Everything You Need to Know About Solar Power for Vans
No rent. The open road. Waking up with a new, great view everyday. If those dreamy #VanLife Insta posts have been calling your name and you're ready to go offgrid, we need to talk about solar panels for your van. 🚐
After all, traveling the world in your own little home is much more appealing when you can charge your phone, run a fan, and cool your food with a fridge.
Surprisingly, sticking some solar panels on your van roof isn't as expensive as it might seem.
Let's talk solar for vans so you can be onto your next adventure ASAP ⬇️
Can you power a van with solar panels?
Let's get this out of the way: yes, you can 100% power a van with solar panels.
There are plenty of small but sturdy options that can help you go offgrid in the van of your choice. Even better, the market is getting cheaper and cheaper as solar becomes more popular.
You could go with solar panels that are permanently fitted to the top of the van or ones you can put up and take down as needed. It all depends on your van conversion, budget, and desires for keeping a low profile (or not!).
And, better yet, tons of van lifers who have already done this and provide great models for you to learn from.
How many watts of solar do you need for a van?
What size solar panel you need for a camper van is a complex question, since it really depends on what you want to run while you're in the van. The more appliances and electric-hungry luxuries you want available in your van, the more solar you need.
Plus, you'll want a battery to store energy for nighttime or rainy days. You need a setup that can accommodate charging that battery and
Here's how to figure out how many watts of solar you need:
- Make a list of all the electrity-using items you'll have in your fan.
- Figure out how many amps they'll use in total and about how many hours you'll use them.
- Multiply the current by the daily hours to get your amp hours.
If you really want to dig into this, Vanlife Customs has a great, in-depth example of how this all works.
Let's go through a few examples to show you how many watts of solar you might need.
What will a 100 watt solar panel run in a van?
A small 100W solar panel in an RV won't get you very far. In most cases, a 100 watt solar panel will create enough electricity to charge smaller electronics like laptops, cell phones, and small lamps.
If you want more appliances (or to do charge multiple things at once), you'll need more power. A 100 watt solar panel will not run even the smallest 12v portable fridge on the market!
So is a 100W solar panel enough for van? Probably not, unless you're only using it for short trips where you'll just need to charge small devices.
OK, what can I run on a 500 watt solar panel?
Now we're getting somewhere. A 500 watt solar panel in direct sunlight can run lights, TVs, chargers, and basically any small electronic devices. It could also probably run a single, constantly-running full-sized appliance for a full day, assuming you've got solar battery storage to back it up when it's cloudy or dark outside.
Many folks living a relatively luxurious #VanLife use about 400-500 watts of solar to power small appliances and electronics. That said, it all depends on figuring out how much power you'll actually be using, and for how long.
And remember: it's better to go over your needs than under. There's nothing worse than letting food spoil because your setup wasn't strong enough to support running a small fridge as you work with your laptop plugged in!
If you're not sure, go up a size whenever possible.
What's the best solar panel for a van?
The best solar panel for a van is the one that suits your needs. Do the math, figure out the amount you need, and measure your van.
Just like getting rooftop solar installed, there's no one-size-fits-all answer for the best solar panel for your van! All you can do is learn about your needs and make an informed decision.
What solar cell should you choose?
Before making any decisions, we need to learn about the different types of solar cells. There are three main types of solar cells:
- Monocrystalline solar cells. These have black-colored solar cells made from a single silicon crystal. This option has a high efficient rating but because of that tends to be more expensive. (Many experts suggest this for vans since the price differences on a smaller project isn't so huge.)
- Polycrystalline solar cells. These have blue-colored cells made of multiple silicon crystals melded together. They're less efficient than monocrystalline solar cells, but that makes them a little more affordable.
- CIGS flexible solar cells. AKA copper indium gallium selenide. This is a thin, super flexible, super efficient type of solar cell that's so bendy it can be applied to very curved surfaces. They also work great in low-light situations. For all that awesomeness, it's pricey AF 💰
Now let's talk solar panel forms
Aside from solar cell types, you also have to consider panel forms:
- Rigid solar panels. This is the cheapest option. They're durable but can be harder to mount, particularly on the curved top of many vans.
- Flexible solar panels. These are more costly and tend to be less durable, but are very easy to install since they don't have to stay in a straight line.
- Portable solar panels. A great option for stealth vampers! Portable solar panels can be folded and stored away when not in use. They're usually not as durable and may be comparatively a bit more expensive.
A few more thoughts before shopping
- What's the van vibe? Does the van offer a flat surface to mount solar panels? Or maybe you'll be doing stealth camping in cities and can't have fixed panels. In that case, you'll probably want to consider a portable setup you can move in and out of the van as needed. 🧳
- How many solar panels can I fit on my roof? If you need a 400W solar system for your van, can you fit 4 100W panels or do you need to fit just 2 200W panels on a smaller space?
- What's your budget? Each solar panel has positives and negatives, pricing being key. Also consider whether you can afford a battery. If not, how will you make it work at night?
After you've done all the considering you can — get shopping. 🛍️
There are a few ways to get solar panels for your van, at varying price points and complexity.
1. Custom van conversion companies
First, you can go with companies that offer custom van conversions or products specifically made for RVs or vans. These companies will make all the difficult spec and tech decisions for you based on your needs.
Obviously, this comes with a slightly higher price tag — particularly since the solar panels are often just one part of a custom van job. Typically, you can expect to spend several thousand dollars to get someone else to do this for you.
2. Go DIY with Amazon
Alternatively, you can score some pretty sweet solar panels right from Amazon if you know what you need. This option allows you to really customize the size of the solar panels as well as everything else that goes along with it.
Searching “solar panels for van” on Amazon leads to a mind-boggling number of options. Just be sure to calculate your needs before shopping and read those reviews! ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
This setup will cost anywhere from $500 to several thousand depending on your energy needs and whether you invest in a battery or not. From our research, it seems like a $1,500 budget is a good starting point.
3. Buy a pre-made kit
For an in-the-middle experience, brands like Renogy offer plug-and-go solar kits for vans. If you don't feel comfortable building out a kit from different parts and can't afford a fully custom system, these are a great option! It includes solar panels, charge controller, and all the cables and connectors you'll need, though does not include a battery to save extra energy.
For plug-and-go kits, you can expect to spend $800-$2,500 for a solar panel setup that includes a solar battery to store your energy.
Are solar panel kits worth it? We're not sure. If you have a DIY spirit and feel up to doing all the research yourself, it's worth doing it for the money savings. But if figuring out all the bits and pieces you'll need for a solar van conversion feels overwhelming, a solar panel kit might be worth the extra cash.
No matter what you choose, make sure it gives you enough energy to live your very best #VanLife ☀️
Ready to get started? We can help you find rebates for solar panels so you can save some cash on your van conversion and get on the road faster! 💨