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Where to begin when adding solar to your RV

If you are like most RV’ers, then there are probably times where you want to stay in a location that does not have a campground electrical connection. As we all know, most RVs are equipped with an onboard house battery to run our basic systems but finding a way to charge those batteries when you are not plugged in and don’t have a generator or when there are generator restrictions can be tricky. Adding a solar system on the RV roof or a portable one that gets set out beside the RV is a quiet, fossil-fuel-free way of providing a charge to your batteries. Knowing where to begin building one of those systems can be daunting as the options are limitless. There are many factors to consider when determining the size and type of a solar configuration to purchase for your RV.
  1. First, consider how many days you plan to be off the grid. If it is merely an overnight or two, then a large system may not be needed to keep you charged up. Secondly, what electronics will you be using? Most of the RV appliances will use 12volts to operate. Even though the furnace, water heaters and refrigerators typically have a gas mode, they still have 12 Volt circuits to control them. You will also most likely have cell phones, laptops and maybe a TV that you will want to charge. If you are off-grid, then you need running water which means that you will need your water pump also.
  2. The other thing you will need to consider is how much sun you will get in the location that you are going to be camping off-grid. If you are in a desert area with little to no foliage, then you don’t have to worry as much about the amount of sun the system can be exposed to as opposed to camping in a forest area. The time of year will affect the amount of sun the panels get because during the winter months in the north, the sun’s angle is low and will not charge as effectively as when the sun is directly above.
  3. How much space do you have for the solar panels? If you are planning on installing them on the roof the amount of space will be limited by the area that you have to place them while still providing a safe area to be able to walk on the roof for maintenance and repairs. You will need to consider how the panels will attach to the roof and that may be dependant on the type of roofing material that you have. If you are planning on a portable set up, how much space do you have to store the panels in the compartments or inside the RV while they are not being used? Depending on the size of the system, you may also need to have additional batteries to store all of the energy for your usage, it is not uncommon to have 4-8 batteries for a nice size system and the batteries can take up a significant amount of space and add a lot of extra weight.
  4. What is the budget for the system? There are many components to a proper solar configuration. Besides the panels and the batteries, there will be heavy gauge wiring, charge controllers, shunts, monitors, an inverter, and so on. These systems can be fundamental to very intricate. A lithium battery alone could easily run almost $1000 if you buy one of the premium brands versus an AGM that could be a few hundred.
Once you have thought through those essential points, you are now ready to start matching your needs to the components your system will require to meet those needs.
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Carol is an NRVIA Level 2 certified inspector and a certified RVIA/RVDA RV technician. She is the owner of RV Inspection Specialists and specializes in performing pre-purchase RV inspections and conducts mobile service in the PA, MD, NJ, and DE areas.
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Tampa, FL


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