October 24, 2020

Solar Power For Your RV – Is It Worth It?

RV With Tito - Solar Panels for your RV

There are many benefits of having solar on your RV but there are also reasons why you should NOT install solar.  This article will help you figure out whether an onboard solar system will benefit you and your style of RVing. I’ll also layout the components of an RV solar system, what they do, and how much they cost.

If you have unanswered questions about solar for your RV like “Is solar worth the investment?” or “How much does an RV solar system cost?”, then hopefully you’ll leave here with an answer.

My wife and I have enjoyed RVing with solar and being off-the-grid for many years now, but our priorities and reasons for doing so may not be the same as yours. Take your time and learn as much as possible to really understand your options. That way you’ll have realistic expectations and know that your money is well spent on a system best suited to your needs.

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Will You Benefit From Solar?

The only time you will benefit from solar is when your RV is disconnected from shore power. There is no reason to have solar on your RV if you primarily stay in full-hookup RV parks.

If you enjoy boondocking for days at a time in sunny locations (like the Southwest), a permanently installed RV solar system could provide the energy independence you’re looking for.

If occaisional boondocking is your thing, then a portable solar panel kit may be all you need to benefit from solar and avoid a potentially costly permanent installation.

Portable Solar Panel - RVWITHTITO
200 Watt Portable Solar Panel

Making your own portable solar panel charger is a great way to learn the basics of solar. I’ll show you how in this article. Would you rather buy a pre-assembled kit like the one shown above? If so, there are several portable panel kits on Amazon.

How Solar Changed our RV Life

Having the ability to travel and camp off-the-grid in our RV has totally changed how we RV for the better. Electrical power is now a renewable resource. There’s very little to do except monitor the system.

Having electrical independence has given us the freedom to travel and camp OUR WAY with few limitations. Being off-grid and fully powered adds a level of freedom we’ve never experienced before. It simply feels natural now.

Learn more about the off-grid solar power system on our RV

There are diagrams, videos and parts lists to give you ideas

Read the article

Solar is for Battery Charging

A common misconception is that solar panels will power your RV. While this is not entirely false, it is a mistake to think of solar panels in that capacity. The primary purpose for solar panels on an RV is to recharge your battery bank when not connected to shore power or generator.

A solar charging system requires no gas, makes no sound and can charge your batteries for hours and hours unattended as long as the sun is shining. Without sun, you’ll need to resort to one of these other methods.

  • Generator – Your RV on-board or portable generator is the most common recharge method, but generators require a steady supply of gasoline to run. The noise levels can also disturb nearby campers.
  • Alternator – Some RVs can charge both the chassis and house batteries while driving.

Why Don’t RVs Come With Solar?

Solar charging systems are not standard equipment on most RVs. Why? Full off-grid solar charging systems have multiple components that need to be customized to an RV owners specific needs.

Refer to this article for a description of the RV solar charging system components.

RV Solar Charging Components

In a well designed off-grid RV solar system, all components are carefully selected and sized with the RV owner’s needs and style of camping in mind.

For this reason, I believe it would be a waste of money for the manufacturer to include a solar system not knowing who the RV owner will be. Doing would also drive the sale price of the RV higher.

So I believe it’s best to keep solar as a custom option.

What RV manufactures often do is to pre-wire an RV for solar and call it SOLAR Ready.

If you buy an RV that is pre-wired for solar, chances are you or your installer will want to redo the wiring anyway to better satisfy power capacity and rating requirements.

How Much Does an RV Solar System Cost?

Most systems are heavily customized for the RV 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.

Solar Equipment - RVWITHTITO
Mid Sized Off-Grid Boondocking System – 400-800 Watts Solar, Lithium Batteries, Solar Charge Controllers, 3KW Hybrid Inverter, Battery Monitor

Excluding any design and installation costs you could spend between $1,500 for a basic system all the way up to $15,000 or more for a high-end system. That’s just for major system components. The cost of cables, connectors, fuses, circuit breakers and everything in between can add up quickly. So keep that in mind. If you end up hiring a professional installer to design and install a custom system, then your costs will probably be much higher.

