RV Solar Is Way, Way Easier Than You Think!

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  • Post category:Electrical / Guide
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The solar industry is dominated by geeks (and I use that term with respect) who love to discuss the ins and outs of monocrystalline panel efficiency, maximum power point tracking, and other technobabble.

If you’re not a member of the geek club, all that stuff just makes your head hurt and your heart race.

So let’s ignore all of that.

Because adding solar power to your RV is way, WAY easier than you might think.

And then you too can enjoy unlimited power on the go!

Psst … before you dive into this article, have you considered a “solar suitcase?”

These are portable, on-the-go solar power packs that fold up like a suitcase! When you camp, you deploy it facing the sun, connect the alligator clips directly to your battery, and enjoy the free energy!

There are pros and cons to a solar suitcase. Unlike a hardwired system, you can’t set it and forget it. You have to set it up and take it down every time, and it can’t charge while you’re driving. Plus, they can be a little heavy and cumbersome. On the other hand, while your RV is parked in the shade, your suitcase can be drinking up maximum sunlight.

If you’re interested in a solar suitcase, I recommend the Renogy 100W portable setup.

You can get the 100W portable solar suitcase here!

Ross Recommends:

Hey Reader, I don’t like nettlesome ads any more than you do! So for your convenience, I’ve summarized the products mentioned in this article. Click on these links to shop pricing and availability. I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting this blog. Enjoy the weekend!

Table of Contents

RV Solar Power Systems Are A Lot Easier Than You Think!

Flexible Installed Solar Panel

I truly believe that with a little mechanical aptitude, a good solar power kit, and some assistance from YouTube, almost anyone can install an RV solar panel kit.

There are a few factors that could complicate your installation, however. If you fall into any of these categories, you really need to know your stuff, or you need the help of a professional.

If the very idea of a screwdriver frightens you, then I’d repeat my earlier recommendation: Check out a solar suitcase!

STEP 1: Contact Your RV Dealer or Manufacturer

Zamp Solar Ready Label

Many RVs are built with solar-prep packages.

“Solar-prep” means different things to different manufacturers. It’s possible that your RV is already pre-wired for solar power. All that’s missing could be a solar controller and solar panels, which you or your RV dealer could quickly and easily install.

It’s also quite possible that your “solar-prep” package is nothing more than two wires from a sidewall power inlet to your battery. Which is basically useless, and you’ll have to do everything from scratch.

So call and ask your manufacturer if your RV is equipped with a “solar-prep” or “solar-ready” package. It might save you a lot of work!

STEP 2: Select an RV Solar Kit

Let us assume that your RV is NOT built with a solar-prep package. Where do you begin?

You could do it the hard way. You could research different solar panel brands, compare PWM to MPPT controllers, debate the advantages of MP4 vs ATP connectors, and stay up late researching voltage drop due to wire resistance.

Or you could buy a kit. And then enjoy the rest of your evening.

Kits normally come with the following parts:

  • Solar panels
  • Panel mounting hardware
  • Charge controller
  • Branch connectors and tray cables
  • Cable entry housing

That’s 90% of what you’ll need to complete the installation. I’ll tell you about the other 10% later.

Now, who are the good brands?

Here are three of my favorites.

  1. Renogy
  2. Go Power!
  3. Zamp

Personally, I recommend staying away from unknown Amazon brands. These sellers are just monkeys in the middle, usually with limited or no customer service. And their prices aren’t even much different than a reputable seller like Renogy!

Renogy is my favorite brand. I own their products. They’re simple, affordable, and high-quality.

But Renogy offers all flavors of RV solar kits! How do you choose?

How to choose solar system size?

  • 100 watts: Weekend warriors
  • 200 watts: Adventurers, family campers
  • 300-400 watts: Serious boondockers*
  • 400+ watts: Full-timers

*Again, anything bigger than 400W can really complicate the installation! If you want to install an RV solar power system bigger than 400W, you really need to know your stuff. Or hire a professional.

How to choose solar panel type?

  • If you can, choose rigid panels. They last longer. And they’re easier to mount on an RV roof with Z-brackets and screws.
  • Otherwise, flexible panels are good too. They are usually mounted with double-sided mounting tape, like EternaBond DoubleStick.
  • Honestly, you can ignore panel efficiency ratings. Anything from a reputable manufacturer like Renogy is pretty good, usually 17-22%.

How to choose a charge controller?

  • Usually, charge controllers are bundled with a kit! So the hard work is done for you.
  • If you have extra money, buy a kit with an MPPT controller. They’re about 15-20 percent more efficient.
  • Otherwise, there’s nothing wrong with a PWM controller. You’ll be happy with either one.
  • Best to get a 30A charge controller for systems 400W or smaller. Don’t go smaller than 15A no matter what.

Here’s my recommendation for the average RV owner:

A 200W (rigid panels) RV solar power kit with 30A PWM controller.

Here’s the link to the Renogy kit (click here).

You can get 10% off with this code here!

If you’re a serious boondocker, make it 300W or 400W with a MPPT controller. Renogy sells a 400W premium RV solar kit best for boondockers.

STEP 3: Purchase Any Accessories

As I said, a kit will come with 90% of what you need to install an RV solar panel kit.

