Going Solar: The Complete Guide for New RVers

In times of economic downturn, RV industry sales typically take a big hit. But, because of a combination of factors the exact opposite is happening as we write this article. In the midst of one of the worst economic crises in nearly 100 years, RV sales are skyrocketing as many people are choosing safer family vacations that don’t involve airplanes, airports, hotels, and rental cars. Traveling in an RV is one way to keep your family self-contained -- providing you a private bathroom/kitchen to use during long road trips and allowing you to clean/sanitize as you see fit. Conversely, others are purchasing a van/RV as a less inexpensive housing option, temporary housing to isolate sick family members, or a space to “work from home” allowing someone to get out of the house, but stay out of a crowded office. We are going to see thousands of first time RVers on the road in 2020-21!

Saving You Money Down the Road

If you are fortunate enough to afford an RV for any of these reasons, you can afford to run on solar power – and it will save you a ton of money down the road. Renogy offers a host of affordable solar options. With our small system in Hamlet, (total investment less than $1000) we’ve explored the continent, worked from our RV, and thrived for nearly 8 years! These systems are scalable if you’re looking for something bigger, and we have seen how other road warriors have set-up their systems.

Many people simply choose a gas generator when they aren’t hooked up at a campground. But, before you go out and buy a gas generator, check out this head-to-head competition between solar and gas generators. Spoiler alert: Solar wins in many of the crucial categories, including lifetime cost and noise!

If your RV is going to serve as a home or second home, check out the federal and state solar tax incentives available to you. In many cases, the savings are so significant that you’ll wonder why anyone would pay to stay at an overpriced campground with hook-ups when they can go where they want with solar!

Getting Your Head Around Solar

For many people, the words watts, voltage, and amp hours make their heads spin. “I don’t do Physics,” we’ve heard, “my brain shuts down.” As Educators our goal is to help the scientifically challenged understand what they need to know to make smart and informed decisions about solar. Remember, knowledge is power…and in this case, it’s gathered from the sun! All you need to grasp are a few simple concepts, and leave the rest up to the engineers and technicians.

If you are brand new to solar technology, we suggest you start by watching our recent video titled The 4 Things You Need for Solar

and reading our blog titled How Solar Panels Work: Breaking it Down for Beginners. These two resources will help you understand the components necessary to create a solar powered system for your RV. As we mentioned previously, our system is small because we have designed our life with energy efficiency in mind. If you want or need more power, each aspect of the system can be scaled to meet your specific power needs. You may also benefit from reading our What’s a Watt? And Other Frequently Asked Questions blog to gain some additional knowledge before digging into some numbers and further details.

Sizing Your System

Ok, ready to dig into some numbers? The main equations you need to know are: Watts = Volts x Amps AND Watts x Hours = Watt Hours. Stick with us here. If you see a battery that is labeled 12V, 50AH, this is a 12 volt, 50 amp hour battery. So, what are the watt hours provided by that battery? See the formula! 12V x 50AH = 600WH! This means that you can store up to 600WH of energy in your battery, which can be used to run your RV appliances throughout the day or night. If you have a 100W solar panel connected to that battery, and you leave it in the full sun for about 6-7 hours, you will generate approximately 600W of power, enough to refill your depleted battery. If you generate more power than what your battery can store (and the sun is still shining on your panel), this excess power can be used to run your appliances directly, or stored in another battery such as a laptop, phone, or tablet.

But, how many watts hours do you typically use in a day? We very rarely use more than 600WH, but each RV and family is different, so there is no standard answer here. Your total watt hours completely depend on your personal situation, what type of appliances you run, how often you use them, etc. Sizing a solar powered system is like choosing the appropriate HVAC system for your house, there is no one size fits all – every house is shaped differently, located in a different climate, etc. Now that you know that Watts = Volts x Amps, this article will help you determine YOUR total watt hours.

Choosing Components for Your System

As you learned in the video and blog above, there are 4 major components to any solar powered system: panel(s), charge controller, battery(ies), and inverter. Since you’ve already learned about each component’s roll within the system, let’s move one to making some choices between different styles of each component.

#1 Panels

Solar panels come in various styles, materials, sizes, and wattages. You need to decide whether you want to install them permanently on the roof or have the option of portable and foldable – or some combination of the two. We have a hybrid system. We mount our portable panel on the back of our truck while we are driving, then remove it when we are camped. This allows us to charge our battery while driving, then park our camper in the shade, and put our solar panel in the sun. In addition, if you choose permanently mounted panels, you need to decide whether a rigid or flexible panel is best for your situation.

#2 Charge Controller

PWMMPPT, 30A, 60A…what does all of this mean? As with solar panels, charge controllers come in various styles, wattage/amp sizes, etc. Renogy offers a wide range of charge controllers, each with different features depending on the type and size of system you seek to build. Making a choice between the options can be a bit confusing; this article provides a side-by-side comparison to help demystify the key differences among charge controller options.

#3 Deep Cycle Batteries

Deep cycle batteries look similar to car batteries, but function quite differently. In contrast to car batteries which provide short bursts of energy, deep cycle batteries are designed to provide sustained energy over a longer period of time. The house batteries in your RV should be of the deep cycle variety. And, you probably guessed it, just like the other components there are a myriad of different types of deep cycle batteries which vary widely in price. The most popular are lead acid, gel/AGM, and lithium, and each style comes in different voltages and amperages. Check out this blog for a good overview of deep cycle batteries types, as well as the best battery for each situation and a quick cost breakdown.

After reading this overview, you may be tempted to just buy what appears to be the cheapest option upfront. We encourage you to review this comprehensive cost analysis of Lead Acid vs. Lithium Iron Phosphate. Spoiler alert: Lithium will save you a chunk of change in the long run if you can afford the upfront investment!

Another consideration at this stage is to decide how you would like to monitor the charge on your battery or battery bank. There are some static options and remote options, both have their pros and cons. We love our Bluetooth module so that we can use our smartphone to monitor the wattage coming in from our solar panel as well as the charge on our battery.

#4 Inverter

Do you remember the role of the inverter from the video and blog at the beginning of this article? It is the component that converts DC power to AC power, allowing you to charge or run anything with a standard household plug. As with all of these components, you will need to purchase an inverter based on some factors which are specific to your rig, how much power you will draw at any given time, your total watt hours, etc. This blog includes some key things to consider when sizing the inverter for your system.

Installing Your System

Renogy components are designed to work seamlessly with each other and are manufactured with the DIYer in mind. They also have friendly staff on hand and downloadable diagrams to help walk you through the installation process. In addition, there is no shortage of advice and tips on YouTube. If you consider yourself handy and have a couple of weekends available, you should have no problem doing your own installation, even if electrical installations are new to you. Check out this 10 question quiz to see if you are up for the challenge! And, if your RV is already listed as “solar ready,” be sure to take a look at our video and blog before adding any panels to your rig.

If we have inspired you to go solar, please use our affiliate link and promo code “canlife” to get a discount on your solar gear purchase.  We always love to answer questions from our audience so feel free to contact us via our website.   

Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison have turned their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking tours from coast to coast. Known to their friends as simply Shari & Hutch, you can learn more about their full-time, solar powered adventures on their website at freedominacan.com. Or, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube as “Freedom in a Can.”