Read this article to learn what factors affect the cost of an RV solar system and to see material cost estimates for typical off-grid system configurations.

You can cut labor costs if you do-it-yourself. But if you need professional assistance, here’s a list of solar installers that can help you.

Is Solar Worth The Investment?

If you are a new RV owner I recommend using your RV for a while before making any major upgrades. Over time you will figure out what your camping preferences and limitations are. Then you’ll be in a better position to decide whether an investment in solar is something you’ll benefit from.

Experienced RV owners will probably already know whether they need solar or not.

If you feel camping off-the-grid is something you’re interested in, then I encourage you to try it out first before making a significant investment in solar or a generator. Here are some boondocking tips for beginners to get you started.

Consider starting out with a portable solar panel kit like one of these available on Amazon. There is no permanent installation required and they provide plenty of power to keep your batteries charged. Just store the portable panel when you don’t need it.

You could even create your own portable solar battery charger. Building your own is a fun way to learn the basics of solar. Here’s a simple project video showing how to build a basic portable solar charger.

How Can Off-Grid Solar Expand Your Camping Options?

Being self-contained and self-sufficient in your RV will enable you to stay anywhere you’re allowed to. Not having to rely on full-hookup campsites means you can take ANY campsite or find FREE camping options.

There are many beautiful campgrounds located on public, National Park, or State owned land. Camping at these campgrounds is inexpensive and often free. But, what you gain in beautiful scenery and solitude you lose in amenities.

Boondocking in Southwest - RVWITHTITO
Dispersed camping on public land requires you to be self-sufficient

When we first started RVing, we primarly stayed in RV parks. We didn’t even consider locations that did not have full-hookup sites. Over the years our preferences have changed. We still stay at RV parks periodically, but prefer to seek out more scenic locations that offer more privacy.

We enjoy the freedom and sponteneity of not having to make reservations. We often just hit the road not knowing where we’ll end up.

At first my wife was a bit uncomfortable with the idea of being off-the-grid and having to sacrifice too many creature comforts. These days she is totally on-board with boondocking without hookups. Here’s a fun video of Melissa and I sharing our evolution from RV park camping to boondocking.

Do You Need a Generator If You Have Solar?

There will be times when you’ll want to run a generator. Solar is not going to recharge your batteries on rainy days, through dense clouds or when camped in the woods. This is when a auxiliary generator comes in handy. A generator can also power an air conditioner, heater or other power hungry appliance when you’re battery bank and inverter can’t.

Off Grid RV Power - RVWITHTITO

This article Generating Power While Boondocking will help you determine what your energy requirements are and whether you’ll need a need a generator to supplement your solar.

There are cases when some have abandoned their generator completely and made the necessary adjustments for living solely off of solar.

If you have a residential fridge or need to run and air conditioner, having a generator as a backup is recommended

Our energy needs are pretty light and we prefer only to boondocking in locations with a moderate climate. So we have less of a need for a generator. For that reason I removed ours and haven’t missed it. Solar is our primary source of battery charging and our motorhome’s engine is our second.

What Can You Power With Solar?

The solar panels on your RV are used mainly for battery charging. Therefore, the amount of power (electrical load) you can draw is determined primarily by the capacity of your battery bank and inverter, and NOT by the amount of solar on your roof.

This is a common misconception people have when they ask “how many solar panels to I need to run my whatever?” Instead they should ask “how much battery capacity and what size inverter do I need to run my whatever?

Lights (preferably LED), laptop computers, radios, fans, TVs, water pump and other small items can be used while on battery/inverter power. In some cases small coffee makers, low power microwave ovens, toasters, and low power hair dryers can be used for very short periods depending on your battery capacity and invterter size.

