How to Install Solar Panels on RVs, Campervans and Motorhomes
Living in our van full-time, it allows us to get away from it all and enjoy the peace and tranquility of nature.
But we still want to run our fridge, charge our cameras and laptops, turn on our LED lights and in the winter, run our heating.
Our camper solar panel setup allows us to have the best of both worlds without relying too much on shore power hook up facilities, generators or even driving too much.
Installing solar panels on a camper van conversion is one of the best things you can do for an independent lifestyle and it helps keep van life costs down too.
This post is one part in our DIY campervan solar system series.
Here, we provide a step by step guide on how to install solar panels on RVs, campervans and motorhomes.
Whether this is your camper’s first electrical installation or you’re retro fitting solar panels into an existing campervan electrical design, this guide has you covered.
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Tasks To Do Before A Solar Panel Installation
Planning a DIY campervan conversion is a big job in itself and doing some tasks in the right order will help avoid re-work and unnecessary cost.
Before starting your solar panel installation, try to make sure you’ve completed the following tasks and decisions first:
Size Your Camper Solar Panel System Needs
Consider your ideal set up when calculating the size you need.
If the calculation results in a system too big for your vehicle, it will help you reassess what is important or look for alternative solutions to reduce your electric demands.
You can check out our complete set of electrical calculators for RVs and campervan conversions to help size your entire solar setup.
Need help advice with your electrical setup?
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Decide How Much Solar Power To Install
If your budget doesn’t stretch to the whole system upfront, don’t worry.
Starting small is better than not starting at all.
Aim to buy the correct size solar charge controller for your full system but fewer panels and batteries.
You can scale up your battery bank and panels when you have the money without replacing the expensive controller.
Measure Your Roof…
…. and the available space up there for solar panels.
Solar panels come in a variety of sizes and it’s preferable to use the same manufacturer, watt and amp size for all of them.
If you have to work around roof vents and aerials, you may have a bit of a puzzle to work out.
How Will You Mount The Panels To The Roof?
Will you fix the panels permanently to the roof? Or do you want a tilting mount?
Or perhaps you want a portable solar panel instead (or as well).
What you decide affects your shopping list so figure it out first.
Will You Wire Your Camper Solar Panels In series or Parallel?
Choosing the best solar setup for you not only affects the components needed but how efficiently you can squeeze every last drop of juice from the panels.
There’s no one size fits all answer to this question though.
It covers mixed panels too and includes an interactive calculator to find the most efficient setup for your array.
Draw Up A Wiring Diagram Before You Start
This will help you make a complete kit list for your installation.
Buy All The Components You Need
Buy everything you need before you start the solar panel installation.
If buying a pre-configured solar panel kit, make sure it has everything you need, nothing you don’t need and it makes economical sense.
You’ll still need to buy batteries and maybe extra cables so take this into account.
We’ve posted wiring diagrams for camper solar setups for 100w, 200w, 300w, 400w, 600w and 800w with complete kit lists for their installation to help you with this.
Have Access To All The Solar Installation Tools Needed
You can probably find most solar installation tools you need in the bottom of your toolbox but there’s a few things a little more specialist, like a multimeter.
Check out our complete guide for how to use a digital multimeter in your camper.
Make sure you have them before you start.
The step by step instructions on how to install solar panels on a camper van conversion below lists all the tools needed.
Avoid Installing The Campervan Insulation
You’ll need access to the skin of your RV, campervan or motorhome to run cables through the roof and down the walls, maybe even along the floor.
Components of a Camper Solar System | A Brief Glossary
Solar panels harvest sunlight, converting it to electricity. There are different types of solar panels but we recommend using monocrystalline as they’re the most efficient.
Solar Charge Controllers
Solar charge controllers regulate the current from the panels to a safe level so it can charge the batteries. There’s 2 types of solar charge controller: PWM and MPPT.
- A PWM charge controller is a low cost, budget friendly option. Note if you have a PWM charger the solar panels must be wired in parallel.
