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Upgrading Your Camper Vans with Solar Energy

flexible solar panels for rv

Campers and RV owners are always on the go. Camper vehicles are great outdoors for embarking on long road trips while keeping the comfort of home. Thus, it’s not unusual for many people to own an RV or a camper van.

But while it’s fun to be in nature’s embrace, admit it or not — electricity is just non-negotiable for us. It’s not only a component crucial in most RVs, but you’ll also need it for powering appliances, and gadgets in your camping trips, especially for cooking purposes.

To address this, one of the best electricity resources when camping off the grid is solar panels. However, choosing solar panels and identifying the best RV solar panels can be a challenging task.

In this article, you will learn about solar panels for RV and how to choose the right one for you. You will also discover the ultimate know-how in buying solar panels.

Setting Up Your Campers with Solar Panels

A solar panel setup can be a convenient, cost-effective, and environmentally-friendly investment for campers. RV solar panels operate the same way as residential solar panels. How they work is they capture sunlight and convert it into electricity. You can then use this electricity to power up or charge appliances for an extended period. 

One of the top-selling points of solar panels is the fact that they are generally very low maintenance. There are also almost no additional costs to operate it once you finish setting up. Plus, they can help prolong battery life, thanks to their slow-charge function.

Specifically for RVs, you can purchase a portable solar panel, which you can easily set up and takedown. Or, you can also opt for flexible panels that are mountable on the vehicle’s roof using mounting equipment.

To acquaint yourself on the general setup of RV solar panels, below are its parts and components:

Solar panels

Solar panels are the assembly or framework of photo-voltaic cells that convert sunlight into electricity.

Charge controller

A charger controller works as a current regulator. Charge controllers prevent the overcharging of the storage system. A charge controller also works to prevent accidental power drainage.

The two charge controller types are:

  • Pulse width modulation (PWM) charge controller
  • Maximum power point tracking (MPPT) solar charge controller

Below are the key features of a charge controller:

  • The primary job of the charge controller is to manage power.
  • It provides convenience as the charge controller displays the charge status, battery bank voltage, and amps.
  • A charge controller can also have features, such as load and lightning control.

Solar batteries

They are the ones responsible for storing energy that the charge controller regulates. The most common solar batteries are lead-acid and lithium-ion.

See their differences below:

Lead-acid batteries

These are the most commonly-used solar charger batteries because they are both cheap and durable. The downside is they require periodic maintenance, even with the help of a charge controller.

Lithium-ion batteries

While they cost more, lithium-ion batteries can store more energy, work efficiently with a charge controller, and last longer than lead-acid batteries.


It is usually built onto the solar battery and converts DC (direct current) electricity to AC (alternating current) electricity. They typically have a built-in charge controller.

You can either purchase all these parts separately or buy an all-in-one solar panel kit. Apart from the basic content of a solar kit, you’ll need connecting wires, solar cables, power hookups, and clips to hook them all together.

You can also purchase a carrying case for easy storage. Meanwhile, if you opt for a fixed panel, you’ll also need mounting equipment, mounting brackets, and mounting hardware.

Regardless, it’s crucial to ensure that you have everything you need to successfully set up the solar panels.

Average Cost of RV Solar Panels

Keep in mind that the best RV solar panels are an investment. Hence, if the price sounds too good to be true — it probably is. It’s critical to choose solar panels made with high-quality features and materials.

Generally, how much you’ll spend on RV solar panels would depend on your solar system needs. If you consume a lot of electricity, it’s natural to spend more money on your RV solar panel systems. Otherwise, you can score a good quality solar panel set up at a reasonable price.

On average, you can purchase RV solar panel kits for as low as $100 to as high as $1,000. For starters, you can get most panels that come in a solar panel kit between the price of $200 and $500. These solar panel kits will usually include all the basic components mentioned in the previous section.

Overall, it’s critical to gauge your usual electricity usage. It will give you an idea of how many solar panels you need and how much you need to spend.

Factors to Consider in an RV Solar Panel System

Below are some factors to keep in mind when choosing a solar panel system for your camper.

