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RV Solar Panels 101: Best Solar Panel Systems for RVs

Updated: Jun 21

Learn all about RV solar panel systems, types of RV solar panels, and how to choose the right solar panel system for your rig.

Rv solar panel mounting systems

Solar energy has seen a massive boom in the past few years as more and more people choose sustainable, cost-effective energy solutions over conventional ones. The same need has also trickled into the RV community where all kinds of RVers are now looking to harness the power of the sun to power their motorhomes. But is switching to solar energy as simple as installing a few solar panels on your rig? Can solar panels power your entire motorhome? and how to choose the right solar panel system for your RV?


Read on as we explore everything you need to know about RV solar panel systems and also list down the best mounted and portable solar panels systems for RV.



What are RV Solar Panels?

Solar panels are made of tiny solar cells that absorb the power from the sun and convert it into DC energy that can be used to power different electronic systems and devices. RV solar panels are compact solar panels that can be installed on the roof of the RV to capture power from the sun. The power can then be converted to electricity that can be used to charge your RV batteries and other systems.


solar panel for rv battery charging

Flexible vs. Rigid Solar Panels for RV

Solar panels for RV come in two different types; you can find rigid RV solar panels and flexible RV solar panels. Rigid solar panels for RV are the conventional standard. As the name suggests they are rigid, maintain their shape, and can only be installed on the roof of an RV. Flexible solar panels for RV are lighter in weight and have a pliable shape so they can be installed on different surfaces of your camper. Rigid RV solar panels are recommended for Class A and Class C motorhomes and travel trailers since they can handle the added weight easily. Smaller Class B campers, teardrop trailers, and pop-up campers can do with flexible solar panels as they are light in weight.

How do RV Solar Panels Work?

RV solar panels work the same way as conventional solar panels; the solar panels installed on the roof of the RV absorb power from the sun. The circuits in the solar cells convert the absorbed energy into electrical current that in turn is transferred to your RV batteries through an RV solar charge controller. The electrical current is stored in your RV battery or batteries as DC electricity at 12 volts.


flexible solar panels for rv

The 12V DC electricity can be used to power different systems in your RV like the lights, some appliances, and electronics. However, a lot of the appliances in your RV run on 120V electricity. You can easily convert the DC energy for the solar panels into 120V energy by using an inverter. This way you can power your entire RV by using solar power.


How Many Solar Panels do I need for my RV?

The energy derived from RV solar panels is basically used to charge your RV battery or batteries. To figure out how many solar panels you would need to completely charge your battery you need to determine the capacity of your battery, your energy consumption, and the total power wattage of the solar panels you are using. You can also use RV solar calculators available online to check your requirement.


how to install solar panels on RV

Calculating Actual Solar Power Generation

Your solar power system is more than just the panels installed on your RV. The solar energy absorbed by the solar panels then has to go through inverters and converters (each with its own amperage) before it can power anything in your camper. Plus, the energy produced by a solar panel also differs based on different factors; A 100-watt solar panel will generate 100 watts of power only during peak efficiency (78 degrees, no clouds, solar noon, on the equator during the equinox). Normally, you can expect a 100-watt solar panel to generate around 30 amp-hours per day.


Here is an RV solar panel size calculator you can use to figure out how much actual power you can generate from a solar panel.


Calculating Your Energy Consumption

The next step is to calculate how much energy you actually use during the day in your motorhome. There are a few ways to do this; you can use an online amperage calculator to figure out the power drawn by each appliance and system in your RV. You can then calculate how much you use that particular appliance and system and derive an estimate of your power usage.


Another way to calculate your energy consumption is to go on an overnight camping trip. Charge your RV batteries by nightfall, park your RV, and turn off all other sources of power. Disconnect from shore power and turn off both the engine and the RV generator. Now use your RV as you usually do; brew a cup of coffee, watch television, run the hairdryer.


Keep an eye on your battery, the goal is to drain it completely (or partially if it is lead-acid). Once the battery is drained, calculate how much power you used. Here is an example with the math:

Let's say you have 200 amp-hours in battery capacity and you drained 40% of the battery in three days (or you used 60% of your total battery capacity). That means:

200 amp-hours x 60% used = 120 amp-hours

120 amp-hours / 3 days = 40 amp-hours per day


Balancing the Equation

Now all you have to do is match your power input to the power output. Continuing from the example above:


Your output = 40 amp-hours per day

The input of 1 100-watt solar panel = 30 amp-hours per day

Your output/the input = number of solar panels

40/30 = 1.33 panels


This means you would need 1.33 solar panels to meet your required need for power. However, you cannot buy a third of a panel and there isn't a panel that will generate 133 watts of power. But you can buy a 160-watt solar panel. This would meet your power requirement and give you some spare energy for cloudy days or days on which you end up consuming more power than usual.



