Solar Panels Or Generators For Campers And RVs: What’s Best?

Do you want to take your camping to the next level?

Maybe you have been considering going off the grid or boondocking for a while now—but boondocking requires your RV to have its own power source.

Camping in remote places without the possibility of hooking your motorhome up can be quite a liberating experience. However, you will need a generator or a solar panel, maybe even both.

Today, we’ll be looking into the difference between generators and solar panels.

Which is better and which should you choose? Find the answers below.

Generator Or Solar Panels: Which Should You Choose?

RV Generator And Solar Panel

If you’re new to RVs and campers, this may not have been something you have given much thought to.

However, unless you plan on spending all your summers in campgrounds with hookups, you may need to look deeper into the options.

Always consider your needs, your appliances and how you camp.

Remember, a generator may seem like the cheapest option, but, it can be expensive for long-term use.

Conversely, if you rarely camp “off grid,” then solar panels could become an expensive ornament.

Solar panels are very effective on clear days but less efficient on cloudy days, although they do still work—contrary to popular belief.

Many long-term campers like to install solar panels, but then also have a small generator as a backup for those cloudy days when the solar power isn’t quite enough.

Let’s look at the differences between the two ways you can power your motorhome.

Solar Panels

Solar Panels On RV

Solar panels are generally fitted to the roof of the motorhome.

The panel is a whole collection of many small solar cells. As light hits the cells, they create electricity.

For an RV or camper, solar energy works rather efficiently. On sunny days, you will be able to create plenty of power, as long as you have an adequate number of panels.

However, on cloudy or rainy days, you might not get as much electricity, although solar panels don’t require direct sunlight to produce electricity. There are two types of light that solar panels can absorb—direct and diffuse.

Direct light is what it gets from the sun on a clear day. Diffuse, on the other hand, is the light present in the atmosphere, even when the sun isn’t visible to us.

This means your solar panel will produce at least some power, even on rainy or snowy days. Although it has been shown to drop by about 50 percent or more, depending on the weather.

Bear in mind that it’s virtually impossible to power an a/c unit with solar panels; the number of panels required would likely be more than the size of your RV roof!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh6BJ95xldM

Basic Parts Of A Solar Kit

The basic kit generally consists of four components—panels, charge controller, inverter, and storage. Some kits may not include all these parts, so check before you buy.

Panels

Solar panels for motorhome use are usually made of crystalline silicon. This material is generally used for the two most popular types of solar panels—polycrystalline and monocrystalline.

Polycrystalline: This is the cheapest option, since it’s easier to make and it costs less. They also have a lower heat tolerance, so may not be the best choice for areas with high temperatures. Because of the price, it’s the most popular choice.

Monocrystalline: This is more efficient but also more expensive. It’s pricier to produce, but it also takes up less space. Monocrystalline will even last longer, many of these come with a 25-year warranty. They also perform better with diffuse light.

Another material often used is TFSC (thin-film solar cells). These can be made flexible, which can come in handy for an RV. But, they are also less efficient compared to crystalline silicon.

Charge Controller

The charge controller is a vital part of the solar kit. The charger is what sits between the panels and the storage (batteries). It’s what prevents the batteries from overcharging, which could break or damage the system.

It limits the rate and amount of charge to the batteries. The controller will also protect against drainage. It does this by shutting down if the stored power drops below 50 percent capacity.

Another type of controller is maximum power point tracking (MPPT). This will optimize the conversion of energy to the most suitable voltage for your batteries. It will also provide better and more power production.

An Inverter

An inverter will convert the low-wattage DC power, which is produced by the solar panels and stored in the batteries. The DC power is then converted into AC power, which is what appliances use.

Storage

Storage is the battery or batteries that will be storing all the electricity produced. Most RVs will have at least one battery, usually a 12-volt lead acid.

When you install solar panels, you will have to add batteries for storage. For example, you could add four golf-cart batteries, these are six volts each. Adding four could provide you with 440 amp-hours (AH) of capacity.

Then there’s also the type of battery you need to consider. The two common are lithium-ion and lead acid. Lithium-ion is higher priced, but are also more efficient and weighs less.

Solar Panel Cost

Counting Money

It’s no secret—solar panels are not cheap. In saying that, you have to think ahead when you’re considering solar energy. You won’t need to keep buying fuel to power it.

For boondockers, a 400-watt solar system should be enough for daily appliances to work. These can produce up to 2,000 watts, but, keep in mind that this estimate is for optimal conditions. A 400-watt system is likely to cost upwards of $500.

However, a 400-watt system may not be enough.

For families or larger motorhomes, an 800-watt system might be more suitable. These can create double the amount of energy, but they will also cost you more.

A more extensive system will require additional batteries and panels. Most solar panel kits available for motorhomes are around 400 watts. That means you have to install two in order to get double the energy. This can cost you anywhere between $800 and $2,000.

If you have a large RV with lots of appliances requiring energy, you might want to add further panels. There are many to choose from, depending on the electricity you need.

You could always add one of more extra 100-watt systems for extra power.

Another cost factor is installation. You can install these units yourself, and there are several articles and videos online to explain how. Nonetheless, it really is advisable to have them professionally installed, for safety’s sake.

DIY could also end in damage to the panels if not carried out correctly, thereby incurring even more costs.

Solar Tax Credit

Illustration Of Resolving Solar Tax Credit

Solar tax credit is a credit that allows you to gain a little from going solar. At the time of writing, RV or camper owners using solar panels will get 30 percent of the price deducted from their federal income taxes.

