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Solar Panels or Generators for Campers and RVs—What’s best?

portable generator for an RV
I absolutely LOVE my generator. For a portable, it’s perfect, but sometimes I think I’d pick an RV with an onboard generator for my next RV upgrade.

Which Is Best, Solar Panels or Generators for Campers?

The question of whether a generator or solar panels were best to use in an RV came up, and after looking into it, I decided that solar panels were the best power source for my RV backed up by a small generator for days of cloudy or bad weather.

Cost of Generators

The cost of a generator for a camper ranges in price from the Sportsman Gasoline 4000W Portable Generator for $249.99 at Walmart to the RV Onan Microquiet Generator for $4,430.79 online at PPL Other RV generators may be found within that range.

Home Depot WEN 3,100-Watt Inverter Generator for $649.00

Sam’s Club A-iPower 3,000/4,000 Watt Gasoline Powered Portable Generator with Manual Start (Includes Wheel Kit & Handle) $249.98

Camping World Honda EU3000is Generator – CARB-Compliant regularly priced at $2,329.99.

Champion Hybrid: This 3500-Watt Digital Hybrid has been made 50% quieter with digital technology and its weight is reduced by 20%. A kit is available to purchase also for increasing power. Lots of customers buy wheel kits for this generator. This generator is usually priced near the 500 dollar range at Walmart.

If you’re comfortable buying a generator off Ebay, you could find a bargain. Any warranty is not likely to transfer to you if it’s pre-owned, however.

Several other brands can be found with most RV generators priced at several hundred dollars. Some generators are auto- start and auto-choke while others are manual.   

Other costs to consider are the RV power outlet, ranging in price from $41 to $108, a circuit breaker, ranging from $3 to $20, cord, and fuel. You might want to buy a wheel kit for some portable generators which run anywhere from $30 to $70.

With such a wide range, how can I know which one to pick? Do I want it to power my appliances or do I want it to be a power source for the battery bank for my solar panel system? I found that if I want to run the blower dryer while I have the air conditioner on, I’ll need a larger generator. If I want a generator for days of bad weather when the solar panels can’t work at their peak, I need a smaller generator.

Since I can gauge the generator’s size by the watts produced, (most RV generators run from 1,000 to 3,000), my choice is made a little easier if I know roughly the wattage used in my RV’s appliances. To find out how many watts you need to run your appliances, you will have to do a little homework in the beginning. Remember that volts x amps = watts. Check the labels on your appliances and other powered items such as blenders, hair dryers, etc. You will be able to roughly come up with the wattage needed in your generator.

Also check the decibel rating of the generator, since national parks limit the noise to 60 decibels at fifty feet.

Here’s a couple of tricks to make life a little easier: if you want a higher wattage, two generators at 1,500 watts each are easier on the back than one 3,000 watt generator. You will need to buy a parallel connection cable for the two. Secondly, fill your empty generator with gas after you have moved it. You will have decreased the weight further by doing so.

Maintenance Required for Generators

Oil changes depend on how many hours the generator has been used. Often, with an RV generator, you will have to keep a log to know this information. You’ll also need to clean or replace your air filter and keep an eye on the spark plugs for replacing. Fortunately, most manufacturers have maintenance guides available for their generators for customers to refer to. Some guides might need to be downloaded from the internet. YouTube also has several clips that show how to do these tasks. Changing the oil and air filter are usually simple tasks. Open the cap under the oil reservoir to drain the old oil. Replace the cap, and use a funnel to replace the oil. The air filter may simply be a piece of foam that can be easily cleaned. You may need some tools handy to check and replace the spark plugs such as a spark plug socket and a feeler to measure the gap.

Cost of Solar Panels

The Inverter Store’s 1590 Watt Solar With 6000 Watt Pure Sine Power Inverter Charger 120/240VAC 24VDC $6,079.28

Renogy 300W 12V Solar Panel Polycrystalline Off Grid Starter Kit with Wanderer Charger Controller $463.00 from Walmart

Windy Nation 100-Watt Solar Panel $108.99 from Home Depot

Renogy 200 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline Solar Starter Kit with Wanderer $349.99 from Amazon

Solarflexion 390 Watt 12Volt RV Solar Kit $599.00 from Solarflexion

Items Included in a Solar Kit

Although components might vary a little among different manufacturers, most solar kits include solar panels, a charge controller, a battery bank, and an inverter with wiring and accessories to hook it together. Renology, for example, has a kit designed to let you add on to it in the future if you want.

There are also portable solar kits which let you take the panels and set them up where needed. This would let you park your RV with less worry about adequate sunlight and obstructing shade, for instance.

There are three types of batteries used in solar energy systems: Lithium, flooded, and absorbed glass mat. Flooded batteries require maintenance with distilled water, while absorbed glass mat batteries do not and are safer in an enclosed area. If money is not a concern, lithium batteries are the best of the three. Lithium batteries will last up to three times longer than either flooded or absorbed glass mat batteries. These batteries are usually included in your solar panel kit, so be sure to check which is provided.

