Are RV Solar Panels Worth the Investment?

Stay comfortable on the wide, open road with solar on your RV

Whether you’re a weekend road warrior, boondocker, or motorhome dweller that likes to stay put for extended periods of time, adding solar panels for your RV can play a useful role in making sure you stay comfortable on the road. Easy to install, use, and maintain, solar panels allow you to travel wherever you want to go and stay-off grid in your RV longer without the need for noisy generators. But are they worth the investment?

How do RV solar systems work?

First let’s talk about the basics of solar power generation. When sunlight hits solar panels, they create an electric current.That current feeds into a charge controller, which controls how much current goes through your battery. Then, batteries produce DC power. In order to use AC appliances, such as blenders, laptops, and phone chargers, an inverter is used to change the power from DC into AC power.

Now that you know the basics of how solar is generated, let’s a closer look at the key components of a solar RV installation:

  1. Solar panels (Collection)
  2. Charge Controllers (Monitoring)
  3. Batteries (Storage)
  4. Inverters (Usage)

It’s often helpful to think of your RV as its own mini-grid. In most cases, solar energy will be one of a few different energy sources on your RV, which could include shore power, your vehicle alternator, a traditional gas powered generator, and of course, solar panels. All of these sources will feed energy into your batteries.

Generating energy from a variety of different sources from the vehicle itself is a great approach to ensure you have steady access to electricity while avoiding the need to install an unnecessarily large and expensive system.

Solar Panels (Collection)

There are a few different solar panel options available to choose from. Panels can be flexible and rigid, as well as monocrystalline or polycrystalline. Polycrystalline panels are less efficient than monocrystalline panels, but are also cheaper. Monocrystalline panels are more space-efficient.

Additionally, flexible solar panels weigh less than the rigid solar panels and can be installed directly on the roof of your RV, in contrast to rigid solar panels which stick up above your roof somewhat and can be trickier to play between other components on your roof, such as antennas and AC units. Rigid panels, which are more durable, can also be mounted to tilt, which makes their solar energy collection more efficient and makes it so you don’t have to worry about navigating around them.

Monitoring (Charge Controller)

Charge controllers sit between the energy source and storage and prevents overcharging of batteries by limiting the amount and rate of charge to your batteries. They also prevent battery drainage by shutting down the system if stored power falls below 50 percent capacity.

Batteries (Storage)

You’ll also need a way to store all the power you’re generating with your solar panels. This is where batteries come into play.

There’s a range of battery options, such as lead acid, absorbed glass matt, and lithium ion batteries. Lead acid batteries are the most inexpensive option and are available at most big-box and auto stores. Absorbed glass matt batteries store 10 to 15 percent more energy than lead acid batteries and charge up to four times faster. Lithium ion batteries are the most expensive options, but also last four times longer than lead-acid batteries and weigh much less.

Inverters (Usage)

Inverters turn DC power produced from your solar panels and stored in your battery into AC power. An inverter is necessary to power the common appliances found in your RV, from TV’s to microwaves.

What are the benefits to adding solar to your RV

Solar is a reliable, cost-effective, portable, sustainable, quiet and virtually maintenance-free energy solution. Contrary to noisy, dirty gas-powered generators, solar systems are virtually silent and because you’re harnessing the power of the sun, you don’t have to rely on using gas to power your home.

Solar panels on your RV can recharge your house batteries, allowing you to run AC appliances while on the road without needing to hook up to external power sources. Maintaining a steady stream of power can also extend the life of the batteries in your RV since you’re not constantly drawing down power from them. Plus, solar panels can work all day long, whether you’re home or not, meaning you could be out for a hike and charging up your batteries in time for movie night in your RV.

Having a solar installation can also expand your camping options. While you may have previously stayed in campgrounds or RV parks with hook-ups ensure steady access to electricity, now you can go off-grid in your RV and head into more remote areas without worrying about being left in the dark.

Solar panels for your RV are also virtually maintenance free, requiring only minimal cleaning over time.

Lastly, while it may seem intimidating at first, going solar on your RV is actually quite easy. The Renogy solar kits make it easy to make sure all the components of your system are compatible. Then, once you have it all set up, it’s just a matter of flipping the switch and you’ll be generating power in no time.

