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The Unfortunate Truth About RV Solar Power

RV solar systems have pros and cons. Photo via iRV2 Forums

The Unfortunate Truth About RV Solar Power

Like most things, RV solar power has pros and cons. RVers will need to carefully consider all the factors before buying expensive panels for the roof.

RV solar power is much quieter and more eco-friendly than using a generator. It is also a great option for boondockers looking to go camping off-the-grid. But there are still some unfortunate truths about RV solar power that many people are not aware of. 

The high cost of RV solar power

Quality RV solar panel kits are not cheap. Prices have gotten a bit more reasonable in recent years. However, a system can still get pretty pricey if you want a good RV solar power setup.

A few 100-watt panels can add up fast. Add on some deep-cycle solar batteries to store power and a charge controller to keep them from overcharging. Don’t forget an inverter to turn the DC power into usable AC powe. When it’s all over, you may be looking at a $1500+ investment.

Off-grid RV power is a little complicated

Setting up your RV solar power is a little more complicated than pulling in to a campsite and hooking up to shore power. Before you even buy anything, you will need to know about how much power you use on a daily basis. That lets you figure out how much power your solar panels need to generate. 

Ronnie Dennis from Do It Yourself RV shared an in-depth guide on every step of the solar power setup:

You’ll need a battery bank

With shore power, you never really need to worry about backup power. Once you’re hooked up at the campsite, you can just plug in your laptop or coffee maker like you would at home. The weather or time of day doesn’t affect your life at all. 

On the other hand, if you have solar panels, you’ll need a battery bank. This provides power for nighttime, cloudy days and when you want to park out of the sun. Lithium-ion batteries, though more expensive, are a better option for solar energy storage than lead-acid batteries. They’re lighter, more compact, and have a longer lifespan.

Parking in the shade can be tricky

On a hot summer day, you’re probably dreaming of parking the RV in a nicely shaded campsite out of the blistering hot sun. However, if you have installed solar panels on your roof, they won’t generate nearly as much power if they are not getting direct sunlight.

Portable solar power units might give you the best of both worlds IF you don’t need tons of power. It’s often easier to set up since it doesn’t require drilling holes in your roof.  Quality portable solar electric systems are made by Renogy, Acopower, and Eco-worthy. Goal Zero also makes portable power stations, to use with their solar panels. What’s nice is they have a built-in inverter and outlets for your electronics. Do you already own rooftop panels? Check out this easy mod from Do It Yourself RV on how to make them portable.

Is solar power worth it?

Don’t get me wrong, RV solar power has some downsides, but it is absolutely worth the investment. While it is a hefty cost upfront, it gives you the ability to go boondocking on public land rather than having to stay in a crowded RV park with hookups.

From what you’ll save on camping fees as well as on electricity costs, it will make up for the expensive initial investment. Solar power is also completely silent unlike a generator, and maintaining your RV solar panels is easy once everything is set up.

Many new RVs on the market even come pre-wired for solar power. For example, A True Solar Power Package Can Now Be Included With Your New Keystone RV.

Cover photo via Serolynne under Flickr Creative Commons

Author Nikki Cleveland Avatar

Nikki Cleveland

Nikki is a writer and editor for Do It Yourself RV, RV LIFE, and Camper Report. She is based on the Oregon Coast and has traveled all over the Pacific Northwest.

20 thoughts on “The Unfortunate Truth About RV Solar Power

  1. Solar Panels do not last as long on RV as on fixed structures according to one industry insider and my personal experience.

    11 of 160W GRAPE Solar panels are showing signs of delamination. One of them has a big flap hanging down. These panels have been in service only 7 years and there is every expectation they will not last 10 years.

    This really changes the calculations on the cost of RV solar. RV solar is a lifestyle choice I can afford to make. I really like not using the generator and not being constrained by generator hours or no generator rules. So even though the cost is higher than I anticipated I’m still going to have solar.

  2. This topic is just what I need! Although I am 74, We are new to RV’ing. We have a new 25′ trailer with a dometic 2872 fridge (not the 12 volt 3rd option) I can fit 720 watts of solar on the roof and that is enough for the fridge with all the necessary inverters, etc etc. My only question is ” how do I enable a choice between shore AC and inverter AC. Would really appreciate any info on this. Maybe just a link to a “how to” Thanks You!

    1. We have two motorhomes that both have built-in switches to turn on the inverters when not on shore power. On RV house batteries, they can run a tv for a few hours, but they are too small to run a microwave oven. If your trailer has built-in batteries then it may already have an inverter.

      A DIY RV inverter should have instructions on how to wire a switch between ac sources, if it’s necessary.

  3. Im Thrilled! I bought 4 x 340 wat panels 8 100 ah gel batterys and a growatt 5K inverter. If its sunny i can run a portable refrigerated air con a small fridge espresso machine jug and magnetic hot plate at once!! If course while im charging my phone and laptop too!

  4. I just want to run a 12v ARB cooler in my Jeep. Will the Renogy 100 watt system do the job. I am mostly in the western states.

    1. I have an ARB fridge and wanted to do the same thing. I mounted a 1 – 100 Watt Renogy Solar Panel on my roof rack and hooked it into an MPPT charge controller. This then went to a 12 v deep cycle battery. I then wired in a shore power controller so that I could charge this battery off of the vehicle when I was driving and not just depend on the solar. (was not a cheap install). (Very high-level description of the install). I did not want the ARB pulling off of my main battery when the vehicle was not running, only off of the spare and solar. It was a mixed success story. The ARB would draw down the secondary battery faster than the solar could charge it and eventually would deplete the secondary battery causing the ARB to go into low voltage protection. Perhaps if I had a lithium battery it would have been better. For short stops and trips, light hiking and not all day trips it would be fine. Anything extended did not really work out too well. I am in Southern California just for sun reference. Hope this helps.

