Are Motorhome Solar Panels Worth It?

Normally you would power up your motorhome through either an RV park with hookups or your own generator. This can become a significant consideration motorhome owners have to make when deciding to buy one or when they’re planning a trip. As a result, many motorhome owners are starting to use solar panels to power their motorhomes because of the provided convenience and the reduced long-term cost.

The worth of using solar panels will come down to the specifics of a situation, especially when it comes to a motorhome’s power consumption. In general, solar panels are definitely worth the investment, especially for long-term use.

Solar panels provide a lot more value if you plan to use your motorhome for a significant amount of time, and more people are starting to recommend them due to the general decline in operating costs. The rest of this article will explain more details about what makes solar panels valuable for motorhomes.

What Are The Pros And Cons Of Using Solar Panels?

We should first talk about the various pros and cons that come with using solar panels on your motorhomes, and there are a lot of factors that will change for each person. We will keep it simple and highlight some of the major benefits and drawbacks of using solar panels on motorhomes.

The biggest benefit is the fact that solar panels will allow you to collect energy practically wherever you go, and it grants a sense of freedom. However, the biggest drawback is that it takes a lot of initial investment and commitment for it to pay off.

For some, the newfound sense of freedom that comes with solar panels is definitely worth the investment, while others may not see it that way. And the thing is, if you decide to buy solar panels in order to save money, you will definitely spend less on energy, but not for a while.

The solar panels will progressively pay for themselves over time, so you really need to be committed. But once you have solar panels, it becomes a very reliable source of energy for your motorhome.

Even so, many people may not be willing to pay the heavy initial cost to buy and set up solar panels. On top of that, they’re pretty complicated to deal with in many cases, so it would also take a lot of time and energy to set them up properly. It boils down to how committed you’re willing to be in order for solar panels to become valuable to you eventually.

What Type of Solar Panels Do You Need?

The main question you probably have right now is what kinds of solar panels are out there that you can use for a motorhome. This is a good starting point to work on because by knowing what kind of options you have, you can then get an idea of what will work best for you once you also evaluate your situation.

There are three main types of solar panels that you can use for your motorhome:

  • Monocrystalline panels
  • Polycrystalline panels
  • Amorphous panels

The main options people choose between are either the monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels, and that’s mainly because amorphous panels are very different from the previous two types. A lot of experts have many discussions over which type is the best to use in most cases, but the average consumer wouldn’t need to worry over the minute technical differences.

Monocrystalline Panels

Monocrystalline panels are considered the most efficient panels, and so a lot of people recommend that you use monocrystalline panels. They maximize your energy production, and they typically take up less space, but they are also usually more expensive.

There are also two different types of monocrystalline panels that you can use: 

  • Conventional 
  • Back-contact

Conventional panels are the ones that have the wires on the front, while back-contact panels have black squares. Many people choose to use back-contact panels because they’re generally more efficient and have a smaller environmental footprint, but they’re also more expensive.

Polycrystalline Panels

Polycrystalline panels are very similar to monocrystalline panels. They share many similar qualities, such as durability. However, polycrystalline panels are usually less expensive, but they also take up more space. You can’t really go wrong with choosing either option; even though monocrystalline panels are technically more efficient, the difference won’t matter for many. What will matter more is the situation for your actual motorhome and power usage.

Amorphous Panels

As we mentioned before, amorphous panels are very different from the other two types of panels, and not many people consider using these kinds of panels for their motorhomes. That’s mainly because they’re much less efficient, larger, and they’re also much more expensive. However, they’re also a lot more durable, and they’re better suited for different types of weather when compared to the other two panel types.

Factors to Consider When Deciding

You now have a general idea of the main types of solar panels used for motorhomes, but there are many other aspects behind them that some people forget to consider and factor into their decisions. We mentioned some of these factors when we discussed the different types of solar panels, but it’s worth emphasizing them because they can really make a difference for some people.

