Making the jump to solar power is a big moment in any RV owner’s life. RV solar panels offer a greater range of freedom from shore power and reduce gas costs for generators. Unfortunately, installing them isn’t as simple as just popping on any old panel. For those in a rush, here’s a quick idea of what the process looks like. It’ll be broken down below in detail for everyone else.
Ideally, you should check your RV’s roof for damage before doing anything else. Repair as needed, then measure the space you have to work with and get a basic plan laid out. Then fix the mounts and attach the panels. After this, connect your charge controller to the cables, and arrange everything in series.
Step by Step for Installing RV Solar Panels
Okay, now that we’ve gotten the SparkNotes section done, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. There’s a lot to take into account, so bear with us while we get this laid out.
As mentioned above, checking the space you’re going to be working on for damage is vital. If your RV’s roof is already damaged, you’re going to need to repair that. You don’t want to have to try and fix a leak while working around your new shiny toys. If you’re unsure what you’re doing, be sure to reach out to your RV dealer for advice – it’s their job to know this!
As with most things in life, it’s good to listen to grandpa. When he said, “Measure twice, cut once,” he was talking from experience. In other words, be sure to carefully measure the space you’re going to be installing upon. It’s better to take extra time here and do it right than to have to start from scratch because you were impatient.
You can use scrap cardboard or newspaper to create a mocked-up panel if, like me, you work visually. Be sure to account for any bits and bobs that might block panels, be it the air conditioner or your satellite dish.
Even if you don’t think you’ll need it, draw out a plan. Make sure to include all of your (accurate) measurements where relevant, and keep notes. And again – measure twice, cut once. Be sure you measured properly before moving on; I promise, it’ll save you a headache down the line.
Drill the holes you planned earlier (you did plan this, right?) and attach the brackets with screws and brackets until they’re secured. Again, refer to your plan that you definitely laid out before doing this, and just follow instructions. Easy!
Here it is – the moment you’ve been dreaming of since ordering these pesky panels. They’re finally ready to be attached to your RV. Depending on the type of panels you’ve chosen, the manner in which you mount these are going to vary.
Flexible panels (in other words, panels without rigid materials like glass) usually require an adhesive to attach. These can use screws, but it varies on the brand – some recommend them, some don’t. These panels are generally a bit more spendy, but they are often much, much lighter, making installation easier.
Rigid panels, on the other hand, require you to fasten to the bracket with screws and bolts. These generally last a bit longer and are more efficient (on average), but weigh a bit more and have a set space they take up.
These last two steps are the most technically difficult, depending on how comfortable you are with electrical work. Before you get to set up the wiring for the panels, you need to install your solar charge controller (SCC) monitor in your RV.
Be sure your fuses are close enough to the charge controller and battery to keep your cables as tidy and short as possible. This is very, very important. The longer your wires, the more voltage you’ll lose, so keeping them short is key to good performance.
Lastly, you’ll need to link your solar breaker to the connector cables and install the DC fuse block between the batteries and SCC.
The last step to RV solar panel installation is linking the panels in series. For the uninitiated, this is the manner in which the panels are wired and applies to many different types of electronics. A series circuit requires every device in the circuit to function for the circuit to complete. If one goes out, they all stop working.
On the other hand, a parallel circuit works the opposite way. The flow of voltage is the same across all devices, allowing them to work together without being reliant on each other.
To set up your panels in a series, link the first and last panels to the cable entry plate. You can use an MC4 connector to attach a string of panels to one cable if you (like myself) live for wire management.
What Do I Need to Attach RV Solar Panels?
To complete the process of attaching your shiny new solar panels, you’ll need several things. First, the basics – a tape measure, power drill, and pen (or pencil, dealer’s choice) with paper are vital here. But here’s the “big items” checklist you’ll need:
Monitor And Batteries
Without batteries, you can’t store the power from your new solar panels. Battery types vary, but many people with solar panels tend to use lithium-ion batteries. These tend to be a bit more efficient and to have a longer life and lighter weight. The monitor is needed so you know how much charge your batteries have before you use it all.
While this seems obvious, it’s a checklist, right? Make sure you decide on the proper panels for you – that means do your research! There are three common types of panels to choose from – monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and amorphous. Each has its own benefits and downfalls, so get what’s best for you.
Solar Charging Controllers
These, simply put, stop your batteries from overcharging. They will save your battery’s life more times than you’d think, so they’re a worthy investment.
Inverters convert the DC power provided by the panels into the AC power needed to run your RV. Without this, your panels won’t provide the type of power you’re looking for.
As with most electronics, solar panels require wiring. This means that you’ll need cables to attach all of the bits and bobs needed to run. Always be sure you have the cables you need (and maybe an extra or two) before starting. Again, this all comes down to grandpa’s saying – “Measure twice, cut once.”