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4 Reasons Not To Use RV Solar Power (And 4 Reasons You Should)

Thinking about a solar system for your RV? (No, not the solar system—the one you made a diorama of in the fourth grade.) Rather, a solar power system that includes solar panels, a charge controller, and your RV's batteries.As much as you might hear people extolling the virtues of solar power, the truth is, it's not ideal for everyone in every situation. Solar power is not an investment you want to make without a solid reason and as much information as possible. So before you jump in and start soaking up the sunshine, consider these 4 reasons you shouldn't use solar power on your RV—and the 4 reasons you should.
Go Power RV Solar Roof Panels

4 Reasons Not to Use Solar Power

Is solar power right for you? The answer depends on your particular situation and intentions. However, if one or more of the following apply to you, it might be worth considering alternate power options.A solar-powered RV may not be the best option if:

1) You Won't Recoup Your Costs

Solar power is an investment. The sun may be free, but the panels, inverter, and batteries require a substantial amount of cash upfront. Of course, the cost will vary depending on the amount of power you actually need, whether or not you install the panels yourself, and whether or not you need an inverter or additional batteries.To give a ballpark figure, a solar kit (not including battery upgrades or installation costs) will cost an average of:
  • Weekend Getaway: $1,600
  • Extended Boondocking Trip: $3,000
  • Battery Storage: $500+
Determining how long it will take to break even on your investment—or whether you will at all—will require a little math (we know...no one told you there would be math, but bear with us).First, determine how much money you spend without the solar panels. Consider the following:
  • The cost of a generator, if you don't have one.
  • Generator fuel and maintenance - how much do you spend on gas, diesel, or propane during a trip? How often do you have to change the oil? (Keep in mind, even if you install solar panels, you will likely still have to run your generator from time to time.)
  • Campground fees - how much do you spend to use hookups at campsites? How often would you stay at campgrounds with hookups if you had access to solar power?
Next, determine how much money solar power would likely cost you upfront. Consider the cost of the following:
  • Solar panels
  • Batteries, if you want to increase your energy storage capacity
  • Charge controller, if one is not included with your solar panel kit
  • Inverter, if one is not included with your solar panel kit and you want to use AC power
Solar power can save you money in the long run, but it's important to be realistic about your goals and energy needs before you make the investment. Let's look at a few different situations below:
RV Solar Panels

Scenario A: The Boondocker

You love the boondocking lifestyle. You camp for one long weekend each month from March to October, plus three week-long trips in the summer (so about 45 days a year). Your RV came with a gas generator, which you run for about 6 hours a day. We'll take the average U.S. price of gas at the time of writing this article: $2.35. If you use about 3 gallons a day each day that you camp, that's about $317.25 per year in gas, plus a couple of oil changes at around $8 a pop.You spend $2,200 on a solar setup (panels, battery bank, inverter) and have it professionally installed for $1,200, which brings your total investment to $3,400. Assuming you still have to run your generator occasionally on cloudy or rainy days, we'll project about $55 per year for fuel and maintenance.Is solar worth it? There are a lot of reasons to go solar, but if your main motive is financial, solar probably isn't worth the upfront cost in this case. Your initial upfront costs are a hefty $3,455 the first year, and although this cost drops drastically during year two, it will take about 12 years of consistent camping to break even.
RV Solar Panel Costs for Boondockers

Scenario B: The Casual Dry Camper

In our second scenario, let's say you camp 5 weeks out of the year, and you spend at least two days dry camping (aka boondocking) each week (about 10 days total). You already own a generator, which uses an average of .5 gallons per hour, and you run the generator about 5 hours per day when you boondock.This costs you a little less than $60 per year ($58.75), plus at least one oil change for about $8. We'll say you spend $40 per night for campground fees about 25 days per year—so about $1,000 per year. This is a total of about $1,066.75 per year.You would be more willing to stray from comfortable campsites with hookups if you had solar panels to keep your RV juiced up. So you invest $2,200 on a solar setup (panels, battery bank, and inverter) and install it yourself.Instead of spending the majority of your trips at campgrounds with hookups, you now spend most of your time in remote locations under the sun. About twice a week, you spend the night at a campground on the way to your next destination.Is solar worth it? Not only do you gain more freedom to roam, but by dry camping more frequently, you can save a significant amount of money by avoiding pricey campgrounds. In this type of situation, you can expect to recoup your costs in about 4 years.
RV Solar Costs Casual Dry Camper

