Solar prep is a common feature on today’s RVs. It means an RV is built ready for you to install RV solar panels easily. So if your RV is solar-prepped, your first step is deciding if adding solar to your RV is worth it.
If the answer is yes (and it likely should be), your work isn’t done once you’ve installed solar panels. Your next step is learning how to get the most out of RV solar panels. This includes correctly positioning your RV, being mindful of which DC appliances you use and when, and much more.
A Brief on RV Solar Panels
Solar is a source of DC charging. Solar panels capture energy from the sun, and that energy is stored in your RV’s battery bank. Your system must feature an inverter to use solar energy to power AC appliances.
Any solar system installation or upgrade must be designed and installed with the entire process in mind. Portable or roof-mounted panels charge the battery bank. The battery bank runs the inverter, which turns battery DC power into AC wall outlet power.
A solar package should be sized according to the appliance load you wish to run while camping off-grid, and packages can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Proper planning and prep are required for any solar package, but only the smaller packages are good candidates for a DIY installation. Larger installs can be dangerous if not designed and installed by trained professionals.
Additionally, a small portable inverter generator is a lightweight, compact, and quiet solution for recharging your RV’s battery bank when solar panels cannot. Read up on portable generator safety tips before learning how to choose the right portable generator for your RV.
How to Get The Most Out of RV Solar Panels
Let’s cover eight easy tips to help you maximize the efficiency of your RV solar panels.
Position (and Reposition) Your Panels
Positioning is everything, whether your solar panels are permanently mounted to the roof, or you’re using a portable solar solution. Adjusting the position of your panels throughout the day allows you to capture the most energy possible as the sun moves across the sky.
When camping throughout North America, position your panels to face south for maximum exposure. This can be tricky when you’re restricted by whatever orientation is offered at a campground, but it’s much easier in off-grid campsites.
With portable solar panels, you’ll be free to reposition them several times daily to follow the sun across the southern sky.
Sync Energy Usage with Maximum Sun Exposure
Timing is everything! Solar panels receive the bulk of their charge when the sun shines directly on them. To reduce battery usage when boondocking, do your most energy-intensive activities when your panels receive maximum sun exposure.
Run a full laundry cycle in your RV’s washer and dryer, or run your portable washing machine outside. Plug in phones, computers, and tablets for a full charge. Operate a portable RV vacuum to remove pet hair and dirt. Time these activities while your solar panels get the most light to avoid depleting your RV’s battery stores.
Just be careful to use one appliance at a time if you can help it. Wait until your laundry cycle finishes to vacuum your RV, for example Then recharge all your electronic devices once your clothes and trailer are clean.
Unplug Unused Appliances
Most electrical devices, such as kitchen appliances, game consoles, and your beloved flat-screen TV, consume electricity even when not in use. When turned off, most enter a standby mode that reduces the amount of electricity they consume, but they still use enough energy to start up when you turn them on again.
Unplugging these appliances keeps them from sapping energy when they aren’t in use. It only takes a few extra seconds to plug in appliances when you’re ready to use them. This will help you bank more energy when your panels are collecting.
Upgrade Interior and Exterior Lighting
Upgrading to energy-efficient lighting is literally the brightest tip on this list. Opt for indoor LED lighting instead of incandescent bulbs. Don’t hesitate to upgrade your RV’s exterior lighting, either. It’ll transform your electricity bill and how you look at RV lighting from this point forward.
Solar power is an amazing renewable resource that’s wasted on old light bulbs because they burn more of their energy as heat than newer LEDs, which use the energy for light and nothing else. Their efficiency saves you money and saves you from wasting the energy your solar panels capture.
Upgrade RV Appliances
Just like overhauling RV lighting, replacing older appliances with new, energy-efficient models gets the most performance from your RV solar panels. Of course, some appliances are easier to remove and replace than others.
Removing an old RV microwave and installing a more energy-efficient model is a DIY task for handy RVers. But upgrading your RV refrigerator or water heater will be more technical and labor-intensive. Speak with a performance center service advisor about these kinds of RV upgrades.
Clean Your RV Solar Panels Regularly
Everything functions and performs better when it’s fresh and clean. Solar panels are no exception. In fact, studies have shown that soiled solar panels can be up to 7% less efficient than their clean counterparts.
Since they are regularly exposed to the elements, getting dirty is inevitable. Dirt, debris, pollen, mold, and bird droppings are commonly found covering up parts of your solar panel and blocking the rays.
Combat this with regular cleanings twice a year, at minimum, or at the beginning of every season. Cleaning is easy; all you’ll need is water and a microfiber cloth. But if your RV roof isn’t walkable or it’s not a job you’re comfortable with, schedule an RV cleaning service at your local Camping World.
Ask your service advisor to inspect each panel for damage and make essential repairs. An often overlooked issue is the sealant on the panel’s mounting brackets. These should be inspected twice annually during roof cleaning and maintenance. You’ll then be able to rest assured knowing your panels are performing to the best of their ability.
In the off-season, use an RV cover to protect your panels from wind, weather, and falling debris. Learn how to install an RV cover if you haven’t used one before.
Store Extra Energy with a Backup Battery or Portable Power Station
Maximizing your panel’s ability to capture solar energy is futile if you have limited ability to store that energy. That’s why many RVers upgrade their battery system or invest in a portable power station that’s compatible with solar panels.
Most RVs run off of flooded or AGM batteries, but for a highly efficient option, you could invest in a lithium battery setup in your RV and stay off-grid for longer. When the sun goes down or the clouds open up in a torrential downpour, you will be thankful for those hours of electricity provided by energy storage.
Technician Tip: Lithium batteries appear to be more expensive at a glance, but they can provide long-term savings. Lithium lasts up to 20 years, compared to four years for lead-acid batteries. Lithium batteries can also be discharged 100% compared to 50% for lead acid, meaning you’ll need fewer batteries. Finally, lithium weighs roughly 70% less than lead acid, giving you additional energy storage capacity without exceeding tongue weight, pin weight, or GVWR limits.
Monitor Energy Usage
Many modern RVs, especially luxury models, feature control panels with Bluetooth connectivity. This allows you to link your phone to your RV’s controls to program the thermostat, control lighting, and, in this case, monitor the remaining battery levels.
This helps you get the most out of your solar panels by providing useful monitoring data. It’ll also tell you when it might be time to fire up your portable generator to recharge batteries after periods of high energy usage.
Being off-grid is enticing for the mind, body, spirit, and planet. Don’t let concerns over running out of power keep you from exploring boondocking spots in the US. RV Solar panels will help you stay out longer and enjoy your favorite campsites more thoroughly.
Here are a few more resources to help you make the most of solar energy when RVing:
What questions do you have about using or maintaining RV solar panels? Drop them in the comments below.