How To Safely Add Solar Power To Your Caravan, RV Or Camper

Unrestored motorhome

At SolarQuotes, we often field inquiries about remote-area solar power systems, and increasingly, we’re seeing interest in their little brothers, too: off-grid systems for buses, caravans, RVs or trendy tiny houses.

In this article, I’ll outline how to add solar panels to your caravan or RV, wire that solar power throughout your van, and stay safe while you do so.

Modern Motorhome Solar Is Nothing Short Of Amazing

Not only are solar panels cheap, but the range of inverters, MPPT regulators and lithium solar batteries is so incredibly capable you’ll readily run a camper without any bottled gas. In fact, the fishos love induction hobs. They’re compact, easy to clean, and there’s no flame to blow out when you’re trying to cook on the beach.

LPG may still be a useful option, but knowing what we do now about indoor air quality, I think it’s just best avoided.

Where mobile living can really fall down is thermal efficiency. Vehicles are hard to insulate sufficiently, so extremes in temperature and condensation control can be challenging. A sizeable battery could power your air conditioning overnight, but sometimes, a 20-metre extension cord and a small petrol generator can be indispensable (albeit costly and not always permissible).

Uncomplicating Things Starts At Home

Caravans, campervans and blinged-up buses can be expensive, so many people do the work themselves.

I’ve seen first-hand how DIY conversions can provide a deep sense of satisfaction. One of the best blokes I ever worked with had a Coaster bus with a sink, car fridge and hammock. The warm plywood lining and hand-finished detail made it beautifully simple. His morning commute was ten metres, and he took his whole house on weekend adventures with a kayak.

coaster bus rv conversion

Not my mate’s one, but a nice converted Coaster Bus from Camplify

The internet is awash with products and guides for setting up a serious caravan or camper, but always tread carefully with DIY electrical work. Some might say it’s safe, claiming “12 volts never killed anyone”, but bad wiring can still do you some damage or start a devastating fire.

 

burnt campervan battery

Connected with alligator clips for no less than three years. I’m not surprised to see those burns.

You’ll Need Plenty Of Amps

Adding up the capacity you’ll need can be daunting, but remember, having some spare capacity is priceless. Your fridge might draw 5 amps but need 10 amps to start, and cycle on more often when it gets hot. Luckily, modern lithium batteries mean you can add more capacity pretty easily if you need to expand later.

Beware The 12-Volt Mafia

Though they come in small, convenient sizes, nominal 12-volt solar panels are pricey. And (like most things found on eBay), 12 volt appliances and solar regulators are often poor quality.

Having a dual battery in your car running some interior lights, a laptop and a car fridge is fine, however, my general rule of thumb is: if it’s got a cigarette lighter plug, forget about it. 

I’ve seen amazing caravans based on 12 volt equipment. In fact, some of the best batteries I’ve ever seen are made in Melbourne. However, to quote PowerPaul himself:

The main thing people seem to get wrong, is they see YouTubers doing a 20-minute video and think everything is an easy ‘plug’n’play’ setup, but when they go and buy the stuff shown in a video, they find that they need a bunch of tools to fit it, and then a whole lot of technical knowledge. That’s where it all goes to crap. People damage things or end up with a system not working well. This is especially true with good quality Victron gear that has pages and pages of settings to tweak, get one of them wrong and the whole system could give you 30% of the performance you expect.

Running a microwave, stove and air conditioner simultaneously creates about three kilowatts of load, meaning the battery has to supply 260+ amps for the duration. That crazily high current will create a lot of heat if you have a poor connection.

So, while it might be legal to do it yourself, it takes a lot of talent and experience to manage the multiples of everything from fat cables to parallel batteries, circuit protection and solar charging.

While 12v systems seem native in a 12v vehicle, they don’t really make sense any more. Car alternators never really charged deep-cycle lead acid batteries properly, and modern lithium batteries are a completely different kettle of fish.

24 Volts Is Better Than 12 Volts

Medium and heavy vehicles use 24 volts because they need a quarter1 the copper cabling of a 12v vehicle to do the same job. The same logic applies to mobile solar power systems.

With 24 volts you can have a more capable inverter with greater 230VAC output (over 3kW) and still a good choice of parts if you need to charge from a 12v vehicle or run 12v loads.

But I Would Choose 48 Volts DC

With DC-DC chargers now available, you might as well choose a 48-volt battery and have smaller cables, lower current and a lighter instal. It’s simpler, safer and more capable, and offers a great choice of excellent quality batteries. In fact, a 48v system can scale from 3kW behind the seat of a ute up to 45kW 3-phase and well beyond (if you have houseboat-sized ambitions).

Many vans have a roof-full of skylights and other junk. Clear them off, and you can fit more cheap, conventional solar panels.

Modern solar charge controllers can cope with more voltage from these panels, meaning the same regulator can cope with four times more energy throughput at 48v, than it can on a 12v system.