- An MPPT charge controller has more complex electronics so costs much, much more than a PWM. However, it is far more effective at charging the batteries.
As with other aspects of camper solar set-ups, there’s no one size fits all answer to which is best.
Check out our complete guide on how to select the right solar charge controller for your setup.
If you need to know what size to get, use our interactive solar charge controller calculator.
Batteries store the energy generated.
An RV battery bank is made up of at least one 12v deep cycle (or 2 6v batteries).
Deep cycle batteries are sized in amp hours or Ah. The higher the amp hours, the more energy is stored.
Different types of batteries perform in different ways so 100ah of one type of battery is not equal to 100ah of a different type.
There’s 4 types of deep cycle battery: lithium batteries, Gel batteries, AGM batteries and lead acid or FLA batteries.
Use our battery sizing calculators to get the right size and type for your needs:
You can read more detail about them in our post on campervan batteries and see why we recommend choosing Gel or Lithium-ion.
Solar Panel Mounting Brackets
Solar panel mounting brackets allow you to fit the solar panel to your van without needing to drill holes in the roof.
MC4 connectors allow you to extend the solar cables.
There’s different types of connectors for joining multiple panels.
Solar Panel Cable
Solar panel cables (or solar wires)are rated to handle the current from the panels, connecting them to the charge controller.
By increasing using bigger cables, you can minimise voltage loss between the solar panel and the charge controller.
Choosing the correct campervan wiring sizes is critical for safety and efficient performance of a solar power system.
Solar Panel Gland
A solar panel gland seal is a weather proof seal to plug the hole needed to run the solar cables into the RV.
Fuse holder sits between the solar charge controller and the battery cut off switch, holding the fuse to protect the battery.
Battery Cut Off Switches
Isolators or battery cut off switches are safety mechanisms allowing the battery to be isolated.
Choose a cut off switch plenty big enough to cope with the entire amp hour capacity of the batteries with wriggle room for future expansion.
Battery Terminal Eyes
Wire Lugs or battery terminal eyes allow you to connect the solar panel cable to the battery.
Heat shrink seal electrical joints to cover the bare wires.
Solar Panel kits
Solar panel kits are pre-packaged configurations including most of the components need to install an RV solar panel system.
How To Install Solar Panels On A Camper Van Conversion
The more free power you can harvest from the sun, the more van life freedom you can enjoy.
At the bottom of this post you’ll find simple step by step instructions on how to install solar panels on a camper van conversion, RV or motorhome.
This section provides more information about parts of that guide so useful for background information before you get to the instructions.
Steps 1 – 6 | Install Isolator Switches, Battery Fuse Holders
You can skip these steps if you already have your deep cycle, house batteries and cut off switches installed.
When fitting the battery, make sure to completely secure it. You need to make sure it won’t move in the event of an accident.
Grounding the battery is also critical early on.
It helps create an efficient campervan electrical system and protect you and your van in the event of any shorts in the circuits.
Fit the fuse holders early too but make sure the fuses are out. We want a system ready to commission but not one we could do so accidentally.
In these steps, we’ll wire up the fuse holders to the battery, via the cut off switches.
With no fuses and the cut off switches in their off positions, the battery is safe and ready for connection later on.
It’s time to get up on the roof.
Steps 7 – 12 | Prepare The Solar Panels
We encourage you to check, check and check again as you progress through the installation of the solar panels.
It’s better to find any problems earlier than later, saving time, rework and money.
Working on the roof of your camper van isn’t as easy as working from the ground so do as much as you can before climbing up there.
Double check all the panels will fit where you expect them to. Their cardboard packaging make ideal templates for this.
When marking the hole to feed the cables through, make sure you locate it in a position clear of the panels.
If you ever need access to this is in the future, the last thing you’ll want is to have to take off solar panels to reach it.
Some camper vans don’t have flat roofs. Our Sprinter van roof has ribs running along the length of the van.
Make sure to attach the mounts in a position where they’ll be flat on the roof or the rib.
