Solar is a nice addition to many motorhomes but it’s not always worth the investment. Determining if solar is right for your rig requires a close examination of your lifestyle and parking choices. Solar panels are becoming more affordable but the battery systems required to operate a full off-grid system is often expensive. The installation and setup also comes at a price unless you are handy.
Purpose of Solar
The major benefit of solar is the free electricity and ability to maintain your electric system off-grid. Solar will quietly charge batteries all day, reducing or eliminating the need to run a generator, especially while boondocking. RV solar systems can also act as a means of providing power through emergency power outages.
The amount of solar energy required for a motorhome varies based on the residents but electronic devices, electric pumps and refrigerators and other appliances will increase the requirements significantly. Solar can still be a cost effective option for motorhomes spending significant amounts of time boondocking or as a means of reducing grid-tie electrical costs.
Solar is also excellent for topping off battery systems. Many battery chargers using the engine alternator or an electric connection will not fully charge but a solar system will ensure that house batteries are reaching their full potential. In this case, a single panel can help to maintain battery systems without being used as a means of actually delivering high levels of energy. It will top them off to prevent expensive batteries from discharging early in their lifespan.
Where Do You Park?
Solar panels really are not necessary for motorhomes spending their entire lives in an RV resort. RV parks and resorts offer full hook-ups and their residents enjoy a steady stream of power for all appliances and devices used. Many places even incorporate this cost into the price each spot. In this case, making the investment in panels, batteries, inverters and all associated installation costs is really not necessary.
Travelers who split time between RV resorts and wild camping locations may however benefit from solar panels. Many travelers use a mixed model, electing to stop at national parks, public land boondocking sites and other areas where hook-ups are not always available. Without a battery system, electric components will not function and solar quickly becomes a valuable asset for charging batteries.
Portable vs Permanent
Solar panels are often installed directly to the motorhome roof. Some installations even offer brackets for adjusting the angle to maximize sun exposure. These permanent setups are nice because they require very little attention and will charge without any forethought. The installation process is more intensive and expensive than using portable units but you also do not need storage for the panels.
Many new portable solar setups are also available and they do have a few advantages. Portable panels allow you to park in the shade while placing the panels in full sunlight. On a hot day, charging batteries while also keeping the motorhome cool is a really nice feature. You can also take a portable unit on non-motorhome camping trips to serve as a charging base for boat batteries and other portable battery units.
Recreational Solar Units
Another option for motorhome travelers to consider is a simple recreational solar panel and battery combination. Goal Zero is one of many companies specializing in small scale solar charging options. These panels and batteries are not designed to run a motorhome but they are very handy for taking out golfing, fishing, boating, hiking and on excursions around the island. A portable unit can charge your phone, keep speakers running and serve as a means of keeping all electronics running on long days spent outdoors. The sizes range with some panels being very small with clips that will hand off a backpack or boat railing. They are also surprisingly affordable with some larger batteries and panels that remain very portable.
Hilton Head Sun
Hilton Head Island is a good place for running solar because the sun shines more than 200-days per year. It does not have the sun exposure of a place like Arizona but there is enough for solar to be a viable option. Motorhomes looking to add an emergency power source or to reduce electric costs on the road should do the math to determine if solar will offer long term savings. Anyone wanting to run off shore power exclusively can forego the solar option altogether.