Pros & Cons – Portable Solar Panels for Boondocking

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If you looked up portable solar panels for boondocking online, you’ve no doubt found a lot of campers and RVers who have gone that route. And who wouldn’t be tempted? The idea of free energy and being able to go anywhere you want without being tied down to an electrical grid is awesome! But should you install a portable solar power system in your RV? There are a lot of factors to consider, but it depends on how much time you spend boondocking in your RV.

Portable solar power is ideal if you live in your RV, boondock a lot and spend time away from campgrounds or any camper parks. If you spend most of your time in campgrounds with electricity hook ups, you don’t need a lot of solar panels.

Portable Solar Power on RV Advantages

Let’s start by taking a look at the reasons why you may want to install a portable solar power system on your RV.

The Freedom to Camp Anywhere

For a lot of campers, this is the main reason they turn to solar power. What is the point of living in an RV if you have to spend almost all your time tied to a campground? You might as well buy a house. With solar power, you have complete freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime, without any constraints. You have complete control over your time and location.

As any camper will be happy to tell you, there are a lot of stunning, scenic locations besides the typical RV campgrounds. Some RVers avoid them because they are far from campgrounds, but if you have solar power you can go there anytime you want. The fact that campers avoid them means you’ll likely have the place all to yourself, and you can savor the peace and quiet.

Campgrounds are comforting and provide access to essentials. But many restrict the use of generators and you have to compete for spots with other RVers. During peak season, campgrounds are filled with people, not the ideal place if you want to spend time with nature. The cost of RV parks can also be steep if you access a lot of their amenities.

Campgrounds have uses, and even long time RVers spend time there. But campgrounds do charge, and finding an available spot during peak season can be tough. But the worst for many is you’re tied down to that spot. If you want to camp somewhere more sceni, you must have another power source, otherwise you’ll be left without amenities.

Investing in full solar power may be expensive at first, but for many RVers, you cannot put a price tag on being able to live without limits and living life on their own terms. Whatever the monetary price, it is worth fit or being able to roam the land freely.

A Profitable Long Term Investment

Price of solar power has gone down significantly in years, but setting up a full blown solar system for your RV will still cost at least $3,000. If you’re not going to spend a lot of time boondocking, this indeed doesn’t make sense. But if you are in it for the long haul, your investment should break even in two years or less.

Before you buy a solar system, do the math to see how much you can save by using solar energy compared to your RV’s current power setup. If you plan to spend most of your time away from campgrounds and go on your own, solar power will pay for itself quickly. Those days, months and years will fly by and you’ll be able to compute how much you saved from what would have been RV park fees, hookup charges, power services etc.

Solar Power Saves on Battery Expenses

A lesser known but important benefit of solar power is it extends the lifespan of the battery. The battery stores energy from solar panels to be used for electronic devices and appliances. Prolonged use of batteries shorten their lifespan, forcing you to buy another one.

Solar power keeps the battery charged, which is good for its life cycle. You don’t have to let the battery drop down to 50% levels anymore. Just let the solar panels charge the battery as you go about your day. As long as your solar panels are clean, they’ll keep charging your battery for optimum use. Clean solar panels and a healthy battery produce considerable savings for any RVer.

Reduce or Eliminate Dependence on Generators

Even if you use solar power, you may still need to use a generator for refrigerators, microwaves, hair dryers and other resource hungry appliances. Although it is possible to run everything on solar power, the cost will be too high for most RVers. But by going with solar power, you will reduce your dependence on generators, and in time, maybe get rid of them.

Generators provide power for large appliances, but they are noisy, produce fumes and bulky. Campgrounds also impose restrictions on their use. They also need regular maintenance when used heavily. If you opt for solar power, you can limit your generator use only to the biggest appliances. You can also use a portable solar generator to charge other devices and lessen your solar panel and battery load.

This means you’re no longer so dependent on it and there is less noise to deal with. Cutting down on generator use reduces your carbon footprint too. Your savings increase as well since you’ll be using the generator less.

Solar Power is Safe

Solar power does not produce fumes like generators do. There is little to no risk of fires or explosions especially if you use a lithium ion battery. Nobody likes the smell produced by some generators either; not only is it bad for your health, but it ruins the whole RVing experience.

There is no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning with solar power. Just let the panels absorb the sun’s energy into the battery. You can go about your daily routine without any foul smell disturbing you. Solar panels are quiet too. If you’re sick of loud generators constantly running in the background, solar panels will reduce your dependence on them.

Good for the Environment

It doesn’t take long for an RVer to develop a deep appreciation and love for nature. There is nothing quite like parking your camper in lush greens with fresh air and the Sun shining down on you. And by opting for solar power, you can do your part to ensure nature stays that way.

