5 Best Portable Solar Panels for RVs
Installing portable solar panels for RVs can be a complicated process. You need to understand how the process works. There are various installations necessary, and they are also expensive. However, portable solar panels for RVs can also offer a lot of advantages that make those growing pains worthwhile.
A portable solar panel is a device that converts solar energy into electricity for your RV. If you live or travel in an area with plenty of sunlight, this can be a really useful and cost-effective investment. Other times you may need it for other uses:
- Dry camping and boondocking trips that last over 3 days and aren’t near grid hookups. This can ensure that you keep receiving electricity without producing any annoying generator sounds.
- Fishing and hunting in remote locations that are far from grid hookups.
- Music festivals and other multi-day events.
Portable solar panels can be used to power all electrical appliances, and you don’t even have to use generators anymore. Not only is it more cost-efficient and quieter than the alternatives, but it’s also eco-friendly. Yes, they are a bit difficult to install, especially if you do it yourself, but they provide an unlimited source of free and clean energy, so it’s well worth it.
The cost of setting up solar panels is expensive. However, if you use them wisely, you can earn back whatever you spend within a few months because you no longer have to pay exorbitant electricity bills or battery costs.
Here are the primary benefits of using solar panels for RVs:
- Charging RV Batteries: Using the solar panels, you can provide a slow but steady stream of energy to your RV batteries. Solar panels generate pure DC electricity, and these electrons can saturate your batteries. Furthermore, the batteries don’t experience deep discharges anymore since they are constantly receiving energy. This can maximize the battery’s life. You can then use the battery to power your electrical appliances even when the sun is not up.
- Providing Electricity: You have a constant supply of electricity whenever the sun is up. As such, you don’t have to worry about depleting sources of energy no matter where you go. And you can be assured of receiving power no matter how remote your location.
- Clean Energy: Solar panels don’t consume any fuel nor leave behind any residue, making it the cleanest and most eco-friendly source of energy. They also don’t produce carbon monoxide, which is a common issue with generators.
- Noise: Energy generators usually make a lot of noise as they come with several moving parts. This can be an annoyance and can also disturb other RVers. Solar Panels don’t include any moving parts and are completely noiseless.
- Promoting Electrical Independence: If you get a solar panel with all the proper equipment and parts, you become completely electrically independent. You no longer have to rely on shore power or external batteries and fuel.
- Minimal Maintenance: With solar panels, you don’t have to change fuel or gas, and they don’t have moving parts so they don’t wear down too easily. Once you install them, you can effectively forget about them.
- Reliable: RVs run at 12 volts at lower than 30 amps. Solar panels, when installed correctly with the right fuses, can provide electricity for a long period without any fear of shorts or other issues.
- Cost-Effective: The initial setup of solar panels can be expensive. But after that, they basically pay for themselves because you no longer have to worry about generators, fuel, electricity bills, etc. Over time, they can become quite profitable in saved costs.
But you need to make sure that the solar panels you get are suitable for your needs. Buying the wrong solar panels can be a really expensive mistake. In this article, I’ll give you an honest overview of the best portable solar panels for the RV market. So lets get right down to it!
1. Zamp Solar 200P
The Zamp Solar 200P is the best monocrystalline 200-watt portable folding solar panel on the market. It also happens to be one of the most expensive, but it’s completely worth it if you’re looking to maximize your efficiency. Being a monocrystalline solar panel, it offers far more energy than its competitors while taking up less space.
The panels can be folded into a neat suitcase of 21″ x 22″ x 3” dimensions. The suitcase itself is made of a durable anodized aluminum frame. I believe Zamp has provided one of the most compact, durable, and convenient means of packing the solar panels than any other manufacturer. The suitcase is equipped with ergonomic handles to make it convenient for carrying as well.
The 15-amp PWM solar charge controllers are completely waterproof and come with an ip66 rating. Most competitors provide controllers with displays that aren’t adequately immune to rain and snow. However, this waterproof rating is achieved at the expense of compatibility with Lithium batteries. If you want access to Lithium-ion batteries, you need to build a non-regulated portable and use the non-waterproof ZS-30A, which has two additional Lithium settings. You can then mount it into the battery compartment and hardwire a sidewall port to the PWM controller.
The charge controllers in this model have 5 charge states — soft, bulk, absorption, float, and equalization. The soft charge mode is available only in Zamp solar panels, and it automatically ramps up the battery to 10 volts once it’s completely discharged. The solar controller also features LED lights that inform you of the charge mode and an LCD display screen that provides relevant readings such as battery voltage, charging current, charged capacity, and battery temperature (if you have the temperature sensor installed).
