But as awesome as solar can be, it is NOT for everyone.
A lot of RVers seem to think that a few hundred watts of solar will magically give them absolute electrical independence (even running air conditioners!) with an investment that will pay for itself in no time at all. And we’ve run across others who regard solar with distrust – just a way for “environmentalists” to throw money down the drain while acting smug about it.
But the truth is – both extremes can be deluded about the realities of solar.
We find relatively few RVers have actually taken the time to think through the real benefits, costs, and cost savings associated with going solar to decide if investing in a solar system actually makes sense.
There is no one right answer for everyone.
But hopefully this guide can help you decide – what is right for you?
Our Solar History
Solar power actually played a big roll in the beginning of our relationship.
When Chris hit the road solo in a minuscule T@b trailer 9 years ago, the first thing he did was upgrade the electrical system with a 110W solar panel. When we met in person later that year for our epic 27 hour first date, I told him that I needed to be able to get a day’s work in, and he was able to squeeze out just enough power from the sun while boondocking that I didn’t need to cut things off early.
Who knows – if it wasn’t for that solar panel, we might not have ended up together.
When we designed our next RV together, of course we integrated in as much solar as we could fit (200W) on the roof of our tiny Oliver Travel Trailer. Our goals at the time were to be as off grid as possible, without being constrained to RV parks or hookups. We didn’t even carry a generator with us at first, so of course solar was a must.
But when we moved into our bus Zephyr four years ago, solar was not on our immediate upgrade list. Our style of travel had changed, as had our electrical needs. We instead first invested in a robust battery & inverter system that could store plenty of energy for a couple days off grid at a time, and this gave us tremendous flexibility in between stops while relying on minimal generator usage.
It wasn’t until a year ago that we at last went all in with our big solar upgrade.
For us – it made sense to wait, and we had other life priorities that we knew would keep us on the grid for a while. But now we are back to enjoying boondocking part of the year and being powered by the sun while doing it. We love our solar setup, and the increased freedom it provides us. And we’re not at all deluded that it’s necessarily saving us money right off the bat.
But that’s us.
Does solar make sense for you?
When Solar DOESN’T Make Sense
Solar is an investment.
It requires planning, substantial upfront expense, and a sizable chunk of physical roof and/or storage space devoted to the cause.
And if you’re not going to be able to take advantage of sucking power from the sun often enough, going through the effort may not be worth it.
As much as we would love all our neighbors to be dependent on solar (and thus silent) – running a generator on occasion isn’t the end of the world.
So let’s start with some scenarios where installing solar just doesn’t make sense:
You’ll be sticking mostly to electric hook-ups anyway. To be honest, you can perfectly enjoy an abundant RVing lifestyle while staying in places with RV electrical hook-ups, thus having little need for solar (or even a generator). There’s a plethora of options out there ranging from traditional commercial RV parks to absolutely amazing state and national parks. If you focus on hookups and your only dry camping tends to be a night here or there while in transit (such as blacktop boondocking in a rest area or commercial parking lot), then solar probably doesn’t make a ton of sense.
- If you are a “special event” boondocker. If the only time each year you are away from hookups is for a single week or two to attend a special event (like Burning Man or the Balloon Fiesta) – a solar system might not make sense. A week of heavy generator use once or twice a year won’t cost you much at all. Even us solar enthusiasts understand that when we choose to attend such events, there will be lots of generator noise (but please do keep it to a minimum).
- You’ll frequently be in places with extreme climates. Especially if you’ll need air conditioning a substantial part of the year, you’re more than likely going to be best off finding a place with hook-ups. Trying to be off-grid and comfortable with just solar on roasting summer days is not fun. It takes an extreme solar & battery setup to keep up with air conditioning – whereas most generators can run an AC with ease.
- You’ll be sticking to more populated areas. Unless you’re embarking on some urban stealth camping, the areas where off-grid boondocking spots are most plentiful don’t tend to be near cities or populated areas. The east coast and midwest have fewer options – and most campgrounds in these areas offer hook-ups. Go out west however, and the opportunities for solar boondocking and dry camping are endless.
