The TRUTH Behind the Cost of our RV Solar Installation

Feb 8th 2021

Hey! Thanks for popping in. We covered quite a bit in our YouTube video below, but in this blog post we'll cover a few more details as far as the components used, and links to where you can buy them.

Solar Panels

This is our 2nd rig, and our 2nd run with living full time solely via our RV solar system. The panels on our first rig were very large residential style panels. When I say "residential style" what I mean is, they were designed for use on the roof of a house. This means that it's rated to withstand a certain amount of force by hail, or a load by snow. They aren't designed for mobile applications, but we never had an issue with them, nor did they ever crack or break (and were in some insane hail conditions in CO).

You can get these 300 watt panels for relatively cheap at the Solar Panel Store

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On our current rig, we have a different style panel. Instead of requiring brackets to mount the panel on the roof, these panels are literally glued to the top of the rig. They are made by a company called Merlin Solar.

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Beyond the benefits of their flexibility are how they are made, you can stand on them, and even shoot holes in them, and the panels will barely miss a beat. It's because of a proprietary grid of interconnects that is distributed throughout the panel, and incased in a hard but flexible polymer. They are a lot more efficient than the previous panels, more durable, but they come at a cost!

Let's take the residential panels made by Trina for example. You're getting 300 watts for $180, or roughly $0.60 a watt. Merlin Solar doesn't make a 300 watt panel, but if they did it would cost roughly $1,200, or $4 a watt!

Pro's and con's for sure. 

Pros:

  • Lightweight
  • Flexible and adaptable to any surface
  • Nearly indestructible
  • More efficient

Cons:

  • You can't tilt them
  • They cost a lot of money

Our current solar array consists of (4) panels for a total of 800 watts.

  • (2) 4x12's - 230 watts each - $940 each
  • (2) 4x9's - 170 watts each - $640  each

Arizona Wind & Sun seems to be one of the very few vendors to carry these panels.

Charge Controller

Our solar charge controller is made my Victron. They're a reputable company and are (from my experience) the preferred manufacturer for RV solar charge controllers. In our first rig we had a charge controller by Midnight Solar. It worked well for the amount of watts that we had, but in our current rig we have 800 watts of solar on the roof, with the possibility of expanding to 1032 watts.

We needed a bigger charge controller to handle the 90 volts coming down from the solar array, and Victron was the obvious choice.

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What I like about this charge controller is that you can monitor how much energy is being generated with an app that's connected via Bluetooth. It's incredibly helpful to be able to just load the app and see how the charge progressed throughout the day, from bulk, to absorption, and finally float.

Victron 250/100 on Northern Arizona Wind & Sun - $940.

Batteries

Yes, Lithium Ion are all the rage these days, and for good reason. They're lightweight, and you can discharge them to 100%! But they come at a cost; $1000 each! And because we have a motorhome, we would have needed a extra component sitting inline between the alternator and the inverter. But really, we just didn't need them because we had our batteries from the first rig, and these AGM's work just great!

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Our (6) AGMs come in at a weight of 420 lbs, but we also only had to pay $1600 for 6 batteries giving us 680 amp hours of storage. If you factor in depth of discharge, we're looking at 340 amp hours of actual usage. If we wanted to replace this with li-ion, we would have taken a $1200 hit, and then would have had to shell out at least $4000 for (4) batteries. 

We just couldn't justify it.

In the case of the solar panels, the old panels were sold with the old rig, so we needed new panels. With the charge controller, we needed a bigger one to handle more volts. But with the batteries, our 6 AGM's work just fine for our needs.

(6) Centennial 224 AGM - $278 each - $1600 total - Found at places like Batteries & Bulbs.

Installation Cost

11k. That's the total. The typical going rate is about $100 an hour for RV solar installers. Ours charged $165, but was worth.every.penny. Most of their business comes from customers who have had their solar install screwed up. Look, a solar install can either be simple and will "work", or it can be done right, and correctly the first time. This means extra time spent on areas that don't immediately have to do with the solar install.

Like upgrading breakers. Or rewiring runs of plugs because the manufacturer didn't do a good enough job in the first place. Work ill done, is work twice done, and in both of our solar installs, we've had the same people do it, and (knocks on wood) to date haven't had a single issue. 

Final Thoughts

For us it's 100% worth it. We boondock nearly exclusively, and aren't dependent on RV parks or campgrounds for power and water. And when you figure the going rate of $500 - $1000 a month for an RV park (depending on location), we'll break even after less than a year.

It's a long term investment for short term flexibility and completely self-sufficiency. And for us, we couldn't imagine rv live without it.

What about you? Is the added expense justifiable? If you have any questions or comments, let us know!

Author

Nick Haskins
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