Powering Adventure with Solar Energy
You’ve parked at your favourite spot, miles from the nearest campsite, with no other soul in sight. The golden hour sun is warming up your cheeks. Best of all, thanks to paying close attention to our Solar Panels for Campervans Guide, you’re enjoying an excellent cold drink courtesy of your solar-powered fridge.
Your campervan (and, in fact, your entire holiday or lifestyle) is powered by entirely free, renewable solar energy. Sounds dreamy, right? Our step-by-step Solar Panel Guide will help you with everything you need to know to kick-start your adventure.
Equipping your van with a solar system can allow you to spend more time off-grid, exploring the more secluded spots you’ve always dreamed of. But figuring out what you need from your solar system can be a minefield, and getting it wrong can result in an unsatisfyingly warm beer at the end of your day when you run out of power.
Fear not, though, for the good people at Vunked have compiled a no-nonsense guide on deciding what to go for. Let’s get started.
What Are Solar Panels Used For?
In short, solar panels capture energy from the sun, converting it into electrical energy that we can store in batteries and use to power our appliances. A simple rule to remember is more light equals more energy.
Types Of Solar Panels
There are two main distinctions in what type of solar panel to buy. We’ll go into more detail about each factor in the section below.
Structure of the Solar Panel:
Rigid vs Flexible Solar Panels
The technology of the Solar Panel:
Monocrystalline vs Polycrystalline solar panels
Flexible Vs Rigid Solar Panels for Campervans
Rigid solar panels are usually our go-to. This is because they are more efficient, cheaper and more robust than the flexible alternatives. There are, however, a few cases where flexible panels provide a better solution.
Say you have a pop-top van, a funky retro motorhome, or even an airstream trailer with a curved roof – attaching rigid solar panels isn’t an option here and would spoil the super-slick aesthetic you’ve worked so hard to cultivate.
Alternatively, if you have a transit, crafter or boxer or a similar van, then the chances are your roof will be ridged. This makes installing a flexible solar an absolute pain as you can’t create a complete adhesive seal. If this is the case, we will always recommend rigid solar panels unless you are prepared to build your custom mounting system.
Monocrystalline Vs Polycrystalline Solar Panels
As for monocrystalline vs polycrystalline, this has to do with the construction of the panel itself.
Monocrystalline means the panel is made from one single piece of silicon, like a lovely solid wooden worktop.
Polycrystalline means that the panel is composed of many silicon pieces glued together, similar to a chipboard worktop.
This means that monocrystalline solar panels are more expensive but more efficient, providing your batteries up to 20% more power.
Fitting a lower solar efficient system may not be a problem when you’re covering a field or the roof of your house, but roof space on your van is a bit more limited, especially if you’re working around roof vents or even decking.
For this reason, we always recommend monocrystalline panels and have found that the slight increase in cost is well worth it for the extra juice in your batteries.
Sizing Your Campervan Solar Panels
Calculating the size of your solar system can be tricky, and there’s a lot to consider, but these key questions can help when sizing solar panels for campervans.
- Where do you intend to use your van – Scotland’s rainy west coast or the French Riviera?
- How long do you want to be off-grid – Are you a day tripper or a digital nomad?
- What appliances do you want to power – A phone charger or a gaming laptop?
- What time of year do you intend to use your van – Alpine ski seasons or Mediterranean summers?
- The roof space available – A 500W solar array may not be compatible with your roof deck, but the piña coladas in the sun will be well worth it.
A Tool to Help You Design Your Solar System
If this hurts your brain, don’t worry – you’re not the only one. We’ve developed a handy free calculator to do this part for you. All you need to do is select which appliances you’d like to use while off-grid and then build your system.
Our calculator will let you choose varying solar capacities and show you how long we estimate you can stay off-grid. This allows you to play around and figure out what works for you. It’s worth mentioning that our calculator already has a margin of error factored in, so you can have absolute confidence in your campervan electrics system when you get lost on the back roads.
Choosing A Solar Charge Controller
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to stick a solar panel to your roof and drive south for the winter. A solar panel’s current and voltage output varies throughout the day, so it can’t be plugged directly into your batteries.
That’s why every solar system needs a solar charge controller. They are the unsung heroes of the solar world, ensuring that the valuable solar energy you capture with your panels is used to charge your batteries and keep you off-grid for as long as possible. But, unfortunately, the wrong choice of charge controller can undo all your excellent work with the panels, so don’t underestimate this part of the system!
There are two leading solar charge controller technologies to consider:
- Pulse Width Modulation (PWM)
- Maximum Power Point Tracker (MPPT)
PWM controllers are usually cheaper and less efficient, just like the polycrystalline panels we mentioned earlier. However, MPPT controllers can deliver a whopping 30% extra juice to your batteries for the same solar panel capacity but come with an additional cost.
Since roof space is so limited on a van, we believe in maximising the efficiency of your system and, therefore, always recommend MPPT-type solar charge controllers.
Solar Charge Controllers: The Technical Bits
Solar charge controllers are often described by two numbers, the maximum input voltage and the maximum output current.
The input voltage will be dictated by how your solar panels are connected and need to be around 14V or higher to charge a 12V battery, just like the alternator that charges your car starter battery. Likewise, the output current dictates how quickly your batteries will be charged, with higher current flowing to the battery, meaning faster charging.
We go into more detail on this in another blog post – it gets a bit geeky for now. So don’t worry if this is leaving you a bit bamboozled. You can restate your grey matter and leave it up to us. Our free off-grid calculator will automatically choose a suitable solar charge controller for your system so that you can sleep easily.
We work closely with the experts at Victron Energy, who supply us with MPPT controllers and have some excellent, in-depth resources available. Check out their MPPT sizing calculator if you want to get into the nitty-gritty, or you can let us do this for you – it’s included in our off-grid calculator
Solar Panels For Campervans: Key Takeaways
Solar systems can be confusing, but remembering the basics is an excellent place to start.
Rigid VS Flexibile Solar Panels
Rigid solar panels:
- Best for larger vans with grooved roofs
- Cheaper than flexible panels
- Robust but can be less stealthy and harder to install
Flexible solar panels:
- Perfect for pop-tops and super easy to install
- Often more expensive and less efficient
Monocrystalline VS Polycrystalline Solar Panels
Monocrystalline solar panels:
- Best for almost all cases unless you are on a budget
- The limited space on a campervan roof ensures efficiency is key
Polycrystalline solar panels:
- Not as efficient as Monocrystalline
- Slightly cheaper
PWM VS MPPT Solar Charge Controller
PWM charge controller:
- Much cheaper
- Also is much less effective in converting solar energy
MPPT charge controller:
- Slightly more expensive
- Always recommended to get the most from your panels.
When you’ve had a chance to crunch the numbers and are ready to push the big red button, you’ll need to start thinking about how to attach your solar panels to your van. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of different ways to do this in a separate blog, but these solar panels for the campervan guide should help get the juices flowing. Happy planning!
Build Your Own Bespoke Campervan Electrical System
We know how overwhelming it can feel to start building your electrical system.
Power your freedom in minutes with our free Campervan Electrics Design Tool.
Shop Solar Systems
Unsure sure exactly what solar system you need? Look no further.
All our solar Systems come with all the wires, fuses, consumer units, lugs, and heat shrink you need to install in your campervan…