Generators vs. solar panels – Which is best for your RV?

Generators vs. solar panels – Which is best for your RV?
Photo by Bob Difley

Many RV campers enjoy the freedom to explore state and regional parks as well as more remote locations, where hookups are often nonexistent. However, unless dry camping or boondocking stays are limited to no more than a couple of days, an ancillary electrical power supply is essential. There are really only two choices: generators and solar. We’ll briefly examine both in this article.

Generators have the advantage that you can have your power wherever and whenever you want it. In practice, however, many parks and campgrounds limit the amount of time that generators are allowed to be operated. The problem is noise. Newer models are well muffled, but still very audible to any nearby campers who are outdoors or just have their windows open. Older contractor-grade generators are not recommended – too noisy.

Other negatives: Obviously generators require fuel and if you use them extensively, you either need to carry a lot or make fuel runs when you run low. The exhaust fumes they produce can also be objectionable to folks trying to enjoy the wonders of nature.

To get the most out of a generator, plan on expanding your battery capacity so that you can store power for the hours when you don’t or can’t run it. And if you want to use AC appliances during those off hours, look into an inverter. You’ll need to size the battery bank and the inverter to your needs.

Solar power
For those who relish complete independence in the outback or who just want to avoid the noise, exhaust and fuel issues of generators, solar may be the answer. Solar panels have continued to increase in efficiency over the years, and they are now a viable option for RV electrical power sources. As long as the sun shines, they silently capture the sun’s abundant energy. Panels in 80 and 120-watt sizes comfortably fit on the roof of your RV and in pairs or as a set of four you can build systems up to 240 to 480 watts or more.

The other essential for a solar-powered RV is a bank of deep cycle batteries. You need to size the solar array and the battery bank to your anticipated needs. Many solar retailers provide worksheets to help you size your system. As with generators, an inverter added to your system will allow you to run AC appliances.

Even in the sunniest climes, it is possible to have several days of limited sun. For the solar-powered RV, this could spell trouble: Time to head for home or at least a hookup. Also, in some shaded locations it may be difficult to find a campsite with full sun all day. For ultimate power independence, you can’t beat a solar-equipped RV with a generator for backup.

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