Solar Panel System Size

A crucial difference between solar panels for residential and RV is the size of their system. A residential solar system’s size can cover most of a home’s electricity needs. Meanwhile, the design of an RV solar system is only meant to provide enough power for several appliances.

Given the limited roof space of an RV, the solar system you need would be on the smaller side. Still, it would heavily depend on your overall electricity consumption.

The first step is to consider the number of devices and appliances that require a solar charger during your trips. Next, analyze the exact dimensions of the specific panels of your choice. Make sure they will fit your vehicle. You wouldn’t want to have a solar system that is too big for your RV. Otherwise, it can be troublesome during the actual setup.

If you’re a beginner with solar panels, you can try purchasing a basic RV solar system kit. Then, test out the solar charger and see how it works for your needs.

Remember: you can always add more panels to your setup if needed. Depending on its performance, you can later add additional panels or batteries to expand the system. 

Solar Panel Wattage, Weight, and Size

First, why does wattage matter in solar panels? Wattage or watts is the measure of how much power a solar panel can provide. Again, the watts you need would depend on your power consumption. For this, it’s best to identify the average daily power consumption of your solar charger. We determine this through watt-hours (Wh) or your consumption of electricity over an hour.

The best RV solar panels have an average range of between 100W and 400W.

To explain in simple terms, having a higher solar charger wattage means having more efficiency when it comes to powering devices simultaneously. Consequently, the higher your electricity consumption is, the more solar panels you will need. It’s also where a solar charge controller will come in.

Say, you have a 200W solar panel. Putting it into perspective, imagine that a lightbulb uses 360Wh, while a TV consumes 800Wh. If you divide these watt-hours by 200W, you will get the rough amount of hours the solar panel can power it. In this case, the solar panel can run the light bulb for roughly 1.8 hours, and the TV for 4 hours.

Take the same 200W solar panel exposed to sunlight for 6 hours a day. It will generate approximately 1,200 Wh of power in a day, with the calculation: 6 x 200 = 1,200. This amount will be more than enough to power small devices for a few hours. However, don’t expect the solar charger to be able to run several appliances simultaneously in an entire day.

Now, what about the weight and the size? Your choice when it comes to these aspects will come down to where you will place the solar panels. Regardless of the type, you should factor in the dimensions of the panels for setup and storage.

Keep in mind that the weight difference between the best solar panels can be extreme. For instance, a solar panel kit can weigh as heavy as 40 lbs.

Meanwhile, there are flexible panels that can weigh as little as 4 lbs. If you’re going to mount the panels on top of the RV, consider the weight the vehicle’s roof space can support. 

System Setup

Each person has their own reasons for choosing to utilize solar panels for their RV. These reasons influence how you’ll want to set up the system. With this, there are essentially two ways to set up your RV solar panels: manual and mounted setup. Now, how do they differ?

Manual setup is simply laying out the solar panels in an open space and connecting them to the RV’s battery. Then, you’d only have to adjust the angle of the panels according to the sun’s direction every few hours. The downside with this setup is you’d have to repeat the process every time.

Meanwhile, a mounted setup is mounting the solar panels onto the roof of the RV. It’s convenient because it’s ready to operate every time you go to a site. However, the best solar panels for this setup could be more expensive. Another downside is you’d always have to make sure that you park your RV in an area sunlight reaches.

In line with these, take a look at the brief comparison between rigid vs. flexible and fixed vs. a portable solar panel. 

Rigid vs. Flexible Solar Panel

Rigid solar panel

They are highly durable because of their temperate glass mounting and aluminum frame protection. They can effectively withstand harsh outdoor elements. 

Flexible solar panel

They are lightweight and thin, allowing you to bend some of their surfaces.

Fixed vs. Portable Solar Panel

Fixed solar panel

These are designed to be permanently bolted either on the roof or side of your RV. 

Portable solar panel

These are typically individual panel units or solar suitcases that don’t require pre-drilled holes. You’ll have to set them up manually and position them accordingly.

Types of Solar Panels

There are three primary types of RV solar panels. Your choice of solar panel type and solar panel kit would greatly depend on your budget, usage, and preference.

