Guide To Van Solar Panels: The Perfect Van Solar Electrical System
As climate change continues to pose a problem, more and more people are converting to solar power. Over 90 billion solar panels are in operation across the world – you can find them on buildings, homes and even vans.
Whether you use your van for weekend trips or you’re a boondocker who regularly goes off the grid, van solar panels are a great investment. Not only are they environmentally friendly, but they also let you use energy without having to search for electricity. Here’s everything you need to know about van solar systems.
How Do Van Solar Panels Work?
Most of us are familiar with the concept of solar power, but not many people understand how this technology actually works. Campervan solar panels rely on a collection of small units known as photovoltaic cells (or solar cells). With the help of a semiconductor wafer, they can take sunlight and turn it into usable electricity. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of this process:
- The solar cells in the panels absorb sunlight (or light energy)
- The semiconductor wafer “shakes” the electrons in the light energy loose
- The loose electrons are activated and set into motion, which creates electricity
The resulting electricity is called “solar energy,” a renewable energy source strong enough to power your van appliances. It’s important to note that van solar panels don’t operate alone – different parts are required to actually supply energy to your van.
What Devices Are Used in a Van Solar Panel System?
In addition to solar panels, you need the following materials to achieve a solar powered van.
Batteries are the storage units where the power generated by the solar panel is stored. There are three types of batteries popular for van conversion:
While all these van battery systems are effective, lithium-ion batteries are generally agreed to be the best thanks to their high-quality, longevity and low maintenance needs. Before choosing a battery type, consider the power levels – van life solar batteries are available in different voltages and amp hours, and you should select one that meets your power demands.
This device regulates power input from the 12v solar panel with battery to ensure that your system is not overcharged. It also monitors power output from the battery and shuts down the system if the energy falls below 50%. This will prevent drainage and lengthen the lifespan of your batteries.
Charge controllers are available in two types: PWMs and MPPTs. PWMs are simple units that regulate energy flow to the battery by gradually reducing the current from the solar panel. MPPTs, on the other hand, draw power from the panel at maximum input, then release it slowly. MPPT batteries tend to be more efficient, but are also more expensive.
As sunlight hits your van solar panels, it will generate DC power. Known as direct current, this electricity only flows in one direction. It can be used to power van life electronics that rely on batteries (such as cell-phones). However, DC power is insufficient if you plan on powering corded appliances (like HVAC systems, TV’s, or microwaves and fridges). For these items, you’ll need alternating current, or AC power.
Fortunately, you can easily convert your DC power into AC power using a solar inverter battery. These devices use oscillating circuits to change the flow of current, effectively powering your corded devices. There are also different sizes available – the more items you plan to power, the stronger your inverter will need to be. You can learn all about how to choose and install an inverter for your van here.
How Are Solar Panel Systems For Campervans Made?
Solar panels for vans are made using the following materials:
- Solar PV cells
The most important part of solar panels are the cells, as they’re responsible for actually converting light into energy. They’re made up of silicon and divided into different panels (usually about 60 to 70 cells per panel). Once the panel is complete, it’s covered with a sheet of glass, which provides protection while also allowing sunlight to shine through and access the cells. The glass top is paired with a backsheet, which protects the bottom.
The entire panel is sealed with a metal frame, and then all panels are connected together using silicon. To transfer the energy from the solar panel into your van, wiring is needed. This is generally protected by a junction box, or an enclosure that holds van life electrical systems.
While the metal, glass and solar PV cells are found across most van life solar panels, the silicon can vary. The type of silicon that’s used will impact the overall product.
Solar Panel Silicon Options
There are three main options when it comes to solar panel silicon:
- Thin-film panels
Thin-film panels are not very efficient and require lots of panels to generate electricity – thus, they’re usually reserved for large-scale projects.
Either monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels can be used for your van. The main difference is that mono panels use a single silicon crystal, while pono panels melt several silicon crystals together. While both are effective power supplies for camper vans, mono panels will produce more electricity. However, they’re also more expensive.
Types of Solar Panels
Similar to how there are different silicon options, you can choose between various solar panel types. The main two types are:
- Rigid solar panels
- Flexible solar panels
Rigid panels are the most common type. They’re installed in one place, can withstand most weather conditions and provide an optimal amount of solar energy. Flexible solar panels are designed to provide the same amount of solar energy – however, they can conform to different surfaces and are more lightweight. They have a desirable sleek, modern design, but are more costly. Ultimately, your choice depends on your aesthetic demands and budget.
You can also choose between fixed and portable solar panels. Fixed panels are installed directly onto your van’s rooftop, while portable panels can be moved. While portable panels are less effective, they’re also more affordable and don’t require the use of an inverter van life battery.
What Are The Benefits of Solar Energy?
Now that you understand how van solar systems work, you might be wondering: is solar energy worth it? The truth is, van owners wouldn’t be making the shift to solar energy if it didn’t come with a slew of benefits. These include:
- Reduced air pollution: Fossil fuels create air pollution and contribute to the growing climate change crisis. Solar energy, on the other hand, is clean energy that promotes air purity.
- Reduced water usage: Sources like hydropower and nuclear energy consume water to help create electricity. Solar energy does not use water, which conserves resources and supports the environment.
- Cost-efficiency: According to a 2020 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar power is the most affordable electricity in history.
- Low maintenance: Most van electrical systems require consistent upkeep to prevent them from breaking down. Van solar systems, however, are relatively low maintenance and only require cleaning every six months (saving time and energy in the long run).
- Accessibility: Solar energy lets users enjoy electricity in locations that don’t have access to power grids.
While there are several advantages of solar energy, it’s important to consider the downsides as well. Although solar energy save costs in the long run, the initial installation can be expensive. Moreover, the panels consume space and are weather-dependent – solar energy cannot be accumulated at night, and it’s less effective during cloudy days.
Another factor to keep in mind about camper van solar systems is that they create DC electricity, which cannot be used to power most van appliances. However, this problem can easily be fixed with a solar inverter.
How Much Solar Power Do I Need For Van Life?
When people refer to the “size” of van solar panels, they’re usually talking about wattage amount. The higher the wattage, the more energy your panels will produce. Below is a guideline to help you determine how much solar power you need:
- 10′-15′ roof: 100-120 watts
- 15′-20′ roof: 150 – 175 watts
- 20′-30′ roof: 300 watts
- 30′-40 roof’: 500-600 watts
- 40’+ roof: 700 – 1,100 watts
It’s important to remember that this is just a general guideline for your camper van electrical set-up. You should also take into account the amount of energy you tend to consume through the use of appliances and devices like air conditioners, TV’s, van wifi boosters, induction stove tops, LED lighting etc… as well as the weather conditions in your area. If you have a small van but use a lot of energy or live in a location with little sunlight, then you might need a stronger solar panel.
The physical size of your solar panel depends on your van. However, you can expect the panels to cover the majority of your van’s roof.
How Much Do Solar Panels Cost?
Buying and installing solar panels can cost anywhere from $500 to upwards of $5,000 dollars. The amount you pay depends on a few different factors:
- The quality of your solar panel: A high-quality, U.S.-manufactured solar panel will be more expensive than one manufactured in Asia.
- The type of solar panel: Flexible, fixed or mono panels will be more expensive than rigid, portable or poly panels.
- The size of the van solar panels: The bigger your van and energy needs, the more you can expect to pay for van life solar power.
Now that you have a better understanding of the cost of solar panels, you might be wondering: is it worth adding potentially thousands of dollars to my van conversion costs? The answer to this question depends entirely on your needs. If you have high electricity costs, a passion for helping the environment and the funds for installation, then van solar panels will be worth the investment. On the flip side, if your electricity costs are low, or if you don’t consume much energy, then you may not need solar panels for the time being.
A substantial of that cost goes towards the installation of your solar panels. However, you can save money by DIYing your camper solar system installation.
Van solar installation is a delicate process. However, if you have experience with DIY camper electrical systems, you might be able to handle the installation on your own (and save a few bucks while you’re at it). Here’s a step-by-step guide on the van life solar set-up process.
Step 1: Gather Your Materials
Before you can get started with the installation, you’ll need to have all the materials for a campervan power system. These include:
- Van solar panels
- Charge controller
- Mounting hardware (for mounting solar panels to vans)
You may also need some accessories to connect the panel to the charge controller. Common accessories include weatherproof wires, adapter cables and lap sealant.
Step 2: Check Your Solar Panel’s Functionality
Before starting the campervan solar installation process, make sure the panel works properly. If you install a defective panel, you’ll need to eventually replace it, which will cost you time, money and effort. You can use a digital multimeter to check your solar panel’s voltage, amperage and wattage, as well as look for electrical faults.
Step 3: Install Z-brackets and VHB Tape
While still on the ground, attach four Z-brackets to the aluminum frame of the solar panel (this will help it stay attached to the roof). You’ll have to fix the brackets to the existing holes on the frame, then keep it in place using small bolts.
In addition to brackets, you’ll want to apply 3M VHB tape. This will help create a stronger bond between the roof and the brackets. Moreover, it will form a waterproof seal that prevents water from leaking into the van.
Step 4: Pre-fit The Solar Panel on The Van Roof
Hoist the van solar panels onto the camper van and mark their exact location. You should also mark the positions where the main cables from the panel will pass through. When you’re done, remove the solar panel and drill holes on the previously marked positions for the main cables.
Step 5: Prepare and Mount The Drill
Using a file and fine sandpaper, break any sharp edges on the drilled surface and grind them. Next, apply primer and paint on the drilled holes to prevent rusting.
Once the surface is prepared, you’ll need hoist the panel again. Place it in the pre-determined position on the roof before peeling off the 3M VHB tape. Then, press the z-brackets firmly on the roof to attach them.
Step 6: Complete the Camper Solar Wiring
The final step to installing solar panels on vans involves the wiring. If you’re confused about how to do the wiring, checkout our campervan wiring guide to learn more.
Here’s a simple explanation to help you get started: run cables through the van roof, fasten the glands and seal the brackets and glands with a lap sealant. Once this is done, you’ll have to cover your van roof and give it time to dry and cure. If at any point you’re unsure of what to do, don’t hesitate to call in an installation expert. They will help you get the job done swiftly and safely.
How Long Do Solar Panels For Van Roofs Last?
One of the biggest advantages of solar panels is their longevity. On average, most solar panel companies offer a product guarantee of 25 to 30 years. However, this doesn’t mean that the panels stop creating electricity after this time period – rather, it means that the panels are no longer as effective. In other words, they won’t produce the same levels of electricity as they used to.
Provided they aren’t physically damaged, solar panels can continue to work for decades. This is largely due to the fact that van solar panels aren’t made up of moving parts, which means they can’t break down internally. For the best results, you should always try to choose high-quality equipment.
How Do I Clean Van Solar Panels?
One of the biggest advantages of solar panels is that they’re low maintenance. However, this doesn’t mean you never need to clean them. Reports show that a 4 gram layer of dust can reduce the effectiveness of solar panels by up to 40%. Thus, you’ll want to make sure your panels are clear.
For a light cleaning, you can just rinse your van solar panels from the ground using a hose. Make sure that the water pressure is not high, as this could damage your panels. If you rinse your solar panels and there’s still dust or grime, then you should follow these steps to execute a deeper cleaning:
- Rinse your panels with water
- Apply a mild soap to a long brush or squeegee
- Rub soap onto the surface of your panels
Finish the job off with another rinse, and voilá – you’ll have a clean set of solar panels on your hands.
Where Are Solar Panels Made?
Most solar panels are made in Asia, where they can be constructed for lower labor costs (and thus sold at a lower price). However, you can find solar panel manufacturers virtually anywhere, including the United States.
The country in which a solar panel is manufactured can impact the overall quality of the product. Generally, solar panels made in the US are subjected to higher standards than those made in Asia or other countries. Of course, you’ll have to pay more in exchange.
What Are The Best Solar Panels For Van Life?
Ready to buy some van solar panels for yourself? Here’s a breakdown of some of the best solar van kits.
Best Solar Panels for Value: Renogy Solar Panels
Since 2010, Renogy has been supplying U.S. audiences with high-quality van solar panels. Most of the company’s manufacturing is done in the Chinese cities of Wuxi and Zizhou. Renogy also produces van conversion solar panel kits and small solar panel kits that include controllers, inverters, deep cycle batteries, camper van wiring kits and chargers.
- Excellent customer support and prompt delivery
- Solar panels available in three types (rigid, foldable and portable)
- Wide range of solar panel kits to fit various applications and budgets
- Low outputs compared to some premium brands
- Overseas production makes it difficult to source replacement parts
Who Should Use It:
Thanks to the versatile array of van solar panels in stock, Renogy can appeal to just about anyone. You can look through their supply to find panels that meets your exact type and budgetary needs.
Best Portable Solar Panels: Zamp Solar Panels
Zamp is an industry leader when it comes to portable van solar panels. The company is recognized for its outstanding reliability and excellent customer service, and provides some of the best solar panels for camping.
- Offer monocrystalline solar panels (which have a high efficiency)
- U.S. based (making it easy to source parts)
- Wide selection of wattage amounts
- More expensive than other brands
Who Should Use It:
Zamp small solar panels are an excellent fit for those who occasionally go off-grid and are tired of noisy, gas-guzzling generators. They’re also ideal if you have a low wattage demand.
Most Affordable Solar Panels: Sharp Solar Panels
Sharp is a Japanese company that has been in the budget solar industry for around 60 years. It produces affordable solar systems for camper vans that can be used for different applications, including small solar power system kits and full van solar kits.
- Uses half-cell technology (which ensures panels continue generating energy even when half is shaded)
- Affordable ($0.72 price per watt)
- Easy to install
- Limited warranty of 10 years
- Less reliable compared to premium brands
Who Should Use It:
Sharp van solar panels are an excellent option for van owners on a tight budget. The company offers solar panels starting as low as $175 per unit.
How Do I Pick The Best Solar Power System For Van Life?
When it comes to choosing the best van solar panels, there’s really no right answer – it’s entirely dependent on your unique desires, budget and expectations. If you’re unsure of where to begin, you don’t have to go through the process alone. Our team is dedicated to helping van lifers have the best journeys possible – we’re here for all of your questions and concerns. Learn more by contacting us today!