When we started our solar adventure in the summer of 2012, the size, variety, and convenience of solar panel products were nowhere near today’s offerings. Without the help of a close friend from IONCON of Boone, NC who walked us through selecting, ordering, and installing our solar powered system, we might not have made it beyond simply wanting to go solar. We’ve lived mobile with solar for over 7 years and remains the best thing we did during our restoration.
Solar technology has come a long way since then, with efficiency rising, prices dropping, and the variety of products growing. You no longer need a degree in Engineering to find resources that will help make your off-grid dreams a reality.
This got us thinking; if it’s easier and cheaper than ever before to install solar, what keeps people from doing so? We sent out a short survey based on the questions we’ve received over the years. Here’s what folks told us...
#1: Solar Panels are Too Expensive to Install
“Cost and incentives in my state are the biggest deciders.”
Almost half of our respondents agreed that the financial investment was a challenge. While this comes as no surprise, it also points out a lack of understanding of how prices have come down in the last decade. Like most up-front investments, the initial sticker shock can drown thoughts of potential savings. So let’s put some dollar signs up against those fears. Below we break down the cost of going solar in an RV or Van, Car Camping, Backcountry Camping, and Residential.
RV’s & Vans - Save over $5K in 10 years
Solar panels designed for RV and vans range from the folding solar suitcases (around $250) to full scale roof top mounts (between $500 - $1K). There are even flexible, lightweight, low profile panels that are perfect for curved roofs and boats.
Earlier this year we interviewed 4 other full-time solar RV families who invested anywhere from $400 to nearly $10K in their complete solar systems, an average of $3K. We’ve also met hundreds of other solar RVer’s enjoying the freedom of traveling without hauling around a noisy gas powered generator.
In our travels through 48 states and 8 Canadian provinces over the past 7 years we’ve noticed a big price difference between electric and non-electric campsites, even within the same campground. We averaged this out to around $28 per night. So, let’s say you use your RV for 30 days out of the year and typically pay for electrical hook-ups (30 days x $28 per day). That’s $840 per year just for electricity -- twice what we spent for our original solar panel, charge controller, battery and inverter. Using those same calculations and assuming that you will use your RV for about 10 years, you’ll drop $8400 for an electrical hook-up. At an average price of $3K for an installation, you could save up to $5400 just by choosing non-electric campsites. This does not include additional savings you’ll enjoy by taking advantage of boondocking* on free or very low-cost public lands. Going solar means more than saving money, it’s also about reducing noise and air pollution without being tied to a plug-in campsite.
*Boondocking is free camping. Thousands of remote and gorgeous location across the country allow camping legally for 2-3 weeks. If you boondock with solar and have a good south facing location, you will have enough electricity to run or charge what you need, especially if you are conservative with your electrical choices. We have done this all over the country, and our longest stint of free sites was around 10 months.
We just added a Renogy Folding Solar Suitcase to my 79 year old parents’ travel trailer and they are even more excited about breaking away from full hook-up sites than they are about the projected savings; “The real power of the solar panels is in the freedom they allow us to spend time at non-electric sites, which we wouldn’t have done before.”
Have you ever cranked the engine of your car just to charge some small electronics? You are not alone, but imagine being in the campsite next to an engine running for an hour or more just to power up a phone. We have seen this!
When we car camp with friends, we bring our Phoenix Solar Generator ($469). This handy, brief-case sized, all-in-one solar generator is all you need to keep a group powered up for a few days. From tailgating, family reunions, and picnics, to emergency power during an outage, this unit comes in handy in all kinds of situations.
Our travel trailer is a rolling base camp that we use to get out on extended backcountry adventures. On these hiking, cycling or paddling trips, we bring just a few electronics in order to have some light at night, take photographs, and for emergency communication. There are some helpful apps for locating trails/campsites, tide charts and weather conditions, identifying plants/birds, etc. We bring along our E. POWER 24K MAH portable solar charger and E. FLEX 30W solar panel. These items weigh about 3 pounds combined. Depending on battery or panel size, these products range from $40-$160 (portable solar chargers) and $100-$140 (portable solar panels).
