Adding Solar to your RV – Part II

Solar panels are increasing in popularity for homes across the United States. These are also becoming an increasingly popular choice among RVers, as well. After all, an RV is just a small home-on-wheels, so why shouldn’t it also benefit from the experience of having solar? Solar is a clean, free (after the initial cost of installation) energy source that can really enhance an RVer’s experience, especially if they  boondock or are more interested in boondocking. 

As a reminder, boondocking refers to camping without hookups. However, forgoing hookups does not necessarily require a lack of access to resources, such as electricity. Nearly all Harvest Hosts locations are boondocking-only, but this is where installing solar panels on your RV can come in handy. To be fair, some many RVers use generators to charge their batteries, but this method of receiving power can be expensive, loud, and bad for the environment.

For those who boondock often, solar is a great investment that allows users to combat excessive generator usage. If you are considering installing solar on your RV, then this article is for you. This is the second part of our two-part solar panel guide. If you haven’t read it yet, please read part one first, as this covers the basics and lays the groundwork for the rest of this article.

Types of Panels

Material

The best choices for RV solar panels are Mono-Crystalline panels and Poly-Crystalline panels. Both panels are created out of silicon, and both work in the same manner. Mono-Crystalline solar cells are created from single-crystal silicon. Poly-Crystalline solar cells are created out of many silicon fragments melted together. As a result, Mono-Crystalline panels are more efficient, but come at a higher cost. 

Portable vs Fixed

Portable solar panels are a great place to start for RVers who aren’t ready to take the full plunge yet. These still require all of the same accessories, but without the full installation costs. Portable panels can also be used in conjunction with mounted panels in the event that there isn’t enough roof space for more panels, or as an option if the RV isn’t parked in a super sunny location. Another perk of these panels is that the angle can be adjusted to maximize effectiveness. Unfortunately, portable panels are not capable of pulling as much solar power as mounted panels. Portable solar panels range in cost depending on the material an quality of the panels. Some portable panels are waterproof, while others are not. It’s also important to ensure the cables are long enough to be able to take full advantage of the portability.

Installation

As with most RV projects, each individual has their own skill and comfort level. Installing solar panels can be a DIY project, but it will require an incredible amount of research and care. Electrical work in general is intimidating to most, and there are many potential risks when making changes to power sources. An improper move can harm both you and your RV. For many, it may be best to allow professionals to install the solar panels and complete the wiring.

If you choose a portable solar setup, this can be easier to install than the mounted panels. There are several other blogs and Youtube tutorials detailing portable panel installation, and other components of solar setup. If you choose to consult a professional, it is important to know how much power you will actually need and what types of materials you want to utilize to avoid overpaying.

Additional Considerations

Batteries

Your auxiliary (aux) batteries (also known as your “house batteries”) store excess power for future usage. The type of aux batteries used in your RV can make a drastic difference to your overall cost and the longevity of your setup. Ideally, a good solar setup requires little maintenance and has practically no recurring costs. There are two types of batteries used most commonly, detailed below.

Lead Acid Batteries

Lead acid batteries are cheaper up front, costing $100-$200 per 6v battery. These are commonplace batteries used in most cars, golf carts, and other power-heavy devices. These batteries store energy using an electrochemical reaction to convert the chemical charge to an electrical charge. Lead acid batteries require occasional cleanings (see our Guide to Generator Maintenance for tips on cleaning battery connections) and can lose their charge the more they’re used, which leads to them needing to be replaced every 2-3 years. 

Lithium Batteries

Lithium batteries are more expensive up front, costing $300-$800 per 12v battery. On the other hand, these batteries last 10+ years because of the way they store and expel energy. These batteries utilize lithium ions to charge and discharge the power, as opposed to a chemical reaction, like lead acid batteries. Lithium batteries also require significantly less maintenance and actually allow users to harness 100% of the stored power versus only 50% of stored power with lead acid batteries. They also weigh 30% less than lead acid batteries, which can create less wear and tear on your RV in the long run. 

Frequency

Lastly, when considering a solar setup installation, you must take into account the frequency at which your RV is used. Considering the large up-front costs, it may make more sense to take the financial leap if you use your RV more often. Full-time RVers will reap the most benefits and recoup their money back quicker than folks who only take their RV out for one week each year. On the other hand, if you take your RV out several times per year and exclusively stay at campgrounds, investing in solar can create more boondocking opportunities, which greatly reduces yearly vacation costs. Boondocking also allows RVers to visit more beautiful and private locations than can typically be found in  a campground. 

Choosing to upgrade your RV’s power supply to solar can be a big investment with big rewards. Solar power can help campers ditch their loud, expensive generators and boondock in new and exciting places. After all, the most scenic locations don’t have outlets!

 

Do you have solar installed on your RV? Are you considering it? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences below!

Related Posts

Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Mervyn Rudgley
    19th January, 2021

    Interesting articles, but I still think the topic is a bit daunting for a lot of people.

    I chose a very simple setup, which fills all our needs in a 2003 30 ft RV, which gets weekend use approx. once a month. Our setup was less than $200 and comprised 2 x 50 watt semi-flexible panels, PWM controller, and a second house battery. Details as follows:
    – We already had propane, and weren’t trying to eliminate it, so just needed enough recharge to recover the batteries from overnight usage such as lights, fridge, and maybe furnace fan if the morning was cold. We also drive almost every day at least some distance so get charge from that.
    – We chose not to upgrade to Lithium batteries, since we understood that the shore power charger and truck alternator charger were not optimal for Lithium. Only a solar charger would be.
    – We considered gel and AGM, but also understood that they could be more easily damaged by over-discharging than flood, which I have been known to do!
    – We chose semi-flex monocrystalline panels because they stick down on the roof and are so much lighter. Agreed they are less efficient and wont last as long, but we will upgrade the RV in a few years anyway.

    I really like these multi-100 watt installations with multi-kw inverters and Battleborn LifePO batteries or similar, but for those on a budget, a few 100 watts and a PCM are a good start if you plan on moving every day. And then if you find that’s not enough, then just add another panel.

  2. Marcy
    15th January, 2021

    Nice couple of articles, thank you!

    We have solar on the roof of our 19′ travel trailer – as much as we can fit up there (1580 W). I’d suggest that roof space is a more important factor than energy usage. Anything you can do to remove things you aren’t using (for us, the TV antenna, a couple vents that leaked anyway, and the AC unit), that helps gain room for more panels.

    Along the lines of removing the AC unit, my husband installed a heat pump and we love love love it. We can now boondock with air conditioning, it’s amazing. We can’t yet speak to the longer-term reliability of adding a heat pump to a moveable living space, but the technology is solidly there. It’s more efficient, quieter, and also provides heat in the winter (without propane).

    Agree with your assessment of lithium batteries – similar cost once you take into account the lifespan and useable capacity, and a good bit lighter weight. And costs are going down all the time. We’ve got ~6.3 kWh of battery and are working on an upgrade to 11 kWh. Game changer for boondocking and allowed us to completely remove propane from our rig.

    Thanks for writing this up!

    1. Mark
      16th January, 2021

      Hi Marcy,

      I’m really curious about how you got a heat pump hooked into your RV.

      It’s unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be much interest in making high efficiency HVAC for the RV industry.

  3. Kim Lumley
    6th January, 2021

    Excellent article, Sam, about solar panels. I just wanted to add Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) batteries to your list. I would say they are a compromise between Lithium and Wet Cell Lead Acid batteries. They have a longer life than Wet Cell, require virtually no maintenance, and are typically about 1/3 the price of Lithium batteries.