When building DIY camper vans, we all have to ask ourselves whether or not we want to install solar panels on our vehicle’s roof. Is adding solar panels worth the effort for a van conversion?
From charging your batteries, to saving you money, to added insulation, we give eight reasons why installing solar panels is an important step for van life.
So if you’re ready, let’s get to it!
Confused where to start with DIY solar? Check out our comprehensive camper van solar system guide to start from the very beginning.
1. Only Way To Charge Batteries When Boondocking
Recharging your batteries from solar is incredibly important if you plan to boondock for any extended period of time. If you’re only camping for a day or two, then it’s not a problem. Your batteries should be able to supply all the power you need (assuming you correctly calculated your battery bank size).
But if you intend to stay out in nature for longer, your batteries will run out of charge. But when boondocking, you won’t have access to shower power and since you’re not driving, you can utilize your DC-DC charge to charge your camper batteries.
So unless you bring a loud and bulky generator with you, solar power is the only realistic way to keep your batteries charged while camping out in nature.
2. Charging Batteries While Driving Isn’t Always Enough
Being able to charge your camper batteries while driving (with a DC-DC charger) is an important feature for any camper electric system. But there are limitations. It’s not as if you can simply recharge your camper batteries back to full on only a quick 30-minute drive.
Victron’s larger DC-DC charger only outputs 360 Watt-hours (30A). So if you have a completely dead 100Ah battery, you’ll need to drive almost 4 hours to charge the battery back to full.
Even on days where we use minimal power, we would still need to drive over an hour EVERY DAY just to reclaim all the power we used the day before.
And what if you don’t drive every day? Then your batteries lose even more charge and you’ll need to drive even more the day after just to catch up.
3. Solar Power Brings Peace Of Mind To Van Life
When parked without solar, your batteries are always draining, never replenishing. And that fact is a burden on your mind and gets stressful over time.
You’re always thinking about what state-of-charge (SOC) your batteries are at, whether or not you’re using too much power, and if you’re able to get back to full charge during the next drive.
But if you have enough solar power, it’s a liberating thought to know that as long as you have decent sunshine, your batteries are charging all day long. And that’s one less thing to worry about during your van life journey.
4. Installing A Solar System Isn't Expensive
Contrary to popular belief, adding a solar system to your camper van conversion doesn’t have to be expensive. You can get started right away with a simple 100W panel, basic charge controller, and a few feet of wire.
You DO NOT need to build a fancy and complicated solar array system costing thousands of dollars.
In fact, for only $450 you can build a basic camper electrical system with solar.
Even better, check out our FREE custom solar diagrams eBook. In this PDF we detail four different solar diagrams at four different price points.
5. Save Money At Paid Campgrounds
Many paid campgrounds offer a wide variety of options for vehicles. But the cheapest option is simply paying to park your camper without hooking up to any shower power and/or water.
And if you have solar panels, you aren’t dependent on paying for an electric site at a campground. You can opt for just a plain, no-frills camp spot. This can oftentimes save you as much as $10-$20 per night.
Stay at campgrounds for enough days and the savings you accumulate will quickly offset the cost of your solar system.
6. Helps Insulate Inside Of Van
Although not a primary reason to install solar panels on your DIY camper, but mounting solar panels on your van’s roof helps to provide shade on top of your vehicle, keeping your van’s interior cooler during the day.
Of course, the utility of this depends on what percent of your van’s roof is covered with solar panels. That’s why good solar panel roof layout planning is a smart idea. In our case, our 2x180W solar panels cover roughly 50% of the flat area on our Ford Transit’s roof.
7. Solar Panels Doesn’t Substantially Reduce Your Stealth Factor
We’ve seen people who are hesitant to install solar panels on their camper vans because they’re worried that this installation will make their campers stand out and become more obvious to the public.
That’s a bunch of baloney.
The #1 reason why putting solar panels on your camper’s roof doesn’t reduce your stealth factor is because your camper van probably isn’t very stealthy to begin with.
Do you already have a vent fan? Or rear windows? Or an out-of-state license plate? These are all dead giveaways that your vehicle was made for sleeping inside. Adding a few low-profile solar panels isn’t going to change anything.
In fact, we believe building a stealth camper is a terrible idea.
Building a camper van? Download our free e-Books with intuitive electrical, solar, and plumbing diagrams.
8. Be Part Of The Renewable Energy Movement
It is a fantastic feeling knowing that you are getting your power from renewable energy and are no longer reliant on coal and natural gas to supply your electricity.
Solar power is becoming more mainstream every year. Join the movement and contribute to the renewable energy community.