RV Solar Panels: A Must-Read Guide (With Expert Advice)

Traveling on the road from place to place in your RV can be quite satisfying, but for it to be enjoyable, you need to have power available on-demand. Coupling your energy demands with solar panels results in complete freedom from the grid while on the road.

When picking the different types of solar panels and other components for RV solar systems, it is important to have all the information beforehand. In this article, you will find a detailed explanation of the basics of RV solar panels, types of modules used for RVs, other important components, and a buying guide with advice from an expert on how to pick the best RV solar system for you.

Solar Panles Installed on RV

Basics: What are RV solar panels?

RVs are always on the road, constantly exposed to solar radiation. To take advantage of this, RV owners achieve energy independence by installing solar panels on their roofs or carrying portable solar panels for RVs.

RV solar panels can be fixed to the roof of the vehicle with fixed racking designed for them. Since the roof constantly receives solar radiation, RV solar panels can produce high amounts of electricity to power DC and AC loads while on the road or camping.

Having RV solar panels eliminates the need to stop at campgrounds to charge batteries with an external power outlet or the need to use external diesel generators. Solar panels only need exposure to the sun to generate power all day as long as no objects are shading the modules.

Benefits of RV solar panels

RV solar panels can be loyal allies on the road, delivering a great number of benefits. Let’s see some of them:

Simple to no installation

You can install and fix RV solar panels on the roof of your RV, but this is not always necessary. You can opt to have portable solar panels for RVs, which are placed around the vehicle facing the sun. Another option is to stick flexible solar panels for RV to the roof, which does not require drilling holes on the roof.

Portability

RV solar panels will go anywhere with you and will constantly generate power on the road, making them a loyal ally on your adventures. The only thing you need to be aware of is to never park in a shaded spot since your panels would not generate power or will do so at reduced performance.

Independence from the grid and power generators

Regular RVs stop at campgrounds to charge deep cycle batteries. Alternatively, they can use an external generator, but generators produce loud noises and require fuel constantly. RV solar panels are the best solution to these problems, since they only need sunlight to generate power and will work for 20 to 25 years.

What types of solar panels are used for RVs?

You now know the basics of RV solar panels and their major advantages, but can any solar panel do the work? Yes and no.

Some RVs have obstructions like ventilation shafts and other similar objects placed on the roof, limiting the available space for installing solar panels. Other RVs might not have flat roofs, making the installation more challenging.

3 Main Options for Solar Panels: Monocrystalline, Polycrystalline and Thin-Film

To solve these problems, you can use one of the different types of solar panels fitted for RVs. These are the following:

Rigid or Traditional Solar Panels

There are two types of rigid solar panels for RVs: monocrystalline silicon and polycrystalline silicon. They are manufactured using the same source material but have different manufacturing processes and properties.

Monocrystalline Silicon

Monocrystalline silicon is the most powerful and efficient solar technology available for RVs. This technology can be used for homes and RVs, using solar cells manufactured from a single silicon crystal through a process known as the Czochralski process.

Monocrystalline silicon RV solar panels cost around $1.25/W and the highest recorded efficiency for monocrystalline silicon is set at 25.4%. This technology is a better option if you are looking for a solar system yielding the highest possible power output.

The performance of these modules is affected by a temperature coefficient of nearly -0.38%/ºC. The installation usually requires drilling holes and using a fixing rack for the roof, but they also come in portable designs.

Polycrystalline Silicon

Polycrystalline silicon is created by melting various silicon crystals together, resulting in a solar cell with slightly higher impurities and lower efficiency, but at a much lower cost.

The highest recorded efficiency for polycrystalline silicon is set at 24.4%, while its cost is only $1.00/W, 10% less than monocrystalline silicon. These RV solar panels can be affected by temperature through a temperature coefficient of -0.39%/ºC.

Flexible Solar Panels

Thin-Film Amorphous Silicon

Amorphous silicon is a type of thin-film technology used since the early 70s. This technology achieved its highest recorded conversion efficiency at 14.0%, but its cost is also low at $0.69/W.

One major point in favor of amorphous silicon RV solar panels is their resistance to high temperatures. They are only affected by a temperature coefficient of -0.234%/ºC. This technology will provide an excellent ally when driving your RV in states with hot climates.

Amorphous silicon can be designed into flexible solar panels for RVs or even rollable solar panels, perfectly adapting to the curved roofs of some of these vehicles or even for camping trip experiences. The downside is that their power rating is generally low.