- You’re more of a weekend warrior than extended-time RVer. If you’ll just be going out for short trips a few times a year, the investment in extensive solar may not be worthwhile. It’s easy enough to find campgrounds with hook-ups, or to learn to live without much energy – supplementing with a generator (please get a quiet one however!) when necessary. Or you you can get a simple solar setup to meet your minimal needs, instead of investing in a larger system.
- You’re not otherwise setup for dry camping. If you don’t have large enough waste holding tanks or don’t care to conserve other resources – then solar alone isn’t going to make extended boondocking magically feasible.
Solar is a Lifestyle Change
If you’ve gotten comfortable in your RVing lifestyle going pole-to-pole – you of course have to step back and ask yourself if you’re avoiding solar because you don’t go places you need it, or if you’re not going to those places because you don’t have solar?
It is a Catch-22 that way. Installing solar can be a complete RV lifestyle change.
Once you have solar, you start thinking differently about the variety of places you can go. You have a new freedom where you don’t have to plan around hook-ups, and energy usage & collection becomes quiet and passive.
Here’s some of the changes that solar can create:
- You can seek out more remote locations with amazing vistas, privacy, getting further out in nature. There’s an abundance of free dispersed camping options available on public lands, especially out west. You can go entire seasons moving between them, hardly ever hooking-up – having priceless experiences almost for free.
There are many campgrounds that have developed campspots that don’t offer hook-ups, and staying in these campgrounds (or dry loops) will become an option for you. Often the camp areas without hookups have better views, lower prices, easier availability, and increased privacy over their hook-up alternatives.
- You can take advantage of ‘driveway surfing’ options to stay with friends & family without worrying about plugging into their house and potentially tripping circuit breakers.
- If you have a mechanical break-down while on the road or you need to wait in a parking lot for a while – you have magical power still flowing in that can make the wait a little less stressful.
- If you are in a developed campground with hook-ups, and the power goes out – you can keep on ticking while your neighbors may have to resort to a generator or going without.
- If you install solar on your roof, while in motion or parked, your house batteries are getting charged whenever there are sun’s rays are hitting your cells.
If you’re on the fence about solar for your RV, we recommend giving some scenic boondocking or dry camping a try first. See if you even like it before investing in solar. Try conserving power and minimizing generator time as best you can to get a feel for it. Budget out your water usage, and really get to know your tank capacities.
It’s particularly helpful if you have boondocking savvy friends you can join up with for a couple days to show you the ropes. We’ve certainly enjoyed introducing friends to the lifestyle.
Will Solar Pay Off?
Of course, installing solar isn’t free. It takes an investment up front before you see any of the benefits. This means spending real dollars. And potentially lots of them, depending on what your needs are and what components you already have installed.
One of the frequent questions we field is… will the investment in solar pay off? Will you save enough in campground fees and/or generator fuel to justify the expense?
Over time, a long time, very potentially so.
We’ve created a simple spreadsheet that captures the cost analysis we’re about to walk you through with a sample setup. You’re welcome to download a copy (it’s in XLSX format) of it and play around with your own numbers.
By the time you invest in panels, wiring, installation, solar chargers, battery monitor, batteries and an inverter (all the basic components), you could be spending several grand to get a solar setup that meets your basic daily power needs enough to get you away from reliance on a generator or seeking hook-ups.
Let’s take a look at a fairly typical 600w solar installation (the amount we consider a great target point for most RVers to start from for extended dry camping):
- 600w Panels (4 x 150w Solar Panel Kits from AMSolar) – $1200
- Solar Controller (using the Victron 75/50 MPPT as an example) – $379
- Battery Monitor (Using a Tri-Metric 2030) – $169
And of course, you’ll need decent batteries to hold the power collected from the sun if you want to be able to use it after the sun goes down. And an inverter if you want to utilize the power in your batteries (generally stored as 12 volt) for non 12v electronics.
You can easily add another $2000 for a good sized pure sine-wave hybrid inverter (or do smaller ones for dedicated purposes for a couple hundred bucks each), and a grand or so for some lead acid batteries if you don’t have a suitable battery bank already (and keep in mind that you will need to replace your batteries every few years).
