Today we are going to discover the five best solar panels for your camper van to make living off the grid so much easier. Living the van life has seen a massive boom in popularity recently, and we can see why. The sense of freedom it brings and ability to travel endlessly is a dream… until the money runs out. That’s where being a digital nomad comes in, being able to earn your money while simultaneously travelling in a van and completing some of the top road trips is a great way to achieve long term van life travel. There are many ways you could do this; working remotely can be done for many jobs such as coding, graphic design and even private tutoring. However, all of these jobs will need a reliable and consistent power source.
Solar panels are a great way to generate electricity when living in a van and can turn your tiny house into an off grid camper. While the initial investment of installing solar panels may feel like a lot of money, having solar panels means that you don’t need to rely on campsites or noisy and fuel-guzzling generators to have an energy supply. By creating a self-sufficient off grid home, you are reducing your van life costs, saving more money for the fun stuff.
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But How Do They Work?
Before we dive in and discover the best solar panels for your campervan, let’s find out how these van life essentials work. Each solar panel is made up of many photovoltaic cells. These cells have two layers of a semi-conductive material, usually silicon. The silicon needs to be mixed with other elements to create an electrical field between the top, and bottom layer, the top layer of silicon is combined with phosphorous, adding extra electrons and giving the layer a negative charge. The bottom layer receives boron, reducing the number of electrons and creating a positive charge.
When a photon of sunlight hits these electrons, the electric field pushes the electron out of the silicon. Metal plates on the side of the photovoltaic cells collect the electrons and transfer them to wires when they can be used as regular electricity. What all of this basically means is that you can have free power in your rolling home thanks to good old mother nature (and science). So, let’s have a look at the best solar panels out there for vandwellers.
1. Photonic Universe 300W Solar Panel
At number one on our list of the best solar panels for your camper van, we have this 300W beauty from Photonic Universe. As this solar panel is 300W, one panel mounted on the roof of your van will probably be enough to charge your whole camper. This is good news, as it keeps the initial cost of setting up your solar electrical system to a minimum as you do not need to buy multiple numbers of panels. The Photonic Universe solar panel is one of the largest on the market, in terms of power produced.
The Photonic Universe solar panel measures 164 x 99 x 3.5 cm and weighs just 15kg, making it small and light enough to fit on the roof of most vans. The panel is completely waterproof and is safe to be used in all weather conditions, good news for full-time vanlifers. This solar panel provides mounting holes for installation but will need to be paired with a mounting kit to fix securely on your van’s roof. Be sure to seal up any holes made when the panel is being fitted to the roof to ensure your camper is watertight.
On the back of the solar panel is a junction box with 1m of special solar cable which can operate at high roof temperatures with minimum power losses, which is excellent news if you plan on travelling through warm climates. A pair of connectors are crimped on the end of the cable for secure connection to other solar panels, extension leads or your existing system, making hooking your solar panel up super easy. This solar panel is an excellent option for full-time vanlifers who want a permanent and constant supply of electricity to their van’s leisure batteries. It costs £249.99.
2. Renogy 160W Flexible Solar Panel
Up next on our list of the best solar panels for your camper van, we have an option for people who might not need quite as much power when on their road trip. However, if you have multiple panels, these Renogy Flexible Panels could work for full time, heavy usage. The main benefit of this solar panel, over the Photonic Universe one above is that they are flexible and can bend in up to a 248-degree arc. This is useful if the roof of your van is slightly curved, as your solar panel can bend with it.
As well as being extremely flexible, these Renogy 160W solar panels are very lightweight, up to 70% lighter than conventional solar panels. This is great if you want to keep the weight of your vehicle to a minimum, for fuel-efficient and quicker driving. The solar panel measures 147.6 x 66 x 0.2 cm and is just 1.27 Kg, a fraction of the weight of the Photonic Universe Solar Panel. Due to how light it is, this Renogy solar panel would be suitable if you have a pop-top camper. Usually, a pop-top cannot afford to take the extra weight of a solar panel, but this solar panel is so light that it would be fine.
