Designing a RV solar power system that meets the needs of the RV owner (you) requires some careful thought. Most systems are heavily customized for the owner and involve much more than installing a few solar panels on the roof. So there’s no simple answer to this question. The overall cost of a solar system on an RV can vary considerably from one RV to the next.
If we make some assumptions though on what a hypothetical basic, mid-sized and high-end system looks like, then we can come up with some ballpark estimates.
Most RVs do not come with solar installed. So let’s also assume for the sake of this article that we’re going to convert a stock RV to an RV capable of going off-the-grid with solar. Finally, let’s exclude any design and installation costs from our estimates and include only the cost of components.
An off-grid system conversion will involve installing or upgrading multiple system components. System costs may range from $1,500 for a very basic system to $15,000 or more for a high-end system capable of powering a residential refrigerator or air conditioner. We’ll take a look at each system later on.
Let’s go through the factors that will affect the system cost. Then we’ll take a look at a breakdown of their components.
You should learn enough here to begin working on a realistic budget for your solar install. Be sure to check the links at the end if you need to learn more. Let’s get started.
Solar Panels Are Not Enough
Solar panels alone do not make up an RV solar charging system. The three basic components of the charging system are the Battery (or battery bank) being charged, the Solar Charge Controller, and the Solar Panels.
To learn more about the function of each component read this article.
Prices and specifications for each component can vary significantly depending on the needs of the RV owner. System components also need to be compatible with each other. So you’ll need to consider the cost of the entire system.
Each Solar Installation Is Customized
There are no one-size-fits-all solar system configurations. Factory preinstalled systems will probably end up being inadequate. For best results, your battery bank and solar array should be sized based on your personal energy needs.
Estimating your energy requirements will give you a ballpark number in Amp Hours that you can use to size your battery bank. From that you can estimate the number solar panels you’ll need.
Unfortunately, you won’t know what your power requirements are until you’ve used your RV for a while and documented what you use each day and for how long.
Here’s an article to help you estimate your power requirements and size your battery bank accordingly.
Powering lights, recharging portable electronics, using laptops, and watching TV will not consume a large amount of power. On the other hand, if you’re RV has a residential refrigerator that you need to run day and night, you’re energy needs will be much higher.
Coffee pots , microwaves and hair dryers aren’t a big problem for mid-sized systems. They may draw a lot of power, but only for a few minutes per day.
You have a lot of flexibility here to make adjustments based on your comfort level and budget. Here’s an example of a mid-sized system designed by the RV owner (Roger) with lithium batteries and the maximum number of solar panels. The additional solar will allow him to recharge his batteries faster while traveling through northern climates with sub-optimal solar coverage.
What are your specific needs? Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself to ensure you have enough solar to recharge your batteries:
- How much space do you have on your roof for solar?
- How much battery capacity do you consume on a daily basis?
- Do you have equipment that needs to be powered for long periods (residential refrigerator or CPAP)?
- How quickly would you like to recharge your batteries each morning?
- How abundant is the sun where you are?
- Do you have alternate methods of recharging your batteries?
What Other Battery Charging Sources Do You Have?
In addition to solar panels, you might also
- Use an onboard or portable generator to recharge your batteries
- or use your engine’s alternator to recharge batteries while driving.
Having multiple methods for recharging your batteries is a good idea. In fact, solar may not be your primary means for recharging.
Are you on-the-go quite a bit? If so, alternator charging may be sufficient to keep your batteries charged up. If that’s the case, you may not need as much solar.
Should You Start With A Solar Panel Kit?
Solar panel kits are a popular option because they are more affordable and include all of the connectors, cables and mounting hardware you might need.
For smaller installations on a tight budget a kit may be a good option. 100, 200 and 400 watt solar panel kits are common. Here are some solar panel kits on Amazon for as little as $400
The downside of starting with a solar panel kit is that you won’t have control over what components are included in the kit. So if you’re considering a kit, be sure to research each component that’s included to ensure it has the features and specifications you want.
Finally, most solar charge controllers that are included are sized for the number of panels included in the original kit. It’s very likely that you’ll want to add more solar later. This might not be possible without upgrading the solar charge controller that came with the kit.
For those reasons, I believe you’ll get a higher quality and more expandable system that meets your needs perfectly if you design and customize it yourself.
Typical RV Solar Configurations
Before we start looking at system components keep in mind that these are just ballpark prices, and the ballpark is pretty large. So as you do your research, expect component prices and features to vary considerably.
EXAMPLE #1 Cost of Batteries – A set of four decent quality AGM batteries may cost around $1,000 while a set of four LiFePo4 Lithium batteries will cost around $4,000.
Some high-end systems capable of running AC units may have 6-10 lithium batteries priced at around $1,000 each.
EXAMPLE #2 Cost of Power Inverters – Power inverter features and prices will also vary considerably. A hybrid power inverter which automatically regulates and switches between power sources can costs $1,500 – $2,500 compared to a $400 basic pure-sine inverter. The difference between 30 amp vs 50 amp power inverter configurations can also be significant.
Finally, let’s remember that these ballpark estimates reflect major component costs only. If you end up hiring a professional installer to design and install a custom system, then your costs will be much higher.
You can cut labor costs if you do-it-yourself. But if you’d rather worth with a professional, here’s a list of solar installers that can help you.
1. Basic Off-Grid Solar System
A system of this size can power basic small electronics like lights, laptops, mobile hotspot, TVs, and a cell phone booster.
- 220 Ah of flooded deep cycle batteries
- 200-400 watts of solar panels
- 30 Amp MPPT Solar Charge Controller
- 2,000 watt pure-sine inverter
Cost of components: $1,500 to $4,000
2. Typical Boondocking Off-Grid Solar System
This type of system can power small electronics plus periodic use of a microwave oven, coffee maker, hair dryer, and electric blanket.
- 450 Ah of flooded deep cycle or lithium batteries
- 400-600 watts of solar panels
- 30-60 Amp MPPT Solar Charge Controller
- 2,000 or 3,000 watt pure-sine inverter
Cost of components: $4,000 to $8,000
3. Large Power Load Off-Grid Solar System
This type of setup can power a residential refrigerator 24/7 plus other essential equipment.
- 600-800 Ah of lithium batteries
- 800 to 1000 watts of solar panels
- 60 Amp MPPT Solar Charge Controller
- 3,000-4,000 watt hybrid inverter
Cost of components: $12,000 to $18,000
I hope this exercise gave you a better understanding of what an RV solar system might cost. Here are some additional resources to continue learning about RV solar.