Here are a few videos of these products in action to help you decide what’s best for your situation.
Residential installations are more complicated than off-grid or RV installations because you will need a licensed electrical contractor to tie your system into the electrical grid, even if you do the rest by yourself. The average RV solar installation is around 600W, but the average residential installation is 6KW, 10 times greater. So the price is going to be greater, but by how much?
The cost of installing a 6KW system on our former home in the mountains of North Carolina is between $10K - $14K, with a payoff around 11 years -- the same amount of time that we lived there. And, most panels are guaranteed up to 25 years. Read this article on cost comparison by state which includes information on the recent federal and state tax incentives:
A great resource for residential installations is Energy Sage, which prescreens installers and contractors to ensure you get the best quote for your area. Energy Sage has a quick Solar Savings Calculator which is not only based upon where you live, but specifically on a Google Maps’ image of your actual roof.
#2: Don’t Know Where to Begin
“I just need to do more research.”
We suggest you start with the following articles: What’s a Watt? And Other FAQ’s and The Complete Guide to Getting Started with Solar. Between these, Renogy’s website, and YouTube, you’ll have everything you need to begin your journey.
Take the time to calculate your expected use (explained in the articles above). Then simply start shopping around. Renogy technicians and salespeople are available to answer questions and help you design a personalized system.
Finally, there are hundreds of knowledgeable installers for both homes and RV’s, some will meet you at your home or campground. If you want to develop a full scale home system, contact IONCON of Boone, NC. They work with both commercial and residential customers and helped us put together our first system.
#3: Don’t Know How it Works
“The whole damn amp hours to watts to volts and I’m done. Glazed eyes and mind numb.”
You don’t need to understand the complex physics of solar power to use it. Do you know exactly how gasoline powers your car? Can you explain how electricity is produced and brought to your home? No worries, most people can’t either, though they trust that it works . How Solar Panels Work: Breaking it Down for Beginners. is an accessible read that will get you started.
#4: Concerned About Panels Getting Stolen
"I'm just worried about portable panels being taken from a campground."
We get this comment all the time, usually in reference to our foldable solar suitcase. So, lock it up. You wouldn’t leave a bicycle sitting out unlocked; why would a solar panel be any different?
While away from camp, we pull a cable lock through the integrated handle of the solar suitcase. Though far from foolproof, it will require someone to cut the handle or the lock to steal it. If we are off on a multi-day adventure, we simply fold it up and put it inside the camper. We also carry full-time RV insurance which covers the RV and contents, giving us additional peace of mind.
#5: Other Reasons That Stop Progress...
We got a variety of responses in our “other” category and some were just too good not to share.
“My husband always wants to do things by himself so it often takes years for things to happen...LOL!” Or, plain and simple...“Procrastination.”
This gets in the way a lot in our lives, either direct procrastination or stubborn husband procrastination. You can always take a page from Shari’s playbook which is to start working on a project without me. She starts the research, demolition, or painting whenever she loses patience waiting for me to begin. This gets me to join in every damn time. Of course I have strong opinions on how it should be done, and of course I am irritated, but I am mostly grateful for the not-so-gentle nudge because what we do together is better than what I can do alone -- and a whole lot quicker. But, read 10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Doing Your Own Solar Installation before trying it.
“Homeowner association” won't allow solar panels.
This drives us nuts, plain and simply nuts. Do most HOA's ban satellite TV antennas from roofs? It’s about a perception, image, and cultural association with solar power. We were pleased to see that an overwhelming majority of our respondents like the appearance of solar panels.
HOA's can be helpful in protecting the rights of individual homeowners against the whims or poor decisions of their neighbors. Check out The Inns and Outs of Solar Panels in HOA Communities if you want to see outdated solar policies changed in your community. Those who don’t change with the times will find fewer and fewer home buyers, and falling property values.
“Just feeling intimidated by connecting all the pieces, like inverter/controller. Totally bought into the idea though.”
If you've read this far and still feel intimidated, just shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org We’ll help you get started!