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How Solar Panels Work On An RV

Solar panels are some of the coolest gadgets you can get for your RV. Not only will they save you money in the long run over a generator, but they’re much more environmentally friendly.

RV solar panels work exactly the same as residential solar panels. They collect sunlight and convert it into energy, which is, in turn, converted into usable electricity.

So without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about RV solar panels.

History Of Solar Power

Long, long ago, in this very galaxy, scientists observed something interesting. They discovered that the “photovoltaic effect” of sunlight hitting certain materials could create electricity. While it took another fifty or so years, they eventually discovered that silicone was one of the most efficient materials to do this with.

Over time, this effect has been fine-tuned and improved upon with modern technology. This allows us to power homes, RVs, and countless other gadgets with the sun and a few stationary panels!

But How Do They Work?

While the science behind solar panels is (obviously) complicated, they’re simple in theory. The cells in solar panels collect sunlight and convert them into DC electricity. Generally, this comes in the form of 12-volt energy, used to power small items like lights. However, if you throw in an inverter into the mix, things change.

With an inverter, you’re suddenly able to turn 12 volts of DC power into 120 volts AC – the same type of electricity in the outlets at home. This allows you to power bigger devices like air conditioning or a stovetop.

While a single solar panel won’t allow you to run all of your electronics, the nice thing is they can be hooked up in parallel. We’ll explain what that means in more detail, but the basic gist is that they work together to collect more power. You’ll also need a battery (or several), and an inverter to convert AC to DC if you want to power your gear.

Parallel Vs. Series Circuits

This is a very basic concept in electronics. In short, your electronics can be hooked up in one of two ways – in parallel or in series. Parallel means that each device in the circuit works together, allowing a failure of a single piece without the whole circuit stopping. Series, on the other hand, means each part needs the precursors to function. So one part goes out, nothing works.

With solar panels, you want a parallel circuit. This means that if there’s a failure of one panel or cord, you don’t need to rewire the whole thing.

AC Vs. DC Electricity

Both of these forms of power have their place. In short, AC power fluctuates direction and charge. This is used to power most electronics, especially in homes.

DC power, on the other hand, travels in a direct line. This makes it nearly impossible for power plants (or solar panels in this case) to provide direct DC power as it dissipates over long distances. DC power is primarily used to store power, like in a battery.

This is why your solar panels provide DC power – it’s assumed that you’re using a battery or battery bank to store excess power. You’re not supposed to try and simply use all of the power provided without keeping some for later.

Figuring Out Your Needs

While it’s not difficult to calculate how much power you’ll need, it is time-consuming. Brace yourself – math is incoming.

Calculating Watt/Hours Per Day

As I said, easy. See how much energy each electronic you plan to run in your RV needs with its owner manual (you did keep that…. right?) and write it down. Let’s say your coffee pot needs 30 watts per hour. You plan to make a lot of coffee each day, so it’ll need to run for let’s say… three hours.

So that means 30 Watts * 3 hours = 90 W/H (Watts per hour) each day. Now repeat the process with every piece of equipment you’ll need to power. I know, it’s boring. And you said you’d never use math after high school!

But How Many Panels Do I Need?

That’s where the math above comes in handy. If you calculated that you need 600 Watts per day, and your solar panel provides 100 Watts, what does that tell you?

That’s right! You’ll likely need six (or even seven if you don’t want to cut it close) panels to provide enough energy. (You need 600 Watts. One panel proves 100 Watts, so 100 * X = your power needs.)

What About Batteries?

It’s good you asked – you’re clearly learning. Without batteries, your solar panels won’t give you what you need. Make sure you know how much power you’ll need, and how much you’ll draw, and then install enough batteries to house the excess energy. This often means you’ll need to make use of a battery bank, or a group of batteries in parallel to store power.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know everything you can about how solar panels function, it’s time to get them installed! Trust me, they’re worth every penny if only because you don’t have to lug around a generator or rely on shore power anymore. And don’t forget that if the sun’s not out (maybe it’s raining?), you won’t be able to collect max power – so plan ahead.

Are Solar Panels Safe?

Assuming they’re hooked up properly and grounded, yes, solar panels are safe. There is no risk of electrocution unless, again, they’re not grounded.

Can One Battery Work With Solar Panels?

Technically yes, but it won’t be optimal. Unless you’re powering nearly nothing with your solar power, you’ll likely need a battery bank to store excess power. Otherwise, you’re wasting potential.

Do I Need To Use RV-Specific Solar Panels?

No. While they’re generally cheaper than residential solar panels, you can absolutely use other options. The reason most RV hobbyists use ones designed for RVs is their size. You need to likely fit several onto your roof, meaning the smaller average size of RV-specific panels is helpful.

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