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 until recently.
This article outlines three different RV solar power solutions and lists all the parts (and costs) of everything you need to buy:
1. A Small, Expandable Rooftop RV Solar Power Solution – For weekends and vacations
2. A Portable RV Solar Power Solution – To get you up and running effortlessly
3. A Big Rooftop RV Solar Power Solution – For full-time RVing
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
BIG and COMPLEX SOLAR POWER INSTALLATIONS
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
The solar charge controller was installed in the cabin inside a hanging locker in the master stateroom.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
We have more solar power related articles at these links:
SOLAR POWER OVERVIEW and TUTORIAL
- RV (and Marine) Solar Power Made Simple - An overview of how solar power works on an RV or boat
- Which Solar Panels To Buy? - What's Best: Flexible or Rigid Panels? 12 or 24 volt? Mono- or Polycrystalline? And WHY?
- Is RV Solar Power Affordable? - 3 solar power solutions for RVs and boats, including parts lists and actual costs
- Installing Solar Power on a Sailboat - How to overcome the unique challenges of solar power on a sailboat
- RV Solar UPGRADE that TRIPLED our Power - An EASY upgrade to a factory-installed baseline RV solar power system that TRIPLED the power output
- Solar Power Tutorial 1 - Basics - What makes up a solar power system and how does it work?
- Solar Power Tutorial 2 - Weekend/Vacation Systems - Everything needed for small "Weekending" and "Vacation" systems
- Solar Power Tutorial 3 - Full-time Systems - Describes the design of a "Full-time" system
- Solar Power Tutorial 4 - Solar Panel Selection & Wiring - Design considerations for choosing solar panels PLUS wiring tips
BATTERIES and BATTERY CHARGING SYSTEMS
- RV and Marine Battery Charging Basics - How do batteries get charged and what is the best charging method?
- Converters, Inverter/Chargers and Engine Alternators - No two battery charging systems do the job the same way.
- Solar Charge Controllers - How to optimize battery charging from the sun
- Solar Power and Shore Power Combined! - What happens when you're on solar and you plug into shore power?
- Wet Cell vs. AGM Batteries in an RV or Boat - Why we upgraded our RV house battery bank from flooded to AGM!
LIVING ON 12 VOLTS
- Inverter Selection & Installation - Choosing and installing the best inverter to support all our lifestyle's 120 volt AC needs
- RV Electrical System Upgrade - Which converter, inverter and batteries we upgraded to after 8 years off the grid, and WHY!
- How Much Inverter is Enough? - What happened when we accidentally killed our big inverter
- Clean Technica: Solar Power Installation on Sailboat Groovy - An analysis of our boat's solar power setup
- Kyocera Solar Showcases our Sailboat's Solar Power Setup - Sailing Groovy on Kyocera Solar Power!
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!
- Groovy – How We Came to Own a Sailboat 01/25/10
- Living, Loving and Perfecting “The Dream” 06/29/13
- Untying The Lines – A nautical send-off 01/02/14
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