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October 25

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Best Caravan Solar Panels – How Do They Work?

Interested in producing power for your caravan and saving money at the same time? If there’s one thing we don’t lack in Australia, it’s sunshine. That makes solar panels an obvious choice to power our caravans and campervans.

However, purchasing solar panels can be intimidating for a first-time buyer. You need to consider how many you will need, what type is best for your van plus what brands to look at and which to steer clear of.

In our guide below, we will run you through all of this, to help you figure out what will fulfill your needs.

 

Enerdrive 180W Mono Fixed Solar Panel

MaxRay 200W 12V Mono Solar Panel

MaxRay 160W 12V Flexible Solar Panel

Baintuff 180W Folding Solar Blanket

Camec Portable 160W Solar Panel Kit

Dometic Portable Solar Panel PS180A (180 W)


Best Fixed
Enerdrive Fixed Panel 180W
MaxRay Fixed Panel 200W
MaxRay Flexible 160W
Best Flexible
Baintuff Solar Blanket
Best Folding
Camec Folding Portable 160W Panel
Dometic Portable Panels 180W

Check price at Outbax

Check price at Outbax

Monocrystalline

Monocrystalline

Monocrystalline

Monocrystalline

Monocrystalline

Monocrystalline

Fixed

Fixed

Flexible

Flexible/Blanket

Portable

Portable

180W

200W

160W

180W

160W

180W

$1.50/W

$1.10/W

$1.25/W

$4.50/W

$3.75/W

$3.20/W

179 W/m²

222 W/m²

195 W/m²

127 W/m²

158 W/m²

147 W/m²

1482 x 680 x 35 mm

??

1206 x 680 x 2.5 mm

1830 x 775 x ?? mm

1332 x 758 x 35 mm

1580 x 758 x 35 mm

11.7 kg

??

3 kg

5.1 kg

14 kg

17 kg

5 years

??

1 year

1 year

5 years

1 year

Best Caravan Solar Panels Australia

Let’s start by taking a look at the best solar panels out there. There are two each of the rigid, flexible and portable types.

Enerdrive 180W Mono Crystalline Fixed Solar Panel

Enerdrive Fixed Panel 180W

Best Rigid Solar Panel

Pros
  • Rigid monocrystalline type
  • 180W power output
  • Only 11.7kg
  • Comes with full set of spare cables
  • Reliable brand
  • Good after-purchase support
  • 5 year warranty
Cons
  • Space efficiency not the best - 179 W/m2
  • Not so cost effective (~$1.50/W)

Since 2003, Enerdrive have been supplying high quality solar panels to Aussies. They were recently acquired by Dometic, who are already a leading supplier of premium camping gear, so you can expect them to be around for many years to come.

Their 180W monocrystalline fixed panel is one of the best out there on the market, not necessarily because of the panel itself, but because of the after-purchase customer support that Enerdrive provide.

There are plenty of other 150-200W fixed panels out there, but the vast majority only give a 12 month warranty. Enerdrive, on the other hand, offer a 5 year warranty, which is quite rare.

They also deal with all warranty claims and issues locally, so you can expect fast turnaround if you run into any problems.

Whilst the support is excellent, it isn’t particularly cheap (~$1.50/W) and it takes up more space per W than other models (179 W/m2).

MaxRay 200W 12V Mono Solar Panel

MaxRay Fixed Panel 200W

Runner Up

Pros
  • Rigid monocrystalline type
  • 200W power output
  • Fairly light at 11.7kg
  • Comes with cables, anderson plug and alligator clips
  • Good space efficiency - 222 W/m2
  • Cost effective (~$1.10/W)
  • High conversion efficiency and light sensitivity
  • No decay in conversion efficiency - lifetime power output guarantee
Cons
  • Only 1 year warranty

MaxRay has put together a decent monocrystalline, fixed panel offering here. They pride themselves on their efficiency, with a high power output per area (222 W/m2) and good cost effectiveness (~$1.10/W).

Their units are also designed to go the distance - they all come with lifetime power output guarantees. According to MaxRay, there will be no decay in conversion efficiency over the life of these panels, unlike other brands.

