Camping takes many forms and conjures different images in people. To some minimalists, a pickup bed or nylon tent are the only items they would consider even for extended camping. While others will camp only in a condo-like 5th wheel trailer with satellite TV and washer/dryer room. Interestingly, portable solar panels benefit each and every type of camper., and are often vital to sustained off-grid camping success where access to fuel and the power grid is either limited or non-existent.
This article will provide some detail about solar panels, or PV modules as they are often referred to, how they work and why I think they work best in certain configurations for portable or mobile applications. I will also provide recommendations on a couple of exciting portable solar panel products. Here we go!
Wait, Do I Really Even Need a Portable Solar Panel Power System?
You will benefit from portable solar panels for power if the following applies to you:
- You typically camp away from shore power for longer than a weekend
- You boon dock and you hate generator noise
- Your camper spends relatively little time hooked up to either vehicle or shore power.
- You have a generator, but you're tired of worrying about fuel levels
- Your do not frequently start and run your vehicle
You could probably pass on portable solar panels for camping if this applies to you:
- You are almost always plugged into shore power
- You unplug only when moving, and your batteries are being charged by an alternator.
- You boon dock camp, but never for more than a day or two before re plugging back in.
- You live and camp in an area that is typically overcast or otherwise a poor fit for solar power.
- You rarely use shore power, but you frequently drive your vehicle and charge via alternator
Pretty simple really. If you stay mostly in one spot and plugged in, solar power is likely more of a backup power choice than your go-to power source. Let's face it, good batteries are expensive, require attention and maintenance, and relying on them exclusively for all your power needs is often a balancing act between charging and discharging rates and levels.
On the other hand, the idea of mobility and independence may be your ‘hot-button' issue. The ability to create and store all the power you require, within reason, without the logistical limitations inherent to fuel-based or plugged-in power sources is attractive to many people. Those living in remote cabins or areas far off the beaten track would consider this a vital reason for a solar panel system, portable or otherwise.
I Plan To Use a Battery Isolator or Solenoid and my Rig's Alternator, I Don't Need The Hassle of a Solar Power System
Actually, this can be a workable idea, especially with the continuous duty solenoid, which keeps your starter battery electrically separated from your house battery on the discharge side, but connects them on the charging side so that as you run the vehicle, all batteries receive a charging current from the alternator.
Even if you wish to avoid the battery isolator, which bleeds off current from the house battery, or solenoid system, because maybe you want more control than its automatic switching provides, it would be savvy to have at minimum a manual A – B battery switch in parallel between your starting and house battery. In a pinch, the A – B switch can be placed in its A + B mode to draw power from both, as in the case when your cranking battery is too depleted to start your vehicle's motor and needs assistance from the house battery.
You want as many power options as possible when away from the grid and on your own. I just experienced a sudden, out of nowhere cell failure on a good quality, marine deep cycle battery that apparently forgot that it should hold 12.5volts instead of 10.5 volts at full charge. Point here is that electrical failures are normal events and should be considered and planned for when setting up your system.
Likewise, adding a portable solar powered charging system to your rig adds significant versatility, and can be kept simple and hassle-free, then scaled up to a more elaborate system as your experience and comfort level increases. Solar provides additional powering options and shares part or most of the load that would otherwise fall on the cranking battery and alternator.
Furthermore, solar is silent, exhaust gas free, and can last decades and beyond without significant overhaul. Solar is a system that is purpose-built to generate usable power. The vehicle is purpose-built for transportation, so we are pushing its electrical system beyond design limits when we power our living space with it exclusively.
A very basic solar charging system consisting of a foldable, suitcase panel set, charge regulator or controller, and connecting cables for the battery hookup, provide unlimited battery charging potential completely independent of the vehicle battery. This system is also highly portable and can be used to charge both the vehicle and house battery via the A + B switch, or by affixing the power leads directly to whichever battery is depleted.
I understand that for some people, their rig and its cigarette lighter or accessory socket is truly all they need. Nothing wrong with this minimalist approach at all. I, on the other hand, need a bit more power because I want more control over my climate, more lights and electronics etc. It would be more of a hassle for me not to have the use of these electrical devices than it is to incorporate a power system that allows access to them when I want it.
Besides, an appropriately sized portable solar panel system is no hassle at all. It is empowering, it never smokes or runs low on fuel, it de-couples me from the national grid, and it just works.
Technically, Aren't All RV Roof Panels Portable?
Portable solar panels for camping are, for me, a lightweight panel array which is not permanently attached to my rig, and can, therefore, be positioned and re-positioned throughout the day at the best angle and direction to absorb as much solar energy as possible.
Ideally, in warm months, you want to set up your camper or vehicle in the shade, so vehicle mounted solar panels are not ideal in my opinion. This ‘hard-mounting' requires you to camp in full sun as much as possible, and worse, unless you're willing to re position your rig throughout the day, you likely will only benefit from peak sun production during a relatively small period of time.
You may be thinking that partial sun or partial shading on your vehicle mounted panels ‘ought to be OK' for whatever reason. Perhaps you plan on relying on a generator for battery charging and direct current power consumption. You might have an extra large battery bank you haul around for extended off-grid trips. Or perhaps you are highly disciplined about how and why you use electric power while camping.
These are all important considerations that will become part of what makes or breaks a successful portable solar panel powered camping trip. But Let's look just at what partial shading does to degrade your solar output.
Partial Shading Affects
Your solar panel (photo voltaic module or PV module) in a typical 12-volt system is actually not a single panel, per se, but 36, half-volt silicon wafers in a monocrystalline sheet, wired together in series, to achieve the required voltage.
When you wire any 2 or more batteries together, current flows from higher pressure to lower pressure. Connecting a fully charged new battery to an old, tired battery significantly degrades the performance of the new battery as its power is equalized with the old battery.
This is similar to what happens when you partially shade a PV module. Shading just a small section logically cuts the power production from that section. However, because the shaded section is part of the overall circuit of cells, the other cells with their higher voltage pressure, like flowing water, will be flowing electrons into the shaded section to equalize its output, very similar to the new and old batteries.
This equalizing effect causes a couple of problems for our solar power output:
- First, the solar panel starts to overheat as more electrons are being pulled from the productive cells to equalize the shaded cells.
- Second, the extra heat causes a reduction in overall efficiency of the panel. Look for your panel's P Max rating, which is a temperature coefficient that indicates the affect of temperature rise on panel power production, above the test condition temperature.
What's important to know about this is that partial shading of the panel leads to excessive heat, and as little as 15 to 20 degrees of extra heating may add up to 15 to 20 % less power output, just from the heat alone – plus the loss from the shaded area!
There are portable solar panel systems for RV's that have manual or motorized tracking, which works to maintain the optimal angle of the panels, however these systems add complexity and expense that blur the definition of ‘portable', and, while often great systems, they are really outside the direction I would go when choosing portable solar panels for camping the way I prefer it be done.
Get that drill off my roof!
Here is another aspect of hard-mounted PV modules that gets little mention, which means I could just be neurotic about it, but I'm going to bring it up here: I have a very hard time justifying making holes on the roof of my camper. There, I said it and I feel better.
What is one of the most common problems (if not the single most common) in ‘seasoned' RVs? Short answer: Roof leaks. Look at most ceilings and you will find water spots and stains around entry points, air conditioners, vents, glands…. anywhere a passage way was created to the exterior of the rig.
As the camper gets older, maintaining these entry points, their seals, coatings, caulk, etc, becomes increasingly critical to the integrity and usability of the interior of the rig. Maybe it's due to my Florida upbringing, but our high heat and humidity create a good growth environment for mold and mildew, and when water intrusion is added to that equation, you can literally lose the use of the rig until, if even possible, the mold contaminant is eliminated.
I once owned a residential property in west central Florida on which were two small cottage-sized houses. One built in the 1970s and the other the 1930's. Both had sustained storm damage during a hurricane a few years prior to my purchase, and had roof-leaks.
“No problem”, I said, I got the property for a great price and dove into repairs and remediation.
Fast forward two years later…… The 1930s house was scheduled to be scraped and cleared off the lot, the 1970s house had to be gutted down to the wall studs, and ceiling joists, and I even had to replace about a third of those! All the sheet rock, all the flooring, all the insulation – Everything, was pulled out, by my wife and me and carted to the dump. The mold and mildew could just not be dealt with any other way than by the elimination of the host.
Sure, I'm scarred for life because of this experience. Perhaps, but unless you are the type of person, and I have friends who are, who excel at maintenance, scheduled or otherwise, I would avoid making additional holes in the roof of your camper or van. Water intrusion and mold are things you never want to have to remedy. Believe me when I say that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here.
Despite this concern (of mine), I see people happily drilling a dozen holes into their roofs, per panel, to hold it down in anticipation of highway travel, and through-holes to the interior for the panel wiring connection to the solar charge controller. “Just don't use silicone”, they say. “Silicone is broken down by UV radiation”….. “you want to use (insert your favorite product name here)”, they insist.
Some of them are probably even right. There are few absolute truths in this world, so based on that alone, some of these well intentioned people know what they're doing. However, for me, I remain convinced that any idea of drilling holes into or through any roof of mine, RV or residence, is off the table.