All and all, to design this sort of system, you’re looking at an investment of around $5000 – not including installation if you don’t want to do it yourself. Most solar shops seem to be able to install such a system in a day or two – so figure on 8-12 hours of installation time if you go that route. So let’s add another grand.
For some other examples:
- Go-Power 480w Complete Kit (doesn’t include the batteries) for about $3700
- Renogy 400w Starter Kit (no batteries, inverter or battery monitor) for about $700
Keep in mind that US tax payers also qualify for a 30% tax credit on the cost of a solar install, and RVs qualify as a second home. This can make the upfront costs much more advantageous.
Start with deciding just how much solar you need to meet your needs before going out making any plans. So many folks over-estimate how much energy collection is possible with solar panels (it can vary so much by clouds, weather, time of year, your current lattitude), and under-estimate how much power they actually use.
You can do a basic energy audit by monitoring your usage for a couple days, or do an extensive component by component audit (which we definitely recommend doing at some point so you can optimize your systems – we need to re-do ours now that we’ve changed so much).
And for sure, you can go crazy with more solar, ground deploy supplemental panels, lithium batteries and high end inverters & control systems (like we have). Our 1400w (800w roof / 600w ground) solar & 500AH lithium battery installation would cost closer to $10,000, not including a lot of our own blood, sweat and tears installing many components ourselves.
For the argument of ‘will it pay off’ – let’s just go with a nice round number for $6000 for a decent fully installed setup that will meet the daily needs of most boondockers who are being energy conservative.
You can off course do it a lot cheaper, or you can spend much more. But this is a good starting point to think through the potential savings.
Remember, you can use the spreadsheet above we’ve created to play with your own numbers.
Generator Operation Math
If you’re comparing the investment of solar to the cost of operating an existing generator – obviously, $6000 at $2/gallon (a cost that is constantly fluctuating) buys a heck of a lot of generator fuel. 3000 gallons worth.
Let’s pretend you have a generator that burns about 1/2 gallon an hour (a fairly typical amount – but check the specs for your model), that means you can run your generator for 6000 hours for the cost of our sample solar installation. At moderate usage of 4 hours a day of generator time ($4/day), you’d need to be solar independent for around 1500 days to get ahead (not factoring in the cost of generator maintenance to keep things simple) .
Even if you solar camped every single day of the year (which isn’t typical), with that math, it would take over 4 years to come out ahead.
Of course, do the math for your generator’s specced fuel consumption and you actual typical usage – and don’t forget to factor in oil changes every 100 hours, and other ongoing generator maintenance.
And remember, even if you go solar, there WILL be dark and cloudy days where you might need to run the generator anyways.
No matter how you run the numbers – it is going to take a long time for solar to pull ahead of a generator, assuming that cost savings is your only goal.
However, if you don’t have a generator to begin with, you should also consider the costs of purchasing a suitable one in your personal equation. And more than likely, even if you go solar, you’ll want at least a small one on board for those cloudy days.
- The Honda EU2000i is highly regarded as a super quiet small generator. We carried one with us in our travel trailer, and even converted it to run off propane. It could run the smaller A/C we had installed.
- Onan 2500w Propane is our current generator, we selected it because it fits in a bay we have available. Combined with our battery boosting inverter, it can top up the batteries on a cloudy day or run a 15000 btu A/C if we need it longer than our solar/batteries can.
Let’s look at campground fees. They’re all over the map price wise. An Army Corp of Engineer or state park campsite with electric can be about $20/night. A commercial RV Park in a decent sized city might be $40/night. A monthly spot in a place you want to be could be $300-800/month – or much more.
For simplicity, before we had our solar – we were averaging $470/month in campground fees. We stayed in a wide variety of places, and mixed it up some volunteer workamping too. (We keep a monthly cost log of our expense – you’re welcome to view it.)
Now that we have solar, we don’t do 100% solar camping. Nor do we do 100% free camping.
