Dry camping is becoming more popular as technology advances. Specifically, solar power has allowed those living the RV lifestyle to make their own roads and find their own campsites. One limitation that still remains a problem is running air conditioning units off solar panels.
It’s possible to run your RV air conditioner off of a solar system with the right equipment. Prohibitory factors include high costs and the ability to find places to fit all of the components.
The problem boils down to the fact that air conditioners require a massive amount of power, and solar panels have a low charging rate. In our discussion, we’ll explore how to overcome this obstacle. There are benefits and challenges to going solar.
How Solar Panels Work for Your RV
For this article, we’re going to give you a brief overview of how RV solar systems work. For a thorough description, you can view our article that goes into the basics of RV solar components. You can also check out our article on calculating how much solar you need and understanding electrical measurements.
Solar panels don’t directly power anything on your RV. Instead, they charge your house batteries. The batteries connect to your direct current (DC) fuse box and your alternating current (AC) fusebox. In order for the AC to run correctly, an inverter disrupts the connection between the batteries and the AC box, to change the current flow.
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The fuseboxes supply the power to all of your individual components or outlets. Within the fusebox, there are fuses that look like various colored two-pronged plugs, or black switches called breakers. These act as safeguards to prevent overcharges from damaging your devices.
Main Components of the Process
When you set up solar on your RV, there are five different components you need to have it work correctly and safely.
- Solar Panels: You will want to look for the highest-rated panels on the market. Since you have limited space, and your A/C units require a lot, you may want to choose the higher wattage panels.
Panels come in 100-600 watts. They come in flat panels that you can either install on your RV roof or placed on the ground with stands. There are flexible panels that stick directly to the roof.
- House Batteries: Solar panels only charge your house batteries. All of the electronics draw their energy from the batteries. We recommend a large bank of batteries that have high kilowatts and high Depth of Discharge ratings. Learn more from our discussion about batteries.
- 4,000-Watt Inverter: The inverter is the opposite of your converter. It takes the DC power from your batteries and changes it to AC power. We recommend the 4,000-watt unit since your A/C units and other devices will draw a massive amount of power at one time.
- Solar Power Meter: Installing this measurement device will allow you to monitor how your panels are operating at all times. Knowing your voltage, watt, and amp readings can alert you to possible issues that need attention.
- Battery Meter/Multi Meter: Checking the input and output of your batteries can be essential. After years of use, batteries can lose their ability to charge, leak or other problems can occur. Checking them periodically is a great preventive maintenance practice.
You will also want to adjust the DC and AC sides of your fuse/breaker boxes for the additional components you are adding. Your batteries will feed directly to the DC parts of your electric system. For the AC side, the power starts at the batteries, flows through the inverter, goes to the AC fuse box, and then to the various points in your RV.
Running the Numbers
To run one 13,500 BTU air conditioner, for seven hours a day, you are using 1,500 watts and 750 amp hours of stored electricity from your batteries. To recharge your batteries, you will need to generate more than that to make sure you have recovered that power. The average panel will need at least 8-9 hours at 110 amp-hours to regenerate that amount of power.
This is assuming it’s a clear sunny day, you have only one air conditioner, and you aren’t using any other electronic devices that are drawing electricity from the batteries. Adding additional panels can shorten the charging time.
Setup costs for a solar system this big are big. You can expect to pay over $10,000 to run your air conditioner and all the other components together. The ideal setup would need:
- 3 or more solar panels that are at least 400 watts
- A bank of 4-6 batteries that interconnect and are 12-volts each
- A 4,000-watt inverter since over 3,000 watts can be running at one time
- An expected project cost of over $10,000
Is This the Right Situation For You?
Before you spend the money, time, and effort to install a solar panel for an air conditioning system in your RV, consider if the benefits outweigh the costs. Here are some boons and burdens to think about.
- Clean, renewable energy
- Low maintenance
- Longer off-grid independence
- Great for dry camping
- Ideal for full-time RV lifestyles
- Have electricity wherever you go
- High startup cost
- Weather dependent- Many cloudy days may prevent proper charging
- Lose storage space due to the battery banks and electronics
- Panels create heat that air conditioners may have to fight against
- Adds additional weight to your roof and storage bays
Things to Keep In Mind
Have a Secondary Power Source
There may be times where your solar system doesn’t fully charge your batteries. It could be from many days of bad weather, overuse of electricity or your panels becoming dirty. Having a backup source to give you the extra charge is always advised.
Many motorhomes have secondary alternators that connect to the house batteries. If not, the primary alternator charges both the house and the engine batteries. Fuel generators and shore power electricity also charge them.
Are there creative solutions?
There are many ways you can run A/C units at lower wattages. As you can see in this video, they use a portable window unit that uses 410 watts instead of their factory-installed units. They use two of these units in their RV at the peak of the day. As the day ebbs, they end up turning one-off due to the inside temperature becoming too cold.
Should I start with an RV solar kit?
RV solar kits come with either one 100-watt or 170-watt panel, a small inverter, and one battery. Since you want to run your air conditioner, these kits cannot handle the required amount of power needed. They’re limited to handle TVs, coffee makers, cellphone chargers, and other small devices.
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Do solar panels add heat?
Solar panels do get hot. Their heat does transfer to your roof and can transfer that heat inside your coach. Some people that have installed flat panels leave enough room between the panel and their RV roof to let air flow through to stop heat transfer. This also cools the panels.
Are there RV air conditioners that take less energy?
There are various makes and models of air conditioners on the market. Rooftop installed units generally range between 13,500- 16,000 BTU. They’re designed to cool the required space in an efficient way.
Is Solar The Right Way For Your Air Conditioner?
Solar technology has opened up a lot of doors for the RV world. It has allowed more possibilities for off-grid camping. The possibility of running your air conditioning unit of solar power is an expensive proposition still.
For those that live full-time in remote dry camping situations, this may be a great option. Especially if they stay in locations where there are many clear sunny days. This solar setup pays for itself by cutting generator fuel costs.
If you are a part-time camper, it may not be worth the effort yet. Even if you want to decrease your carbon footprint, the costs of a campsite with hookups or running your generator are not financially sound right now. There are other money and carbon saving ways you can do so.
Our recommendation is to keep an eye on the industry. Each year, as technology advances, the big names and the small start-ups are always coming out with something new. With the demand from consumers, maybe in the next few years, we’ll see a coach that has solar-powered air conditioner and interior from the factory.
Product data was last updated on 2020-09-18 at 05:07.