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Go Off-Grid! Camper Van Solar System Guide For Beginners

...And Stay Off-Grid! Sizing your system, product recs, & setup diagrams.
Learn the basics of van solar system here.

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Go-Off-Grid!-Camper-Van-Solar-System-Guide-For-Beginners

Whether you’re a total beginner or simply want to learn more about solar panels and systems, this solar system guide for camper vans is for you!

Integrating your van’s electric system with solar panels is a great way to become energy independent and enjoy traveling off-grid.

That’s why we think putting in a robust solar system in your camper van conversion is 100% the right decision for most people dreaming of their own van life adventure. But before rushing to purchase any random solar system kit, it’s important to understand the basic of solar system, especially when it relates to mobile living.

Consider this article your “Camper Van Solar Panel 101” course.

This post is PART 1 of our 7-part DIY Solar Build Series. Check below to view the entire series.

Is A Camper Van Solar System Necessary?

This is a common question we hear and one that we even asked ourselves when we first planned our DIY van conversion.

“Do I REALLY need solar panels for my camper van?”

In most cases…YES! We believe that installing a solar system in your camper van is a great way to bring clean and consistent electricity into your camper van.

Here’s why.

1. Get Off-Grid

Love boondocking? With solar panels on your van you’ll be able to recharge your batteries while out in nature, allowing you to keep doing what you love to do for longer.

2. Save Money

RV parks with electric hook-ups can cost <u>at least</u> $30/night. Having solar panels on our van conversion allows us to skip these expensive RV parks and save a substantial sum of money over time.

3. Survive The Zombie Apocalypse

When all traditional power plants have been abandoned, imagine dominating the post-apocalyptic world from your solar powered command center. Very cool.

Solar Panel Options For Camper Vans

Solar panels for camper vans and RVs come in different constructions. And each type has their advantages and disadvantages, especially when pertaining to camper van life.

Here we discuss the pros & cons of three popular solar panel types.

1. Rigid Solar Panels

180 watt Rigid Solar Panel For Camper Vans
Newpowa 180-watt Rigid Solar Panel

Rigid solar panels get their name because the solar cells are contained within a rigid aluminum frame and mounted under tempered glass. When you’re outside and you see solar panels mounted on buildings, these are typically rigid solar panels.

Pros

Cons

Recommended Rigid Panels

Renogy 100-Watts

Newpowa 180-Watts

All-In-One Solar System Kits

Solar Panels For Camper Vans - 200-watt Renogy Solar System Kit
Renogy 200-watt "All-In-One" Solar System Kit

Putting together your own camper van solar system, piece by piece, is a rewarding process and allows you to get exactly what you want out of your system. But for those with neither the time, budget, nor the inclination, convenient solar system kits allow you to get everything you need in just a single purchase.

These all-in-one solar system kits often include:

  • Solar Panels
  • Solar Charge Controller
  • Mounting Brackets
  • Appropriate Cables

If you’re based in the USA, we recommend Renogy’s solar all-in-one kits. Convenient, great quality, and solid customer service.

2. Flexible Solar Panels

As their name suggests, flexible solar panels are…flexible! This means that these conveniently thin panels can bend and warp to better contour to their mounting surface.

Pros

Cons

Recommended Flexible Panel

In our experience, roughly 25% of all the camper vans we’ve seen use flexible solar panels. We prefer rigid solar panels for our camper van, but understand that every body’s situation is different.

If we had to go with a flexible panel, we would purchase the one below.

100-Watt Renogy Panel

Solar Panels For Camper Vans - Flexible Solar Panels
Renoy 100-Watt Flexible Solar Panel

3. Suitcase Panels

Solar Panels For Campervans - Solar Panel Suitcase
Portable Solar Panel Suitcase

If fixing solar panels on your camper van roof does not appeal to you, solar panel suitcases can be a great alternative. When needed, these solar panels can be taken out, placed on the ground and set up in the sun. And when you’re ready to hit the road, simply fold panels up and conveniently store them inside your van.

No installation necessary.

