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What's the Difference Between Marine Solar Panels and Those For RVs and Cabins?

Posted by Meghan O'Dea on

As with RVs, busses, and vans, solar panels can be a great way to power everything from lighting to your cellphone to refrigerators and other appliances or electronics onboard your boat. Unlike residential vehicles on land, however, boats require special marine solar panels that are equipped to deal with the different conditions you might encounter on a lake, river, or at sea.

Just like with RV solar panels, you'll find that marine solar panels can help extend the charge provided to your deep cycle battery by the boat’s motor. Even on wind-powered vessels, the charge for the boat’s electrical system may be produced, in part, by running the engine for an hour or two each day. Installing solar panels, depending on how large and powerful your array, can replace or enhance the lifespan of that motor power.

Marine solar panels can also give you peace of mind in case of mechanical breakdowns or maintenance issues with your engine. Not only that, installing a solar array makes your boat more environmentally friendly, and reduce your reliance on expensive marine fuel. That’s good news whether you enjoy tooling around on the lake during your weekends, and especially on longer voyages.

The other thing that sets marine solar panels apart from similar kits designed for land use is how adaptable they are to the unique architecture of boats. Marine solar panels are not only designed to be waterproof, but also to fit to the often uneven surfaces you find on different types of boats. Marine solar kits are often made of more flexible materials, too, making them lighter and easier to install on a variety of surfaces. That makes it easier to set yourself up for success by placing your solar panels in the best possible position to maximize your output.

The trick to installing solar panels on any surface— whether it’s your home, your van, your boat, or even your backpack— is to make sure they get the maximum possible sun exposure within the ideal temperature range. You might not be able to control the weather, but in the best of circumstances you can protect your solar panels from shade and make sure they’re facing the direction of the sun.

That can be hard to do with a stationary installation, such as the roof of your home, but you have more leeway when your solar panels are on, say, the roof of your RV or the deck of your boat. Add in the flexible quality that many marine solar panels have, and you have many more options about where on your vessel you can place the panels to maximize your charge. Just keep in mind that shade can be created not only by obstructions like trees, but also by things like salt crust and seagull droppings. As with solar panels on land, maintenance and cleaning is key to a powerful charge.

In addition to marine solar panels and a deep cycle battery, you’ll also want a marine-grade charge controller to protect your array and the boat’s electrical system. The Renogy Voyager marine charge controller. It can manage fluctuations in temperature and voltage, reverse current when need be, and is compatible with seven different types of batteries including Lithium-ion, LiFePO4, LTO, Gel, AGM, Flooded, and Calcium. It’s also designed for tough marine environments with a waterproof design than can be installed indoor or outdoors, providing much-needed flexibility. After all, storage configurations are always an important consideration no matter how big or small your vessel.

Just like solar panel arrays on land, you’ll want to calculate how much power you need and choose the number of panels and batteries you need to create a sufficient system running through that charge controller. That will also depend on how much power you plan to draw from your boat’s motor strength and run time, and whether you want your solar panels to be the primary or secondary source for your boat. From there, you’ll want to decide where will be best to position your solar panels on the roof or the deck for maximum solar exposure.

Keep in mind that you are dealing with electrical equipment, albeit electrical equipment designed with a marine environment in mind. Still, you don’t want to be constantly stepping on your panels, submerging them, or obscuring them with towels, rope, sails, etc. Where you position your marine solar panels will depend a lot, too, on the style of boat you’re piloting. A catamaran has a different surface area than a walkaround than a skiff, so take some time to think about what placement might work best for your rig and how you use your boat. 


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