So, you’re one of the few smart sustainable thinkers who plan to kit out their campervan with a solar panel?
Moving into 2021, there are hundreds of solar panels you could install on top of your campervan, which means it can be challenging to choose.
Our plan is to drive through Africa with our beautiful VW T3 Syncro, so I’ve made it my mission to do extensive research on the best solar panel kits to install onto a campervan.
I’d like to share all my knowledge with you to make your journey that much more adventurous and eco-friendly!
What is a solar panel and how does it work?
Solar panels and solar panel kits create clean energy by transforming light from the sun into electricity. This can then be used to power electrical loads within your campervan.
Solar panels are made up of several singular solar cells, which themselves consist of two types of semiconductors, called p-type and n-type silicon.
These solar cell layers absorb the photons produced by the sun, and in doing so result in an electric current being generated.
Each and every photon that strikes the surface of the solar panel causes electrons to be knocked out of their atomic orbit.
These electrons are then released into the solar cells electric field which then pull them into a directional current.
The entire process is known as the Photovoltaic Effect.
Look, I know this stuff is pretty confusing, so if you haven’t quite grasped the concept yet, I recommend you give this video a watch.
What size solar panel do I need for my campervan?
First and foremost it’s important to remember that the quantity of solar panels are irrelevant.
You should rather focus on the total amount of watts your solar panel produces.
Now remember, you don’t run your electric appliances off of your solar panels. No, you run your appliances off of your vans batteries, your solar panels are there simply to recharge your campervans batteries.
Your batteries should be chosen based on your electrical demands. Your solar panels should be chosen based on the amount of recharge your batteries require.
How many watts of solar panels do I need to recharge my batteries?
To determine this, you first need to figure out what the total amount of amp hours your batteries produce.
In our campervan we’ve got three AGM batteries that produce:
- Total: 190Ah (Amp Hours)
As a general rule of thumb I recommend 200 watts of campervan solar panels per 100 amp hours (Ah) of batteries as base guideline (that’s 100Ah Lithium or 200Ah AGM).
So in my example I’d require 200 watts of solar panels to recharge all three of my AGM batteries within a reasonable timeframe. Lithium batteries are significantly more expensive than AGM batteries.
Based on my example, if you were to install 400 watts of solar panels, you’d simply recharge your batteries twice as fast or more efficiently in low light conditions.
Installing a campervan solar panel is all about being versatile. You’ll also be charging your batteries via your alternator (this happens while you’re driving). So, relying purely on your solar panel is unnecessary.
What are the costs of a campervan solar panel?
The costs of a campervan solar panel vary greatly. When planning your budget you should consider factors such as the type of solar panel (monocrystalline, polycrystalline), the wattage, is the panel rigid or flexible and of course, the brand dictates price quite abit.
As a ballpark, campervan solar panels range in cost between $90 upwards of $4000.
For our VW T3 Syncro, we fitted a 200 watt mono crystalline solar panel that costed us $130 (for the solar panel only). Adding additional solar panels, batteries, inverters and wiring will increase the overall cost.
Where is the best place to put a solar panel on a campervan?
To determine this one needs to take into consideration the ecliptic (the imaginary path the sun follows) and the set up of your campervan.
First off, putting your solar panel on one of the sides of your van would be very much counter productive. Depending on your driving direction, you’d only be benefiting from the suns solar rays for half the day.
Once the sun reaches it’s zenith, what then? This is precious solar energy being lost every second.
There’s no doubt the most logical place to put your solar panel would be on the roof of your campervan.
(I assume they placed the panels on the back of their van for aerodynamic reasons.)
With our campervan, we placed the solar panel on the top front. The reason for doing this was a simple one. Our roof racks cover the entire surface of our roof, except for the front part.
It would be silly to place the solar panels underneath our roof racks as once again, you’d be losing out on so much potential solar energy absorption.
Another concept I’ve daydreamed about from time to time, is mounting your solar panels on a sort of hydraulic hinge. So when you’re driving the solar panels lay down on the sides of the van.
Once you’ve parked you can lift them up so that they face the sky, doubling up as a makeshift roof. Anyway, just a daydream, we’re more than happy with how ours are mounted.
Can I connect a solar panel directly to a battery?
In theory, yes you are able to connect a solar panel directly to your battery. You would do this simply by connecting the solar panels positive wire to the positive battery terminal, and vice versa for the negative wire.
While doing this will charge your battery, you may run into two problems by using this fast track method:
1. At night when there’s no active charge, your battery runs the risk of leaking electricity back into the solar panel, which may slowly discharge your battery. However, the amount is usually so slight you wouldn’t even notice it.
If you are adamant on preventing this leakage, you can fit a simple diode in the line (a one way valve for electricity).
2. The second issue can be abit more serious – if the solar panel is left on it’s own it can actually overcharge your battery. To avoid this it’s essential you fit a charge controller.
This device has the correct circuitry to stop the flow of power from the solar panel to the battery once the battery is fully charged.
What are the benefits of campervan solar panels?
It’s been a campfire topic for some years now, what good does a campervan solar panel actually do and is it worth installing?
Let me sum up 5 of the benefits I believe make installing solar power worth it.
1. It’s Environmentally friendly
Yes, a solar panel will charge your van’s battery for free with clean energy every single time the sun comes out. This way you rely solely on your batteries and your solar panels for power. No need for Co2 producing generators that only further the effects of climate change.
2. Off grid living
Solar panels (with the appropriate batteries) will allow you to stay off the grid for longer. So exploring some of those off the beaten track destinations may now finally be reachable. Self reliant = freedom!
3. Simply fit and forget
Once you’ve maneuvered through the initial investment and installation costs, solar panels are generally hassle free. That is, they don’t need any maintenance, except for the once in a while good cleaning, they should last you years without any issues.
4. Save your moola
Some campsites require that you pay an additional fee to hook up to their electrical grid. While the sentiment is flattering, wouldn’t you rather save all that money in the long run and while you’re at it, maybe the environment too?
5. They’re not annoying
Solar panels will simply fit onto the top of your campervan and stay there. They don’t weigh much and shouldn’t bring up your fuel consumption.
Unless you install them standing up like this, then you might run into some aerodynamic issues once your campervan gets moving.
Besides that, solar panels make absolutely no sound, whereas a generator will keep you and the whole campsite awake during the night.
What are the best solar panels for a campervan?
(Extensive product list coming soon)
I hope you enjoyed this article, we certainly enjoyed creating it. Stay tuned for more information on our campervan trip through Africa, we will post regularly about all our trials and tribulations.
If you enjoyed this article, feel free to let us know in the comments section below. Also, please share any of your campervan solar panel photographs, we’d be stoked to see your setup!
P.S if you were wondering what our 4×4 campervan looks like, here she is:
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Kyle was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa. In his spare time he kitesurfs with whales, gets attacked by jellyfish, SUP’s with great white sharks and rescues seals. He is not a best selling author like every other Tom, Dick and Harry out there but loves to write nevertheless. Especially about climate science and animals.