The panel’s legs are adjustable, allowing you to tilt them to achieve the ideal 90 degree angle in relation to the sun. However, the length of the legs is not adjustable, so it’s hard to position it on uneven ground. While the legs are flexible, they also happen to be too weak to handle the entire weight of the panels. Strong winds can cause the panels to sway considerably, putting them at risk of collapsing. You can, however, overcome this instability by anchoring the panels to the ground with some weights or stakes.
A 15-foot lead is provided which can connect to the RV via alligator clip electrical connectors. The clips can be removed to expose the SAE connectors that can be plugged directly to the RV’s battery.
- Extremely efficient because they have Monocrystalline solar cells.
- The PVM solar charge controller carries the ip66 waterproof rating.
- Extremely durable construction.
- The PWM solar charge controllers carry 5 charge states.
- The solar panels are easily adjustable to be able to receive maximum sunlight.
- Extremely expensive.
- The legs are not extendable.
- The panels sway considerably when it is windy.
2. Renogy 200 Watt Eclipse
The Renogy 200 Watt Eclipse is a relatively reasonable and efficient monocrystalline 200-watt portable solar panel. The Renogy Eclipse uses monocrystalline solar cells, allowing it to be smaller and lighter than other polycrystalline solar cells while producing the same energy. Furthermore, the Eclipse uses new technology with anti-reflective coated glass that maximizes light absorption, even in low-light settings, increasing its efficiency even further.
However, the Renogy Eclipse’s enhanced efficiency comes at a heavy cost. It isn’t equipped with a solar charge controller so you’ll have to buy one of your own. That is a pretty massive additional expense to incur for something that’s pretty much an essential part of a solar kit. In lieu of buying a new controller, you can also wire the solar panels into another existing solar panel kit that does have a solar charge controller, that is, if its controller can handle the total amps all of the solar panels.
In comparison to Zamp, I have found that the Renogy components aren’t as strong and durable. While their folding suitcase is made of durable aluminum, the latch is poorly constructed so you run the risk of the suitcase suddenly falling open if you’re not careful. However, Renogy also comes with a strong padded case that can hold the solar kit well and providse complete protection in case it drops.
Even the supporting legs aren’t very durable; they shake considerably because the bolts keep coming loose. These issues can be pretty annoying because you have to constantly keep checking the solar panels and inspecting them to make sure everything is alright. Having said that, at least the legs are flexible and you can tilt the panels to any angle of your choosing, depending on the location of the sun.
The Renogy 200 Watt Eclipse comes equipped with a 10-foot electrical lead with an alligator clip to connect the panels to the RV’s battery bank. However, in case you want to connect directly to the solar port, you can do so by disconnecting the alligator clip and using the MC4 style connectors instead.
The Renogy 200 Watt Eclipse can also be used with all types of external batteries — flooded, gel, AGM lead acid, and Lithium batteries. This is a step up from the Zamp Solar Kit which cannot be used with Lithium batteries.
- Uses Monocrystalline solar panels to enhance efficiency.
- Relatively reasonable.
- Works with Lithium batteries.
- The anti-reflective coating glass is extremely efficient in terms of absorbing sunlight.
- Doesn’t come with a controller, which is a massive oversight.
- Shaky legs.
- Poorly constructed.
3. ECO-WORTHY 120 Watt Solar Panel
The ECO-WORTHY 120 Watt Solar Panel is perhaps one of the most affordable means of generating solar power for your RV. As a monocrystalline solar panel, it is almost as efficient as the Renogy and Zamp solar panels mentioned above. However, this panel is quite lacking in essential features that made the other panels stand out. This solar panel kit is essentially meant for RVers who want to dip their toes into solar power generation with a small investment, or for those who use solar panels only sporadically.
To begin with, I was less than impressed with the solar suitcase it’s packed in. The construction quality is flimsy and I had the distinct impression that the contents of the suitcase, i.e., the panels, would shatter if I accidentally dropped it. They also don’t come with a carrying case so you have to find your own means of transporting the panels and their associated kits. Once you set the panels up, you’ll find that the legs are flimsy and risk caving in with the slightest breeze. Furthermore, the aluminum legs are not adjustable, so you cannot tilt them to the desired location to catch the sun. This drastically reduces the efficacy of these panels.
The ECO-WORTHY 120 Watt Solar Panel comes with a 10-feet electrical lead that can connect to the RV’s battery bank via alligator clip style connectors. Considering the lack of adjustability of the legs, you have to place the panels in the ideal location. However, the limited cord drastically restricts the panels’ movement. Furthermore, no additional electrical connectors come with the kit, so you can’t even extend the lead.