Scenario C: The Campground Convert

Now let's say you never camp outside of an RV park, and you camp 8 weeks out of the year for $40 per night. That's $2,240 per year.You've been living the RV life for a while, and the last few years you've been dreaming more and more of striking out on your own to set up camp, free from crowded campgrounds. You crave peace and quiet, so living off a generator all the time doesn't appeal to you. So, you bite the bullet and invest $3,600 in a solar setup (panels, battery bank, and inverter). You're going to be spending most of your time boondocking now, so you're okay with investing a bit more in your setup, but you install everything yourself. Is solar worth it? You have to run your generator on the occasional rainy day, but for the most part, you can live off the sun. You'll break even in less than two years and obtain the freedom to go wherever, whenever.
RV Solar Costs Campground Convert

2) Your Location Isn't Solar-Friendly

It's probably obvious that when it comes to solar power, the more sunlight there is, the better. Solar panels can still function on cloudy days, but they generally only operate at 10-25% of their rated efficiency—that's a 75-90% loss. If you camp in a particularly rainy climate like Portland or Seattle, you may want to consider the average number of rainy days you can count on experiencing. Solar power alone may not be enough.Alternately, extremely hot climates can also negatively affect the efficiency of solar panels. This can seem counterintuitive—solar panels harness power from the sun, right?Well, technically, solar panels need the sun's light—not its heat—to work. Solar panels typically start decreasing in efficiency once temperatures reach above 77 degrees Fahrenheit/25 degrees Celsius. Excessive heat can result in a 10-25% loss in efficiency. Not to mention, hot weather makes it more likely that you will need your power-sucking A/C unit, which in turn makes it more likely that you will need your generator for power.All in all, solar panels perform best in moderate, sunny weather. That's not to say that you can't use solar panels in rainy or warm locations. Just be aware that solar panel efficiency is affected by the weather, and this can have a big impact on whether or not solar power is a worthwhile investment.
RV in Stormy Weather

3) You Have Other (Better) Options

Solar power can bring freedom and "green" power to RVing, but unfortunately solar is not as efficient as your other options, including:
  • Shore power
  • Vehicle alternator
  • Generator
Shore power: Do you primarily stay at RV parks with hookups? Or perhaps a better question—would you still use hookups if you had another option? If you're an occasional boondocker who spends a couple of days off the beaten path now and again, you can probably get by without a solar setup. If, however, your lack of a renewable energy source is what's holding you back from the boondocking adventures you long for, it may be worth investing in solar.Vehicle alternator: Another question worth considering is how much time you spend on the road. If driving is a regular part of your camping routine, you might be better off using your alternator and a charger to charge your battery.Generator: A generator is necessary for most boondockers (even the ones that do use solar power). Generators can power A/C units, hair dryers, and other energy-sapping appliances that can be difficult to run on solar. And although generators can be obnoxious, some run more quietly than the normal level of conversation (60 dB). No, this isn't as silent as the sunlight, but it's a lot more efficient.
Gas vs Solar vs Shore

4) You're Brand New to RVing

This isn't to say you have to have a lifetime of RV experience under your belt to use solar power. But as with any significant RV upgrade, there's a lot to consider first. If you're new to the game, spend some time figuring out your camping style and habits so you know what works for you.If you're brand new to RVing, it may take a while before you're comfortable boondocking on your own for days at a time, or you may decide that the whole boondocking life isn't for you. Either way, it's better to know what you're getting into before you make the commitment to solar power.This is also a great time to determine your solar power needs. See how long you can make it on your rig's battery before it drains down to 50% (don't let it drop below 50%—doing so will decrease the life of your battery).Can you make it a day? Two days? Three? Are you prepared to make lifestyle changes when boondocking? How much or little power can you get by with comfortably? Figuring out how much battery capacity you need is crucial in understanding how many solar panels you should purchase, and the best way to figure out what you need is a real-world test.Tip: If you don't already have one in your RV, we recommend investing in a good battery monitoring system to monitor the status of your house battery. It will make your life easier.
RV Camping