We can put this another way: if you go boondocking, nature becomes an extension of your home. You’ll spend a lot of time in parks, hiking trails and natural locations. Reducing your carbon footprint goes a long way towards keeping your natural habitat clean.

Adaptable and Versatile

Solar power is versatile. You can literally use them anywhere there is sunlight. Want to camp somewhere remote but still use your laptop? No problem. Want to stay at a campground but don’t want to pay for the electrical fee? No worries, just use your solar panel.

Do you have to stay at an RV park but can’t find a location near the power outlet? Again it’s okay because with solar you always have power. What if you are boondocking and it rains? No sunlight for now, but the solar panel stored energy in the battery so your electronic devices can still run. As long as you have the right solar panel size for your battery, energy will not be a problem.

Save on Unnecessary Expenses

Unlike residential solar systems, RV solar systems are lighter and can be installed by one or two people. You don’t have to pay for the installation fee, although you can if you don’t feel comfortable going up the roof or messing with the cables.

Second, solar power cuts down on your use of generator fuel. You don’t have to stock up on fuel canisters and the like. They not only occupy a lot of space but can also be risky. Once the solar system is installed on your RV, you’re done. You can always remove the panels for cleaning if necessary.

Peace and Quiet

Like freedom to go anywhere, it’s impossible to put a price tag on this. Imagine being in an RV, able to go anywhere you want and without any noise. No loud generators, no noisy campground people, just you and the sounds of nature.

Portable Solar Power on RVs Disadvantages

We have explained the reasons why you may decide to equip your RV with portable solar power. Now let us take a look at some reasons why you may not want to do that.

You are an RV Newbie

If you just bought your first RV, give yourself some time to get used to it. You can install a solar system immediately, but you need to think long and hard because you have to make a lot of adjustments.

First, how many days do you plan to go boondocking? A few days? Weeks? Do you plan to live in your RV? How long does it take you to use 50% of your battery (assuming it is lead acid)? Are you comfortable staying in remote areas without campgrounds?

Boondocking is not something you do on a whim. Neither is buying an RV and equipping it with solar power. Take your time and plan for what you want to do. When you’ve got an idea, buy a battery monitor and check how long the battery lasts you. Then you can decide if you want to install a solar system to run your appliances.

Just because a lot of RVers are using solar power does not mean you should jump on the bandwagon now. Think about what you need and if it is worth the cost. Remember why you bought an RV in the first place. And allow yourself plenty of trial runs in the RV before making that decision to use solar power.

It Takes Time to Recover the Cost

Solar energy is free, but you have to pay for the solar panels, charge controllers, inverter and battery. The cost goes up the more high the system is, and how quickly you can recoup depends on how often you go boondocking and where.

You also have to add:

  • The cost of a generator to run the fridge or other appliances
  • Generator maintenance and the cost of fuel
  • Campground expenses. Campgrounds charge a fee for parking and use of their amenities.
  • Cost of solar power installation, or if you will do it yourself
  • How you use your RV, now and in the future

Solar power can save you money on campground fees, but how long will it take to recover the cost of a solar power system? A full RV solar power system costs around $4,000, but you can reduce it to $3,000 or so if you install everything yourself.

If you boondock 45 days a year without going to campgrounds, it will take a long time break even. Besides the $3,000 you also have to add the cost of the generator. The first year is the most expensive but after the cost drops significantly. Even then it will take years before you profit or break even from this investment.

On the other hand, if you boondock and camp several weeks a year, and you want the freedom to go wherever you want, you’ll recoup the cost quickly. As explained earlier, the more you use solar power, the faster you will make back your investment. You will still need a generator for rainy weather, but most of the year you’ll be fine with solar power.

You’ll probably have to do a bit of math to figure out what solar panel size you will need. But that is necessary. You do not want to jump in blind especially when thousands of dollars are involved. Once you have run through the number a few times, you can be more confident about the next step.

You Spend Most of Your Time in RV Campgrounds

Many campgrounds offer full hookups for electricity, water, waste disposal and other amenities. If you stay mostly in these RV parks than boondocking, you probably don’t need solar power. This is also true if you only spend a few days camping in a year and mostly are on hookups.

Some RV parks offer access to electricity and water only, while others are more comprehensive. Determine which parks you’re going to stay in and for how many days. If you leave these parks for just a day or two, a generator will meet your needs.

As an RVer you need to be practical and focus on your needs. You should not feel compelled to use solar power if you are getting along fine with campgrounds. If you are happy with your current setup, there is no need to change.

However if you’re afraid to leave the park because you won’t have electrical power, consider investing in a solar system. Combined with a generator, you’ll be able to roam freely wherever you like without being tied down to a park.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is no single correct answer. Going with portable solar power for RVs is ideal for many, but sometimes it isn’t right for others. What’s important is you understand all the options available to you so you can make the decision that is best for you, now and the future.