Best Portable Solar Panels for RVs in 2017
Likely one of the top topics talked about amongst RVers is SOLAR. Should you have it? Can you live without it? How much solar does one need? What charge controller is the best? Portable solar panels for RV use is almost an inevitable topic of discussion around the campfire, right behind the typical black tank talk that tends to invade almost every gathering... 🙄😂
We know it's an in-depth topic for sure. There is a lot to know. We did our best to sum it all up in the portable solar panel guide below. We also studied and rated the best portable solar panels for campers. Yes, some folding solar panel kits are better than others. Therefore we ranked them by best, best value, and best on a budget as these things aren't so cheap.
Read on for our portable solar panel reviews, or jump down to the guide if you just want to learn about portable solar panels or folding solar panels and how they work.
Best Portable Solar Panels Compared
Best Portable Solar Panel Reviews
Your Guide To Everything About Portable Solar Panels
Sooooo much to know when it comes to portable solar panels for RV use, right? Amps, watts, volts, controllers - all these terms that are Greek to all but the most geeky RVer. Makes you want to pull your hair out!
If you are anything like Camp Addict Co-Founder Marshall, you don't have extra hair to spare, so let's see if we can explain what you need to know about portable solar panels for camping and RV use, using words that you have a fighting chance to understand.
Do You Need a Portable Solar Power System?
Not everyone can benefit from a portable solar power system. In fact, there are a great number of RVers and campers that don't need any kind of solar system. What type of RVer/camper benefits most from a portable solar system?
Solar power serves a single purpose - to charge your rig's batteries when your RV isn't plugged into shore power. In other words, when your RV is off the electrical grid (off-grid). That's it. Simple, right?
Well, yes and no. Technically every RV is "off-grid" a lot of the time. Say, when driving down the road to your next destination. You aren't trailing an extension cord that is 200 miles long, are you? Nope, you sure aren't. So you are technically off-the-grid, but you aren't necessarily a candidate for portable solar power.
Most RVs, whether you have a motorhome, a Class B van conversion, a fifth wheel rolling estate, or a travel trailer, have batteries that are charged as you drive. RVs with their own engine have one or more alternators that provide power to the RVs house batteries (the batteries that power all the 12 volt systems in your rig). Trailers often (the vast majority of the time) have an 'umbilical cord' that attaches to the vehicle that is towing said trailer. This cord not only powers the lights and braking system of your trailer, but also provides power from the tow rig's alternator (power generating device) to your trailer's house batteries.
If you move your RV from RV park to RV park where you are plugged into shore power (the campsite's power pedestal) whenever your rig is stationary, then you don't need a portable solar panel kit. Your rig's batteries are charged when you drive and are charged when you are parked and plugged into shore power.
If you occasionally camp off-grid (boondock or dry camp) you might still not need a portable solar panel for camping. You might have enough house battery capacity to make it through a couple of days of use, assuming you are mindful of your energy consumption. Once you are done camping for the weekend, or a few days, you can head home, plug your rig in, and top off your batteries.
The type of camper that benefits the most from portable solar power systems is one that boondocks extensively, or finds themselves camping off-grid for longer amounts of time than they have battery capacity to handle.
Take for example Camp Addict Co-Founders Kelly and Marshall. We boondock exclusively and are always off-the-grid. While this may change in the future, we still foresee ourselves as boondocking the majority of the time. So we need solar panels to keep our batteries charged.
Otherwise we'd have to run the generator all the time, and who wants to listen to generator noise while camping in the middle of nowhere? Here's a hint: NO ONE. You should be appreciating the relative quiet of nature instead.
Portable Solar Panels vs. Fixed, Roof Mounted Solar Panels
Once you've decided you are a candidate for solar power to charge your RV batteries, the next question is what type? And by what type, we mean do you go with a roof mounted solar panel system that is directly mounted on top of your RV, or do you start off with a portable solar panel system that is placed on the ground? There are definitely pros and cons to both approaches.
Keep in mind that a portable solar system maxes out at about 200 watts. Sure, you can buy multiple portable solar systems and connect them to a single solar controller, but there becomes a point when it becomes a true pain in the behind having a bunch of portable panels strewn about. If you need a lot of solar capacity, you may want to consider having a combination of permanently mounted, roof top panels as well as a portable solar panel that you can move around.