We still pay for dry camping without hook-ups (such as the Balloon Fiesta at $25/night, or our recent stay at Cochiti Lake at $12/night). And we still take hook-up sites from time to time as well, especially if we want to run our A/C on warm days, or are traveling in areas where dry camping isn’t as common.
Our lifestyle is about variety and flexibility.
Post solar, our monthly campground expenditures seems to be averaging closer to $260/month. This is an average – some months it’s higher, some months it’s near zero.
I feel comfortable saying that solar saves us about $210 a month on average.
With that math, at a $6000 investment in solar, it would take a little over 2 years for the sample solar installation to pay off – and it will take almost 4 years for our own solar costs to be recouped.
That’s of course only one example.
If you went from 100% high end RV resort stays to 100% free solar camping – you could save a $1000/month and pay it off in no time. But if you went from 100% volunteer camp hosting (ie. free camping) to 100% free solar camping, obviously – you’re not going to save anything but your time.
Electrical Grid Math
Electricity from the grid is cheap – the national average is just 12 cents a kWh.
Some campgrounds pass the meter reading through to long-term residents, occasionally with a markup over the electric company rates.
Even at 12 cents per kWh, things like space heaters or dual roof airs can rack up a substantial monthly bill. When those are needed, finding inexpensive monthly or even nightly campground fee options make a heck of a lot of sense.
If your energy needs are that substantial – solar isn’t going to help much anyway unless you have a LOT installed.
To put things in perspective – to date, we have collected just over 500 kWh with our 800W array of roof panels over the course of the year we’ve had our current setup.
At a national average rate of 12 cents a kWh, we’ve saved a whopping $60 versus buying that amount of electricity from the grid. Oh yeah baby, we’re rolling in the savings!
But It’s Not Just About Money
For most who go solar, it’s not about saving money and the financial pay back. Yes, as you can see from the math above – in some scenarios, you can get ahead given enough time.
But for most, the savings will not be seen for years.
The true beauty of solar is the opportunities it opens up. Some of them priceless.
Here’s some of our favorite features of solar that make it absolutely worth our effort & investment:
Energy Independence – We’re not crunchy granola heads by any stretch of the imagination – heck, we drive a big dirty diesel spewing bus (that we only move about 6-8k miles a year). But we do care about our planet and try to minimize the impact we have on it. Being able to avoid connecting to the electrical grid has somewhat reduced our impact. But then again, so does living in a super tiny home – we feel most RVers tend to be ahead on the carbon impact curve anyway.
The biggest impact going solar will have however isn’t from the power you generate, it is that it forces you to be more aware of what you are using. This focus on conservation and energy efficiency can have a substantial impact that carries through even when you are plugged in to campground hookups, or move back into stationary sticks & bricks living.
- Silent & Clean – We hate generators. While we have one, we like to pretend it doesn’t exist. We don’t like the sound of them nearby, and we don’t like the fumes. While producing solar panels may not be cleanest business around, our use of them gives us energy collection during the day without fumes and especially without sounds. We like not disturbing our neighbors when we want to indulge in a binge movie watching marathon (and we hope they appreciate that too).
- Passive – We really love not thinking about energy too much. As long as we have access to the sun, we are collecting energy with our 800w roof installation. If we’re setting up somewhere longer term, we set out our 600w of ground deployable panels for a bit more energy abundance. We may even tilt our roof system to better aim towards the sun in the winter. We do have to occasionally clean the panels, but otherwise – they’re maintenance free. There’s no fuel to haul around, no filters to replace, or changing of oil.
Oh, The Places We Can Go – The ability to pick our campsites by how much we want to be there, not by how will we keep powered up – is so absolutely freeing. We love being able to pull in somewhere and just know we’re pretty darn self-contained. We can generate our own power, store enough water & waste for weeks – and not feel we’re lacking anything. We don’t think twice when an event we want to attend ‘only’ has dry camping (as long as we’re prepared for putting up with other people’s generators), or selecting a campsite with a better view but no hook-ups.
