Is RV Solar Affordable? 3 Solar Solutions for RVs and Boats

Is RV solar power affordable or is installing a solar power system on a motorhome or trailer — or even on a sailboat — just too darn expensive to be cost effective? We never thought this question would be hard to answer untpil recently.

This article describes everything you need to install a solar power system on your RV in three different levels:

1. A Small, Expandable Rooftop Solar Power Solution
2. A Portable Solar Power Solution
3. A Big Rooftop Solar Power Solution

Solar panels on a fifth wheel trailer

Can a solar power installation on an RV or sailboat pay for itself?

Ever since we installed our first (very small) solar power system on our first full-time RV nearly ten years ago, we’ve been excitedly telling people it is a very affordable do-it-yourself project for anyone with some mechanical and electrical knowledge. And for those who can’t turn a wrench, it shouldn’t be that much more.

Our first 130 watt solar power system cost us about twice as much as the same system would today, but even at that high price, we felt it was dollar-for-dollar an equal value to buying a Yamaha or Honda 1000 generator. Best of all, once a little system like that was installed, it was a whole lot less noisy, expensive to operate and complicated to use than a generator would be.

At today’s super cheap solar prices, that little solar power system is even more valuable compared to one of those nice Japanese portable gas generators than it was 10 years ago!

Installing solar panels on a motorhome RV

Installing solar power can be a DIY project if you’re handy.

Recently, however, we’ve heard some crazy prices being quoted for installing solar power systems on RVs. We met one couple with a gorgeous brand new DRV Suites fifth wheel who were quoted $13,000 for a solar power installation. Not long after that, we read an article in a popular RV magazine describing a $12,000 solar power installation on a fifth wheel.

Yikes!! These are outrageous prices!!

We sure hope no one is finding they have to spend that kind of crazy money to get a solar power system installed on their trailer or motorhome or sailboat.

We’ve got oodles of articles on this website that go into the nitty gritty details of things to consider when designing and installing a solar power system on an RV or a boat (located HERE). However, all that theory aside, it’s not all that complicated.

Here are three solar power “packages” — with approximate prices — that will do the trick whether you’re a part-timer or full-time RVer.

Although it is possible to buy “pre-packaged RV solar power kits” online, we suggest hand selecting the components you want so that just in case any individual item has a problem it can be returned easily.

We’ve heard of cases where people bought a pre-packaged solar power kit online and then had problems returning a broken part because they had to return the entire kit — solar panels, charge controller, cables and all — just because the one item wasn’t working right.

 

SMALL ROOFTOP RV SOLAR POWER SYSTEM – 150 WATT SYSTEM

Affordable solar panel with a popup tent trailer

For part-time RVers, installing solar on the roof isn’t a requirement.

The following is essentially what we put on our roof and what we camped with off the grid every night for a year when we started.

The brands are not exactly the same, but these components are highly rated and will do the trick for anyone that wants a roof-mounted solar power system on their motorhome or trailer.

This kit includes both a solar battery charging component and an 110 volt AC power component provided by an inverter. If you don’t understand the distinction, please see our post: RV Solar Power Made Simple.

The simplest inverter installation is to connect the inverter to the batteries using heavy duty cables and then to run an ordinary (but long) power strip (or two) from the inverter to somewhere convenient inside the rig.

Rather than using the wall outlets in the rig, just plug the AC appliances into the power strip as needed, taking care not to operate too many things at once and overload the inverter.

Prices always change, so check the links to see the current prices.

The nice thing about this kit is that it is easily expandable. If a second or third solar panel is eventually desired (to double or triple the size of the system to 300 or 450 watts, for another $200 or $400), those panels can be purchased at a later date. At that point the solar charge controller can also be replaced with a bigger and more sophisticated charge controller (for $600).

 

PORTABLE FOLDING SOLAR POWER KIT SUITCASE – 120 WATT SYSTEM

Portable folding solar panel suitcase for RV and motorhome use

A portable solar power kit that folds up and can be carried like a suitcase is an awesome solution for weekenders, vacationers and seasonal RVers.

A really nifty alternative for anyone that isn’t super skilled with tools or that’s a bit spooked by electrical things, is a portable solar power kit that folds into a suitcase. These come with two matching solar panels, battery cables with alligator clips, and a panel-mounted solar charge controller. The solar panels are hinged together and can be folded towards each other. A handle on the side of one of them makes the whole thing easy to carry and store like a suitcase.

These portable folding suitcase solar panel kits come in all sizes. A good size is anywhere from 120 to 200 watts:

The advantage of a portable suitcase solar kit like this is that it is self-contained. If you think you might upgrade to a different RV soon, then there’s no loss in investment when one RV is sold and another is purchased. Also, if you decide to install a roof-mounted system at a later date, the suitcase solar panel kit can be sold to another RVer.

As for the inverter, heavy duty cables and power strip, they are included here just to round out the package so you have AC power in the rig as well as the ability to charge the batteries just like the “small solar power kit” described above.

 

Affordable solar power on a motorhome

Installing solar panels on tilting brackets is popular, but only necessary in mid-winter. We’ve never done it.

