Solar power is a hot topic in the camper community—for a reason. Many new RVs ship prewired to be “solar-ready” or come with complete solar systems installed. But, if you have a smaller setup (van, trailer, or other bumper-pull) or an older RV, things aren't as straightforward.
“How much is adding solar going to cost?” is the question everyone inevitably asks first. but it should be, “What are my power requirements when camping?” Only then we can get more specific on your solar spend. Let's walk through this.
Review the Power You Need
Rooftop Solar Solutions
Many weekend, off-grid campers start with a minimalist approach and only need limited DC power to operate RV water pumps, fans, lights, and, possibly, a three-way refrigerator. For this setup, you'll typically require a single 190-watt solar kit (approximate cost $700) and 200 amphours of AGM batteries ($500).
This basic single panel rooftop system can offset the uses of DC power draws for a family of four over a weekend, with room to spare. This system is also easily expandable, so you can add more solar and battery power as your needs grow.
Estimated Cost: $1,200+
If you're a camper looking to power laptops or use household appliances, you'll need to convert DC solar power to the AC similar to what's found in your home. This conversion means adding a power inverter to the basic setup. While inverters range in size and quality, even a basic power inverter can be integrated into your RV or trailer's electrical system, allowing you to use your outlets.
When buying an inverter, you should always size to the largest item you plan on running. If you're only charging your laptop or cell phone, and running a small tabletop fan or some string lights, you can easily run on a 700-watt inverter ($350). However, if you can't live without your microwave, toaster, or coffee maker, you will likely need at least a 2000-watt inverter ($800).
Incorporating AC power allows for more flexibility and creature comforts. However, keep in mind that it's important to monitor battery power levels as you add more devices and draw more power.
Estimated Cost: $1,500–$2,000
Portable Solar Systems
Not every RVer wants to drill holes in their roof or install a solar system. For campers with a limited amount of roof space, a portable solar kit may be the answer. Portable solutions are evolving quickly and deliver increased efficiency and utility while reducing overall weight and footprint. A typical 100-watt portable solar kit starts around $500—an ideal investment if you want to get a taste of solar but not commit to a permanent mount. These kits are also great for supplementing rooftop systems. However, you would also need to invest in a proper battery bank. As mentioned earlier, 200ah of AGM batteries ($500) is an excellent place to start.
Estimated Cost: $1,000
Adding AC charging to your RV with a portable solar panel works the same way as an installed rooftop solar kit. If you opt for portable solar kits and only want to charge your phones or laptops, adding a small 200-watt ($100) power inverter is sufficient.
If you'd like to have more available household power and tie it into your RV's outlets, it's essential to follow proper sizing recommendations.
Estimated Cost: $1,100–$1,800
Highlighting Cost Versus Quality
Cheap components can cost you more in the long run, so protect your investment with quality.
Purchase panels built with whole cells, which are more efficient, perform better, and are worth the incremental upfront expense versus partial or “cut” peers.
Be advised: Lead-acid batteries require regular maintenance (adding distilled water) and need to be installed in a well-ventilated area. AGM batteries are sealed, maintenance-free, faster-charging, and more resistant to lower temperatures. For more power (and higher cost), opt for lithium tech.
Most old inverters use modified sine wave technology to recreate the AC power profile in your home. But many appliances and electronics run better on power produced by newer, pure sine wave inverters.
Find the Natural Fit
Today's solar systems are compact, cost-effective, and compelling options for even the most bare-bones camping setups. Depending on your location, you may even qualify for a state tax break available for adding solar to a “secondary residence.” But every camper is unique. You have to find the natural fit for your camping style—and your budget. Then you can crunch those numbers.