Solar power is no longer a technology for the future. Over the past decade, it's become an extremely popular source of energy for homes and the RV industry is no different. In fact, RVers throughout the country are adding solar panels to their motorhomes and travel trailers. It's a natural and clean, renewable and sustainable option to gas and coal. Plus, besides a fairly large initial investment, it's free.Why Solar Power?
Unfortunately, the technology is a bit complicated and can be difficult to understand. For example, many people believe that solar panels actually replace the other power sources in their coach. In reality, solar panels don’t run anything; the batteries, generator, and shore power do. Solar panels merely recharge the batteries, but they're great additions for those who prefer to boondock in remote areas or for political, ecological, or financial reasons want to reduce their fuel use.
There are two main reasons that RVers install solar panels. Either they're using it as a method of keeping their batteries from draining and dying when they aren't being used (or otherwise charged by the alternator, shore power, or generator) or they're using them as their primary power source.
Option one is referred to as trickle charging. For this purpose, people generally use a stand-alone unit. These chargers are typically about 18-inch squares made of durable, weatherproof plastic and amorphous solar cells. Installation basically consists of placing the unit in a sunny area and connecting the wires and battery clips.
Option two requires the installation of a solar kit that consist of several solar panels and other equipment. There need to be enough panels to take in, generate, and regulate enough power for routine operation of your RV’s house systems. How Does Solar Power in an RV Work?
Basically, the power from all of the sources goes to a power grid and bank of batteries where it is stored until it's needed. So, the alternator charges the batteries when the RV is being driven; the generator charges them when it is being run, and the sun via the solar panels charges the batteries during a sunny day. The batteries can then be used whenever the other sources aren't available or aren't in use for whatever reason.
Every power source from the alternator while you're running your engine, to the shore power or generator—when you're using them—charges the batteries. A solar power system is just one large battery charger that needs sunlight to make the electricity. The solar panel cells convert the sunlight into DC (direct current) electricity. Then the inverter converts the DC into AC (alternating current) electricity, which powers your appliances and lights. Therefore, everything that runs off the batteries can be powered by the solar panels system.
How Much Do You Need?
How many panels you need depends on the size of your rig, how many appliances and the size and complexity of each that you intend to power, as well as whether this is to be your primary source or supplementary source. Consider whether you generally require 30-amp or 50. When using either, do you ever trip the main breaker due to excessive use? Do you spend most of your time outdoors, or is your RV a mobile apartment where you run the air-conditioner, watch TV and work on the computer? Do you have a residential-size refrigerator? The more plugged in you are, the more power you require and the more money—and space—for solar panels you'll need.
Be advised that each solar panel provides about 60 watts of energy. For moderate use, you likely need about 6 panels to create 380 watts of solar to accommodate 20 amps charging at 5.4 amps per panel. This would cover a typical RV refrigerator, lights, and small appliances. For larger motorhomes, you might need up to 800 watts of power. Fortunately, with the larger roof surface-space, a big rig can accommodate 30 to 45 square feet of solar panels.
Choosing to incorporate solar power into your existing system is a big decision and a big investment. It's important to take an inventory of how much power you require. This includes a realistic look at your lifestyle. In some cases, it may be better to start small to supplement your existing system and build up from there. Good luck!