Wire gauge is vitally important. Professionals say this is the area in which they see the most errors made by DIY folks. At least 10 gauge wire is needed to connect the solar panels to the combiner, and heavier wire to connect the controller and batteries. Gauges for wires connecting to the batteries should be anywhere from 8- to 2- gauge. If you purchase a camper or RV already prewired, have a professional check this before going ahead and installing your panels. Oftentimes the gauge for your needs should be heavier and the wiring will need replaced before beginning. A professional electrician will be able to tell you the costs of the different wire gauges. Cost will also depend on the size of your camper or RV and how much wiring is needed.

The inverter should be pure sine wave as opposed to modified sine wave if you’re going to be running the usual appliances and televisions found in campers and RVs. These can range from $230 to $880 depending on the manufacturer.

DIY or Professional Installation of Solar Kits

While more campers and RVs are coming already prepped for solar these days, it is probably best to let a professional do the job to ensure that the wiring is adequate for the system you want installed. Getting this step wrong can lead to problems such as fire and electric shock.

Pros and Cons of Generators vs. Solar Panels


[column type=”1/2″]Pros

Can work at peak capacity whether sunny or raining.

Can work at peak capacity at nighttime, although most campgrounds require generators to be shut down at night due to noise.

Some models have reduced noise levels

Can be automatic

Depending on the buyer, certain generators may increase the resale value of a camper or motorhome.

Diesel generators will run longer, are more fuel efficient[/column]

[column type=”1/2″ last=”true”]Cons

Constant need for fuel

Are heavy to lift

High noise level

Possibly could be stolen

Should be covered under insurance

Diesel generators are thought to be harder on the environment.

Fuel for diesel generators can be harder to find than for gasoline-fueled generators, such as rural areas.

Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit does not apply to generators.[/column]

Solar Panels

[column type=”1/2″]Pros

Need little maintenance

Have a choice of three types of solar panel systems

Solar panels add little weight to the roof if panels contain no glass


No need for purchasing of fuel

Not likely to be stolen, unless portable

Depending on the buyer, may increase the resale value of a camper or RV

Will save money on energy costs if you plan to use the RV for several years

Since RVs can be considered a second home, check with your tax advisor to see if you qualify for the Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit.[/column]

[column type=”1/2″ last=”true”]Cons

Professional should install the solar panel system

The high cost of solar energy will require several years of use before breaking even on the expense or owners reap financial benefits. In other words, if you plan on selling your RV in two years, you will not have had time to reap any energy savings past what you paid for the solar panels. How long it takes before you can break even with your solar package depends on the size and expense of the system installed.

Although it is a myth that solar panels cannot produce power on cloudy days, solar panels can, at times, be reduced to working at 10%-25% of their peak capacity on cloudy days. Rainy days also affect how well solar panels work.

There are three types of solar panels. Monocrystalline photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are the most efficient. Polycrystalline solar panels are the cheapest but are less efficient. Amorphous Thin Film panels are least efficient. Despite polycrystalline solar panels being less expensive, monocrystalline panels are more popular, and installation is less expensive. Installation costs of solar panels depend on the watts needed and the number of panels. Roughly, the cost of installation for an RV can be $500 to $2000.

I had heard that primary solar homes can give extra solar power, not used, to the grid in large cities. Then on low power days, these homes can draw power from the city based on their ‘credits’. However, I didn’t see anything saying the same could be done with RVs or campgrounds. Until such a system is developed for RVs or campgrounds, solar panels might be seen more as an energy source that needs to be supplemented rather than be the only energy source for an RV or camper.[/column]

Tow Weight Affected By Solar Panel Systems

It is recommended the batteries are placed at floor level above the axle(s) which avoids changing the tow ball weight and worsening pitching (front lifts or descends in relation to the back) and yawing.

Should be covered under insurance


Generators rarely require a professional for set-up, while a solar panel system is best installed by a professional.

What is the Solar Tax Credit?

The Solar Tax Credit is a credit that allows 30% of the cost of going solar to be deducted from federal income taxes. This 30% will last only until 2019. After that year, the credit will gradually decrease yearly until 2022, when the Solar Tax Credit will become a permanent 10%. If you’re planning on going solar, sooner is better than later if your RV is considered a second home.

Is your RV a second home?

Although this information is not meant to take the place of advice from a tax professional, I found some general guidelines for an RV to be considered a second home.

Must have facilities for eating, sleeping, and cooking.

Must be secured on its own loan-in other words, if you fail to make payments, they come to take the RV. (Incidentally, you can also deduct interest on the second home’s mortgage. Check into those requirements with a tax professional as well, although you won’t be able to deduct interest from the tow vehicle). If the RV was purchased with a personal loan, it won’t qualify.

Solar-Prepped Campers and RVs

Below are some campers and RVs that are solar prepped. When shopping for a solar-prepped camper or RV, be sure to find out if the set-up is for portable solar panels or a permanent installation.

Jay Feather

Heartland North Trail 22 FBS

Livin lite Camplite CL11FK

Northwood Manufacturing Arctic Fox 25W

Airstream Basecamp

If you choose to install solar panels on the roof of your camper or RV, remember to leave room for you to safely walk between the panels.

Ultimately, it depends both on your short-term and long-term budget and how many years you plan to keep your RV as to whether to choose generators or a solar panel system. It does appear that a small generator is handy for days of bad weather when the solar panels might not be able to work at their peak.

Even if you don’t keep your RV long enough for the solar panel system to pay for itself, the resale value of your RV will probably increase with the right buyer.

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