To give you an idea, take a look at the brief comparison of the types of the best solar panels below:

Monocrystalline panels

While it is the most efficient and has the highest charge output, it is also the most expensive. It’s the best type if you have limited available space.

Polycrystalline panels

This is the most common solar panel type. Polycrystalline solar panels are cheaper than monocrystalline and generate around 1% less power.

Amorphous panels

These are the cheapest but also the least efficient type of solar panel. Thus, you would need more amorphous solar panels to generate the power mono or polycrystalline solar can produce. 

If you have the budget, it would be best to go with either monocrystalline panels or polycrystalline solar panels for your solar panel kit. Still, an amorphous panel can be beneficial if your RV has a curved roof since it is flexible.

Rigid Solar Panels

Rigid solar panels are solar cells with tempered glass mounting. They use aluminum for more robust protection during extended periods of outdoor use. This framework allows you to position the system towards the sunlight effortlessly.

Rigid panels’ glass is also scratch-resistant, so you’ll find it’s best for long-term efficiency. Thus, at the same time, they can effectively withstand outdoor elements, including sand, wind, and glass. 

What’s even greater with rigid panels is they come with a longer warranty of up to 10 years. Plus, they are also generally cheaper per watt.

Below is the sum up of the basic features of rigid solar panels:

  • Highly durable and high-performing
  • Best for extended outdoor use
  • Cheaper per watt
  • Rigid panels have a wide range of sizes
  • Easy to position under the sun
  • Longer warranty period

Flexible Solar Panels

Flexible solar panels are frameless panels that incorporate flat cells molded with an upper protective plastic layer. The lack of frame of a flexible solar panel creates a low profile that can bend and follow the curves of RV roofs. 

Consequently, flexible solar panels’ structure makes the panels softer and on the lightweight side. Thanks to this, they can receive and withstand large impacts better without cracking.

Also, since they are not free-standing, there are more limits to their sun exposure. How well flexible panels would absorb sunlight would depend on the surface you attach them to.

Plus, a word of caution is that bending a flexible solar panel excessively can cause damage to internal connections. It can then result in a shortening between the cells. Moreover, the best flexible panels tend to be scratch-prone.

Below is the sum up of the basic features of flexible solar panels:

  • Lightweight
  • Flexible and bendable up to 30 degrees
  • Low profile
  • Best for curved roofs and surfaces
  • Not required to mount and bolt onto the van
  • Crack-resistant
  • Scratch-prone
  • Shorter warranty-period

Solar Panel Placement

The common notion is that the best solar panels for RVs should be bolted permanently to the vehicle’s roof. While this can be convenient in some sense, it’s not always the best placement for every case. In some circumstances, it would be more preferable to opt for portable panels.

Below, you will learn the key features of fixed versus portable solar panels.

Fixed Solar Panels

As we’ve touched on earlier, you permanently bolt fixed solar panels on top of the RV. Thus, the majority of permanently mounted fixed solar panels have rigid construction, which come built within a frame. Nevertheless, you can put an additional tilt mount to adjust the panels’ positioning and angle accordingly.

Note that air movement can impact the performance of solar panels. In essence, they perform best with good air circulation. With this, it would be best to leave a gap between the panel and the roof or van surface when mounting. Otherwise, it would compromise the cooling airflow that is critical for performance.

Pros of Fixed Panels

  • Continuously captures and absorbs energy as long as exposed to the sun
  • Can accommodate energy-hungry appliances
  • Can double as extra shade on the van’s roof and helps reduce heat
  • Less likely to get stolen with the nature of their setup

Cons of Fixed Panels

  • More expensive
  • You’ll need to buy additional mounting brackets for angle adjustments
  • Raises the van’s roofline and reduces its stealthiness when out on the road
  • Decreases roof layout options, such as a sunroof
  • Tricky to find a position where the panels will get optimum light
  • Involves troublesome installation and mounting

Portable Solar Panels & Solar Suitcases

As opposed to fixed solar panels, it’s not necessary to permanently mount portable solar panels. They often come in single, standalone units or portable solar panel suitcases.

