Just a few years ago solar panels at the retail level were expensive and tended to underperform.
It seemed that truly effective solar that could deliver a return on the investment could only be found in commercial solar panels.
Today rapid advancements in photovoltaic technology and solar panel engineering have made solar power more cost-effective than ever before.
Even at the consumer level for outdoor enthusiasts, campers, and RV travelers who are looking for a green, affordable way to power their favorite appliances.
If you are an RV traveler, who loves to do a little boondocking, or you just want a more affordable way to power your rig, you might be wondering how much it costs to install solar panels on an RV?
Costs will vary depending on the size and wattage requirements of the solar panel. As a ballpark figure, a 400 Watt Hour state of the art, the solar power system with components and install will cost you around $3,500 to $4,000. This is roughly enough to run the basic appliances in a 25 to 35-foot long travel trailer. In the case of a larger travel trailer or a fifth-wheel camper the cost for an 800 Watt solar power array will be around $4,500 to $6,000.
Of course, with this cutting edge technology the devil is in the details. To make sure you are getting the solar array your RV needs, at a reasonably cost, we’ll need to take a closer look at some of the finer points of solar technology.
Fortunately, we’ve rolled up our sleeves to answer some of the common questions surrounding the cost of installing a solar power system in your RV.
Assessing Your Wattage Needs
Before you can take the plunge on investing in solar, you’ll first need to determine just how much wattage you will need to support you on an average day.
The assumption here is that you will be boondocking away from the shore power offered by an RV park or a campground with amenities.
If you want to get granular and take the technical approach, you can certainly go through the wattage specifications of your appliances.
Most have this information in the owner’s manual or simply stamped on the back or bottom of the appliance itself.
Unfortunately, this is a tedious process where you’ll have to imagine different scenarios. Like will you be making coffee while your spouse watches TV in the morning?
What if it’s a hot day and you want to run the air conditioner? The number of scenarios you can drum up in your head can be maddening.
Fortunately, with the addition of a battery meter, you can get a more real-world example.
If you like you can even set it up in your own backyard, or go on a long weekend boondocking trip in your RV.
Make sure your RV’s batteries are fully charged, then connect the battery meter and go about your day like you would on any other boondock camping trip.
Try not to be energy conscious in this experiment as it will give you skewed results.
At the end of each day, note the battery level. You might want to consider aborting the test if your batteries get too far drained below 50%.
At this level, a lead-acid battery can potentially be damaged. Once you are done with the test, you will be able to closely estimate your amp-hour usage, this can be calculated back to watts with a little bit of simple math.
It’s exactly the sort of thing where you were sitting in 9th-grade algebra class and said “When am I ever going to use this kind of math in the real world.”
For our purposes here, let’s say that you have a 240 amp-hour capacity in your RV’s batteries.
Then let’s say your real-world test drained their charge level to a perfect 50% in a single day. That means your average consumption need is 120 amp-hours.
Do translate amp-hours into wattage you’ll need to use the voltage reading of the battery. In this case, most lead-acid RV batteries are a 12-volt system.
- Amp-hours multiplied by Volts = Watt-hours
- This means that conversely Watt-hours divided by Volts = Amp-hours
The Basic Cost For A 400 Watt RV Solar Power System
Let’s say our little experiment tells us that you need a 400 Watt Hour system to meet your real-world needs.
This isn’t a hard and fast figure, but it gives us a good baseline to get in the ballpark of designing a system.
As we discussed earlier, a 400 Watt Hour system like this will cost between $3,500 to $4,000 and should be able to accommodate the basic electrical demands of a 25 to 35-foot travel trailer camper.
The Basic Cost For An 800 Watt RV Solar Power System
What if you have a larger RV like a fifth wheel camper? What are you like to live large with the stereo blaring, the blender running and a microwave warming up some leftovers.
Fortunately, with our baseline math in place, we can start scaling up the system for larger RVs or people who like to use a lot more power on their boondock camping trips.
For the sake of easy math, let’s say your real-world experiment told you that the way you like to camp off the grid requires an 800 Watt Hour solar power system.
With a system like the components and installation will run you in the neighborhood of $4,500 to $6,000.
The revelation hiding in these numbers is that for roughly 50% more cost, you get double the wattage collection from the photovoltaic solar panel cells.
Ultimately, ponying up that extra cost in the initial investment is worth it.
You’ll get more wattage, storage capacity, and the ability to run your favorite appliances, while also being able to enjoy more electronic creature comforts.
The Basic Cost For A 1,200 Watt RV Solar Power System
Now, let’s say you’ve got a fifth-wheel camper or a Class A motorhome with a generous amount of available rooftop space.
Let’s also say that you are bound and determined to combine the terms “Boondocking” and “Glamping” when defining your RV experience.
In a scenario like this, you might be interested in a 1,200 Watt solar power system for your RV.
When you add an extra 400 Watts to an 800 Watt RV solar power system, you certainly can consume a lot of power on a sunny day.
Though you can expect it to cost you $5,000 to $7,500. Even with a system like this, you might be able to run appliance galore, but the blessed coolness of the RV’s rooftop air conditioner will likely still be out of reach.
Can I Run The RV Air Conditioner Off A Solar Power System?
Here we run into a very serious problem. You see even the weakest of RV rooftop air conditioners still need a lot of power.