Now everyone is inherently going to evaluate the cost and efficiency of the panels; that shouldn’t come as surprising. But people sometimes forget to think about the spacing and size of the panels themselves. If you’re going to mount your solar panels on your roof, you need to think about the size and shape of the panels so that you can plan their orientation beforehand.

You might also have to consider the size vs. power efficiency for different types of panels.

People also forget to think about the weather and environment where their solar panels will be used. Motorhomes are great because they give you a sense of freedom, but if you want to make the most out of your solar panels, you really need to think about where you’re going. Different types of weather, especially shading, can really affect how your solar panels will operate. 

When you’re evaluating what kind of solar panels you want to use for your motorhome, you want to consider how much you’re willing to invest initially and consider how the panels are going to be used. Everyone’s situation is different, so it’s hard to give a definitive answer, but knowing the main types of solar panels will help you evaluate which ones you can consider using.

Do You Need Special Solar Panels For Motorhomes?

The solar panels that we’ve just discussed can be fitted to be used for motorhomes, and beyond that, there aren’t any specialized types of solar panels that you would need for a motorhome. However, there are variations to the different types of panels that allow them to be used in different situations.

There are two main variations when it comes to solar panels for motorhomes. Those differences are whether a solar panel is rigid or flexible and whether a solar panel is fixed or portable. Each of these variations has its own pros and cons, and we’ll further discuss them in this section.

It’s hard to imagine solar panels as flexible, but there are actually versions of solar panels that can bend and be put in non-conventional orientations. Now, they’re not going to be as foldable as paper, but they’re foldable enough so that the motorhome owner can put them in certain orientations that require them to bend to some degree.

Rigid Solar Panels

First, let’s talk about the more common type of solar panel: a rigid solar panel has its solar cells mounted under tempered glass, and it’s then placed on an aluminum body. Part of what makes rigid panels so great and why they’re often used is the fact that they come in a wide variety of sizes, so you can get panels that fit your needs.

In addition to their variety, a strong benefit of rigid solar panels is their durability. They’re designed to be used extensively outside, which means they can handle many weather elements such as hail, sand, and wind. The tempered glass is also scratch-resistant, which helps strengthen its light-capturing capability for a long time. Due to their durability, rigid solar panels can easily be maintained for a while, such as cleaning them in cold weather.

Lastly, and probably the most important factor, because these solar panels are rigid, you can aim them at the sun pretty easily. This can also make them easier to set up and move around in most situations. On top of all these factors, rigid solar panels are also more cost-efficient per watt, and they usually come with a warranty.

So it should be clear why rigid solar panels are so popular, so why do some people choose to use flexible solar panels?

Flexible Solar Panels

The biggest appeal to flexible solar panels is the fact that because they can bend, you can orient them in certain ways that would work better for you. Now the value of this feature will heavily depend on the individual. In most cases, a flexible solar panel can only bend up to 30 degrees, so you should really have an idea of how you’re going to use a flexible solar panel if you plan to get one.

Flexible solar panels are also typically lighter, so they’re easier to handle.

In many cases, people will use flexible solar panels to keep a low profile. Some people do this to simply be less conspicuous and/or they want a certain level of privacy; whatever your reason, flexible solar panels can be used so that they aren’t as easily detectable as rigid solar panels.

Why Flexible is Seldom Used

Outside of those reasons, flexible solar panels are rarely used because of the various cons that are associated with them. Flexible solar panels are flat cells that are created with plastic protecting them from the top without the use of a frame. This design allows them to be bendable and light, but it also makes them much less durable, and the plastic makes them very prone to scratches. 

Their bendable nature does protect from cracks due to large impact, but the issue is you can’t bend them too hard or too often, or else you’ll damage the panel’s internal components. Flexible solar panel technology is advancing, but it is unlikely that they will ever be as sturdy or durable as rigid solar panels. In short, flexible solar panels just have a shorter overall lifespan.