Mobile Electrical Standards Are Different

Caravan, camper and RV solar power systems fall under AS3001 standards, so your electrician needs to be across that. Everything inside has to be double-pole switched, meaning the style or colour of the actual switches and power points may be quite limited. Flexible cables must be used, not conventional seven-strand house wiring.

Batteries must also be vented to the atmosphere (preferably with a thermostat-activated fan to manage heat), and any access panel to the habitable space inside must be well sealed, labelled and screwed shut. With many people choosing to put electrical and battery storage under the bed, it makes good sense to keep a solid barrier between your battery and your mattress.

While we’re on the subject, it’s good practice to put heavy items like water tanks and batteries over the axle of your van. However, van bodies can have plywood floors, and I have seen first-hand what can happen when a blown tyre rips a wheel arch to pieces.

Sturdy sheet metal linings are a must. You really don’t want a tyre to tear the van apart and cause an electrical fire.

Screw Your Solar Down

Some installers insist that glue is good enough, and refuse to make holes for fear of water leaks. But there is already a documented fatal road accident caused by a solar panel flying off a caravan.

In such a dynamic environment, with heat, vibration, different materials and cyclonic wind speed, you must ensure the panels are mechanically fixed. Driving tek screws straight into the alloy frame (making sure you don’t hit the glass) is a perfectly good way of fitting brackets you can bolt to the roof.

If you have a curved surface, consider using semi-rigid lightweight panels such as Sunman’s. These can be glued all over, reducing the risk of a full detachment if one edge or corner bracket starts to peel.

Stuck to some plywood or honeycomb composite, these lightweight panels are also great for auxiliary solar. If you park your van in the shade, having extra solar panels that can be deployed on the ground ten metres away is priceless.

screws into a solar panel

Screws are good.

The Dos and Don’ts of Solar Power On The Road

Electrically, if a system is below 50VAC or 120VDC, then it’s deemed ‘extra low voltage’, and anyone can play with it. However, that doesn’t mean anyone should.

Just because it’s low voltage it doesn’t mean you can’t make expensive mistakes. The worst mistakes result in fires, which can be incredibly dangerous in a confined space.

  • Don’t buy a load of cheap equipment and then expect somebody else to install it. Work with the electrician to choose your gear.
  • If you intend to use second-hand equipment, get advice to ensure it’s fit for purpose (thin film solar is no good).
  • Simplify by using ordinary 230VAC appliances and lights.
  • For backup, consider a gas cartridge stove and some rechargeable lights.
Car interior fire from battery

DIY wiring and a cheap lithium battery.

As for the 230V AC wiring in your new mobile abode, don’t take unnecessary risks. That’s definitely still a job for an electrician, who can layout, connect, test and certify.

Footnotes

  1. P = I2R
About Anthony Bennett

Anthony joined the SolarQuotes team in 2022. He’s a licensed electrician, builder, roofer and solar installer who for 14 years did jobs all over SA - residential, commercial, on-grid and off-grid. A true enthusiast with a skillset the typical solar installer might not have, his blogs are typically deep dives that draw on his decades of experience in the industry to educate and entertain. Read Anthony's full bio.

Comments

  1. Michael Paine says

    As a back-up power supply Redarc have a clever, but expensive, lithium portable 12V battery – the Goblock. It can trickle charge from the car 12V supply, a 240V supply, PV panels (direct Anderson input) or DC-DC charger.
    I use one to power a portable fridge (lasts for days) and it can provide backup power for a caravan, if needed.

  2. RE: The Dos and Don’ts of Solar Power On The Road.

    I like the info. The picture is awesome as an example. The updated AS3001.2 standard came into affect in November and I think it is a good thing but still needs some work.
    You Mentioned , ( Batteries must also be vented to the atmosphere ). I think it is not applicable to Lithium Battery’s. AS3001.2 Page 79.

    One thing that is a point of contention and is not (In my opinion) Stated clearly enough in the updated Standard is the definition of
    Habitable ZONE .

    AS3001.2 States in 5.4.12.2 Page 79
    Lithium ion batteries shall –
    (b) Not enter the habitable area of the structure

    But we can sleep on top of them ?. Try to get this passed on inspection with an off grid house and see what the inspector says ? . I don’t think it would get passed.

    In the Caravan industry it is the big talk . Also non compliant battery’s.
    They need to comply to IEC62619 under AS3001.2 but the greater number do not . Time will tell how this all works out . Keep up the good work .

    • Anthony Bennett says

      I’m sure one of the videos links explains the sleeping on batteries with venting to atmosphere thing…

  3. I would recommend information available from PowerPaul wholeheartedly. He has admitted in posts he has experience with 12v system design but can’t give detailed advice on them to every customer as there just isn’t enough time in the day.

    At least he doesn’t copy pasts articles with some chat gp and opinion fillers on his page and claim it as his own.

    His write ups and learning experience in battery building has all been documented in great detail over the last 3 years if you visit his FB page.

    His batteries may look like many diy YouTube how to build your first lithium battery guides, but in fact they’re quite innovative, with custom made 3d printed parts built into a commonly available casing, they’re anything but generic inside the box.

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