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How Much Solar Power Can You Put on a Van?

How Much Solar Power Can You Put on a Van?

If you’re considering converting your camper van into a solar-powered machine, you’re probably wondering how to build a solar power bank for a van and how much power it can generate.

In this article, we’ll look at the different solar panel options you can use and what kind of wattage they put out. We’ll also discuss some other considerations for going solar on a van. Let’s get started!

What Is Solar Power?

Solar power is a renewable energy source for electricity generation. Solar panels convert the sun’s rays into electrical energy, which you can then use to power appliances and electronics.

In a van, house power is provided by a DC electrical system. This 12-volt system operates off a battery or bank of batteries, providing power to appliances, lights, and other electronic devices. 

When a van uses a solar power bank, the panels don’t provide electricity directly to the appliances that need it. Instead, the solar panels generate electricity that charges the batteries, which continue to power the appliances directly.

Camper van driving with solar panel on top
Add solar panels to your van build to get power no matter where you roam.

Can Solar Panels Power a Van?

It’s going to depend on what you are trying to power. Any solar added can help with your power needs, but may not power everything. Usually, we recommend smaller vehicles like vans use a combination of solar, alternator charging, and a lithium battery bank to provide their energy needs.

If you need to provide power for some lighting, charging your phone or computer, and maybe powering a water pump, your power needs are minimal. In this case, a small solar power bank will usually suffice.

But if your van is for full-time traveling, you have much greater power needs. You’ll need to power a small refrigerator, a stove or cooktop, a heater and/or air conditioner, a television, and other appliances that require a large power draw. 

If your van has a lot of electrical devices, the solar power bank needs to be bigger to supply enough power. This is a scenario that gets a little trickier when determining whether or not you can fit all the panels you need.

How Much Solar Can You Fit on a Van?

Space, Weight, and Cost are the biggest limiting factors to any solar build and will dictate how much solar can be installed on a van. We highly recommend you spend some time reading our in-depth article about how much solar do you need on an RV to dive into these considerations.

Overall, however, if you have a standard-size van, you can probably fit about four or five 100-watt panels. But if you have a larger van, such as a Sprinter, we have seen some that fit eight or nine panels. If you choose more efficient panels, you might be able to get by with fewer panels.

If you intend to run an air conditioner and other high-powered devices, you must be very strategic about the panels you mount on the van. You may also have to consider additional portable panels that can be set out when you’re stationary. However, portable panels take up valuable storage space when you’re traveling.

If you want air conditioning we recommend investing in a 12V DC A/C unit as they are much more efficient off-grid.

Camper van set up on beach with solar panel next to it
A standard van can typically fit four or five 100-watt panels.

What Do You Need for Solar Power in a Van? 

Having enough panels in your van’s solar power bank is essential. However, there are other elements of the system that are just as critical, particularly the type and capacity of the batteries.

Lithium Batteries

Batteries are a crucial element of any solar set-up. This is where the solar power generated by panels is stored until it gets used. You need enough capacity and the right type of battery to power your electrical system efficiently. Solar panels are not constant. How much power they generate depends on location, weather, and the season.

You need to have enough battery capacity to store as much solar panel energy as possible. This will get you through the times when the weather or season isn’t cooperative. A good rule of thumb is to have enough battery storage for 24 hours of your power needs.

Lithium batteries (particularly LiFePO4 batteries) are far and away the best batteries for a solar power bank on a van. They will outlast traditional lead-acid batteries, and you can discharge them fully if necessary. Lithium batteries are more expensive, but they last longer, are more efficient, provide more consistent power, and are more adept at handling the excess demands of a solar-powered system.

Solar Charge Controller

A solar charge controller is a device that helps regulate the flow of electricity from the solar panels to the batteries. It ensures the batteries don’t overcharge and that excessive current doesn’t damage the solar panels.

