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Last Updated on December 2, 2021 by Jessica Lauren Vine
Adding solar panels is one of the most common RV upgrades out there, and one of the most poorly understood. The cost of adding a solar system can be substantial, which begs the question – Are RV solar panels worth it?
The short answer to the question is that they are absolutely worth it if you choose a system that properly fits your needs. To answer that question for your situation you have to look at three things.
- What does a solar system do in an RV?
- Do my camping habits work with a solar system?
- What would I need my solar system to do?
Here we will look at what a solar system for an RV entails, what a solar system can do for you, and some options that will fill those needs.
How Do Solar Panels Work & What Do They Do on an RV?
To determine if a solar system would be worth installing on your RV, we must first understand what it is and what it’s used for. The easiest way to understand what RV solar panels do is to look at the electrical system your RV already has.
In most cases, your RV will have a power center or an inverter/charger-style system coupled with a storage battery. These systems allow your RV to have two modes of power. AC power for when you are connected to shore power, and a battery-powered DC system for when you are not.
When connected to shore power, the power center has a converter that converts the AC power to DC power to run your DC circuits and charge your battery. When disconnected from shore power, the AC circuits will be off and the DC circuits will be powered by the battery.
A solar system adds a sun to DC system that works in place of the AC to DC system in your RV when not connected to AC power. This allows your DC system to operate and your batteries to be charged with solar power instead of power from the AC power pedestal. It does this with two components. The solar panels themselves catch the solar energy and convert it to electricity. That electricity varies significantly depending on the intensity of the light hitting it and is therefore not “RV safe”.
To make it safe, the solar panel connects to a solar charge controller which acts similarly to the converter in your power center. The power center converter is an AC to DC converter. The solar charge control performs the same function but is a DC-DC converter. It takes the variable DC power from your solar panels and converts it to 12V or 24V to charge your batteries and run your DC circuits. When there is no sun, the system automatically switches to running your DC circuits from the battery. Solar charge controllers also have sophisticated battery type-specific charging programs built-in which will charge and maintain batteries properly.
So the whole point of a solar system in an RV is to charge your batteries and run your DC circuits from the sun instead of an AC connection. From there, depending on your needs, you can add additional components like inverters to power AC circuits in your RV from the batteries.
Things to Consider Before Taking the Solar Power Plunge
There are two major things you would want to consider before diving into a solar installation on your RV. First, does it make sense?
There are several reasons why a solar system may not make sense for you. For example, if you camp in the east where there are a lot of trees, or a lot of cloudy days then your RV may not get enough sun for your solar system to do its job efficiently. Also, there are fewer places to camp in the east where shore power isn’t a readily available and cheaper option.
Even if you camp in places with plenty of available sunshine, how often do you camp in places where shore power is not available? If it’s a few days a year then there are better solutions for power than a solar system. Even if you really want to add it, choosing a more modest system may be the best option for you In cases like these, an inverter generator may be the better option for off-grid power. They are cheaper, easier to use, and can be sized to provide whole RV power (including air conditioning) pretty easily.
If you remote camp in the west or desert southwest then powering your rig with a solar system may be a great option for you. In these areas, there is generally plenty of sunshine and many great choices for remote camping where utilities are not available. In many of these places, getting fuel to power a generator can be excessively difficult.
What Can I Do with Solar Panels on My RV?
A basic solar system will allow you to charge your batteries and operate your DC power circuits when you have access to the sun and no access to AC power. The most basic system is a solar battery maintainer. These units have a small solar panel with a basic charge controller. The charge controller connects directly to your battery terminals with battery clamps and you set the panel in the sun. These systems are cheap, small, and lightweight but don’t deliver a lot of power. They would be good for providing just enough extra juice to get you through a weekend if your batteries normally would not last that long.
The next level up is a larger portable solar kit or a “solar suitcase.” These contain one or more larger solar panels with an attached solar charge controller. The larger panels will charge your batteries faster and will charge larger battery banks. Larger battery banks store more power which allows you to use more power or to go longer periods without sunshine. Solar suitcases can also be clamped directly to your battery bank, or they can plug directly into your RV if your RV came “solar ready” from the factory. Solar ready RVs usually have a plug on the side where you connect the output of the solar suitcase’s charge controller to your rig. Never plug solar panels directly into that port unless you’ve installed a charge controller between that port and your batteries. More on that later.
