Solar Power for your RV
Solar power with your RV provides the ability to go “off grid”, dry camp (boondock), be out in the wilderness – and STILL enjoy some of the amenities of “modern life”.
RV Solar power can be a worthy goal, but there are pitfalls. If you read Tom Dansby’s excellent article on the topic of RV solar power, you’ll note he starts by recommending Solar Bob’s blog. Having read Bob’s blog, I began to become dejected as I saw adding solar power to my RV as a major (and expensive) project – one where many installers were not skilled sufficiently to insure the job would be done right – and I for one did not feel that I had the expertise to execute well on my own.
Note: I have significantly updated this article as of late September, 2022. It was originally written in 2015. Today more than ever, RV’ers (and really everyone) need alternate ways of generating power.
Solar power can NOT completely replace 120 volt “shore power” in all ways, but in an RV camper, with a LIMITED INVESTMENT in solar and the supporting components, you CAN run MOST of the equipment/systems in your RV camper.
What you should NOT expect to power with my “budget oriented” approach are any HIGH WATTAGE appliances (air conditioning, microwave, coffee pot (maybe), hair dryer (maybe) or anything with a heating element. All other systems will function including the ability to charge phones, laptops and other small 120v electric appliances.
Solar Power is NOT just for those who love to boondock (dry camp)…
Consider the winter of ’20-21, I was in loving life southern Texas, with most days in the 60’s. I was at a campground with “full hookups” (water/sewer/120volt electric.) THEN “snowmageddon” hit – an unexpected (to say the least) turn in the weather that wreaked havoc over much of Texas for nearly a week. My full hookup site turned into a “dry camping” experience when the water shut off AND the power shut off for nearly 6 days! What carried me through? My solar panels AND my generator.
Bottom line: Its NOT just severe winter weather that can cause the power grid to fail – and you never know when its going to occur. Read on to learn what I chose to purchase after much research.
All that changed when I started to consider PORTABLE solar power for my RV Camper…
Portable solar means you park, you take out your solar panels, alligator clip them to your batteries and point the panels towards the sun, period, done.
The upside? No involved roof install. No concerns over how and where you park. If you’re under a tree in the shade and you have solar panels on the roof, they are rendered nearly useless! No involved wiring from the roof to the batteries. The downside – your solar panels *could* grow legs and walk! (But so far in 10+ years of use, that just has not been a concern.)
AFFORDABLE solar power
My approach to solar power for my RV camper had me “out the door” for a total cost of less than $1000 for the panels (even in 2022 dollars!), a solar controller, two 6 volt batteries and an inverter.
Each time I dry camp, setup time for my system requires a grand total of about 5 minutes! There are NO installation costs or headaches associated with my approach. Allow me to share by video (recorded in 2015), then you can see the specifics on what I purchased and why I selected each piece within the entire setup.
Lets break down the components of my solar setup…
I used to have a set of (expensive) 6v AGM batteries. After about 2 years, one went bad. I opted to go with the accepted workhorse, an old steady of the industry – Trojan 105 6 volt batteries (2 of them) Click the link for a recommended vendor at best price – and you’ll need to speak with them as the model numbers appear to have recently changed – the 105 was Trojan’s “standard bearer” and they’ll know what model has replaced them). My total cost by going through “The Solar Biz” (including delivery charges to Billings, Montana was about $350.) These (2) batteries are wired in series, providing 12 volts to my RV and deliver 225 amp hours of energy.
Renogy makes great solar panels
I chose Renogy Solar Panels (the link goes to their 200w “solar suitcase” system) for my RV Solar Panels based upon their reputation, cost, ease of storage and ease of connection. Renogy’s reviews are STELLAR and their prices are very competitive. They also offer a 100w solar suitcase which would be fine with a smaller travel trailer.
You’re able to connect (by alligator clips) up to 2 200 watt “suitcase systems” to one set of batteries (I have ONE and its sufficient.)
Each Renogy solar suitcase comes with a solar controller (the thing that controls how much voltage / current is sent to the batteries). It is easy to set up and provides a current readout – which at peak sun (in Montana in September) produced 11.4 amps per hour. Renogy also has a GREAT tech support department easily accessible by phone – and they walked me through the initial setup in minutes!
2022 Update: I’ve had my solar panels now for SEVERAL years. They have held up well AND – good news for you – they’ve come way DOWN in price! Check them out HERE.
The links provided in the images and text above and HERE will enable you to learn more about the Renogy suitcase panels and see Amazon’s price on them. (Full disclosure: I am an Amazon affiliate, if you plan to purchase – using my link will not cost you any extra, but it does help to cover my costs for bringing this website to you.)
Each suitcase system includes a well… suitcase which is very slim and easy to store when the panels are not in use. Also – the panels (and the solar controller) ARE not injured by water (if it starts raining.)
Important: When it is cloudy, very little current is produced (well under 1 amp per system), so you may want a “backup” for THOSE types of days! Read on for my backup plan…
My only concern regarding these panels is the fact they only came with 10 ft. cables and maneuvering the panels to “see” the sun is sometimes a challenge. They do however have quick disconnects called “MC4” cables. (see photo)
I ordered (for about $68.) cables that will extend each solar suitcase to a total of 20 ft from the batteries. I believe this is plenty of room to move in almost any situation. The cost for using extender cables? 1.5% power is lost in the extra 10 ft. of cabling – but with some creative adjustments (tech support will help) in the solar controllers, the batteries can STILL be charged as the panels have a max output of 19 volts.
