When you think of the perfect holiday, what do you see? Are you relaxing at the beach or exploring the beautiful natural hinterland? If you enjoy travelling off the beaten track, getting enough power for your caravan can be an issue. Running a generator can be expensive, noisy and smelly. Not so great for our environment. Here at Nomadic Lifestyle Magazine, we are passionate about keeping on top of trends within the caravan industry. We love how effective, efficient and affordable caravan solar panels can be. They are the perfect addition to any great caravan set up. Solar power has been followed in architectural and construction circles. As it promises greener energy and potential cost savings, people are flocking to the idea. Over 2.7 gigawatts of solar panels are now installed in the U.S. So, it’s no surprise that they’ve made their way into the caravan market.
Today I am going to present to you, what your options are and the benefits when it comes to caravan solar panels. We will walk through a simple caravan solar panel system. We will describe the components and why you need it. Then if you’re up for it, we will do a step by step of an advanced system. You will be able to charge your solar system from town power and solar panels. You will also be able to run appliances on 12 volt/24 volt direct current as well as 240 volt. You will be running independently of any town power so you can truly be off-the-grid.. Are you ready? Let’s dive in!
Common types of Solar Panels
In the caravan industry, portability is the most important thing to consider. Solar panels are available in mounted or portable options. Your decision depends on where you would rather your panels to be placed. There are advantages and disadvantages, but there’s one main difference between them. Portable panels allow you to chase the sun whereas mounted panels are placed on the roof. For the latter, your caravan needs to be parked in the sun to have enough sunlight.
The three main types of solar panels are glass, mobile and folding panels. Glass panels have been around for the longest and have built a positive reputation. According to Caravans Plus, this is the best for household and commercial installations. The glass panels have a rigid frame and are attached to the roof. Their placement also ensures they have air circulation to reduce their output temperature. However, if your glass panels are roof mounted, they are more susceptible to damage. It is also worthwhile considering how much energy you would normally use. If you usually use an air conditioner or heater and other appliances, solar power may not be enough for your set up.
Some people opt for the mobile solar panels. These panels are lightweight, semi-flexible and offer some advantages but are more expensive. Costing up to four times as much as their counterpart. So if you have a set budget, you may want to consider this. These panels can be siliconed directly onto a curved roof with no need for mounting brackets. To ensure your towing capacity is not affected.
Finally, the folding solar panels that are taking the caravanning industry by storm. These nifty solar panels are very popular with campers as they are easy to transport and store in a caravan for travel. These solar panels can be picked up and moved around the camp area where there is most sunlight. This flexibility allows you to maximise your energy absorbed from the sun.
Basic Caravan Solar System
Although it may appear daunting at first. A caravan solar system is simpler than you might think. The four major components in a system are: the solar panel, regulator, battery and inverter. First, the solar panel converts sunlight into DC electricity to charge the battery. The regulator ensures the battery is charged properlyand not damaged from over charge or over discharge. The battery stores the energy and can directly power DC appliances. However, AC appliances need an inverter to convert the energy. To protect your battery, some DC appliances can be connected to the regulator. Take a look at the diagram below to see how these components work together.
Which Caravan Solar Panel is Best?
The answer to this question really does depend on what you’re looking for in your solar panels. Both mounted and flexible solar panels come with benefits and downfalls. Mounted solar panels are fixed to the roof of your caravan or RV. After they are installed, they are not easily removed. However, that keeps them safe from thieves and extreme weather. But, mounting these solar panels does often need profession installation. Initially, these are usually more expensive than portable systems. However, once they are set up and installed, they constantly operate. This system allows you to run your solar panels without having to think about it! If your van is often parked in the sun, then the fixed solar panels provide a some protection and insulation from the midday sun.
The other option is flexible solar panels. This system is often popular with regular travellers as they are more portable and easy to move. They are also usually less expensive than fixed panels. But, they do need space to be stored with their wiring inside the caravan. Unlike the fixed option, these panels are more prone to damage in weather conditions. They are also more likely to be stolen and need to be set up and packed down each time you use them. However, these nifty units can be placed in the sunlight wherever you are, meaning you can park in the shade. They also have the potential to generate slightly more power than their counterpart. This is because they can be moved to track the sun. With fixed units, you may also need to move your caravan throughout the day to generate enough energy.
