For many people, a campervan is a way of ‘escaping the hustle and bustle of life’. Having the ability to just ‘get up and go’ – to go ‘off-grid’ as some like to call it, is, for a few the ultimate goal.
But for some, having a way of keeping our electrical items powered as we head off-grid has become vital.
And for a small few of us, our lives have become interconnected with electronic devices that keeping these devices always charged has become a necessity.
This is where solar power comes in.
Thanks to rapid technological advancements, installing solar panels on your campervan is an excellent way of providing power when in a stationary position for an extended period.
There is also the green credentials. Many of us want to decrease our use of fossil fuels (both through the national grid and/or fuel-powered generator).
By installing a solar power system into your campervan, you can harness the power of the sun and store it in your leisure battery. This energy can then be used when you turn on an appliance and/or gadget.
What is a typical solar power system in a campervan?
How does a solar panel work?
A Solar panel works by capturing the energy coming from the sun and turning it into electricity that can then be used for your campervan.
Without getting too technical:
- Photons from the sun collide with solar cells inside a solar panel. A typical 14.72-volt solar panel has 32 solar cells.
- The photons knock the electrons loose from their atoms inside each of the solar cells.
- Conductors attached to both the positive and negative sides of each solar cell forms an electrical circuit.
- When the sun is shining, electrons start to flow through the circuit, creating electricity.
What are the two main types of solar panels used in a campervan?
The two main types of solar panels used in a campervan are Monocrystalline Solar Panels and Polycrystalline Solar Panels.
These panels are both an excellent choice for your campervan solar installation.
But, there are a few key differences between the two types of solar panels that you should first be aware of before making your final decision.
What are the main differences between a monocrystalline & polycrystalline solar panel?
The main difference between monocrystalline & polycrystalline solar panels is the type of silicon solar cells that are used in the construction of the panel.
- Monocrystalline solar panels have solar cells made from a single crystal of silicon. As a result, these panels are slightly more efficient compared to Polycrystalline solar panel.
- Floor space required for Monocrystalline solar panels is usually less compared to a Polycrystalline solar panel to produce the equivalent power output.
- The surface of Monocrystalline solar panels generally has a black hue.
- These panels are generally more expensive compared to Polycrystalline.
- Polycrystalline solar panels have solar cells made from many silicon fragments that are then melted together. As a result, these panels are slightly less efficient compared to Monocrystalline solar panel.
- Floor space required for Polycrystalline solar panels is usually more compared to a Monocrystalline solar panel to produce the equivalent power output.
- The surface of Polycrystalline solar panels generally has a blue hue.
- These panels are generally less expensive compared to Monocrystalline.
What are the best solar panels for my campervan?
When selecting the type of solar panel to install in your campervan, this will ultimately come down to your budget.
Monocrystalline solar panels are a little bit more expensive compared to their counterparts.
Go for Monocrystalline Solar Panels if you want better solar efficiency.
Go for Polycrystalline Solar Panels if you are trying to keep the costs down.
Solar Panel Tips and Tricks
- Even the smallest shadow can affect the amount of power generated by a solar panel. Always ensure as much of the panel is in direct sunlight.
- Try and park your campervan so your solar panels will catch as much of the midday (strongest) sunlight as possible. In the summer, this usually is directly overhead. Remember trees and tall buildings too!
- Before you head out and buy your brand new solar panels, make sure they will actually fit on top of your campervan. This may sound so obvious, but this is one of the most significant errors people often make when they purchase solar panels for their campervan. You may also need to purchase special adapters.
- Make sure you carry out regular leisure battery maintenance. A poorly maintained battery will affect how well your solar panels effectively charge them back to the optimal capacity.
- Try and replace any electrical items inside your campervan with the equivalent energy-efficient ones. Think halogen bulbs to LEDs. By doing so, you can drastically reduce the power you consume, meaning your solar panels won’t have to work as hard.
- Remember: Pollution, dust, tree gunk and bird droppings can reduce the amount of sunlight hitting your solar panels. Remember to regularly clean your solar panels with soap and warm water to remove any build-up of dirt. This should keep your panels as efficient as possible. This is also one of the most common issues people will find when they first install solar panels on the van.
How do I wire solar panels in my campervan?
When it comes to wiring your solar panels to your campervan, you generally have two options. (Well, you actually have three, but we will get to that later)
You can wire your solar panels in a series or parallel format.
What are the differences between wiring solar panels in series or parallel?
Solar Panels Wired In Series
When the solar array is wired in series, all solar panel acts as one entire unit.
Connecting them in this way will increase the total voltage generated from a solar array.
Solar Panels Wired In Parallel
When the solar array is wired in parallel, each solar panel acts as an independent unit. Connecting them in this way will increase the total amps generated from a solar array.
Should I wire my solar panels in series or parallel?
This is really not a question we can answer as this is really down to your personal preferences.
One quick search on the world wide web and you will soon come across many pages where people are ‘debating’ each other on why one way is better than the other.
To keep it super simple (and once again, we mean super simple), here are the advantages associated with each of the methods;
Advantages of wiring solar panels in series
- Higher power output under ‘normal’ circumstances.
- You will require wiring a less significant gauge.
- You will require less wiring.
- The distance from the solar panel to the charge controller will be less critical.
Advantages of wiring solar panels in parallel
- Performs better when one of the solar panels is dirty/in the shade/broken.
How do I connect the solar panels between each other?
The most common way of connecting solar panels together when installing solar panels on a campervan is via an MC4 Connector.
Yes, some people simply cut and join their wires using more primitive ways (junction boxes, spline and solder), but by using MC4 connectors, this can make installation a lot easier. It can also make it easier if you ever need to remove your solar panel for maintenance.
Now you have the solar panels (solar array) fitted to your campervan, you should now be able to produce power.
But, simply connecting the solar array directly to the battery bank is not the correct way.
As mentioned above, the energy being produced from your solar array will fluctuate quite a fair bit.
To control the fluctuation, you will have to run the power through a charge controller.
What does a solar charge controller do?
A charge controller (or sometimes referred to as a charge regulator) is an electronic device that regulates the voltage and/or current that comes from the connected solar array to the battery bank.
As a typical leisure battery needs around 13.8 to 15.5 volts to fully recharge, most charge controllers output 10.5 to 15 volts.
This all depends on:
- The state of charge of the leisure battery.
- The type of battery.
- What mode the charge controller is in.
- The overall temperature.
Why do I need a charge controller?
If you connected your solar array directly to the battery bank, you could be in for some major trouble.
Batteries have a specified voltage capacity.
If you exceed that voltage, you will expose the battery bank to numerous overcharges and over discharges. This would dramatically reduce the lifespan of the batteries – or even worse, you could end up with a vehicle fire!
Are there different types of charge controllers?
Yes, there are two types of charge controllers. They are:
- Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) Charge Controllers
- Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) Charge Controllers.
What’s the difference between a PWM controller and an MPPT controller?
Without going too much into detail, these are the basic fundamentals for each of the controllers:
Pulse Width Modulation (PWM) controller
- A PWM controller is the more basic of the two controllers. They match the solar array voltage to the voltage required to charge the batteries.
- The way a PWM controller works is by simply turning on and off (hence called pulse rate modulation).
- When the PWM controller is on, it will send power to the batteries.
- When the PWM controller is off, it will monitor the capacity of the batteries making sure to properly charge the batteries throughout the full state of charge.
- A PWM controller is around 10% – 40% less efficient when compared to an MPPT controller.
- A PVM controller can cause interference to the on-board radio equipment. This is due to the sharp pulses generated for the battery bank charging.
- A PWM controller generally tends to be around half price or less.
Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) controller
- The added functionality of an MPPT charge controller is that it can electronically track and deliver the most optimal amount of power coming from the solar array to the battery bank.
- If the output voltage of the solar array (24V, 48V or more) is higher than the battery bank voltage (which is usually 12v), the controller will intelligently bring the power down to the optimal charge voltage. This is generally between 13.8v to 15v. The controller will also compensate for the ‘drop’ by increasing the current.
- As with the PWM controller, the MPPT charge controller can monitor the capacity of the batteries, and then match the necessary voltage required to charge those batteries.
- Another benefit of an MPPT controller is a reduction of the wire size (gauge) needed when connecting a solar array that is connected in series. This is due to the higher voltage/lower current coming from the solar array.
- An MPPT controller is around 10% – 40% more efficient when compared to a PWM controller.
- An MPPT controller generally tends to be around twice the price or more (depending on technology/make).
What is the best charge controller for a campervan?
Solar Power Frequently Asked Questions
Why should I install solar power in my campervan?
There are two main benefits of why you would want to install solar power in your campervan.
- Solar power will keep your leisure battery charged when using the campervan off the grid.
- Solar power will maintain your batteries conditions when not being used or when in storage (provided you have parked the campervan so it will be in direct sunlight).
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