rv solar panels

RV solar panels: are they right for you?

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Solar panel systems aren’t just for houses or commercial properties – it can be a great resource for on-the-go electricity users as well. In this article, learn about how solar panels for RVs and solar panels for a camper work, if they’re right for you, and what some of the top options available are.

Find out what solar panels cost in your area in 2021

The basics of an RV solar panel setup

RV or motorhome solar panels 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 to be easy to set up and take down for RVs, as well as small or flexible panels that are designed to be mounted on an RV roof.

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.

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.

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:

  1. Solar panels
  2. A charge controller to prevent overcharging your storage system
  3. Solar batteries to store energy (common options are lead acid or lithium-ion)
  4. An inverter to convert DC electricity to AC electricity (occasionally pre-built into the solar battery component)

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.

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 and if it’s right for you:

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

ProductCostPanel wattage (W)Included equipment
Renogy flexible solar panel$200100 WNone
WindyNation solar panel$160100 WCharge controller, connectors, mounting brackets
Renogy solar panel$175160 WNone
Newpowa solar panel$100100 WNone

You’ll need to buy a charge controller or inverter separately if your solar panel kit does not include those components. Often times, battery storage products have built-in inverters and charge controllers.

How many panels do you need?

Most solar panels for RVs are between 100 and 400 watts of power, and a full system might be about 800 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?

AppliancePower consumption (W)Daily hours of useDaily power consumption (Wh)
Lightbulb60 W6360 Wh
TV200 W4800 Wh
Microwave800 W.5400 Wh
Mini-fridge200 W244,800 Wh

What do these numbers actually mean? Looking at column four, you can see an example of how much energy in watt-hours running each appliance for a normal amount of time in a day might use. If you have an 800W 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.

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 Solar Marketplace, where you can register your property and receive multiple solar quotes from local, pre-screened solar installers.

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About Jacob Marsh

Jacob is a researcher and content writer at EnergySage, where he focuses primarily on current issues–and new technology!–in the solar industry. With a background in environmental and geological science, Jacob brings an analytical perspective and passion for conservation to help solar shoppers make the right energy choices for their wallet and the environment. Outside of EnergySage, you can find him playing Ultimate Frisbee or learning a new, obscure board game.

26 thoughts on “RV solar panels: are they right for you?

  1. RV Roof Magic

    Installing a solar panel on the RV is the way to go if you are also as adventurous as I am because I like to go to the remote locations where finding a power hookup is difficult. Thanks for sharing Jacob!

  2. Danny

    I have a E350 Ford i have a Hi Top on and am ready to Move forward with Inside comfort for living . i “want” a TV. And i will Run a 2000w 4000w Inverter to Run Microwave when i Need …Will this be best tied into House Batteries or Solar Batteries ??? So A Mini Fridge and TV i guess are to Most Important things To Have Enough Power for. I Figure i may RUN TV 2 hours maybe 4 hrs like U have Shown in above chart. I still am Uncertain of WATT SOLAR PANELS i NEED TO INSTALL ? I would think need 2 400 watt panels and if so is this enough to power Mini fridge and TV ? Or how much more would i need

    1. Peter Whitcomb

      You can buy a 12v TV. It will cost $$$ (compared to a equivalent 120v) but will be worth it. To run a small microwave you will need a 1500+ watt pure since wave inverter (I recommend a 2000 pure sine wave inverter). 400 to 600 watts monocrytalline (this will be plenty) for solar panels. Your honestly limited by roof space. What you need to make sure you have is battery capacity. For this there is no substitute, buy Lithium! At least 200ah but 300 to 400 would be safe running a 120v fridge 24/7.

  3. David Cary

    I want to put a solar system on top my class C motor home. I will stay in it a lot. I need to operate a forced heat in winter and air unit in the heat. Plus be able to run a refrigerator to keep food well. Now I know winter it can stay out to keep cold. Yes a fan small may be good for hot days. So I know times will matter to use my generator to keep power up on the batteries. So how many solar watts will I need to do this with only 2 in motor home regularly?

  4. Kevin P

    Ran across this article, very interesting. I have a question that maybe you or someone can answer for me. I recently bought a camper and it is “set up” for solar. There is a small plug in on the side of the trailer for a portable solar panel to be plugged in. My question is are all solar panel plugs the same or do they even come with plugs?

    1. Mike N

      Good question. I’m considering purchasing a travel trailer with the same setup and would like to know that info as well.

      1. Bryan Adams

        What do you or how do you connect a mini fridge. It came with a cigarette lighter plug. But i want to run it on solar . do I hook it up to the charge controller or is there a place on the inverter to plug in a cigarette plug.???

    2. Nancy

      I’m assuming you have a Zamp plug.

      These are great, and do exactly what you expect. Your RV charge controller should be set up so it’s almost plug and go.

      The thing to know about Zamp ports it you don’t get a Zamp panel is they have reverse polarity. There are adaptors you can get for not much money to reverse that polarity then you are good to go with a portable panel.

      1. Recneps

        The Zamp plug is not reverse polarity. They just protect the positive side of the terminal in the SAE adapter versus the “battery tender” brand products that have the exposed male end connected to negative. With that said if you don’t use a Zamp Solar panel just switch the wiring at the battery and you won’t need any sort of adapter.

  5. Robert Clark

    A lot of useful information to me more understand about solar panels in here. Can you give me some advices about the best choice solar panels? Thanks so much!


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