Roof mounted solar panels are definitely the easiest to deal with. They are permanently mounted up high, out of the way. You don't have to 'deploy' them (put them out). They are always just there. But they may be overkill for your situation (if you don't need solar on a continuous basis) and if you like to tuck your rig amongst the trees for shade, roof mounted solar isn't going to produce much power (solar panels don't produce power when shaded).
Roof mounted pros:
- Permanently mounted so you don't have to set them out
- Installed up high, out of the way
- Don't have to rotate to 'follow' the sun
Roof mounted cons:
- Might not have the room on your RVs roof for the installation
- If you park your RV in the shade to keep it cool, your solar panels aren't going to provide much power
- You may not need solar enough to justify the expense of installing a good solar system on the roof of your rig
- Solar panels should be kept clean which means you will frequently have to climb on the roof of your rig to make your panels all sparkly
A portable solar panel system has its place in the RV world. No question about it! A portable solar system is a great way to dip your toes into the world of solar power and is pretty much the perfect solution for someone who likes to boondock (camp off-grid) but doesn't need a full-blown roof mounted solar system. And let's not forget the portable system's ability to be, well, portable. This allows you to 'chase' the sun if your rig is parked in the shade to keep it cool.
- Great way to enter into the world of solar battery charging
- Perfect solar solution for an RV that only occasionally camps off-grid or doesn't have huge 12 volt power requirements
- You can park your rig in the shade to try and keep it cooler while your portable solar panel can be out in the sun, providing a charge to your rig's batteries
- You can use a portable solar system with multiple rigs - take it with you when you upgrade your RV
- A portable solar panel is an ideal compliment to fixed roof mounted panels, expanding your system capability and giving you better charge capability when the sun is at a low angle (morning and evenings)
- You should keep your solar panels clean so they operate at peak efficiency, and portable solar panels on the ground are a heck of a lot easier to clean than roof mounted panels
- You have to 'deploy' the panel on the ground whenever you set up camp
- You need to occasionally (throughout the day) turn the portable panel towards the sun
- Portable solar panels are more expensive when you compare them watt-to-watt to a fixed solar panel installation
- You have to remember that there is a portable solar panel on the ground as you are walking around at night. Ask Camp Addict Co-Founder Kelly how she learned this lesson. 😉 (Marshall may have fallen victim to this as well, and it may have still been semi-light outside.)
If you don't think you are going to need the ability to charge your RVs batteries via solar all that much, or you cannot justify installing roof mounted solar panels, portable solar power systems are a great option. They also are a great way to expand an existing roof mounted solar panel system (and give you a bit more flexibility as far as where you can park your RV).
Camp Addict Co-Founder Marshall purchased his Lance travel trailer with a factory installed 160 watt solar panel on the roof. Once he started boondocking, it became clear that more solar capacity was in order. Rather than install another roof mounted solar panel, he opted to go with a portable 100 watt solar panel system that is 'ground deployed'. Why? A couple of reasons:
- The sun in the winter is fairly low, and a flat roof mounted solar panel doesn't provide as much power production in the winter as it does during the summer. Having a ground deployed panel that is tilt-able and can be pointed directly at the sun at the optimal angle is a very good thing (unless you've got a bunch of space and disposable money to put a lot of solar panels on your roof).
- The ability to park his travel trailer where he wanted without worrying too much about shading the roof mounted solar panel is a good thing. There are times when the perfect shade tree appears and will provide relief from the harsh afternoon sun but will shade the roof top solar panel. Having a ground deployed, portable solar panel means the trailer can be shaded in the afternoon, yet the house batteries are still getting charged. Win-win!
Camp Addict Co-Founder Kelly also uses portable solar panels to recharge her rig's batteries. Unlike Marshall, Kelly doesn't have any roof mounted solar panels. Instead, she solely relies on her ground deployed portable solar system to keep her house batteries charged while boondocking. Kelly does this by having 2-100 watt portable solar panels that are connected to the same solar controller. This is usually enough to keep her batteries topped off. Unless it's cloudy. Then all bets are off when it comes to solar.
How Much Solar Should Your RV Have?
The $10 million dollar question is how much solar is enough? How many solar panels does one need to purchase in order to supply enough power to your RV to not only charge the house batteries, but also supply the power used during the day? The short answer is: It depends.
Ask 100 people how much solar you should get and then sit back, grab some popcorn, and enjoy the show. This is an area where some people are incredibly passionate opinionated.
How large should your portable solar system be? There is no easy answer to this question. There are SO MANY factors that come into play when it comes to how much solar capacity you need. For example, temperature is a HUGE factor in how much usable capacity you will get from your RVs house battery bank. Let us explain.
