A guide to solar power in your caravan
Solar panels give you and your caravan the freedom to go off-grid. You can hit the open road understanding that, after fitting solar panels to your caravan, the charge should be enough to do what you want it to without needing to book a site with an electric hook-up
- What you need to know about caravan solar panels
- Caravan solar panel installation
- Calculate your power usage
- The pros and cons of using solar power
- Caravan solar power tips
- Final thoughts
- About our magazines
Words by Louise Cottrill
What you need to know about caravan solar panels
(Photo courtesy of Unsplash)
Solar panels for caravans are much like solar panels for the home, except they are lighter and more secure against the weather.
The main factor to consider is the capacity (watts) of the panel. A 100W panel is an excellent all-around solution, although those with greater requirements can opt for a larger capacity.
The three main parts required to make solar panels operational are the solar panels, the regulator and the leisure battery. The solar panels draw in the power, the regulator (or controller) controls what goes to the battery, and the battery stores the solar power. The regulator is in place as most batteries are 12V and 17-18V is generated by the solar panels.
To discover the different types solar products available, take a look at the Solar Technology International website (solartechnology.co.uk) which supplies rooftop kits in both flexible and rigid panel designs, as well as free-standing, fold-up systems.
How do they work?
Let's talk about photovoltaic solar panels – they're like superheroes with a silicon shield. When sunlight touches them, magic happens. Photons and electrons start a lively dance, generating a cool DC electric current.
This power is gathered, guided by a controller, to give your leisure battery a boost. A typical caravan solar panel brings around 17-18V of charging goodness!
The different types of caravan solar power
Rigid frame panels: Rigid panels, due to their flat nature, offer an excellent fit for roof installation on a caravan, ensuring optimal sun exposure. They provide strength and longevity, albeit with the drawback of potential weightiness.
Regular cleaning of roof-mounted panels is necessary, as accumulations of dirt or bird droppings can hinder their performance. These panels tend to be a little cheaper than the two options below.
Flexible panels: Thin and pliable panels exhibit remarkable durability, along with being lightweight and inconspicuous. They readily adhere to the roof of caravans. Moreover, these panels boast full waterproofing, and certain variants feature a "self-healing" upper layer that adeptly mends scratches and abrasions.
Free-standing panels: These portable and free-standing panels offer versatility for various uses. Typically, they are sited on the ground and consist of two hinged panels that fold neatly into a briefcase-style unit.
You can reposition them as needed throughout the day to optimise sun exposure for peak efficiency and they are easy to store and use just when you need them, as opposed to having a pre-installed panel.
What size panel do you need?
This is one of the most important things you need to consider. Typically for a caravan you will need a panel between 20 and 60W. It depends on your usage, really, but if you are looking to power more than a few items, aim for a higher wattage.
The next thing to consider is the physical space you have to site the panel. If it is going to be mounted on your caravan, this is more important.
A typical solar panel can run interior lights, TVs/radios, water pumping systems, fans, laptops and kettles, as well as other appliances.
Caravan solar panel installation
(Photo courtesy of Lee Davey)
If you are looking at anything other than free-standing panels and are a novice, it may be best to go to a reputable supplier to get them fitted. You can buy caravan solar power kits to install yourself if you are a confident DIYer.
Calculate your power usage
There are a few steps to get your usage figure:
Step 1: To calculate your usage, you’ll need to find out the watts used by all of the 12V appliances you use in the caravan. You can find this in their relevant handbooks.
Step 2: Next calculate how many hours you will use the item over the week averagely and divide by seven to get your daily rate.
Step 3: Add together the daily rates for all your appliances and you have the usage you will need.
The pros and cons of using solar power
- Reduces your carbon footprint
- Increases your independence
- Keeps your battery healthier with constant charge
- Nice and quiet (compared to generators)
- Can last for years
- High initial outlay
- Energy generation may fluctuate depending on weather
- Require regular maintenance
- Potential security risks if using free-standing panels
Caravan solar power tips
Decide which panel type you are after. Having rigid mounted panels means they are always in place. Opting for flexible or free-standing panels means you can move them where the sun hits, but will mean disconnecting and reconnecting them. If you consider the aspect of security, too, these panels are worth a lot and leaving them unattached could increase the risk of them being stolen.
You will need to inform your insurance company of the solar installation so it is covered by your policy.
The key with solar panels is to do your homework. Talk to caravan dealers and the professional organisations we have suggested above to make sure you get the right kit for your needs.
In general, solar panels are a good thing. They offer you more control and additional flexibility, but they are only as good as the investment you make in your battery. They are an expensive investment, but over a few years they will have paid for themselves and you will be left wondering why you didn’t install some sooner.
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