High power consumers like air conditioners, heat pumps, space heaters, or water heaters generally require more power than a standard RV solar/battery/inverter system can provide.

Power hungry components like those will rapidly drain your RV batteries. For this reason, most RVers who rely on solar will move  throughout the year to sunny locations with moderate climates. Keeping cool means opening windows and/or turning on an electric fan, not running an air conditioner.

Is it possible to run an air conditioner off of an RV battery bank? Yes it is. Is it a practical solution? Usually no. Even as more RVers opt for lithium batteries it’s still good practice to use your energy efficiently.

An RV powering their A/C unit while boondocking used to be an anomaly. More and more people now have the ability to run an air conditioner with the help of large lithium battery banks, soft-start devices, and highly efficient A/C units.  It certainly isn’t mainstream by any means. So, for now, I’d stick with the “if you can’t stand the heat…get out of the desert” approach.

Residential refrigerators are large power consumers that run 24/7. So if you’re looking to buy an RV with a residential refrigerator, just know that boondocking will be challenging. You’ll need a large lithium battery bank and large solar array.

Experiment to Determine How Much Power You Need?

The best way to figure out what your needs are is to just go do some dry camping for a few days while measuring your power usage. This is an essential first step to figuring out how much power you need while out camping.

To get an accurate indication of your state of charge, you will need a good battery monitoring system (BMS). Without one, you’ll simply be guessing and probably guessing wrong. Keep in mind that the battery voltage or level gauge that came with your RV with will NOT give you an accurate measure of your battery state-of-charge (how much reserve power available).

There are several good quality RV and marine battery monitoring systems worth considering. Here are my top picks for 2020

Here’s what you do.

  1. Fully charge your battery bank.
  2. Take your RV dry camping and watch that battery monitor. You won’t need solar panels for this experiment. Just use your RV and see how long it takes to get down to 50 percent of available capacity (if using lead acid batteries). Can you make it through a 24 hour period?
  3. Recharge when you reach 50 percent if you have flooded or AGM batteries. 50% is your “usable” capacity.
  4. Take note of the equipment you’ve used and for how long. Here are some tips to help you determine your RV battery capacity and typical power consumption. If you need more power, add more battery capacity and try again.

Try to get through a good 24 to 48 hours before you need to recharge. Everybody’s needs are different, but having enough battery capacity for at least two days is a good benchmark to start with.

Once you’ve figured out how big your battery bank needs to be, you’ll have a good idea of how much solar you will need to keep those batteries charged up.

EXAMPLE: If your 200 amp hour battery bank gets down to 50 percent in 24 hours, then you’ve used approximately 100 Amp Hours of capacity during that time. So if you need 200 amp hours to live, then you’ll need a 400 amp hour lead acid battery bank or a 200-300 amp hour lithium LiFePO4 battery bank.

Do you have lithium batteries?

If you do, then ignore the 50% rule. The usable capacity of most lithium (or LiFePO4) batteries is between 80 and 100 percent of the battery’s rated amp hours. This means you can repeatedly use 80 to 100 percent of the battery capacity without damaging the battery (ask your battery manufacturer for the exact numbers).

A simple way to estimate how much solar power you’ll need is to apply the 1 Watt to per Amp Hour rule. Simply put, your maximum solar output (in watts) should equal your battery capacity (in amp hours).

EXAMPLE: A 400 Amp Hour battery bank will need roughly 400 Watts of solar. This is just a rough measure to get you in the ball park. You should also take into account the efficiency of your panels, amount of sun in your area, cable size/length, and power loss between your solar panels and batteries (i.e Voltage Drop). I recommend adding at least 20 percent to the solar estimate to account for these factors.

Continue Reading about RV Solar

That should get you off to a good start. When you are ready for more, these articles will help you take it to the next level. I’ve also put together this free resource for you.

FREE Guide To RV Solar Panels

I’ve put together this free guide packed full of information to help you choose the right solar panel configuration for your RV.

On Sale! Boondocking Secrets eBook

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