We started using solar on our RVs ever since we hit the road back in 2006. When we bought our bus conversion in 2011, we've been researching options for the right solar panel setup - and we know that a lot of our readers are extremely interested in this topic as well.
Our goal is to have enough solar & battery to be able to go for extended periods without needing to run a generator or connect to shore power . Our goal isn't to be entirely off-grid all of the time. We love variety!
We were able to accomplish this on our prior two rigs, but with the bus our challenge is the sweet vintage curved roof - which we have been reluctant to cover with traditional solid panels.
We put off installing solar waiting for flexible panels to become more widely available and efficient, which was fine as attending to some family matters kept us out east in RV Parks with prepaid electric for a couple years anyway.
During our research we've talked with many companies and asked lots of questions. But a clear winner wasn't emerging for us.
We were highly interested in the potential of flexible panels and tested panels for several months (see below) - but in the end we opted for a 800w roof setup with traditional glass panels installed by the fine folks at AMSolar.
The installation is attractive visually from the ground (with just a nice geeky hint of what is up there) and allows us to tilt the 'back' row of panels.. the front row generally remains flat with a slight tilt (given the curves of our roof) towards the sun. However, we rarely tilt given the hassle and risk of climbing up on our roof.
We then turned the flexible panels into a ground deployable setup for when parked longer term. In total we run 600w of flexible panels (we have panels in from Grape, Renogy and GoPower and are continuing to compare them head-to-head) on their own solar charger.
We're also playing around with building our ideal tilting stand out of PVC.
This gives us a total of 1400w to play around with when fully setup - which we find is plenty abundant to run both our large computer screens, electric marine 12v/110 Vitrifrigo fridge, cooking off electric (induction cooktop & convection/microwave) and even heating water off electric (on a sunny day, of course!).
When not fully setup, the 800w on the roof is a very usable passive amount of solar to keep us satiated with a little conservation.
Our hot water, radiant furnace and engine preheat is supplied by a Precision Temp Jr. hyrdronic (new in 2015) setup, which runs off propane or electric. We compliment the setup with a 2500w Onan Propane Generator (new in 2015), which is ideal for keeping the batteries topped up on cloudy days or running an AC with battery boost. Our boosting Victron 3000w inverter can supplement incoming power (shore, solar, alternator, generator) with battery to meet the demands of higher power draws, like an air conditioner.
The below section will continue to grow as we write and add on to this series of posts about solar for RVs. Keep checking back!
Disclaimer: This is a personal passion project to share these articles - they are uncompensated by anyone. Our gift to you. Except where noted, we have fully paid for parts and installation of our components. If these articles have saved you time, money or research - we do welcome your gratitude and/or contributions to our wine & dine fund ( 'Leave a Tip' at the bottom of the page.)
We are completely independent and non-affiliated financially with any manufacturers or solar companies mentioned. We are not dealers, consultants or trying to sell anyone anything related to solar, or setting ourselves up to be so.
Got Questions? Want guidance on Your Solar/Electrical setup? We simply don't have time to offer system advising anymore. Our focus these days is on mobile internet solutions, which keeps us working overtime most days.
Our Solar Related Blog Posts
Our December 2014 Video Chat about Solar for RVs:
(Caution: This video is nearly an hour long.. make sure you have the bandwidth available before starting!)
The components of our Solar Electrical Setup
Here are the components we're using for our solar setup:
Victron Disclaimer: We selected Victron independently and purchased their inverter when we first bought our bus in 2011. Our main decision point was that, at the time, they were the only battery boosting inverter on the market (there are others now, such as the Magnum Hybrid) - a feature we highly recommend for maximum versatility. They are most well known in Europe and the boating industry, and aren't as popular for RVing. Over the years of contacting them for support, we've gotten to know the team, and have become unpaid beta testers for them to help evolve their product line for RV use. We love all our Victron can do (like remoting into check the battery status), and how they are constantly improving & advancing things. All of our current Victron equipment has been supplied by them as a test installation, but we are not affiliated with or compensated by them. We just really love the equipment and their responsiveness.
AMSolar Disclaimer: The folks at AMSolar have become good friends over the years since we purchased our components from them for our Oliver Travel Trailer installation back in 2008. We purchased and paid for our components and installation from them for our bus install in 2014. We have no affiliation with them otherwise, but simply have uber respect for them as a company and people.
We've designed solar twice before on our RVs, both our 16' T@B and 17' Oliver Travel Trailer were designed with solar and we lived almost entirely 'off the grid' in those setups. With our bus, our aim is a setup that is versatile and gives us lots of flexibility for a variety of situations.
Flexible Panel 'Ground Deploy' Contestants
When we dove deeper into our research on flexible panels in summer of 2014, we asked all of our top contenders if they'd be up to a challenge and would send us panels to test out - head to head!
While we didn't find flexible panels were up to our expectations yet for a roof installation, we are continuing to test the panels we received as a ground deployable auxiliary setup. We will continue to test various models in a variety of conditions and see how they hold up over time. We also like the combination of a roof setup, and a ground setup - which we'll get around to writing more about at a later date.
Here are the panels we are testing:
- Go Power – Our friends the Wynn’s have written about their experiences with Go Power panels, and they put us in touch with the company who agreed to send us 2x 100W Solar Flex panels for testing, as well as their basic PWM charge controller.
- Grape Solar – Grape Solar was also excited by the project, and sent us 2x 100W Photo-Flex panels for testing.
- Renogy - They opted not to send us panels for the test, but we purchased two at our own cost so we could include them. They tend to the be least expensive flexible option. Reports are coming in from other RVing bloggers that their Renogy flexible panels did not survive a single hot summer, confirming our concerns about how these things in general handle heat. They have since discontinued the panels we have, and have come out with new ones that address the problems.
Additional Solar for RV Resources:
- Jack Mayer's RV Electrical Page
- HandyBob's Solar Page
- Gone with the Wynn's Flexible Solar Panel Overview
- RV Geeks on Solar Panel Tilting (we don't normally tilt our panels due to our curved roof, and instead use ground deploy panels for the extra power - but this is an excellent quick video piece showing just how effective tilting can be!)
Installers & Purchasing Resources:
- AMSolar - Springfield, Oregon: We had our panels installed here (we did the wiring and batteries ourselves), and they were awesome. This was however before Greg sold the company to his employees - so we can't attest to their current management. They can also install lithium batteries. They also keep their own list of recommended dealers/installers that are worth going through.
- RV Solar Solutions - Mobile: Greg is trained by AMSolar, and has a background in solar. He's been touring the country by RV for a few years now, and can do solar installations during his stops. We've met in person, and have heard from others who have had installations done from him and rave about his work. While we have no direct experience to share, we have no hesitation in recommending him.
- Precision RV Service - Mobile: Marvin is trained by AMSolar, and has done installs from their shop. He's an RVer himself, and splits his time in Oregon and Arizona. We've not met him in person, but have heard great things about his work from trusted friends - and have no hesitation in recommending him.