Kinds of RV Solar Panels

There are different kinds of solar panels for campers and RVs available in the market. Each kind of solar panel has its own set of pros and cons.

Description

Pros

Cons

Monocrystalline Panels

Panels made of single silicon crystal, trimmed at the sides, and cut into thin slices.

  • Greater efficiency

  • Oldest and most reliable solar technology

  • More resistant to high temperatures

  • Expensive

  • Silicone waste during production makes them less eco-friendly

Polycrystalline Panels

​Panels made by melting down silicon and pouring it into a single mold.

  • Less expensive

  • More eco-friendly

  • Durable

  • Less efficient than monocrystalline

  • Take more space

Amorphous Panels

​Thin-film solar panels that are flexible.

  • Least expensive

  • Can be installed directly on the roof of the RV with glue

  • Least efficient

  • Glue can damage the RV roof


Components of an RV Solar Panel System

Now that you know all about RV solar panels, let's talk about the other components involved in a full RV solar panel system. Here is an RV solar wiring diagram to help you visualize the system.

RV solar panel wiring diagram

Solar Panels

If you choose rigid RV solar panels, they will lie on the roof of your RV and collect energy from the sun. You can install the panels flat on the roof or mount them on a stand so that they are angled to the sun.


Charge Controller

A charge controller takes the energy from the solar panels and transfers them into the RV battery. It regulates the current going into the battery to keep it from overcharging. Most charge controllers come with an LCD display so you can keep an eye on the amount of current being transferred.


Battery and Battery Monitor

Your RV battery is where all the current from the solar panels is stored. The batteries normally used for this purpose are deep-cycle lead-acid batteries that allow you to use more uninterrupted power for a longer period of time. A battery monitor is an LCD device that shows you how much voltage is left in your batteries.


Connectors and Accessories

All the components in your solar panel system will need to be connected through wires, fuses, and mounting brackets. Most RV solar panel kits already come with these components so you don't need to worry about them too much.


Inverter

All the outlets in your motorhome run on 120V current but the power generated by the solar panels is 12V. An inverter can solve that problem. When installed, an inverter can take the 12V DC power to 120V which you can then use to power different appliances in your RV.


Types of RV Solar Panel Systems: Mounted vs Portable

You can find two types of RV solar panel systems in the market; mounted RV solar panel systems and portable RV solar panel systems. Mounted solar panels are just that, they are mounted on the roof of your RV and remain there. You don't have to take them down and store them. They charge on the go so you just have to install them once, no need to worry about wind damage or theft.


Portable solar panel systems consist of solar panels that can be placed on the roof of a parked RV or on the ground. They cost less than the mounted solar panel system and don't need to be installed. You can park your RV in the shade and use a longer cable to connect to your solar panels placed right under the sun. You can also maximize the power transferred to your battery by moving the solar panels with the sun.


Portable solar panels for RV are great if you don't travel a lot, have a camper with a rounded roof, or only need solar energy when you boondock. RV solar panel mounting systems are great for full-time RVers who like to camp off the grid or have larger rigs.


Cost of RV Solar Panel System

The cost of an RV solar panel system depends on a number of factors like the kind and number of solar panels you get, the cost of added components like a battery isolator, how you install it, and maintenance expenses. The overall cost of an RV solar system can also vary based on the type and size of the RV. You could be looking at spending up to $1500 for a basic RV solar panel system set-up. More high-end systems can cost upwards of $15000. You can control the costs if you DIY a solar panel system on your RV, professional installation costs more.



How to Choose the Best Solar Panel System for RV?

Choosing the best solar panel system for your RV boils down to matching your requirements with your pocket. Here are some factors to consider.


Type of Solar Panel and Watts

Solar panels usually come in a 100-watt per panel configuration. But the cost of a single panel will depend on the type of solar panel you choose, for example, a monocrystalline solar panel will cost more than a polycrystalline one. Your overall power requirement will dictate how many solar panels you need. Make sure you choose solar panels that are the right type and wattage for your rig.

Size and Weight

Solar panels come in different sizes and weights. Flexible RV solar panels are lightweight and pliable so can be installed on rounded RV roofs as well. Mounted RV solar panel systems don't require storage, while they may weigh a little more, you don't have to worry about them taking up space inside the RV. Choose an RV solar panel system that is the right size and weight for your rig.

