Are you an RV owner who is looking to take your travels to the next level? Or are you an RV manufacturer or dealer looking to enhance the power system of your vehicles?' If so, you may be wondering if solar panels are a good option for you.
In this guide, we will discuss what RV solar panels are, their benefits, how they work, how to fit and install solar panels for your vehicle, and how to use them while you're on the road. We'll also answer some of the most common questions about RV solar panels so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not an RV solar system is right for you.
What are RV Solar Panels?
RV solar panels are devices that allow you to use the power of the sun to charge your RV's batteries. They are an excellent option for those who want to travel off the grid or reduce their reliance on traditional campsite hookups. Solar panels can also be a great way to extend your battery life, especially if you tend to use a lot of electricity while you're on the road.
Check out Way's Boondocking FAQs for more information on getting off the grid.
How Was the RV Solar Panel Developed?
When scientists started observing the photovoltaic effect in the 18th century, they found that some materials would produce an electric charge and current when exposed to sunlight. After unsuccessful attempts to harness this capability into a usable form, it was found that silicon could create an efficient solar panel.
How Do Solar Panels for RVs Work?
Solar panels work by converting sunlight into electrical energy. This energy is then stored in your RV's batteries, which can be used to power your lights, appliances, air conditioners, and other electronics. Many RV owners who want to go boondocking will even use their solar panels to help power their 12-volt refrigerator while away from the campsite.
Solar panels are a part of a bigger RV solar system that includes other necessities like lithium batteries, a charge controller, and an inverter.
What are the benefits of RV solar panels?
There are several benefits to using RV solar panels, including:
Extended your battery life
One of the main advantages of solar panels is that they can help extend your RV's battery life. This is especially true if you tend to use a lot of electricity while you're on the road. Reliable battery charging is a must when away from shore power.
Reduce your reliance on traditional shore power
If you like to travel off the grid, or if you often find yourself in locations where traditional campsite hookups aren't available, solar panels can be a great way to power your RV. Boondocking is often the preferred way to camp in an RV because it leaves you with more privacy and peace while on your adventures.
RV solar panels give you the ability to be more self-sufficient while on the road, which can be a great feeling.
RVs and what it takes to power them can get noisy. Generators, for example, aren't going to up the level of tranquility while out on the road. Solar power and the panels used to harness it are noise-free, adding to the peacefulness of the great outdoors.
RV solar panels work without burning any fossil fuels, which means they don't produce any harmful emissions. This is important for both the environment and your health, as those emissions could be detrimental to both.
No operational cost
There is an initial cost involved when assembling an RV solar panel system, but there is no additional operation cost once the equipment is purchased and installed. Additional charges going forward would be adding more portable solar panels to bolster your power output.
How Do I fit my vehicle for an RV Solar Power System?
It is a common question: How much solar do I need for my RV?
To determine how many solar panels you need for your RV, you will first calculate how much power your RV uses. This is done by multiplying the wattage of your appliances and electronics by the number of hours they are used each day. Once you have this number, you can divide it by the number of watts a solar panel produces. This will give you the total number of solar panels you need to meet your daily power needs.
Here is an example to help you better understand calculating solar power needs: Let's say you have an appliance that consumes 60 watts of energy. You estimate you will use the appliance approximately 3 hours daily. So 60W x 3 hours = 180 Watts/hours daily.
This calculation can be done for every appliance and energy drawing device you want to use while dry camping.
Remember, these are estimates, but it is best to figure out before investing in an RV solar panel system so you won't be blindsided by a total daily output you weren't expecting.
Another option, and a method many RV owners choose instead of estimating daily power consumption, is simply to go out camping without any power hookups. This option requires a battery meter that can accurately read how much solar power your RV will need. Testing your vehicle to see the most accurate backup power estimates will reveal how many solar panels you will want to install.
Calculating Solar System Energy Output and Storage
Once you know how much power you will need to keep your RV running while off the grid, you'll next need to calculate how much wattage your RV solar system will produce.
A general rule of thumb is that a 100-watt solar panel will produce about 300-450W per day on average, but that depends on many factors, including location, weather, and the time of year.
When assembling your solar power system, something else to consider is how many batteries you'll need to store your solar wattage output.
For example, a 100Ah deep cycle lithium battery offered by Way has about 1280 Watt-hours storage capacity.
RV Solar System Elements
Solar panels are the star of the show, but they aren't the only component needed for the success of a solar system.
Let's take a quick look at the various components of RV solar panel systems and how each part is vital to its success.