With the structure of a portable solar panel, you can conveniently store them in a carrying case when not in use and pull them out when you’re out camping. Thus, it’s the best choice if you don’t want to put pre-drilled holes on your RV.

Portable solar panels and portable solar suitcases are the best solar kit choices if you only need extra power for small electronics. It can provide energy for charging devices such as phones and laptops while you’re at a campsite.

Pros of Portable Panels

  • Cheaper and cost-effective
  • Doesn’t require custom work for installation, including pre-drilled holes
  • The best portable solar panels don’t take too much space in the exterior space for setting up
  • Portable solar panel improves van stealthiness
  • Provides you with more placement options for getting the best lighting
  • Portable solar allows you to park the van under the shade
  • A portable solar panel works for a wide range of vehicle sizes and models

Cons of Portable Panels

  • Can take up a significant amount of space inside the van for storage
  • Set up is necessary for portable solar panels every time you reach the camp
  • More likely to get stolen, so it’s risky to leave them out without supervision

Solar Panel Cell Type

Earlier, we touched on the three types of solar panels. In this section, we will tackle their solar cell materials, construction, and how they function. It will give you a better idea of what type of panel and solar kit is suitable for your needs.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

Monocrystalline panels have a construction made from one large silicon crystal. This structure allows these panels to generate a high amount of energy even with significantly lacking sunlight exposure. 

Monocrystalline panels are the best type in terms of durability and efficiency. These panels take up less space for the excellent performance they provide. Plus, monocrystalline panels are also the least sensitive to high temperatures.

While they are the most expensive out of the three, it’s reasonable with their top-notch quality.

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Polycrystalline panels are the most common and widely available type of solar panel. Multiple blocks of silicon make up their cells for excellent power generation. While they don’t produce as much energy as monocrystalline, their performance is enough for moderate camper activities.

Polycrystalline panels can be a fantastic investment, especially if you’re new to solar panels. You can enjoy almost the similar specs of durability and longevity as a monocrystalline solar panel for a lesser price. They also take up less space than amorphous solar panels.

Overall, you can’t go wrong with going for polycrystalline panels. Just make sure the solar kit will fit on your vehicle.

Amorphous Solar Panels

Lastly, we have amorphous. These are thin-film panels that consist of a large bed with a spread of silicon. They have a flexible structure that allows for more workable installation options. However, for the same reason, amorphous panels are the least efficient among the three types of panels. 

They generate the lowest power output from the three solar panel types. To get the picture across, they would take up three times more space than a monocrystalline solar panel and a polycrystalline solar panel to generate the same power.

Also, the usual solar kit installation process for amorphous panels is glueing them directly onto the RV’s roof. Thus, these solar panel kits can cause inconvenience on a larger scale.

Still, this type of panel is the least expensive option, so they could work for you if you’re on a budget. You can also use its durable and flexible features to your advantage. You can position them on any surface available to get optimum sunlight even when you park in a well-shade spot.

Maximize Your Solar Panels’ Efficiency

The volume of solar energy converted to DC electricity determines the efficiency of solar panels.

In a nutshell, an efficient solar panel’s electrical power should be enough to power up all the electronics you need. In most cases, these panels provide solid solar output while taking less space and weight.

But maximizing your solar panels’ efficiency doesn’t only mean choosing the highest wattage capacity.

Below, you will learn three tips on how to boost the efficiency of your renewable solar power source.

Weather Conditions

Everything — from cloud coverage to temperature — can impact solar panels’ power generation. Thus, the weather is usually one of the biggest concerns when it comes to maximizing the efficiency rating of solar panels. 

But fret not: solar panels work even under weather conditions where they can’t get direct sunlight. Yes, exposure to sunlight is the primary source of solar energy. However, it’s crucial to note that light particles still reach solar panel surfaces regardless of how “sunny” it is out.

And so, solar panels continuously convert bits of sunlight particles into electricity. The only thing that would vary is the volume of generated solar power depending on the weather condition. In case of inadequate electricity output, you can utilize solar battery storage for extra shore power support.