If they balance over the edge of the rib, they won’t get as much of a connection when it comes to bonding them.
Mark the position of the mounts on the cardboard templates so you can attach the mounts on the ground.
If you have a flat roof, you can be more flexible in where you attach the solar panel mounts.
Before fitting the solar panels or attaching the mounts, test them. Place each in good sunlight and using a multimeter, test the voltage at the end of the cables.
Doing this before attaching the mounts means you can return them in the unlikely event you find any faults.
Steps 13 – 19 | Fit The Solar Panels To The Roof
Fit the mounts and get them up onto the roof and bond them in position.
Drill the hole for the cables in your roof now too, cover and seal with the cable gland. Make sure to remove the cable gland collars.
You’ll fit these to the cables separately.
Finish the hole by sanding the edges, clean any debris away with a dry cloth before priming and painting it to protect it from corrosion.
It’s best to do this on a dry day, then leave all the bonding and seals for 24 hours before you move the van or move onto the next steps.
Steps 20 – 25 | Wiring Solar Panels
Armed with your wiring diagram, it’s time to wire the solar panels together.
Solar panels come with about a metre of positive and negative cable, each with a connector already fitted.
Most camper van solar panel installations will need to extend that cable to reach the solar charge controller.
While keeping the cable lengths as short as possible is important to reduce voltage loss, try to keep this length of cable intact on the outside of the van.
DIY: How to install solar panels on your RV
So, you’ve decided to try solar energy for your RV? Good choice. Unlike generators, solar panels are silent and smell-free, they barely need any maintenance and pay for themselves in several years. In this article we’ll guide you through the installation process of all the necessary parts of an RV solar panel system: panels, a charge controller, and an inverter.
Before installation, make sure you’ve figured out where exactly you’re going to put panels on the roof. Make and check all the necessary measurements. Keep in mind that in the USA solar panels produce the most energy when facing south at an angle between 30 and 45 degrees. Panels better not be overshadowed.
Solar panels are typically attached to the roof with screws or adhesives. The way you’ll do it depends not only on your personal preference, but also on the type of panels you’ve chosen, shape of your RV’s roof and its material. Of course, nobody forces you perform the installation yourself – call for professional help if you feel you need to.
Flexible thin-film panels are typically attached to the roof with an adhesive. However, it is better when there is some empty space between a panel and the roof – ideally 6 inches. Panels heat up under the sun, which lowers their efficiency and contributes to heating up the whole vehicle in summer. If air can circulate underneath, it naturally cools panels down.
Rigid polycrystalline or monocrystalline panels usually rest on mounting brackets, which require drilling. Here are some popular options:
Mounting Z brackets
Among the cheapest options: you can get a set of 4 brackets for 10
Usually require drilling, though it’s possible to use adhesives
Don’t allow to adjust the angle of panels
Tiltable mounting brackets or mounting frames Cost between 30-50
Allow you to easily adjust the angle of your panels.
Corner brackets a set of four brackets for one panel is going to cost you 20-40
don’t allow to adjust the angle of panels
suitable for any panels with aluminium frame
While these examples show the most popular ways of mounting solar panels on an RV, they do not exhaust the list. Some RV owners even make brackets and mounting frames themselves. However, if you don’t feel like doing any DIY, never mind – commercial options aren’t that expensive.
If you opt for a drilling option with mounting brackets, put some sealant under each bracket not to let the water into your RV. Make sure that the sealant is compatible with the material of your roof.
Before you ask, yes, you can drill into the side of a solar panel. All the wiring is inside a panel itself, and aluminium is like a picture frame. However, be careful with the angle you are drilling at – don’t harm the cells.
Put a charge controller in plain sight
Charge controller is a safety measure for your house battery, but it also lets you monitor the state of your RV solar panel installation. You should put it close to the battery, but make it visible – you’ll need to check it from time to time.
