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3 Types of Solar Panels for RVs

An RV on camp site with solar panel.

If you want to be an energy-conscious RV driver, using solar energy by installing solar panels can be good for the environment. It can also be good for your wallet after paying the initial setup costs since solar energy is relatively inexpensive compared to traditional electricity.

As an added bonus, some states are offering tax credits or other financial incentives to encourage folks to use solar energy instead of traditional electricity.

Making the switch from electricity to solar energy can feel intimidating. With an RV, you may feel nervous about whether you are capable of installing solar panels. It can also be tough to figure out which type of solar panel to choose. Different solar panels can have different price points, installation processes, and considerations.

Although the solar panels you install on a house can be similar to those you would install on any other structure such as a house or shed, RVs may need specific dimensions or methods of installation. As a result, it’s important to choose solar panels with your RV’s dimensions, battery power, and a budget in mind.

You also may want to consider how you plan to use solar energy. If you intend to use solar panels to power an air conditioner unit, you will probably want more powerful, reliable solar panels than you would choose if you only wanted to keep the lights on or use the solar energy as an occasional backup to the battery power source.

Types of Solar Panels for RVs

Generally speaking, there are three different types of solar panels suitable for using on RVs. These are called monocrystalline, amorphous, and polycrystalline panels.

1. Monocrystalline Panel

If you care more about efficiency than economical pricing, the monocrystalline panels are probably your best bet. According to linquip.com, monocrystalline panels are “a solar panel comprising monocrystalline solar cells.

The panel derives its name from a cylindrical silicon ingot grown from single-crystal silicon of high purity in the same way as a semiconductor. As the cell is constituted of a single crystal, it provides the electrons more space to move for a better electricity flow. 

The cylindrical ingot is sliced into wafers, forming cells. To maximize the utility of the cells, the circular wafers are wire cut to an octagonal-shaped wafer. These cells have a unique look because of the octagonal shape. They also have a uniform color.”

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Monocrystalline panels tend to be pretty expensive to install at upfront costs. According to an article by fixr.com, monocrystalline panels can range from about $3,500 to install and skyrocket in price to over $9,500. While this might seem like a hefty sum to pay, those looking to install solar panels should also consider the longevity of their panels.

Monocrystalline panels are built to last. Most solar panel companies offer warranties between 25 to 30 years on these kinds of panels. Additionally, monocrystalline panels tend to last up to 40 years. If your monocrystalline panels cost over $9,000 to install but they last forty years, you are paying about $240 per year for usage of your panels.

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The amount these panels will save you on energy bills may be enough to still make them worth it. Since they are efficient and reliable, they may be less expensive than a lower quality panel that you will have to replace sooner.

Additionally, monocrystalline panels’ efficiency may make them worthwhile as a purchase because they will perform about as well as other sources of energy. If you install solar panels, efficiency and reliability are important because they will allow you to continue using solar energy on a long-term basis.

After all, if your solar panels do not successfully power all of the things you want them to power, you may be tempted to get rid of them after a few uses and go back to your original energy source. This will put you out thousands of dollars–and that’s not including the higher energy bills after enjoying inexpensive solar energy.

2. Amorphous Panel

The next type of solar panels for RVs, known as amorphous panels, are quite a bit less efficient than their monocrystalline counterparts. Still, amorphous panels tend to hold up well over time and provide a reliable source of solar energy.

Amorphous panels are relatively new compared to other kinds of panels, but this does not mean you should automatically write them off as a potential solar panel for your RV. Amorphous panels have a thin, pliable composition. This makes them very easy to install, so if installation challenges are the biggest hurdle preventing you from converting your RV to solar energy, amorphous panels might knock down that barrier.

Amorphous panels work differently than older versions of solar panels. As news.energysage.com shares, “Like all solar panels available today, amorphous solar panels (a-Si) capture energy from the sun and convert it into usable electricity. These solar panels are made from non-crystalline silicon on top of a substrate of either glass, plastic or metal.

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Unlike other types of solar panels, amorphous solar panels don’t use traditional cells; instead, they’re constructed using a deposition process which involves forming an extremely thin layer of silicon on top of a substrate. The thin film interconnects using laser-cut patterns as opposed to mechanical connections used in traditional solar panels.

This construction allows for amorphous panels to be extremely bendable and lightweight, while still generating electricity. Amorphous panels also tend to be the cheapest kind of solar panel in the short term. They cost less in terms of dollars per Watt than monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels.

However, in the long-term, amorphous panels may rack up a higher bill. Since they are less efficient than polycrystalline or monocrystalline panels, you may find yourself paying more for solar energy over time if you use them instead of the other kinds of panels.

Also, amorphous panels are not widely available commercially at this time. This means that if you are set on purchasing amorphous panels to convert your RV to solar energy, you may have a hard time finding them. Once you do find them, if they need to be replaced for some reason, you may run into difficulties finding another set of them.