Despite this lifetime power output guarantee, they only offer 1 year warranty, which does leave you wondering if they really have faith in these products lasting a ‘lifetime’.

Nonetheless, they are highly efficient and affordable units, so they are certainly worth checking out.

MaxRay 160W 12V Flexible Solar Panel

MaxRay Flexible 160W

Best Flexible Solar Panel

Pros
  • Flexible monocrystalline type
  • Can be bent up to 30°
  • Very thin - just 2.5mm
  • 160W power output
  • Heat resistant
  • IP67 waterproofing
  • Super light at just 3kg
  • Decent space efficiency - 195 W/m2
  • Cost effective (~$1.25/W)
Cons
  • Only 1 year warranty

Another popular option from MaxRay is this 160W flexible panel. Compared to the rigid panels, this one is much thinner, lighter and flexible, allowing it to be placed on any surface with an angle up to 30°.

It has a similar space efficiency and cost effectiveness to the rigid panels, yet it can be placed just about anywhere on your caravan.

It’s highly waterproof and heat resistant, yet you still need to place it carefully so that it won’t get scratched and scraped by trees.

Unfortunately, there is just a 1 year warranty on these units.

Baintuff 180W Folding Solar Blanket

Baintuff Solar Blanket

Best Solar Blanket

Pros
  • Flexible monocrystalline type
  • 180W power output
  • Solar blanket so can be put anywhere - on the ground, on the roof
  • Comes with a solar regulator
  • Comes with settings for different battery types (sealed, gel and flooded)
  • Light and portable at just 5kg
  • Comes with plugs and 6m power lead
  • Thin - just 5mm
  • Packs up to just 9.3L in volume
Cons
  • Very expensive (~$4.50/W) - although regulator included in this price
  • Poor space efficiency - only 127 W/m2
  • Only 1 year warranty

Solar blankets are kind of like a hybrid between the flexible panels and the portable folding panels. They are very rugged and can be placed on your roof (while you aren’t driving), on the ground or anywhere else where there is sunlight.

This is a high quality unit from Baintuff that puts out a solid 180W. The tradeoff with these blankets is that they tend to be more expensive and larger than other panels with the same power output.

You can see that here, with this unit costing $4.50/W and with a space efficiency of just 127 W/m2, which is pretty standard for these blankets.

The benefits of the Baintuff is that it is very light (5kg), packs down to less than 10L when not in use, and comes with the necessary regulator and plugs that you’ll need to get started.

Camec Portable Folding 160 Watt Solar Panel Kit

Camec Folding Portable 160W Panel

Best Folding Solar Panel

Pros
  • Portable folding monocrystalline type
  • Can be positioned anywhere
  • Adjust the angle and position as the Sun moves
  • 160W power output
  • Comes with 15A regulator, Anderson plug and alligator clips
  • Folding stand well built
  • 25 year panel warranty and 5 year accessory warranty!
Cons
  • A little hefty to lug around at 14kg
  • Packs down to 38L in volume - need to find somewhere in van to store it
  • Expensive (~$3.75/W) - although regulator included in this price
  • Mediocre space efficiency (158 W/m2) - although less important on folding panels

Camec is a trusted brand when it comes to caravan appliances and accessories in Australia, and their solar panels are no exception.

These are well built folding panels, designed for Australian conditions. The stand supporting the panels is sturdy and you can set them up wherever there is sunlight. Due to their portable nature, they can only be used while you are set up at camp, not while you are on the road.

Compared to rigid and flexible panels they are more expensive, although the tradeoff is that you should get more out of them thanks to the ability to move them around and maximise the power generation efficiency.

While they are fairly heavy (14kg) and take up 38L even when packed up, one of the benefits of going with Camec is their local support backed by their 25 year warranty on the panel and 5 year warranty on the accessories!

This alone makes them a contender for the best solar panel supplier in Australia!

