Home Green Tech RV Solar Panel Systems: A Beginner’s Introduction 

RV Solar Panel Systems: A Beginner’s Introduction 


The flexibility and freedom of travel that come with RVs are a few of the original reasons why people sprung for RVs in the first place. However, with home prices still on the rise, RVs have now become about sustainable living as much as summer road trips. 

Whether you live an RV life or turn the keys for family getaways, they’ve always come with the hassle of finding an open spot to plug in for the night. Fortunately, that can become a problem of the past with an off-grid RV solar system that allows you true flexibility and freedom in your travels. 

But what are RV solar panels, and are they different from those on your neighbor’s roof? 

How RV Solar Panels Work

Solar panels have been on the receiving end of a lot of attention over the past few years. Not only have installation costs been on a downward trend, but it’s also garnered a lot of attention and interest for the positive environmental impact. 

This has led to many myths being debunked — namely, that solar panels can’t generate enough electricity if you live in a rainier place like Portland, OR. 

Fortunately, if your travel plans take you to rainier locations like Portland or Seattle, you can rest assured that your RV solar panels will still produce electricity. 

That’s because the solar panels will collect energy from the sun via light reflection, even on partially cloudy days. In fact, you may find that exposing your panels to rain may help increase their efficiency. 

By exposing your panels to rain, you’re washing away any dust, dirt or debris that may accumulate over time and cause inefficient energy production. 

The way solar panels work in RVs can be boiled down to a few simple steps:

  1. Solar cells within the solar arrays collect energy from the sun.
  2. The circuits within the solar cells turn the energy into an electrical current.
  3. The electrical current is fed through the charge controller to convert into direct current (DC).
  4. The DC electricity is then directed and stored in the RV batteries and battery bank to use as needed.

The reason the electricity gets stored in the battery first is that RVs must use an off-grid solar system. They’re unable to be grid-tied, so batteries, inverters, and controllers are must-have pieces of equipment. 

Most of these off-grid systems use 12 volts, which is enough to power most electronics and appliances in an RV. However, you can always use an inverter to convert the DC into a 120-volt alternating current (AC). 

Types of Solar Panels

When shopping for RV solar panels, you’ll come across three types:

  1. Monocrystalline
  2. Polycrystalline
  3. Thin-film

Because the panels will be on an RV with much less space than a typical home roof, understanding the differences between the types can make a world of difference. 

For example, because you have limited space, you’ll likely want to go with the most efficient type of solar panel — monocrystalline. Although these may be more expensive than the others, they’re much more efficient even with the same number of solar cells. 

Additionally, their increased efficiency means you will require fewer solar panels, making it a space-saver as well. 

The second type, polycrystalline panels, is made of a bunch of smaller crystals melted together. Generally, it’s the leftover fragments from manufacturing the single piece of silicon for monocrystalline solar panels. 

Because polycrystalline panels are made from smaller fragments, they’re slightly less efficient but also much cheaper than monocrystalline. This type is a good choice for those with a very large RV that can house more panels to make up for the reduced efficiency. 

Finally, thin-film solar panels are usually reserved for large-scale projects. These are flexible panels that are aesthetic due to their slim design, but they are the least efficient option. 

Additionally, thin-film panels are more prone to damage and require repair or replacement much sooner. 

Portable vs. Fixed Solar Panels

With RVs, you have the luxury of deciding if you want a portable solar panel system or one fixed permanently to the roof. The right choice ultimately depends on your specific requirements and needs. 

Portable panels come with the benefit of being more affordable, removing installation requirements, and not having to worry about parking your RV in the perfect spot. 

However, you will need to spare valuable space for storage when it’s not in use and set it up every single time you need electricity. Additionally, depending on your usage, the panels may not provide enough power. 

If you’re just contemplating installing solar panels for your roof, portable panels are a great way to dip your toes without spending thousands of dollars on a fixed system. 

Calculating How Many Panels You Need

So, now that you’re aware of how solar panels work and the different types, how many will you need? Unfortunately, there’s no blanket answer because the exact number of panels depends on your personal usage and power requirements. 

Some RVs may only require two panels, while others may need five or more to get through the day. Ultimately, the number of panels you require will depend on the number of watts you need. 

For example, you may find four 100-watt panels, but you will be wasting space because you can go for a single 400-watt panel instead. The best way to calculate the number of watts you need is to conduct a power audit by boondocking. 

Boondocking is a logical way to calculate how much power you’d need in a real-life situation. First, leave your generator at home and go out for a typical camping trip, using all your appliances as you typically would. 

The reason for this is that you want to see how long it takes for your batteries to drain. Then you want to track your charge level using a battery monitor. 

Once you have your average power consumption, you want to calculate your battery capacity. Generally speaking, a 100-watt panel will give the average user about 30amp-hours (Ah) a day. 

Assuming you have 200Ah of usable battery and use 50% on a single day of your trip, you can calculate that you need at least 120Ah for a full 24 hours of electricity. That means, to get the full 120Ah, you would need a 400-watt solar panel system at the bare minimum. 

RV Solar Panels for a Free and Flexible Vacation

Vacationing on the open road is one of the best ways to travel and an American pastime favorite. By using solar panels to power your RV, you can get the most out of your travels with an environmentally-friendly power source. 

The ability to park anywhere on the open road, as long as there’s a decent amount of sunlight, is one of the biggest reasons that RV owners are installing solar panels without hesitation. 

Although they may require a bit of an investment on your part, they end up paying for themselves over time and provide a seemingly limitless experience!