It's quite common to see portable solar panels on the roofs of RVs. Even though solar panels cannot replace an internal combustion engine and turn your vehicle into a fully electric vehicle, they can allow you to operate your appliances and lights cleanly instead of relying on a generator that uses fossil fuels.
Solar panels also give you the freedom to camp off-grid and in areas where it is difficult to use a generator. And not to mention, using solar panels for your RV can even help you reduce your carbon footprint.
In this article, we take a closer look at portable solar panels for RVs, how they work and how to incorporate them so you benefit from free electricity.
What Are Portable Solar Panels for RV?
RV solar panels work just like commercial and residential solar panels except on a smaller and more transportable scale. Once you install them on your camper, RV, or motorhome, solar panels will capture sunlight and convert it into usable electricity for your vehicle. You can then use this electricity to power the lights, appliances, and sockets in your RV.
If you don't have solar panels, you will have to use another power source for electricity, such as a campsite hookup or generator. Portable solar panels for RV provide an environmentally friendly and convenient alternative to these conventional sources as they use renewable energy.
How Many Solar Panels Do You Need for an RV?
Unlike commercial and residential solar systems that are designed to power an entire business or home, RV solar systems generally deliver a lower output. This generally isn't a problem since you don't use as many appliances and lights in your RV as you would in a concrete home.
The number of solar panels you need for an RV depends on a couple of factors, such as the efficiency of the solar panels, your power consumption habits, and the hours of sunlight your RV receives every day.
Determining your average daily energy requirements is the first step to identifying the size of the RV solar system you require. For this, you will have to list down the appliances you need to use, how much power they need, and the number of hours you will use them each day.
For instance, let's assume you want to run a 500-watt microwave for 10 minutes every day. By multiplying the two numbers, you can see that you will need to produce 125 watts of electricity just to use your microwave for that period. Repeat this process with every appliance or device.
To calculate how much electricity your system is going to produce per day, you will have to multiply the system size with the number of direct sunlight hours your panels will receive daily.
Continuing our previous example, let's assume you have an RV solar panel system that comprises four individual solar panels producing 100 watts each, giving you a total system size of 400 watts. We will also assume that we live in a fairly sunny area that gets almost 5 hours of sunlight each day.
With some quick math, you can see that system is going to generate 4,000 watt-hours of electricity every day. You can use this result as a benchmark to compare against your energy requirements, then adjust the wattage and number of panels accordingly.
For reference, a 4000-watt-hour system is typically sufficient to power small appliances and switch on the lights. However, it won't run heavy appliances. As a matter of fact, even the biggest RV solar panel systems are not designed for excessive or constant electricity consumption. Thus, if you need a lot of energy, solar panels are not going to be an ideal choice.
RV Solar System Components
An RV solar system is not just a matter of fixing solar panels to the RVs roof and plugging in your devices and appliances. Here is a list of the primary elements in an RV solar system.
Panels can be rigid, flexible, or portable. Flexible and lightweight panels are more feasible when you have a molded RV roof instead of a flat roof, whereas portable solar panels can be installed on or off the RV. Thus, they can effectively capture the sunlight even in times when you have parked the RV in a shady area. Rigid solar panels are quite heavy; however, they are also highly efficient and durable.
Your battery system is the key element of your RVs solar power system. If you don't have a battery bank, your RV will not be able to store energy. The battery is where the energy generated by sunlight is stored. Your solar panels are going to charge the battery system.
However, all battery systems are not the same, and all of them are not well-suited to the uncertain charge cycles of solar energy systems. Lithium-ion batteries are a better choice than lead-acid batteries.
Solar Charge Controller
The charge controller is mounted inside the vehicle. Wires go from your solar panels to the charge controllers and from the charge controller into your battery system. The charge controller prevents overcharging, thereby preventing your battery from getting damaged.
A lot of RVs come with inverters that transform DC power from your 12-volt battery into usable 120-volt AC power for your fans, lights, TVs, and other electrical appliances. Costlier inverters can generate more consistent and reliable power required to run sensitive machines such as medical equipment or electronics.
A transfer switch lets you switch the source of your power from the battery to shore power while you are parked at a campsite or switch off a propane source while you're driving.
How to Connect Portable Solar Panels to Your RV?
Here is a list of the steps you need to follow to connect solar panels to the battery system.
- Mount the solar panels on your RVs roof.
- Install the charge controller inside the RV close to the battery system.
- Run the wires from the solar panels into the vehicle and over to the charge controller. You can take the wires through a fridge vent or even through the hole from where the water pipes enter the RV if these are close to the battery. You can also drill a hole through the RVs roof to make room for the wires and properly fill any drilled holes. You need to install a circuit breaker or fuse on the wires for this run.
- Now connect the wires from the charge controller to the battery bank. A fuse that's a little higher than the charge controller's rated current needs to be installed on these wires.
- By this point in time, the system is completely installed. However, the RV solar panels aren't connected to the charge controller. Before you make the final connection, you should double-check all the wiring to ensure the polarity (negative and positive) is correct. After you do this, you can plug in the solar panels to the charge controllers. We suggest you do this at night or have the solar panels covered by a blanker to avoid a spark.
- This is an optional step. Nevertheless, if you wish to use 120-volt AC appliances, you need to install an inverter inside your RV, as close as possible to the batteries, and run appropriate wiring to that inverter.
Important Note - If you're wiring your controller or solar panels directly to your battery system, you don't have to disconnect the converter in your vehicle. Both the solar panels and the converter can charge the battery bank.
Benefits of Portable Solar Panels for RV
Whether you are an RV adventurer or just wish to camp on the weekends, a portable solar system can keep your batteries charged and devices powered up – regardless of how far-off grid you travel.
1. Free Energy from the Sun
Even though portable solar systems require a high initial investment, the power they generate is free. Portable panels are easy to set up and move to capture the maximum available sunlight to keep your batteries charged and power your equipment and devices.
Because solar energy is an unlimited, renewable energy source, the return on your solar investment increases over time. Solar is a great alternative to high, fluctuating grid-based electricity costs.
2. Easy Installation
While fixed solar panel systems require installation and some hard wiring, portable solar solutions are easy to install. All you have to do is place the portable panels in sunlight and plug them in. Once you are done charging the batteries, taking down the system only takes a few minutes.
3. Minimal Maintenance Requirements
Portable solar systems are generally easy and inexpensive to maintain. There isn't much to do other than an occasional cleaning to enhance the performance of solar panels.
Best Portable Solar Panels
Here are some of the best portable solar panels you can invest in for your RV.
1. BLUETTI PV200 Solar Panel | 200W
The BLUETTI PV200 200W Solar Panel is a foldable panel made of a durable and laminated ETFE material. This material makes the solar panel scratch-resistant and durable and therefore has a longer life. The solar cells in the solar panel are connected in parallel. This technique offers higher efficiency and better performance in cloudy conditions and thus offers a higher yield.
There's a kickstand located at the back of the solar panel, offering multiple options to place the solar panel at the right angle to the sun.
2. BLUETTI PV350 Solar Panel | 350W
The BLUETTI PV350 is made from the latest monocrystalline technology and offers excellent transparency of 95%. Both these factors result in an efficiency rate of 23.4%. This portable solar panel is IP65 water-resistant, which will protect it from water splashing.
Investing in a portable solar panel system is an excellent way to power your RV. It's eco-friendly, easy to install, simple to maintain, and cost-effective to run. Just make sure you choose a system that's big enough to meet all your energy needs!