Guide to Solar Panels for Caravans & Motorhomes
What are the advantages of solar panels for caravans and motorhomes?
The first advantage is that solar panels can give you complete freedom. Caravan and motorhome holidays give you the opportunity to go wherever you want whenever you want. Except that to take advantage of many of the functions of your leisure vehicle, you’ll need to hook up to some power at some point. If you kit your vehicle out with the right solar panels, you’ll no longer have to think about finding access to your next pitch with an electric hook-up. You’ll be able to go to really remote places while still enjoying the luxuries of hot water and electricity.
Solar panels can also save you money in the long run. While they might not be cheap to install in the first place, you’ll no longer have the expense of electric hook-ups.
There’s the added bonus of being environmentally friendly too.
What can a solar panel power in a motorhome or caravan?
If you get the right solar panel for your vehicle and your needs, it should be able to power everything that uses your leisure battery. This could be anything from your lights to your water pump, so choosing the right panels is very important. Whether you’re looking for a solar panel as your only power source, or you just want to keep your battery topped up between pitches, read on to find out how to choose the right panel for your motorhome or caravan.
What type of solar panel is suitable for my caravan or motorhome?
There are two types of solar panels to consider:
- Thin Film Panels: These panels are significantly cheaper than the other option, however, they don’t tend to last as long. Having said this, you can expect most to last about 10 years or so.
- Crystalline Panels: These tend to be more efficient and you should be able to get about 20 years out of a crystalline panel but there’s a bigger price tag attached. It could be well worth the investment if you’re looking to get as much as possible out of your solar panel.
You also get the option of buying free-standing panels or roof-mounted panels. There are pros and cons to both, so consider what might work best for you before you decide.
Free-standing panels have the benefit of being able to reposition them easily so you can catch as much sun as possible. However, you’ll also need to sort out some storage for them when not in use which can be tricky if you go for larger panels. You’ll also need to decide whether you’re comfortable leaving them out when you leave your vehicle from time to time. If you’re not, you might be losing out on valuable charging time.
On the other hand, roof-mounted panels are permanently fixed to your vehicle, so you won’t be able to angle them towards the sun. However, they don’t take up storage space and you can just leave them be all day.
Once you’ve chosen between thin film and crystalline panels and decided whether you want to have free standing panels or roof-mounted ones, it’s time to start thinking about power. It’s worth doing a good bit of research on this as you could end up constantly running out of charge if you don’t get a panel with a high enough output. Or you could end up spending too much money on a huge panel that you don’t need.
In order to get this right, you might want to test out how much electricity you usually use per day in your caravan or motorhome. Fully charge your leisure battery and set off on a trip for a few days without charging it. When you get home, you should be able to calculate your energy use and from there work out which solar panels will be suitable.
As an idea, the average four-berth caravan will need a panel with a power rating of at least 100W. In the summer, this will keep appliances such as your water pump and lights running comfortably. If your fridge is not powered by the gas, you may need to consider a panel with a higher power rating.
How to get the most out of your caravan or motorhome solar panels
- Before you purchase your new solar panels, consider how you’ll be attaching it to your caravan or motorhome. You may need to purchase some adaptors if your manufacturer’s clips don’t fit.
- Before fitting your new solar panels, check your caravan or motorhome’s warranty if you have one. Some may stipulate that the work must be carried out by the manufacturer or an approved service provider to avoid invalidating the warranty. You’ll also need to tell your insurance provider that you’re fitting solar panels if you want this included in your policy.
- Look after your battery. Making the most of your solar panels also means that your battery must be in excellent condition. Make sure you maintain your battery, especially in the winter months when you might not be using it as much or at all. If it’s not in tip top condition, consider replacing it.
- Consider installing a regulator and charge controller to prevent battery damage from overcharging. This is particularly important if you’re installing a large solar panel. You will need a regulator if the power of your solar panel is more than a tenth of your battery’s rating (amp hours). A charge controller will usually prevent energy seeping the wrong way when there isn’t enough sunlight and will usually include a regulator. You can also buy inverters that will prevent your battery from running down completely and you can set an alarm to warn you when your battery has reached a certain level.
- It may sound obvious but make sure that as much of the panel as possible is in direct sunlight. Shadows can have a big impact on the amount of power that it generated, especially when it comes to crystalline solar panels.
- If you want to cover your panel with glass or plastic to protect it, especially if it is a roof-mounted solar panel, bear in mind that this can greatly increase the amount of time required for your battery to recharge. In some cases it might take three times longer.
- You’ll be able to generate the most power when the sun is at its strongest, around midday. In the summer months, positioning your panel so it faces directly upwards should make the most of this. At other times of the year, you’ll have to be more careful about how you position your panel in order to capture the most energy possible.
- Think about what you’re powering with your battery. Are you using inefficient appliances that use up a whole lot of energy? For example, even the type of lightbulb that you’re using can have a big impact on how much power you need to generate. Energy efficient LEDs can keep your electricity usage down, so consider replacing any old halogen bulbs.
- Keep it clean! This is especially important if you have a roof-mounted solar panel. Get up there regularly and wash off any grime that’s accumulated. Usually warm water and soap will be fine for this job but check the manufacturer’s instructions. You’ll be surprised at how quickly things like dust from the road and bird droppings can build up. This can have a big impact on how much power you’re generating.
- If you don’t use your caravan or motorhome in the winter months, a solar panel can be a handy thing to have. When winterising your vehicle, consider keeping your panels connected to your battery and using them as a substitute for a trickle charger. Although they won’t produce as much electricity as in the summer, this could help keep your battery in good condition and ready to go for your first trip in the spring.
So, whether you’re looking to go completely off-grid on your next caravan or motorhome trip or you want to give your battery a boost between pitches, solar panels are a great addition to any set-up. They can save you money in the long run and they’re more environmentally friendly than using an electric hook-up at every site. Plus, they give you even more freedom to explore a little further off the beaten track.