You might need a few more things. Read the kit’s installation manual.

  • Wire connectors. You’ll probably need yellow (10-12GA) butt connectors. Heat-shrink connectors are best.
  • Basic tools. Screwdrivers, tape measure, caulk gun, that sort of thing. You’ll probably need to drill some holes, too. Use a cordless drill, ⅜” twist drill bit.
  • Electrical tools. You might need to assemble your own wire harness. This usually means crimping ring terminals and butt connectors onto stripped wire ends. You’ll need linesman’s pliers, wire stripper, and wire crimping tool.
  • Wire. For 200W systems and below, you can usually get away with 10GA wire for everything. Above 200W, things get a little more complicated. You might need 8GA or 6GA wire, which is difficult to install without the proper tools. Use PV wire for the roof and/or THWN for indoor/outdoor protected locations. Keep runs to 25 feet or less.
  • Inline fuses. I highly recommend installing fuses between A) the solar panels and charge controller and B) the charge controller and battery. You can get fancy ANL fuses, but regular ATC blade fuses work well, too.
  • Self-leveling caulk. You’ll probably need a self-leveling sealant to cover the panel mounts on your roof. I wrote a big, fat article about RV sealants here. You need to ensure your caulk is compatible with your roof type (e.g. EPDM, TPO, aluminum, etc.)
  • MC4 assembly/disassembly tool. Don’t be a cheapskate and try to use pliers. Get a set of MC4 assembly/disassembly spanner wrenches for less than $10.

STEP 4: Upgrade Your Batteries

Dual Battery Bank on Tongue

Technically, this step is optional. But I highly recommend it.

If your battery bank is 100AH or smaller, you should get another battery.

I recommend a battery bank size of at least 200AH.

Again, I could get into all sorts of techno-reasons, like discharge rates and useable capacities and so forth …

(If you like that stuff, you can read my ultimate guide to RV batteries here.)

Or you can just take my word for it.

Get yourself a battery bank of two 100AH deep-cycle AGM batteries.

(Better yet, make ‘em lithium, and get twice as much useable capacity!)

If you don’t have room to mount an extra battery next to your standard house battery, you can install a lead-acid battery inside your RV so long as it’s ventilated to the outdoors. You can buy a vented battery box with a hose specifically for this application.

With the extra capacity, you’ll take advantage of the extra energy generated by your solar panels. You’ll be able to camp for much longer with bigger batteries!

If you want to know exactly how much longer you can camp, you can use the EZ Battery Life calculator at Changing Gears.

  • Psst . . . if you’re reading this content anywhere besides Ask The RV Engineer, it’s been illegally “scraped,” and you’re probably on a spam website. So please be careful! Don’t share any private information, and come back to us at www.askthervengineer.com!

STEP 5 (Optional): Get an Inverter

This is totally an optional step. But it opens up a new world of possibilities!

By default, an RV solar power kit just recharges your RV house batteries, allowing you to operate DC loads like lights and water pumps.

If you want to run big AC appliances like a microwave or a wall outlet off your batteries, you need an inverter.

Fair warning: Adding an inverter can get complicated. You have to size your inverter relative to both your battery bank size and your appliance size. You can’t install a 3000W inverter with a 100Ah battery!

You might need to rely on a professional, or at least contact the inverter or RV manufacturer for technical assistance.

If you’re a serious boondocker, you may want to install a 1500W+ inverter (and maybe a third or fourth battery!) to also run your AC appliances, like your microwave.

If you’re wondering if you can run your AC off your batteries, I’ve got the full answer here.

You can read everything you wanted to know about inverters here.

STEP 6: Install the Kit!

Installing an RV solar kit isn’t as hard as it may look!

It’s really just four steps (five optional).

  1. Mount solar panels to the roof.
  2. Mount the charge controller in an accessible interior location.
    1. Opt: Install an additional battery in your battery bank
  3. Fish wires from the solar panels to the charge controller.
  4. Fish wires from the charge controller to the battery.
  5. Opt. Install an inverter.

That’s it!

You don’t need to mess around with the converter or tap into circuits or anything like that.

Here’s a helpful diagram from Renogy showing you exactly how everything fits together:

Photo Credit: Renogy

And here’s a manual from Renogy all about the fundamentals of installing an RV solar kit. You can find manuals from their individual products at the Renogy website.

As I said, Renogy is my favorite supplier. I find them to be the best balance of quality, cost, and service.

I do think Zamp edges them out on the customer service part, though. Zamp also makes excellent products. I’ve used a lot of their stuff, back in the days before they were owned by Dometic.

Here’s a video from Zamp about how to install their Zamp solar kits on an RV.

That’s it!

If you’re mechanically inclined and willing to read an instruction manual, you can complete an installation of an RV solar power kit in a long afternoon.

Ross Recommends:

Hey Reader, I don’t like nettlesome ads any more than you do! So for your convenience, I’ve summarized the products mentioned in this article. Click on these links to shop pricing and availability. I get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting this blog. Enjoy the weekend!

Ross

RV engineer by day, intrepid blogger by night (and occasionally weekends). This website is all about how RVs work, and sometimes why they don't. Bookmark pages that you find helpful, and join my email list for exclusive monthly awesomeness.