Solar panels for campers: The basics
- 27 Apr 2022
- 9 min
Solar panels change the way sailors and boondockers travel. Since a PV installation can generate energy anywhere, it really pushes the borders of where you can go and what you can see. Choosing solar panels is tough though and even harder with an RV or a boat — what should you even look for? In this article we’ll tell what’s important and what is not when it comes to solar panels for campers.
Replace old generators
with powerful solar panels
The charge of a trailer house battery doesn’t last forever, especially if your RV is equipped to the teeth. It means that you need to stop along the way in search of battery hookups or smelly gas generators. Solar panels for RVs and campers have become a great alternative to that and here is why:
• Solar panels are silent and they don’t have any smell;
• They don’t need fuel and work as long as there is daylight;
• Usually solar panels are installed on the roof of a trailer which isn’t used for anything else.
Flexible thin-film panels
vs. Reliable rigid modules
The first thing that you have to decide is the type of panel. They differ in weight, size, output and longevity.
Flexible solar panels for campers are easy to install on an RV – using strong adhesives is usually enough. Since they bend well, you can even put them on a roof with unusual configurations. They are also light and fairly small. Usually they provide small power output – 100-200 Watts, but you don’t really need a lot of power
for an RV system. Thin-film panels usually last for 10-15 years.
Rigid panels, polycrystalline or monocrystalline, are larger in size and heavier. Installing them usually requires drilling. These panels are much higher in power output: 300-500W. Even one module can be enough for everything you have.
A rigid solar panel has an aluminum frame and the cells are protected by tempered glass so extreme weather conditions aren’t a threat to them. Mono- and poly-panels last for over 25 years.
Pick sturdy panels to last
in any climate
While all solar panels are made to withstand hail, harsh winds and rain, they vary
in their mechanical resistance. The bare minimum for a solar panel is around 2400 Pa of front load which is roughly equivalent to 140 mph wind. However, we recommend picking sturdier solar panels for an RV, since the road might be bumpy and tornado seasons are a real thing in the US.
Depending on the area where you live, you might want to pick panels with good performance in low light conditions or improved tolerance to high temperatures.
Take a look at half-cut cell design – it gives panels a better shading resistance.
Calculate your energy needs before hitting the road
To figure out the size of solar panels for your travel trailer, write down all the appliances in your van, their power consumption and number of hours in use per day. Another way to do it would be to take a test ride with a fully charged battery and see how much of its charge you’ve spent during the day. Find all the necessary formulas and calculations in this article.
Remember that RV moves around all the time. As a result, the positioning and angling of your panels are destined to be imperfect, thus your system is going to perform at 60-80% of its capacity. Thus we recommend picking panels with a bit of extra power just to be sure. Your panels don’t have to be powerful, but they better be efficient, because space is a resource in itself when it comes to RVs.
Solar system doesn’t consist of solar panels only. You’ll also need a charge controller, a small off-grid inverter and a house battery which an RV usually already has. A pre-packed solar kit can be a great choice for a mobile installation since it has all the necessary parts of installation already sized together. There are kits with so-called portable solar panels for campers that you can pack and unpack whenever it’s needed.
The go-to brands of solar panels for campers
The two markets of rigid and thin-film solar panels are completely different: generally, the brand that puts out monocrystalline modules doesn’t make flexible panels.
In this article we’ll talk primarily about rigid panels – it’s a matter of preference,
but we found them to be a bit more reliable. They take a bit more effort to set up,
but it’s worth it.
The market of rigid solar panels is wide: the majority of panels come from Chinese manufacturers and there are several North American brands with a good reputation. Chinese panels are the cheapest: the cost per watt may range from $0.5 to $0.8. American-made panels are slightly more expensive, but their quality is higher. Campers often pick Canadian Solar panels for their high performance in cloudy weather. Norwegian PV modules by REC are also a good choice – they are sturdy and efficient. Silfab, Q CELLS, Panasonic are also the brands that we can recommend.
You might ask, which are the brands and panels that we wouldn’t pick? High output and bifacial modules from JA Solar, Jinko and Trina Solar don't really fit the job: their output is too high for the needs of an RV and they might turn out to be slightly flimsy. Given the situation, the brands with premium-class panels for home systems aren’t the best choice either – for example, Solaria. Solaria panels are sturdy, efficient
and have improved shading resistance, but they are a bit too fancy and expensive
to put on an RV.
When picking solar panels for a camper trailer, keep in mind that warranties most likely won't play a role, since they usually apply only for residential/commercial solar systems. RV systems also aren’t eligible for Federal Solar Tax Credit and other incentives that are offered by the state and utility companies.
Best solar panels for campers: A1SolarStore’s pick
We’ve asked our engineer to pick a few models that he considers to be the best solar panels for campers. Here is what we’ve got from him.
Evervolt 370W from Panasonic
Panasonic panels are a solid choice in any situation: these are well-made, high quality modules from a trusted manufacturer. Evervolt provides 370 Watts of power with 21.2% efficiency: much higher than average conversion rates. Half-cut cell design improves shading tolerance and makes the cells a lot sturdier.
The panel withstand 4,000 Pa wind load and 7,000 Pa snow load.
Alpha Black 370W from REC
REC Alpha Black is a highly efficient panel with 21.2% conversion rate. It is a sturdy, very reliable module that can withstand 7,000 Pa pressure. It is roughly equivalent
to wind of over 240 mph or even a stronger one. The Norwegian brand is known for
high-quality products and Alpha Black shows great resistance to high temperatures and low degradation rates. It loses no more than 0.25% of power per year.
MSE 345W from Mission Solar
Here’s a solar panel from American brand Mission Solar located in Texas.
It’s a well-made sturdy module with 5600 Pa maximum load: the panel is ready
for tornadoes, hurricanes or hail. It provides 345 Watts of power output with 18.7% energy conversion rate. The panel has a great design, performs well
at high temperatures and is PID resistant.
Solar for RV:
Frequently Asked Questions
Q.: How do I install solar panels on a trailer by myself?
A.: That’s a subject for a whole another article. Which we luckily have:
come check out our DIY guide on setting a solar system on an RV.
Q.: Should I connect my panels in series or in parallel?
A.: The configuration of a system often depends on the properties of your equipment and amps and volts that it is rated for. Generally, boondockers and sailors connect solar panels in parallel whereas in residential systems connection
in series is more common.
Q.: Are a charge controller and an inverter necessary?
A.: You need an inverter as long as there are appliances in your van that require alternating current, such as laptop, microwave and others. Charge controller
is a safety precaution for your battery: it protects your energy storage from the high voltage of your panels. It is relatively inexpensive and it’s definitely cheaper
to get it rather than buying a new battery every few years.
Q.: How many panels can fit on an RV roof?
A.: Panels and RV roofs are all different, of course. Generally, the roof of a trailer
has a room for 5-6 rigid modules maximum.
Q.: Do solar panels make hot water?
A.: No, photovoltaic modules aren’t the same thing as solar thermal panels.
PV modules convert sunlight into electricity whereas solar thermal panels
use the heat from the sun.
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