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Solar Power for Your Camper Van – Is It Worth It?

 

Solar Camper Vans

Imagine free and abundant off-the-grid power wherever you go. Envision lighting up your camper van, cooking, keeping your refrigerator running, using your hot water heater for a shower, and powering all of your electronics at any time. It’s more than a dream with today’s modern RV solar power solutions. You can easily unplug and explore remote places that you’ve been wanting to visit or opt to live and work remotely on the road from any location. Prefer to escape crowded, noisy, expensive RV parks and campgrounds and do so with a safe, renewable, clean, and quiet power source? You can.

Solar power charging systems are not new, but in the last decade, they’ve grown by leaps and bounds as their cost and availability have made way into the RV industry. No other power generation technology has matched solar in the 2010s in terms of its pace of cost reduction and it’s only going to accelerate in the 2020s with further efficiencies and new innovations in solar modules and lithium battery technology. Want to learn if solar is right for your van life lifestyle? Continue reading to learn more.

 

Solar Camper Vans
Photography: @overlandpiratevan

What are the components of a RV solar power charging system?
There are a number of components that all work together to collect, store and distribute solar power to a camper van.

1. A solar panel, typically installed on the roof of a camper van, is made up of a group of Individual solar cells that each convert sunlight into direct current (DC) power. When several panels are joined together, it’s called a solar array. The panels can be rigid or flexible, and come in a variety of sizes and power capabilities.

2. To get the DC power from the solar panels into the camper van, there are power cables that run across the roof and connect to a cable entry plate. This is the water-tight, vibration-proof connection from the solar panels to the electrical equipment inside the camper van. It provides flexibility for the solar panels to be installed anywhere on the roof.

3. Once inside the camper van, power cables go from the cable entry plate through a solar controller on the way to the solar charging system’s batteries. The solar controller helps protect these batteries from damage and maintain their life by preventing them from being overcharged by the solar panels. Typically, there is a digital display for the controller, or it is integrated into the camper van’s overall touchscreen whole-coach control system.

4. High efficiency batteries, one or more, store the DC power from the solar panels, so it can be used at times when there may not be sunlight (i.e. at night or during cloudy weather conditions). The solar controller can continuously keep topping-up the batteries as needed to maintain a good level of electricity for whenever you need to use it.

5. From the batteries, an inverter cable and fuse are used to safely connect to an inverter, which is a power swapper. It converts DC (12 volt) battery power to AC (120 volt) electric power like in a building, which runs your camper van’s lights and outlets. Pure sine wave inverters produce a high-quality AC power that is best for running electronics and other sensitive equipment. Modified sine wave inverters are more economical and can be used for small appliances like coffee makers and toasters. Both types of inverters come in a variety of sizes for different power needs.

6. The inverter is controlled by an inverter remote since inverters are often located close to the batteries, which may be less convenient to access. This is the switch to power the inverter on and off, which is a good practice since the inverter will drain the batteries even when they are not being used for AC power. It also allows you to monitor the inverter’s status, battery voltage, and power output. This may be a separate digital panel or integrated into the camper van’s touchscreen whole-coach control system.

7. The inverter is connected to a transfer switch, which is the equipment that automatically selects and switches between shore power and inverter power from the batteries. It safely feeds the power from whichever system is selected into the AC breaker panel within the camper van. The transfer switch also prevents AC power from dangerously back feeding to the inverter and batteries.

8. The AC breaker panel distributes power around the camper van to the various individual lights, outlets and appliances. It’s connected to the transfer switch and provides a quick and safe shut-off of power to the various lights, outlets, appliances and pieces of equipment that are powered within the camper van.

9. One last component is the battery converter/charger, which converts AC shore power to DC battery power for fast battery charging. It’s a workaround and backup for when the solar panels aren’t able to generate power or you want to more quickly charge the batteries while you have shore power.

 


Photography: @the_road_explorer

Are RV solar power charging systems worth the cost?
The naysayers tend to put priority on the myths and cons of RV solar panels, like the initial investment cost and the time it takes for the system to pay for itself. But if you’re an avid boondocker, solar power really is a must-have for powering all of your modern electric needs.There are a number of advantages to consider in your decision…whether you buy a new or used camper van that comes with a solar panel system, or you retrofit your current rig.

1. The cost of these systems continue to drop as solar energy has emerged as a popular option among van lifers and the likelihood is that new panels, batteries and other equipment will cost even less in the future, should you need to make updates or replacements.

2. Solar panels ARE still effective and efficient in cold and cloudy climates like the Pacific Northwest or Northeast, where there is less direct, year round sunlight. While the panels don’t produce as much energy as they do in direct sunlight, they still produce. Depending on your specific energy and power needs, solar very well may be an excellent option for your lifestyle.

3. Shore power isn’t always available where you want to camp. Whether there are a limited number of RV campsites at a park or you simply want to stay off the beaten path, a solar charging power system can provide additional power options for extending your power needs. Solar can really come in handy if and when you have an emergency or are in a bind with a dead phone or no gas.

4. Daily, weekly or even monthly campground fees with electric hookups quickly add up. Why not get your power for free and put that extra money towards exploring?

5. Solar power is an environmentally friendly energy option. Instead of burning gas with a generator, you’re utilizing a clean and renewable source of energy that won’t add to climate change.

6. Peace and quiet. Solar power charging systems don’t make the noise or smell like a gas generator, in fact, they don’t smell like anything!

7. If you finance your camper van or solar charging system cost over a long period of time (10 or more years), the additional cost for the system and the power it generates is spread out over those many years, whereas a RV park hookup is an immediate expense that you have to pay out on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

8. There’s rarely any maintenance with RV solar panels, other than a light surface cleaning.

 


Photography: @storytelleroverland

Can I run my camper van’s AC or heater with a RV solar power charging system?
It depends.

You’re probably not going to be able to generate enough power from your solar panels to run your AC or heater for a very long time in extremely hot or cold weather conditions, like August in Arizona or say, January in Alaska. Camper van air conditioners typically require a lot of power to start and to continue running. The number of panels and batteries and their capacities needed to generate enough power to run your AC or heater off of solar is still a significant hurdle to jump. But as panel and battery technology continues to improve and becomes more efficient and cost effective, this may be easier in the future.

A gas generator is still a better solution for running the AC or heater for significant amounts of time in a camper van when boondocking or dry camping. Solar is best for powering most things other than air conditioning or heating. Keep in mind that you can have both a solar charging system and a gas generator and then you have options depending on your situation!

There you have the 101 basics on solar energy and the questions to ask yourself when deciding if it’s right for you. If you’re still undecided or have further questions about opting for solar, leave us a comment and we’ll be sure to address any needs or concerns you might have.

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