- Geek Points – Hey, solar is cool. When you have solar, be prepared to answer questions and be a bit envied. There’s nothing like ending a 2-week stay somewhere and not having needed to run the generator (thank you sun!). All the while feeling absolutely abundant. With solar, you’ll be the envy of the campground while you enjoy life with a better view, no noise and potentially less nightly costs.
The Realities of Solar
Solar is not a magical pill however. You will not create an energy abundant always silent power system by just slapping a few panels on your roof.
Here’s some of the challenges of solar:
- Research. Research. Research. Yes, you can just go buy a starter panel kit and figure out how to directly wire them into your current electrical system. And yes, you can likely score some electrons that way that keep your LED light on, and maybe your laptop & smartphone charged up. You’ll learn a lot doing this, of course. But if you want to go larger than keeping lights on, you’ll need to spend some time reading and researching. There’s lots to learn about panel specifications & types, energy usage, correct wiring, pros and cons of different equipment, parallel vs. series panel arrays, optimal battery charging, and more. We do our best to continue writing about some of these topics when we can, and there are a lot of other resources out there (see the resources at the end of this article). A well respected installer is also a great option – we list a few on our Solar Page. But be careful – some “professionally” installed RV solar systems are no better than you might be able cobble together on your own.
You will Overestimate your Energy Collection – So many assume that if you install 600w of panels on your roof, you’ll get darn near close to 600w of energy collected each hour of the day. Oh, how we wish this was true! The rated specification of a panel is the maximum output you are likely to ever see, and only under the most ideal perfect unicorn conditions.
There are so many variables that impact energy collection. Let’s start with that there are generally only 5 hours of peak sun at most locations & times of year where you will harvest the bulk of power. Add a bit of overcast or a rainy day, and you’ve lost the bulk of the day’s energy opportunity. Have a little shadow on your panels from an antenna, air conditioner or tree? You could lose a lot of your collection ability too. And let’s not even talk about winter days with pesky 4pm sunsets and the darn sun being way in the southern horizon. Basically, if you’re going all out – put as much solar on your roof as you have space for.
No matter how much you have – there will still be days that you wish you had more!
- You will Underestimate your Needs – We do it ourselves. We figure we can get through the day with only 7 hours of computer time in super dim screen mode, cooking one meal on our electric induction hob, and turning the lights off by 10pm. But you know what? Life doesn’t follow a spreadsheet. Living within a tight power budget isn’t always easy, especially if you have a looming work deadline, or kids to entertain or heck, you just NEED to watch the next episode of Game of Thrones. If you can, pad in flexibility in your power planning. It is possible to get by on a miserly budget, but more headroom leads to less stress and more fun.
You Have To Make Some Lifestyle Changes Too – You also have to change other things in your RVing life. Reduce your energy consumption by both thinking through other changes in your RV you can make – like changing to LED light bulbs and switching appliances to 12v where you can (to reduce the need for an inverter). You’ll also need to learn to minimize your own usage of power to stay within your power budget. Turn off lights when they’re not being used, be aware of what is using energy even when you’re not actively using it, think differently about meal preparations and turn down the brightness on computer screens and TVs.
- It Never Fails – Your Neighbor Will Run Their Generator – Oh, how we wish there were more generator-prohibited zones for those of us who have optimized for solar. Just because you’ve gone the extra miles to install and setup a robust solar system, that doesn’t mean the neighbors you’ll encounter on the road will have too. You’ll get all setup in your delicious spot, pour a glass of wine to enjoy with the sunset… and then hear VROOOOM as the neighbors down the road wire up a generator to watch the NFL playoffs, or run a microwave to make dinner. It is within their rights to run their generator when its not quiet hours – much to the chagrin of us solar
Oh well, that is why they make double pane windows and wine after all!
- All our Solar Resources (Including details on our setup)
- Understanding Solar Panel Specifications
- Solar Planning: Conducting An RV Electrical Consumption Audit
- Back to Boondocking: Being Electrically Abundant in a Mostly Electric RV
- The (Almost) Fantasy of Solar-Powered RV Air Conditioning
A Few Respected Solar Info Sites: