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AR Guide to: Solar power panels for caravans and motorhomes

For many caravanners and motorhome owners the joy of touring is the chance to escape the routine. It’s the freedom of the open road, the flexibility to get up and go wherever the mood takes you.

3 April 2019
Read time: 4m 39s

But for many, this freedom is only celebrated as long as there is access to an electricity supply to power all creature comforts known to man. While there are thousands of campsites across the UK and Europe with electric hook up, what about those instances where you cannot simply plug in, chill out and top up? What if you prefer not to, favouring wild camping

Solar power is the answer – an upfront cost, for sure, but one which repays handsomely over time. Don’t forget, a campsite pitch without electrical hook up will be cheaper than one with, so there are instant savings to be made.

Portable solar panels
Portable solar panels

Why do I need solar panels for my caravan?

To be clear, it is possible you don’t need solar power panels for your caravan. If you are always hooked up each night, then there is little point. But if you are not always plugged into a campsite’s electrical supply solar power can be a god-send, running all kinds of appliances: lighting, TV, water pumps, fridges and more.

What’s more a 12v caravan solar panel kit can help maintain your leisure battery life as a battery charger, keeping it topped up no matter little it may be used. Ensuring your leisure battery is safe from deep discharge when out of use for long periods (over winter, for example) will prolong its life and save money.

A caravan solar panel kit can mean you never need to run a generator or hook up to a power supply when out on your travels. 

Solar panels with sun
Typical solar panels

What types of solar panel for caravans and motorhomes are there?

Solar power panels - or photovoltaic (PV) panels - generally come in two forms: 

  • Thin film solar panels, or solar cells, involve a thin layer of silicon (a semiconductor) sprayed onto the surface of the ‘host’ panel. These can last around ten years and are usually the inexpensive option.
  • Crystalline solar panels or solar cells might be mono-crystalline (the most efficient but the most costly) or polycrystalline. The latter are less efficient and bulkier as a larger panel is required to generate the same amount of energy produced by a mono-crystalline panel.

The other aspect to consider is what form your solar panels should take. 

  • Free standing solar panel kits for caravans

Solar panel kits for caravans should be built in sturdy fashion, usually a thin but robust aluminium frame that is capable of withstanding bangs and bumps, and with the added benefit of being able to be stowed away out of sight when not being used. Of course, this is helpful when you come to sell your ‘van.

  • Roof mounted solar panel kits

The main point of these is that they can be fitted and then left to do their job. Unobtrusive, out of sight and lightweight, they will generate power for you, even when you’re out and about away from the ‘van. This can be useful when not hooked up and you still want to run an alarm or security device. 

Motorhome fitted with solar panels
Motorhome fitted with solar panels

Which are the best solar panels for caravans and motorhomes?

It’s possible to buy solar kits, solar panels, solar battery chargers and more from many accessory retailers. But not all solar products are made equal and it is important to ensure you get the product that is suitable for your outfit, that meets your requirements and that, ultimately, is safe and fit for purpose.

Consider what your electricity usage is, what appliances you want to run with solar power and factor in your touring habits: how often do you use hook ups?  

Frequently Asked Questions

Does solar power work when it’s cloudy?

Bright, full midday sunshine is best certainly, but a cloudy day in the UK will still generate electricity. It’s just that it will be slower. Light, not heat, produces the power so a cold bright day in north Norway is likely to generate more electricity than a hot but hazy day on the Med. And yes, angling your freestanding panels to face the sun will make a difference!

Can I use solar power to run an appliance that normally plugs into a three-pin domestic 230v socket?

Solar panels will generate electricity in DC (direct current). You will need an inverter to convert it to AC (alternating current).

I plan to have a large solar panel. Will this harm my leisure battery?

A regulator would be advisable as you don’t want to over-charge the battery and damage it. A rule of thumb is to check your battery’s Ah rating and divide by ten. As long as the power of the caravan or motorhome solar panel is less than this you can expect to be safe and not need a regulator. 

Motorhome fitted with tilted panels
Tilted panels mounted on top of a motorhome

Top Tips About Solar Panels

  • When using a crystalline panel, ensure there are no obstructions stopping light reaching the cells. Full sun is your friend, and even a tiny shadow (eg the cord from a roof-mounted canoe) will make a difference.
  • Connection of your solar panels can be straightforward, but given the investment and the possible repercussions of a poorly fitted panel, it’s best to get advice from your local dealer.
  • Remember, the power generated by your new solar panel will depend on the quality and condition of your leisure battery. Maintaining your leisure battery in good health is a cornerstone of enjoying your caravan and motorhome activities to the max.
  • If your caravan or motorhome is within warranty, check that installing a solar panel will not invalidate it. You may need to get the work done by an authorised supplier.