Do you really need solar panels on your RV?

14

By Jim Twamley
Many RVs sport solar panels, and they can be quite handy. On the other hand, solar panels aren’t inexpensive – although their prices are considerably lower than a few years ago – and so the question is whether you need them for your style of RVing.

Solar electric systems have been a part of the RV scene for several years and they are effective electric power producers. These systems use photovoltaic modules to turn sunlight into electricity. The good news is they are becoming more effective and less expensive as new technology continues to grow.

To use a solar system, your RV will need to be wired allowing the solar panels to charge the house batteries through a charge controller. A charge controller is very important because it regulates the amount of electricity sent to your house batteries, preventing over- or under-charging conditions. If you have enough solar panels and batteries you can generate enough electricity to live comfortably without ever being plugged into an external power source. To use your AC appliances, you’ll also need an inverter to change 12-volt DC to 110-volt AC power. That adds to the expense figure, and the more power you use, the more batteries (and solar panels) you’ll need.

If your style of RVing includes extended periods of time in the wilderness away from electricity then you have three choices:

1. Use candles,
2. Use a generator, or
3. Rely on solar energy.

If you rarely boondock (camp without hook-ups) then you really don’t need a solar system. Some RVers like to have a solar electric system “just in case,” but they rarely use it. When I ask them what they mean by “just in case,” they usually mean the power grid going down or natural disasters – in any event, they’re prepared “just in case.”

Whether or not you should go to the trouble and expense to install a solar electric system boils down to how you choose to camp. If you are or plan to become a serious boondocker, then you’ll need an efficient solar electric system. On the other hand, if you almost always stay at RV parks, then you seriously don’t need solar. If you store your RV without keeping it connected to shore power, consider installing a small solar electric system. This will keep your batteries charged and ready to go (provided you do proper battery maintenance).

Many boondockers also use wind-powered electric generators for additional power. Whether or not you need wind power depends a great deal on how and where you camp. There are many reputable companies that will sell you a kit to install a system yourself, and there are also dealers who will do the installation for you.

##RVDT1416

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Suzan
1 month ago

I don’t solar, but I’ve thought about it though. When I bought my 5th wheel I bought a Honda Generator and use it when I travel, especially in Winter. Stopping on Sleety days I love having a small heater nearby to keep my old bones toasty.

Crystal
1 month ago

Wind power electric generators? Would love to learn more! Links please

chris p hemstead
1 month ago

800 watts here.. best mod I ever did. I boondock all the time, and solar is a must.

C.Lee
1 month ago

We live in the southwest US, with plenty of sunshine, and primarily boondock, and have found two Renogy 100W “solar suitcases” suit our needs. 100 watts wasn’t quite enough if it was a little overcast, so we later purchased a second set, without charge controller, as I plug the second set into the charge controller on the first set. We RV’d for decades without a microwave or TV, so those items are rarely used “luxuries” to us, and when we were new RV shopping, a propane-fired oven was a must. Even A/C isn’t a requirement as we go RVing to explore local areas, not to sit inside the RV, so we’re outside every day. We do have a generator “just in case”, or if it’s oppressively hot, but recently we spent 12 days in the Gila National forest in New Mexico, and though we set up the generator, we didn’t use it once. Even with some overcast and rain showers, there was enough sun to fully charge our batteries from the last night’s use by about noon, 1PM or so the next day.

Last edited 1 month ago by C.Lee
PennyPA
1 month ago

I have 2 solar panels on the roof of my fiver…but I don’t know how big they are or how to use them! I also have 2 12v batteries. In addition, i have a gauge in the rv that always reads 13.8 and an on-off switch right below it.Can anyone point me to a good, easy-to-understand book or website that will explain ALL there is to know about solar in easy-to-understand language? I’m 78 and have been full-timing since 2008. Maybe it’s time I learned about such stuff.

Vanessa Simmons
1 month ago
Reply to  PennyPA

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1746751582289376 is a good facebook group to get help.

Irv
1 month ago

LED headlamps and lanterns are a much better choice than candles. I’d never allow candles in our RV. The risk reward ratio makes no sense. It also fouls the air.

George
1 month ago

I am a retired electronics engineer. I have done numerous electrical mods to our motorhome. Including changing the house battery over to a Battleborne LiFePO. But we dont boondock except when transiting or stopping for a long lunch because the dear wife says she doesn’t like to boondock. For us, it isn’t worth the labor or expense.

I did consider adding solar if I could rig for power feed back to the house, syncing with the 60Hz grid while RV is sitting in the driveway, especially during a power outage. However, there are safety and capacity issues. The amount of power an RV rooftop install could generate requires management of home loads by turning off circuits, probably dynamically as different home devices are used. Also, the “anti-islanding” feature of all commercial grid-connect inverters would prevent using solar when most needed at home. That could be solved but would likely require two different inverter systems (one for grid connect and one isolated). Not worth it.

Last edited 1 month ago by George
Tom
1 month ago

Nice thing about modern charge controllers, you can set them for charge rates for the different type of batteries. Lead-Acid and Lo-based batteries have very different charge cycles.

Roger
1 month ago

Our 200 watts of solar keeps our batteries topped off during long storage periods. That’s enough justification for me. When camping without hookups for weeks at the Key West Navy base campground, it easily provides power to run our fridge and lights. We of course still have to run the generator for AC occasionally.

Fred
1 month ago

We have both solar (500 watts) & a wind generator (400 watts) & we do a lot of boondocking in areas like Arizona & South Texas. The solar power is wonderful, but, as you mentioned, can be pricy to set up properly. The wind power is very inefficient, on the small scale rvers use, but is pretty cheap to set up. Wind power is only efficient on the scale of the giant wind farms that communities set up. Rvers, using wind power, need to be in an area that has very high, consistent winds, like over 20 mph, in order to be able to produce enough voltage (13-16 volts) to be able to force that voltage into a battery that already has around 12 volts in it. Most rvers don’t want to spend time in an area that is that windy. Wind power can supplement solar power on a day when the conditions are not optimal for solar by adding voltage to the batteries, on top of the voltage produced by the solar, thus overcoming the 13-14 volt threshold needed, but wind is not reliable on it’s own.

Ernie powell
4 years ago

How many panels do i need to keep 2 battery charge up on my class A motor home. I have a2000 watt invertsr .? Ernie

Staff RVtravel
4 years ago
Reply to  Ernie powell

Ernie: That’s a difficult question; there are a lot of factors involved. If you think of your RV electrical system in terms of a bank account, it can be easier to figure out. Your RV batteries are like a bank account, and when you use electrical equipment that draws from the batteries, you’re taking money out of the bank. That “money” needs to be repaid — by the solar panels. The “interest” you pay back comes in the sense that batteries are not 100% efficient, so you’ll need more watts delivered from your panels than you actually consume. There are some books that can help you make these calculations; also reputable solar dealers can help you figure them out, as well. Of course with the latter, they’d not only like to help you figure out how many panels you’ll need, but sell them to you, along with installation charges. Russ De Maris, Associate Editor, rvtravel.com

Tommy Molnar
1 month ago
Reply to  Ernie powell

The BEST book I’ve seen (and bought) is this one that for some reason is showing $41 on Amazon right now. I paid $19.95 – ON AMAZON!

https://www.amazon.com/Managing-12-Volts-Troubleshoot-Electrical/dp/0964738627/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=managing+12+volts&qid=1598614152&sr=8-3

The author covers more than you ever thought there was to know about 12 volt power and how to manage/use it. Just don’t pay $41 for it!

The term “go big or go home” comes to mind when setting up a solar system for boondocking. Just sayin’.

Last edited 1 month ago by Tommy Molnar