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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9 Thoughts to “Generators vs. solar panels – Which is best for your RV?”

  1. Cliff

    Seemed to have overlooked Lithium Ion batteries. More expensive, yes, but have 10 times the lifetime charge cycles of deep cycle, can be taken to zero with no damage unlike deep cycle and AGM batteries, and are substantially lighter (about 28 lb) than lead acid batteries. The average person could carry a couple of these, one in each hand, quite comfortably. Sure, considerable initial outlay for a couple of them, but they are an investment that more than pays off over time. Serious stuff for serious boon docking.

    1. Fred

      Not only are the batteries more expensive, but most likely the current inverter/charger most rvers have won’t work with the new batteries which would mean upgrading your inverter/charger at $1,000-+ expense.

  2. Hatty

    80 to 120 watt panels is old tech, now they come in 275 to 320 watts! Also generate 24 volts which requires smaller wiring. Controller will adjust to required voltage.

  3. Tommy Molnar

    I recently discussed the Lithium Ion battery option with my trusted solar distributor, AND a tech at Morningstar (a leading solar controller mfg). Morningstar admits that their controllers are mainly designed for wet cell batteries, but with some “custom programming” their controllers can be set up for Lithium Ion batteries. You also have to find out what kind of “battery control” is built in to the Lithium Ion batteries, and that is different with each different battery mfg. You don’t just simply plop in the new thousand dollar replacements and call it good. There are advantages to this new technology (not the least of which is WEIGHT!), but if you’re not a boondocker the huge investment is probably not worth it.

    1. Sherry Dawson

      Thanks for the info, Tommy. What did the Morningstar tech tell you about battery controllers. What do we look for? And who does the “custom programming”?

      1. Tommy Molnar

        Actually Sherry, if “custom programming” is needed, we have to do it ourselves, and that depends on whether your solar controller IS programmable. We just went through an ‘ordeal’ with our brand new Morningstar TriStar MPPT-60 controller that required a firmware upgrade. Now that it’s done, we have a permanently attached cable just so we can program the controller in the event that we opt for the mega-expensive Lith batts.

  4. Kit

    As a frequent camper, boon docking mostly, I use solar, I have recently replaced my 100watt flexible panel with 175watt panel. I like the quiet, and find generator use too loud, and also, I can’t tell you how many times the generator user nearby goes beyond the quiet hours; and then has attitude when I knock on the door to request quiet. Camping simplicity helps, LED lights, most of the power in my batteries goes to running the furnace during cold winter camping. I recently bought a Heater Buddy for those cloudy days when the solar can’t keep up with my needs to be warm.

  5. SolarSteve

    I usually install enough solar that a generator would be rarely needed (my current RV has 625 watts solar). And by removing or opting out of getting a enerator, that makes the space for 4 additional golf-cart batteries — for 6 total.

    1. Tommy Molnar

      Boy, I wish I could add another four golf carters myself, but there’s just no room, and the weight is prohibitive as well. We’ve got 700 watts on the roof and it would be great to have more ‘room’ to store power.

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