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Portable vs. Roof Mounted Solar Panels: Which Is Right for You?

Portable vs. Roof Mounted Solar Panels: Which Is Right for You?

We love camping off-grid (boondocking) where there’s lots of peace and quiet (no generator) so we think adding solar power is one of the best upgrades an RVer can make. Mounting solar panels on an RV roof is one way to go, or you can use portable panels (ground deploy), or even a combination of the two.

Today we’re comparing the pros and cons of roof-mounted vs. portable solar panels. Which approach wins out as the best option? Here’s everything you need to know to choose the best type of RV solar panels for you.

Pros and Cons of Roof-Mounted Solar Panels

Roof-mounted solar panels have several advantages over portable solar panels, but they have drawbacks, too. Let’s start by taking a look at the pros and cons of roof-mounted solar panels.

Pros

From convenience to customization, there are many advantages to roof-mounted solar panels.

No Setup/Take Down

With a roof-mounted solar panel setup, you never have to be concerned about setting them up or taking them down. Once they’re mounted on the roof of your rig, they’re there to stay and do their job without being moved. When your camping trip is over, you simply drive away with the panels right where you mounted them.

Optionally, there are a couple of ways to tilt roof-mounted panels toward the sun, which may require a little effort on your part. We’ll talk about tilting below.

Don’t Take Up Campsite Space

Solar panels that are permanently installed on your RV’s roof require no additional space at your campsite. That’s a benefit over portable panels that need to be set up on the ground for each use (often referred to as a “ground-deploy” solar panel system).

Don’t Take Up Storage Space

Since roof-mounted solar panels are permanently attached to your RV’s roof, they don’t take up any space in your storage bays, the back of the van, the bed of the truck, etc. Space is often at a premium, especially for full-timers, so this might be a big consideration for many RVers.

Fewer Concerns About Theft

There are usually fewer worries about theft with permanently mounted RV solar panels. Even if someone sees your roof-mounted system, they’d be a lot less likely to climb up on top of your roof and do what it takes to remove them.

That said, the likelihood of solar panel theft can vary based on several factors. Where are you camped? Are you with your rig most or all of the time, or are you often away on day trips? How many other people are around? (This can be a double-edged sword, as other campers nearby may deter thieves, but it’s people who steal).

The flip side of the theft/security question may be during storage. Portable solar panels can be securely stored out of sight, which would be impractical with a roof-mounted system. Again, it may depend on where and how you store your rig.

Highly Customizable

Roof-mounted RV solar arrays are great for anyone looking to customize their setup. For example, we installed a combination of flexible and rigid solar panels on our motorhome in a series-parallel configuration, with one string mounted on SolaRVector power tilt systems.

John on the roof of our Newmar Mountain Aire

Here’s John on the roof of our previous RV, a Newmar Mountain Aire, showing the tilt system for our four rigid solar panels. There are also four flexible panels that stay flat on the roof at all times.

You can also customize your roof-mounted solar system based on the wattage of the panels, as well as the size, type, capacity, and efficiency of your RV solar charge controller(s) to create the exact system that works best for your rig.

You could even install flexible solar panels on the side of your rig, the front of your 5th wheel, or other creative installations. Check out our post on solar-powered RVs for more ideas.

Always Charging

Roof-mounted solar panels are always charging, even when you’re driving. That means that they always harness the sun’s energy, which is a big advantage of permanently mounted panels. Whenever the sun is out, you get solar power whether you’re camping, on the road, or stopped at a grocery store to go food shopping.

The following video is an overview from Corrin at Thompson RV (where we bought our new Outdoors RV 19MKS) and Tom & Ely of MYT Solar (who installed the stellar system on our new rig) discussing what a high-end solar, lithium, and inverter installation can be like. They’ll explain how this allows people like us to camp off-grid for extended periods, and what makes these high-end systems worth the extra cost.

Cons

Despite the many advantages of roof-mounted solar panels, there are some drawbacks.

Installation Required

Unless your rig came from the factory with all the solar you want, installation is needed, requiring time, energy, and expertise, or the help of professionals like Tom & Ely. Installing solar panels on an RV requires not only the actual mounting of the panels onto the roof but also routing cables, and properly connecting the solar charge controller(s), batteries, inverter-charger, and other components.

More Expensive

Professional installation and even DIY installation of roof-mounted solar panels is generally more expensive based on labor costs as well as the costs of hardware, wiring, etc. Portable ground deploy systems can be mostly installation-free, although you may need to install a port to plug them into if your rig didn’t come with one (or one that’s rated to carry enough current). You may also need to install or upgrade the charger controller if the portable panels aren’t equipped with them.