      1. Thanks, I had to go to 2-100 watt Renogy panels. I’m running a Victron MPPT controller with a 100Ah agm battery. Adding the second 100 watt panel did the trick. I get around 580 – 670 watts a day from the panels and the ARB uses about 350 watts. In the Mohave desert my ARB stays at 34° on a 107° day.

  5. “Unfortunate Truth?”
    The unfortunate truth about generators is the amount of fuel they consume (you consume), compared with the output.
    The thing to consider here is the cost effectiveness of each. A generator will never stop costing fuel. Solar panels never cost fuel. Generators will never pay for themselves.
    Also you don’t have to throw your generator and go OCD with solar. You can have both and keep adding more solar if you like the peace and quiet.
    Also it is much easier to start with lead acid deep cycle batteries than going straight to lithium. AND you can have both types. Make a gradual change over time.
    One more advantage of solar panels is, IF installed properly there will be an air space underneath them which constitutes shade. And we all know shade is cool for your RV.

  6. The article states $1,500.00 when “it’s all over”. In reality the cost for a truly usable solar installation runs between 3 to 7K for a system that can generate 7 to 900 watts of power. Do your research and you’ll learn lots more. Consider too where most of those components come from- and the reliability factor along with that. In this country, we’ve abandoned manufacturing for a long time which means we can’t control quantity, availability, or quality. Consider whatever mod you’re going to do this way and you’ll make a sound decision.

  7. Is it worth it? If you want to take full advantage of your RV’s self contained independence – Yes!
    Having a good solar system and a good Lithium Ion battery bank can be a total game changer because you can stay almost anywhere and not worry about having hookups. For staying in most National Forest CGs, most Harvest Hosts, and to facilitate quick stays in big box store parking lots or Indian casinos your RV is going to need to be equipped for dry camping (boondocking).
    We have decent solar – but quickly learned that it was much more important to have a good battery system. We struggled for several years with Trojan deep cycle batteries but they took too long to charge, did not hold correct voltage (low voltage and the inverter shuts off), and we could only use 50% of rated capacity. Finally bit the bullet and went to LiFePO4 batteries and it TOTALLY changed our dry camping capabilities. Higher voltage, MUCH faster charging and more amperage made all the difference.
    But as noted – you need good sunlight to have full battery charging, and this was not always possible when parked in shade or just having some rainy days. Could charge from the engine when driving, or use the generator in those situations.

  8. Going with solar requires a power assessment of your primary power use. I use both a fixed and a tracking solar system. 400 watts fixed on the roof of the coach and 320 watts on a portable tracking unit. You loose about 20 to 30 % efficiency with the fixed units where as the tracking unit will do a better job overall for more power output. This setup along with two Zamp Controllers and 300 ah of Lithium Batteries, we hardly ever fire up the generator. Our main power draw is the microwave, which we use for heating meals and warming up the mochas. Boon-docking options are really enhanced with this configuration.

  9. Seems to be a dichotomy here. You need lots of sun for the solar cells to work best. When there’s lots of sun you normally need A/C. You’re not going to run A/C units off the inverter.
    An extreme charging setup will give you about 600watts. A generator will give you anywhere between 8000 – 12000 watts. Big difference. You need a generator to run A/C or any high draw appliances.

    1. The Living Vehicle Model 2022 with the extra solar awning can run 24 hour A/C in up to 110 degree daytime temps.

    2. Maybe not. An efficient [email protected] 5-8000 btu/hr AC can run for a few hours, intermittently from 5-9pm off a 10-12kwh battery bank. Li is nice but not so good if you live in Alaska.
      950w solar panels.
      I ditched my generator (Fisher-Panda 3.6kw diesel), hooking it up to run my house during the apocalypse along with hydraulic 240/120v generator off the hydraulic outlets on my Unimog camper.
      Don’t have an AC yet, just 3 vent/fans plus 4 little low amp internal fans plus good mosquito netting.

  10. Does the coverage of Solar Panels on the roof help at all in providing a bit of shade to the RV roof? I’ve considered one of those RV Sunshade things for when we have to park in full sun on 30 amp, it seems solar panels might fill that purpose AND help keep batteries topped off…

  11. “With shore power, you never really need to worry about backup power. Once you’re hooked up at the campsite, you can just plug in your laptop or coffee maker like you would at home. The weather or time of day doesn’t affect your life at all.”??
    Let’s not forget that the lights, furnace, Refrigerator brain, Water Heater Brain won’t work without a good battery. Yes electrical equipment that operates on AC power will work “when plugged into shore power, but most things in an RV are DC Powered.

  12. I have two batteries in my RV and a hookup for solar. My question is why invest in solar panels when I can simply crank the engine in my motor home and charge the batteries in an hour?

    1. Bill, that an obvious answer, but a more costly solution – both in the consumption of fuel and the wear and tear on your idling engine (especially if it’s a gas unit). That would definitely work but probably not an ideal, long term solution.

  13. Nikki, good article. I might add that instead of getting new solar panels, check into used solar panels. They cost less, and but will still produce a good amount of electricity. Obviously it’s a buyer beware kind of thing, but it’ll save some money getting set up.

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