Interested in RVing off-grid but not sure how to set up your RV solar system. You’re not alone. We knew nothing about RV solar power when we first started RVing.
But after a few nights of dry camping (and a dead battery), it became clear to us how valuable RV solar can be. Today’s post breaks down the entire RV solar system in easy to understand way. We’ll cover how an RV solar system works, what components are needed, and why you would want RV solar to begin with.
Why would you want RV solar?
The main benefit to having an RV solar system is the freedom it provides you when you are camping off grid (without electrical hookups). Even if you primarily stay in RV parks, there will be a night or two as you travel that requires you to park overnight without shore power. Without an RV solar system, that often translates to extremely conservative use of lights, fans, and you’re unable to use any electrical plugs in your rig without a generator to power it.
With an RV solar system, you’re able to boondock or dry camp anywhere you please without having to run a generator to provide you with power. If there is sun, your batteries are charging. With the right solar set up, you never have to worry about draining your batteries. And you don’t have to compromise on what appliances or products you use.
Solar power has been a game changer for our lifestyle as full time RVers. Thanks to solar power, we have lived completely off the grid using free power from the sun. Without a doubt our freedom and independence has increased because of our RV solar system. We can now camp where we want, in the wild, off the grid, and unplugged.
Understanding RV solar
RV solar can get complicated. There are a ton of videos and blog posts that can make you feel overwhelmed as you are learning. This blog posts will explain an RV solar system in the most layman terms. We do have more in depth posts about solar, but for now let’s keep it simple.
An RV solar system generates free power from the sun. As the sun shines onto solar panels it creates an electrical current. This direct current (D/C) power is sent to a solar charge controller which stores the energy in the batteries.
D/C power operates things like fans or lights. But it doesn’t operate everyday items like wall outlets or major appliances. That means if you want to charge your cell phone, laptop, or use your blow dryer, coffee maker, or TV you will need to convert that power from D/C to A/C (alternating current). A power inverter converts power from D/C to A/C power allowing you to use the energy generated from your RV solar setup freely.
What components are needed for an RV solar kit?
There are technically four main parts of a full solar setup. However, you can customize your RV solar system to meet your needs (or your budget). On our first RV, we installed our solar panels and charge controller first. Then upgraded our battery bank and eventually added an inverter.
On our second and third RV, we had the budget to purchase and install everything at once.
It doesn’t matter if your energy comes from shore power, a generator, or the sun. You need a place to store that energy for later use. That’s where a battery bank comes into play. The battery bank is the powerhouse of an RV solar system. It’s what stores usable energy to power your motorhome, trailer, or fifth wheel when it’s not plugged in.
Unfortunately, most RVs don’t supply you with a large enough battery bank to sustain your rig when dry camping. All three of the RVs we’ve owned originally came with just one 12-volt battery. Which isn’t enough. We recommend adding additional batteries to your battery bank so you can store more usable energy when camping off-grid.
There are a lot of options to consider when building a battery bank. We have a blog post that breaks this down and another that covers how to determine what size setup you need.
RV solar panels and charge controllers
Solar panels generate power from the sun. Their cells capture solar energy and send that energy into a charge controller. Charge controllers convert the energy generated from the panels and send them safely into the batteries. The charge controller helps regulate the input and output of the power so it doesn’t harm your batteries by overcharging them.
There are a ton of different options for RV solar panels. Many RV’ers choose to mount the solar panels to their roof which allows you to generate power whenever there is sun. For those who only dry camp occasionally. A good option is getting a portable solar panel. Portable solar panels have a charge controller built into the panel, so you don’t have to worry about installing anything yourself.
If you want to install panels on your RV roof the easiest route will be to purchase a solar kit. This will include the necessary components like a charge controller, solar panels, mounting brackets, and electrical cables.
An inverter charger is an optional part of the solar kit. However, we believe it is a must if you want to use your solar power freely.
With a solar setup, you can operate your RV’s 12-volt system. This includes things like lights, water pump, furnace, CO2 sensor, exhaust fans, and the refrigerator on propane. While that offers a tremendous amount of freedom you’ll probably want to use more energy than the 12-volt system can provide. Things like watching TV, charging your phone or laptop, or running basic kitchen appliances like a coffee maker or blender.
A power inverter allows you to convert the naturally produced D/C power from the solar panels and battery bank to A/C power which is the power we can use with everyday appliances (normal 2-prong plug).
Our AIMS power inverter has been a game changer for us because it allows us to comfortably dry camp, rather than “rough it”. Even when we’re dry camping we can live as if we’re connected to electricity. I can blow dry my hair, charge my laptop, watch TV, make smoothies, and listen to music, without turning on the generator. The only real difference is that we’re just a bit more mindful about how much energy we’re using at once.
The inverter can be a costly expense, so if you’re interested in dry camping on a smaller scale, you can get a portable inverter that allows you to plug a few items in (especially great for your laptop or cell phone).
How much does an RV solar system cost?
Prices will vary greatly for an RV solar setup. On the low end, you can expect to spend around $2,500. While on the high end, you can easily spend $10,000 or more. It really comes down to the components you use for your RV solar kit and if you have it professionally installed or not.
Obviously having a professional install will raise the cost (as it should, they have the experience and expertise to install it properly and quickly). Another factor that greatly changes the overall cost of RV solar is the specific components you choose, such as the type of batteries.
Cost is also dependent on the amount of power capacity you chose for your batteries (the total number of batteries you buy), the number of panels you buy, and the size inverter you install. All in all, our installation in 2018 cost us around $2,700 and took us three full days to install.
Is RV solar worth it?
RV solar isn’t for everyone. We love boondocking on public land and camping at national parks. In a given month, the majority of our camping is without electricity or shore power. So for us, it’s 100% worth it. However, if you seldom camp off-grid investing in a solar setup is likely not worth it. Even if you only camp off-grid for a night or two.
If you average a cost of an RV park at a weekly rate of $250 (that’s $35 per night which is rather conservative), it would make your total cost for years of RV parking to a whopping $12,000. Even if you do a more conservative number, assuming you are staying in an RV park at a monthly rate of $600, your total annual cost for RV camping would be $7,200, and that doesn’t include what they would charge you for electricity.
Most places we park are free so we only spend around $350 per month on paid camping. That means we’re saving ourselves around $7,600 annually. This more than pays for the upfront cost to install our RV solar kit. Compound that savings over our years of use and it’s clear why RV solar is worth it for us.
However, we want to emphasize that an RV solar setup doesn’t have to be all or nothing. A lot of RVers think they have to invest in a full kit to enjoy the benefits of solar power. When in reality you can use a small portable panel to recharge your batteries and call it a day.
Hopefully, this guide helped ease you into the idea of RV solar and figure out what options may be right for your needs. While we would never full-time RV without solar again, it’s definitely not required to RV. Only you can determine if it’s right for you, but we are firm believers in solar, its benefits, and the freedom it offers.