Fancy getting power from the sun? Invest in solar technology.
First, the good news. Prices of solar panels for caravans and motorhomes have been levelling out. Nevertheless, a fitting charge can be a major lump of any outlay on such a system. Thereafter, however, you’re getting energy in the most environmentally-friendly way.
You can get into all kinds of calculations about the exact Wattage of panel to best suit your needs. But, there are other, simpler considerations, too – like the weight and size of a solar panel, whether it will fit on your roof space, the battery that you wish to charge (one, two or more leisure batteries as well as – for motorhomes – the vehicle battery) and their type, etc.
Even when your caravan, motorhome or campervan is not in use, if it’s stored outdoors a solar panel can help trickle charge batteries and prevent issues with alarms and trackers etc draining power. If you put a cover over your vehicle when it’s off the road, find out if you can have a fitting so that the solar panel can still be operable.
Of course, there’s a chance you might not actually need a solar panel, if your touring involves staying on campsites with mains hook-up. Unless you want to top-up on your travels, you may find a solar set-up isn’t necessary. Alternatively, not having to rely on mains hook-up can see you saving money on a regular basis.
CIGS v silicon?
Most solar panels are silicon, but the latest technology is CIGS – that’s copper indium gallium selenide. CIGS has key advantages over silicon when it comes to leisure vehicles, albeit it’s more expensive.
Silicon cells work efficiently when pointed directly at the sun, whilst CIGS can also generate power when the sun is hitting them at an angle, plus early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Most critically, CIGS will work even when one or several cells are in shadow. That’s why they’re proving increasingly popular with motorhomes and caravans.
This is a key consideration. Solar panels have an open circuit voltage (the voltage at which they operate) which can be anything from 16V upwards. Put that to a battery and damage will ensue.
That’s where a regulator (sometimes called a controller) comes in. Depending on what you want your solar panel to do, you should be offered a choice of regulator. Typically, the more you pay, the better it will be. There are two types – PWM (pulse width modulation) and MPPT (maximum power point tracking). They have different characteristics, but it’s generally agreed you’re better off going for MPPT in a leisure vehicle context.
Different regulators will also provide different displays. Again, it depends on how much information you want to see in terms of how the panel is performing, amount of energy you’re using, power accumulated etc.
Why the installation is important
Whilst anyone can carry out such a fitting, it goes without saying that the correct installation of a solar panel is critical, particularly for safety.
For example, if you put the regulator too far from the battery, there will be a loss of voltage. Ditto if you don’t use the correct cabling.
Also, do check your vehicle’s warranty before you make any holes in the bodywork.
- Deal with an expert and make sure your solar panel is correctly fitted for your own safety.
- Get information from a recognised organisation that can prove it’s worked with caravans, motorhomes and/or campervans. Check any solar panel you buy is recommended for leisure vehicle use and meets UK specification.
- Buying a new(er) vehicle? It’s a great opportunity to ask about having a solar panel fitted (but bear in mind the above).
- Most solar panels are made of glass. All solar panels can be easily damaged so do handle with care and don’t step on them.
Truma SolarSet 100WTruma panel
Top seller in a range of panels of varying Wattages, from Truma. As recommended for medium- to large-sized caravans or motorhomes, this is a complete set of everything you need for a complete solar panel installation.
That includes mounting feet, roof lead-through, heavy duty cables, regulator, battery connection cables, right through to self-tapping screws and approved cleaning fluid and sealant.
Also in the kit are spoilers that help prevent possible damage from overhanging branches etc, as well as optimising airflow to keep the module cool.
Dimensions 1,263mm L x 535mm W x 70mm H
Features also include Comes with SDC 10 automatic charger, monocrystalline silicon cells.
Expect to pay £648
NDS 110W SolarFLEX
Perfect for elevating roof campervans, or other leisure vehicles where a lightweight panel is needed. Think of this as a semi-flexible solar panel with mono-crystalline silicone cells, and a power output of up to 110 Watts.
At peak power, volts are 17.7, amps are 6.04. There’s a self-adhesive pad on the back of the panel, for fixing directly to a roof, plus screwholes, as needed.
Dimensions 1070mm L x 540mm W x 3mm H
Features also include Sunpower cells, Back Contact technology, two year warranty, supplied with 5m twin cable.
Expect to pay £339
NDS 120W Aero
This solar panel is ideal for most caravans or motorhomes. It’s aluminium-framed and fixes on via mounting bars, also in aluminium. it’s fixed to your leisure vehicle using adhesive and/or screws.
The solid panel comprises monocrystalline silicon cells protected by a Tedlar (weather – and temperature-resistant thermoplastic fluoropolymer) film and tempered, textured glass. Also included are bypass diodes to protect against damage and minimise power loss due to shading.
Maximum power output is 120 Watts, and at peak power the voltage is 17.8, amps are 6.74. Also available in other Wattages – 80, 100 and 140. The 100 is also available in a slimline variant (1,727mm x 416mm).
Dimensions 1,475mm L x 541mm W x 60mm H
Features also include 40 cells, supplied with 5m single cable, integrated mounting brackets, and three-year warranty.
Expect to pay £269.50
Ventura Portable Power SPV280
Perfect if you want an easy-to-use panel for lower Wattage charging, but without the hassle of fitting directly to your vehicle. This is truly portable, folding out to a series of eight panels made from monocrystalline solar grade silicon that has an efficiency rating of up to 21%, allowing for high-speed work. Use it to charge mobile phones, tablets, laptops, cameras etc.
Dimensions 131mm L x 50mm W x 37mm H
Features also include 11 charging adaptors, power cable, PET lamination, dual output voltage (5V/9V-18V).
Expect to pay £129.99
What’s your advice?
Got any advice on solar power you’d like to pass on to fellow caravanners and motorhomers. Please feel free to add a comment below.