In recent years, using solar energy for powering campervans has become quite the norm, and it’s for all the right reasons.
Eco-friendly and super convenient for on-the-go people, using the sun’s energy for powering your campervan saves you a long electricity bill and is also a great way to go easy on the environment.
In today’s article, we’ll be telling you how much solar power you’d need to power up your campervan, as well as providing answers to other frequently asked solar power-related questions so that you can set up your campervan for an energy-savvy journey too.
Here’s How much Solar Power you Need on your Campervan:
Most campervans will use a minimum of 2.16 kilowatts of electricity throughout a 24-hour period. A campervan will need to store 2163 watt-hours of electricity to run the most basic amenities, including a regular smartphone, a 12V compressor refrigerator, and a standard microwave oven.
1. How Much Electricity Does a Campervan Use?
Different campervans have different energy consumptions.
Depending on the owner, one unit could have a coffee mixer, a microwave oven, and an electric stove used three times a day, while another one may have a gaming laptop and a wide-screen tv.
However, you can expect that most campervans will use a minimum of 2.16 kilowatts of electricity throughout a 24-hour period.
To know how much electricity you are going to use, you can use a simple accounting method that tells you exactly how much electricity you will need.
Explorist.life has a spreadsheet that lets you calculate your energy consumption needs, but you will need to check the labels on everything you will bring on your trip and find out how much energy they use.
On the other hand, a good rule of thumb is that doubling the number will allow you to run twice that number of appliances.
You can then substitute the smartphone with a low-power device, the refrigerator with a 24-hour device, and the microwave oven with a high-power or heating device.
2. How Do you Calculate How much Solar Power you Need?
Total energy consumption is easily calculated by adding all electrical gadgets and appliances in the vehicle.
The power usage is expressed in watt-hours and can be calculated by multiplying the wattage by how many hours you use the said gadget or appliance in a 24-hour period.
For instance, refrigerators run for 24 hours. So, one that runs on 40 watts for 24 hours will use 960-watt hours.
A watt-hour is how much watts you use to run a specific electronic device for one hour.
Depending on the wattage and hours you use it, one device with a higher wattage may use less energy in the long run because you do not use it as much as ones with lower wattage.
For instance, an Xbox One can use up to 120 watts while running heavy-graphics games.
Used in a 3-hour period within a day, you will only be using 360-watt hours in a 24-hour period compared to a refrigerator that runs 960-watt hours in the same time frame.
The minimum amount of solar power you need will always depend on how many appliances you expect your vehicle to run.
Fridge & Wattage Use:
To put this into the equation, let’s think about the most important appliance in the campervan: the fridge!
No matter what happens, the refrigerator should always be running 24/7 unless you want your food to spoil. A 12V compressor fridge can take up about 40 watts from your power supply.
Furthermore, you will need to store enough electricity to last you through the night. So, your solar panel will need to produce 40 watts x 24 hours or 960-watt hours within their operational time.
Riding down an interstate highway on a sunny day could give you up to 4 hours of operational time to store electricity.
In this case, you will need a solar panel and an inverter system that has at least 240 watts to run your fridge at 100% eco-friendly power.
Keep in mind, though; you may still run out of energy over the night because the solar panels will have greatly reduced efficiency while dirty with dust and during cloudy days.
A good estimate would be to double this and refrain from bringing too many appliances.
3. What is a Typical Solar Setup for a Campervan?
Because campervans generally have little roof space for anything to be placed on top of them, most users would opt for a series of small, 10 watt panels that could be folded and removed when the top camper tent is needed.
These are usually foldable panels that could be clipped or attached to a locking mechanism on the roof.
A setup like this, however, can only provide a small amount of electricity for the campervan. A campervan may only have space for about 10 or 20 tiles of these 10-watt panels, reaching 100 or 200 watts.
Others could only fit a single 100 or 200-watt panel on their roofs. In fact, many users supplement solar energy with chemical energy from gas generators when away from camping parks.
But since campervans are meant to be used by as few as two to four people at a time, the small power output could be good enough to keep everyone satisfied while on their trip to the next camping park.
Some campervan setups use solar panel kits, which are made to fit the shape of their roofs or have specialized clasps to keep them snugly in place.
Some of these could be used while driving, allowing campervan owners to charge their batteries while on the road.
4. How Many Solar Panels Does it Require?
When planning how many solar panels you will need, you must first understand that stores will usually sell you panels in ratings of 10 watts, 100 watts, 200 watts, and 300 watts.
These tend to have different sizes and shapes, so you might want to plan how you will install these on your campervan’s roof.
You must also understand that the energy output of your solar panels depends on the inverter. A system with 2500 watts from solar panels will never be better than one with 2000 watts if your inverter’s capacity is at 2000 watts or less.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s the computation for finding out the amount you need.
Calculating Your Power Consumption:
If you have already calculated your total power consumption per 24 hours, you will need to round it up (not down) from the nearest hundred then divide that number by how many hours you expect your solar panels to be working.
That’s the total watt rating you need to have from the panels themselves. Because solar panels can be connected to get the energy output you need, any size and shape will do as long as you get the output you need.
The purpose of the rounding up from the nearest hundred is because there are some 100-watt solar panels, which might be too difficult to connect to 10-watt solar panels.
These might make it too hard for DIY solar panel installers to install these without help.
But if you or someone you know can do this efficiently, then the only problem here would be roof space for the extra panels. In this case, you will need to round up from the nearest tens instead of hundreds.