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3. Polycrystalline Panel

The final type of solar panel for RVs is polycrystalline panels. Polycrystalline panels are a little bit less efficient than monocrystalline panels, but they tend to be more efficient than the newer amorphous panels. Polycrystalline panels last a long time and present a decent level of durability.

What’s more, polycrystalline panels are reliable, which is an important aspect to consider when determining which type of solar panel to install on an RV. Since RVs are moving targets much of the time, reliable solar energy is key to making the switch sustainably and realistically.

According to an article by solarreviews.com, “Polycrystalline panels, sometimes referred to as ‘multicrystalline panels’, are popular among homeowners looking to install solar panels on a budget. Similar to monocrystalline panels, polycrystalline panels are made of silicon solar cells. However, the cooling process is different, which causes multiple crystals to form, as opposed to one.”

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Polycrystalline panels are composed of small fragments of crystals. This is one of the main reasons why they are less expensive to purchase as a product and install than monocrystalline panels. However, when installing solar panels, it’s important to consider the long-term costs such as dollar per watt pricing, installation costs, and longevity.

Since polycrystalline panels are a little less efficient than monocrystalline panels, they cost more per watt than monocrystalline panels would. As detailed on fixr.com, “The cost of your panels depends on your energy needs, with larger homes and off-grid homes requiring more panels.

The national average cost range for polycrystalline solar panels is $4,000 to $6,600, with most people paying around $5,000 for 10 installed polycrystalline solar panels with 300 watts each. This project’s low cost is $3,000 for 10 panels with 250 watts each installed.

The high cost is $8,800 for 10 installed panels with 400 watts each.” A small RV can probably expect to cost less both to install the polycrystalline panels and operate them on a regular basis compared to a large home or business building.

Other Accessories 

No matter what kind of solar panel you install, there are several other accessories you will need to purchase to be able to fully equip your RV to convert to solar power. You will need to buy a solar inverter to convert solar energy to DC power from AC power.

You will also need a charge controller to keep your storage system from overcharging. Additionally, you’ll want to get a solar battery to store solar energy as it is generated.

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Frequently, all the necessary components for installation (including the ones listed above) are packaged in sets with solar panels. If you are installing a solar panel onto your RV for the very first time, this can be helpful. If you’re replacing a solar panel, you may want to buy a panel without all of these accessories or keep them as backups. Of course, if you have a set of solar panels that you want to use, you can also buy all of these materials on your own as needed.

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WERCHTAY 30A Solar Charge Controller 12V/ 24V Solar Panel Charge Controller Intelligent Regulator with 5V Dual USB Port Display Adjustable Parameter LCD Display and Timer Setting ON/Off Hours

If you’re buying solar panels for the first time, you may wonder if you can buy any old solar panels and install them on your RV. Although it might be tempting to repurpose a set of residential solar panels or buy the first solar panels you see, you may want to pause and evaluate whether the dimensions will suit your RV.

Residential solar panels are usually built to be large enough to power a whole house. This means that they may be too big to fit onto your RV. Since solar panels are so expensive and heavy, you probably will want to get your purchase right the first time around.

Besides the issue of size and space, residential panels present another problem when placing them on top of an RV. Residential panels may have a higher voltage than those designed specifically for RVs. This can make them incompatible with RV solar power systems and therefore unusable.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many solar panels does it take to run an RV?

An RV on camp site with solar panel.

As boondockersbible.com states, “If you have a single 12 volt battery, at about 100 AH, you should have 300 watts of solar panels, minimum. With two 12 volt batteries, or two 6 golf cart volt batteries, with between 200-250 AH, you should have 400 watts of solar panels, minimum.”

Every RV is different, so you may want to consult a solar energy installation expert to get an estimate tailored to your RV.

Can I run my RV AC with solar power?

Technically, you should be able to run an RV AC with solar power. Air conditioner units usually require a lot of energy–especially if it’s particularly hot outside and you are running them constantly.

However, it’s not impossible to run an air conditioner on solar power in an RV. You just might need to install more solar panels and make some upgrades to the electrical system as a whole to avoid short circuiting or running out of power quickly.

How long do RV solar panels last?

Two solar panel displayed near an RV.

While the answer to this question depends on the brand, type of panel, and amount of wear and tear, among other things, you can usually expect RV solar panels to last at least a few years. As we mentioned above, some high-quality monocrystalline solar panels can give users up to 40 years of use.

With RV panels, you frequently “get what you pay for.” If you buy the cheapest RV solar panel on the market, you may find yourself replacing it within a few years. If you invest in high-quality RV solar panels and take good care of them, you can expect to get at least 20 years out of them.

What does it mean when an RV is solar-ready?

For an RV to be “solar ready,” it needs to come prewired for solar energy items with a 3-port roof cap, single port roof cap, or side-wall port. Different RVs might have different components that qualify them as “solar ready.” For example, some might just have the capacity for the roof to get wired to the battery while others have full wiring for solar panels and accompanying components.