Cord Length

If you have a portable RV solar panel system, you need to have the right cord length so that you can easily move the panels around the rig. The cord length is also important for mounted solar systems when you're installing them so that all components of the system are perfectly connected to each other.

Cost of RV Solar Panels

The cost is another factor when choosing the right solar panel system for your RV. Choose a system that suits both your power needs and budget. Don't forget to factor in installation and maintenance costs.


How to Install Solar Panels on RV

Once you have the perfect RV solar panel system, it is time to install it on your rig. Your solar panel system kit will come with:

  • Solar panel/s

  • Charge controller

  • Connecting accessories

Mounting Solar Panels on RV

The first step is to mount your RV solar panels on the roof of the RV. How you mount solar panels on RV roof depends on the type of panels you bought. If you have rigid RV solar panels you can mount them on the roof using mounting screws and sealant. You can also use Z brackets to install the panels at an angle. Flexible RV solar panels are thinner so they can be mounted on the roof using an industrial adhesive to stick them on.


How to hook up Solar Panels to RV Batteries?

Once you have mounted your RV solar panels on the roof, it is time to connect them to the battery. Here is how to do that:

  • Install the charge controller inside your RV as close to the batteries as possible.

  • Connect the wires from the solar panels to the charge controller. You can do this by running the wires through the refrigerator vent or through the plumbing holes provided they are close to where the battery is stored. You can also drill holes into the RV roof and move the wires through them. Be sure to thoroughly cover and caulk any drilled holes.

  • Install fuse and circuit breaker on the wires that run from the solar panels to the charge controller.

  • Connect the wires from the charge controller to the battery. Install a fuse on this wiring system as well.

  • Before making the final connection between the solar panels and wire charger double-check all wiring to make sure polarity (positive and negative) is all correct.

  • Once confident, plug in the solar panels to the charge controller. Do this at night or with the solar panels covered by a blanket to prevent a spark.

  • If you want to power 120V AC appliances in your RV, you will need to install an inverter as well. Install it as close to the battery as possible and follow manufacturer guidelines on how to connect it to the system.


Here is a video outlining RV solar panel system installation from head to bottom.



Best Mounted Solar Panel Systems for RV

Features

Four 100 W panels, charge controller, mounting equipment, cabling

​One 100 W panel, charge controller, mounting equipment, cabling

One 100 W solar panel, charge controller, mounting equipment, cabling

Cost

$799.99

$439.99


$99.99


Pros

  • ​High wattage

  • Highly efficient

  • Easy DIY installation

  • ​Complete kit

  • Charge controller allows expansion

  • ​Great value

  • Charge controller can be upgraded

Cons

  • Battery not included

  • Large size

  • Shorter cables

  • ​Suitable for smaller campers with less electricity requirement

  • Inverter not included

  • ​Polycrystalline solar panels are less efficient

  • Inverter not included


Best Portable Solar Panels for RV

Features

200W foldable solar panel, MC-4 cables, DC 8mm adapter, DC cables

​100 watt flexible monocrystalline solar panel and a 30A charge controller

Portable solar panel suitcase; 10A LCD charge controller; removable MC-4 connector cables; alligator clamps cables

Cost

$399.00

$230.35

$473.55

Pros

  • ​Good fit and finish

  • Waterproof

  • Multiple output plug variations

  • Lightweight

  • Can lie flat on roof surface

  • Compact

  • Lightweight

Cons

  • Flimsy frame

  • Cannot withstand wind​

  • Amorphous panels are less energy efficient

  • No installation accessories included

  • Not waterproof


Are Solar Panels for an RV Worth it?

Solar energy is a great way to switch to a more eco-friendly power source that is also cost-efficient. But before you take the plunge have a look at these pros and cons of using solar power for RV.


Pros of Switching to RV Solar Energy

  • Renewable energy source

  • Little to no maintenance required

  • No noise pollution

  • Allows you to dry camp, boondock, and RV off the grid

  • Unattended charging

  • No gas or power hookups required

Cons of Switching to RV Solar Energy

  • High-quality RV solar panel kits are expensive

  • You need a separate battery bank

  • Tricky to generate enough power on cloudy days

  • The weight of the solar kit can reduce miles per gallon

  • They can make your RV hotter

Ultimately, splurging on a solar panel system for your RV is a good choice if you like parking in unusual places away from the crowds, dry camp often, you have both the energy requirement and the pocket for it, and you don't mind carrying the extra weight.



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