Last Updated on December 9, 2021 by Chris and Lindsay
It can be pricey by the time you add all of the components together. And installation is not always straightforward.
So if you are wondering whether or not you need to add a solar power system to your RV, we’ll walk you through 5 reasons why you may want to save your money, time and worry by opting NOT to install solar panels on your RV.
Affiliate Disclaimer: This post may contain links to products we think you’ll like. If you purchase any of the products through the links below we’ll receive a small commission. As full-time RVers, we know our RV products well and only recommend those that we either own or would consider owning ourselves.
Should I Install Solar Panels on my RV?
The answer to this question varies quite a bit by what kind of camping you plan to do, how often, whether you have a generator, how large your battery bank is and how much power you consume on an average day camping.
But a solar power system is more than just solar panels. You must have a solar charge controller, proper sized fuses or breakers, the right gauged wiring between components and you have to be willing and able to drill a few holes into the roof of your RV.
And then there is the installation itself. The setup and wiring diagrams are relatively simple to understand. But do you have the physical ability to do the installation yourself? You might spend weeks (and thousands of dollars) waiting for a mobile solar installation expert.
If you’re on the fence about whether installing solar for your RV is the best idea, here are a few reasons why you may not NEED solar for your RVing lifestyle.
You have a big RV battery bank
The first reason why solar power may not be necessary for your RV is if you have a large battery bank. The more power you store in your batteries, the longer that power should last you (all things considered).
Battery capacity is measured in Amp Hours (Ah) and the greater the capacity the more power you can store in a fully-charged battery. You can add battery capacity by adding additional batteries, typically in parallel.
(Note, if your RV is a 12 volt system and you have 6 volt batteries in your RV you will need to wire in series and parallel to add battery capacity. Likewise, if your RV is a 24 volt system and you have either 6 volt or 12 volt batteries you will need to wire these similarly. This can get complicated, but here’s a great resource to help you understand this type of connection.)
When RVing, you’ll always want to have a deep cycle battery bank, meaning that the battery is designed to be discharged to varying amounts while being recharged continually. This is important because if you don’t plan to have solar, you’ll want to know how far your battery can safely discharge before needing to be recharged.
There are several types of deep cycle batteries you can consider for your battery bank. The most basic, which we don’t recommend even for those on the strictest budget, is a standard flooded lead acid battery. These often come in less than 100 Ah sizes and you will have to maintain them over the course of your travels. They also shouldn’t be discharged further than 50% of their capacity.
We recommend both AGM and Lithium battery options, depending on your budget. Both types of batteries are sealed and thus maintenance-free and can be safely discharged further than flooded lead-acid batteries.
AGM batteries can be discharged to approximately 40% of battery capacity (meaning a 100 Ah battery can be safely discharged to 40 Ah). Lithium batteries can be discharged virtually to nothing (meaning you can get almost all of the 100 Ah out of your 100 Ah lithium battery before it needs to be recharged.)
So having a large battery bank will allow you to store more power than you can then draw on potentially for multiple days or weeks before you need to worry about recharging them.
But we do recommend that you consider adding a reliable battery monitor to your power setup so you can accurately gauge the state of charge of your batteries at any given time.
We use this one and feel much more confident in understanding our power use as it not only shows the battery bank state of charge, but also the total power draws on the battery.
This feature allows us to gauge whether we need to slow down our power consumption.
You don’t use much power when you camp
The second reason you may not need solar power for your RV is that you do not use much power when you camp. Regardless of the size of your battery bank, if you do not use much power then you can extend the length of your camping trip before you need to worry about recharging your batteries.
To know how much power you use you will want to audit your appliances to understand how much power each draws. An even better way to know this, and to be able to monitor on a moment-by-moment basis is to invest in a decent battery monitor that displays both the state of charge and your power consumption.
If you were to calculate that your daily consumption of power was 20 amps and you had a 100 Ah lithium battery, you could safely camp for 4 days before you needed to begin looking for a way to recharge your batteries (100 Ah / 20 amps per day = 5 days but you would not necessarily want to discharge the battery to 0).
Twenty amps per day may or may not seem like a lot to you. If you have LED lights that you use sparingly, camp in places where you do not need to worry about heating or cooling and run your refrigerator on propane then you could easily come in under 20 amps per day.
