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RV Solar Panels: Should You Install Them?


It’s no secret that the RV community is a big group of nature lovers. So it’s not surprising that RVers around the world are adopting renewable energy sources to power their rigs while enjoying the great outdoors. Solar RV systems are becoming more common, leaving many eager to hop on the sun-powered train. 

Whether you’re a boondocker looking to go off-grid or stay at a park, you may wonder if RV solar panels are the best way to be eco-friendly while doing either. We’ve broken down some of the most important information about these devices to help you make the right decision. 

Solar Panels for RV trailers - The Why, The How & The What ...
Image source: yellowlite.com

How RV Solar Panels Work

If you’re considering RV solar panels, you should understand a little bit about how they work. After all, it isn’t as simple as securing a few panels to the roof and watching the sun do its thing. Four main components compose RV solar power systems: 

  • The panels: This is the part that you typically think of when you picture solar power. These panels sit on top of your RV and harness the energy of the sun. Monocrystalline cells are the best solar panels for RVs, thanks to their efficiency. However, polycrystalline is a more popular option because of the lower price point. 
  • A charge controller: This device is located between the panels and the storage. As the name suggests, it’s the mechanism that controls the system. It prevents overcharging and power-draining, which can harm your batteries. Some can even optimize the conversion of solar power to match your battery type.  
  • An inverter: Most appliances and electronics are powered by AC power. This is the kind of electricity that runs through typical electrical outlets. Solar panels, however, produce DC power that you find in batteries. An inverter converts DC power to usable AC power.
  • Storage: The power that solar panels produce must be stored in batteries. Otherwise, nothing would work as soon as the sun went down! Typically, four or more batteries are used to store energy.

You can purchase all of these parts separately to build your own system, but you’ll want to make sure that the brands and parts you buy are compatible with one another. Don’t forget to consider the wires needed to connect everything, as well as the racks and fasteners to keep it all in place.

Solar Power Kits

Luckily, manufacturers have made this easier on consumers with nifty kits that include everything you need to get started. If you aren’t interested in making many modifications to the system and just want simplicity, this is the way to go.

Selecting the best RV solar kit comes down to your preferences, the size of your rig, and how much power you plan on using. 

Can you power an RV with solar panels alone?

It depends.

This answer is dependent on how much power you plan on using. If you’re blasting the air conditioner and other appliances all day, you won’t be able to generate enough electricity with solar panels alone. However, with the right conditions, solar panels can power the essentials needed by most campers.

Some users use their solar energy in conjunction with another source, whether it be shore power, a generator, or an alternator.

 

low-angle photography of palm tree during daytime

Pros and Cons of RV Solar Panels

Weighing the advantages and disadvantages of solar panels is a good way to decide if they are for you. 

Pro: Money Saver

If you’re a frequent boondocker, solar panels make financial sense in the long run. While they require an upfront investment, they generally pay for themselves in two to four years. Plus, you can’t put a price on having power wherever you go!

However, they don’t make financial sense for all types of campers, which you’ll read more about under cons. 

Pro: Off-the-Grid

For many, this is the biggest advantage. Solar panels give you the freedom to travel anywhere without having to give up the luxury of electricity. There’s no need to scour parks to find sites with electrical hookups. They allow you to truly go off-grid and set up camp wherever you want. Solar power systems also rarely require maintenance and are portable and lightweight, making them easy to use on the go.

Pro: Environmentally Friendly

If reducing your carbon footprint is important to you, sleep a little better at night knowing that you are powering your RV with green, renewable energy. 

Pro: Eliminate the Noisy Generator

If you’re not staying at an RV park with electric hook-ups, you have to power your rig with a noisy generator. Generators are a hassle, requiring constant refueling and maintenance. While this may be a viable option for the casual camper, generators can be expensive for long-term or frequent campers.

Con: The Complexity

Solar Power for the RV - Solar Power RV
Image source: solarserviceguy.com

Panels, batteries, inverters— oh my! Solar-powered RVs aren’t as simple as plugging your rig into an electrical source. They have a number of parts and features that may take a little getting used to at first. However, once your system is set up, it’s pretty easy to use. 

Con: The Upfront Costs

As mentioned, solar panels do not make financial sense for all campers. Though they may save you in the long run, they do require a hefty upfront investment. If you’re an occasional weekend camper, you may never recoup that investment and would be better off spending the extra money for the hook-up at the RV campground. If you’re a full-time RVer staying put in a park, paying for a solar kit is redundant considering shore power is often rolled into rent.  

Con: At the Mercy of the Sun

Unfortunately, we cannot control the weather. Prolonged rainy and cloudy days will impact the amount of energy the solar panels produce, therefore affecting how much you can use. While solar panels still work in cloudy conditions, they don’t generate the same amount of energy as they would on bright and sunny days. 

Hit the Road

Ready to take the leap into a sun-powered RV? Welcome to the club of other passionate solar-powered RVers! If you’re not quite ready to invest in this technology yet, do some more research and spend more time in your RV to decide if it’s right for you.

 

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