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 RV solar panels work, if they’re right for you, and what some of the top options available are.
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 RVs and motorhomes?
In order to generate and use solar power for your RV, you’ll need a setup complete with the following components:
- Solar panels
- A charge controller to prevent overcharging your storage system
- Solar batteries to store energy (common options are lead acid or lithium-ion)
- 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
|Product||Cost||Panel wattage (W)||Included equipment|
|Renogy flexible solar panel||$200||100 W||None|
|WindyNation solar panel||$160||100 W||Charge controller, connectors, mounting brackets|
|Renogy solar panel||$175||160 W||None|
|Newpowa solar panel||$100||100 W||None|
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?
|Appliance||Power consumption (W)||Daily hours of use||Daily power consumption (Wh)|
|Lightbulb||60 W||6||360 Wh|
|TV||200 W||4||800 Wh|
|Microwave||800 W||.5||400 Wh|
|Mini-fridge||200 W||24||4,800 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.