Roof Mounted Solar Panels are More Difficult to Maintain
Assuming you have enough open surface area on your roof for a couple of 2 foot by 4 foot solar panels, and you have done an exemplary job with the mounting hardware and sealant, you still have to maintain your installation which of course means frequent climbing onto your roof to clean panels, inspect wiring and connections, sealant and so forth.
It doesn't take much dirt, mold, pollen, bird dropping, etc, to significantly degrade PV module performance and output. Sure, you will be monitoring your panel output, and you would be wise to frequently perform a visual inspection of your roof anyway to look for signs of trouble.
To me, it is a much more desirable idea to simply walk over to my solar panel array, wipe off any dirt or debris, re position and adjust the angle as needed, and basically remove the whole issue of trying to recall the last time I climbed onto the roof to look at the panels, and whether my reduced output today is due to dirt or bugs or something else, etc.
When the panels are at ground level, a quick visual glance returns instant results with no effort. I find this very attractive.
Portable Solar Panels To The Rescue
A portable or ‘suitcase' solar panel setup addresses many of the concerns and inconveniences related to a roof top installation, and might just provide you the extra versatility you are looking for.
One option here is a do-it-yourself system build, whereby you acquire a large panel or panels, controller, cabling etc, and assemble your own custom solar power plant. You may also find that this totally custom approach is also more economical, as the price per watt of a typical component solar system is generally less than that of a suitcase type system.
This is likely due in part because you are selecting each individual component, at the most advantageous current price, and are assuming much of the research & development and design testing of your system. Contrast this with a plug and play suitcase system where every component, connection and switch have been sourced and assembled for you, I would expect to pay up a little for this kind of convenience.
Convenience and portability are two things I am willing to pay for, and the solar panel suitcase approach has a lot going for it for the off-grid, highly mobile camper;
- easy to deploy and re-deploy to catch the most sunlight
- lockup inside your vehicle or camper when not needed
- move from camper to camper, camper to cabin etc.
- just as scalable as a permanently mounted system
- easier to keep clean and maintain for maximum performance
- allow you to set up in shade and locate panels in the sun
- zero tilt and azimuth compromise required with a fixed mount system
About the only downside to a suitcase style setup is that since it is on the ground, it becomes a trip-hazard, especially at night so a little extra care must be taken after dark to secure the system.
Portable Solar Panel Systems
I wanted to include a couple different excellent systems at this point to illustrate that there are different price-points and capabilities in this product category. If you are brand new to this topic you might choose simple battery tending as your entry point, or, maybe a beefy, high-powered setup is where you want to start. The important thing is that you start somewhere.
With that in mind, here are a few to consider:
This one is the ultimate for several reasons, but chief among them is power output. It is a high quality, 20 pound system with everything you need, including their 20 amp charge controller. The panels will produce, in full sun, close to 10 amps of power, so you could add additional panels, say from another suitcase you purchase without the charge controller to save money, and connect it in parallel with this one to step up your power. Renogy panels are top quality, its frames and connectors and controllers, are popular and provide lasting value.
For extended boon docking without the need to run a generator, the Renogy is my first choice.
For maximum portability, consider this one:
Acopower is another quality company and the PV modules in this suitcase are made by Sunpower, so the quality and efficiency are first-rate. Less expandable than the Renogy system due to its 10 amp controller, but the extra panel wattage and all-in-one design, plus the extra portable this system provides with its 8.4 pound (!) package, is pretty amazing. This is a solid choice for any rig.
Minimalist System that Still Gets the Job Done:
Another panel from Acopower, but without a charge controller. If you like to keep tabs on your battery and can remember to unhook the panel at night or when the battery is full, look no further. This is also a very expandable system as you can add blocking diode, charge controller and additional panels down the road to expand the power and capability of your system.
For the individual who is completely new to this subject but is ready to dip a toe in the water and try solar, but on a tight budget, this is how I would do it.
So, my idea of a portable solar panel system for off-grid camping may differ slightly from yours, but we all need mostly the same thing, to keep our batteries charged so we can use tools and electronics no matter where we are, and get home or otherwise move to another site when the spirit, or calendar, moves us.
Hopefully, within the three examples I have included about will get you thinking about what system will work best for you and your off-grid plans. Today's portable systems pack a punch, are durable and will last for a long time if treated carefully and minimally maintained.
A quality battery or battery bank, and an equally well constructed portable solar panel system will provide all the power capability you need for remote living in style.
Please also see my post: Portable Solar Power Systems – You've Got This! , for complete, self-contained portable power storage systems that would work amazingly well with a suitcase solar panel setup.
Please feel free to comment or ask questions about this subject and I will get right back to you.
Happy boon docking!