Solar suitcases are great for a number of uses. The larger ones can provide enough power to keep your RV going indefinitely assuming you get adequate sunshine and your power usage is modest. You won’t be able to run large inverters or high power draw appliances for long, but basic services like your water pump, lights, furnace fan, propane water heater igniters, and propane fridge won’t kill it too fast assuming your solar panels are properly paired with adequate battery storage. A large solar suitcase (180 Watts or more) coupled with at least 200 amp-hours of battery storage (two 6 volt golf cart batteries wired in series) would be a minimal “off-grid” setup for an RV.
The portable nature of the solar suitcase makes it great for use in areas where your RV may be parked in the shade. By using a long connection wire, the solar panels can be moved to where the sun is while your RV remains in the shade. The solar suitcase also does not require drilling holes and sealing panels to your roof so they don’t introduce any new water leak hazards.
The next level up involves permanently installing solar panels on your rooftop and the charge controllers inside your rig. When you get to this level things get more interesting as the options, cost, and complexity can really start to ramp up. This is where you start weighing the pros and cons of every little detail. The benefit is that you can design a system that can run the entire RV including both AC and DC sides of your power system from the sun. To achieve this it’s best to consult a solar systems engineer who can tailor your system to your specific needs. The additional cost of this consultation will be minimal compared to the overall cost of the system so it wouldn’t make sense to skip this step.
What Will a Solar System Cost?
The cost of a system will depend entirely on how you set it up and how much of the work you can do yourself. A simple battery charging system can be purchased for under $100. That would include the panel and charge controller. You don’t need to buy any special batteries for this which keeps the cost low.
Moving up to a solar suitcase-type system, expect to spend between $500 and $1500 depending on what you would like to accomplish. On the low end, you can stick with your stock battery and a small solar suitcase. This will be good for extending battery capacity but may not take you completely off-grid for long. A more off-grid capable system would require a large solar suitcase and a battery upgrade. Expect that to be at least $1000.
A fully integrated rooftop system will easily start over $1000 and go up (dramatically) from there. You can easily unload over $20,000 for a high-end system. For that expense, you may never need to plug your RV in again and you can enjoy all the creature comforts of home even in the most remote locations.
A Real-world Example
We have a travel trailer which we traveled full time in for 2 years. We added solar to it because we wanted the ability to boondock for at least a few days at a time. We did not know for sure how much we would use it so we didn’t want to spend a lot of money on it. We thought solar suitcases were too expensive so we designed a hybrid system that kept the cost reasonable. We went with two 6 volt golf cart batteries wired in series for storage ($300). We bought a 20 amp MPPT solar charge controller ($120) which we mounted in the trailer in line with the “solar ready” wiring that was installed at the factory. This did several things. First, it was inexpensive. Second, it’s inside the trailer making it less prone to theft. Next, MPPT charge controllers are 20 – 30% more efficient than the PWM controllers found on most solar suitcases.
This means you can have a 20 – 30% smaller solar panel attached while getting the same power to your batteries. Finally, it allowed us to connect a solar panel directly to the “solar ready” port on the side of the trailer. If we decided later to add roof-mounted panels then all we would have to do is mount the panels and drop the drop a wire down to the charge controller and hook them up. We essentially got the benefits of a roof-mounted system with the flexibility to move the panel where we needed it should we be parked in the shade. We chose a single 150-watt panel ($150) and that was sufficient for our needs. So for around $600 we had a system we could go off-grid with that was also integrated into the trailer’s factory electrical system. It worked exceptionally well for what we needed it to do. In our case, it was definitely worth it.
Adding solar panels to your RV is an investment that can definitely be worth the cost and effort. If you carefully evaluate your needs and design your system to meet those needs then you should be all set. Expectations play a large role here too. Don’t expect to run your air conditioner off your solar setup (although it can be done).