RV Solar Panel Installation Overview

TheRVgeeks Electrical, Installation, Updates & Upgrades 22 Comments

As we spend a fair amount of time boondocking (camping without hook-ups), solar panels have given us the freedom to enjoy the peace & quiet of remote locations without running our generator too much.

Since we already installed our panels on the RV (7 years ago), this is just an overview of our set-up, as opposed to a detailed tutorial.

We show the general layout and components of the system, including the panels themselves, the wiring and the solar controller. We also talk about the benefits of including a simple and inexpensive tilt kit, which allows tilting the solar panels up in the winter, when the sun is lower on the horizon.

Our first RV had two panels, which were permanently fastened flat to the roof, so they couldn’t be tilted. We’ve learned a lot since then, and the new panels are tilt-able, and also use thicker 6-gauge wire to reduce loss along its length.



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Comments 22

  1. Hey guys, my wife and I are relatively new to RV’ingz. We found your channel about 8 months ago while deciding to purchase our first RV, and we’ve learned a lot from you. We wanted to first say thanks!

    Our situation: my wife is a gospel singer, and we travel around the country from event to event in our new 17-year-old RV. We’re currently touring in a 2000 Bounder 39z diesel (30amp), often boondocking in church parking lots that don’t offer electrical.

    I’d like to ask a somewhat basic question about moving into solar power. — Does a solar power system provide house power in the same *manor* (not the same amount) as plugging into shore power, or does it simply provide a trickle charger for the batteries so the inverter can work?

    I ask specifically about the manor of power because our 2000 watt Xantrex inverter doesn’t provide power to all the outlets. I realize there are a lot of variables involved, including all the additional hardware, to which you can calculate the *amount* of power that solar can provide, and that ultimately solar isn’t a 100% substitute for full shore power. But, fundamentally, if it’s just a glorified battery charger, that doesn’t seem to solve my particular problem of the *manor* in which that power is distributed to the house outles. On the other hand, if a full solar install provides power to all my outlets (even just a few amps), that would greatly reduce our dependence on our generator.

    All the articles and forums I’ve been reading seem to base their perspectives on the assumption that the reader understands this fundamental concept. They tend to concentrate on the maths of energy requirements or the installations instructions or the gear reviews.

    Thanks for any enlightenment you can provide!

    Craig

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      Author

      Hi Craig,

      Thanks so much for the kind words! It really does mean a lot to us to hear that we are helping other people with their RVs! And how cool that you’re touring in your RV for your wife’s events! We love how many ways people are out-and-about RVing!

      On the solar front: typically, RV solar systems are configured as 12-volt charging systems for your batteries. So you would be relying on your inverter to transform the 12V power into 110V to run TVs, appliances, laptops, etc in your RV. Installing a solar system doesn’t change the way your ‘ existing electrical system works… you’re just adding in a new way to replenish the charge in the batteries. But as part of the solar install, you might be able to have the installer, or an electrician, re-wire your coach so that the inverter could power more outlets than it currently does.

      We know where you’re coming from, as our first RV (a 2002 Fleetwood Bounder Diesel 39Z!!) was wired the same way yours is: the inverter only powered a handful of outlets in the coach. But our current RV (our 2005 Newmar Mountain Aire 4304) is setup so that almost EVERY outlet is powered off of the inverter. The only ones that aren’t are the washer/dryer outlets… and the outlet for our engine block heater. But that’s fine, since those are such high-power-draw appliances that we wouldn’t WANT them powered off of our batteries!

      So… other than having a solar installer or an electrician re-wire your Bounder to enable your inverter to power more of the outlets… the only way to solve your current problem would be to buy another RV! Solar, in and of itself, won’t change your situation… although it would be great if you could plug your shore power cord into a solar panel and be all set! ;)

      Hope this makes sense and answers your question!

  2. Can you provide more information/detail about the power switch that you put between the controller and the solar panels? What type of switch did you use? Did you only connect it through the positive cable or did you connect the negative as well?

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      Author

      Hi Jason! We went to an auto parts store and picked up a 12-volt on-off toggle switch. Since our solar controller is rated at 25 amps max, we made sure the switch was also rated for at least that much. This one on Amazon is pretty much the same as ours: http://amzn.to/2sw4iGH

    2. Post
      Author

      Hi Jason! We picked up that toggle switch at an auto parts store. It’s a pretty typical 12-volt on-off switch, although we made sure to buy one rated at 25 amps, since that’s how much our solar controller is rated for. It’s basically the same as this one: http://amzn.to/2sw4iGH

      We only added it into the positive cable, as it’s not necessary to have one on both the + & – sides. Once the power is cut to the positive cable, the panels are disconnected. Hope this helps!