Usually Requires Drilling Holes In Your RV Roof

One drawback of roof-mounted solar panels is that installing them usually requires drilling more holes in your RV roof than are already there. This isn’t a big deal overall as long as the mounts are properly sealed. But more holes in the roof means more opportunity for leaks and more Dicor sealant to inspect and maintain.

Cracked Dicor

When installation requires drilling holes in the roof, solar panels require routine sealant inspection. The Dicor sealant can crack over time, so it needs to be maintained to prevent water leaks.

Some RVs (including our new rig) have rigid panels mounted to special rails, which can reduce the number of screws going into the roof. Some people use VHB tape to secure the mounting feet in place, which requires no holes at all. But most roof-mounted installations require the drilling of holes and the use of screws.

The most common exception to screwing rigid panels into the roof is through the use of flexible solar panels, which are stuck down with strong adhesive. Four of the eight solar panels we installed on our Mountain Aire were flexible/adhesive, requiring no screws at all.

BUT… in our opinion, rigid panels are superior to flexible panels in many ways. We think that the minor issue of having to use screws is far outweighed by all the benefits of rigid panels. That includes longer life, better air circulation (solar panels operate better when cooler), and the ability to remove a panel if needed. The adhesive on flexible panels can make them extremely difficult to remove.

After years of experience with both rigid and flexible solar panels, it was a no-brainer for us to go 100% with rigid panels on our new RV. There are applications where flexible panels may be a better choice (they weigh less… see the next section… so that may be important for many RVers). But barring that, we’d choose rigid glass panels every time.

Adds Weight

Roof-mounted solar (especially traditional rigid glass panels) adds weight to your RV. This can be an issue, especially with larger solar arrays and/or smaller RVs with a lower GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating).

While portable solar panels also add weight, larger permanently installed arrays with multiple panels usually weigh more. And you can’t transfer that weight into the bed of your pickup truck for travel like you can with portable panels.

Again, flexible panels weigh less, but we really felt that the rigid panels on our motorhome were far superior to the flex panels, and we wouldn’t use them again unless we had no choice. Either way, always make sure you’re not exceeding your RV’s capacity with the addition of any RV solar system.

Space Is Limited

No matter what type of RV you have, space on the roof of any rig has its limits. While larger rigs can of course accommodate larger solar arrays, others have more limited space.

The roof area is also needed for other things such as air conditioners, vent fans, skylights, etc. We also highly value the ability to keep the roof walkable, which is so important for cleaning, inspections, maintenance, repairs, etc.

We went from a 43′ diesel pusher to a 19’ travel trailer which significantly reduced the roof space we had to deal with when planning our new rig’s solar array. Amazingly, we fit more solar on our new rig than we had on the old one, with plenty of space to walk up there.

Placing RV solar panels in such a way as to allow walking and access is so important.

MYT Solar uses a rail system to maximize the number of panels that can fit on a given size RV roof. This is our new Outdoors RV 19MKS. Amazingly, we have 200 more watts on this little 19′ trailer than we had on our 43′ motorhome (1,500 vs 1,300 watts). And you can see how much walking space we still have for easy access.

Shade Can Be an Issue

If you have roof-mounted solar panels and you’re parked in a spot where some or all of your panels are shaded, there’s nothing you can do about it other than move the RV. Depending on the length of your cable, ground deploy panels may be moved into a sunny spot nearby.

The same goes for aiming the panels. Portable panels can be turned to face the sun, where permanently mounted panels are aimed based on how you face your RV when you set up camp. Of course, if you never tilt your roof-mounted panels, the direction you face is irrelevant, since they’ll be staying flat.

The following video explains why we face a certain way when we park (filmed prior to our upgrading our solar system from 3 panels to 8).

Pros and Cons of Portable Solar Panels

For some RVers, portable solar panels offer advantages. Still, there are some downsides to portables, too. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of portable ground-deploy solar panels.

Pros

Portable solar panels can be the perfect option for some travelers, including as a way to experiment with solar without the commitment of a full installation.

A Good Starting Point

Portable RV solar panels offer a great way to get started with solar if you’re not sure how much it will benefit you or the amount of solar you need to accommodate your power needs. With portable panels, it’s easier to start small and add more if needed. By contrast, there’s much more installation to be done and paid for with roof-mounted solar panels.

