You won’t always have a reliable source of plug-in power to get juice to your RV. When the kids want to play video games and your partner wishes to watch Netflix, you’ll need an alternative power source. Solar panels and generators are two popular options among camper and RV enthusiasts, but which is better?
Both solar panels and generators as a power source for an RV or camper have their pros and cons, but solar power is cleaner energy. You’re not releasing emissions into the environment, and you’re enjoying power in a much quieter and more sustainable way.
If you’re still not sure whether a solar panel setup or a generator is the best choice for your RV or camper, this article will be your guide. First, we’ll explain how each of these respective power sources works. Then we’ll delve into the pros and cons to help you make up your mind.
Let’s get started!
How Does RV Solar Power Work?
To begin, we’ll talk about RV solar power.
It used to only be that only homes and buildings could harness the power of sunlight, but today, moving vehicles such as campers and RVs can do the same.
Solar panels are comprised of solar cells. The cells are a type of device that converts the sunlight into the energy that your vehicle then receives. The conversion process produces direct current or DC power.
Using DC power, you can do all sorts of activities on your RV or camper, such as charging your RV batteries, plugging in your laptop, and recharging your phone.
A collection of solar panels makes what is known as a solar array. You don’t simply choose the number of panels in the array at random. Instead, you must do some calculations to determine what the right amount of solar power is for your RV or camper.
This requires you to first gauge which appliances and electronics you use in your vehicle and whether they use DC or alternate current or AC power. Then you must calculate how many hours per day you use those appliances.
Once you have that information, you can next calculate the number of amp hours your favorite appliances and electronics require. Now you can shop for solar panels that provide as much power as you need.
You’ll likely require a power inverter as well, which is a device that takes DC power and makes it into AC power. For appliances such as a toaster, dishwasher, garbage disposal, refrigerator, and freezer, you must have AC power.
As you shop around, you’ll realize that not all solar panels are the same. You can select from flexible or rigid RV solar panels. Flexible panels are not straight and rectangular but can be curved and angled according to your needs.
The plus of flexible panels is they weigh considerably less than rigid panels (with an 80 percent reduction in weight in some instances), but their odd shape does make them damage-prone. Plus, they’re specialty solar panels, so they’re going to cost more money.
Rigid RV solar panels are the standard. These square-shaped or rectangular panels feature a tempered glass exterior.
You’ll come across different solar panel materials too. Thin-film solar panels are cheap but tend to become worse off the longer you use them. Polycrystalline panels aren’t all that efficient either, even if they are inexpensive.
If you can, buy monocrystalline solar panels for your RV or camper. These panels are the most efficient and yet they’re not space hogs either.
How Does RV Generator Power Work?
Now let’s switch gears and talk about the other option for powering your RV or camper when boondocking, and that’s using a generator.
You might already own a generator that you have in your basement or garage at home in case you lose power. The generator has its own power source, be that a battery or fuel, and can then provide electricity to your home.
RV and camper generators work in much the same way. The generator provides power, either for a few hours or all day/night, and you can use that power your favorite electronics and appliances.
Let’s go over the types of RV generators you might select.
- Inverter generators: The hip new thing on the market that many camper and RV enthusiasts are talking about is the inverter generator. That’s fair considering this gen is supposed to be more streamlined and a lot quieter. Inverter generators use an alternator to make DC power out of AC power. The fuel efficiency of inverter generators is a definite plus, as is the fact that these gens produce power that’s useable for devices from laptops to smartphones.
- Solar generators: That’s right, you have the option to combine solar power and generators with a solar generator. These gens include solar panels that generate solar energy. The panels send that energy towards the generator’s battery, which is charged to keep your electronics going and your RV lights on.
- Portable generators: Especially ideal for travelers who are always on the move, a portable generator is lighter-weight with a smaller design for taking it with you nearly anywhere. Although they’re often smaller, they still have enough juice for powering up your fridge or TV!
- Gas generators: A gasoline generator is small and portable, making it a desirable choice. However, gas gens release a lot of emissions every time you use them, and they’re among the loudest generators. Plus, in cold weather, these gens are a lot less effective.