Generating Power is great, but what was I going to do with it?
My needs when I’m “off grid” are simple. I want to be able to run the furnace overnight (if needed). Remember, your RV furnace is a propane/12 volt powered appliance. It does not require shore power to run.* Turn on lights when needed. Keep my cell phone and laptops charged, and run on occasion a motor for my air mattress and my water pik. I have no need (nor expectation) to run the microwave, A/C, or even a TV (I get most of my tv through the computer anyway).
*Recently some of the worst RV manufacturers have started installing heaters instead of furnaces – they’re FAR less expensive and run ONLY on 120v AC (shore power) – if you see this in a camper, RUN don’t walk in the opposite direction. (Dutchmen Aspen Trail appears to have gone this route – Dutchmen used to have a good name, but I wouldn’t recommend one to ANY of my Concierge RV Buying Clients these days!
Thinking of getting a camper (of any type) – or replacing your current camper? Want a “guide by your side, who also has your back?” Check out my Concierge RV Buying and Selling Service – and be sure to read the reviews at the bottom of the page.
To operate / charge 120 volt A/C Appliances, You’ll also need an INVERTER
With those goals in mind, I chose a Bestek 1000 watt pure sine wave inverter. Inverters convert 12 volts to 120 v AC to run (and charge) LOW WATTAGE appliances such as your laptop, phone charger, tv, etc. The system I’m recommending will NOT run high wattage AC appliances such as air conditioning, microwave, and anything with a heating element (hair dryer, coffee pot..)
Note: Pure Sine Wave is an important aspect of an inverter if you plan to connect laptops and phones to them and wish to keep that valuable equipment healthy!
Portable Generators – A BACKUP for your Solar Panels
Solar panels are great, but they require ONE very important “ingredient” – sunlight! If it gets cloudy, they’re virtually useless. Solution- a portable generator.
When I chose an inverter generator, my FIRST priority to consider was “where will I store it?” and “how will I move it”? So… SMALL and LIGHTWEIGHT (and quiet) were PRIMARY considerations. So… how about 2500 watts in a SMALL case that weighs under 40 pounds and costs (as of this writing in Autumn 2022) just over $600. I chose the Champion DUAL FUEL (gasoline & propane) inverter generator to serve my needs. What “inverter generator” means to me is QUIETER than those noisy older models. Dual fuel means gasoline AND propane – versatility!
I would love to have more power than my 1 champion, but if you look for higher wattage, weights quickly rise to 70 pounds or more. You CAN however connect two Champion generators using a parallel cable (costs about $75.) and now you’re looking at a system that can run an air conditioner, microwave or whatever electric appliance you can think of. Continuous wattage with a parallel cable will exceed 3500 watts with 2 Champion generators working in tandem.
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Monitoring the System – getting technical
Here is where the purists will disapprove! Instead of a trimetric 2030 (the industry standard for monitoring your batteries to see how they’re charging/discharging), I elected to forgo the (approx.) $200. cost (with required accessories) for my system. I opted for the Innova 3721 battery system and charging monitor for a grand cost of about $27 bucks!
Update: I also (finally) purchased a simple digital multi-meter so I can test at the battery terminals directly. You do this by removing 1 of the leads from battery terminals and testing the battery voltage without any load on them.
Here is my reasoning: Using my 12v (cig lighter) receptacle next to my bedroom TV I can monitor voltage. Here is what I found:
Typical voltage measured during the day during peak charging hours: 14.36 volts (as much as 14.63 has been observed by taking randomly timed measurements)
Early evening voltage (with all lights off and nothing plugged in): 12.92 volts
Early morning voltage (after a night of keeping my phone and 2 laptops charged AND periodically running lights on): 12.29 volts
Lowest observed voltage (after a night where the temperature dropped to the high 20’s and the furnace ran off/on much of the night): 11.95 volts
What does all this mean (to me)? Well, it is my understanding that the batteries are 50% discharged when they are producing 12.2 volts. Note my lowest was 11.95v (using the remote 12v testing device). The next time I experience these conditions, I will check the batteries directly on their terminals to see if in fact I’m dipping under the 50% discharge line. Again – this dip occurred only one night, for a few hours as the furnace was running frequently and temperatures dropped into the 20’s. Naturally my first concern was to avoid any kind of freeze in my plumbing!
Rather than wire a trimetric – a wiring nightmare in my view – into my system, I have chosen to rely upon this basic voltmeter and do what it takes to stay over 12.2 volts. I have now tested the system on three separate occasions – for one day, then for 5 days, then for 4 days. On the longer tests, I can affirm I am “self-sustaining” – using as much power as I produce as each morning the voltage was amazingly close to 12.29 volts. The only exception was the night I opted to “hammer” the furnace to keep warm and that did push the voltage under 12 – a voltage level – and temperatures with no hookups – I’d prefer to avoid.
I give credence to “solar bob’s” words of advice – but I then yield to those who have installed many solar setups and have a track record of satisfied customers who are not even adding in the voltmeter that I purchased. I decided I did not want to “fly blind”, but did want to insure I had some way of measuring the batteries output – but by a method that did not involve adding new wiring from the battery box to the living quarters of my RV.
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Before you go, if you need additional RV Accessories, here are my top picks – at the best prices…
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