Monocrystalline Silicon

Monocrystalline silicon is not only used for traditional rigid solar panels. This technology was modified and improved in the last decade, to create flexible monocrystalline solar panels. This feature allows modules to be stuck to the roof, without having to drill holes to install racking.

Efficiency values for this type of technology are close to the values of traditional monocrystalline technologies, with efficiencies of 23% to 25%. These flexible solar panels are regularly used for RV rooftop installations and temporal installations at camping sites.  

What is the best type of solar panel for RVs?

Solar panels for RVs differ in aspects like price, conversion efficiency, temperature coefficient, and other factors. In this section we compare each of these:

COMPARING TYPES OF SOLAR PANELS FOR RVS

 Monocrystalline SiliconPolycrystalline SiliconAmorphous Silicon
CONVERSION EFFICIENCY25.4%24.4%14.0%
PRICE$1.10/W$1.00/W$0.69/W
TEMPERATURE COEFFICIENT-0.38%/ºC-0.39%/ºC-0.234%/ºC
TYPE OF INSTALLATIONPortable/Flexible/Fixing RackPortable/Fixing RackPortable/Flexible

In the table above you can see major differences between types of solar panels for RVs. As you weigh your needs regarding efficiency, cost, and ease of installation, you might want to choose one or another technology.

Monocrystalline silicon comprises the RV solar panels with the highest power production. These are the best solar panels for RV when you are looking to demand high amounts of energy to live comfortably or want to charge your batteries faster. Polycrystalline silicon also produces a high amount of power while still saving some money. This technology has lower efficiency, but also a lower cost.

Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline silicon can be installed on RV roofs by using a fixing rack or be designed as portable solar panels for RVs. However, monocrystalline silicon technology also has the potential to be designed as flexible modules, adapting its shape to the roof of the RV.

Amorphous silicon is a very unique technology that allows manufacturing solar panels for RVs that adapt to curved roofs, featuring a much lower price per watt and performing better in high temperatures. The downside of this technology is its low efficiency and low power ratings. Amorphous silicon can be used to manufacture portable solar panels for RVs that can even be completely rollable, or also for manufacturing flexible solar panels for roof installations.

Other components in a solar power system on RVs

Solar panels are the major component of RV solar systems, but they are not the only ones. RV requires an off-grid solar system installation to power DC and AC loads.

Connection for an RV Solar Power System
Connection for an RV solar power system | Source: Pinterest

RV solar systems require solar panels, a charge controller, a battery bank, and an inverter. Here you will learn what these components and their functions are:

Charge Controller

The solar charge controller regulates the DC voltage and current sent to the load and the batteries, setting the power output at the right level. This device uses a system known as Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) to optimize the power output from the panels, finding the right voltage and amperage to extract as much power as possible from the system. The charge controller keeps the batteries charged without overcharging them and supplies power to the load as it is demanded.

Battery Bank

The battery bank is where solar energy gets stored for later usage, this is especially practical during harsh climates and nights. This component is comprised of one or several batteries connected to match the input voltage of the inverter and charge controller. Most battery banks are designed to operate at 12V, 24V, or 48V.

Inverter

The solar inverter is responsible for converting the DC power coming from the charge controller into a modified or pure sine wave with a 120V voltage. This device provides your RV the capacity to power regular appliances like your computer, coffee maker, TV, and many others.

What to consider when choosing RV solar panels? (With expert advice)

Choosing the best solar panels for RV and other components for your vehicle can be challenging. To help you out, in this section we provide you with advice from an expert regarding the aspects to consider when choosing your RV solar panel system and other inputs.

Solar system size: Truly consider your energy needs

RVs do not require as much power as residential solar systems, especially since there are rarely any power-hungry devices like in a house. When spending the day at your RV, you might want to watch TV for a few hours (150W per hour or W/h), turn on your satellite internet (25W/h) for working or surfing the web on your laptop (100W/h), make coffee (1,000W/h), or use other low power consumption tasks.

All of these devices have relatively low power consumption, except for the coffee maker which consumes 1,000W per hour but only operates for 5-10 minutes. Considering and analyzing your power demand habits will help you estimate how much power you need, allowing you to invest in the right size for RV solar panels.