RV Solar Panels
The solar panels can be mounted on the roof or portable for charging anywhere. As discussed earlier, their role is to be the collector of the sun's energy in the solar cells and disperse it through the charge controller to your bank of batteries.
A solar panel can be installed flat and primarily out of sight on the RV roof or installed at an angle on the roof space to better face the sun. A portable solar panel is also an option; they are often used to help power RV solar systems but aren't installed on the vehicle's body. A foldable solar panel can be a great option for many RVers as it can be easy to store and placed in direct sunlight.
Some RV's have an existing solar panel capability, and owners would purchase solar panel kits to add to the wattage of their solar systems. A solar kit usually comes with a panel and the necessary connectors to already installed RV solar systems.
Solar panels are undoubtedly important, but the heart of solar systems is the lithium batteries.
Batteries store the sun's energy and allow you to use that power when the sun isn't shining. This is why every solar system needs a good battery bank.
A battery bank is simply a collection of batteries wired together to create one large storage container for electrical power. This way, when your solar panels are producing more energy than you're using, the excess gets stored in the batteries for later use.
And unlike a generator, which has to run constantly to produce power, solar energy can fill up your batteries during the day, and then you can use that stored power at night or on cloudy days.
The size of your battery bank will depend on how much power you need to run your RV. RV batteries also vary, but vehicles commonly use either lithium-ion batteries or lead-acid batteries.
An RV charge controller is a component in your solar system that regulates energy flow from the solar panels to the batteries. It helps protect your batteries from overcharging and keeps your solar system running efficiently.
Charge controllers mount inside the RV and are wired between your solar panels and the battery bank.
An inverter is a device that converts direct current (DC) to alternating current (AC). This is important in an RV solar system because it allows you to use the power from your solar panels to run appliances and other devices in your RV that require traditional plug-in AC power.
The inverter will be mounted inside your RV and close to your battery bank. Appliances like a coffee pot, laptop, or phone chargers won't work without an inverter while boondocking.
Installing Solar Panels to your RV Batteries
Now that we've discussed everything you need to know about solar panels let's take the final step and talk about hooking them up to your RV batteries.
- Mount your RV solar panels on the roof of your vehicle.
- Install the charge controller inside your RV and make sure it is close to your battery bank.
- Wiring from your solar panels must be run into the RV and connected to the charge controller. A circuit breaker or fuse should be used on these wires to run correctly. Methods for running these wires could be through plumbing entries, a fridge vent, or even drilling a small hole big enough for the cables in the RV roof. Just make sure to cover or caulk any openings.
- Wire your charge controller to your batteries and install a fuse on these wires.
- Once the system is physically installed, the last step will be connecting the RV solar panels to the charge controller. First, check all wiring to ensure that both positive and negative polarity is correct.
- The final step to installing RV solar panels is to put in your inverter so you can run a 120-Volt AC appliance. Mount the inverter inside your RV near the batteries and connect the proper wiring.
This is a very high-level overview of installing RV solar panels in your RV. If you need additional and more detailed help, reach out to the experts here at Way so we can assure your Elite solar panels and installed correctly.
Are RV Solar Panels worth the cost and time investment?
This question can be challenging to answer depending on your personal needs and wants. Solar panels for RVs are an investment, but they offer many benefits that could make them worth the cost.
It truly depends on you and your goals while out on the road. If you are ok spending all your time in the more crowded campgrounds and resorts, then you may not find the need for solar panels.
But, if you are looking to get away from it all and boondock in more remote locations, then RV solar panels may be a suitable investment for you.
Solar panels are worthwhile because of their last operational costs from a cost standpoint. For example, a 100-watt solar panel can cost hundreds of dollars, but the power it can provide over many years pays for itself exponentially.
RV Solar Panel Maintenance
Once you have installed your RV solar panel system, very little maintenance is required. The most important thing you can do to keep your system running smoothly is clean the solar panels.
Dust, dirt, and bird droppings can all reduce the efficiency of your solar panels. An excellent way to clean them is with a soft brush and soapy water. Be sure to dry them off when you are done.
Some in the RV lifestyle may prefer portable units for easier cleaning. For example, flexible solar panels are easy to clean while still meeting your energy needs. Another benefit of the flexible solar panel is its ease of storage compared to other models.
Want help building the right RV solar panel system?
If you're ready to invest in solar panels for your RV, our team at Way can help you select the right system and install it correctly.
Our experts have years of experience designing RV power solutions and have engineered some of the best RV solar panels in the industry. We know how to get the most out of your solar investment while you're away from RV parks and shore power.
Contact us today to learn more about our Elite solar products and how we can help you take your RV adventures to the next level!