How much does adding solar power to your RV cost?
Solar power is a hot topic in the RV and camping community. Today, a lot of new RVs either ship pre-wired (‘solar-ready’) or with complete solar systems installed. But for operators with smaller setups—vans, trailers, and other bumper-pulls— or older RV’s, things aren’t as straightforward.
“How much is adding solar going to cost?” is one of the most common question dealers hear from RVers. Next, they want to understand how solar stacks up financially against other RV power options, particularly shore power and portable generators. If you’re wondering the same, read on.
Table of Contents
What Components Do I Need?
There is no one-size-fits-all RV solar solution. Campers who only want to operate their basic RV systems will have very different power requirements than those who travel with TVs and household appliances.
That said, here are some simple guidelines for selecting (and pricing) RV solar systems for smaller setups:
Many weekend off-grid campers start with a minimalist approach and only need limited DC power to operate RV water pumps, fans, lights, and possibly a ‘three-way’ refrigerator.
This basic single panel rooftop system can offset the uses of DC power draws for a family of 4 over a weekend, with room to spare. This system is also easily expandable, so you can add more solar and battery power as your needs grow.
Estimated cost, basic rooftop DC Power System — $1500+
Mid-level Power System
Powering Your AC Appliances
Campers looking to power laptops or use household appliances will need to convert DC energy to the power similar to that found in the home. This conversion means adding a power inverter to the basic setup. Inverters range in size and quality. A basic power inverter can be integrated into your RV or trailer’s electrical system so you’re able to use your outlets.
When buying an inverter, it’s important to keep in mind that you should always size to the largest item you plan on running. If you’re looking to simply charge your laptop, cell phone, run a small tabletop fan, or some string lights, you can easily run these on a 700-watt inverter ($400). However, if you can’t live without your microwave, toaster or coffee maker, you will likely need a pure sine wave inverter no less than 2000-watts ($800).
Incorporating AC power allows for more flexibility and creature comforts. Keep in mind that when adding these power draws, it is important to monitor battery power levels as you use more devices.
Estimated cost, basic rooftop AC/DC Power System — $2000+
Residential Fridges or Air Conditioning
Full-timers, or ‘Power users’ who want all the conveniences of home will need a robust rooftop solar installation paired with a large battery bank of no less than 500Ah of lithium battery power. Even then, going fully off-grid with power-hungry appliances will likely involve a generator.
Replacing the power drawn by the average residential refrigerator, or RV air conditioner requires a lot of solar. We recommend no less than 800 watts of solar for this type of installation.
For RVers who simply can’t live without their air conditioner, a hybrid generator/solar would be the budget-friendly way to work solar into the mix. Upgrading a stock converter/charger with a 3-in-1 inverter charger with a power-share function (like the Go Power! IC3000) allows you to use a smaller generator for less time to recharge RV batteries after running heavy loads.
Estimated cost, advanced rooftop AC/DC Power System — $5000+
Not every RVer wants to drill holes in their roof or go through the process of installing a solar system. For these campers, or those with a limited amount of roof space, a portable solar kit may be the answer.
Portable solutions are evolving quickly and deliver increased efficiency and utility while reducing overall weight and footprint.
A typical 100-watt portable solar kit starts around $500. This investment is ideal for campers who want to get a taste of solar without the commitment of a permanent mount. These kits are also great for supplementing rooftop systems. However, you would also need to invest in a proper battery bank. As mentioned earlier, 200ah of AGM batteries ($700) is a good place to start.
Estimated cost, Portable DC Power System — $1200+
Adding AC charging to your RV with a portable solar panel would work the same way as if you installed a rooftop solar kit. If you opt for portable solar kits and only want to charge your phones or laptops, adding a small 200-watt ($100) power inverter is more than sufficient.
If you’d like to have more household power available, and tie into your RV’s outlets, following proper sizing recommendations is essential.
Estimated cost, Portable AC/DC Power System — $1200 – $1800+
Truly Portable Mobile Power Systems
Are you a tent camper, festival-goer, vanlifer or just an outdoor enthusiast who needs some extra power on site?
You don't need a big battery bank or an RV to benefit from mobile power. Check out the Dura Series of products, which include a portable power station, a lightweight solar panel, and a handheld solar powered portable battery pack.Learn More Here
Cost Versus Quality
While adding a small solar setup to an RV or trailer is a relatively modest investment, campers should resist the urge to cut costs further by purchasing inferior components. ‘Cheap’ solar solutions don’t provide the same performance and can cost more in the long run. Here are some key considerations:
Not all solar panels are created equally. Cheaper, imported panels are often constructed using partial, ‘cut’ solar cells. Panels built with whole cells are more efficient, perform better, and are worth the incremental upfront expense.
Operators shopping for smaller solar solutions will typically see two types of batteries: traditional flooded lead-acid and the recommended choice, absorbed glass mat (AGM). While less expensive, lead-acid batteries require regular maintenance (adding distilled water) and can need to be installed in a well-ventilated area. AGM batteries are sealed, maintenance-free, charge faster, and are more resistant to lower temperatures. Those looking for a bit more power can opt for the more expensive Lithium technology.
Inverters are key components in a complete off grid setup, and allow you to use your household devices on battery power. They take the battery power (DC) generated by the solar panels and converts it to household power (AC) that runs your devices. Most older inverters use ‘modified sine wave’ technology to recreate the AC power profile in your home. Many appliances and electronics run better on power produced by newer, ‘pure sine wave’ inverters. Look for a pure sine wave inverter with safety certifications (like CSA and UL) and backed by a comprehensive manufacturer’s warranty.
The Investment — Crunching the Numbers
Most RVers will evaluate solar power costs against two more traditional options — shore power (site hookups) and portable generators.
Plugging into shore power at a campsite is convenient, but costs can add up quickly. Campsite hookups average about $80 per night, so using shore power 15 times in a season costs about the same as buying a basic solar system. Being tethered to shore power also limits where you can camp, unlike the ‘go anywhere’ flexibility that solar provides.
There are many options for portable generators, and a basic model will cost about the same as a portable solar kit. However, there are several disadvantages with generators:
- The cost of fuel and maintenance add up over time
- Generators are heavy— even small units can weigh over 100 pounds with fuel
- They are bulky and can be difficult to store
- Generators are loud, smell when running, and are not exactly environmentally friendly
Generators do have their place, though. If you’re a full-time RVer, or simply can’t live without your air conditioning, you would benefit from a solar/generator hybrid solution.
It Pays to Do Your Homework
A good thing to remember is: the more power you want to use, the more money you will need to spend to get a system that can keep up.
Every camper and RV owner has unique requirements, and it is important to understand your specific needs before investing in a solar solution. A portable solar kit may suit many users, while operators with larger RVs may need a more powerful, fixed system or even a hybrid solar/generator solution.
Today’s solar systems are more compact, cost-effective and represent a compelling option for even the most basic camping setups. Depending on location, users may even qualify for a state tax break available for adding solar to a ‘secondary residence.’
If you’re not sure what you need, there are many different tools available to help determine your power requirements and explore your best solar options to get you on the road and off the grid.