Inverter (If You Need 120- or 240-Volt)

Unlike batteries and a solar charge controller, an inverter isn’t necessarily an essential piece of equipment for a solar set-up. But you do need an inverter if you want to power any 120- or 240-volt appliances.

Anything that plugs into a power outlet instead of simply operating off the 12-volt direct current (DC) provided by the house batteries operates on a 120- or 240-volt alternating current (AC). The inverter changes the DC into the AC that many appliances need. Microwaves, air conditioning units, and other power-hungry appliances often need AC power.

Solar Panels

The solar panels collect sunlight and convert it into electrical energy. There are several types of solar panels that come in different capacities.

You must determine how much power you expect to use on a daily basis. Build your system with enough solar panels and battery storage to account for days when solar power generation isn’t optimal.

How much wattage you need to produce, how much space you have available for mounting, and your budget will determine your solar panel set-up.

Pro Tip: Before you start crunching the numbers, use our guide on How Much Solar Power Do You Need for Your RV.

Close up of solar panels
Consider whether hard or soft panels would be better for your van.

What Wattage Solar Panel Do I Need for My Caravan?

Calculating your expected energy usage is essential in determining what wattage solar panels are necessary for your van. There is no one answer in how much a van needs. Once you determine your needs, you can then determine which panels can meet those needs.

You can figure out how much power you need in one of two ways. If you have a van, you can measure your actual usage. Remember to factor in the times when you might use a piece of equipment (such as a fan or furnace) that you might not use on a daily basis.

If you don’t yet have a van, the second method will help you figure out your needs by estimating the various pieces of equipment that you plan to power. This is more complicated, as it requires a lot of guesswork. But there are software applications that can help.

Most solar power set-ups should have enough wattage to provide anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of your energy needs. 

Camper van set up in the sun
Installing solar panels allows you to live sustainably and affordably.

Which Type of Solar Panel Is Best for a Van? 

If you’re going to install solar panels on your van, there are two main types to choose from: hard panels and flexible panels. A few variables should guide you in choosing one over the other.

Hard Panels

Hard (or rigid) solar panels are still the most efficient when it comes to converting sunlight into energy. If you can afford hard panels and they fit your set-up, they’ll be the most efficient option. They’re also more durable than their flexible counterparts. Rigid solar panels are much harder to damage.

You may have to research to determine which rigid solar panels will meet your wattage needs and fit in the space you have for them. They also require drilling holes in your roof to mount them properly. 

Additionally, rigid panels don’t have as low of a profile as flexible panels, so they’re less aerodynamic. However, if your energy needs are on the high side, hard panels will meet your needs better.

Flexible Panels

Though hard solar panels are the most efficient, flexible solar panels also have certain advantages. They’re less standardized than rigid solar panels. This means that flexible solar panels come in a greater range of sizes and wattages.

Particularly if your power needs are on the lower side, these panels’ diversity and ease of installation can be a better option. 

Flexible panels tend to cost slightly more than an equal-wattage hard panel, but flexible panels are much easier to install. They don’t require the hardware that rigid panels do and can often be mounted with appropriate tape.

The variety of wattages and sizes flexible panels come in make installing the right ones easier overall.

Pro Tip: We took a closer look at How Well Do Flexible Solar Panels Perform to help you decide if they’re right for you.

What Goes Into an Off-Grid Power System? Overland RV Solar Power System With 12V Air Conditioning

Is a Solar Power Bank for a Van Worth It?

Every camper, RV or van is different and needs to be evaluated if it makes sense.

Solar power is an excellent way to sustainably and affordably power a camper van for long-term travel. With the right equipment and careful planning, solar can meet all your power needs on the road.

However, meeting all your needs will cost a lot and take up space and weight. Usually having a combination of a good lithium battery bank, alternator charging and some solar is the best setup for smaller vehicles like vans.

If you’re thinking about outfitting your van with solar, we say go for it! You won’t regret having the peace of mind that comes with being able to camp off-grid for as long as you want.

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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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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