Pros

Cons

In our 2+ years living in our camper van, we’ve come across a total of three vans that utilize solar panel suitcases to charge their batteries. Though they acknowledge the inconveniences of these types of solar panels, they also appreciate the stealth aspect of their panels.

Check below for the best suitcase solar panels on Amazon.

How To Size A Solar System For Your Van

Campervan Build Guide - Solar Panels For Camper Vans
Our Van's Roof: 2x175 watt solar panels

“How many watts of solar panels do I need? 100 watts? 200 watts?…Or more?”

In order to properly size your van’s solar array, you’ll need to complete these next two steps:

Step 1: Calculate Battery Bank Size First

When calculating the proper size of your van’s solar array, it’s important to:

  1. Estimate your daily energy usage,
  2. Calculate battery bank size based on your daily energy usage,
  3. Calculate solar array size based on battery bank size.

So if you haven’t already, we suggest reading our post on how to size your van’s battery bank first.

With a properly sized battery bank, calculating your solar array size is relatively simple.

Step 2: Calculate Solar Array Size From Battery Bank Size

Assuming you properly calculated your battery bank size from Step 1, you can now size your solar array based on the type of battery chemistry you have:

Example 1: If you have 200Ah of lithium batteries, you would want at least 200 watts of solar panels.

Example 2: If you have 300Ah of lead acid (or AGM) batteries, you would want at least 150 watts of solar panels.

Our solar array setup In our case, we have 300Ah of lithium batteries and 350 watts of solar panels on our roof.

Sizing your van’s solar array using this calculation should ensure that your power intake from your solar panels will meet your daily energy consumption, whether you’re parked in sunny weather or under the occasional shade place.

Adding Additional Solar Array Wattage Is Encouraged

Shade and cloudy days have a detrimental effect on a solar array’s ability to generate electricity. Even if a solar array is only 10% shaded, electricity production from a solar array can drop by over 50%.

For more, Unbound Solar has a short, informative post on the effects of shade on solar panels.

“But what does this mean for me?”

Because even a small amount of shade has an oversized effect on solar power production, we encourage  you to add additional wattage to your solar array if you have additional available space on your van’s roof.

Having a larger solar array system allows you to better weather extended periods of time when parked in shaded areas.

This includes:

  • Camping directly under a thick canopy of trees,
  • Traveling during rainy and/or winter seasons,
  • Parked during extended cloudy days.

Daily Solar Production Varies Greatly

Due to shade’s outsized effect on solar energy production, total daily electricity production from a solar array varies widely from day-to-day.

Daily Solar Power Production From A Camper Van
Figure 1: Our Solar Power Intake Data

In the above graph, we show our daily solar power intake over 19 days. You can see that our daily intake can vary wildly depending on where we park.

Though we tend to average about 650 watt-hours per day, in reality, we can produce as much as 1.4 KWh and as little as 150Wh per day. Each day is different.

Therefore, if your budget allows, we really recommend overestimating your solar panel needs. Even an extra 100 watt panel can make a huge difference in the solar sustainability of your camper van electrical system.

How Did We Measure Our Daily Solar Production?

Wondering how we managed to collect our solar data in our graph above?

We use a Victron MPPT Solar Charge Controller. Unlike most other charge controllers, this particular unit is Bluetooth enabled and pairs with the Victron smartphone app.

Victron Solar Charge Controller

Series or Parallel? Which Is Best?

Three Solar Panels Connected In Series, Not Parallel
Three Solar Panels Connected In Parallel, Not Series

Once you get your solar panels, you’ll ultimately have to decide which type of connection you want to wire your panels together.

Series or parallel.

Each connection type has their pros and cons.

To learn more about each connection type, check our our post: Series vs Parallel: Which is best for your van?

How To Fuse A Solar Array

Fuses are a vital component to any electrical system. They prevent short circuits and other electrical anomalies from turning into dangerous fires. Fuses also help to prevent further damage to other downstream electrical devices.

So it’s no surprise that fuses also exist for solar array systems.

To learn about how fuses work in solar arrays and IF your array needs to be fused, head over to our post: fuse guidelines for camper van solar arrays.

Recommended Solar System Accessories

Solar Charge Controller

A solar charge controller is an essential piece to your DIY solar system build.

