Choosing the right RV solar panels is an important part of building an off-grid RV solar setup. Ideally, you want to buy the most efficient, durable panels available but with the varied sizes, different panel types, and dozens of manufacturers to choose from, determining which solar panel is the best can be intimidating.
Rather than going at it alone, we explain the different types of solar panels to choose from and discuss the pros and cons of each to help you determine which RV solar panel type is best for you.
Different types of RV Solar Panels
When it comes to choosing your RV solar panels, you have three options to consider:
- Cell type: monocrystalline or polycrystalline
- Panel construction: rigid or flexible
- Location of panel: portable or fixed
Let’s break it down by each category.
Solar cell types
The cell type of RV solar panels is one of the biggest decisions you will make. The cell type determines the charging efficiency, cost, and longevity or lifespan of the panels.
Monocrystalline solar panels
Monocrystalline solar panels are the most popular choice for RV solar panels. That’s because monocrystalline panels are single cells making them more efficient and durable than other panel cell types. Its superior quality does mean it’s the more expensive option of the two. However, the higher cost is almost always worth it because of its performance.
- Usually darker (dark blue or black) and all one color
- Panel is made up of individual cells that are rounded on the edges
- More efficient than polycrystalline panels (will produce more watts aka more power)
- Last the longest
- Most expensive option
Polycrystalline solar panels
Polycrystalline solar panels are the more affordable option of the two. These panels are made up of several cells which can lead to less efficient charging.
- Usually lighter in color
- Panel is made up of several cells that are rectangular or square in shape
- Cheapest option
- Less efficient than monocrystalline panels (produces less wattage per surface area)
- Typically larger in size than monocrystalline
- Don’t last quite as long
If your budget allows, monocrystalline is typically the best option for cell type, simply because you get the most efficiency with the least amount of space and will last the longest. This is especially true thanks to the advancements in solar panel technology in recent years. There are many affordable options for monocrystalline solar panels today (here’s our top pick from Renogy).
Solar panel construction
The next decision you need to make is the panel construction. The construction of the panel determines the weight, durability, and surface area used by your solar panels.
Flexible panels are by far the lightest option. They also have flexibility (hence the name) in their mounting position. If you have a weird-shaped roof, flexible panels may be the only option for you. However, we do not recommend getting flexible panels.
We had them on two of our RVs and both failed shortly after installation. One of our sets of solar panels caught on fire!
- Lightweight and flexible
- Low profile (not easily seen)
- No drilling is required for the installation
- Less durable because cells are sealed under a protective plastic layer
- More prone to scratches but less likely to crack from a large impact
- More expensive than rigid glass panels
- Cannot tilt panels
- Prone to failure (and can even be hazardous)
Rigid glass panels
Rigid glass panels are protected by a layer of tempered glass. This means they are more durable and less susceptible to failure from objects hitting the panels. They are heavier than flexible panels but they come with loads of other benefits I believe make them the ideal option for an RV.
They are affordable, can be titled for maximum solar exposure, and can be removed or replaced more easily than flexible panels. Those factors combined with rigid panels’ durability make them the best choice for RV solar panels.
- More durable because cells are mounted under tempered glass
- More resistant to scratches and severe weather like snow and hail (but can crack from a large impact)
- Typically cheaper than flexible panels
- Can tilt to get maximum sun exposure
- Typically mounted to a metal frame
- Thickest and heaviest option
- Installation requires drilling
Both panel construction types come in a wide range of wattage and are offered in both monocrystalline and polycrystalline cell types. Flexible panels are good for those with limited weight capacity, who have a curved RV roof, or who want to avoid drilling holes into the RV roof.
Location of panels
The last decision you need to make when choosing RV solar panels is the location of the panels. You can have your panels fixed, which means they are permanently installed on your roof. Or they can be portable. In other words, they can be moved as needed for maximum sun exposure.
Fixed solar panels
Fixed solar panels are permanently or semi-permanently installed on your roof. The power is sent through the panels into a charge controller. Which you can then use to recharge your batteries or turn into power through an inverter.
To install the panels you will need to screw the mounting brackets into the roof. This means the panels cannot be moved easily. It also means you’ll need to consider where you park your RV. The direction you are facing will determine your solar exposure. Of course, you’ll want to avoid parking in the shade. Which can get hot in the summer season.
A lot of RVers choose to install solar panels permanently on their roof. You can build a larger system combining multiple panels for 200 to 1,000+ watts of solar power. Making it a versatile and robust power system. However, you don’t need to put that many on your roof for it to be beneficial.
- You can fit multiple panels on your roof creating a large system.
- Your RV needs to be parked in a location for ideal sun exposure (which can get hot).
- Cannot move panels for maximum sun exposure. If you are in a shady location, your panels aren’t getting to work as intended.
- Have one charge controller for all rooftop panels.
Portable solar panels
Portable solar panels are not permanently installed on your RV. Rather, they can be moved to different locations. Most new RVs will have an outlet for plugging in a portable solar panel to your RV. However, if your RV is older you’ll likely need to install an outlet yourself or plug the portable panel into your batteries directly.
Portable panels are usually fairly lightweight. They can be installed in just a few minutes and the ease of portability allows you to park in the shade while still getting solar exposure. The biggest drawback is the limitation of wattage. Most portable panels come in 100 to 200-watt ranges. This means you can’t have a large system to charge your batteries like you could on your roof.
It also requires you to set up the panel every time you park somewhere. When your panels are on your roof, you are receiving a charge anytime it has solar exposure.
- Good for weekend warriors, or those who boondock for short periods of time and want to “top off” their batteries.
- Nice option to supplement a fixed solar panel setup.
- Can be moved to benefit from maximum sun exposure (meaning you can keep your RV in the shade and move the panel to the sun)/
- Has its own charge controller.
Which RV solar panel is the best?
Determining which RV solar panel type is best for you really comes down to your rig and your needs. Consider how much space you have available, if you have weight limitations, and your battery bank and energy needs (how many panels you need). Don’t forget that you need the right charge controller to safely charge your batteries.
If you’re unfamiliar with what a charge controller does, or how to choose the right charge controller for your solar setup click here to see our post on solar charge controllers.
After our failed flexible panel fiasco, we’ve decided rigid panels permanently mounted are the best fit for us.
On our current RV, we have 400 watts of rigid solar panels permanently mounted on the roof. The panels are from Renogy. We’ve used rigid Renogy solar panels on two of our RVs now and really like the quality of the product. We also have a 2,000-watt AIMS inverter, Renogy charge controller, and 480 usable amp hours of battery power.
Choosing the right RV solar panels can feel like an overwhelming experience when you’re first getting started. But as you can see it’s not as hard as you may think. It ultimately comes down to your budget and needs.