However, from 2019, that percentage will slowly drop, until it reaches 10 percent in 2022. So, if you want more benefits from your solar panels, you should get started soon.

Solar Panels Pros And Cons

RV Solar Panel Kit

Pros:

  • Quiet.
  • Require little maintenance.
  • Lightweight—if they don’t contain glass.
  • Do not require fuel, other than sunlight.
  • Will save you money on energy.
  • Can increase the resale price.

Cons:

  • Should be installed by a professional.
  • Expensive to install.
  • Reduced energy on cloudy or rainy days.

Generators

RV Generator

A generator will convert mechanical energy into electrical power.

Generators usually run on some type of fuel, like gasoline or diesel. However, some generators will even run on propane.

Gasoline

This is the most common type of fuel since it’s easy to obtain.

However, it’s also highly flammable and expensive to use. Generators that run on gasoline are also not the best choice for long-term users.

For example, a portable 5,000-watt generator could use 18 gallons of fuel over a 24-hour period. In the long run, this will become very expensive. These can cost anywhere between $250 and $5,000.

Choosing an inverter generator might be a better option. These require less fuel, and most have an eco-mode. Here, the generator will vary the throttle based on how much electricity is needed. This will ultimately save fuel.

Besides, these smaller generators usually only require one or two gallons of fuel. This should produce eight to 10 hours of power. They usually cost between $250 and $800.

Diesel

Diesel generators aren’t as readily available as gasoline versions, but they are more efficient. First of all, diesel is much less flammable, and it’s also less expensive to use. However, the initial purchase cost is high, starting at over $5,000.

For example, a 20-kilowatt generator consumes around 1.6 gallons per hour, running at full capacity.

Diesel generators are mostly used as emergency backup power in commercial properties, and you may find some large diesel RVs have them.

Propane

RV Propane Generator

Propane generators are some of the most environmentally friendly since propane is clean burning.

It is also easily stored in small tanks, and has a longer shelf life.

However, propane burns rather quickly. For example, a 20-kilowatt generator will consume around 3.45 gallons per hour. And a 35-kilowatt generator will use about 6.1 gallons per hour.

The good thing is that propane can be delivered to your home. However, since your motorhome is often on the move, this might not be an option.

A common drawback of propane generators is that you probably need to keep several bottles in storage. A full day of use can quickly burn up one standard bottle. Therefore, it might not be the best option for prolonged boondocking.

Extra Costs Of Generators

Generators usually require a few accessories to work. Here’s what you might need to purchase:

  • RV power outlet: $40 to $110.
  • Circuit breaker: $4 to $20.
  • Wheel kit for portable generators: $30 to $70.
  • Fuel.
  • Cords.

How Can I Choose The Right Generator?

Different RV Generators

Before going out shopping for a new generator, think about your needs.

Consider what appliances the generator has to power. Are there many?

Also, take into consideration if you’re going to be doing a lot of boondocking. In which case, you’ll need a good generator that can power your motorhome with less fuel for longer periods.

Most generators for RV use range from 1,000 watts to 3,000 watts. You can try to calculate how many watts you need based on your appliances.

Read the label on the RV appliances, such as your fridge and hairdryers. Remember that volts times amps equals watts. Doing this, you should be able to roughly calculate your wattage needs.

Always check the generator’s decibel rating. This is especially important if you plan to visit national parks. These usually have a 60-decibel at 50 feet limit, and most don’t allow generators after a certain hour.

Also, keep in mind that in some cases, buying two 1,500-watt inverter generators is better than getting one standard 3,000-watt. This will be lighter for your RV and will use less fuel. You will have to purchase a parallel connection cable though.

Generator Maintenance

Checking RV Generator

This is definitely one of the downsides of using a generator—it requires frequent maintenance.

As with any other motor, it is important to check the oil every so often, to make sure the generator is running smoothly.

How often you actually have to change the oil depends on how many hours you use the generator. In this case, you might want to keep a log to know when the oil needs changing.

Changing the oil is rather simple. You first have to open the cap for the oil tank and then drain the old oil. Note, you may have to tilt the generator a bit to get everything out. Next, use a funnel to pour the new oil into the tank.

The next crucial thing to keep up on is the air filter. The filter can differ, depending on the machine and brand, but usually, it is a foam piece that you can remove and clean.

It’s also important to keep an eye on the spark plugs, as these need to be replaced too. For this, you might need a few tools—like a spark plug socket and feeler gauge.

Most generators will come with a maintenance guide, others you may have to download.

Generator Pros And Cons

Man Showing RV Generator

Pros:

  • Works in all weathers.
  • Some are automatic.
  • Some generators have reduced noise levels.
  • Can work at all hours—although campground regulations may restrict generator use at night.
  • Might increase the resale value of the motorhome.

Cons:

  • High noise levels.
  • Heavy.
  • Requires fuel constantly.
  • Has to be covered under insurance.
  • Residential renewable energy tax credit, doesn’t apply to generators.

Conclusion

Solar panels and generators each have their pros and cons. A generator requires a lot of maintenance, but, it’s quick and easy to set up.

Solar panels, on the other hand, require no maintenance, but, you have to get a professional to install them.

It is not recommended to install solar panels without knowledge or experience.

Some RVs will be manufactured with the required wiring. However, it’s still a tricky thing to do, and there’s a risk of electrocution.

Do you have experience using solar panels and/or generators? Which do you prefer?

We’d love to hear from you! And, of course, if you have any questions or you just want to say hi, please leave a comment down below.

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