Lead acid batteries (the most common type used for RV battery banks) are rated to have a certain amp-hour capacity - that much is pretty common knowledge. What ISN'T common knowledge is that batteries are rated at X amp-hour capacity at a certain temperature - normally about 77ºF (25ºC). Any deviation from that temperature and you will have a battery will have a shorter life span (if too hot), or if temps are colder than the optimal temperature, you will have a lower usable amp-hour capacity (but battery life will increase). Now you see why RVers love chasing the perfect 70º temperature. 😉
Battery capacity has a fairly linear relationship to the outside air temperature (and therefore, battery temperature):
- Anyone who lives in a hot climate such as Phoenix knows that batteries do not like heat. As it turns out, each 15ºF rise in temperate above the optimal 77ºF temperature will result in a halving of the batteries life, though battery capacity will increase by 10%.
- On the flip side, batteries love cold as far as their lifespan is considered, but not so much when it comes to usable amp-hour capacity. Every 15ºF decrease in temp below the optimal 77ºF results in a 10% decrease in battery capacity (but battery life increases).
So what happens is that when you need battery capacity the most, i.e. when it's literally freezing outside and you need to run the furnace a lot (a huge power suck), your battery capacity will be significantly reduced and you won't get as much time between charges.
Figure Our Your Amp-Hour Consumption
Here's what you need to do in order to get a rough estimate as to your daily amp-hour power consumption:
- Know how many amp-hours your RVs battery bank is rated for (remember that this will be at the 'perfect' outside temperate of approximately 77ºF).
- Go camping somewhere that you aren't plugged into ANY source of power. This includes any solar system that you might have.
- Use your RVs 12-volt electrical system as you normally would. Don't try to conserve. Don't try to be a power hog. Just be 'normal'.
- At the end of the first 24 hour period, check your battery voltage. You may have gauge inside of your rig that tells you the voltage, but the more accurate way to do this is to take a multimeter and measure the voltage directly at the battery bank (see below video). Use the below chart to see what state of charge percentage the measured voltage corresponds to.
Check Your RV Battery Voltage with a Multimeter
- If, after the first 24 hours of normal use, your battery bank still has sufficient capacity left for another day of use, go for it! Continue to use your RVs 12 volt systems as you normally would. Take another reading after the second 24 hour period and see what percentage of full charge your batteries are at.
- Continue to use your RVs batteries until you get to around 50% charge. Figure out how many days that took. Assuming you ended up somewhere in the neighborhood of taking your batteries down to 50% charge, you can divide your batteries' rated amp-hour capacity by 2 and come up with how many amp-hours you used over the test period. Divide the amp-hours used by the number of days in the test to get a per day amp-hour usage. For example, say you have a 200 amp-hour battery bank and it took 3 days to use 50% of the rated capacity (100 amp-hours). 100 divided by 3 is 33 amp-hours used each day. Boom! You've got a ballpark number.
Now that you have a (very) rough idea of how many amp-hours of electricity you use per day, it's time to figure out how much solar you need. Here we go with another rule of thumb (seems to be a lot of these when it comes to figuring out electricity). A 100 watt solar panel will generate approximately 30 amp-hours per day.
Using our fake test data from above (33 amp-hours consumed on average per day), we can get an idea of a good starting point for pondering how much solar capacity you need. Since a 100 watt portable solar panel will produce somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 amp-hours per day, it won't be enough capacity for our sample RVer. So that means you are looking at at least a 120 watt portable solar kit, but in this scenario you'd be smarter to purchase a 160 watt or even a 200 watt portable solar panel system.
Why would you want to buy more solar than you calculated you need? If you have cloud coverage, your solar isn't going to produce anywhere near it's rated output. So having an excess of solar capacity in cloudy environments is a good thing. Though, you probably will not have enough portable solar panels to make up for truly bad weather. Neither Kelly nor Marshall have this kind of excess capability, so after a string of crappy solar days, it's time to pull out the portable generator.
If you only camp where it's beautiful weather all the time (please excuse us as we laugh uncontrollably at the idea of the perfect camping weather all the time), then clouds aren't a thing that you need to worry about. If you are like the rest of us and live on planet Earth, you need to consider having excess solar capability.
Our advice is to purchase the largest portable solar power system that you have the space for and can afford (remember, they max out around 200 watts for a single system, so it's not like you can go super crazy with capacity even if you buy the most you can get your hands on). You are going to want to have 'extra' capacity for those less than optimal solar days (cloudy, rainy, etc).