The next set of variations have a relationship similar to rigid vs. flexible solar panels. Still, these variations are related to how the solar panels are going to be set up. These variations are whether the solar panel is fixed or portable, and what that means is the solar panel is designed to be attached to the motorhome permanently or semi-permanently, or the solar panel is designed to be set up after you’ve parked your motorhome.

Fixed Solar Panels

Fixed solar panels are the most common type of solar panels used on motorhomes, and they’re normally placed on top of the roof. They’re usually permanently in place, but there are some models where you can take them off and remove them with some required work. Also, some fixed solar panels have tilt mounts where you can adjust the solar panel angle to get the most sunlight possible.

One big aspect that you have to keep in mind when using any type of solar panel, in general, is that they operate best when they are cool. That means if you plan to mount your panels on your roof, you want to leave a gap between the panels and roof so that you can allow airflow for cooling. 

This is also why rigid and fixed solar panels are considered the best type of solar panel because there is some spacing between the cells and the frame in a rigid solar panel. This will help ensure that your solar panels stay cool as best as they can. That, combined with some spacing on the roof, will definitely help your solar panel durability in the long run.

Now let’s talk about its various benefits:

  • As long as your solar panel is exposed to sunlight, it’s always collecting energy no matter where you are.
  • Because they’re placed outside, they don’t take up any space inside in your living space, and they’re a lot harder to steal.
  • They also act as partial shading for your motorhome, which can reduce heating.

As for its drawbacks:

  • Without a tilt mount, it can be very hard to mount your solar panels, ensuring you get the most sunlight possible.
  • They require more effort and planning to install.
  • It raises your roofline and your level of conspicuousness.
  • It limits what you can do for your roof.
  • Even though you have the potential always to collect energy, you need to have your motorhome exposed to sunlight.

Portable Solar Panels

Portable solar panels are small independent units or solar briefcases where you store them inside and pull them out once you’ve parked. They aren’t meant to power your motorhome directly; they’re meant more for small, quick, accessible power that you can use to power small devices such as phones and laptops.

They can definitely be used in tandem with your motorhome, but you don’t really see portable solar panels being used to actively charge a motorhome.

Its benefits include:

  • It’s easier and less costly for those who don’t have the time, money, or energy to deal with installing fixed solar panels.
  • You can freely position them so that they can get the best sunlight exposure as possible whenever you set them up.
  • You can place them in the sunlight while your motorhome is parked in the shade.

And finally, its drawbacks include:

  • You manually need to set them up each time you want to use them.
  • You have to store them inside your motorhome, which takes up space.
  • They can’t continuously keep collecting energy unless you set them up, meaning you can’t just leave them while you do things as you could if you had them mounted on your roof.

Are There Certain Sizes or Requirements to Meet?

There aren’t any set standards or regulations that you need to follow when you use solar panels for your motorhome because it’s for your private use. However, there are certain strong recommendations that you should listen to when it comes to what kind of solar panels you should use that will depend on your power consumption.

When deciding what kind of solar panels you want to use, you need to perform an initial power consumption analysis for your motorhome to understand how much power and for how long you’ll use it. This will help determine what kind of solar panels you should get, and it should give you an idea of how many you should use.

How to Decide Which Method to Use

There are two ways of performing the power consumption check. The most common method is performing the test using some sort of tool or calculator. This is much more common because it’s much easier and doesn’t require much work from you. The other way is to manually calculate the power consumption yourself by checking the power information from all the devices you use. This would obviously take more time and effort to do so.

All that you’re trying to do is get an idea of how much total power you consume, telling you what kind/how many solar panels you need. If you’re using a calculator either online or provided by another source, you simply input your different devices and their power information if needed. The program should then perform the calculation, and it would tell the information you need.

