So, you’re on the hunt for the best RV solar panels? We don’t blame you! Solar panels are a fantastic addition to your RV’s power setup. They allow you to venture off-grid with confidence, continuously top off your RV’s battery power and use clean, renewable energy. But which solar panels are the best for your needs? And can you use residential solar panels on your RV?
In this buyer’s guide, we cover everything you need to know about purchasing the best solar panels for your RV, including five of the best ones. Let’s dig in!
What Are RV Solar Panels?
Solar panels are a form of renewable energy technology that uses photovoltaic cells (usually made of silicone) to transform sunlight into usable electricity. The different kinds of solar panels include polycrystalline, monocrystalline, and thin film, but you can use any type for your RV.
Nevertheless, some panels work better than others. For example, smaller or thinner panels fit better on some RV’s roofs. Others prefer a high-efficiency residential panel. Some RVers also choose the “suitcase” style or portable solar setup, so they can ensure that the sun hits at the right angle.
Either way, you’ll need a Maximum Power Point Tracker (MPPT) or a Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) charge controller to regulate the power flow to your batteries.
Can RVs Use Residential Solar Panels?
Yes, you can use residential solar panels on your RV. However, they tend to run at higher voltages than the batteries can handle. This is not a problem however and can actually be a benefit, however it does require a properly rated MPPT charge controller.
MPPT controllers work by matching the voltage between the solar panels and the batteries, and it controls the fluctuation of volts and current the solar panels send to the batteries. Additionally, this extends the lifespan of your batteries and helps your power system run efficiently.
You also need to consider that when using residential solar panels, they tend to be heavier and harder to mount. And while they might cost less than thinner, compact units, this extra weight and potential wind resistance might add to your fuel budget.
We have used residential panels with great success on a few of our builds but it’s critical to understand the higher voltages and match the charge controller. Many times you can have a voltage exceeding 50 volts that may not be touch safe, meaning you need to know what you’re doing to be safe working with them.
Pro Tip: Make sure you play it safe by learning The Best Ways for Mounting Solar Panels on RV Roof.
What Are the Most Efficient Solar Panels for RVs?
When we talk about solar panel efficiency we mean how efficient panels are at converting sun to electricity. This number does not mean, however, that a panel will generate more power than its rated for. In fact, efficiency really means nothing unless you are trying to cram as many watts into a smaller space. More efficiency means smaller lighter panels for the same amount of power.
One of the largest efficiency factors that affect panels is how hot they get. The warmer the panel the worse the output, up to around a 25% power loss when they are very hot. This is usually one of the largest considerations when mounting solar panels to a vehicle as the roofs can get very hot and may need proper airflow around the panels to keep them cool.
While you can use nearly any kind of solar panel on your RV with the right equipment, some are more efficient than others. For example, “Passivated Emitter and Rear Contact” (PERC) solar panels mitigate some of the energy loss that standard panels experience.
Specifically, PERC solar panels have an extra layer on the back of the cells. This layer allows more of the sun’s rays to collect and turn into energy, making them much more efficient. They also prevent longer wavelengths of light from turning into heat, which impacts the panel’s efficiency.
What Are the Best RV Solar Panels?
The best RV solar panels fall into two categories: low-voltage and residential panels. The first are specifically designed for RVs (or vans, boats, or some kind of compact setup). The larger residential panels are designed for houses.
RV solar panels are typically smaller and made specifically for low-voltage systems and operate around 20 volts. However, you might opt for a residential solar setup—especially if you have a larger rig. You tend to get the most “bang for your buck” with these, but they don’t work for every setup.
Best Low-Voltage RV-Specific Panels
Now, let’s take a look at the three best low-voltage RV-specific panels on the market right now. These may work best for you if you have a van, boat, or smaller RV. They tend to be smaller in wattage and size allowing for more diverse mounting options.
Renogy 400-Watt 12-Volt Solar Premium Kit
The Renogy 400-Watt 12-Volt Solar Premium Kit comes with four 100-Watt solar panels and charge controllers. It also has the electrical wiring, fuses, and monitoring you’ll need for your off-grid setup.
This kit produces approximately 1.6 to 2.5 kWh of electricity per day, depending on the sun. It works best for running small to medium-size loads, like your TV, laptop, lights, or coffee maker. This kit measures 41.8 by 20.9 inches and weighs 14 pounds per panel.
WindyNation 100-Watt Solar Panel Off-Grid RV
The WindyNation 100-Watt Solar Panel Kit comes with one 100-watt solar panel and a 30-amp P30L LCD Display Solar Charge Controller with a battery temperature sensor. It also has 40 feet of 12 AWG solar cable, the needed connectors, and solar panel mounting hardware.
- The kit includes: (1) 100 Watt WindyNation Solar Panel, 30-Amp...