One more thing: it would be impractical to expect your solar panels to work for 12 hours a day, every day.
Depending on where you are, the weather, and the average climate of the area, they could run for less than an hour to about 4 or 6 hours at maximum capacity. 4 hours is a good estimate.
This will allow you to bank upon electricity during good, sunny weather while getting a bit of extra energy during cloudy weather.
5. What is the Minimum Output You Can Go For?
For campervan devices to function with 100% solar energy at the bare minimum, you would need 2163 watt-hours of electricity, which translates to an output of at least 600 watts from your solar panels.
However, you can also opt to go lower than that by purchasing less-efficient or smaller solar panels and connecting them to gas generators.
This, actually, is a pretty popular option that many people go for since campervans are on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to roof space, and this setup saves you a lot of it.
Options for Solar Panels:
A campervan will need a solar panel and an inverter system that can generate at least 960-watt hours for staggeringly energy-efficient conditions.
This will allow a campervan to run a 12V compressor fridge for 24 hours. In this case, a solar panel system with a total rating of at least 240 watts running for 4 hours on a sunny day can meet the minimum requirement.
However, solar panels are usually sold in 100, 200, and 300 watts while inverters are sold in 1000 to 5000 watts.
Therefore, the panels that rate at a total of 300 watts minimum and the inverter at 1000 watts will allow the compressor fridge to run in such a condition.
To run more appliances, more solar panels should be added to the system, but as space for solar panels is largely limited in a campervan, it is more preferable to use a circuit of a few 300-watt panels instead.
Meanwhile, the maximum energy delivered by the solar panels is also limited by the inverter, which makes electricity storable in a battery or usable in a system.
Therefore, the amount of solar power needed on a campervan depends on a case by case basis as some vehicles have a higher need for electricity.
In contrast, some will only need to run a compressor fridge.
6. What Are the Best Solar Panels on Campervans?
Campervan owners have two choices on their solar panels.
The first choice is the more stable solar panels latched or screwed on the campervan’s roof itself.
This allows you to charge the batteries while driving.
However, as campervan roofs are normally too small to allow for 100% solar panel energy, these need to be supplemented with either gas generators or portable solar panels.
This is also the go-to option for campervan owners with pop up tents.
– Photonic Universe 300 Watt Monocrystalline Solar Panel
As efficient as they are, this particular solar panel is light enough to be placed on most campervans without ruining the roof.
At 300 watts, this solar panel can save you some money by using a single panel instead of multiple ones.
The thing can also save you more space.
In fact, this can meet 50% of our prescribed minimum energy needed for running electronics in 100% solar energy.
(See reference links below to buy today!)
– Renogy 100 Watt Ultra Lightweight Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel
Some vehicles do not have flat surfaces on which larger solar panels could be installed.
In this case, you may want a flexible solar panel that could fit on curved surfaces like this one.
This ultra-lightweight, flexible solar panel can make a 248-degree arc and is light enough to be placed on campervans with thinner roofs and uneven surfaces.
(See reference links below to buy today!)
– Zamp Solar 230-Watt Portable Solar Panel Kit
As some campervans cannot run on solar panels from their roofs at all, portable solar panels are the right way to go for them.
Theoretically, the only limit for a portable solar panel kit would be the space inside the vehicle. This is because you can bring as many solar panels as the extra space in your campervan allows.
What’s more, this panel also comes in other sizes and at lower watt ratings.
Thus, you can have more energy output with portable solar panels at the expense of not using them while you drive.
(See reference links below to buy today!)
7. Can you Install these Solar Panels Yourself?
Fortunately, you don’t need a technician to install solar panels.
If you have the technical know-how to fix your own electrical system, you can install these things yourself.
The basic mechanism involving solar panels goes like this: solar panels => inverter => fuse box => battery and appliances.
The main thing that you need to watch out for, however, is the grounding. Solar panels can give out a crazy amount of electricity over time.
If they are not grounded well enough, then they may electrocute you while you are on top of your campervan cleaning them.
If you do not have any experience with fixing electrical appliances, you may want to be more careful.
Or, you could hire someone else to do it for you. Like most electrical devices, solar panels can be dangerous when mishandled.
8. What Are the Best Campervans for Installing Solar Panels?
When choosing a campervan for installing solar panels, the main thing you should look for is the roof.
A wide roof will allow you to carry more solar panels on top of the vehicle while driving, charging up the batteries while on the way.
Here are x campervans that work great with solar panels.
– Airstream Atlas
As a plus-sized campervan that hosts a large living space, the Airstream Atlas sports its own solar panel slot on its roof.
Zamp Solar also sells premade solar panel expansion kits that have been tailor-made for this particular campervan.
However, extending the solar panels may come at the expense of blocking the sunroof, depending on where the panels were installed.
– RB Touring Van Sawtooth 04
Touring over to the cheaper side, the RB Touring Van Sawtooth 04 costs about half of the luxury campervan Airstream Atlas while also sporting a wide roof.
The major reason why this is on the list is that the Sawtooth can carry heavy loads on its wide roof, allowing a single, large, 300-watt solar panel to be installed on top without much problem.
Morten is the founder of GoDownsize. He has filmed and interviewed people living in tiny houses and RVs since 2011. He grew up on the coast where his dad took him boating from a young age. He has completely rebuilt two RVs in which he travels with his family for months at the time. Read more about Morten here.