With a big RV solar power installation, it is likely that the RV’s house battery bank will need to be upgraded or replaced too, so this package includes a “replacement” AGM battery bank.

The Magnum inverter is an inverter/charger that has a built in transfer switch, making it very straight forward to wire the inverter into the house AC wiring system so you can use the standard wall outlets in the rig rather than plugging things into a power strip.

We’ve been living exclusively on solar power since we started this crazy traveling lifestyle in 2007, and this system is larger than any system we’ve ever had on a boat or trailer. So it ought to work just fine for anyone who wants to RV full-time and do a lot of boondocking.

 

INSTALLATION COSTS

If you are not a DIY RVer, you’ll need to budget for the installation labor too. As a very rough estimate, I would allow for $500-$1,000 for a small system installation and $1,500-$2,500 for a big system installation. The variations in labor costs will depend on how difficult it is to work in your rig, how hard it is to mount the various components and run the wires from roof to basement, and whether or not you choose to have the batteries upgraded or replaced.

 

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

RV park and campground prices are all over the map, but assuming that the average cost is $25 per night for a site with hookups if you don’t take advantage of monthly discounts or $15 per night if you do, these systems can pay for themselves in anywhere from 18 camping days to 14 months, depending on what size system you buy, whether or not you do the installation yourself, and how you typically camp. Of course, this assumes the rig is equipped with a refrigerator that can run on propane and that if air conditioning is needed an alternative power source like a generator is used.

As with everything in the RVing world, starting small and cheap is the best way to go.

 

BIG and COMPLEX SOLAR POWER INSTALLATIONS

Solar panel arch with solar panels on sailboat transom

Installing solar power on a sailboat has its own set of challenges.

We have installed three different RV solar power systems and one solar power system on a sailboat.

We published an article in the February 2017 issue of Cruising World Magazine (one of the top magazines in the sailing industry) describing the solar power system we installed on our sailboat Groovy back in 2010. This system gave us all the power we needed to “anchor out” in bays and coves away from electrical hookups in marinas for 750 nights during our cruise of Mexico.

Cruising World has posted the article online here:

Sunny Disposition – Adding Solar Power – Cruising World Magazine, February, 2017

Installing solar power on a sailboat is very similar to installing it in an RV, but there is an added complexity because there isn’t a big flat roof to lay the panels on. Instead, we had to construct a stainless steel arch to support the panels. Fortunately, our boat, a 2008 Hunter 44DS, had a factory installed stainless steel arch over the cockpit already. So, we hired a brilliant Mexican metal fabricator named Alejandro Ulloa, to create our solar panel arch in Ensenada, Mexico.

Solar power installation on sailboat Hunter 44

We turned to Alejandro Ulloa of Ensenada, Mexico, for our solar panel arch
He can be contracted the=rough Baja Naval.

Solar panel arch installation on Hunter 44 sailboat

Alejandro is an artist. He wrapped the arch in plastic to prevent scratches until it was permanently mounted on our boat!

Solar panel arch on sailboat Hunter 44

The arch went back to Alejandro’s workshop for tweaking after this measuring session.

Solar panel arch on sailboat Hunter 44 installed by Alejandro Ulloa

Dimensions now perfect, Alejandro mounts the arch permanently.

Getting the 185 watt 24 volt solar panels up onto the arch was a challenge. Getting solar panels up onto an RV roof is tricky too!

Affordable marine Solar panel installation on sailboat Hunter 44

Getting the solar panels onto the roof of an RV or up onto this arch takes two people (at least!)

Installing solar panels on an arch on sailboat (Hunter 44) with Alejandro Ulloa Baja Naval Ensenada Mexico

The second of the three panels gets installed.

The solar panel arch was going to double as a “dinghy davit” system with telescoping rods that extended out over the transom. These davits supported a pulley system to hoist the dinghy up out of the water. So once the solar panels were mounted on the arch, we had to be sure it could handle the weight of the dinghy.

Our dinghy weighed a lot less than the combined weight of Mark and Alejandro!

Strong solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension

Alejandro and Mark test the arch to be sure it can support the dinghy (which weighed half what they do).

The solar panels were wired in parallel because they would be subjected to shade constantly shifting on and off the panels at certain times of the day as the boat swung at anchor.

Wiring solar panels on a sailboat (Hunter 44) marine solar power installation

Mark wires up the panels in parallel.

Affordable solar panel installation on a sailboat

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Solar panel arch with dinghy davit extension supporting affordable solar power on sailboat

A beautiful, clean installation with wire loom covering the exposed cabling and the rest snaked down inside the tubes of the Hunter arch. The davit extensions for hoisting the dinghy are clearly visible under the panels.

Solar panels installed on arch on Hunter 44 sailboat

Nice!

Down below the cockpit inside a huge locker in the transom, Mark mounted a combiner box that brought three cables in from the three panels and then sent out one cable to the solar charge controller.

Emily and Mark Fagan aboard sailboat Groovy

The transom locker in our Hunter 44DS sailboat was very large!

Combiner box for solar panel parallel wiring on a sailboat

A combiner box brings the wires from the three panels together before a single run goes to the solar charge controller (this is optional and not at all necessary).