- Natural gas generators: You might be interested in a natural gas generator. Running on propane or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), natural gas gens are cleaner-burning and quieter. They’re also very costly, but at least they’re somewhat better for our planet!
- Diesel generators: The last type of generator for an RV or camper is the classic diesel generator. Using diesel as a fuel source, electricity within the generator burns the diesel to power your RV. Moisture is a no-no, so you can’t use diesel gens after the rain. Plus, they release a lot of dangerous emissions.
If you’re not interested in a portable generator like those outlined above, then you could potentially buy an RV with a generator built right in. Keep in mind that this is usually only an option for RVs, not campers.
Is your RV without a built-in generator? You can get the addition retrofitted to your vehicle to the tune of $3,000 to $8,000. The generator will be built under the frame of your vehicle.
RV and Camper Solar Panels – Pros and Cons
We’ve explained the basics of RV camper solar panels and generators, so now it’s time to examine both with a much more detailed lens. We’ll talk about the pros and cons of both alternate power sources, first focusing on solar panels.
- Solar Panels Are Clean Energy
Global warming has reached a point where it’s impacting our current generation. Future generations are also at risk. The decisions you make today can influence our planet for the better tomorrow, and that includes using clean energy whenever possible.
Solar panels are a source of clean energy. Every time you use them, you can rest assured that you’re not producing more emissions that increase the global temperature even more.
Plus, unlike fossil fuels, which are only a finite energy source, you can use sun energy infinitely. It never runs out, so you always have a reliable source of energy on your side.
- Portable Solar Panels Let You Rest in the Shade
Many people hop into their camper vans or RVs in the summertime, pack the whole family in, and hit the road. Parking your vehicle in the burning heat can be difficult. You know that if you stray too far from the sun that you won’t get as much solar energy. But whew! That heat!
With portable solar panels that use their own portable power stations (as a separate purchase, mind you), you can generate power to the portable panels before you park or stop. You’re then free to select a shady spot for the day without as much risk of losing your solar power and thus your RV electricity.
Portable solar panels also come in handy for overnight camping!
- You Will Recoup What You Spend…Eventually
We’ll talk more momentarily about the costs of RV solar panels, but we’re making it clear now that they’re anything but cheap. Although the initial investment will put a hurting on your wallet, the money you spend will come back to you with time.
- Solar Panels Can Be Kind of Ugly
Part of the first wave of pushback against solar panels were people who thought the presence of the panels marred their homes. We can certainly understand how some people might perceive solar panels as ugly.
If you’re one of them, and you still detest the appearance of solar panels despite the advancement in the technology over the years, then the last thing you might want is a set of solar panels on your RV or camper. Now that will look ugly too!
- In Cloudy and/or Inclement Weather, You Don’t Get as Much Solar Energy
Although solar energy is infinite, that doesn’t mean it’s constant. In inclement and overcast weather, the sun is not going to reach your solar panels plentifully enough to generate any meaningful amount of power.
That can also be true if you’re driving for hours in a heavily forested area. Any overhead coverage your RV or camper receives for long periods also reduces the effectiveness of your solar panel setup.
Now, as we talked about before, you can use portable solar panels to overcome this gap in a solar panel’s abilities. If you didn’t know that before reading this post and you already ventured out with just your solar panels though, then you’re stuck.
- You Need a Lot of Extras
Some RV and camper enthusiasts assume that once you have the solar panels set up on your vehicle that that’s it, you’re in the clear. While that would be nice, it’s not the case.
Besides the panels themselves, you must also have a solar charge control that keeps your RV battery from overcharging. A solar charge controller can also provide some juice to the batteries so they never drain completely.
Power inverters, which we touched on already, convert DC power to AC power. You should also have a dedicated battery charger and a power converter (which makes AC power into DC power).
Those are a lot of devices to have to buy, especially if you weren’t expecting to.
- Solar Power Doesn’t Come Cheap
We said we would, so let’s talk further about solar panel pricing.