Simpler

Portable solar panels offer a simpler system overall. They’re usually plug-and-play, especially with a “Solar Ready” RV.

Portable solar panels set out beside a Class B RV

Portable solar panels are a simple way to get started with solar. If your power needs are minimal, they may even be enough for you permanently.

More Location Flexibility

Flexibility — they can be placed away from your RV. Park the rig in the shade to stay cool, but put the panels in the sun to generate power.

Portability

Portability — they don’t ONLY have to be used with your RV. Some portable panels also have USB ports so you may be able to bring one along on an outing away from the RV to keep portable devices charged up.

Often Less Expensive

There’s usually minimal or no installation required with ground deploy systems, so there’s usually little or no labor cost. That said, because portable panels usually cost more per watt of output, you need to take that into consideration when budgeting for your solar system.

Here are a couple of inexpensive portable solar panel kits.

ZAMP SOLAR 140 Watt Folding Kit

This one is from Zamp’s Legacy Series and comes with an integrated charge controller and carrying case.

ZAMP SOLAR 140 Watt Folding Kit
  • Examples: run interior lights, charge laptops and handheld devices, run fridges and fans
  • Built-in 3-stage charge controller for all battery types

Renogy 200 Watt Off Grid Portable Foldable Solar Panel Suitcase

Renogy’s 200-watt portable foldable solar panel kit is made up of two 100-watt Eclipse solar panels. The “Eclipse” series panels offer improved performance in lower-light conditions.

Cons

As simple as portable solar panels may be, there are some considerable drawbacks to consider as well.

Setup and Take Down

Portable solar panels have to be set up every time you want them to charge your batteries. So, when you arrive at a new campsite, you have to set them up. If you take them down at night to avoid being vulnerable to theft, you have to set them up the following day. And of course, they have to be stowed when breaking camp at the end of your stay.

Storage Considerations

Depending on the type, size, and number of portable solar panels you have, they’re more difficult to store when they’re not in use. Rigid portable panels in particular are bulky and take up quite a bit of room. Even if you have the space on board, you’ll still need adequate weight capacity.

Theft Concerns

By design, portable solar panels are… portable, making them an easier and more tempting target for thieves. They can be stowed and secured out of sight overnight, but that requires setting them up and taking them down every day. And what about when you’re away from your rig on a hike all day? You surely don’t want them stowed during the day, or what’s the point of having them at all?

Two portable solar panels set out near an RV

Portable solar panels are more vulnerable to thieves, one of the downsides of portable vs. roof-mounted systems.

Vulnerable to Wind

Many portable solar panels are lightweight and foldable to help minimize issues with storage and handling. There are even foldable solar panels that use the Japanese art of origami to make them more compact and easier to carry.

All of this is great in some ways, but it can also make the panels more prone to blowing over in a stiff breeze. Coming back to the RV after a day of hiking to find your panels face-down, and a low battery bank is not our idea of an optimal solar situation.

Not Always Charging

One of the biggest drawbacks of ground-deploy solar panels is that they can’t be used for charging while you’re driving… or any other time you’re not set up in camp. Portable panels get stored for travel while roof-mounted panels are always charging, even when you’re driving down the road.

Portable vs Roof-Mounted Solar Panels: Which is Best?

The question of whether roof-mounted or portable solar panels are best can only be answered by each RVer, based on their particular use. While roof-mounted solar panels may work better for some, there are many RVers for whom a portable solar panel kit is a perfect fit.

With all the pros and cons of each type of arrangement noted above, you can make the best choice based on how you travel and camp.

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K Laursen

Thursday 30th of May 2024

Best real world article I've read. Thank you. We have traded our fifth wheel for a full time Park Model (read Tiny House, sort of). It has no batteries like an RV. Any suggestions for solar on this 400 square foot permanently landed home?

TheRVgeeks

Thursday 30th of May 2024

Good question. Without batteries, you'd be looking at more of a grid-tie solar system, which is more the purview of residential solar installers. You could always ADD batteries (which would give you RV-like independence for power usage), but again... that kind of system would be a bit different than an RV install.

Gene Holcomb

Thursday 30th of May 2024

Excellent article. Thank you. What adhesive or tape are you using to secure wiring to the roof going from panel to panel.

TheRVgeeks

Thursday 30th of May 2024

Hi Gene. Glad you like it! That tape we used to secure the wiring to the roof was just strips of Eternabond tape (available on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3yEEHyb) that we cut to the needed length to hold the cables down. We did findsome mold and staining under some cables that we held down that way for a number of years... so if you really want to seal it, you can put Dicor self-leveling lap sealant around the outer edge of the tape once you stick it in place.

