Solar panel systems aren’t just for houses or commercial properties – they can be a great resource for on the go electricity users as well. In this article, learn about how solar panels for RVs and campers work, if they’re right for you, and what some of the top options available are.
The basics of an RV solar panel setup
Solar panels for RV campers or motorhomes work in the same way a residential solar installation operates: solar panels capture sunlight and convert it into electricity, and you can use that solar electricity to power appliances. You can buy specialized portable solar panels designed for easy set up and take down for RVs, as well as small or flexible panels that are designed to be mounted on an RV roof.
If you spend time camping and traveling in an RV, a solar panel setup can be a cost-effective, environmentally friendly, and convenient way to use electricity on the go. Solar panel systems generally require little to no maintenance and provide a dependable source of electricity when the sun is shining. For RV owners who mostly stick to campgrounds with electrical hookups, however, RV solar panels likely won’t provide enough of an extra benefit to rationalize spending on them.
Determining factors: what to consider when buying an RV solar panel system
One important difference between residential panels and RV panels is the size of the system: RV solar panel setups are usually designed to provide enough power to recharge either small devices or a few larger kitchen appliances, while a home solar system is typically sized to cover most or all of your property’s electricity needs. You can always add more panels to your RV solar setup, but given the small amount of roof space and energy storage capacity requirements, RV solar panel systems are generally on the smaller side compared to residential rooftop installations. Below we have laid out some groundwork for you to determine how big of a system you need.
How many solar panels do you need to run an RV?
Most solar panels for RVs are between 100 and 400 watts of power, and an RV needs about 120 watts of energy on average. This means that an RV will need three 400, ten 200 solar panels, or any other combination of power outputs to meet it’s typical energy demand of 120 watts. What can you actually power with that kind of solar panel setup for your RV? For the following examples, we’ll assume that your RV solar panel setup is sized at 800 watts and you have an appropriate storage setup to take full advantage of the energy your panels produce.
How many solar panels do you need for common appliances?
|Appliance||Power consumption (W)||Daily hours of use||Daily power consumption (Wh)|
|Lightbulb||60 W||6||360 Wh|
|TV||200 W||4||800 Wh|
|Microwave||800 W||.5||400 Wh|
|Mini-fridge||200 W||24||4,800 Wh|
What do these numbers actually mean? Looking at column four, you can see an example of how much energy in watt-hours (Wh) running each appliance for a normal amount of time in a day might use. If you have an 800 W RV solar panel system that is in direct sunlight for 5 hours a day, you’ll produce approximately 4,000 Wh of energy each day (5 x 800 = 4,000). According to our calculations in the table above, that’s more than enough to power small devices like lights and TVs, but you won’t be able to run a refrigerator for an entire day.
An important takeaway from this analysis is that while solar panel systems for RVs will be able to power most of your small electronics and keep the lights on, don’t expect to be able to run an unlimited amount of appliances. RV solar panels are a great way to keep the essentials up and running, but likely can’t power energy-hungry devices for too long.
Each RV owner has different reasons for going solar which can affect the system set up they choose to implement. A roof-mounted RV solar system is an option if you don’t want to set up portable solar panels every time you use your RV, making it the more convenient option for someone who uses their RV more times than not. Another option is to use portable solar panels; this option is less expensive, but requires more setup. With portable solar panels, you also don’t have to worry about always having to park in direct sun for your energy production. All you need is a battery and open space.
Dive into our complete overview of portable solar panels to learn more.
Best solar panels for RVs
There are many options when it comes to buying solar panels for your RV. Below are some products that are specifically designed for RV setups, but there are several other companies and products you can use.
RV solar panel options
|Product||Cost||Panel wattage (W)||Included equipment|
|Renogy flexible solar panel||$200||100 W||None|
|WindyNation solar panel||$160||100 W||Charge controller, connectors, mounting brackets|
|Renogy solar panel||$175||160 W||None|
|Newpowa solar panel||$100||100 W||None|
How do solar panels work for campers, RVs, and motorhomes?
In order to generate and use solar power for your RV or camper, you’ll need a setup complete with the following components:
- Solar panels
- A charge controller to prevent overcharging your storage system
- Solar batteries to store energy (common options are lead acid or lithium-ion)
- An inverter to convert direct current (DC) electricity to alternating current (AC) electricity (Occasionally pre-built into the solar battery)
You can buy all of these components separately, but there are some motorhome solar panel kits available to purchase that include most components. For example, WindyNation makes a 100 watt (W) RV solar panel kit that comes with a solar panel, charge controller, cables, and mounting hardware. You’ll need to purchase a battery separately for this specific kit.
You’ll also need proper wires and cables to hook all of your components together, as well as racking and mounting equipment for your panels – these parts will be included with your solar panel or battery system purchase. Remember that some equipment, such as charge controllers, aren’t weather-resistant and need to be installed somewhere safe.
Do you need batteries for your RV solar panels?