Use your portable solar system and see how well it fits into your style of camping and power usage. You can add to it later (either via additional portable solar panels or by going the permanent, roof top installation route) should you find that your initial solar purchase isn't enough.
Types of Solar Panels - Poly vs. Mono
A portable foldable solar panel system comes with one of two types of solar cells: polycrystalline or monocrystalline. The solar cells are the 'business' part of a portable solar system - the dark face of the panels that points directly to the sun and turns sunlight into electricity.
The difference between polycrystalline (poly) and monocrystalline (mono) solar cells are how they are made, which results in one type being more expensive, but more efficient. Poly solar cells are the cheaper of the two, are slightly less efficient then mono cells, and are made by many silicone crystals/fragments that are melted to form a larger 'wafer'. Mono solar cells are cut from a single silicone ingot, are smaller sized overall for the same wattage of a poly cell system (mono cells are more efficient than poly solar cells), and individual mono cells have a distinctive square with cut-off corners appearance.
A poly solar cell system is somewhere in the neighborhood of 13-16% efficient. A mono solar cell system runs in the range of 15-20% efficiency. Not much of a difference, right? Most quality portable solar panel systems are made from monocrystalline (mono) solar cells because of the greater efficiency of a mono cell system, which results in a smaller overall size (kinda handy since you have to lug it around and find a place to store it).
Poly solar cells:
- Cheaper than a mono cell system
- Blueish in color
- Larger sized than a comparable mono cell system
- Less efficient (though you may not really notice the difference)
Mono solar cells:
- Most efficient (though the difference can be negligible)
- Smaller sized than a comparable poly cell system
- Blackish in color
- Higher priced
So what type do you purchase? Monocrystalline or polycrystalline? Unless you go with an ultra-cheap portable solar panel kit, you will end up with a monocrystalline cell setup. The best portable solar panels for camping come with mono cells. The cheap panel systems most likely come with poly cells, but they also come with crappy solar controllers, undersized wiring, and a cheaply made frame and leg setup.
Solar Charge Controllers Explained
Solar charge controllers are the part of a portable solar system that regulate the amount of voltage that gets transferred from the solar panels to your RVs house battery(ies). The charge controller will 'read' what voltage the house battery(ies) are at and will change the voltage that is going into the batteries from the solar panels depending on the current state of battery charge (assuming there is enough sunlight hitting the solar panels to generate the required voltage).
Charge controllers come in two 'flavors' - PWM (pulse width modulation) and MPPT (maximum power point tracking). PWM controllers are less efficient, but cheaper than MPPT controllers. PWM controllers are what come with portable solar panel kits, so they will be what we concentrate on here.
A PWM charge controller isn't very efficient in converting the incoming power from the solar cells to be used as available power to the batteries (they are in the range of 75-80% efficient, whereas an MPPT controller is 94-98% efficient). This is because a PWM controller is basically just taking the incoming voltage from the solar panels and reducing it to the level that the batteries will accept (without overcharging them). Doing so causes a reduction in available power from the solar panels (there is a 'fancy' formula for this calculation, but unless you are a total geek, it'll most likely just cause your eyes to glaze over).
When you are dealing with lower wattage systems, such as a typical portable solar system for RV use, living with this inefficiency is a tradeoff to keep the overall price lower by not going with a considerably more expensive MPPT solar controller. As solar system sizes (overall wattage) grow, then the inefficiencies of a PWM controller becomes much more noticeable and MPPT controllers are generally used (as the controller, while more expensive, will be a much smaller percentage of total system cost).
A solar controller will have a certain number of charge stages, where a stage is the actual voltage that is being used to charge the RVs batteries. There are three basic stages (also known as a 3-stage charger):
- Bulk charge - 100% of available power from the solar panels is used to charge the batteries until the absorption voltage is reached (generally 14.4 to 14.6 volts).
- Absorption charge - Once a set voltage is reached (normally in the 14.4 to 14.6 volt range), the charge controller will switch to the absorption stage. At this point the battery is charged to somewhere in the neighborhood of 85% of full charge. The solar charge controller will then maintain the absorption voltage (again, typically 14.4 to 14.6 volts) for a set time (1 to 2 hours). Both voltage and time period varies depending on the solar controller manufacturer.
