RV camping is something that people of all ages can enjoy. Those who have purchased an RV and traveled frequently have probably investigated and even looked into methods to create their own power through solar panels and a battery bank instead of having to find somewhere to plug in all the time. Generators are an easy way to create your own power but they can be cumbersome and noisy. There are even designated generator quiet hours in many locations that you are likely to park overnight.
Many homeowners are starting to discover that they can reduce their utility burden at home by using solar power and batteries. This can take several forms, from selling power back to the grid to even going completely off-grid with a fully contained and redundant electric system. These same principles can be applied to tiny homes and RV campers.
When the camper is running it can use its alternator for power. This is not the constant state of the RV, however, so batteries and alternative energy sources are needed when the RV is parked. Plugging into a utility or turning on a generator are simple ways to get this energy but they can get costly with fees and fuel needs. Installing solar panels and a battery bank as the primary method of parked power can be a bit of an investment upfront but it might just be perfect for your needs. Aside from saving your ears by switching to solar panels, this energy is much cleaner and can give you the ability to travel to areas that are far away from the nearest generator fuel source.
A solar-powered system is made up of several components. The most visible is the solar charge controller panel itself. This charge controller panel takes light rays from the sun and converts them into electricity. The electricity is then either put through an inverter to change it to AC power for immediate use by the appliances in the RV, or it is sent to the battery. If power is coming from the battery then it will also go through the inverter if necessary. Unlike houses, there are actually some appliances in an RV that can use DC current, so just make sure you have factored this into your calculations when you determine how to best configure your solar system.
Speaking of calculations, before just throwing a bunch of high-wattage solar panels on your RV you should do some math to determine just how much power you actually need. The first step in figuring this out is by breaking down everything you do on a regular basis that uses electricity and how much power this requires. This guide for off-grid RV’ing has some great suggestions for how to do this estimate if you are unsure where to start.
Once you know how much power you need to live comfortably in your RV and you know how your system will be configured, you can make a decision on battery size and solar panel. Keep in mind that your system can be set up to where your battery is charged not only by your solar panels but also by your alternator while you are driving. This means that if you do more driving around than long-term rv camping, your solar needs will be minimal. A robust solar panel setup is more appropriate for those who want to spend a large amount of time off the road and off the grid, with long periods in place.
If you are reading this article it is because you have either determined you need 400 watts worth of solar power or you are just curious about large wattage panels. For RV usage there really is not a single 400-watt panel that would be appropriate for this application. Instead, if you need 400 watts then there are several brands that sell kits of four 100 watt panels that work together to add up to 400 watts. We will take the chance here to remind you that the wattage ratings on these panels are at peak performance, meaning in full sun at the perfect overhead apex and ideal ambient temperature. This is not what you will get on a regular basis so factor that in along with the knowledge that some power will be lost within the system due to normal mechanical inefficiencies.
With this in mind, there are two major ways to differentiate the many 400-watt solar panel kits on the market:
- Monocrystalline or Polycrystalline: These are the two primary types of materials that make up the surface of the panel. The physical difference is obvious based on color and shape, but there is also a performance difference. Monocrystalline panels are more efficient but also more expensive. Since it is more efficient when comparing one of each panel that is both the same wattage the monocrystalline panel will be smaller.
- Flat or Flexible: Traditional solar panels are flat but technological advances have allowed us to create flexible panels. Though they are obviously more expensive, flexible panels can be beneficial in any application where the desired mounting surface is not flat.
Since the mechanics of solar panels are fairly basic, picking the right 400 watt kit for your needs comes down to deciding how much money you want to pay and pick a brand with a good reputation. You can start by searching around for some recommendations on solar panel kits from fellow off-grid RVers who have had experience with installing their own systems. Bonus points if they have tried multiple brands and can give some comprehensive feedback on the pros and cons of each. The Fit RV has a great comprehensive guide that is quite an informative read if you would like to learn more.
If you are looking to ditch your noisy and polluting generator in favor of something quieter and more eco-friendly, give solar panels a shot. There is not much that a 400-watt setup can’t handle no matter what your electrical needs are. You may even find yourself living off the grid for weeks at a time in the comfort of your own little electric power grid.