Flexibility is not the only thing to consider when choosing your solar panels. The material is also important to think about. Most caravan solar panels are either monocrystalline or polycrystalline.
Monocrystalline solar panels are slightly more efficient than their counterpart. However, that is reflected in their higher cost due to the complicated manufacturing. These panels also face the possibility of losing power when interfered by shadows. When a section of the panel is in the shade, the circuit can be broken, stopping it from generating power. This type of panel usually has the longest life expectancy in this area. It also operates much better in low-light conditions compared to its counterpart.
- Higher cost
- Higher efficiency in low light
- Can’t deal with interfering shadow
Polycrystalline solar panels are much more cost effective. The lower price is shown in their efficiency, as they are slightly less efficient. They also need a much bigger size to generate the same amount of power as their counterpart. This varies depending on the weather and quality of panels.
- Need larger size panel for same power output
- Bulkier, takes up more space
According to Outdoria, the monocrystalline system is the most common for road travelers. This is due to their compact size, which can maximize the limited room of a caravan or RV. This solar panel needs extra care to keep it out of the shade, unlike the polycrystalline system. When choosing your panels, it’s important to note your preferences. Would you rather flexibility or efficiency for your system?
Why I Need a Solar Regulator
Now that you’ve had time to think about what solar panels are best for your caravan, it’s time to look at the logistics. Running the system is a lot more than choosing the right panels and understanding how they work. The next question we will look at is, why do you need a solar regulator? But, before we ask that, we’ll take a look at what a solar regulator is.
A solar regulator is a small box that is placed between the solar panel and a battery. The regulator stops batteries from being overcharged and ensures they don’t get damaged. It does this by regulating the amount of charge coming in from the panels. Regulators can also provide direct connection to appliances while simultaneously recharging the battery. These regulators are essential if you want off-grid power for your caravan or RV.
If you want your power to be completely off-grid, there are two types of controllers to consider. These are Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) and Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) controllers.
The standard type of charge controller is the PWM. The PWM controller is a lot simpler than its counterpart, making it a lot less expensive. These controllers work by reducing the amount of power going into your battery. By slowly doing this before it reaches capacity, your battery won’t get damaged. So, what happens when the battery is full? When it reaches this stage, the PWM controller maintains a ‘trickle’ state. This means it supplies a small amount of power to keep the battery full.
PWM controllers are best suited to small DIY systems, such as caravans and RVs. They work well with a few low voltage panels and a small battery, making them an ideal addition to your setup.
The second option is an MPPT charge controller. This option is more expensive as it’s a more complex controller option. This option provides similar protection as PWM. The MPPT controller reduces power going to your battery as it reaches capacity.
What sets this apart is that it can pair non-matching voltages from panels and batteries. These controllers can adjust their input to take in the highest amount of power from your solar system. They can also adjust their output power to match the battery. This option is great because it is more efficient than the PWM controller. It is also able to use the full power from your solar panels more efficiently.
Although this system can be more effective, it’s important to weigh up your options. Is the MPPT worth the investment for your caravan setup? They can cost up to twice as much as their counterpart, so it’s something to think about. This option is usually high on the ranks for a full home system, so it’s not essential for a smaller system. However, it’s definitely an option to consider.
Caravan Solar Panel Connections and Wiring
When it comes to connecting and wiring your caravan solar panel, it must be done correctly. Some solar panels come with MC4 connectors. This allows your system to feature waterproof wiring. Waterproof wiring is essential to caravans as they are created to be hardy and take all types of weather. This should translate into your caravan solar system set up. Adapters are also available so you can connect two cables together. These adapters are great for testing if there is a fault and also allow you to add a number of panels to the one set of wires. Keeping the connectors in place makes it much easier to troubleshoot if any issues arise.
Solar regulators also come with instruction that tell you what wire thickness you need for your system. It is advisable to use premade battery leads when connecting batteries together. These leads are available through automotive parts suppliers. If you’re using a large inverter, you would also have to connect it with battery leads to the battery bank.
Connecting Multiple Solar Panels
If you decide you love your caravan solar panel, why not upgrade to a larger system? If you have the space, an upgrade is easy!