The solar charge controller was installed in the cabin inside a hanging locker in the master stateroom.

Xantrex solar charge controller installed in sailboat locker

We have an Outback FlexMax charge controller on our trailer but chose a Xantrex controller for our boat because there were no moving parts. We compare the two HERE.

The solar charge controller was located about 8 feet from the near end of the battery bank which spanned a ~14 foot distance under the floorboards in the bilge.

Two 4D AGM batteries in bilge of sailboat

We had four 160 amp-hour 4D AGM batteries for the house bank and a Group 27 AGM start battery installed under the floorboards in the bilge.
One 4D house battery and the Group 27 start battery are seen here

This 555 watt solar power system, which charged a 640 amp-hour house bank of 4D AGM batteries, supplied all of our electrical needs, including powering our under-counter electric refrigerator.

Usually our engine alternator provided backup battery charging whenever we ran the engine. However, at one point our alternator died, and we were without it for 10 straight weeks while we waited for a replacement alternator.

Why such a long wait for a simple replacement part? Getting boat parts in Mexico requires either paying exorbitant shipping fees and import taxes or waiting for a friend to bring the part with them in their backpack when they fly from the US to Mexico.

During that long wait our solar power system supplied all our electricity without a backup while we were anchored in a beautiful bay. Diesel engines don’t require an alternator to run, so we moved the boat around and went sailing etc., and lived our normal lives during our wait.

Solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension with solar panels installed on sailboat

View from the water — cool!

The dinghy davit extensions on the solar panel arch made it easy to raise and lower the dinghy from the water and also to raise and lower the 6 horsepower outboard engine.

Solar panel arch and dinghy davit extension on sailboat

A pulley system on the davit extensions made hoisting the outboard and dinghy a cinch for either of us to do singlehandedly.

Solar panel arch and solar panels on sailboat transom

For 7 months we left our boat at the dock in Chiapas, unplugged from shorepower, and let the solar panels keep the batteries topped off. Everyday during that time they put 19 amp-hours into the batteries which was essentially the power required to operate the solar charge controller!

At anchor, sometimes the solar panels were in full sun all day long if the current and wind and the pattern of the sun crossing the sky allowed the boat to move around without the sun coming forward of the beam of the boat.

However, whenever the sun was forward of the beam, the shadow of the mast and the radome fell on the panels. We could watch the current production from the panels go from full on, to two-thirds, to one-third and back again as the shadow crossed one panel and then two at once, and then one and then none, etc, as the boat swung back and forth at anchor.

Mast and radome cast shade on solar panels on sailboat

RV solar installations have to avoid shade from air conditions and open vent hatches.
On boats the shade from the mast and radome is often unavoidable.

Mast and radome cast shade on pair of sailboat solar panels

When the shadow fell across two 185 watt panels at once, it knocked both of them out of the system so only one of the three solar panels was actually producing power.

The coolest and most unexpected benefit of having our solar panels mounted on an arch over the cockpit was the shade that they provided. The sun in Mexico is very intense, especially out on the water, and it was wonderful to have two huge forward facing jump seats at the back of the cockpit that fully shade as we sailed!

Under the shade of solar panels and a solar panel arch on a sailboat

Made in the shade — What a life that was!!

We have more solar power related articles at these links:

SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL

BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS

LIVING ON 12 VOLTS

Our technical articles in Cruising World magazine can be found here:

Do We Miss Our Boat “Groovy” and Sailing?

We describe our thrilling — and heart wrenching — first and last days on our wonderful sailboat in the following posts. It is very true that the happiest days of a boater’s life are the day the boat is bought and the day it’s sold!

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4 thoughts on “Is RV Solar Affordable? 3 Solar Solutions for RVs and Boats

  1. We hired Solar Mike at The Slabs to do our initial installation 1-1/2 years ago = $1,350 all in for our 420 watt panel, the 100 volt/40 amp MPPT charge controller, including brackets, cables, two 50 amp circuit breakers, an inline 30 amp fuse at the charge controller, etc. Almost immediately, I installed our 300 watt PSW inverter (less than $200) and we lived off grid and full time for 14 months with that setup. (We already had four RV/Marine batts but they made all the connections.) Since then we have installed our own 3000 watt MSW inverter ($350) and upgraded our bank cables to custombatterycables 2/0 for about $170. And we added two new Trojan T-105s for $500. So guess we’re up to $2,370 now but I see folks out there getting a lot less and paying a LOT more. We run our system 24/7 and are *very* happy with it. 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing this wonderful article that covers it all and kindly removes the grey area and hype of solar costs. Now if we could just get campgrounds, state parks and marinas to let us plug in and let us help them turn the electric meter backwards on days when we have all the sunshine we need….. 🙂

    • You are welcome, Dave & Sharon. It would be nice to “sell back” excess solar power to RV parks and marinas. What would be even nicer is if all campgrounds and RV parks offered full size sites with no hookups at a discounted price for those of us who don’t need hookups. Generally, if a campground offers less expensive dry camping sites they are tiny sites for tents only.

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