The most basic models of controllers tell you the load of the battery, its state and the voltage of panels. advanced ones measure the temperature, let you specify the charging time and more. Some models can be connected to your smartphone via Bluetooth and managed this way.
A charge controller comes with a user manual where you can find the wiring diagram for it. Normally, a charge controller is first connected to the battery and then to the panels. Just don’t connect your solar panels directly to your RV battery – it might overheat and explode from high voltage of panels.
Connect a charge controller and a battery
Wiring together a controller and battery is simple and can be summarized in three steps:
Use a stranded copper wire to connect the two.
Black wire goes from negative terminal of a battery to negative terminal of a controller. Red wire connects two positives. If two wires are the same in color, use red velcro tape to mark the positive cable.
Turn on the charge controller. It should now be able to measure the load of a battery.
How to Wire and Mount Solar Panels on a RV
Installing an RV solar system is a fun project that will enhance your camping experience for years to come. When I was mounting solar panels on our RV, I first had to make a few big decisions.
Such as, whether I wanted flexible or standard solar panels, best placement for the solar panels to get the most sun, how to wire RV solar panels, and exactly how I wanted to mount the solar panels to our roof.
It can seem like a lot at first when doing a DIY RV solar install, but this article will walk you through those key RV solar installation decisions in an easy and simple way.
In this RV solar install guide you will find:
- How to mount solar panels onto your RV
- Whether to wire your solar panels in series vs parallel
- Corresponding RV solar wiring diagram
In part 1 of this RV solar series, I outlined the basics of how an RV solar system works and helped you estimate the size of your components based on your power needs.
If you are new to RV solar, I suggest that you spend a few minutes reading through those posts before continuing how to mount your RV solar panels.
Mounting Solar Panels on a RV
The first major decision you have to make regarding your RV solar installation is how and where you want to mount your solar panels.
Drilling holes into the roof of your RV is a serious endeavor, so you want to make sure you get it right the first time.
While you don’t have to worry about drilling holes if you are using flexible solar panels, you still want to plan out a few scenarios of where you may place your panels for best efficiency and durability.
Keep in mind that every RV roof is different. The solar panel array that worked for your friend might not work for you.
Before you purchase your panels, take detailed measurements of your RV’s roof. Make sure you account for any vents, A/C units, or other items on your roof that could get in the way of mounting your panels or shade the solar panels.
I drew a diagram of our entire roof with measurements for every potential place I could arrange our four solar panels.
Also, if your roof has studs, include them in your drawing. It is best for you to screw the panels directly into the studs to make them as sturdy as possible. The last thing you want is to have a solar panel fly off your roof while you are traveling down the road at 60 MPH.
Once you decide on the positioning of your solar panels, you will want to make sure you have all the right tools and supplies to properly secure your panels to your roof.
Steps to Mounting Solar Panels on RV
- Map out positioning of solar panels on your roof. Triple check that the panels will fit properly before drilling any holes into your roof.
- Attach mounting brackets to each panel.
- Set panels in place and mark where you need to drill holes. Make sure your holes will hit studs in your RV so your panels are secure. Each RV will be different, but the studs are usually visible with a 2-3inch wide grey line going width wise of your RV roof.
- Drill small pilot holes into your roof where your brackets will be screwed down. Fill the holes with a little dab of the Dicor sealant to help insure that everything will remain water tight.
- Line the bottom edges of each panel with butyl tape and put the panels in place. This will add a level of security to your panels to avoid them flying off.
- Attach panels to roof using the screws from the mounting kit.
- Apply a generous coat of Dicor sealant on top of and around the mounting brackets to seal everything off from the weather.
How to Wire Solar Panels: Parallel vs Series
Now that you have mounted your solar panels, it is time to start wiring them. There are three main ways to wire solar panels into your RV solar system:
- Parallel. each panel is wired into the charge controller separately
- Series. all panels are connected together and then wired into the charge controller
- Series-Parallel. a mix of series and parallel where solar panels are “grouped” together and each group is wired into the charge controller
Each solar panel array has pros and cons that you should weigh when making your decision. Let’s walk through each array in more detail so you can determine which setup will work best for your needs.