Jonathon Osborne

Saturday 25th of May 2024

I have a Bluetti EB70S power box with their 200 W folding panel. My plan is to charge the Bluetti at home, then while driving. Whilst camping, I'll park facing the sun and pop the panels inside the windshield of my minivan. That way if it's an on and off again rainy day, the panels will stay dry and still bring in some power. I imagine, people lucky enough to have skylights, could put a panel up during the day and take it down at night to watch the stars.

Tim H

Saturday 25th of May 2024

Yet another great article to help us all make informed decisions. In particular, your comments with respect to getting started with solar are spot on. We have an older motorhome- a 2005 Fleetwood- which had no solar, no solar prewire, standard wet cell batteries and an inverter/charger that does not even support lithium batteries.

So, as much as we wanted to take advantage of solar to open up more (and longer) boondocking opportunities, we weren’t quite ready to make a big investment installing fixed panels, new batteries, a new charger/inverter and all the associated brackets, wiring and hardware to make it all work.

For us, portable panels were the PERFECT solution. I opted for the Renogy 200W folding panels with integrated charge controller (as shown in your link). These panels were truly plug and play- well, technically “clip” and play- as the connection to the batteries is made via alligator clips similar to those on jumper cables. Although 200W is not much in the scheme of solar arrays these days, it has served us very well. We are pretty light users of power when boondocking, thanks largely to our LP refrigerator. We generally only need a few lights (all LED), the water pump, phone and device charging, and occasionally the furnace (blower) while boondocking. In most cases (ie: most weather) the 200W panels are enough to keep the batteries topped up for several days- particularly in the sunny desert where we have easily boondocked for a week or more with no power problems.

Thus far, the only modification I have made is to install a permanent outside cable connection so that I no longer need to open the battery compartment to connect the panels. Now I just plug the cables from the panels directly into the MC4 port at the back of the rig. The panels themselves are very durable. They’ve been rained on, snowed on, blown over and dropped, but after two years, they still operate at full capacity.

As you very accurately pointed out- portable panel theft is a very real concern, so I also carry a 25’ long braided steel cable and padlock to tether the panels to the RV frame. While this is absolutely not secure enough to actually stop anybody with a little determination from stealing the panels, it does serve as a deterrent, given that stealing them would take a little more time and effort than simply unplugging the cables and carrying them away.

I would still like to upgrade to a more robust, permanently mounted solar system at some point- mainly for the reasons you listed, no setup, no storage requirements etc, but for the time being this has given us enough power independence to boondock just about as much as we’d like to.

Thanks for another informative article with thoughtful advice.

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 25th of May 2024

That’s great, Tim. Glad you found a solution that’s been working so well for you! There’s no “one-size-fits-all” solution for this, since everyone’s style of RVing is so different. Thanks for sharing, we hope this gives other people some good ideas!

Pat

Saturday 25th of May 2024

Is it possible to use both rigid roof panels and a portable unit to deploy when parked in shade? I currently have 485w on my Class C roof but was thinking about adding a portable panel for use when camping in heavily treed areas.

TheRVgeeks

Saturday 25th of May 2024

Hi Pat! Absolutely, that’s a very common scenario that lots of RVers do for exactly that reason… to provide an extra option when parked under trees where your rooftop solar isn’t doing as much. There are lots of options for portable panels, the easiest of which include their own charge controller and connect to your RV’s battery with alligator clips (like jumper cables). Check out th8s article for some options: 5 Best Portable Solar Panels for Your RV.

wayne thomas

Saturday 25th of May 2024

@Pat,

Yes, that is what I have on my ORV 22FQS. MYTSolar did the install of 4x250W rigid panels on the roof and added a plug where I can plug in 2x250W rigid panels when needed (usually when shade is an issue so I can move them away into the sun). You should add a second charge controller for the portable array. Mount it close to the batteries so that you can use a longer cable without worrying as much about the voltage drop. My 2 portable panels are in series which also helps that, but does require MPPT controller. I built a custom plywood box for the bed of my truck to carry them safely and can still use the space above for other storage. I have a lockable bed cover as well. I also have gravel filled sandbags to keep them stable in the wind and use Renogy 28in Adjustable Solar Panel Mount Brackets, with Foldable Tilt Legs (Amazon).

Good Luck, Wayne

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