What to Consider When Choosing Solar Panels?

What to Consider When Choosing Solar Panels?

By Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison
Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison
renogys blog Jul 4th 2023

To determine which type of solar panel is best for your RV, you’ll want to take the size of your rig into consideration, as well as your camping style and how much power you need to generate to meet your family’s daily power needs.

What’s Your Camping Style?

1. I use my RV for long road trips and/or love to boondock off-grid on public land, Harvest Hosts locations, or other overnight stays without electrical hook-ups.

2.  I use my RV for a couple weeks at a time and typically stay in state parks or private campgrounds with electrical hook-ups. But, I like to spend a night or two in between campgrounds at various boondocking spots and remote, off-grid campgrounds.

  • solar suitcase combined with a DC to DC charger may be the best set-up for your RV lifestyle.

3. I am a weekend warrior in my van or small travel trailer, but I like to get away from crowded campgrounds and stay on public land. 

  • A portable power stationand lightweight, portable panel might be all you need.

Which is the Best Solar Panel for an RV?

There is a lot of information out there about RV solar panels, so much in fact, it’ll probably make your head spin. Let’s break it down to the 3 most common types of RV solar panels. Below you will find a quick user-friendly explanation as well as charts to compare and contrast styles, wattages, weights, and dimensions. For full specs, please see the Renogy website for details.

Rigid Panels: When you think of a typical solar panel, a rigid, monofacial (1-sided) style of panel is probably what comes to mind. These are the types of panels you see on rooftops, and solar farms all over the world. The wattages of these panels vary greatly from small battery monitors to huge industrial panels for commercial production.

RVers typically install rigid panels ranging between 100W and 320W depending on the size and shape of their RV roof. Renogy’s rigid panels are heavy-duty, A+ quality panels, with one of the best warranties in the industry (25 years), and serve as the best RV solar panels for mid-large sized rigs, including motorhomes, 5th wheels, travel trailers, skoolies, and large vans.

Another style of rigid panel that has recently become popular are bifacial (2-sided) panels which can collect energy from the sun using both sides of the panel – and include some of the latest technology to augment their power output, with Renogy’s version being up to 30% more efficient! Bifacial panels are available in both 115W and 220W. These bifacial panels are most effective if used against a white or light colored surface to maximize light reflection from the back side of the panel, and work very well as tilted panels on the roof as well as side awnings for an RV. See our recent product review of Renogy’s 220W bifacial panel for details.

Flexible Panels: These lightweight, low profile panels are ideal for smaller rigs, curved roof lines such as Airstreams or teardrop style trailers, and those who are seeking to minimize the look of solar panels on their roof, such as with our vintage rig. Renogy’s flexible panels are available in 100W, 175W, and 200W and can be combined with a portable panel, if desired. The best flexible panels on the market can bend up to 248 degrees without cracking, are scratch resistant, have at least a 22% efficiency rating, and have a performance warranty of 25 years. As with all panels, it’s important to add some airflow underneath to keep them from overheating. Check out our step-by-step installation video for details.

Portable Panels: Panels such as E. FLEX panels and Foldable Solar Suitcases can be used by themselves or in conjunction with any rooftop or awning panel system described above. They are perfect for when you want/need to park in the shade, but need your panel out in the sunshine (using an extension cord). Portable panels are also the perfect way to quickly add some additional surface area to your overall system during low solar days. Renogy offers various portable panel sizes ranging from 80W to 220W in the E.FLEX model series as well as 100W and 200W in the Foldable Solar Suitcase model.

What are the Best Portable Solar Panels for an RV?

The best portable solar panel for an RV is the one that fits your power needs, storage space available, your camping style, and practically speaking, the amount of weight you can easily lift. Both of Renogy’s Foldable Solar Suitcases are very sturdy and convenient, very efficient, and they easily fold up into their own durable cover. They can simply be clipped to a battery bank on the tongue of your RV with alligator clips or can be integrated into a rooftop system. Something to keep in mind is that you will typically be chasing the sun around, so you’ll be moving the portable panel throughout the day. For some folks, the weight of these solar suitcases can be difficult to lift, so that should be an important factor in determining which style is best for you.

If you want an even more portable, very lightweight panel that you can take with you just about anywhere you travel (including airline travel), the E. FLEX panels is your best option. Because of their small size yet high efficiency, these panels are popular among the vanlife and small RV community, or for anyone planning to do some camping abroad. They can be integrated into a full rooftop solar system with MC4 connectors as well as used to directly charge any handheld device (i.e., smartphone or tablet) or a portable power station.

With either of these portable panels, wind is a concern as they can get knocked over in heavy gusts. We have found that simply weighing the integrated stand down with sand bags, rocks, a water bladder, or a piece of firewood is very effective.

How Many Solar Panels Do I Need for an RV?

While many RVers simply install as many panels as will fit on top of their RV roof, this can be expensive, add significant weight, and is often unnecessary. The best approach to determining how many panels you need is to assess your daily energy needs and do a few calculations to determine the system size that best fits your rig and lifestyle. We’ve developed a FREE downloadable Solar Sizing Worksheet to assist with this process.

Last year, 2022, we interviewed some of our favorite Solar Road Warriors who’ve made very efficient use of different styles of Renogy panels. Some of these folks are full-timers, while others do long-distance road trips during various times of the year. Check out our blog for examples of how these RVer’s have built-out their system as well as some of their lessons learned.

What is the Best Solar Panel Kit for RV?

Once you have determined the type of panel that will work well for your rig and lifestyle, as well as calculated how many panels you may need tomeet your energy needs, check out Renogy’s solar kits ranging from 200W to 800W. Kits are sold in either basic or premium, and all kits include the essential wiring, a compatible charge controller, mounting hardware, and cables. The main difference between basic and premium is that the premium options come with an upgraded (MPPT style) charge controller. It’s important to note that these kits do NOT include batteries, an inverter, or any of the wiring and fuses associated with these additional (and necessary) solar system components.

How to Install Solar Panels on an RV?

Whether you are installing panels for the first time or adding panels to an existing system, there are a number of things to consider depending on the type of panel you are installing and which wiring configuration you choose - parallel, series, or a combination of series and parallel.

If you are brand new to solar or simply need a refresher, here are a couple of blogs and videos that will help you understand various voltage and wiring configurations and different ways to attach solar panels to your roof. We highly recommend watching our YouTube videos below to get your head around the process before diving in!

In 2012, Shari Galiardi & David Hutchison left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named "Hamlet." What began as a short break from careers and responsibility quickly turned into a love affair with roadlife. They have parlayed their higher education backgrounds, desire for life-long learning, and thirst for adventure travel into writing, photography, video production, and public speaking gigs 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, LLC."

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