A tip is always to ensure your panels are free of any debris that would reduce their energy gathering function. These could get formed from conditions like rain, snow, hail, wind, and storm.

Let’s move on to temperature. Many people think that solar panels work most efficiently under high temperatures. But, bizarrely, this is not the case.

High temperatures can result in voltage drop and lower the panels’ power output. Thus, sunny weather complemented by a cool temperature makes for the most efficient solar panel performance.


The angle and orientation of your solar panels would determine the amount of sunlight it gets. A poor angle can result in non-optimal power input. Especially for rigid and fixed solar panels, it can be a headache to position them in the most efficient placement.

Fortunately, attaching tilt mounting brackets to your panels can allow you to adjust bolted panels accordingly. It can increase the solar panel capacity significantly. It’s because doing so would enable them to get the most amount of sunlight possible.

The best angle for solar panel placement has been determined to be about 219 degrees. You can easily measure this if you’re using the best portable solar panels. This position is almost right between west and south or 39 degrees west of south. 


Lastly, as you may now know, solar panels are sensitive to shade. It is one of the major inhibitors of their efficiency rating.

Again, the shade we’re talking about doesn’t involve cloudy weather, as they do not block off sunlight completely. Instead, these are the physical obstruction from objects and infrastructures.

Notice the tiny number of squares on your panels installed internally within each other. These groupings of cells increase the voltage. They work in a way where if one of them gets covered, it will impact the energy production of the whole row.

With this in mind, the RV roof layout plays a crucial role in the higher efficiency of solar panels. For instance, having a roof rack that covers the panels can significantly reduce power input and output. It also includes shades from trees, chimneys, storage, box, and vents. 


How long will a 12-volt battery run a refrigerator?

It would differ depending on the type of batteries you use. For instance, a 12V lithium-ion battery can run a 12V refrigerator for between 25 to 50 hours. 
Meanwhile, lead-acid batteries have a significantly lower power storage capacity. Hence, it can only run the same refrigerator about half the run time of lithium batteries with as much power — 12 to 25 hours. Otherwise, it can damage and shorten battery life.

Can I run my RV AC with solar power?

Technically, it’s possible to run an RV air conditioner (AC) with solar power. But keep in mind that this would mean having a large solar panel system that can generate enough energy. Not only would the setup for this be extensive, but it would also be very expensive. 
To give you a picture, an average RV AC needs about 1800W to start up. Then, it would require 650Wh to cool down the entire RV.
For this, you would need a solar array, battery bank, lithium, and even an inverter to initiate solar power. It would not be practical with all the components you need to set up.

Can I run my RV furnace without a battery?

Essentially, it’s not possible to run an RV furnace without a battery. While propane is the one responsible for fueling and producing heat, the blower fan would require a battery to run. These RV furnace blower fans typically run off of 12V DC.
In turn, having a portable solar panel can help supplement the charging of these batteries, along with charge controllers, for backup power.

What is the difference between an RV inverter and converter?

First, let’s talk about alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC). These are two ways electricity flows and how electrons move through a conductor. In DC, the electrons move and flow in a single direction. In AC, the electrons switch directions back and forth. 
In connection to these, RV inverters convert DC to AC. For instance, it can take power from batteries and enable the inversion of energy from 12V to 110V. Thus, it allows you to use outlets with 110V using the power stored in your 12V batteries.
On the other hand, RV converters convert AC to DC. It can take the electricity from amp breakers to power up appliances, such as televisions and AC outlets.


If you’re constantly out on the road with your RV, a fixed or portable solar panel system can be an excellent investment in the long run. You can start with a simple solar kit.

While it takes time to recoup the amount you spend on it, it’s worth it once you see the results. Once you switch to RV solar panels — you can never go back.

Solar panels for RV can generate significant long-term savings for both your time and finances. Not only are they generally low maintenance, but they are also environmentally friendly.

Overall, investing in RV solar panels can provide you freedom in a lot of aspects. Now, you can focus on your RV trips without constantly thinking of when you will run out of electricity. 

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