The Renogy Flexible solar panel is also straightforward to install as it simply needs to be glued to the surface it will be sitting on. This makes upgrading to a solar electrical system easy, even for those without much D.I.Y. knowledge. While this solar panel is light, flexible and easy to install, it doesn’t generate as much power as a standard solar panel and may not last quite as long. The Renogy 160W flexible solar panel comes in at £237.77 and can be found on Amazon.
3. PPT Powerpack and Solar Charging Kit
Up next on our list of the best solar panels for your camper van we have an option for people who do not need a permanent solar electricity set up, the PPT Powerpack and Solar Charging kit. This compact but robust solar panel is perfect for propping up outside your camper van or even inside your windscreen while you are out for the day. The solar panel is easy to connect to the large powerpack that provides both A.C. and D.C. power.
Alternatively, if your camper already runs off of a permanent solar set up, then you may find it struggles during long periods of grey and cloudy days. The PPT Powerpack and Solar Panel combination is a great back up for cloudy days, allowing you to save your van’s leisure batteries for essentials such as lights and the fridge. Set up your solar panel and charge your powerpack while it is sunny to have a charging solution for days when you need an extra boost, giving you extra power to charge phones, laptops and cameras.
The solar panel itself is a 60W semi-flexible solar panel that is both lightweight and robust. In fact, this solar panel can be stood on without damaging it, meaning if it gets blown over by the wind or knocked about while on the move it shouldn’t get damaged. The kit also comes with a USB lamp that can run for a solid 133hours off of the battery pack! The PPT Solar Charging Kit with USB lamp comes in at £574.99.
4. SOUL Solar Scroll
Up next on our list of the best solar panels for your camper van we have the SOUL Solar Scroll. The SOUL Solar Scroll isn’t a solar panel that will power your whole motorhome, but it is a handy gadget to have as an extra back up for phone charging and for using when out on the trail. The SOUL Scroll has been launched as a Kickstarter project with tremendous success, having raised over $80,000, way more than their $30,000 goal.
So why is this miniature solar panel so popular? Well, with just four to six hours of charging via the ultra-thin retractable solar panel this compact 300g battery pack can charge a phone 1-2 times, an e-reader 3-5times, a GoPro 4-5 times and even give your MacBook Pro a boost with 1/3 of a full charge. This is useful for the adventurous vanlifer who likes to document their journey while on the go.
The Solar Panel itself is made using copper indium gallium selenide (C.I.G.S.) solar cells, a new technology initially utilised by the military. C.I.G.S. cells have a high performance and efficiency rate and are thought to be the future of solar panel technology. It is, however, an expensive way of building a solar panel and is therefore not yet used on a large commercial scale. As the SOUL Solar Scroll is small, the price is still reasonably low, at $129, find out more on their Kickstarter page.
5. Sun Store Solar Kit
Last but not least, on our list of the best solar panels for your camper van we have the Sun Store Solar Kit. This is a great kit if you need a bit of extra help when installing a permanent camper solar electrical system as it comes with other essential bits, as well as the solar panel itself. Included in the kit is a 160W solar panel, charge controller, corner mounts, bonding agent, cable entry gland, 5m of 4mm rubber cable, in-line blade fuse holder and fuse, all connectors and instructions.
The only additional items needed to get a 12v solar system up and running in your camper van is a battery and solar regulator. If you want to run 240v electrics in your campervan, then you will also need an inverter. This kit is an excellent way to buy your solar system if it is your first time installing one as you have all the bits you need, and step by step instructions on how to install it, cutting down the amount of time it will take you to get your system up and running.
The solar panel itself is a 160W solid solar panel, mounted within an aluminium frame. This solar panel would be ideal for full-time usage with items such as a 12v fridge, T.V. and device charging. The solar panel measure 1476mm x 670mm so is small enough to be mounted onto the roof of the van, more than one could fit if this is necessary for your set up. The Sun Store Solar kit costs £362.53, and more information can be found on their website.
Solar panels are such a great way to travel without worrying about finding the next campsite to recharge your batteries, giving you even more freedom. For us, they are a must when living the van life full time. Hopefully, these solar panels have given you some ideas on how to best equip your camper with an off the grid electrical system that works for you.
If you are looking to install a solar electrical system in your camper conversion, then check out our how to build a camper van e-book for a step by step guide on how to do so. To see more from the Van Clan team and to immerse yourself in all things vanlife, follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter