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Solar Power

rv solar panels

Solar Power for Caravans, RV's and Camper Trailers

Solar panels or solar modules – solar power can be an initial expensive cost but it is one of the cleanest (and quietest) forms of power.  Solar panels convert light into electrical energy and the amount of energy captured is determined by the number of solar panels, the angle of exposure of the solar panel to the sun, the size or the number of cells in parallel of the solar panel and your location ie: ‘peak sun hours’ (determined by the latitude and the season as well as the time of day).  This light energy is converted to electricity and a solar regulator regulates the charge to the deep-cycle batteries.

Average daily sunshine hours maps showing ‘peak sun hours’ are available from the Australian Government, Bureau of Meteorology website.
caution symbol Caution: Solar panels in daylight are ‘live’ so care should be exercised in handling or testing.


solar panelWhen looking into solar panels you will come across the term ‘photovoltaic’ (PV) which Wikipedia defines as ‘the field of technology and research related to the application of solar cells for energy by converting solar energy (sunlight, including ultra violet radiation) directly into electricity (solar electricity)’. 

Solar panels are made up of cells and there are three types of cells – monocrystalline solar cells, polycrystalline (or multi-crystalline) solar cells and amphorous solar cells.  These solar cells are then physically and electrically joined and placed in a frame forming a solar panel or PV module.  A number of solar panels joined together is called a solar array.

BP Solar and Kyocera use polycrystalline or multi-crystalline cells in series for their solar panels.  BP Solar states these type of solar panels charge batteries virtually in any climate. 


solar panelsSolar panels or solar modules come in various sizes and capacity ranging from 5W up.  To some extent the number of solar panels and the size of the solar panels you can have or fit to your RV will be dictated by the dimensions of the roof and the available space after the placement and number of roof hatches such as the four-season hatch or skylight as well as any roof top air conditioner.

Solar panels are heat sensitive so that is why you see them mounted on a bracket spaced above the roof of your caravan or RV leaving some air space underneath them for cooling.   Also, as the solar panels are heat sensitive they produce less power when they get hotter particularly in the north of Australia and even around Brisbane in summer as the writer has experienced.  Some solar panels are less affected by some shade, some will completely shut down if shaded by as little as 5%, but as yet no solar panel will work in complete shade.

solar panel diagramCollyn Rivers * has stated - ‘Outputs vary from type to type, but in typical RV installations most solar modules produce a bit over 70% of their apparently claimed output. Many modules have a small panel on their rear face that shows what they actually produce. For an '80-watt' module this is usually about 58 watts’. Collyn suggests dividing the watts by 16 or 17 (not 12V ie: 80W ÷ 17 = 4.7A) for a truer output.

* Reproduced by express permission, Collyn Rivers, Caravan & Motorhome Books, Broome, WA 6725.  This article is protected by Copyright.

Using the example above, 22 watts is ‘lost’.  Essentially the solar panel may be rated 80 watt at full sunlight at a particular temperature but if the temperature is too hot then the voltage produced is less than the rating.  There is a feature called Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) used in some of the more expensive solar electric charge controllers which you could investigate further.

Wikipedia defines MPPT as follows - 'Maximum power point tracking (MPPT) is a technique that grid-tie inverters, solar battery chargers and similar devices use to get the maximum possible power from one or more photovoltaic devices, typically solar panels,[1] though optical power transmission systems can benefit from similar technology.[2] Solar cells have a complex relationship between solar irradiation, temperature and total resistance that produces a non-linear output efficiency which can be analyzed based on the I-V curve. It is the purpose of the MPPT system to sample the output of the cells and apply the proper resistance (load) to obtain maximum power for any given environmental conditions.[3] MPPT devices are typically integrated into an electric power converter system that provides voltage or current conversion, filtering, and regulation for driving various loads, including power grids, batteries, or motors.'

Essentially, the power point tracker is an high frequency DC to DC converter that takes the DC input produced by the solar panels, changes it to high frequency AC, then converts it back down to a different DC voltage and current to exactly 'match' the panels to the batteries. A MPPT is used to track the maximum power point as the sun, cloud cover and heat build-up or cool-down of the solar panels changes the output. The charge controller monitors the output of the panels, compares it to the battery charge and converts it to the best voltage to input the maximum Amps into the battery/ies.

Recently released microprocessor controlled MPPT models know when to adjust the output that is being sent to the battery and completes any adjustments needed.

Recent advances have also made way for use of solar panels with lithium batteries. For example, Kedron Caravans now offer a Lithium battery option, through Enerdrive products, to reduce weight in their off-road caravans. Kimberley Karavans also have a lithium battery option.


solar panel diagram

caravan solar panel system
















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