Harnessing the Power of the Sun: An Introduction to RV Solar Power

Jun 22, 2020 | Gear & Tech

Harnessing the Power of the Sun: An Introduction to RV Solar Power

We walk you through the basics of installing a solar power system in your RV, including figuring out how much solar power is needed and what to include in your solar power kit.

By Karen Blue

Photo courtesy of Go Power!

Where you choose to take your RV is an entirely personal choice. Some people opt to stay in amenity-packed RV resorts, while others prefer the solitude and remote beauty that comes from boondocking. But no matter where you go, you’re going to need a source to power your rig. 

Your primary options are a hookup, a generator, or solar power. And while installing solar panels might seem like a big, complicated project that requires a lot of technical expertise, it’s actually relatively simple—and may come in handy if you ever find yourself off the grid with no power source. Here we’ll take you through the basics of RV solar power and give you an introduction into what it’s like to harness the power of the sun. 

Old class c RV with solar panels surrounded by desert cacti
Photo courtesy of Go Power!

Why Solar? 

The easiest answer to this question is that as long as the sun is shining, an RV solar system can let you camp just about anywhere. In fact, some of the most breathtaking locations across the U.S.—including national parks, state parks, and regional campgrounds—either don’t have power sources or have rules that limit or prohibit generator usage. With solar power, you can park in many of these locations. You also have the added benefits of a clean, renewable energy source, unattended charging, little to no maintenance, no gas required, and zero noise pollution.

RV Power Types

If you decide to take your RV to a place with no electric hookups, some of the essential components will run, but many others will not. This is because certain appliances and devices operate on a type of power that your RV batteries alone cannot supply. To understand this further, let’s break down RV power into two core types.

  • 12 volt: Also called DC, this voltage powers basic RV components such as lights, USB plugs, radio, fans, water pump, furnace, water heater, and specially-designed RV refrigerators that operate on both electric and propane.
  • 110 volt: Also called AC, this voltage is used for large power-consumption devices such as TVs, DVD players, computers, microwaves, air conditioners, and other household appliances (coffee makers, toasters, and hair dryers). 

All of your 12-volt items operate using just the RV’s batteries, but the 110-volt devices require an external power source, such as solar, or a way to transform 12-volt power into 110-volt power. 

Solar panels on top of an RV at a forest campground
Photo: Jeremy Puglisi
Solar panels on top of an RV at the beach
Photo: Jeremy Puglisi

Solar Components

Now that we understand the two types of RV power, let’s break down the basic components needed for an RV solar system. We can think of these components in terms of collection (solar panels), storage (batteries), and transformation (power inverter).

  • Solar Panels: The energy from the sun is collected through your solar panels and used to recharge your batteries when you are not connected to a hookup or generator. The more solar panels you have, the more energy you can collect.
  • Batteries: Energy collected through your solar panels is stored in your batteries. If you have more than one battery, this is called a battery bank. There are multiple ways to configure your battery bank and different types of batteries, but 12-volt batteries (the same used in a car) are the most common. It’s worth noting that you can often collect more power than you’re able to store, especially in very warm, sunny areas, so it’s necessary to have the proper balance of solar panels and batteries. We recommend a 1:1 ratio of battery amp hours to solar watts.
  • Power Inverter: To power any 110-volt item using solar, you will need a power inverter. An inverter transforms the 12-volt DC power from the charged batteries into 110-volt AC power. Inverters also come in multiple options to meet various power demands. Before purchasing an inverter, it is vital to determine what devices you plan to use and whether or not you will use them simultaneously. For example, a 1,000-watt inverter will not power your microwave or air conditioner, but it will power a small TV and charge your laptop. 

When broken down like this, you can start to evaluate your individual solar power needs. If you only need to power basic RV systems, then you can start with a system of solar panels and a battery bank. However, many RVers find that they want their rigs to offer the same conveniences as their homes, and adding an inverter allows them to operate their 110-volt systems.

Airstream being towed down a direct road with solar panels on top
Photo courtesy of Go Power!

In addition to the basic solar components that collect, store, and transform, other features help regulate, balance, and protect the system. These can include a battery monitoring system (or BMS) and a charge controller. You can think of these items as the brains that help operate and monitor your system in the safest and most efficient manner.

Portable vs. Onboard Solar Kits

Onboard solar panels are permanently mounted to the roof of the RV. They are incredibly durable, require no setup or storage, and charge on the go. Unlike portable solar panels, they don’t require storage and can be left unattended, with little-to-no risk of wind damage or theft.

Jeep pulling a small trailer at the beach with portable solar panels resting on the ground
Photo courtesy of Go Power!

Portable solar panels are placed on the ground and can be moved around as needed. These panels cost less than mounted panels and don’t require any installation, making them a great first step for RVers who are trying out solar power. By placing the panels on the ground with a long power cable back to the RV, a portable solar panel allows you to park your rig in the shade and still direct the panel toward the sun. Additionally, by moving the panel throughout the day, you can maximize the rate of charge to your batteries.  

How to Choose the Right Solar System

The best RV solar kit is the one that fits your unique needs. Before selecting a solar system, these questions are worth answering:

  • Do you want to RV off-grid extensively or occasionally?
  • Are you a full-time working nomad that requires laptops and other powered devices?
  • Do you desire all of the electronic amenities of home?
  • Will you be camping in warm places and needing to use your RV’s air conditioner regularly?
  • Do the locations where you typically camp have regular sunny skies or overcast days, or are they heavily wooded?
Solar panels on top of an RV at a cloudy beach
Photo: Jeremy Puglisi
Evening photo of solar panels on top of an RV at a campground
Photo: Jeremy Puglisi

Once you’ve determined your RV solar style, you can calculate how much solar power you need for your RV. Many manufacturers provide tools that will help you calculate your energy consumption and figure out the appropriate solar configuration. And if you think your needs may grow over time, you can always start with a basic solar setup and upgrade later. Most systems are expandable, allowing you to add additional solar panels and batteries. And lastly, whether you decide to have your system installed or do it yourself, working with a reputable dealer will assure you get the best RV solar kit without sacrificing any of your power needs.


Gear We Love

There are many options when it comes to buying solar panels for your RV. Be sure to check out some of our favorite solar power gear and gadgets.

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Karen Blue

Karen is endlessly curious, with an insatiable appetite for travel and exploring nature. She is an entrepreneur, scuba instructor, and photographer, living full-time on the road with her husband, daughter, and pup in a 30-foot Airstream Flying Cloud. She believes in creating the life you desire and living it to the fullest.

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