- Float charge - After the absorption charge 'session' is complete, your RVs battery(ies) are pretty close to fully charged. The solar controller will bump down the battery charge voltage to a range of 13.2 to 13.7 volts (each manufacturer is different) and hold this voltage for the duration of the solar day. This lower charge voltage will ensure that the batteries aren't overcharged, and that the battery acid isn't boiled off. If there is an excessive load on the batteries and the controller is no longer able to maintain the battery charge level at the float charge point, it may 'kick' back into bulk charge mode, increasing the voltage to the batteries (and bring the batteries back up to fully charged, assuming there is enough solar panel output to do this).
- While the above charge modes are what every solar charge controller has in order to effectively charge batteries, there is another mode called equalization. This used to just be called 'equalizing the batteries' but someone who has a fancy marketing degree decided to call this a fourth charging mode (because 4 is better than 3, right?). Equalizing mode charges the batteries somewhere in the range of 14.8 to 15.5 volts (manufacturer dependent), which essentially overcharges the batteries causing gasing of the battery cells. This serves the purpose of making sure that all cells of a battery bank have the same charge. Generally equalization is set to run every 4 weeks, though some controllers will automatically kick into equalization mode if the battery bank voltage drops below a certain level (typically 10 - 12.1 volts which is a wide range, but again different manufacturers have different ideas and they probably all think they are right). Only flooded, wet cell lead acid batteries should be equalized (unless your AGM or gel lead acid battery manufacturer says go for it).
Decent solar charge controllers will have an LCD/digital display that will show you what is happening with the controller and batteries as far as voltages, amperage, power usage, and probably more information than you actually care about. They will also have LEDs that indicate charge modes, faults, or other gee whiz details. Solar controllers that come with inexpensive portable solar kits will only have LEDs, so they actually aren't of much use. But at least they will charge your RVs battery bank (in theory), right?
Other things to consider is if your solar charge controller is waterproof. For example, Zamp controllers are waterproof while Renogy controllers are not. Why in the world a manufacturer of portable solar panels for RV use would include a solar controller that isn't waterproof is beyond us. But they do. Things that make you go 'hmmm'.
Another consideration of the solar charge controller is whether or not it has the ability to directly monitor the battery bank voltage and/or temperature. Monitoring of the battery 'vitals' helps to not overcharge the batteries and prevents damage from overheating. Though the ability to remotely monitor the batteries is nice to have, plenty of people have lived without this ability for many years and probably will tell you their batteries did just fine.
Solar Panel Electrical Connectors
One last thing to ponder before you pull the trigger on purchasing a portable solar power system is what type of electrical connectors it uses. To be honest, this isn't a deal breaker. Electrical connectors can be changed if necessary and most users of portable solar systems won't even care what type of connectors comes with a particular system as they'll be using the supplied wiring harness and alligator clips to connect directly to their RV's battery bank.
So why might you care about what type of electrical connector comes with a portable solar panel for camping? If your RV comes with a pre-wired solar port that you can plug portable solar panels into, then you will want to pay attention to what type of connectors a particular system has (or you can just change out the connectors that come with the portable system).
Or if you want to buy an extension cable to have the ability to put your portable solar panel farther away from your rig (so it's not shaded by trees you are parked near), you'll want to know what type of connectors your system has so you cab buy a compatible extension.
This may not surprise you, but each manufacturer of portable solar systems has their own idea of which connector is best. Just like they have their own idea of how to program a solar controller. Let's hear it for industry standards! Some of the more common solar wiring connectors include:
- MC4 connectors
- SAE connectors
- Anderson connectors
- No connectors - cheap portable solar systems come with small gauge electrical wires that just have alligator clips attached to the end of a length of wire, which means you cannot easily extend the reach of the panels
Solar panel wiring connectors aren't something to lose sleep over. Worse case scenario is that you can purchase the connectors you need and change them out (or ask your friend who is handy with tools to do it for you). For most users of portable solar panels, what comes with the system is good enough, so you can ignore all this 'interesting' talk about connectors.
Portable solar panels for campers are a great way to get into the 'business' of charging your RVs battery bank using the abundant, and free, really bright object in the sky (you know, the sun). While a portable solar system isn't for everyone, it definitely is a viable option if your camping style includes boondocking/dry camping. If you camp off-grid for long enough periods where your batteries would be drained from normal use, then solar is an awesome solution.
Your neighbors will thank you if you are using solar to charge your batteries instead of a generator. Now that you know how a portable solar panel for camping can benefit you, choose the best system for your needs and go enjoy the benefits of quiet, clean energy.
Camp on, Addicts!