You can quickly install a solar panel array to your RV to provide all the needed energy for your electrical and propane appliances. In about a day, you can install rooftop panels plus the charge controller and inverter to produce your own electricity.
Forget constantly purchasing propane to provide energy for your recreational vehicle (RV). You can install solar atop your rolling home away from home to provide all the energy you need during the day and the night.
During the daytime, your solar panels soak up the sun. The panels work with wiring to a charge controller, batteries, and an inverter to convert the sun’s rays to energy stored in batteries. Those batteries let you access the energy all night, as well.
Once you install the system, you continue using outlets in your RV just as you would normally. If you would only use them while plugged into an electrical outlet at a campsite, you’re in for a treat. The solar panel system lets you use your outlets all the time as if you were parked and plugged into an electrical outlet.
Even better news: You do not have to purchase a full system as you would install in a home. You can purchase ready-made solar panel systems for $100 to $200 from online stores like Amazon.com. These small systems come with one or two small solar panels and an all-in-one converter/inverter.
You plug your items into the outlet or outlets on this device. Many of these also provide a USB port or two, so you can directly charge your cell phone or tablet without taking up the outlet. These portable solar panel systems let you fold up the flexible solar panels, stash them in your backpack, and take them with you on hikes.
That means your cellphone never dies because you can always charge it using solar energy. These differ from the flexible panels you permanently install on your roof.
The larger systems provide enough juice to run everything in your RV. That includes the items for which you use propane such as your heater. While these larger systems can run everything in your rolling home, they do cost more. Expect to spend between $1,000 to $5,000 for a full system. The solar panel setup for these units also requires more time. You will permanently install these on your RV roof.
Table of Contents
- How to Install Solar Panels
- Step 1: Mounting the Solar Panels
- Step 2: Wire Your RV
- Step 3: Install the Charge Controller
- Step 4: Install your Power Inverter
Frequently Asked Questions
- What tools will you need to DIY this installation?
- How can you pre-plan your installation?
- What is a combiner box?
- How you do this installation safely?
- Can you run an RV air conditioner with solar power?
- How many solar panels do you need for an RV or camper?
- Can you overcharge a battery with a solar panel?
How to Install Solar Panels
Installing an RV solar panel system on your trailer or RV requires significant electrical knowledge. You can do it yourself if you already know what you are doing. If you have installed electricity to a home or trailer before, or you work as an electrician, you won’t have a problem doing this. Otherwise, hire a professional installer.
Each solar kit varies a little, so you will need to read the instructions fully before you begin. Your kit will specify the differences between installing flexible or rigid panels because your system comes with one or the other. Your roof size also impacts your installation.
You also have differences depending on whether your roof is flat or curved and whether comprised of fiberglass, rubber, or another material. You will need to determine where to locate your battery bank. These items differ with respect to your kit’s contents and design, read all the instructions before you start.
Overall, the entire process takes only four steps. You can probably do this in one day.
Step 1: Mounting the Solar Panels
This differs depending on whether your kit came with flexible or rigid panels. You will probably have to buy your adhesive separately. Each different roof type requires a different type of adhesive. Your kit probably will not come with any adhesive because of this.
1a. Arrange the panels as you would like them on the roof to ensure they can fit that way. Avoid locating them near a vent or air conditioner that could cause a shadow on them. Draw guides on the roof where you want to install the panels. Once you have this drawn-out, remove the panels, so you can work on the roof.
Rigid solar panels: attached to the roof using mounting hardware and screws.
Flexible solar panels: attached to the roof using adhesive and sometimes mounted with screws as well.
1b. Install the mounting hardware to the roof according to the directions in the kit. If the hardware provided consists of brackets, apply sealant under each bracket. This ensures a water-tight seal.
1c. Place the panel into the mounting hardware and screw it into place. Always insert screws only into the frame of the panel — never the panel itself as this damages the solar panel, and it will cease to function. Only install screws into the frame.
