When installing solar panels on your trailer, you can take your rig to the pros or go the DIY way. Unlike conventional generators, solar panels are smell-free, silent, and require minimal maintenance to serve you for years.
So, an RV solar installation could be a great idea if you spend a lot of time traveling or camping. Moreover, you don't have to worry about keeping the food in your fridge fresh or charging your devices in remote places.
How Do RV Solar Panels Work?
Let's begin by understanding the science behind RV solar panels and how they work. The sun continuously shines with energy, even providing ample power to fill the planet's energy requirements 10,000 times over. RV solar panels help collect some of this energy and put it to use. Solar panels are usually made of several smaller solar cells, which, when combined, collect a significant amount of power.
The top layer has extra negatively charged electrons, and the bottom layer has fewer ones. The difference in charge creates an electric charge collected into the wires. This electricity is usually stored in the RV batteries via a charge controller, which will power your RV. However, not all RV solar panels are designed the same. There are different types of RV solar panels discussed below.
Types of RV Solar Panels
When shopping for solar panels for your RV, you'll often come across two types: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. Either option can be a great choice for your RV, but there are some key differences between them.
Monocrystalline RV Solar Panels
As the name suggests, monocrystalline panels are made of a single silicon crystal, and you can identify one since the cells are octagonal and black. Monocrystalline panels (like the Renogy ones pictured below) are the most efficient types out there, with an efficiency rating of between 15-20%. This implies that 15-20% of the solar energy hitting the solar panels is converted to electricity. This efficiency also makes them slightly more compact than the other panels making them the most space-efficient type.
Polycrystalline RV Solar Panels
Unlike the monocrystalline type, polycrystalline panels have a bunch of smaller crystals that are melted together. You can easily recognize them by their rectangular, blue cells. The polycrystalline panels are cheaper than their monocrystalline counterparts but are also less efficient, with a rating of 13-16%. However, this lower rating doesn't mean they can't still fulfill your power needs, and they can, in fact, save you a few dollars on your initial setup.
Rigid vs Flexible Solar Panels
Another type is the flexible solar panel, also referred to as a thin-film panel. The typical solar panels are rigid and hard, and with flexible solar panels, you can bend them into almost any position or shape. This flexibility makes them an ideal option for RVs (the Rich Solar Flexible Solar Panel is pictured below).
In addition, they're much easier to install since you can use an adhesive. The main downside of flexible solar panels is their low 7-15% efficiency. Another probable issue is that they're more susceptible to damage.
Roof-Mounted Vs Portable RV Solar Panels
Most people view solar panels as being permanently installed on the roof of your travel trailer or motorhome. There are some RV solar panel types that you don't have to install, such as portable RV solar panels (see the Rockpals solar generator kit pictured below). Instead of being permanently attached to your RV, you can fold these solar panels for storage when not in use. Other advantages of portable solar panels include the following:
- There's no need for installation that involves a lot of time and money
- You can move them for the best sunlight
- They're more affordable
RV Solar Installation Guide
Before starting your RV solar installation, it's important to understand the specifics of the setup, which will depend on several factors, including:
- The location of your battery bank
- Is it a trailer or an RV
- Your roof size and type
- The type of panels
So, follow the instructions provided with your solar or rig kit before starting your RV solar installation process.
Step 1: Mount the Solar Panels
The initial step is mounting the RV solar panels, which will depend on the solar panel type. For instance, you must affix the rigid panels to the roof with screws, while you can use an adhesive for the flexible solar panels. Lay out the type you have well and ensure everything fits perfectly.
Always avoid areas where vents, air conditioners and other items might cast shade over the solar panels. Secure the panels to the roof and use sealant under every bracket to create a water-tight seal.
The ideal sealant will depend on the roof material, so you must check to be sure through your RV manufacturer or dealer. Ensure you aim for the frame and not the panel itself, which can be a costly mistake if you shoot a stray screw into the panel.
Step 2: Run the Wiring
The power cable has to run from the solar panels down into the RV to charge your controller. Several ways you can use to run the wiring include using the following:
- A plumbing pipe
- Refrigerator vent
Step 3: Connect Your Charge Controller
Select a mounting location closest to your battery when connecting your charge controller to reduce line loss. Once you've mounted the charger controller on the wall, you can connect to the power wires you dropped through the plumbing pipe, refrigerator vent, or drilling. Always read the instructions in the kit to determine the correct wiring procedure.
For instance, some kits require you to connect the charger controller to the solar panel first, while others require you to the battery first. You can use a multimeter to test the polarity of the wire and tape or use another indicator.
Step 4: Install an Inverter
Installing an inverter is optional, but if you want to use your AC appliances, such as a laptop, microwave, etc., you'll need to install one. You should install the inverter close to the batteries and areas away from heat, corrosive battery gasses, and other damaging elements. Connect the negative and positive wires to the inverter and then connect them to the RV's electrical system. Always consult the correct wiring gauge when making these connections.
RV Solar Installation Guide to Safety
- Avoid sitting or stepping on the panels. Cover the panels with a soft material to prevent them from charging during the installation process
- Don't install the solar panels in inclement weather if doing it outdoors
- Avoid touching the electrically active components like the terminals when the panel is exposed to light
- Always go through any safety instructions included in the solar kit before beginning the installation
Maintaining the Solar Panels
You need to maintain and repair your solar panels for years of service with your solar panels. Although they require minimal maintenance as they lack moving parts that can be affected by breakdown or rust, you should follow the following tips:
Cleaning and inspecting the solar panels
Solar panel cleaning kits are crucial when cleaning your solar panels. The kit has a wiper, a small brush, and a biodegradable soap. Always clean your solar panels when they're wet or moist so that any dirt or residue that's stuck can be wiped off easily. Besides, avoid using soap or an abrasive sponge when cleaning the solar panels, as they can cause damage
Troubleshooting common issues with solar panels
You should also monitor your system to ensure the system performs optimally. There are monitoring systems that give you data on the electrical output of your system, which you can track over time to estimate the degradation of the panels. They will also notify you in case of damage or a malfunction.
Knowing when to seek help from a professional
When you identify some common issues with your solar panels, such as reduced output or a malfunction, the best solution is to seek help from a qualified technician. They will help assess the problem and provide the best possible solution.
RV Solar Installation Guide to Installation Costs
Like with the home solar system installation, the cost will depend on various factors, such as the space you have and your power needs. Essentially, the more panels and batteries you use, the more your installation cost will be. However, as solar prices continue to drop and come with a warranty of over 20 years, this makes them a worthwhile investment.
Once you figure out your budget and power demands, an RV solar installation should be easy. First, ensure you have a flat surface to mount the panels and measure your roof space and the type of solar panels you have. From there, mount the solar panels, run the wiring, and connect your charger controller.
You can also install an inverter for your home AC appliances, such as laptops and microwaves. Be sure to follow any safety instructions before your installation.
For more information about RV solar installation and products, browse Solar Paradise's collection of Solar Panels for Your RV to find the one that suits your needs. Contact the team at Solar Paradise for help with your RV solar installation or any other questions you may have