average battery life with our Baja Series RV Batteries.
Inverters play a vital role in converting the DC power stored in your battery bank into AC power, which is required by most appliances in your RV.
When choosing an inverter, make sure to select the right size based on your total energy consumption. Multiply the total watts you’ll be using at any given time by 1.25 to determine the appropriate inverter size.
Installation Tips and Considerations
Installing your RV solar power system properly is crucial for its efficiency and longevity. Here are some tips and best practices to keep in mind when installing your solar panels and related components.
- First, mount your solar panels on the roof of your RV for optimal sun exposure.
- Consider installing your solar panels in series, parallel or in series-parallel to maximize the amount of solar energy you can collect while minimizing the size wire you need.
- When running wiring, follow the manufacturer’s instructions and plan for the possibility of adding more solar panels in the future.
- Be sure that all holes you drill into the roof of your RV are properly sealed to prevent water from entering and damaging your RV
- Don’t forget to consider the weight of your solar power system, as adding too much weight can negatively impact your RV’s performance and safety.
If you don’t feel comfortable installing your RV solar panels yourself, we have curated a list of reliable solar panel installers that we recommend. You can check them out here.
Maintenance and Troubleshooting
While RV solar power systems require minimal maintenance, keeping them clean and regularly inspecting for any signs of wear or damage is essential. Proper maintenance and troubleshooting will help ensure optimal performance and extend the life of your system.
Regular Cleaning and Inspection
For maintaining optimal performance and longevity of your RV solar power system, regular cleaning and inspection are crucial. Check the wiring, connections, and components for any signs of wear or damage, and monitor the battery levels to ensure proper functioning.
If you’re in a dusty or windy area, clean your solar panels to prevent dirt and debris from affecting their efficiency. You can use soapy water or a glass cleaner to clean solar panels under most circumstances.
Troubleshooting Common Issues
Occasionally, you may encounter issues with your RV solar power system. Some common problems include inadequate sun exposure, dirty solar panels, insufficient solar panels for your energy needs, installation issues, and defective components.
To address these issues, ensure that your solar panels receive enough direct sunlight, clean your panels regularly, verify that you have the right number of panels, double-check your installation, and replace any malfunctioning components.
Promptly addressing these issues helps maintain the efficiency of your solar power system and avoids potential disruptions to your RV adventures.
Cost and Financial Incentives
The total cost of an RV solar power system depends on factors such as the type of panels you choose and the amount of electricity you need to generate. While the initial investment may seem high, there are sometimes financial incentives available, such as tax credits, that can help offset the cost if you meet certain requirements.
Over time, the savings from using solar power can outweigh the initial expense, making it a wise investment for many RV owners.
Making the Decision: Is an RV Solar Power System Right for You?
Your lifestyle and travel habits determine whether an RV solar power system is the right choice for you. If you frequently camp in locations without electrical hookups or want to reduce your environmental impact, investing in a solar power system may be the perfect choice for you.
Consider the type of solar panel that best suits your RV, your energy needs, and the potential cost savings and financial incentives before making your decision.
By understanding the different types of solar panels, calculating your energy needs, and properly installing and maintaining your system, you can harness the power of the sun for a more sustainable and enjoyable RV lifestyle. T
he choice ultimately depends on your unique needs and preferences, but one thing is certain: with an RV solar power system, the possibilities for adventure are endless.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you run an RV completely on solar power?
Yes, you can run an RV completely on solar power by having the right size RV solar panels, a large enough battery bank and by using a power inverter to convert DC to AC electricity. What size appliances you can power will depend both on the size of your battery bank and the size of your inverter. So you may not be able to run large appliances, such as your air conditioner, without something like a “soft start.” However, many RVers are able to 100% power their RV lifestyle using their RV solar panels.
How many solar panels do I need to run a RV?
The answer to this question depends on how much power you need to run the appliances in your RV. First, you will need to determine the total number of watt-hours of power that you consume on a regular basis.
To find this, you will need to determine the wattage requirements of each appliance and then multiple it by the number of hours you plan to use it each day. For example, a 90-watt television run for 2 hours per day requires 90 watts x 2 hrs = 180 watt-hours.
Add all of the watt hours together to find you average daily consumption and be sure to leave a generous amount of overage as a buffer.
Then, take the total daily energy consumption and divide it by 350 to get an estimate of how many 100-watt solar panels are needed. Each 100-watt panel should be able to generate between 300-600 watt-hours of power each day. So 350 is a conservative estimate.
This will tell you the amount of panels you need in 100-watt increments.
What is the difference between flexible, rigid, and portable solar panels?
Flexible solar panels are lightweight and versatile and can be molded to fit the curve of an RV roof, while rigid solar panels offer greater durability and efficiency but do not bend. Portable solar panels are easy to set up and move for optimal sun exposure as they can be moved in a 360-degree radius throughout the day.
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