But if you rely on high-power appliances, such as furnaces and fans, run a few lights throughout the day, watch some television (etc), then 20 amps may be a tiny drop in the bucket of your daily consumption.
Use calculators like these, or scan the table below for some common power draws.
|Air Conditioner (Startup)||12-18 amps||Air Conditioner (Running)||3-6 amps|
|Coffee Maker||7-10 amps||Space Heater||4-10 amps|
|Laptop||3-7 amps||Cell Phone/Tablet||.5-2 amps|
|Microwave||7-15 amps||TV||1-3 amps|
Alternative Charging: Shore Power
The third reason solar power may not be necessary for you is if you plan to be plugged into shore power as an alternative charging method.
There are lots of RVers who enjoy going “off-grid” and boondocking in the forest, desert or even Wal Mart parking lot. If you are one of these, then you’re likely paying particular attention to the other reasons why solar may not be necessary.
But if you are the kind of RVer who plans to go (mostly) from one formal campground with full hookups to the next, then solar is definitely NOT necessary.
Oftentimes larger rigs, such as large Class C and virtually all Class A motorhomes, do not do well with boondocking in some of the more remote places. So if you own one of these types of RVs you may plan your RVing lifestyle around plugging into shore power on a daily basis.
In this case, you will maintain a proper charge on your battery bank by being plugged into a continuous 110-volt power source. Your onboard power converter will convert the 110-volt power to 12 volts (or 24 volts, depending on your RV power setup) and then distribute it to your batteries to be drawn upon for your power usage needs.
If you plan to spend most of your time camping with electrical hookups then you won’t need to worry at all about keeping your batteries charged with solar. Your only concern then will be whether there are frequent, or infrequent, power surges in the campground. These can be common, particularly in smaller campgrounds that happen to be at full or near-full capacity.
To counter this concern we recommend that you invest in the properly sized surge protector that will trip if the incoming power is too much or too little.
Thus you can trust that your internal power distribution system remains fully functional even in the midst of a power surge.
Alternative Charging: Generator
The fourth reason you might take a pass on an RV solar setup is if you have or plan to have a generator as an alternative charging source.
Some RVs come with onboard generators that run off of propane, gasoline or diesel. If your RV comes with one of these, you will likely simply press a button and hold it down for a few seconds until the generator fires up.
When the generator is running it is creating the same 110-volt electricity that you would receive if you were plugged into shore power. Sometimes the generator is “hard-wired” into your power distribution center in the same way as your shore power and the power simply flows into your converter exactly the same as if you were properly plugged in.
In other setups, you have to manually plug your shore power cable into a generator outlet to physically transfer energy from the generator through your shore power cable into your power distribution center.
If you don’t have an onboard generator, we recommend that you purchase a portable RV generator that will give you the same ability to create your own source of power while camping.
We’re big fans of the Honda 2200, of which we had two that we could plug together in parallel to double the power output for the air conditioner in our previous truck camper.
There are plenty of other RV generator options, including propane and solar-powered generators, that may be a great addition to your camping essentials if you opt against solar power for your RV.
In either way, you are bypassing the need for a solar power system in your RV if you have a generator. They will consume varying amounts of fuel and they do not necessarily provide a huge amount of current (amperage) to recharge your battery bank.
Yet owning a generator is not only a great way to alternatively charge your batteries, but also a way to run certain appliances that only run on 110-volt electricity such as an air conditioning unit, microwave or other gadgets such as Instapots, blenders and so forth.
A very important thing about an RV generator that often goes overlooked, is that you must be mindful of the local rules and laws and be courteous of other campers when you choose to run your generator.
In some instances, particularly dry camping in National Parks, there may be posted generator hours (usually a window in the morning and the evening). Or you may find stated “quiet hours” through the night that would imply it is not permissible to run your generator all night.
But even if there are no stated generator rules, you should be mindful of other nearby campers. When you boondock, whether on BLM land or in a Wal Mart parking lot, there will likely not be any posted generator rules. But there may be other campers parked in close proximity to you or, specifically, your generator.