Solar charge controllers control the amount of power (voltage & amps) that is put into your batteries. When a battery is charging and gets close to 100%, a solar charge controller reduces the power being sent to the batteries. Without a charge controller, you risk over charging and damaging your batteries.

A Useful Analogy: A charge controller is like your brain when you’re eating. When you’re full, your brain tells you to stop eating. Overeating can have serious bodily consequences, no? 🙂

Learn more: What Does A Solar Charge Controller Do And Why You 100% Need One

We love our Victron 100/30 charge controller. It comes Bluetooth enabled so we can view all our solar stats on our smartphone with the Victron App, which makes staying on top of our solar energy situation much more convenient.

The charge controller model you need depends on the size (wattage) of your solar array.

Victron 75V/15A

0 - 220 Watts

Victron 100V/30A

220 - 440 Watts

Victron 100V/50A

440 - 700 Watts

Wires & Accessories

A few other accessories will be required for your solar installation build. We list the most important ones below.

10 Gauge Wire

Popular size wire for solar panel connections. Marine-grade to withstand outside elements.

Entry Gland

Protects the wires as they enter the inside of the campervan. Also helps to prevent leaks.

Branch Connectors

Important when connecting multiple panels together in parallel.

MC4 Connectors

You’ll need plenty of these to complete your solar installation.

10amp Fuse

Protects downstream devices from unexpected surges from your panels.

Assembly Tool

Very helpful tool to assemble your MC4 connectors.

Ready To Install Your Solar Panels?

FAQ - Questions About Camper Van Solar Systems

Are Flexible Solar Panels Worth It For Stealth?

We thought long and hard about flexible panels. The thinner profile really appealed to us.

But we had major questions about their durability and tendencies for scratches to appear on the surface. In the end we went with the rigid panels

And we love our rigid solar panels. In the end, being a ‘stealthy campervan’ didn’t turn out to be as important as we thought. What is much more important is having strong, durable solar panels for our campervan that won’t fail us half-way through our journey.

Your Recommended Solar Charge Controller Is Quite Pricey (Victron), Is It Really Worth It?

We understand, if you have a tight budget purchasing premium items is, many times, out of the question. There are several other great quality MPPT Solar Charge Controllers that you can purchase out there that will get you the same result for less money.

If a Victron Solar Charge Controller is within your budget but you’re just questioning it’s value, then we can tell you that the Victron charge controllers are absolutely worth the extra investment.

The simple reason for this is because they are one of the only Bluetooth-enabled charge controllers on the market today. The Bluetooth feature pairs with Victron’s smartphone app and lets you monitor your solar status instantly on your smartphone. This has been invaluable when trying to monitor our battery’s state-of-charge (% charge) each day we’re on the road.

AGM or Lithium: Which Batteries Are Better For A Camper Van Solar System?

Both batteries work great! AGM + Solar is a successfully tried and tested paring. And we’ve been charging our lithium batteries with our panels for 2+ years with no problems.

It’s important to understand each battery’s charging preferences to maximize their lifespans.

We discuss how we do this in our article: Proper Battery Maintenance Tips

Solar Charge Controller: MPPT vs. PWM?

You may have noticed that PWM Charge Controllers tend to be cheaper than their MPPT counterparts.

This is because MPPT controllers are a newer technology and able to better harvest power from the sun. MPPTs are often 20-30% more efficient.

Because of this, we highly recommend the MPPT controller varieties. The amount of daily harvested solar power varies greatly and so maximizing the possible intake is crucial.

For more, visit Victron’s website for a detailed breakdown of MPPT vs. PWM charge controllers.

Final Thoughts

When we first began thinking of adding solar panels to our campervan, we thought it was an incredibly daunting task!

The difficult terminology, and so many different products and required connections. It was a bit overwhelming.

But step by step, we were able to build a robust solar power system that fits our campervan life needs and lifestyle. And if we can do it, we’re confident you can, too!

If you have any question, please let us know in the comments below or send us an email in the Contacts Page.

Go Back: Camper Van Electrical System Installation Guide

This post is PART 1 of our 7-part DIY Solar Build Series. Check below to view the entire series.

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