Equation for PV System Sizing

The previous equation can help you to estimate the ideal size for a PV system for your RV. The equation requires you to consider your daily energy requirements, expected Peak Sun Hours (PSH) or effective hours of power generation at maximum capacity in the location where you will be camping, and a derating factor associated with PV losses. For properly estimating your energy consumption, you can use the widget for reference to obtain the power demand, you just need to figure out the amount of time that you intend to use these appliances.

What is the expected cost of RV solar panels?

RVs can have regular solar systems installed, but they usually go better with RV solar panel kits, which might cost as low as $100 or as high as $3,000, depending on what the kit includes. RV solar panel kits generally include RV solar panels, a charge controller, and wiring accessories,  but some kits can also include a power inverter and batteries, for a premium price of course.

The most simple 100W kit might cost around $100, but a 100W kit with a flexible solar panel might go up to $250. The price increases more and more, depending on the number and quality of the products included in the kit.

What is the best way to mount solar panels on RV roofs?

While portable solar panels do not require to be mounted on a roof since they can be installed on the ground of a camping site, this is not the case for other types of solar panels. To take real advantage of traditional and flexible solar panels for RV, the smart choice is to mount them on the roof of the vehicle. There are different types of mounting systems:

  • Fixed mounting: Fixed mounting solar panels is the most straightforward installation method for rigid or traditional solar panels. This type of mounting requires you to drill holes on the rooftop of your RV and install the mounting brackets to fix the solar panel in place, on a flat position on top of the mounting system.
  • Flexible mounting: Flexible solar panels adapt to the shape of your RV, making them easier to install on any type of RV roof. To install these types of solar panels, you usually have to use VHB tapes or EternaBond tape to set the panels in position. You might also have to drill a hole in your roof to send the cables into the RV, but this installation only requires one hole.  
  • Tilt mounting: Instead of fixing solar panels on a flat position, you could install them with a tilt angle kit. This is a mounting system that includes a tilting platform, allowing you to tilt solar panels in the direction of the sun, depending on your camping location. This type of mounting system makes your RV solar panels absorb more solar radiation and yield a higher power output, especially during the fall or winter season.

Battery size: Amps per hour translate to autonomy

Batteries are an important component of your RV solar system. You might not require much power during the day when you are camping, but you will surely need it at night.

The best way to understand the capacity of batteries is by translating their amp-hour (Ah) capacity into watt-hours, by multiplying amp-hour by the voltage. For instance, a 100Ah battery operating at 24V can store 2,400Wh, more than enough to watch TV for a few hours, turn on your satellite internet, and your computer, and make some coffee during the day.

You should size your solar panel system with enough reserves to fully charge the batteries at least throughout the day. Increasing the days of autonomy (amount of days that you can live off-grid with a single full charge of the battery bank) will also require you to increase the  PV system size. Using the equation shown earlier in this section will help you size correctly your PV system to achieve this objective.

Choosing your charge controller

The charge controller regulates the variable power output of your RV solar panels, making it extremely important for your RV solar system. When choosing a particular charge controller for your RV, the main aspect to consider is matching the voltage input of the charge controller to the voltage output of the string of solar panels. Additionally, you should pick a charge controller that can handle an amperage higher than the total current output of the string of solar panels at your RV.

What is the best type of solar panel for you?

After learning all the benefits of different types of solar panels for RVs, you should now weigh the price, power rating, and efficiency, and consider available space on the roof of your RV against the dimensions of the solar panel. This will help you pick the best solar panels for RV and the ideal configuration for your system.

Top brands selling RV solar panels

Several brands have made a name for themselves by selling high-quality solar panels for RVs and RV solar panel kits. When looking for the best solar panels for RV, we recommend considering the options manufactured by these companies.

Renogy

Renogy - Logo

Renogy is among the best brands manufacturing solar solutions for campers and RVs, especially designing durable products with high-quality performance. You can find an RV solar panel kit ranging from $312.99 up to $679.99, or you can create your kit with the Kit Add-on Suggestions. You will find a wide range of interesting solar products manufactured by this brand.

Goal Zero

Goal Zero - Logo

Goal Zero is one of the best manufacturers designing vehicle integration solar solutions. They sell portable solar panels, high-quality batteries, vehicle integration kits to connect the components, and many other devices and accessories perfectly suitable for RV and campers.

You can find portable solar panels for RV starting at $199.98 and batteries with a wide range of capacities available to suit your needs.

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