Let’s be honest. Most guides to solar panels are confusing and full of math that never quite works out in reality. This will hopefully be a breath of fresh air for you.
You see, the standard approach people try to take when figuring out how many solar panels to buy is to sit down and calculate every single bit of power consumption they make as precisely as they can.
That nightmare of a task involves factoring in stuff you’d just basically have to guess at, like how long you want to spend watching TV, how much toast you want to eat and how many cups of coffee you can get down you in a day.
But really, as long as you’re not gonna be dependent on solar power and camp out miles from anywhere while you try this out, by far the best way to approach your new solar-enhanced life is to just go for one high quality 100-watt solar panel, like the top pick featured in this guide.
You’ll want to wire it up to your 12v deep cycle house battery, add your inverter and see how you go on from there. Besides, you can always add more solar panels up to 400-watts if you need to. You can see how the basic setup would work below, but really, it’s not as complicated as it looks.
You don’t need to worry about overcharging your battery either. That’s what the charge controller is for – it regulates and controls the rate at which the current is added to or drawn from your battery and prevents it from overcharging once the battery is full.
Anyway, as long as you choose a good, efficient solar panel like the one we’re about to take a look at, there’s no need to jump head first into a mess of unrealistic calculations that’ll result in you buying an absolute load of them and expanding your battery bank so you don’t waste all that power. Get this 100w starter kit which we recommend, or the 200w total two-panel version if you’d prefer, and see how you go on from there. Let’s take a look at them now.
Pro tip: Unless you have an unusually curved roof that would make flat panels unsuitable for installing, you should, in general, stay away from flexible solar panels. Flat panels are much more durable and they’re usually less expensive too. That said, if you need to install flexible solar panels on your RV, then the Renogy Extremely Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel is the one you should go for instead of our top choice.
The Best Solar Panels for RV Reviewed
The Best Solar Panel For RV: Renogy 100w 12v Starter Kit
The Renogy Starter Kit wins our best choice award. Basically you can’t go wrong with it.
The kit includes the 20A MPPT charge controller or maximum power point tracking charge controller to give it its full title. These types of controllers are newer and more efficient in that they are able to potentially increase the charging efficiency up to 30%, which is the version we highly recommend going for, but if you really want to, you can still opt for the older kit with the cheaper and older style PWM controller if you want to save yourself some up front money.
You might have noticed that this panel is black, rather than blue. That’s one of the interesting things about this kit. It’s a monocrystalline panel, rather than a polycrystalline one.
They generally cost a little more than polycrystalline panels but they are only no better than polycrystalline ones if you have unlimited space.
That’s not the case on an RV.
You see, monocrystalline panels are actually more space-efficient than the polycrystalline ones, which is one of the reasons why we recommend this kit.
Now, the increase in efficiency isn’t huge, but when space is limited, such as on an RV roof, the only way you’re going to get the maximum amount of power from the small space you have available to you is by using the more efficient monocrystalline panels, and that extra percent improved efficiency is what makes them worth going for.
Besides, once you’re enjoying the benefits of free power, the freedom of going off-grid and the peaceful sounds of nature rather than a great noisy and smelly generator chugging away in the background, you’ll want to add more solar panels and get the maximum efficiency out of the limited space you have available on your roof.
Pro-tip: Change all your lights to LEDs. It will reduce the current being drawn from your battery.
So, now you’ll be wondering what you’re going to run off just one 100-watt panel.
What Can I Run off This?
There’s obviously going to be too many variables to give you an exact answer, but we’ll try paint the picture for you.
With a 100-watt panel charging a 12v house battery, as long as you have a good inverter, you’re going to be able to run your LED lights and a few light appliances such as a radio or a laptop, toaster, coffee pot, tv, etc. With larger appliances or longer use of your appliances you’ll be better off with more than one panel and more than battery.
The important thing to take away from this, is that if you don’t think a 100-watt panel is enough for you, then the only solution is to get more than one panel, because solar panels don’t get more efficient than this one. Our current level of technology is the limit here, not the quality of this panel.
And that’s fine. All you need is to get more panels to boost your power output. You can also go the route of investing in a better inverter, or in more batteries to not waste any excess power.
What We Like:
- It’s a Great Kit For Anyone New to Solar Energy – This kit has everything you need to set it up including controller, cables, and mounting hardware and it’s pretty easy to install, it has clear instructions. It’s also an easy system to expand on if you want to add additional panels so that makes it an ideal starter kit. You can add up to 400-watts with this system if you need to.