Dometic Portable Solar Panel PS180A (180 W)

Dometic Portable Panels 180W

Runner Up

Pros
  • Portable folding monocrystalline type
  • Can be positioned anywhere
  • Adjust the feet (3 settings) to match the angle and position of the Sun
  • 180W power output
  • Comes with 20A regulator, 5m power lead, Anderson plug, alligator clips and battery temp sensor
  • Protective carry bag included
Cons
  • Quite heavy at 17kg
  • Only 1 year warranty
  • Packs down to 47L in volume - need to find somewhere in van to store it
  • Expensive (~$3.20/W) - although this includes regulator
  • Mediocre space efficiency (147 W/m2) - although less important on folding panels

Another folding panel type, this offering by Dometic has proven quite popular in recent years. It has all of the usual benefits of folding panels - adjustable angle and position, along with all of the usual drawbacks - expensive, heavy, requires storage space in your RV.

This unit from Dometic comes with a good 20A regulator, all of the plugs and cables that you need, plus a carry bag.

Unlike the Camec variety, it only comes with a 1 year warranty, so it loses points here.

What To Consider When Purchasing RV Solar Panels?

There’s a lot to think about when choosing a solar panel, so use the checklist below to make sure that you don’t miss anything.

Monocrystalline vs. Polycrystalline

This is covered further down in this article, but in short mono panels are slightly more efficient and have a longer life, yet they are more expensive and their power generation can be disrupted by shade.

Poly panels, on the other hand, are cheaper and work fine even if part of the panel is in shade, yet they have a shorter life and are less efficient space-wise.

Most caravan solar panels are monocrystalline, so you’ll probably end up using mono as well.

Panel Type

You can choose from rigid, flexible and portable/folding panels. They are all quite different and suitable for different use cases. Check out our discussion below about this topic.

Power Output

The last thing you want is to set up your solar panels, regulator, batteries and inverter only to find out the panels you bought aren’t producing enough energy to power all of your appliances.

Planning is critical here. Take stock of your appliances (such as 12V TVs, lighting, mobile devices etc.) and consider how much power you’ll need. Then use this to work out how many panels you’ll need, taking into account lower panel efficiencies on cloudy days.

2 x 160W panels tends to be a typical setup for most caravans.

Other Equipment

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a solar panel is all you need to power your caravan. You’ll also need a regulator, battery and inverter. Find out more about each of these below.

Cost Efficiency

This refers to the cost of the panel per unit of power (in Watts) produced by the panel. Rigid and flexible panels tend to be less than $1.50/W, yet solar blankets and folding panels are more expensive (around $4.00/W).

Space Efficiency

Space is always at a premium in caravans and motorhomes, so you’ll want a panel that can produce a decent amount of power without taking up your entire roof.

This is measured as the Watts per square metre of space occupied, and is particularly important for rigid and flexible panels that are fixed to your vehicle.

At least 180 W/m2 should be your target for rigid and flexible panels, whereas solar blankets and folding panels are usually less than 150 W/m2.

Weight

This is more important for blankets and folding panels, as you’ll need to repeatedly carry them from your vehicle and set them up in a suitable position. The lighter the panel, the easier this will be.

Warranty

Warranties vary hugely for solar panels, with many cheaper brands offering just a 12 month warranty period. More reputable brands offer multi-year warranties, although this is becoming more rare.

Do You Actually Need Solar Panels?

Solar panels are a great addition for most caravans and bring about new freedoms. However, they're not for everyone, so it’s worth looking at the pros and cons before committing to a purchase.

To begin with, let’s take a look at some of the main advantages.

Self-Sufficient

The most obvious and attractive benefit of solar panels is having power wherever you go. This can be a game-changer for those who no longer wish to rely upon powered campsites and would rather go off grid.

No matter where you are in the country, there’s something beautiful about being self-sufficient and able to power your own journey.

Long-term Investment

While the initial cost may put buyers off, they can be a great long-term investment. This is especially true if you want to save money on campsites. Most campsites cost between $20 and $60 per night with facilities included.

Of course, there are also plenty of free campgrounds but they are inevitably without power. Solar panels will allow you to go free camping, or at the very least use unpowered rather than powered sites.

If you go caravanning regularly, you will be surprised at how much money this can save you!

Peace of Mind

Most caravans are equipped with a 12V battery (known as a leisure battery by our friends in the UK). If mains power isn’t available and you start draining the battery, the solar panel can automatically take over, keeping the battery topped up and your appliances running.

