RV solar power can be a game changer if you want or need to camp off-grid. But it comes at a steep price. Off-grid solar systems can cost thousands of dollars. Which begs the question is RV solar power worth it?
If you’re on the fence about installing RV solar power. Here are some of the pros and cons of an RV solar set up so you can determine if it’s worth it for you.
What is RV solar power?
RV solar power allows your motorhome or trailer to operate off stored energy in your RV battery bank while simultaneously recharging the batteries using energy from the sun (solar panels). An RV solar power setup can look vastly different depending on your personal energy needs, budget, and component sizes, but most complete solar setups will include:
Each of these components has its own job within the solar power setup, but ultimately these 4 items combined allow you to power most appliances in your RV without needing to be plugged into electricity.
Why choose RV solar power?
The main reason people choose to install an RV solar power system is for the freedom it provides. If you enjoy:
- dry camping (camping without electrical hookups),
- boondocking (camping in remote areas on public lands), or
- frequently camp in campgrounds that don’t offer electricity like national parks or older state parks.
Then an RV solar power system is likely a worthwhile investment.
There is nothing more freeing than being able to camp in the middle of nowhere and still have all of the creature comforts and modern conveniences of our RV. We can ditch our noisy (and sometimes smelly) generator and camp in silence. Plus, we aren’t confined to expensive and crowded RV parks.
Our RV solar system allows us to use lights freely at night, watch TV, and run our Maxx fans to keep ourselves and our kitties cool. We can make lattes with our Nespresso milk frother, or make a healthy smoothie to start off our day.
Drawbacks of RV solar power
While the freedom an RV solar power system offers is huge there are drawbacks to having RV solar. The biggest of which is the cost.
A full RV solar power system can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $10,000+ depending on if you have professionally installed and the size of the components. The size of your inverter, the types of batteries you buy, or the number of solar panels you install will impact the total cost. We’ve installed three off-grid solar power systems now. All of which ran just under $4,000 installing them ourselves.
That’s a lot of money to spend. Especially if the main benefit is to simply have freedom and choice in where you camp. However, when you compare the upfront cost to the long-term savings you get camping for free (and out of RV parks), the investment can be worth it.
Let’s say you spend an average of $35 a night to camp at an RV park, state park, or national park 90 nights out of the year. That’s $3,150 worth of camping fees each year.
Let’s say you installed an RV solar power system that cost you $5,000. You’re able to reduce your paid camping to only 30 nights a year. That’s an annual savings of $2,100. Not quite enough to make up your initial solar investment in the first year. But you’d be saving money by year three.
If you RV full-time and camp off-grid more often you’ll recoup your initial investment much faster. We made back our initial $4,000 in under a year saving an additional $2,500 in camping costs because of the additional free camping we did.
The second big drawback to RV solar power is the complexity of installing the system. If you’re not an electrician or engineer it can feel super overwhelming and intimidating to try to design and install a solar power system yourself. But it can be done.
Youtube is an incredible resource that can help bridge any gaps you may have in the process of designing and installing the various components of an RV solar system. If you aren’t up for the challenge or simply would prefer to have a professional do it for you, you can hire a company that specializes in RV solar power installations in your area. Professional installation is not cheap by any means. Expect to pay $3,000 – $5,000+ in addition to the cost of the components.
3. Weather dependent
The last drawback of an RV solar power system is that it’s 100% dependent on the weather. Where you are camping, the season, and sun exposure all comes into play as to how effective the system is in running your coach as intended.
I’m writing this post as a tropical storm passes over our campground in Mexico. While we have electricity in this spot, if I was relying on our solar power alone I’d be in a tough spot as we haven’t seen sunlight in nearly a week!
For this reason, we always suggest having a backup generator. Both of our RVs came stocked with a generator and we’ve been very thankful to be able to use it to supplement our energy needs when we aren’t able to get optimal sun. While it’s not required, it does give you peace of mind and furthers your opportunity for freedom in your camping location.
Lastly, if your solar panels are attached to your RV roof, you’ll want to park in the sun rather than the shade so you can maximize the energy you are pulling into your batteries which means it can get hot! In winter, having your RV parked directly in the sun is great — but it’s not so great come summertime. Solar panels allow freedom as to where you camp but can be restrictive as to where you camp once you’re at the camping spot.
When RV solar power isn’t worth it
RV solar power is not worth it for those who prefer to camp in designated campgrounds with electricity and hookups the majority of the time. If you have an energy-hungry RV or rarely dry camp it’s unlikely that the benefits RV solar can offer will outweigh the cost.
If you also like to switch RVs frequently, solar may not be worth the cost for you. While it does add value to your RV or rig, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to recoup the value dollar for dollar.
Choosing the right RV solar power system
If you do decide an RV solar setup is the way to go, make sure you purchase quality equipment that suits your budget and energy needs. Don’t go cheap on any components of the RV power system.
Do your homework on the various companies. You’ll also want to consider if you should build your own system or choose from a pre-made kit. For our first install, we went with a 300-watt kit from Renogy. In our most recent solar installation, we decided to go with AIMS Power for our:
- (3) 120-watt solar panels (we do not recommend these panels though)
- 30 amp MPPT solar charge controller, and
- 2,000-watt pure sine power inverter
- We went with (3) 100 amp hour lithium batteries for our battery bank.
They are a reputable company that has been in the solar business for decades. We had lots of other RV friends who had AIMS components and had positive experiences.
After five years on the road living, we feel confident saying that our choice to upgrade to RV solar power was a good one. We love the freedom RV solar power provides us, but we realize it’s not the right choice for everyone. Weigh the pros and cons and consider who you are as a traveler before deciding to upgrade.