So, unless you are willing to really pony up the money to invest in a large solar power system for your RV, you will likely still need to bring a gasoline or diesel generator with you on your boondock camping trips.
If the weather is cool enough, you might not need to run the RV air conditioner or the generator.
You might even be able to keep cool enough by putting a couple of low wattage fans in the windows at night to blow in the cool night air.
Then during the day, seal up the windows, deploy the awning and cook-off outside on the camp stove, grill, or fire pit.
Let’s say that this scenario just doesn’t fit in your wheelhouse. You want the cool accommodations that a rooftop RV air conditioner has to offer, and you truly want to go green.
Maybe you just want to enjoy the sounds of nature without a generator running and you’re willing to dig deep in your wallet for a solar-powered RV system that can keep the air conditioner running as well as your basic appliances.
To give you the ability to properly run an RV rooftop air conditioner off a solar power system, you will need a photovoltaic array that can produce a staggering 21,500 watts.
However, an array of solar cells this large will likely be too large even for the roof of a 42-foot long Class A Motorhome.
So, if you really want to go this large, you’ll have to come up with solar panel stands and install the robust wiring to essentially lay out a small RV solar farm.
The cost of a system like this will go up. Especially with the additional hardware and wiring factoring into the equation.
While it’s hard to pin down a hard and fast number, you should expect a 21,500-watt system to run you over $10,000 and maybe even as high as $12,000.
The Limits Of Solar Power For An RV
When we really roll up our sleeves and take a good hard look at the size and cost of a 12,500-watt solar array, we get a true glimpse of solar power’s limitations.
There just comes a point where there simply isn’t enough feasible room to meet high wattage demands.
Yet you also have to keep in mind that photovoltaic technology is still in its relative infancy.
There is a lot more room for growth and evolution in both the materials, engineering, and manufacturing technology.
Just like a lot of innovative markets, the growing success we’re seeing in commercial solar power shows promise for what might be financially feasible at the retail level one day.
Can I Install My Own RV Solar System?
Let’s say you want to shave a little bit off the cost of a solar power system on your RV by performing the installation yourself.
For a particularly handy person, with a well-equipped toolbox, you can install your own solar power system.
Though, you will need to get your hands on more than just some solar panels, batteries, and a spool of wire.
If you really are gung ho and want to install your RV’s solar power system you will need the following things:
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I Drive My RV At Highway Speed With Solar Panels On?
This depends a little bit on how your solar panels are mounted. If you have them secured flush to the roof of your RV with robust fasteners and bracing hardware, there won’t be a lot of surface area for the wind to grab a hold of.
Still, driving an RV at highway speed causes a lot of vibration, which could damage a static mounted solar panel on the roof.
If your RV array is set at an angle, then the wind very likely could get enough lift to tear them loose.
Ultimately, it’s better to remove the solar panels before setting off at speeds that would exceed a leisurely drive on suburban roads.
Otherwise, you’re going to end up with lost or damaged solar panels, which will eat up your return on investment.
How Can I Maximize The Performance Of My RV’s Solar Panels?
Seeing a healthy return on your solar investment starts with making the most out of their performance.
The more electricity your solar panels produce, the more money you are saving on things like shore power access and generator fuel.
Parking in wide-open areas with maximum exposure to the sunny sky certainly helps.
If your solar panels can be tilted, you might find an uptick in performance by setting them to the same angle as your degree of latitude is on the Earth. It’s a minor improvement, but every little bit helps.
Are There Other Green Alternative Energy Options To Help Augment An RV Solar Array?
Let’s say your goal is to come as close to a zero-carbon footprint as possible when RVing.
While the realistic limit of your RV solar panels might not meet all your creature comfort needs, like running the air conditioner, there are a few intriguing ways to generate power without having to tap into the grid.
Consumer-level wind generators have been seeing a robust evolution in performance recently.
With a modest breeze, you could even see an additional 500 to 600 watts by adding a wind generator that costs $400 to $500.
Of course, the problem with wind is that it’s not always blowing, and even a gentle breeze is rarely enough to generate real power.
It’s also inconsistent, so you can’t really rely on it as your primary power source. Your location also matters with a small scale wind generator.
Still, If you like to camp near the beach or in the mountains, there might be enough available breeze to give your RV’s wattage production a boost, without having to fire up the generator.
If you like to stay in the forest, where trees and brush can block the breeze, then a wind generator is going to take a while to give you a real return on your investment.
Adding a solar panel array to your RV is a great way to save money, and live comfortably when you are boondocking off the grid.
Just keep in mind that solar is a technology that is still evolving. Fortunately, it’s come out of its infancy to the point that consumer-grade solar panels have come down in price, to make them a viable option for the RV industry.
Just bear in mind that there are still some limitations, and you simply might not have the square footage or budget to install a solar array capable of running the rooftop air conditioner and the appliances.
However, if you’re looking to power the modest array of appliances in your 25-foot travel trailer, you can get a 400 Watt solar power system for $3,500 to $4,000.
If you have a larger travel trailer or a perhaps a fifth-wheel camper and you want to live a little larger, you should be able to get an 800 Watt solar power array for around $4,500 to $6,000.
Let’s say you truly want to live comfortably, and you’ve got a fair amount of open space on the roof of your Class A motorhome, you could spring for a 1,200 Watt solar power system for around $5,000 to $7,500.