How much it really costs to put solar on a van?


If you live on the road and travel in a campervan, you may have considered adding solar panels to your motorhome at one point or another. Although not always the best fit for every campervan dweller, solar can be a great way to maintain a comfortable life on the road, even in the most remote areas.

While many campers are aware that RV solar panels are an option, they’re also usually a little wary — because the word is out that RV solar panels are expensive.

solar panels on a van

If you are a campervan 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 a campervan?

Costs will vary depending on the size and wattage requirements of the solar panel. Excluding any design and installation costs, you could spend between $500 for a basic system up to $15,000 or more for a high-end system. That’s just for major system components. The cost of cables, connectors, fuses, circuit breakers, and everything in between can add up quickly.

Of course, with this cutting-edge technology, the devil is in the details. To make sure you are getting the solar array your campervan needs, at a reasonable 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.

Calculating the cost of your van`s solar system.

Method 1: Assessing Your Wattage Needs 

To determine what size system will best fit your needs, we recommend making a list of all the appliances and devices you plan on running. The main appliances to take into consideration when addressing energy needs may include a TV, lighting, water pump, laptop, fans, microwave, and refrigerator.

We recommend using the Renogy solar panel calculator to help determine your specific needs. The Solar sizing calculator allows you to input information about your lifestyle to help you decide on your solar panel requirements. You’ll just need to know what total watts your electronics will consume, how long you plan on running the devices, your charge controller efficiency, and average sun hours per day. The solar panel calculator will then be able to tell you the minimum and recommended system size, as well as the recommended battery output.

Having an accurate understanding of your energy needs will give you a better idea of the costs and ensure you don’t under- or over-build a system.

Method 2: Budget Based Method

Sizing your system appropriately can be challenging, especially if you’ve never lived in a van before. There’s just a lot you won’t know about your real-world usage, and a lot you won’t be able to foresee before you hit the road.

Another method is taking a budget-based approach to your electrical system, and adding capacity as needed.

If you have a barebones budget, you don’t need a huge, expensive solar setup. But if you can afford it, having a large system will make your life easier and means fewer compromises in your electrical usage.

Who should invest in solar for Campervan?

Just like there is no one-size-fits-all approach to living in a motorhome, not every RV dweller needs the same solar setup.

portable energy station

You’re a weekend warrior: If you only go out in your campervan on the weekends or for short periods, a complete campervan solar system probably doesn’t make the most financial sense. We’d recommend a smaller system, such as one of Renogy’s smaller RV kits, such as the 100 watts 12 volt solar RV kit.

You’re a boondocking: If you’re regularly camping or parking in areas without hookups for extended periods and don’t have access to constant electricity, a complete camper van Solar system with solar panels, a battery, inverter, charge controller, and wiring can be a great investment that will pay for itself over time.

Advantages of installing solar panels on your Camper-van.

Solar panels are becoming more and more popular because they offer a variety of advantages for the road warrior and their domicile on wheels.

I could enumerate several reasons why, but you only need to understand three concepts.

A Form of Good Investment

RV solar panels are popular because they help people save money, time, and effort. The panels make it easy for people to travel long distances and reduces the need to get energy for their RV.

They also don’t have to worry about finding charge locations. They can control the situation and harness an abundant source of energy.

Environment Friendly

By using ways and techniques to help save the environment, we directly empower ourselves. RV solar panels are a way ahead, and it is a proven solution for energy problems.

Panels generate a natural type of energy; they do not cost any destruction to the environment around us.

Cheaper in the Long Run

Although one can indeed spend over a thousand dollars for one solar kit, one must not underestimate the savings that it will bring a person in the long run. Just as long as you know how to maintain and maximize the use of the RV solar panel, you can save more.

Solar panels can now power any type of gadget. Just imagine being able to use every device that you have while traveling. It can enhance the comfort of your trip immensely and in so many ways.

Camper-van solar basics – What goes into your system and associated costs. 

Because of the variety of factors at play when it comes to system size and cost, complete campervan solar systems can range from around $500 for the simplest, smallest set-up to upwards of $15,000 for larger installations. Adding additional panels and batteries will also increase that cost as well.