Two or more panels can be connected in parallel to double the power to the battery. Having two or more batteries provides double the storage capacity. Importantly, it allows for larger inverters to provide higher voltage for your devices. If you have more batteries, you will have to carry them around. As a two battery system is often enough, forking out for more batteries is not essential. We recommend that your batteries are placed at floor level above the axle.
For example, you may install four 100 watt panels that provide 22 amps (4 x 5.5). This will give your battery bank a healthy charge as it is within the capability of a 30 amp regulator. Having recharged batteries ready to go is a smart step for any caravanner. You never know when the wet weather will hit!
Upmarket battery management devices are popular with caravanners. These devices will accept 240 volts AC power from the grid, a generator or a 12/24 volt DC power from solar.
Connecting multiple sources simultaneously is the most robust method for charging your batteries. If you do this, you are implementing a smart solar panel system for your set up. However, these upmarket devices can be expensive. Because of this, it is important to choose one large enough for your system and best suited to your needs prior to purchase.
Revealing the Full solar System with Inverter
When it comes to using a full solar system with an inverter, it can seem daunting. However, many holidayers around the world love the energy it can provide them! So, here are some tips when analysing a full solar system with an inverter.
Firstly, a battery charger must be used to charge your battery when 240 volts are available. A multi-stage charger is best. With a higher amperage output on the charger, the faster it will recharge.
When it comes to the solar regulator, we know that the solar panels will feed a current to the regulator from the sun. Firstly, the regulator will try to supply the current to any 12-volt devices directly connected to it. The excess from this will go to the batteries for recharging.
Finally, 12-volt devices can be directly connected to the batteries. However, better solar regulators will prevent over discharge of your batteries. This happens if you connect your devices to the 12-volt terminals provided on your regulator.
Most installations now include an inverter which gets directly connected to the batteries. This is especially important for solar panel users on the go.
Frequently Asked Questions
Setting up your first caravan solar panel system will come with a lot of questions. Let us help by answering a few of our most frequently asked questions.
– What is a solar panel system for a caravan or RV?
Connected to your caravan roof, they convert sunlight into Direct Current (DC) electricity. The batteries also store this electricity so it is available for use at any time. Finally, your inverter can convert the DC electricity into Alternating Current (AC) electricity. This power can be used at your caravan power points. An inverter is not necessary if you only want 12V power.
– Why use solar power?
Using solar panels will completely change your caravanning experience. By using this, you will gain a whole new level of independence that you have not experienced before. This energy source means you will not have to be reliant on mains power when you are travelling. You will be able to travel wherever you want, for as long as you want!
This source of energy is quiet compared to generators and adds resale value to your caravan. You can save by avoiding the costs of powered sites and constantly rising caravan park fees. Solar power offers you the opportunity of a less expensive unpowered site. If you’re looking to travel off the beaten track, this is a great option for you. A solar panel caravan site offers the option of less expensive, unpowered sites. This includes travelling in more remote locations.
Solar panels are also long lasting, durable and low maintenance. Solar panels produce energy for at least 25 years with no maintenance. This is a huge saving compared to other energy options.
By using solar power, you are also reducing the impact of fossil fuel. This includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. You will also be using clean energy. This means the energy you use is not emitting fumes, pollution or carbon dioxide.
– How many solar panels will I need for my caravan set up?
This all depends on how much electricity you will use. How much battery storage you have will also reflect how much energy you can store.
Solar4RVs has investigated the data in Australia on an average year. By using this data, you can work out how many solar panels you will need to meet your power needs. The calculator and quiz can be found here.
The size of your solar panel system is defined in Watts (W). This indicates the size of your solar system, not how much it will produce. Installing a higher power system means it will produce more energy. However, the amount of energy that your panels produces depends on how much sun it receives. Solar panels will charge batteries quicker if they get sunlight for a long period of time.
– Why do I need batteries?
Solar panels can only produce electricity during the day when the sun is out. However, on cloudy days and at night, they will produce a lot less energy, if any. Batteries can store the power generated by the panels during the sunny times. This means you can use your appliances at any time. Therefore, the appliances can be powered by the batteries, not the solar panels. Batteries can be recharged by either the solar panels or mains power.