Another way you can perform a power consumption check is through a kilowatt meter. This tool will read and measure your motorhome’s power consumption, and some can even send the information to your phone via Bluetooth. There are other less expensive meters that you can use to measure the power consumption for a single device, and then all you would have to do is record each of your devices.

How to Perform a Manual Calculation

Finally, if you can’t perform a power consumption check with a tool or program, you can always manually calculate your total power consumption. What you need to do is figure out the total Amp-hours or Watts that you use during a normal and/or extended time period. This information should then help you decide what kind of solar panels you should get.

Here are the basic steps to performing a power consumption check manually for a single device that will give you the daily Amp-hours:

  • Get the watts rating for that device.
  • Multiply that number by the number of hours it’s used in a day.
  • Divide that number by 12 Volts DC, which gives you the Amp-hours for that device in a day.

In order to figure out your total power consumption, you would need to do this for every device in your motorhome, which can take a long time depending on how many devices you have.

Wiring Recommendations

Now we’re going to talk about when you’re actually installing your solar panels. Like we discussed before, there are no set rules that you have to follow when you set up your panels; you can set them up however you would like to, but there are strong recommendations that you should follow. In this case, we’re going to talk about how you should wire your solar panels. 

We’re not going to talk about the procedure behind installing your solar panel, but when you’re actually wiring your setup once you’ve already determined how your setup is going to look. Wiring your solar panels correctly is important because it will affect their power efficiency. When you wire your solar panels, you can wire them in parallel or series configuration.

Series Wiring

When you wire your solar panels in series, you connect the supply wire of one panel to the supply connection, and then you connect all of the rest of the wires of the panels in sequence, with the final wire being connected to the ground connection. You can think of it as forming a chain where the entire line won’t connect to anything if one link is broken.

The biggest reason why people would choose series wiring over parallel wiring is that series wiring is a lot simpler and more affordable. In addition, you don’t need any fuses to wire in series because there are only two end connections: the supply and ground. Also, this system increases the voltage instead of the amperage, so your system is more efficient as a whole.

Parallel Wiring

You can think of parallel wiring as the inverse of series wiring: when you wire your solar panels in parallel, you connect each supply and ground wire from the panel to the supply and ground connection at the end. In this case, you would need fuses, one extra connection for each extra panel that you use. Additionally, if one connection on a panel is broken, it doesn’t affect the other panels; they are connected independently in a way.

One big reason why people would do parallel wiring is that many Pulse Width Modulation Controllers need to use parallel wiring, and they’re less efficient as a result. Parallel solar panels, in general, need bigger wires, fuses, and combiners, and it increases the amperage instead of the voltage. 

Which Wiring Method is Better?

You may conclude that series wiring is simply better, and that’s true in most cases, but the effectiveness of each wiring system can change depending on the weather you’re in, more importantly, the shading that affects you. This is based on the relationship of the panels for each wiring system. In a series chain, if one link is broken, the entire chain is broken. In a parallel chain, if one link is broken, it doesn’t affect the other links.

But, each system has another quality that balances its effectiveness. You can get a much higher output in a series chain because it’s linearly dependent on the number of chains you have. If you have five links, you have five times the power, and so on. In a parallel chain, however, the power doesn’t change regardless of how many links you have; you always have the power of one link. 

To simplify this concept, a series wiring is basically an “all or nothing” system. In contrast, parallel wiring is a “constantly average” system, and that’s essentially how it works for solar panels, although much less drastic. So if all of your panels are exposed to sunlight directly, it would be more beneficial to have a series wiring. But, if your panels are partially shaded, depending on how much is shaded, it might be better to have a parallel wiring system.

Changing the wiring for your panels is not easy to do on the fly, so you should do your best to analyze what kind of weather and sunlight you’re going to be exposed to and decide which kind of wiring would work best for you.

How Much Do Solar Panels For Motorhomes Cost?

Here are some solar panel products, roughly one for each major type of solar panel that we’ve discussed to give you an idea of pricing.

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