We recently wrote about how to select the right generator for your camper, and indeed a good generator can be truly liberating. But what about the other pinnacle of portable power: solar panels? We’ll take a look at the pros and cons, and how solar power can actually save you money in the long run.
First, the Downside
Any way you look at it, solar power will cost you more money up front than a generator or a night of full hookups at a campground. But the key words here are “up front,” because once you make the initial investment, solar power is essentially free. A quality solar system will last as long as your RV and will add to the resale value, helping you recoup some of the cost in the long run.
The Case for Solar
The fact that solar panels can provide “free” energy is great, but the electric meter is not where the real savings are found. Instead, solar pays for itself by allowing you to skip expensive RV parks and head for cheap or free dry camping spots. Many city and county parks have camping spots for $5 or $10 per night, and North America has millions of acres of public land where RVers can stay for a grand total of $0 per night. However, there is not an electric plug in sight at these locations, so you have to bring your own power source.
When you are saving $30, $50, or even $80 per night on campground fees (depending on where you like to camp), it’s easy to see how solar gives you a long-term return on investment.
Beyond the savings, solar provides other valuable benefits. National forests and other public lands are not only free; they are also some of the most beautiful, peaceful, and enchanting places on our continent. Having the solar-powered flexibility to camp in these natural wonders is priceless.
Assembling a System
Solar power systems generally have these basic components:
- One or more solar panels.
- A charge controller that takes power from the panels and stores it in the RV batteries.
- An inverter that takes power from the batteries and converts it to 120 volt AC.
The easiest solution is to buy a kit with all these components included, such as the Go Power Weekender 160 watt system. A kit ensures that you have everything you need and that all the parts will work together. Most kits can be expanded by purchasing individual solar panels later, as long as you use the same model of panel that came in the kit.
If you choose to assemble your own system, there are a wide variety of panels available, so you can pick the size and style that best fits your roof, including traditional rigid panels and innovative new flexible panels.
When selecting an inverter, pay attention to the wattage rating. Just like when selecting a generator, you will want to be sure the inverter can handle the load of any items you may want to run at the same time, such as a TV, microwave, and coffee pot.
Solar vs. Generator
Our discussion would not be complete without considering this question, but it is an “apples and oranges” kind of comparison. Generators provide on-demand power, and larger ones can even run your air conditioner. But they also make noise and require fuel. Solar panels gather power from the sun all day, gradually storing it in the battery so that it is available when you need it. Solar is also quiet and clean, which is exactly what you want when you set out to immerse yourself in nature. The best off-grid power source for you will ultimately depend on when, where, and why you camp.
So, can solar power really save you money? The answer is, it depends! Solar power may not come out cheaper than the metered electricity from the power company, but savings on RV campgrounds can really add up. And at the end of the day, the freedom to get out and explore without limits is something that’s hard to put a price tag on.