It is good practice to be friendly with fellow travelers and ask if they mind that you run your generator before cranking it up. Or at least plan to run it during daylight hours when it is more common to do so.
We have found that RV campers do not always respect each other in this regard and it is part of our mission to help fellow campers understand that we are all on our own great journeys separately, but together. This is a simple etiquette that goes a long way in ensuring that we can continue to camp in places that may otherwise ban future camping if we disrespect common decency when we camp.
Alternative Charging: Alternator
A final reason why you may not need to invest in solar for your RV is if your vehicle engine is connected to your RV power distribution center via a cable between your alternator and the RV house power system.
This is quite common in most types of RVs, whether a motorhome where the vehicle and camper are attached and the wiring is simple or in a pull-behind trailer where the connection is made via an electrical harness that you plug in and unplug as you travel.
The amount of power your alternator generates and distributes to your battery bank depends on your vehicle itself. So this may provide a substantial amount of recharging power. Or it may leave you lacking a full top-off.
In either regard, if you know that you have a long drive day ahead you can count on your vehicle’s alternator to crank a few amps to your battery bank so that when you stop for the day you have more power in your batteries from which to draw.
This is not the best method, and thus our fifth reason you can consider bypassing solar, simply because the amount of power generated by your alternator may fluctuate. Our current Class C RV delivers over 10 amps of power from our alternator, which is a substantial amount.
But our former truck pushed out, on average, less than 2 amps because there were so many ancillary power needs the engine and vehicle had and it only sent the leftover power to our battery bank.
But this is a great way to bypass the need for solar, particularly if you do not stay in one location for a long time and spend more time driving around from one place to the next.
Bonus Reason: You don’t camp often
We’ve included this as a “bonus reason” why you may not NEED solar. But really it is a combination of all of the above reasons.
If you purchased a camper, motorhome or trailer with the intent to camp for a few days at a time between long weeks at work, or you only use the RV to visit friends and family members scattered about across the country, then you may not need a solar power system for your RV.
By the time you add up the costs of solar – from panels to charge controllers, fuses and breakers, heavy gauge wires and connectors – you may not be able to justify the expense when you combine the above methods of bypassing the need for solar.
Weekend camping once a month in a campground with an electrical hookup, driving to a friend or family’s house to plug into their house power, or spending a month or two in the summer driving around the country can all be accomplished without much worry for your battery bank.
And then for all the time in between your trip, it is likely that you either power off the battery bank via a battery switch. Or you may plug your RV into your 110-volt power source at either your home or storage facility.
In either regard, you will have to do your own math and consider which of the above methods you may be able to use to bypass solar for your RV.
Our recommendation: Solar is worth every dollar in the long term
Even though we have outlined 6 reasons why you may not NEED solar for your RV, we are still big fans and advocates for installing a reliable solar power system in your RV.
Despite the general additional expense, solar components are remarkably affordable. And they improve in function and efficiency each year, driving costs lower and lower.
Some generators cost just as much, or more than a decent solar setup, and by the time you factor in the cost of fuel and the fact that solar energy is free, you may find yourself on your roof installing solar panels sooner than later.
You can purchase kits like these that will provide a tremendous amount of solar power as just a basic setup to your RV. Or piecemeal your own setup and check out a few YouTube videos on how to install solar yourself.
We have done multiple solar power setups to various RVs we’ve owned over the years and, though we do closely follow the above reasons NOT to have solar, when we combine them with our solar setup we do not worry one bit about how long we can camp in any particular place.
We’ve spent weeks camping on beaches in Baja where our limiting factors were fresh water and black and grey tank space, not power.
We’re listing a few of our favorite solar system components below to give you a starting point if you do in fact want to opt for adding solar to your RV. And if you shop directly at Renogy, you can receive a 10% discount on your purchase by using our coupon code “CalledToWander” at checkout.
SAVE 10% MORE when you shop directly at Renogy.com and use our coupon code “CalledToWander” at checkout!
Whether you shop at Renogy, Amazon or through other outlets there are always great deals on solar components that will allow you to build a reasonably priced system to keep your battery bank topped off.
But if you choose to go without solar, keep in mind those 6 reasons and ways you can keep your batteries healthy while spending an indefinite amount of time on the road!
We look forward to seeing you out there!