The key components of a solar campervan installation are:

  1. Solar panels
  2. Charge Controllers
  3. Battery storage
  4. Inverters
  5. Cabling and other accessories

 

solar installation schema

Above: This diagram represents a more comprehensive 12volt/240V system that is very functional and would meet the requirements of most Campervans.

Solar Panels

solar panels

Let me walk you through the whole thing though, in case you are interested in other types of solar panels.

Cost for 100-watt panelFlexible PanelsRigid Panels
Monocrystalline Panels$175$105
Polycrystalline Panels$140$80

Monocrystalline vs. Polycrystalline Panels

The two main classes of solar panels are monocrystalline and polycrystalline. These names refer to the structure of the silicon inside of them.

Monocrystalline panels are more expensive because they are made of a purer silicon crystal. The process takes more time and energy to make them this way, but the power output is higher per square inch of panel space.

In other words, a 100-watt monocrystalline panel will tend to be smaller than a 100-watt polycrystalline panel.

Since your RV isn’t the International Space Station, and we aren’t extremely worried about getting maximum value out of every square inch of rooftop space, you will probably be fine with using polycrystalline solar panels that are a little less energy-dense per square inch but do cost less than the monocrystalline ones.

Solid vs. Flexible

flexible solar panels

This one is pretty self-explanatory. The flexible solar panels are more adaptive to curved surfaces, can be more aerodynamic, and more out of sight than traditional boxy, board panels. They are also a good bit pricier per watt though.

So unless you need your solar panels out of sight, I would say that it is not worth having flexible panels. But this is of course totally up to you.

Cost

The biggest question here is the cost of the solar panels. It is also the biggest variable because not everybody needs the same amount of electricity.

As a general rule, $200 of rigid, non-flexible solar panel will produce 1,000 watt-hours for you per day, under ideal conditions. This is equivalent to one kilowatt-hour.

If you are serious about living off of solar then you will need to produce at least 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. That means that you will need 10 times that amount.

So as a general estimate, keeping in mind that there is a wide range of situations and panels, you will need at least $2,000 worth of panels.

Putting everything together, you shouldn’t expect the cost of going solar for your RV to cost less than $2,500. You can consider that a floor, because installation, cabling, and additional panels will all add to the cost.

If you are merely interested in extending their battery life while camping by using solar panels, then you have some more flexibility. How much solar capacity you install is totally up to you.

It just depends on how long you would like to extend your battery life. You should just know that in general, you won’t reach a break-even point until you are generating at least 10 kilowatt-hours per day.

Charge Controller

charge controller adventurer

The charge controller is placed in between your panels and your batteries in the electrical pathway. The electricity generated by the solar panels is wired to the charge controller, and from the controller, the electricity is wired to the batteries.

A charge controller is responsible for managing the flow of electricity from the panels into the electrical system of your RV.

There are two types of charge controllers: Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) and MPPT. MPPT controllers are more expensive and can harvest more energy coming in from the panels.

A good PWM charge controller will cost anywhere from $100 to $200. This is one component that will be worth the time to investigate fully and make sure you are buying a quality piece of equipment.

Price range $89 to $300

Battery Monitor

battery management system

This component is optional, but it does a very important job: the monitor will manage the level of charge in your batteries while they are discharging. 

Price Range $10 to $250

Inverter

inverter

The inverter turns the low-wattage DC power produced by solar panels and stored in batteries into AC power, which is the type of power used by most appliances.

The amount of power available through the inverter will depend on the inverter’s rating, and the battery plant you have available to provide the DC power to the Inverter. Let’s take a look at the different types available:

Top Modified Sine Wave Inverters

Modified sine wave inverters output “dirtier” current that may not play well with sensitive electronics. However, they are much less expensive than pure sine models and may be perfectly adequate for basic needs. Recommended models are:

Krieger 1100W Inverter Kit

Samlex SAM-1000W Inverter

Top Pure Sine Wave Inverter/Chargers

Inverter/chargers function as both an inverter and battery charger if/when you plug your van into shore power. Recommended models are:

Renogy 1000W Inverter/Charger

AIMS 1000W Inverter/Charger

Top Pure Sine Wave Inverters

We recommend going with a pure sine wave inverter, if possible. These output cleaner current (“pure sine wave”), and are better for powering sensitive modern electronics. Recommended models are:

 Xantrex ProWatt SW 1000W Inverter

Renogy 1000W Pure Sine Inverter

Inverter price range $100 to $1200

 

Solar Batteries

Batteries are a major cost factor when installing a solar system to your camper-van.

