Solar power for a camper van has become the best way to generate electricity when out on the road. Out in the wilderness with nobody else around, taking a weekend trip or vacation is one of the most therapeutic things you can do. Getting away from the pressures of everyday life has a calming and tranquil effect and best of all there is no traffic noise.
Having moved recently, from a residence that backed onto a farm to a more densely populated area, my hearing has been wounded. If your like me, heading out and getting away from traffic noise is a welcome relief.
Solar Power For A Camper Van
Generating electricity out on the road in your camper can also be a quiet affair utilizing solar power. Yes, you can use your campers deep cycle battery (source: Wikipedia), but that means having to run the engine to re-charge it.
The gasoline in your tank isn’t going to last forever, and eventually you will have to find a gas station and fill up. What a pain in the neck !!!!! Alternatively to extend your trip, you could take a gasoline powered portable generator to charge your battery. However, they are heavy, cumbersome, and smelly, and worst of all because they are noisy, it will offend your ears.
There is a quieter and practical more eco-friendly way to charge leisure batteries, it’s by using the power of the sun. Sunlight is the most abundant natural energy source on the planet. And you can harvest it free of charge, through the use of solar panels. The question is, do I install solar power to my camper van or use portable solar panels? This boils down to, how often you use your camper and for what purpose.
The case for installing solar panels
Taking frequent long trips, vacations or even boondocking might make you think, installing solar panels is the best option. The investment will be worth it and I am reasonably OK with DIY. Although, you can have them fitted by a qualified installer, garage or workshop. Wanting to fit solar panels because, you want to reduce your carbon foot print, as you are out and about is just fine too.
The case for portable solar panels
For instance, using your camper van infrequently or for very short trips may cause you to think, why go to the time and trouble of fitting solar power. Portable solar panels will do the job just as well. This comes with the added benefit of being able to use them in and around the home. Saving you a little money, by charging electronic devices and powering some appliances.
Installed Solar Power
Installing solar panels to your van is a relatively uncomplicated affair if you have reasonable DIY skills. Using a small camper van as an example with one or two leisure batteries to charge.
The things you’ll need to consider before installation are:
How much solar power will I need to charge the leisure battery?
The first thing you need to know is the higher the solar panel wattage, the faster the battery will recharge. This means a 200w solar panel will charge it faster than a 100w solar panel. I know this seems obvious. But many people who know very little or nothing about solar panels, believe it is to do with its physical size and how large the solar array is.
- What type of solar panels will I need?
There are 3 types or categories of solar panel Monocrystalline, Polycrystalline and Thin-Film. The differences between them is to do with efficiency and Monocrystalline are the most efficient. Even though Monocrystalline panels are more expensive, these are the best type you want to install to your camper van. This is because, you will want the higher efficiency rating in relation to the length of time for the battery to re-charge.
- What is my budget?
If you have a limited budget, you need to bare in mind that as well as the solar panels. You will also need a controller and all the wiring and fixings required, to send the power generated by the solar panels to the battery, To power AC current appliances you will need to add an inverter and fuse box to the system. The inverter converts the DC current produced by your battery to usable AC current to power domestic appliances. If you are happy running DC current appliances like a toaster or kettle this step will be unnecessary.
Solar Power Installation kits For Camper Vans
Going out and sourcing all the different components required to install solar power to your camper van, might prove tiresome. Many manufacturers provide ready-made kits to make the job easier. And of course, the instructions will be included either in the pack or online. Nobody likes instructions but, best to be enlightened than completely in the dark. Starter and more sophisticated solar power kits are available. However, I will use a typical camper van starter type kit as an example.
What would you expect to find in a solar panel kit?
- Solar panel
- Mounting brackets for the solar panel
- Charge controller
- Cables for attaching solar panels to the charge controller
- Cables for attaching the charge controller to the leisure battery
A good example would be the Renogy 1 x 100W 12V Monocrystalline Solar Starter Kit. Renogy also manufacture 200w and 400w kits, and if your camper has curved surfaces the 200w flexible kit could be the solution.
Portable Solar Panels
DIY might not be your thing or, you think that when your solar panels are not charging the camper battery, they could be put to other uses. That is fine because portable solar panels can be of better use to you, than fitting them to your camper. This is because with portable panels you can find the optimum position to capture maximum sunlight. Due south in the northern hemisphere and due north in the southern hemisphere.
If your camper van were to become shaded, battery charging stops, because there is no sunlight for the panels to gather. Moving your van would be your only option, which would be a real shame, if you had found the perfect spot. However, a portable solar panels position can be altered, shifting it to another spot means, you wouldn’t have to move your camper.
Connecting a portable solar panel
An electric socket on the side of your camper van, would make it easier to connect your portable panel and charge controller to the battery, using the correct socket connector. However, it isn’t a problem if you don’t, as a cable from your controller with alligator clips on the end is fine.
Manufacturers make this easy by providing kits for this purpose and a good example of this is the Renogy 100w Monocrystalline foldable solar suitcase. This has the controller built in so, no need to go looking for one and there is a 200w version available too.
Installing solar panels to a camper
The cost of fitting good quality, efficient, reliable and robust solar kits has come down in recent years. Based on prices from Renogy:
- 100w solar panel kit with controller around $200.00
- 100w flexible solar panel kit around $240.00
- 200w solar panel kit with controller around $350.00
- 200w flexible solar panel kit with controller around $400.00
- 400w solar panel kit with controller around $650.00
Adding an invertor will increase the cost of your solar power kit.
And if like me, your DIY skills leave a lot to be desired, having the kit fitted for you will significantly increase the cost. So, if the cost of fitting is beyond your means, then portable solar panels would be the best solution.
Portable solar panels for a camper Van
Portable solar panels for your camper are just as good with regard to performance, efficiency, reliability and manufacture, Again using Renogy
- 100w foldable solar suitcase with built in controller around $250.00
- 200w foldable solar suitcase with built in controller around $400.00
All prices quoted at the time of writing.
Tip: Sure you can buy cheaper elsewhere, however you only pay for what you get. Paying a few dollars less with a lower profile manufacturer could cost you more in the long run. The guarantee Renogy provide for their product is second to non and as they say, you can’t buy peace of mind.
The Big Question Answered
I think overall the decision to install solar panels, or use portable solar panels for a camper van, 100% depends on your situation and budget.
My DIY is good
If you are good at DIY and can install the kit to the camper yourself, that could prove to be an inexpensive way to generate electricity on the road. And would probably pay for itself very quickly, especially if you take lots of trips and vacations. The saving on your residential electricity bill alone, because you’re not at home would pay for the solar power kit in no time.
My DIY is not so good
DIY not so good? then you have 2 options.
Option 1, suck up the pain and have the solar power kit installed by a professional, garage or workshop. It might not be ideal, because of the potential cost implications, but the upside is that you will know it has been fitted to your camper properly.
Option 2, go for portable solar panels. They are light, foldable and easy to store in your van until you reach your destination. The panels performance will be the same as its installed counterpart so, no worries there. They can also be moved around to take advantage of maximum sunlight, a boon on partially cloudy days. And overall portable panels are cheaper than buying the kit and than having it professional installed.
I hope you enjoyed this post and have found it informative. If you have any questions about solar panels for your camper van or want to leave your own personal review, please leave a comment below