How much you’ll pay for solar panels depends on the power needs of your RV or camper. This ConsumerAffairs page outlines the price of solar power by state in the United States, but that’s for homes, not RVs.
Even still, just by browsing those prices, you can glean that solar power is not the cheapest thing to procure.
Outside of what you’ll pay for solar energy, you must also add in the costs of your solar equipment as well as the installation prices if you’re not going the DIY route.
We want to again remind you that you will recoup a lot of what you spend on your solar panels, but the costs at the beginning can be steep.
RV and Camper Generators – Pros and Cons
As we did with solar panels, let’s now review the advantages and disadvantages of using a generator for your RV or camper.
- Generators Come in All Sorts of Sizes
You know as an RV or camper owner that these vehicles are not a one-size-fits-all solution. RVs are available in three classes, including the gargantuan class A RV, the small size B, and the mid-sized class C RV.
Trailers or campers run the gamut from very small teardrop campers to mid-sized pop-up trailers and larger travel trailers.
Fortunately, you have your pick of RV sizes. Smaller ones are very portable, and bigger ones can be too.
- Using a Gen Is a Long-Time Standard When Camping
Generators and RVs are like peanut butter and jelly. They go so well together and have been a trusted pairing for decades. Of course, times change, and technology evolves, which is why some RVers like solar power, but generators are certainly regarded by some as the trusty and true standard.
- You Can Select from Different Types of Generators
We mentioned before that you can shop generators by different sizes, but you also have the freedom to select the power source for your generator.
If you don’t mind buying and re-buying fuel, then you can use a gas or diesel generator. Other options include inverter gens and natural gas gens.
- Generators Are Not Clean-Burning Like Solar Panel
It doesn’t matter which way you spin it; generators are not going to be as clean-burning as solar panels. There are some near-exceptions, such as solar panel generators and natural gas generators, but even these gens aren’t as energy-efficient as the solar panels installed on your RV or camper.
- A Lightweight Generator Is Easy to Steal, Especially When It’s Outside of Your Vehicle
You should never use a generator in your RV or camper. That means trusting that the gen outside of your vehicle won’t be stolen by others at the campsite or park. You are indeed putting a lot of trust in strangers, and sometimes, you can get burned for it.
A lightweight generator is easy to make off with especially, but some gregarious thieves might not be deterred by a heavier gen.
- Generators Are Noisy
Of course, if someone tried to steal your generator, you’d probably hear it. No, not the sound of footsteps or voices, but the sudden silence. Most generators, after all, are incredibly loud.
If you’re trying to sleep with the rumbling, chugging sound of the generator’s motor, good luck. Even a good pair of earplugs won’t block out the sound altogether.
Should you be the only one at a campsite using a generator (or at least in the vicinity), you might get complaints from your neighbors, and rightfully so!
Inverter generators are quieter than the standard RV gens, but even they’re not completely quiet.
- Using a Generator Can Be Dangerous
We must again stress that you should never use a generator in your RV or camper. Generators produce exhaust that contains carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas that can kill you if you breathe in too much.
Solar panels, by comparison, are far less risky!
Which Is Better for an RV, Solar Panels or Generators?
Now it’s time to answer the question we’re sure you’ve been wondering about this entire time. Between solar panels and generators, which is the better option for an RV or camper?
As we said in the intro, we’d pick solar panels every time.
Solar panels might be more initially expensive compared to a generator, and their installation is certainly more challenging, but the dividends that solar panels pay back over time make them worth it.
You’ll have reliable power every time, especially through using other accessories to ensure your solar panels are charged up even in inclement weather or shady conditions. You can keep your RV battery charged, entertain your family, catch up on emails, and enjoy electricity as if you were back home.
All along, you’re off the grid!
Solar panels are clean, renewable energy, the same of which you cannot say for a generator. Plus, much more importantly, using solar power does not put your life at risk like operating a generator can.
When shore power is hundreds of miles away, you don’t have to boondock in the dark. You can use either solar power or a generator to juice up your RV. We hope the information in this guide helps you select the right alternate power source for you!