 The cheapest batteries out there are flooded lead-acid batteries.   AGMs (Absorbed Glass Mat Batteries) offer lower maintenance than your standard flooded batteries.  And are more efficient while being able to be placed almost anywhere. They are of course heavier, and more expensive. 

 Finally, Lithium-Ion Batteries are available for RV power plants.  They last much longer, are more compact, lighter in weight, offer a higher level of usable output, virtually lack voltage drop, are more expensive, require a Battery Management System, and need to be temperature regulated.

Choosing a Battery for Your Van

xs power batteries
  • Economical choice: Flooded lead-acid. This is the oldest technology in the bunch. If maintained properly, they still are the cheapest short-term and long-term. Maintenance is more involved and must be managed more carefully due to ventilation and liquid acid inside. It is not hard to do, but for small amateur systems, they aren’t as appealing.

Check Price on Amazon

  • Low maintenance: AGM Deep Cycle. Over the long term, this is the most expensive battery because they wear out faster than the other two. In the short term, they are cheaper than lithium. They are common and all-around a good starting point for most amateur installers.

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  • Premium choice: Lithium LiFePO4 these batteries are just around the corner from being the best choice for everyone. Unfortunately, the high upfront cost is a barrier to many.

Check Price on Amazon

Battery price range $35.00 to $1200.00

Miscellaneous Items 

 Solar panels will need mounting hardware.  The power cabling from the panels to your controller and batteries needs to be high quality.  Many pre-installed wiring systems aren’t up to the job.

 Power shunts need to be put in place for battery monitors.  Subpanels for the inverter is often needed. Custom battery compartments might be necessary.  A myriad of small items is often overlooked when people plan their solar power systems.  All of these items have associated costs.

Battery Isolator$65.99

Bus-bar $39.99

Shunt$9.00

12v Distribution Block$21.55

Fuses$8.50

Wires$19.00

AC Breaker Box$45.99

110v Plug $16.99

Shore Power Plug$138.89

12v Switches$38.70

12v Outlets$46.99

Battery Management Systems

BMS

For those opting to use Lithium-Ion Batteries, you’ll need a BMS.  The BMS will provide information about the state of your Lithium-Ion RV Batteries.  It will keep the cells balanced.  The BMS will track power usage, charge, prevent overly discharging, and protect the batteries from temperature extremes and more.

Price range $272, 00

Installation Costs

Installation is the most complicated part for people that don’t have the tools or the knowledge to do the job.

If you are handy with basic tools and have a basic understanding of how the solar energy system works, then you should be capable of installing the solar panels and the rest of the equipment yourself.

If you do not feel comfortable doing it, then know that you can get a solar energy system professionally installed. This will just add to your overall cost of going solar.

Price range: Over $200 depending on the design of your solar system

 

Examples of Camper-van Solar Panel Systems kits & Costs

If you decide to get an out of the box solution based on your budget, compare these great options of putting a solar system to your camper-van.

System SizeNumber of PanelsTotal Panel WattsCharge ControllerInverterPrice
Renogy 200 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline Solar RV Kit 110030 amp Renogy AdventurerNot included$465
Sunrise RV Kit 110030 amp Morningstar PS15MNot included$771
Weekender SW Charging System 160 Watt 116030 amp Go-Power PWM-301,500-watt pure sine wave$1,600
WindyNation 200 Watt Solar Panel Kit 220030 amp P30L1500W VertaMax$534
Weekender SW Charging System 160 Watt (no inverter) 440045 amp PWMNot included$575
Deluxe 680 Watt RV Solar Kit 348030 Amp Zamp ZS-30ANot included$2,900

Note: Pricing does not include installation. Some kits include wire, connectors, and inverter. Most kits include a 30-amp charge controller, which is excessive for small systems but gives you the option to add panels in the future without buying a new controller.

Conclusion

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.

Martin

As an independent traveler, I try to share my positive and negative observations about van life as well as tips and tricks to make your life on the road easier. I travel and work in my old RV and would greatly appreciate a coffee from you if you find my content useful.

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