This provides great peace of mind in the event that your campsite loses power or if you suffer a breakdown while out on the road.

Environmentally Friendly

Last but not least, you’re doing your bit to save the planet, and who doesn’t love that? Solar energy is clean and silent, unlike the noisy generators that seem to fill some campsites these days. If you regularly use your caravan, solar panels are a fantastic investment.

However, there are some reasons why solar panels may not be the right choice for everybody. Let’s take a look at some potential pitfalls.

Setup

Rigid solar plans need to be secured to the roof of your van. If you’re not comfortable with installing them yourself, then you’ll need to pay somebody to do this for you.

Portable panels don’t have this problem but they take up more space when you’re travelling. In a campervan, space is always an issue, so keep this in mind.

Price

The cost of decent solar panels has certainly decreased over the years. However, it still may be simply too expensive for people with tight budget constraints.

Of course, you will make your money back over time but only if you use them often enough to make it worthwhile. In saying that, even if you do use them regularly, the initial upfront cost can be difficult to stomach.

Panels can range from as low as $50 to hundreds of dollars. But remember, cheaper panels can damage your battery and tend to be more unreliable. The last thing you need is for your panels to stop working halfway through a trip!

Unpredictable Weather

Depending on where you are in Australia, the weather can be quite volatile at times. If you are relying on solar panels, you will need to keep an eye on the weather and the power consumption of your caravan.

A couple of days of rain might mean that you spend more time in your van and therefore consume more power. At the same time, your panels will be less efficient due to the reduced sunlight.

For this reason, it can be difficult to rely entirely on your solar panels without decent weather.

No matter the weather, be sure to charge up your battery before you head off on a trip!

Types of Solar Panels

Not all solar panels are created equal, and I’m not just talking about the different brands! There’s a variety of different types of solar panels, though broadly speaking, they tend to fall into one of the following 3 categories.

Rigid

This is the most traditional form of solar panel. They are roof-mounted (much like the panels on your house) which makes them very convenient. They don’t take up any of the precious space in your vehicle.

They’re also more durable because they are designed to be permanently outdoors and they actually tend to be cheaper than the other options.

Compared to portable or folding panels, rigid ones are much more difficult to steal, which is another upside. This gives you peace of mind when out and about, away from your van.

Motorhome by the beach

The main downside of these is that they are in a fixed position and this can make it more difficult to catch the sun’s rays. If installed permanently, it’s important that the job is done right or it could affect the aerodynamics of your vehicle.

There have recently been a number of road accidents associated with panels falling off caravan roofs while on the highway. Make sure that you get your panels installed properly!

Flexible

First of all, flexible solar panels are more aesthetically pleasing than their rigid counterparts. They’re also much lighter which makes them easier to transport. They’re considerably easier to install and can actually bend and conform to the shape of the van.

You can also adjust them to maximise sunlight absorption and power generation efficiently. Unfortunately, they tend to be more prone to scratches and damage, and therefore typically come with shorter warranty periods than rigid solar panels.

Portable/Folding

Space is a crucial element to consider when it comes to anything related to caravans and RVs. Solar panels are no exception.

Depending on the size of your camper or caravan, a portable system could be the way to go. These have the benefit of being easy to stow and are easy to set up. Simply unfold them like a deckchair or briefcase and leave them out in the sun.

While they’re very simple to use, they can only be used while you are set up at a campsite. They’re useful for charging portable electronic devices or using your kettle, for example, but if you want to power your entire van then you’ll need to look at one of the other options.

What Ancillary Equipment Do You Need To Power Your Caravan?

There’s 4 key parts to a successful caravan solar system. Let’s take a look at each of these.

Solar Panels

The first component of a caravan solar system is the actual panel itself. The solar cells absorb light from the sun and generate direct current (DC) energy.

When sunlight hits the panel, it absorbs the photons. Then, it separates electrons from the silicon atoms producing DC power.

Regulator

This box/panel is fitted between the solar panel and the battery. It is an essential item that prevents the battery from overcharging by regulating the power that the panels produce.

Premium regulators have a low voltage disconnect (LVD) feature that disconnects the panel if there is a risk of permanent battery damage. If you have the budget, this is a good feature to get.

