Do you really need solar panels on your RV?

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    By Jim Twamley

    Many RVs sport solar panels, and they can be quite handy. On the other hand, solar panels aren’t inexpensive — 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 grows.

    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. If on the other hand 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.

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    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