What can you do with RV solar (charge phones, use appliances, etc.)?

Having solar on your RV allows you to keep the house batteries charged and to provide electrical power to appliances such as microwaves, laptops, and TV’s.

So in addition to keeping the lights on, you can have access to your plug-in outlets to ensure steady electricity access.

What about my refrigerator? 

Yes. With a large enough solar system, it is possible to run your refrigerator 24/7. However, because of the heavy load requirements for refrigerators, we recommend using refrigerator that can run on propane to limit power consumption or at the very least, a DC refrigerator.

Additionally, RV solar panels are a great way to keep essentials around the home up and running, but it is not ideal for keeping power-hungry devices going for long.

What about smaller appliances?

In addition to full scale RV solar systems, Renogy has a range of other portable devices to keep you charged. Renogy has smaller chargers such as portable chargers, power stations, and flashlights that can be used to make sure you’re up and running all the time without having to worry about drawing energy from your RV’s solar system.

How much do solar installations cost?

Costs of RV solar systems vary widely because of the different system sizes and technologies. However, what’s great about solar technology is that their costs continue to drop as their efficiency continues to increase.

Complete RV systems can range from around $600 for the simplest, smallest set-up to upwards of $4,000 for larger installations. Renogy has a variety of RV solar kits that include key technology such as panels, charge controllers, wiring, and a bluetooth console. These kits range in price between about $300 and $800.

Are solar panels a worthwhile investment?

This is a complex question. Like there’s not one way to live in an RV, there’s not one right way to go solar. Deciding if it’s a worthwhile investment for you involves asking yourself what your energy needs are, how much time you spend in your RV, how often you want your RV to be off-grid and how much time you have access to full hook-ups at an RV park or campground.

If you spend the majority of your RV time at campgrounds, you’re probably better off paying higher fees for hook-ups. Also, if you only take RV trips a few times per year, the upfront cost of an RV solar panel setup will likely not be worth the few times you’re actually using the system. On the other hand, if you like to head out into remote areas and you spend a lot of time in your RV, a complete solar installation or solar kit could be worth your time.

Weekend road warriors

Worth it?: Yes, install a smaller system, such as the Renogy 100W 12V Solar Starter Kit is an excellent choice for those spontaneous weekend trips.

Boondockers

Worth it?: Yes, a full system is worth the investment. We’d recommend the Renogy 400W 12V Solar RV Kit to provide enough flexibility when away from power sources.

Full-time RV dwellers who use campgrounds and parks

Worth it?: No, but a solar generator for back-up emergency power is a great solution. We’d recommend the Solar Lancam.

How long does it take for the solar installation to be worth its investment?

This is also a tricky question to answer because of the varying costs of RV park and campground prices.

However, there’s no doubt that having solar on your RV can save you lots of money over time, especially as you’re no longer having to pay to continually start up and run a gas generator or pay for hook-up sites.

You can assume your RV solar system or solar kit will pay for itself in anywhere from 18 camping days to 14 months, depending on your system size, as well as how and where you typically camp. Not too shabby, if you ask us.

What if I’m travelling in cold or cloudy areas, such as the Pacific Northwest?

Even if you’re in a cloudy area, solar panels produce around 25 percent as much energy as they would on a sunny one. Also, despite popular belief, solar panels actually operate more efficiently in colder areas than in warmer ones.

However, if you know you’re going to be mostly travelling in cloudy areas, it’s important to take that into consideration when considering how much power your system will be able to generate and if that investment in the system is worth it. Refer to the Renogy solar calculator to get a more accurate estimate of what size system you need.

So, what’s the verdict? Is it worth the money?

Those that live a mobile, RV lifestyle know the wide, open road provides endless opportunities for adventure and experiences, but it also creates many new challenges. Addressing energy needs is one of the biggest hurdles many RV dwellers have to overcome.

Installing a complete RV solar system or utilizing a portable RV solar kit can be a great way to ensure you stay comfortable. If you’re the type of RV owner who plans on spending lots of time in remote locations without power hookups, a complete solar system is a great way to generate power and see some long-term savings on the road.