This solar kit comes with a 15 amp solar charge controller. However, it is the most basic 3-stage charge controller with bulk, absorption, and float-charge modes available. The controller also skimps out in terms of display. It doesn’t come with any LED lights to indicate the charge mode nor does it have an LCD screen to transmit important information regarding the batteries or solar panels. There’s just one green LED light that indicates if the controller is working; that’s it.
Based on everything I have mentioned, the ECO-WORTHY is woefully ill-equipped for people who rely on solar power on a regular basis. It’s only suitable for beginners or for those who don’t use solar power often. But considering how cheap it is, you get what you pay for.
- Made of monocrystalline solar
- The most affordable solar panels on the market.
- Suitable for sporadic solar power use.
- No carrying case available.
- Suitcase is poorly constructed.
- Legs are flimsy and cannot be adjusted.
- The electrical lead is too short and cannot be extended.
- Panels cannot be tilted.
- Solar controller doesn’t have an LCD display or LED indicators.
- Solar controller has only three charge settings.
- Not suitable for long-term solar energy users.
4. WindyNation 100 Watt Solar Panel
The WindyNation 100 Watt Solar Panel comes with 100-watt polycrystalline solar cells and a solar controller that can accommodate up to 4 solar panels simultaneously. Being a polycrystalline solar panel, it’s certainly cheaper than the other solar panels on this list. But it’s not as efficient and the panels take up more space while providing less energy.
The solar panel kit comes with a 30-amp solar charge controller equipped with a battery temperature sensor. It also has an LCD display that indicates the amperage, amp-hours, voltage, temperature, and DC load draw. The kit is capable of providing around 350 Watt Hours (Wh) of energy or 33 amp-hours per day, depending on how much sunlight is available. The terminals on the solar charge controller accept up to 8AWG.
This solar kit is connected in parallel to the battery bank and its charger. If the shore power is charging the battery, you don’t need to worry about anything else. However, if the shore power is providing electricity to the camper, you need a transfer switch.
I didn’t appreciate that this kit doesn’t come equipped with everything you need for the installation. I had to purchase two fuse holders, fuses and the appropriate devices to hook the P30L charge controller to my battery bank. You’ll find a section in the Complete Solar Kit Manual — which you can download from the WindyNation website — that describes the fuse size and the wire gauge you need for your solar kit.
Besides that one issue, the P30L charge controller works as it should. It monitors the battery status perfectly and restricts the current flow when the battery is full. When the batteries have to be charged, it sends only 5 amps. The indicator also warned me — via an “unhappy” icon — when I put too much load on the batteries.
- Reasonably priced.
- Can be expanded to 4 solar panels.
- Easy to install and comes with a detailed installation guide.
- Transfer switch is needed if the solar kit is powering the camper and not the battery.
- Need to use a fuse system.
- The electrical connectors have to be soldered to work.
- The P30L charge controller doesn’t come equipped with the fuse holders and fuses you need to connect it to the battery bank.
- Not as efficient as monocrystalline solar cells.
5. Go Power GP-PSK-120
The Go Power GP-PSK-120 is an efficient solar panel with polycrystalline solar cells. As a monocrystalline solar panel, it’s more efficient than the WindyNation panel mentioned above. However, it has dimensions of 32.5 x 2.8 x 19.9 inches, weighs 28.7 pounds, and only produces 120-watts of power at 6.7 amp-hours, which isn’t as impressive as the other more advanced monocrystalline solar panels.
This solar panel cannot be faulted for ease of installation. The provided instruction manual is extremely easy to follow, and you can set up the entire kit within a few short minutes. The solar panel’s suitcase is also well constructed with a tough latch and strong frame. You get a well-padded carrying case to enhance portability, making it easy to store and providing protection. This solar kit also comes with a PWM solar charge controller along with battery clamps that you can connect to your battery.
My biggest issue with this solar panel is its flimsy design. The panels keep swaying even if there’s a gentle wind. I initially used cement blocks to hold the panels down, but I was afraid they might harm the panels. Eventually, I started weighing them down with firewood and stacked rocks over the wood. This helped with the stability, but I would have preferred the panels were stable enough so that I didn’t need to do this.
This solar kit is technically rated as weatherproof and it can sustain mild showers. However, you cannot simply leave them out on a regular basis. I use solar power regularly, so I left the panels out for about a month and all the parts — screws, hinges, etc — started rusting and showing signs of oxidation. As such, this solar panel is not meant to be used often, only sporadically.
- Carrying case is well-padded and easy to carry.