Caravan Outback

Battery

This stores the charge from the solar panel, allowing you to take advantage of the generated power when you please, rather than just when the sun is shining.

Lithium batteries are the preferred option these days, because they are lighter, smaller, and more efficient than their lead-acid counterparts.

Inverter

The inverter converts the 12V DC power from your battery into 240V alternating current (AC) power. This is the same as mains power and it is necessary to run appliances like fridges and lamps.

Types of Solar Cells: Polycrystalline v Monocrystalline

As well as choosing the correct type of panel, it’s worth considering the cell type. There are two main solar cell technologies. The main difference between the two is efficiency, price, space requirements and life expectancy.

Monocrystalline cells are more efficient (produce more power for given light conditions), have a longer lifetime and take up less space, yet they cost more and crucially, their power generation can be entirely disrupted if a shadow is cast across part of the panel.

Polycrystalline cells, on the other hand, are slightly less efficient, have a shorter lifetime and take up more space, yet they are cheaper and operate fine even if part of the panel is in shade.

Monocrystalline tends to be a more popular option, driven largely by space constraints on the roof of most RVs.

Group of caravans

How Many Panels Do You Need In Your Caravan?

The short answer to this question is that it depends on what you’re going to use them for.

Ideally, you should take an inventory of all power consuming devices that you plan on using in your van, along with the time of day that you plan on using them. Don't forget to take into account things like the pumps for your water system and any 12V diesel heaters you may have.

The most common size tends to be 2 x 160W monocrystalline solar panels. Of course, the number of panels that you need will vary heavily depending on the appliances that you are running in your van.

If in doubt, speak to a professional provider and explain your requirements.

Additional Information

Where To Buy

Be sure to buy your solar panels from a reputable dealer, such as those recommended in this guide. Of course, everybody has a different budget but spending more money now can save you in the long-term. As they say, buy cheap and you’ll have to buy twice!

Any reputable company will offer you a decent warranty, which will save you if anything goes wrong down the track. Don’t try to cut corners and save money if you’ll be relying on these panels in the future.

Know Your Angles

Angling your solar panels correctly is an essential way to maximize their efficiency. This can lead to an increase in power of up to 25%.

Of course, this depends on the type of panel you are using. Rigid and flexible panels are more difficult to adjust once installed, yet portable panels can be easily manipulated to maximise efficiency.

Caravan Bush

Shade

When pulling up at a new site, do your best to avoid parking in the shade, otherwise you won’t get much out of your solar panels.

If you do have to park in the shade, try to park somewhere that will get some direct sun for at least part of the day, so that you can reap at least some benefit.

Stay Safe

Portable solar panels are great because they’re well, so portable. However, you do have to be careful of thieves, as portability also means that they are easily stolen. Don’t leave them outside overnight or when you leave your van for a daytrip.

Rigid panels are less likely to have this problem because thieves will need a full toolkit to steal them.

Nevertheless, you should keep your solar panels protected under a caravan cover when not in use to protect them from weather and thieves!

Summary

I hope you enjoyed this guide to caravan and camper solar panels. While they are a hefty investment, they have a lot of benefits, ranging from more freedom to go off-grid to saving money by going free camping or using unpowered rather than powered sites.

Yes, it is a big step to take, but it’s a great one as long as you’re armed with the right knowledge. Take a look at the panels recommended in this article and think about which one is suitable for you. Remember you do get what you pay for.

If you still have any questions about the different types of panels or how to use them, please comment below and I’ll try to answer your questions!


This article may contain affiliate links. I will earn a commission if you choose to purchase a product or service after clicking on my link. This helps pay for the cost of running the website. You will not be disadvantaged in any way by using my links.

Note that while every effort is made to ensure the accuracy of the information on this page, there may sometimes be errors. Check all specifications with the manufacturer before purchasing any product.

Louis

After swearing off camping at a young age after a number of cold nights in cheap sleeping bags, Louis has ended up becoming a great lover of the natural beauty that Australia has to offer. This change of heart came after realising that, with the right equipment, camping can be as comfortable as it is fun. He is passionate about helping people reconnect with nature and explore Australia's great outdoors.

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