- MPPT Charge Controller – Our top choice has an MPPT charge controller. These controllers are a step up from the older PWM controllers. They monitor and regulate your system’s current and as a result, increase your overall output. In fact, you can expect an efficiency rating of 90% or higher.
- Monocrystalline Solar Panel – A monocrystalline solar panel is made from single-crystal silicon which gives electrons plenty of space to move around freely. Polycrystalline panels, on the other hand, are cheaper to make and they’re made up from multi-crystals of silicon. Multiple crystals, make it less easy for the electrons to move about freely and so they’re less efficient. The difference is only a few percent but where you have limited space you’ll want to get the most efficiency from your solar panels in the small space you have. You can spot the difference between them by their color, monocrystalline panels are almost black whereas polycrystalline are a more distinctive blue.
Things To Consider:
- You Might Need More than One – If you’re a low maintenance kind of person who doesn’t watch much TV or use a whole load of appliances, this kit will most likely be enough for you by itself. However, if you know you have several appliances you’re going to be using quite a lot, you might be better opting for the 200-watt panel version of the kit (Renogy 200 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline Solar Kit) as your starter kit as it’ll work out cheaper for you on the whole. Then you can see if that is enough for you, and you can always add more panels later -up to 400-watts – if you really need to.
The Best Suitcase Solar Panel for RV: Renogy 100-Watt Monocrystalline Foldable Solar Panel
If you happily spend most of your RV time at camps that provide shore power but you’d occasionally like to venture off-grid a bit more or be able to make longer stops between camps, you might not want to go all out and install permanent solar panels on your roof, but you should definitely choose our suitcase option. The Renogy 100-watt Foldable Solar Panel.
Don’t let the fact that you can fold it in half for easy storage when you’re not using it, fool you into thinking it’s not as good as a full system. It is a full system.
You get 2x 50-watt very high quality monocrystalline solar panels in this kit set in a sturdy, corrosion-proof aluminum frame with a protective casing to prevent any damage when it’s folded away, and an inbuilt kick-out stand for a near-instant setup.
As we’ve discussed in the review above, monocrystalline solar panels are a little more efficient than polycrystalline ones, not by a huge amount, but we think they are worth going for.
You also get a 20 Amp waterproof Voyager Charge Controller with an LCD Screen, shown right, which as we’ve mentioned will regulate and control the rate at which the current is added to or drawn from your battery and prevent it from overcharging once the battery is full.
Lastly, you get one 10ft tray cable with alligator clips which you simply connect to your battery, and that’s it, your up and running.
What We Like:
- Everything You Need in a Small Package – You get the same high-quality product that you get with the roof solar panel option but in a compact, fold-away, and storable solution. Its portability makes it extremely versatile, giving you many more options for its application, what’s more, it’s so much more peaceful and stress-free than having to crank up a generator every time you need to top up your batteries.
Things To Consider:
- Is a Suitcase Solar Panel Right for you?- To be clear, there’s no downside to the quality here, it really just comes down to whether the suitcase option is better for your needs than a full roof installation. The next section below might help you decide…
Dimensions: 27.2″ x 19.9″ x 2.8″
Weight: 26.60 lbs
Are Solar Panels Worth the Investment?
If you spend most of your time in RV parks that provide hookups to shore power, your batteries will be charging while you’re actually using your electrical appliances so the chances are, unless you make stops between parks that have no hookup you’ll need little if any additional power.
If you spend most of your RV time on the road, driving, you’re unlikely to get much benefit from having solar panels as, depending on how your system is configured, your deep cycle battery house batteries will most likely be topped up by your vehicle’s alternator as long as your chassis battery is full.
If you occasionally make longer stops between RV sites or you find yourself having to endure the noise and fumes of a generator just to top up your battery, you should pick our top choice or, if you don’t want to go all out and install permanent solar panels on your roof, you should go for our suitcase solar panel choice.
And, of course, the more time you spend off-grid, the more you’re going to need to rely on that noisy generator. Your RV time will be so much more relaxing and enjoyable with the quiet, more eco-friendly source of free energy that you get from installing solar panels on your roof.
The initial cost may seem high but you’ll be getting an endless supply of free and hassle-free energy. Not only that but you’ll discover a new kind of freedom from being able to camp anywhere.