    1. Post
      Author

      Bon Jour Dominique! Nos panneaux sont montés à environ 2 pouces du toit, ce qui leur permet de rester plus frais en raison du flux d’air en dessous. Plus les panneaux sont froids, plus ils produisent efficacement de l’électricité.

  3. Though aimed at my WOG friends, you and your readers might find the thread below to be an interesting read. Our coach is an ongoing project that’s evolved and the solar has significantly upgraded its boondocking capabilities. I chose house rather than smaller RV sized panels from Sun Electronics to keep the costs down. And because I had the real estate up top, doing 5 panels rather than four allowed flat placement making tilting unnecessary. With this much solar supplementing the batteries, midday AC operation of one unit with a soft start controller is often a break-even proposition.

    http://www.wanderlodgeownersgroup.com/forums/showthread.php?t=25074

    You and the friends you reference have been a great inspriation. Thanks for all that you do for the RV community and I look forward to meeting you in-person someday!

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      Author
  4. Sorry for the Solar Newbie question but would I be able to run my air conditioners and my refrigerator with a solar panel. If so how big of one do I need?

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      Author

      Great question Jeremy, and a popular one! Running a residential fridge off solar is a standard thing, and one of the most common reasons that many RVers get solar for in the first place (including us), although one panel isn’t enough to do much. Powering A/C off solar panels is a pretty big task, partly because it requires a very serious battery bank (nothing actually runs off the panels…. they simply provide juice to the batteries, which power everything else).

      The VAST majority of RVs could never hope to run A/C off batteries/solar, as it’s very expensive and can be quite complicated. We personally know of only three people who’ve made the modifications required to do it… all good friends of ours. Here they are, with links to their blog posts about powering A/C with solar, and overviews of solar in general:

      Chris & Cherie of Technomadia: http://www.technomadia.com/solar
      Nikki & Jason of GoneWithTheWynns: http://www.gonewiththewynns.com/off-grid-solar-rv-air-conditioning (we make a guest appearance in their video on the topic)
      Nina & Paul of WheelingIt: http://wheelingit.us/category/solar-power-2/

      It’s a lot to take in, as it’s a big topic, so pull up a chair and get ready if you really want to know the whole scoop. There is a ton to learn, but these three couples provide some of the best information out there.

      Unless you have plans to dry camp in very hot climates an awful lot, a smaller solar system that isn’t able to power the A/C is probably a better choice ( that’s what we have). The cost will never be recouped, so running the generator for occasional dry camping A/C use makes more sense in most cases.

      1. Can You Heat Cool Use All Your Electronics With Solar Panel Power Even If You Have To Convert From AC To DC Power In Some Situations And How Would You Do This

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          Hi Michael,

          The short answer is “Yes you can!” But the longer answer begs the question of whether or not it’s financially feasible. Electric heating (which you could avoid altogether by using a propane furnace or a diesel hydronic system) & cooling, in particular, are especially power hungry… and require large battery banks. Typically Lithium-Ion, which is still cutting edge enough to be very expensive… but really the only option that can handle the rapid power output needed to supply an Air Conditioner for any length of time.

          We’d recommend checking out Chris & Cherie of Technomadia who have a lot of content about solar and lithium batteries… and also check out WheelingIt’s website to read about Nina & Paul’s recent upgrade of their solar system and battery bank.

          Typically, your solar and battery banks run on 12V… and you use an Inverter to convert that 12V power into 110V power for running your electronics and/or an AC or electric space heater. You’re not running your Air Conditioner directly off your solar panels… the power flows from the panels through the batteries and inverter first.

  5. Pingback: Solar Panel Tilting - How Much Difference Does It Really Make?

  6. We had AM Solar install a 675W solar array on our 2014 Thor 28H with a 400AH lithium battery pack back in Jan/Feb of 2015. Absolutely flawless installation and subsequent help! We could not be more thrilled! If you want more info about our install, please e-mail me: (rproebstel@gmail.com) AM Solar is located in Springfield, Oregon which is East of Eugene, OR. I am not paid by them nor work for them. I am just a VERY HAPPY CAMPER to have found them!

  7. I camp a lot with my horse and my gooseneck. And I am so glad to have come across your videos! Do you have one on installing a solar panel or know of a good one to look at? You have a great site. keep up the good work!

    1. Try Go Power for solar. We’re out of the country with limited internet access and will try to reply more fully to other comments when we get home next weekend.

  8. Where can I find information and installation of solar panel for my 5th Wheel? I use a small one for my battery and save about $10 a month on electric bill (we’re at a camper park).
    Thanks and read from you soon.
    Ric
    PS We live in Northwest Ohio

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