Step 2: Wire Your RV
The simplest way to run your power cable from the rooftop solar panels to the interior of the RV to the solar charge controller is to run them through the refrigerator vent. It already exists, and you do not add holes to the RV this way. Another option includes the plumbing pipe which makes a good choice if your refrigerator vent sits inside a slide-out.
You can also use this if the vent’s location resides way too far from the RV battery compartment. If you use the pipe, apply sealant around the holes you drill. You might have to drill new holes. It happens. Drill in or near a cabinet. This lets you hide the wiring. Apply sealant to your drilled holes, so you can weatherproof them.
Step 3: Install the Charge Controller
Mount the charge controller next to your batteries to minimize line loss. The further the two sit from one another, the more energy your batteries lose. This means you waste energy. The two must sit close to one another. Mount the charge controller to the wall.
3a. Connect the power wires to the charge controller. Each kit specifies different wiring procedures, so we’re leaving this open. Kits vary so much that some require the charge controller and battery connections get established first, while others require the charge controller and panel connections get established first.
3b. Test the wire polarity using a multimeter.
3c. Mark each wire using tape or other adhesive markers.
3d. Make the charge controller connections as specified by your solar panel kit.
Step 4: Install your Power Inverter
Your solar panels create DC power current. The power inverter converts that to AC power. The inverter, like the charge controller, needs to get installed in an area adjacent to the batteries, yet not near heat, or other damaging elements such as water. It also should be in an area that cannot be reached by corrosive battery gasses.
Consult your installation instructions for the appropriate wiring gauge to use.
Connect the positive and negative wires to the inverter first. Connect the inverter wiring to the RV’s electrical system. Always connect the negative side of the system first, then the positive wiring.
Frequently Asked Questions
Some questions arise in the installation or shopping for these items. Here, we attempt to address the most common questions.
What tools will you need to DIY this installation?
Aside from the multimeter, your toolset would remain rather basic. You would need a drill, drill bits, wire strippers/cutters, a wire crimping tool, screwdriver assortment, heat gun, caulk gun, ladder, solar panels, disconnect switch, wire (typically 10 AWG and 4 AWG), crimp-on eyes, MC4 connectors, 3M 4941 VHB tape, self-leveling RV roof sealant, and a solvent such as denatured alcohol.
How can you pre-plan your installation?
You can create cardboard templates of the panel sizes using the measurements of the panels provided on the manufacturer’s website. This lets you pre-plan your rooftop layout while you await your kit’s arrival.
What is a combiner box?
The term combiner box refers to the charge controller. This is the device into which you run the wires you drop outside. You connect the panels to the combiner box.
How you do this installation safely?
Read the directions first and follow the directions exactly. Do not do the opposite of them because that is what you have always done. Do not touch the electrically active terminals and other components.
This is especially important when it gets exposed to light. Wait for good weather before installing a solar panel system. Always keep the panels covered with a tarp or cloth while you work on the installation, so they do not become charged during the installation. Carefully handle the panels and make sure you neither step on them nor sit on them.
Can you run an RV air conditioner with solar power?
The typical roof-mounted solar cell system will provide you the power to run your air conditioner or heater. The type of solar array that you permanently affix your RV roof comes in various sizes. The size you need varies from the size your neighbor needs based upon the number of electrical appliances you want to run and their wattages.
You can use a kilowatt meter with your smartphone to measure how much electricity your RV uses on a typical day.
How many solar panels do you need for an RV or camper?
One solar panel typically provides 100 watts of energy. Depending on your needs, you might install one or up to seven. You can use one of the portable solar kits if you have low energy needs, but you will need a full solar charging system using a permanent installation to power typical household needs such as an air conditioner, coffee maker, microwave, oven/stove, hot water heater, television, computer, and cellphone.
Can you overcharge a battery with a solar panel?
You can overcharge a battery which is why you install the charge controller. The controller limits the feed to the battery both ways. This stops the charged battery from releasing energy to the solar panel at night, and it keeps the solar panels from overcharging the batteries. The charge controller is one of the most vital components of the solar power system.
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