If you own an RV or campervan, you've probably considered investing in solar panels for your vehicle. Depending on your lifestyle and energy consumption habits, solar panels for RVs can be an excellent investment -- but are they right for you?
Before you start shopping around for solar panels for your RV, it's important to understand the basics behind them, including what they're used for, how to install them and how to maintain them. We've answered each of these questions (and more) in this guide, so you can decide if RV solar panels are right for you.
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What are RV solar panels?
RV solar panels work just like residential and commercial solar panels except on a smaller, more transportable scale. Once they're installed on your RV, motorhome or camper, solar panels collect sunlight and convert it into usable electricity for your vehicle. In turn, you can use this electricity to power the appliances, lights and sockets in your RV.
Without solar panels, you'll need to rely on another power source for electricity, such as a generator or campsite hookup. RV solar panels provide a convenient and environmentally friendly alternative to these traditional sources since they rely on renewable power.
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How many RV solar panels do you need?
Unlike residential and commercial solar systems, which are designed to power an entire home or business, RV solar systems typically deliver a more modest output. This usually isn't an issue since you don't use as many lights and appliances in your RV as you would in a brick-and-mortar property.
So how many solar panels will you need for an RV? It depends on a few factors, including your energy consumption habits, the efficiency of the panels and the amount of sunshine your home receives each day.
Calculating your average daily energy consumption is the first step to determining what size RV solar system you need. To do this, you'll need to make a list of the appliances you want to use, how much power they require and how many hours per day you'll use them.
For example, let's say you have a 500-watt microwave that you want to use for 15 minutes each day. By multiplying these figures, you can determine that you'd need to generate 125 watts of electricity just to use your microwave for that amount of time. Repeat this process with every device or appliance.
To figure out how much electricity your system will generate per day, you need to multiply your system size by how many hours of direct sunlight your panels would receive daily.
For our example, let's assume we have an RV solar system that's composed of four individual solar panels generating 100 watts each, giving us a total system size of 400 watts. We'll also assume that we're in a reasonably sunny area that receives at least five hours of sunlight per day.
With some quick math, we can see that this system will generate 4,000 watt-hours (Wh) of electricity per day. You can use this output as a benchmark to compare against your energy needs (calculated above), then adjust the number of panels and wattage accordingly.
For reference, a 4,000-Wh system is generally enough to run small appliances and turn on the lights -- but it won't support heavy-duty appliance usage. In fact, even the largest RV solar panel systems aren't designed for constant or excessive electricity usage. So if you need tons of power, solar panels won't be the best choice.
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Configuring an RV solar panel system
There are three kinds of solar panels for RVs: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and amorphous.
- Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient (and most expensive) of the three, so they will generate the most energy in the least amount of time.
- Polycrystalline panels are slightly less efficient, but they're a durable and reliable option.
- Amorphous panels are newer to the market. They aren't as efficient as their counterparts, but the thin and bendable construction makes them easy to install.
In addition to solar panels, there are several other components that you'll need to complete your RV solar system, including:
- Solar inverter, which converts the solar energy from DC to AC power
- Charge controller, which protects the storage system from overcharging
- Solar battery, which stores the generated energy
These components are often bundled with solar panels, which is great for first-time solar installers. If you already have solar panels that you want to use, you can purchase these items separately.
Although it is possible to use residential solar panels on your RV, it's not an option that we recommend. That's because these types of panels are larger and take up more roof space than the RV-specific products, so you may not have enough room on top of your vehicle. Also, the voltage on residential panels may not be compatible with the other components of your RV solar power system.
Not sure where to shop? Online retailers like Amazon have a vast selection of solar panels and starter kits for RVs, along with customer reviews of each product. Stores like Camping World and Home Depot also have a decent range of options.
Installation and maintenance
Once you've found and received the right solar panels for your RV, it's time to install them. Fortunately, installing RV solar panels is fairly straightforward and shouldn't require a professional.
If you've purchased solar panels that need to be mounted to the roof, they should have come with installation instructions. Typically, this involves minor handiwork like fastening your panels to your RV using brackets. Amorphous solar panels are even easier to install because they come with an adhesive backing that you can quickly affix to your roof.
Don't want to attach the solar panels to your RV? There are also portable briefcase-style solar sets that can be unfolded and propped up to absorb sunlight when you're not driving. When you're done, you can tuck them away.
Once your system is up and running, maintenance should be minimal. When you use solar power as an energy source, you don't need to worry about buying fuel or creating noise like you would with a generator. Plus, many RV solar panels come with long-term performance warranties (usually 25 years) so you can feel confident that you're making a smart investment.
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Cost and rebates
The overall cost of your system will depend on factors including the type of panels you choose and how much electricity you need to generate. If you need lots of power, you'll need to buy more equipment -- driving up the price.
You can find an RV solar system kit for any budget, with options starting around $150. However, if you're looking for a bundle that has everything you need to get started, you should expect to pay closer to $250 to $500. Renogy and Windy Nation are two of the best-known brands for RV solar systems, but there are plenty of high-quality options to consider.
If your RV is your primary or secondary residence, you can save money on your solar investment by claiming the federal residential solar energy credit, which provides a 26% tax credit on solar systems purchased and installed through 2022.
Are RV solar panels right for you?
It's difficult to argue with the benefits of solar energy, but RV solar panels might not be right for everyone. If you live in your RV and often take it off-grid (where there are no campground hookups), then solar can be a convenient and eco-friendly alternative to gas-powered generators. However, solar might not be worth the investment if you only use your RV once or twice per year or only stay at campgrounds or RV parks.
More about solar panels:
- 5 things to consider before you buy solar panels
- DIY solar panel pros and cons: Should you install and maintain your solar panels yourself?
- Your solar panels can make you money. Find out when and how