4 Reasons to Use Solar Power

Now that we've covered a few reasons solar power might not be for you, let's look at some reasons solar should be your next RV upgrade.
Portable RV Solar Panels

1) You Expect Long-Term Savings

We already went through the math above, so we won't put you through it again here. The bottom line is, if your biggest goal with solar power is financial savings, you'll need to compare the projected cost of your solar setup to the average cost of your current setup (whether that includes generator fuel and maintenance, RV park fees, or both).Solar power is a long-term investment (think years). Of course, the more often you use your solar setup over other power sources, the quicker it will pay for itself. Solar also provides less obvious financial benefits—for instance, by maintaining your battery's charge (both while camping and in storage), which greatly extends the life of your battery, saving you money on replacement costs.
RV Camping with Solar Power

2) You Crave the Freedom of Solar-Powered Camping

Sometimes the decision to go solar is financial, but not always. Solar power can certainly save you money, but it's not the only reason to make the investment. For many RVers, the freedom to set up camp wherever and whenever is priceless. There are countless beautiful remote locations to set up camp, and not all of them come complete with RV hookups. What's more, many camping locations have regulations on generator usage. With solar power, you can camp anywhere with enough sunlight. The more time you plan on spending away from RV park hookups and off the beaten path, the more valuable a solar power system becomes.
RV with Generator

3) You Don't Want to Rely on a Generator

Generators are an efficient source of power for RV boondocking, but that doesn't mean they're without drawbacks. Generators can be noisy, they emit fumes, and their use is controlled by the regulations of the location you camp in. Maybe you want to decrease your environmental footprint, maybe you crave peace and quiet, or maybe you just like the idea of charging up on your own terms, regardless of where you're camping. These are all great reasons to go for solar power.However, you should note that even with solar power, it's unlikely you'll be able to eliminate the need for a generator completely. Certain items like A/C units, some hair dryers, and other appliances that require significant power to run will likely still need a power boost. However, with solar power you can drastically reduce your dependence on your generator.
RV Battery Box with Solar

4) You Want to Increase Your Battery's Lifespan

RV battery lifespan varies by battery type and owner usage, though most last around 5-7 years on average. The worst thing you can do is let your battery drop below a 50% charge; doing so can diminish your battery's lifespan. On the other hand, solar power helps keep your batteries charged and healthy, which greatly extends the life of your battery. The best part is you can sit back and let the sun do the work, charging your battery and sparing you potential replacement costs in the process.Just make sure to keep your panels clean and clear of dirt, snow, etc., especially during storage. Sunlight can't reach the panels through four inches of snow!
Curious how much solar power you'll actually need? Check out our article here.Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S.Updated on: 1/10/19

Eddie W.

8/11/2022

I never camp in a pay campground. To many people, I go camping to get away from them. For $XXX.XX and a little time, effort I put in my one system, dam well worth it. Batters are always up and good to go.

Ivan C.

7/4/2022

I would like to see a power cell comparison. I don't want to mess with solar and the rig batteries allow us to boon dock for several days. But a little TV or occasionally microwave use would be nice. If we need A/C we can find a place with power.

David B.

7/5/2022

Hands down lithium is going to be your best bet for batteries. Don't let the price tag scare you, they last longer and you get 100% out of them. You can only drain an AGM or lead acid down to 50% before they need to be recharged.

Papa T.

5/18/2022

A real solar setup to run AC and all the other stuff that setup will cost between $10,000 to $15,000

David B.

5/18/2022

Yup, we have a video talking about the cost of a set up strong enough to run an AC and such. Check it out link is below.

Clarence P.

5/5/2021

you will need a at least a 3500 watt generator to start your ac unit..

Chris H.

4/18/2021

We love to boondock but rarely have the opportunity to do it in most of the places we travel. Therefore we are tied to hitting a campground on a regular basis. Batteries will take us a couple days with no problem and a little generator use for necessary high current needs works fine as long as we get a hook up every 3 to 4 days.



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