A deep cycle battery for your RV solar system is essential for running appliances outside of daylight hours or when it is cloudy. Since RV solar panels are not grid-tied, your battery bank is your principle source of back up energy. RV batteries will store energy produced by your PV panels, allowing you to use it as needed, while a charge controller will regulate that energy and prolong battery life. The real question is:what kind of batteries are best for your RV and needs?
Unlike standard lead-acid batteries, gel batteries are sealed. These batteries do not need to be monitored and they don’t produce any type of gas, making them an excellent choice for installing and then more or less forgetting them. Another benefit of gel batteries unique to RV solar systems is that they can be installed in many positions and orientations, making them an attractive option if space is an issue. Gel batteries are even used in many motorized scooters and wheelchairs due to their versatility and safety.
The caveat with gel batteries — which applies less to RVs — is that they don’t have the same capacity as other rechargeable batteries. They simply can’t meet the energy demands of a household the same way other options can, but for an RV with lower energy demands, this may not be an issue.
hile gel batteries provide more flexibility and a “get it and forget it” setup, lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are often the best choice, offering higher energy densities than any other type of battery currently available. Because Li-ion batteries have higher capacities, they can store and discharge greater amounts of energy than other types of batteries. They’re also typically more efficient and last longer, often making them the best option for RV solar systems.
There is, however, a drawback that’s particularly applicable to those who use these batteries for their RV solar panels: Li-ion batteries can overheat and become damaged at higher voltages. So, you’ll want to make sure you keep your Li-ion battery in a cool location out of direct sunlight. Li-ion batteries are also typically priced higher than alternative energy storage options, so you’ll want to ensure it’s protected.
Absorbed glass mat batteries
Absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries are a relatively new battery available on the market, and they are a good choice as an RV solar battery. These deep cycle batteries are sealed, making them a maintenance-free choice for RV owners. Like gel batteries, AGM batteries would struggle to meet the energy demands of a household. But, the lower needs of an RV make them a good choice and compared to other battery options for RVs, the upfront cost is relatively low.
However, AGM batteries can be more expensive compared to lead-based batteries, making them a less attractive option in some cases. They can also be ruined by overcharging, and they aren’t as efficient as Li-ion battery options. With AGM batteries, RV owners need to ensure that their charge controller remains in good working order.
Should you install solar panels on your RV?
If you’re the type of RV owner who plans on spending lots of time in remote locations and dry camps without power hookups (known as “boondocking”), solar energy may be a way to generate power and see some long-term savings when compared to a gas generator. Over time, the costs of continually starting up and running a gas generator will exceed the investment required for a solar panel system. You can expect your solar “payback period” to be under five years, but the actual time it takes to recoup your investment will depend on the equipment you purchase and the amount of sunlight that hits your solar panels.
However, RV solar panels won’t make financial or practical sense for every RV owner. If you spend the majority of your RV time at campgrounds, you’re probably better off hooking up to the local power system and paying the associated fee. Installing solar may end up saving you money in the end, but you may have to wait a long time to break even. Additionally, if you only take RV trips a few times per year, the upfront cost of an RV solar panel setup will likely not be worth the few times you can actually use the system.
RV solar panel setups are often do-it-yourself (DIY) projects. Check out our video on DIY solar to see if it’s right for you:
Frequently asked questions about RV solar panels
This depends on the wattage of the solar panel or panels that you have. For example, a 100-watt solar panel is enough to power smaller appliances and devices, such as lights or chargers, but you would likely need more than one panel for larger appliances. You would probably need a higher watt solar panel or to install at least two depending on your energy needs.
Portable solar power systems or flexible solar panels are ideal for RVs. They are smaller, easier to install, and cost-effective compared to ground-mount or rooftop solar panels.
This largely depends on what you get, but you should expect to pay between $300-$400 for a solar panel system for an RV. It is best to shop around and compare solar systems online.
You can, but not with one 100-watt panel.
There are several factors to consider with RV air conditioners, including time of day, location, number of panels and the demands of your AC system. Modern air conditioners have the wattage they pull displayed on the name piece, with smaller and medium-sized air conditioners typically requiring 500-900 watts every hour. So, while you certainly can run your RV air conditioner on solar power, you’ll need more than one panel to do it.
One question that RV owners frequently have is if an inverter is needed to convert DC power to AC electricity. Like with your home, the appliances inside an RV run on AC while the engine and battery of the RV use DC electricity. Solar panels run on a DC, meaning that just like a residential solar setup, your solar panel system for the RV needs to have an inverter to convert that energy to AC electricity.
Installing solar panels on your property leads to savings
As an RV owner, you can save money by installing an RV solar panel system, but you’ll reap more savings when you install a ground-mounted or rooftop system on your permanent property. To better understand your options for installation, check out EnergySage’s Marketplace, where you can register your property and receive multiple solar quotes from local, pre-screened solar installers.