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Does Solar Panel Type Really Matter?

Monocrystalline. Polycrystalline. Fixed. Portable. Which type do you need, and does it really matter?The short answer? Yes. At least, it will probably matter to you. Choosing a solar panel essentially comes down to four things: efficiency, looks, convenience, and price. Read on to discover the differences between the most popular panel options and determine which type is right for you.
Shop Solar Power or read on to discover the difference between:
  • Monocrystalline, Polycrystalline, & Amorphous Solar Panels
  • Fixed & Portable Solar Panels
  • Flat & Flexible Solar Panels
RV Solar Panel Types

Monocrystalline vs. Polycrystalline vs. Amorphous Solar Panels: What's the Difference?

The difference between solar panel types is in their composition. They also differ in size, efficiency, and cost.
Monocrystalline Solar Panel

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

Pros: Monocrystalline panels are made with single-crystal silicon, which makes them the most efficient panel for their compact size. These panels typically have a decades-long lifespan (a 25-year warranty is common). They are often selected by RVers for their unobtrusive size and aesthetically pleasing black glass. Cons: Their many benefits come with a higher price tag.
Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Pros: Like monocrystalline, polycrystalline boasts a long lifespan and usually comes bundled with a 25-year warranty. Polycrystalline panels are somewhat less efficient than monocrystalline panels (think 13-16% efficiency rather than 15-20%), but not by much, and for the slight decrease in efficiency, you can save a considerable amount of money.Cons: If you care about aesthetics, it's worth noting that these panels generally have a blue hue, rather than sleek black. But the main drawback of polycrystalline panels is that they're generally larger than their monocrystalline counterparts and are not as efficient due to the fact that they are composed of multiple silicon pieces. What this means is that polycrystalline panels will take up more space to produce the same amount of energy. However, for the price, it's often beneficial to take the slight energy hit and go with the more economical choice.
Amorphous Thin Film Solar Panels

Amorphous (Thin Film) Solar Panels

Pros: The biggest draw of amorphous panels is the cost—these panels are the most economical option in most cases. They are made by depositing a thin layer of silicon or other photovoltaic substance on a panel surface (this is the same technology used in solar-powered calculators). This construction method contributes to a lighter weight and greater flexibility. Amorphous panels also tend to function better than crystalline panels in partial shade and hot conditions.Cons: Amorphous panels require twice the amount of space as their crystalline counterparts to produce the same amount of energy. And when it comes to your RV or camper roof, space is always a consideration. Amorphous panels are also not as durable as crystalline panels, so their warranties are typically much shorter (typically by half or more).
Comparing Solar Panel Types Chart

Our Recommendation: Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Polycrystalline panels are the "goldilocks" option—smaller and more efficient than amorphous panels, yet more cost-effective than monocrystalline panels. There's a small trade off in terms of efficiency, but the difference is small enough that it's usually not worth being concerned over unless you want to maximize the efficiency of your roof space.

Fixed vs. Portable Solar Panels: Which Do I Need?

Trying to decide between a fixed (roof-mounted) system and a portable system? There are benefits and drawbacks to each. The choice mainly comes down to how you plan to use your panels and how much setup you are prepared to do each time you camp.

Fixed Solar Panels

Pros: The great thing about fixed panels—they're permanent. Install them on your roof, and you never have to worry about setting up when you reach a new campsite. Your panels will even work to keep your battery charged in storage. Plus, if you have to leave the campsite, you don't have to worry about your panels sprouting legs and running off.Cons: The bad thing about fixed panels—they're permanent. Flat fixed panel installations usually mean putting holes in your roof. Fixed panels are also much harder to tilt as the sun moves (be prepared to climb on top of your RV several times a day), and if you park in the shade, they won't work as effectively.

Portable Solar Panels

Pros: With portable panels, you're not limited to parking in the blazing sun. You can enjoy the refreshing shade while your panels soak up those rays, and you can easily adjust the panels in order to constantly achieve the best angle throughout the day. If you don't like the idea of modifying your trailer, portable panels are a great choice.Cons: The main downside of portable panels is that they must be packed up, moved, stored, and set up again whenever you change locations. They don't have the hassle-free benefit of fixed panels, and you may even find they get in your way at the campsite. Unlike fixed panels, portable panels can't be used to charge your battery in storage. There is also a security risk with these panels—since the panels aren't bolted to your roof, it's often worth storing them inside the RV when you leave the campsite to protect against potential theft.
Fixed vs Portable Solar Panel Infographic
Our Recommendation: It DependsWhat's the most important solar goal for you? Want to install your panels and forget about them? Go with the fixed option. Do you want to park in the shade but still reap the benefits of solar? Portable will be your best option.If you really can't decide, you can always go with a combined approach—stick the fixed panels to your roof for hassle-free energy (even in storage), and purchase a portable panel for when you want to park in the shade.

Traditional Flat vs Flexible Solar Panels

Flat Solar Panels

Pros: Standard flat panels, also known as traditional or rigid panels, are more efficient than their flexible counterparts. They typically sit a few inches off the RV's roof, allowing for airflow and preventing overheating (which can cause a drop in efficiency). Flat panels are more economical, they can be tilted at an angle as necessary, and they have the potential to last decades (most come with warranties of 20+ years). Flat panels are also typically more economical.Cons: Flat panels are considerably heavier than flexible panels, which makes them difficult to move or mount on a rooftop. Then there's the installation itself, which generally involves putting holes in your roof. Aside from these considerations, flat panels also simply don't offer the same aesthetic value on curved RV rooftops.

Flexible Solar Panels

Pros: Flexible panels are thin, lightweight, and aerodynamic—just what you want for a moving vehicle that can bear a limited amount of weight. Flexible panels sit flush against the rooftop, which makes them the more aesthetically pleasing choice for curved RV roofs. Flexible panels can often be attached to the roof via adhesives, rather than screws, so they are a good option if you don't like the idea of holes in your roof.Cons: Flexible panels are less efficient than flat panels, though they usually cost more. Because they sit flush against their mounting surface, they don't allow for that beneficial airflow beneath the panels, and they can't be adjusted to acheive the best angle. Flexible panels are also less durable and scratch easier (hello, low-hanging tree branches). Because of this, flexible panels have shorter lifespans and warranties (compare this 5-year flexible panel warranty to this 25-year flat panel warranty.)
Flat vs. Flexible Solar Panel Infographic

Our Recommendation: Flat Panels

Flexible solar technology is sure to advance in the coming years. But until then, unless you have a good reason to go for the flexible style (such as RV weight restrictions), flat panels will get you more bang for your buck.
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Related ArticlesRelated ProductsWritten by: Amber S.Updated on: 2/8/19

Mike M.

7/26/2021

I have a travel trailer with a pre-wired for solar roof. Do I need a controller as well? If so, how do I find out where to tap into the existing wiring to install it? 2021 Rockwood Minilite 2104S

Etrailer Expert

Victoria B.

7/30/2021

From what we've seen, when a camper is wired for solar they typically already have a controller wired in. It should look something like the Go Power Controller # 34280503. This controller may be mounted somewhere obvious in your camper, but it could also be tucked in a storage compartment or inside a cabinet in the trailer. Being pre-wired for solar means there should be a plug or a port, similar to the Go Power Entry Plate # 34273841REVA, somewhere on the roof. I couldn't find anything definitive online about your 2021 Mini Lite, so if you can't seem to find a controller or a brand that the camper is wired for it may take a call to Rockwood to learn a little more about the system that came with your camper.


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