Wiring Solar Panels in Parallel
When the positive and negative wires from each solar panel are grouped together, this is referred to as wiring them in parallel.
Wiring your solar panels in parallel allows each panel to operate on its own. If one panel is in the shade, the rest of your solar array will still be able to perform at max capacity.
Connecting your solar panels in parallel doubles the amperage and leaves the voltage unchanged. Because wire gauge is limited by amperage, solar panels wired in parallel require higher gauge wiring.
I recommend that you do not wire you solar panels in parallel for units over 500 watts because of the very thick and expensive wires that you would need to buy to make it efficient.
Wiring Solar Panels in Series
When the positive wire of one solar panel and the negative wire of another panel are connected together, this is referred to as wiring them in series. In essence, you are creating one big panel with multiple smaller panels.
In a series solar panel array, your output will be limited by the lowest performing panel. If one panel is in the shade, all of the other panels will be taken down with it. This is the major downside to wiring your solar panels in series.
Connecting your solar panels in series doubles the voltage going through the wires while leaving the amperage unchanged.
The low amperage created by solar panels in series allows you to purchase low gauge wires (thinner and cheaper).
On the other hand, charge controllers are limited by voltage, meaning solar panels wired in series will need a more expensive charge controller.
Wiring Solar Panels in Series-Parallel
Due to the limitations of both series and parallel solar panel arrays, the most common array for larger systems is series-parallel and I highly recommend this setup for most RV solar systems.
Wiring your panels in series-parallel means that you have multiple series that you wiring in parallel.
For example, if you have four solar panels, you could have two sets of two panels. While one series might be wiped out due to a panel in the shade, the other series can still perform at max capacity.
For a four panel array wired in series-parallel, you double your amperage and your voltage rather than quadrupling either.
This allows you to limit the gauge of your wires and limit the size of your charge controller. We chose to wire our panels in series-parallel because we found it to be the best balance of cost and system efficiency.
Once you have the easier part down of mounting your solar panels to your RV and wired to your liking, you’ll want to decide where to run your wires down to meet your charge controller.
The charge controller is where the solar energy will be converted to 12V power and stored in your RV batteries.
Please reach out in the Комментарии и мнения владельцев below or contact us page if you have any specific questions about buying, mounting, or wiring your RV solar panels.
RV Solar Panel Installation in Salinas, CA
and more RV owners are relying on RV solar panels to help keep them powered. Whether you’re hooking up at a local park or unrolling the awning at a campsite, it’s nice to have an option for charging your electronics and powering your appliances.
If you’re in the market for RV solar panel installations or need someone to service your panels, call the team at CTS RV Repair. We’re the preferred solar panel specialist in Salinas, Sanger, Fowler, Clovis, and Fresno, CA, familiar with complete systems and everything needed to install and service them.
Complete Solar Installation Kits
At CTS RV Repair, we have options for all RV and trailer sizes. From 190-watt systems suited for pop-ups, to 380-watt systems for tow-behinds and 570-watt systems for full-sized RVs. Consult with us about kits for complete off-grid camping, as well as kits for just charging RV batteries and everything in between.
- Available for consultations, to help you get set up with the right system
- We can sell parts and systems for DIY installation, if you prefer
- We have access to all batteries, from wet cells, to AGM, to lithium batteries
RV Solar Panel Installations
When it comes to installation of your RV solar panels, we’re a full-service provider. Our familiarity with these systems covers you from the panels themselves to all wiring, inverters and supplies. No matter what type of system you choose, we’ll get it installed right.
- Custom installation of parts and systems if you already have a solar system
- Solar panel installation on all types of roofs, including rubber, fiberglass and metal
- Professional installation of all types of inverters, hybrid inverters and chargers
- All the installation work we do is backed by a satisfaction guarantee
- We’re able to perform on-site installation or in-shop installation in Salinas, CA