- Long warranty of 25 years.
- Easy to install.
- Not as efficient as other monocrystalline solar panels.
- Not suitable for low-light settings.
- Flimsy panels.
- Battery takes a long time to charge.
- Can’t be left out regularly.
- Not meant for long-term use.
What are the Different Types of Portable Solar Panels for RVs?
There are primarily three different types of portable solar panels depending on how they are constructed — polycrystalline, monocrystalline, and amorphous. They are distinguished based on their solar cells, i.e., the dark part of the solar panels that looks up at the sun and converts solar energy to electricity.
A polycrystalline solar panel consists of several small solar crystals taken from blocks of silicon. They are relatively cheap and blueish in color. However, they also happen to be larger and thus harder to clean regularly and are about 13 to 16% efficient.
A monocrystalline solar panel is made of a single large silicon crystal. They are more commonly used because they are 15 to 20% efficient and can even produce energy in low lighting. They are smaller in size and easier to clean. However, they are quite expensive, even by solar panel standards.
Amorphous/ Thin-Film Panels
Amorphous or thin-film panels are made by spreading silicon on a large sheet. They are cost-effective as they can be made manually; however, they are the least efficient of the three types. Furthermore, they will require thrice as much space to produce the same energy as polycrystalline and monocrystalline solar panels.
Factors to Consider when Buying Portable Solar Panels for RVs
The following are some of the major factors to consider when buying portable solar panels for RVs.
Generally speaking, larger solar panels can produce more power. As such, you have to consider exactly how much power you need from your solar panel since that will determine how large they are and how much space they take up in or on your RV. The following are your different solar power options:
- 2 Watts: This is the least power you can get from your solar panels and it’s only enough to charge smartphones and laptops.
- 10 Watts: With these, you can charge several gadgets like DSLR campers, laptops, etc, simultaneously.
- 30+ Watts: These are large enough for video electronics, TVs, refrigerators, etc. You can go for higher power than this as well, but the panels will be larger.
RVs don’t have as much space as homes. Thus, you need to focus on maximizing your panels’ efficiency, i.e., get the most power at the least space occupied. As such, it’s recommended to use monocrystalline solar panels as they are the most efficient. You can further enhance their efficiency by making sure they are always clean and positioned to receive maximum solar energy.
Are you using the energy generated by your solar panels to charge and store energy in a battery? Or are you using it to power outlets in the RV?
If you’re using it to power a battery, then you’ll need a battery to hold the power and an inverter to turn the DC power from the battery to AC power for devices. If you are directly powering the outlets from the solar panels, you’ll need a transfer switch. You need to make sure that the solar panel kit comes with the appropriate devices or you’ll have to purchase them separately.
Solar panels that travel with you and need to be constantly mounted and dismounted must be extremely durable. You have to focus on the strength of the panels’ material, the frame material, and that of the cables, clamps, connectors, and other accessories as well. All your gears need to be extremely durable and sturdy.
Portable Solar Panels
This type of solar panel is placed on the ground. They can easily be moved around so you can place them to collect the most solar energy. You can park your RV anywhere you want and then simply locate the panels at the point of highest direct sunlight. But they max out at just 200 watts. As such, if you need more power, you have to connect several portable solar panels to a single solar controller. The task of assembly can be a big pain. And you have to be careful about where you’re walking at night since you might accidentally step on the solar panels and break them. However, if you are just starting out with solar energy, these are a great introduction.
Roof-Mounted Solar Panels
These solar panels are permanently attached to the roof of an RV. You don’t have to constantly deploy them and they’re easy to deal with. However, if you intend to use them, you have to constantly park your RV in the sunniest spot. If you park under the shade of a tree, for example, you won’t receive enough power. Furthermore, in order to clean the panels, you’ll have to constantly climb the RV’s roof.
Some solar panels can simply be placed under the sunlight and start generating power. But some require greater degrees of assembly. If you plan to install solar panels DIY style, you should go for those requiring minimal installation.
Get a solar panel that comes with a proper carry bag that can hold all of the panel and its associated accessories. This enhances ease of carrying the panels and provides a safe place for storage.
An ammeter allows you to gauge how much solar energy is being converted to electrical energy. It helps gauge the panel’s efficiency over time and keeps track of the energy. This isn’t a necessary feature, but it can be useful.
You always need to count on bad weather and rains when you’re traveling in an RV. If you’re using a portable solar panel — especially a roof-mounted one — it needs to be resistant to snow, rain, and dust. As such, make sure that your portable solar panel is weatherproof and waterproof.
How do Solar Panels work?