- Designed for RVs, cabins, homes, boats, back-up and remote power...
- Kit will provide on average 350 Watt Hours (Wh) or 33 Amp hours...
This kit will provide about 350 watt-hours or 33 amp-hours of charge per day, depending on the sunlight. This compact kit works great for your off-grid rig, especially if this is your first solar setup. And when you want to upgrade, the charge controller can handle four more 100-watt panels in the 24-volt system.
Renogy Flexible Solar Panel 175 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline Semi-Flexible
The Renogy 175-Watt 12-Volt Monocrystalline Flexible Solar Panel is great for compact applications, especially if you don’t have a flat surface to mount it on. At only 6.2 pounds, it weighs 70% less than traditional panels and is 95% thinner. It’s also extremely durable and can handle extreme temperatures between -40 to 185 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Extremely Flexible: This flexible panel is capable of meeting a...
- Ultra Lightweigh: Thanks to advanced polymer materials, this...
- Super Thin Lamination: Hardly noticeable, the Renogy 175W...
Best Residential Solar Panels for RVs
Next, we have some of the best residential solar panels for RVs. Remember, while these may be designed for stationary homes, they tend to perform better than those designed for RVs. Let’s consider why you might want these two solar setups.
Canadian Solar Half Cell Panels
Canadian Solar produces Bifacial High-Power Dual-Cell PERC Module solar panels. They provide three types: the BiHiKu, the BiHiKu6, and the BiHiKu7. PERC solar panels have more efficiency than other panels.
Moreover, the half-cell design is more shade-tolerant and performs well in all conditions. We have had lots of success with these half-cell panels on RV’s that use them in mixed conditions.
Depending on the model, the power range lies between 330 to 665 watts. They also boast hot spot performance and up to 21.6% module efficiency.
Solaria’s PowerXT Premium series are some of the most efficient solar panels on the market—especially for their weight. In fact, at 20% efficiency, they’re some of the highest power panels in the residential solar market.
Solaria’s PowerXT panels come in various sizes and forms “with peak power from 400 Watts to 430 Watts”. They also use sleek “Pure Black” technology, which enhances their power and performance, and it looks terrific.
Any Excess Panels From Installers
If you want an even better deal, keep an eye out for any available excess panels from solar installers. Many times, installers will over-buy panels simply because they’re cheaper by the pallet. They’ll then sell the extra residential solar panels at a low price, and you could reap the benefits.
Plus, you won’t need a huge setup on an RV as a house does. Check online marketplaces like Facebook and Craigslist for these deals. Partner these inexpensive panels with a good MPPT, and you’ll have an amazing solar setup for your RV.
How Many Watts of Solar Do I Need for My RV?
The number one question asked by RVers preparing to add solar to their rig is, “how many watts of solar do I need for my RV?” You can figure this out in a couple of ways. But first, remember that more is not always better.
For example, the ultimate off-grid solar build tends to max out around 2,000 watts of solar. This amount will typically allow you to run just about everything in your RV. However, you may have to limit AC use and pick and choose which heavy loads to run at once.
Nevertheless, too much solar might end up going to waste. Plus, you’ll have the expensive upfront costs and weight on your RV. This is why it’s important to find that perfect happy medium.
One way is to perform an energy audit. You can only do this if you’re currently living in your RV because it involves calculating how much power you’re already using. This is best done with a battery meter installed that can calculate used amp hours. Simply begin by taking the amp hours you typically consume and multiply them by the system’s nominal voltage. This will range between 12.6 volts for lead acid and 13 volts for lithium batteries. This number gives you the watt hours and allows you to offset it with the right amount of solar watts.
If you’re not already living in your RV, you can determine how many watts each appliance will draw and multiply it by how long it will operate. This method won’t give you exact results, but it can help to establish a ballpark figure.
Pro Tip: If you want to calculate a more exact figure, we have written a detailed article about calculating solar needs, just follow the steps in this article: How Much Solar Power Do You Need for Your RV?
Are RV Solar Panels Worth It?
If you’re planning on venturing off-grid in your RV and want to rely on clean energy, solar is the way to go. Instead of depending on a high-maintenance, loud, and smelly generator, you can effortlessly carry your power around and feel good about reducing fossil fuels. Moreover, the great thing about solar is that you can always add more should your energy needs increase. Because of this, we think the upfront costs of RV solar panels are worth it.
Think you’d rather use portable panels for your RV solar setup? Check out Camping Solar Panels: An Overview of Your Best Options.
Start Your Solar Journey!
Thinking about adding solar to your RV? Start here with our solar calculator to get an idea of what might be right for you!
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Sunday 31st of July 2022
Hello Mortons- Very timely. As we explore our next mobile solar set up we are considering Residential panels. The new Solaria XT Power just moved to our short list. Thanks for doing all this research and providing such great insights. Jeff and Deb