It is increasingly common to see solar panels on the roof of a recreational vehicle (RV). While RV solar panels can't replace an internal combustion engine and turn your RV into an all-electric vehicle, RV solar panels can run lights and appliances cleanly instead of relying on fossil fuel generators. RV solar panels also give you the freedom to camp off-grid and where generators aren't allowed, without having to find a working hookup in a crowded campground. Of course, with RV solar panels, the RV can reduce its carbon footprint.
1. Components of an RV solar system
RV solar systems are not as simple as attaching RV solar panels to the roof and plugging in appliances. The following are the main components of an RV solar system.
① RV solar panels
Solar panels can be flexible, portable or rigid. Lightweight flexible solar panels are better for molded rather than flat RV roofs. And portable solar panel can be placed anywhere on or outside the vehicle, so even when the RV is parked in the shade, portable RV solar panels can capture sunlight. Rigid panels are heavier, but they are also more durable and efficient. Solar panels can produce 150 watts in flexible and portable panels, and up to 250 to 300 watts in rigid panels.
② RV battery
Most RVs have two batteries. The 12v agm or lead acid batteries are used to start the engine, while the 12v battery pack for RV is used to run DC powered equipment such as fans, lights and water systems. An AC/DC inverter can provide 120 volts of power from your RV campground's "shore power" connection to power air conditioners, microwaves, and other energy-intensive devices.
In more modern RVs, the old lead-acid RV battery packs have been replaced by RV solar panels and lithium iron phosphate batteries charged by the RV's engine alternator via a DC/DC charger. Together, RV solar panels and lithium iron phosphate batteries provide faster charging and longer battery pack life, especially for off-grid use. Some RV owners upgrade to lithium-ion batteries, which are lighter, more efficient, maintenance-free, hold more energy and have a longer lifespan. The downside is that they cost a lot more.
③ Solar charge controller
A solar charge controller protects your battery by regulating the current flow from the RV solar panels to the battery. The controller matches the voltage output of the RV solar panels to the voltage capability of the battery.
Many RVs are already equipped with inverters that convert the DC power from the 12v battery to the 120-volt AC power used by lights and other electrical equipment. More expensive inverters can generate the more reliable and stable power needed to run sensitive equipment such as electronics or medical equipment.
⑤ Transfer switch
A transfer switch lets your RV switch power from battery to shore power when parked at a campground, or turn off the propane source while driving.
2. RV solar panels vs generators: which is better?
RV solar panels are more environmentally friendly than fossil fuel generators. Here are some other factors to consider:
- Energy: RV solar panels need plenty of sunlight to charge the batteries, and generators need plenty of fossil fuels.
- Space: The generator and its fuel take up a lot of internal storage space. RV solar panels are limited by the RV headspace.
- Flammability: Generator fuel (usually diesel, gasoline or propane) is flammable. Some states ban propane generators while driving.
- Maintenance: Generators require regular maintenance and can leave sulfate residues in the battery. With no moving parts, RV solar panels require little maintenance other than removal of dust and debris.
- Power speed: The generator provides instant power. Solar power generation is slower.
- Cost: RV solar panels usually cost more to install than generators, but once installed, sunlight is free and can be regenerated indefinitely.
- Noise: Running a generator at night in a crowded campground won't win you any friends. However, absolutely quiet RV solar panels don't produce anything at night.
- Emissions: Generators emit greenhouse gases, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, while solar panels are zero-emission. The manufacture of RV solar panels is not carbon-free, but neither is the manufacture of generators or the fossil fuels that run them.
3. Buying and installing RV solar panels notes
Installing RV solar panels on your RV is no more complicated than installing solar panels on your roof. When you're ready to buy an RV solar panels and get ready to install them, please note:
- Calculate how many RV solar panels you need. Determine the power requirements of your devices and the number of hours you use them each day.
- Consider what equipment your RV already has. Many RVs on the market are already solar-powered or solar-ready. For safety and efficiency, make sure your RV has enough heavy gauge wiring to provide full power to RV battery from the RV solar panels.
- Buy everything at once. Every component of an RV solar system needs to be compatible with each other. RV solar panels kits are more expensive than buying each component individually, but their components are already compatible.
Upfront costs to install an RV solar system can be expensive. But these costs may save you money on electricity and fuel bills, as well as camping costs. RV solar panels will also reduce your greenhouse gas emissions. If you want to go completely zero-emissions, consider taking a car-camping road trip in an electric vehicle.
4. FAQs about RV solar panels
● How many solar panels does an RV need?
Depending on how much sunlight you get and how much energy you use, a single 100-watt RV solar panel might be able to charge a 12-volt DC battery. You may need multiple higher powered panels and multiple batteries to give you more power for a longer period of time.
● Are solar panels worth using in an RV?
Depends on your usage. Compared to generators, RV solar panels have a higher upfront cost, which can pay for itself if you rely on off-grid solar power regularly. However, if you only park your RV at a campground with shore power, investing in solar panels may not be worth your money and effort.
● How much do RV solar panels cost?
If your RV is not solar-ready, you may need more than a minimal 100-watt solar panel kit with mounting brackets and a solar charge controller for as little as $150. With lithium-ion batteries and multiple panels on the roof, the cost can be several thousand dollars.