Effective and efficient methods for providing power will be a top priority for anyone embarking on a van life project, so deciding on the best solar energy system for your van is a big decision.
As solar panel technology has evolved over the years, buying and installing solar panels has become a realistic option for anyone starting their own camper van build.
Whether you want to invest in solar panels as a method of providing energy whilst living off-grid or you want to adapt your energy consumption to become more environmentally friendly, your van solar energy system will be a significant investment.
|Whilst converting our Renault Master campervan we knew we wanted a solar kit to provide our energy. We wanted clean energy to ensure we were being environmentally friendly and we knew we needed a good power supply to cope with spending large periods camping off-grid.|
So began our journey into the world of campervan solar panels!
In this guide we want to outline the best campervan solar panels for your van build or conversion in 2023.
Disclaimer: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them I receive a small commission, at no extra cost to you. This helps cover the cost of running this blog. Thanks for your support!
Solar Panels For Campervans At A Glance
Following a lot of research and after going through the practical experience of fitting our own solar panels, we can conclude that the best solar panel for campervans is the Renogy 200W Monocrystalline flexible solar panel.
In this table we summarise the top 4 solar panels based on type. To learn why we picked these panels continue reading below.
|Solar Panel||Reasons To Consider Buying||Price – $/$$/$$$|
The Best Rigid Solar Panel For Campers
Canadian Solar 410W Mono half cell Solar Panel
The Best Flexible Solar Panel For Campers
Renogy 200W Monocrystalline flexible solar panel
The Best Semi-Flexible Solar Panel For Campers
100W Semi flexible solar panel
The Best Portable Solar Panel For Campers
Jackary Solar Saga 100W solar panel
Note: All of these panels come in different sizes/wattage to suit your van size and power requirements be sure to work out your energy requirements first. If you need a power calculator you will find one on the Renogy website. They offer a wide range of good quality Solar products and can advise you best on their products.
To learn about leisure batteries for your campervan, take a look at this guide
Factors to consider when choosing camper solar panels
Before we look at these panels in more details it’s best to understand the jargon behind it all. Let’s delve a little deeper and look at five things to consider when picking a solar panel for your campervan.
1. Type of solar cell for your campervan – Silicon or CIGS?
Silicon: Monocrystalline vs Polycrystalline
Most solar panels are typically made from silicon cells. Monocrystalline panels are made from a single crystal of silicon whereas as polycrystalline panels are made from multiple silicon fragments melted together. The mono crystalline panels are more efficient at collecting energy but are also more expensive.
In real terms this 15-20% difference in efficiency simply means that the poly panels will need to be 15-20% bigger, to produce the same wattage as the mono panel.
If you need lots of power but have limited space, you will need to invest in monocrystalline solar panels. The good news is these are constantly coming down in price.
CIGS is a technology specific to flexible solar panels, consisting of cells made from copper, indium, gallium and selenium. This type of cell is comparably lighter than silicon, more robust, performs better in low light and is less susceptible to performance drop off when temperatures are at their highest.
All these factors combined make CIGS technology perfect for campervans and motorhomes. However, all this does come with a hefty price tag.
Do you need a heater for your campervan? If so take a look at my recommendations for campervan diesel heaters
2. Power – watt amount?
How much power does your van need? Fridge, lights, heater, water pump, TV?! How much power you require is a huge factor in choosing the correct solar panel for you. Before looking at solar panels it’s best to work out how much power you and your van will be using.
To work out your power usage we suggest using a power calculator like the ones on Renogy or Bimble. Once you know how much power your camper requires, you can start looking at panels with that wattage.
Your fridge will likely be the appliance with the biggest power requirements in your campervan. To discover the most energy efficient campervan fridges, take a look at this guide.
The bigger the panel, the more power you will produce. As mentioned above, mono crystalline panels are more efficient so will require less space than the polycrystalline equivalent. The size of your panel will be influenced by how much room you have available on your van roof and how much power you require.
4. Portable or fixed solar panels?
Fixed solar panels, are panels which are permanently attached to you van, either stuck directly onto the roof or mounted on a frame. This is the optimal set up for most van lifers.
However, it is possible to get portable or suitcase solar panels, which can be stored in the van and only pulled out when required. This may be more suitable for anyone who only uses the van occasionally.
Benefits of fixed panels:
- Always collecting energy (as long they’re in the sun)
- Less hassle then pulling out and setting up portable panels every time
Downsides of fixed panels:
- Increase the height profile of a van
- Require some knowledge for correct installation
- Need to be parked in the sun
Benefits of portable panels:
- Easier to use – not as much special installation required
- Can park in shade and place panels in the sun
- More suitable for smaller vehicles
- Good for being super stealthy
Downsides of portable panels:
- Requires a stand alone power bank or plugging into a charge controller to link with leaser batteries
- Needs setting up each time you park
- Take up room inside the van
- Need to stay with the van whilst using them
Discover all the must-have accessories for your campervan in this guide!
5. Rigid or flexible?
Solar panels can be fixed on frames or they can bend and stick to the surface of your vans’ roof. Here are some of the pros and cons of each type, but for a complete guide to flexible vs rigid panels, see this post.