Once you install the solar panels and all of the associated accessories, the panels start converting solar energy to power. The generated power is then carried through the wires that connect the panels. The power is then carried to the solar charge controller, which transmits the power to the RV’s battery system and allows you to regulate how much energy the batteries are receiving, so as to not overcharge them. The stored power in the battery is currently in DC form so you have to use an inverter to convert it to AC power. Once converted, the AC power is transmitted to the breaker box, from which it is carried to the RV’s outlets.
How Much Solar Power do I Need for My RV?
The amount of solar power needed for an RV is extremely subjective. It depends on the number of people in your RV, the appliances you’ll connect to it, the type of solar panels you have, and various other factors.
However, you can calculate the amount of solar power you’ll need on your own by boondocking without an AC generator. This will help you calculate how long your RV can run on batteries without the use of a generator.
Let’s say your batteries lasted for 3 days and supply a total of 200 amp-hours of energy. However, with batteries, you can only consume 75% of the energy, so you can only use 150 amp-hours of energy. Dividing the amp-hours by the length of time spent boondocking, you will figure that 50-amp hours is the energy consumed daily.
A 100-watt solar panel can generate 6 amp-hours of energy when the sun is at its peak. As such, you can generate about 30 amp-hours of energy per day. Based on this information, you’ll have to use two solar panels of 100-watts to power an RV for an entire day.
You can supplement this formula with your own figures to determine how much solar power your RV needs per day.
What Can I Power with my Solar Panels?
You need to make sure not to overload your solar panels. You can (or can’t) power the following items with solar panels:
- With 12-volt solar panels, you can power television sets, lights, and refrigerators. When powering lights, it’s better to use LED variants as they take less energy.
- Heating appliances like hair dryers and microwaves takes up a lot of energy. As such, they should not be powered via solar panels.
How Many Solar Panels Do I need for an AC?
The number of solar panels you’ll need to power an AC will be dependent on the energy consumed by the AC and the efficiency of the panels. However, in most cases, three to four panels should be enough to power an AC.
How to Maximize the Solar Panels’ Efficiency?
The following tips will help you maximize your solar panels’ efficiency so you can get maximum energy at a minimal size.
- Be sure that you are not wasting any energy. Only turn on applications and lights you are currently using. When you step out of the RV, be sure to double-check all your sockets and lights and turn them off.
- Start using energy-efficient lighting. If possible, buy lights specifically meant for use with solar power as they are the most efficient.
- Shift bigger appliances like refrigerators to gas, so you don’t have to consume too much energy or put too much load on the panels. If you must connect your refrigerator to solar energy, then place it in an extremely cool place to conserve energy.
- If possible, start using cameras that function on lithium batteries instead of rechargeable ones, so you can save energy by not having to charge them too often.
- Try to charge your phones from the car’s battery when the car is running. Most vehicles come with charging ports. This will help you save energy.
- Keep your solar panels completely clean so they can receive maximum solar energy.
Do I Need Any Additional Hardware?
You need several additional pieces of hardware for installing your solar panels. These include T-knobs, rocker mount sets, sealants, tape, tilt bar sets, mount adapters, and mounting L-feet. All of these are usually provided with the solar panel kit. In addition to these, you might also need batteries to store the energy, inverters to convert the DC to AC power, and charge controllers to prevent the batteries from overcharging.
What are Solar Panel Charge Controllers and their Purpose?
Solar Panel Charge Controllers allow you to control the amount of voltage sent to your device. They can also open the circuit or stop the charge in case the battery is already saturated, thus preventing the battery from overcharging.
Charge Controllers are available in three types — 1 or 2 Stage Controllers, Pulse Width Modulated Controllers, and Maximum Power Point Tracking Controllers.
1 or 2 Stage Controllers
These come with shunt transistors that can regulate the voltage flow to the battery in 1 or 2 steps. Once a specific amount of voltage has been transmitted, it shorts the panel.
Pulse Width Modulated (PWM) Controllers
PWM Controllers are the industry standard and usually come with portable solar panel kits. They are about 75 to 80% efficient, so a lot of the incoming power is lost in the process of being transmitted to the batteries. The energy is lost because they take the incoming voltage, reduce it to a level that a battery can handle, and then transfer it.
Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) Controllers
These are the most expensive controllers, but they also provide an efficiency of 94 to 98%. It uses a formula to maximize the voltage going from the solar panels to the battery. However, these are generally used for stand-alone solar power systems or for solar panels installed in large homes or water pump system, etc.
I hope this article has helped you choose the best portable solar panel for your RV. Congratulations on transitioning to the ultimate clean source of energy!