Benefits of rigid panels:
- Built to withstand all types of conditions
- Cheaper per Watt
- No issues with overheating
Downsides of rigid panels:
- More complicated to install
- Not aerodynamic for driving
Benefits of flexible panels:
- Lighter then rigid panels
- Easy to install
- Discreet – perfect for stealth camping
Downsides of flexible panels:
- Prone to scratches
- Less efficient than rigid panels since not all parts of panel are directly facing the sun
- Can overheat in hot climates
Learn how to to get the best ventilation in your van with this guide to campervan roof vents
The Top 4 Campervan Solar Panels
With all the science (hopefully!) explained, here are our solar panel recommendations.
The Best Rigid Campervan Solar Panel
Canadian Solar 410W Mono half cell panels – Use these when you are on a budget and need plenty of power
This solar panel is the best high power rigid solar panel for campervans. These mono panels provide 410W of power, which is enough to fulfil the need of most van lifers. Just be sure to check there is space on your van before committing to this beast.
There are plenty good smaller wattage panels available if space is an issue or you don’t need that much power. Alternatively, fitting two smaller panels is another way of attaining this high output.
Rigid panels aren’t as stealthy as flexible panels, however we’ve camped in many non-designated camping spots over the last year and our rigid solar panels have never attracted any unwanted attention.
These panels are extremely robust, designed to handle the worst of the weather. This year we saw record high temperatures of around 40 degrees (high for the UK!), have had snow, frost, hail and gale force winds and the panels have survived it all.
We installed our panels in 2020 so have an older 275W version of this panel and it provided enough power for us to live full time, off grid in our van for the last two years. However, during the short winter days we struggled to produce enough power so fitting this 410W panel would make a difference. (Along with a bigger battery)
The biggest downsides of rigid panels are the weight and the aerodynamic drag produced while driving. Although, in practice the drag will only have a small effect on fuel consumption.
The Best Flexible Campervan Solar Panel
Renogy 200W Flexible panel – use these solar panels for a more streamlined van
This flexible solar panel is the absolute best choice solar panel for your campervan. When we fitted our panels, rigid options were much cheaper than flexible panels so that’s the option we went with. However, today the price difference is much smaller.
This panel is super lightweight at under 3kg and very streamlined at just 22mm thick. That’s a 17kg weight saving when compared with the rigid panel, which is huge! They are tested to withstand extreme wind and snow so you can go adventuring until your hearts content!
Since they are not made of glass these panels are extremely robust, allowing you to walk on them if you so desire (although personally I would avoid this where possible)
Flexible panels are easy to install with the use of some PU adhesive on the backside of the panel. The panels can bend to all contours of your campervan roof if necessary, producing a very aerodynamic and discreet profile.
The Renogy panels come with a 5 year manufacturing warranty and a 25 year power output warranty which excellent for peice of mind.
The Best semi Flexible Campervan Solar Panel
100W Semi Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel – use these solar panels if you’re on a budget but want something easy to install
This semi-flexible panel utilises monocrystalline technology but in a much lower profile than the rigid panels. They have a metallic backing but no glass front, making them very lightweight.
They can be stuck to your van using specialist glue so are quite easy to install. As the name suggests, semi-flexible panels have a limited bending angle which is around 30 degrees, so they may not contour your van’s roof as well as fully flexible panels.
They are more expensive than rigid panels but cheaper than fully flexible panels. They can be prone to scratches but are very aerodynamic and have a low profile.
These are a solid choice if you want something easy to install but can’t stretch your budget to fully flexible panels.
The Best Portable Campervan Solar Panel
Jackary Solar Saga folding 100W solar panel – use these solar panels if you have limited roof space
Portable solar panels are a great choice for anyone who doesn’t need (or want) to have panels permanently fixed to their van. They are also ideal for smaller vans with limited roof space and for van lifers who need some extra power now and again.
This portable panel has highly efficient monocrystalline cell technology, which can produce 100W from something which folds down to the size of a large briefcase. Comes complete with USB ports to directly charge phones and works well when connected to the Jackary Powerstations.
Do I need a Solar Panel Kit?
Remember, solar panels are just one part of the solar power system required for your campervan. The other components in a solar power system are the wiring, a charge controller and a leisure battery. To get the most out of your solar panels, each of these components need to be of a similar quality.
Van solar panels are often sold in kits and these can seem like good value. However, it’s only good value if you actually want all of the components in the kit. Decide what you want/need and then decide if there is a kit to match your needs. If not, buy the parts separately. From our research we didn’t find any kits that offered us a significant saving.
Top Tip: Be weary of kits that provide PWM charge controllers or knock- off MPPT charge controllers. We initially tried to save money through buying a cheap charge controller which claimed to be MPPT but turned out to just have an MPPT sticker! This charge controller was a waste of time and shortly after, we invested in a real MPPT Charge controller and the difference in output was huge. Learn more about solar charge controllers here.
Final Thoughts on Campervan Solar Panels
When choosing a solar panel for your campervan you will be faced with a number of choices. First you need to work out your van’s power demands, then you need to decide if you want a permanently fixed panel or are happy with a portable panel.
If you decide on a fixed panel, next you need to determine what size panel will fit on your van. Now you know the wattage and physical size permitted, your budget will determine if you can afford flexible or rigid panels.
If you can afford flexible panels, such as the Renogy 200W panel, they will be the easiest and best option for your campervan. If you need more output, then consider fitting 2 or even 3 of these panels. However, if weight is not an issue and want a lot of power from a very sturdy cost effective unit, then consider a panel such as the Canadian Solar 410W.