Camping is a great way to get away from it all, reconnect with nature, and breathe some fresh air. After all, there's nothing like the great outdoors! That being said, as much as we'd like to completely disconnect from the real world, it's not always possible to go completely power-free when camping.
In today's modern, digitally-driven world we rely heavily on electrically-powered devices for various reasons. Whether you have to stay connected with emails and voicemails for work, want to keep your phone charged in case of emergencies, or you're planning on off-grid camping and require a power source to keep your tent lit; a solar power system can help.
When camping, paying for nightly electrical connections can get pretty pricey. Combine this with the fact that people are becoming more concerned about their use of fossil fuels and the impact they have on the environment: solar power just makes sense.
Solar panels convert the sun's energy into electricity that can be stored in a battery and released when we turn on an appliance or plug in a device to charge. Nowadays, solar panels are a popular choice among seasoned campers and caravanners looking to switch to more sustainable energy sources.
In this article, we'll cover everything you need to know about choosing the right size solar panel for your next camping adventure. Let's get started!
Benefits of Solar Panels for Camping
Solar panels are a fantastic way to live off the grid when camping, whether in a tent, a caravan, or an RV. By allowing you to generate your own power using the sun's rays, you can save on costs while opting for an environmentally friendly solution. The benefits of solar panels include:
1. Clean power
With solar energy, you can rest assured that there are no emissions being released into the planet's atmosphere. This means that the power you're using is clean and sustainable.
2. It's free!
Okay, you'll have to make an initial investment to buy your solar panels, but after the upfront cost is out of the way, generating solar power is completely free!
3. They're quiet
Solar panels generate energy without making a racket, so you can sleep soundly in your tent the whole night through.
4. They require minimal maintenance
Portable solar panel systems are super easy to maintain. There are no moving parts involved, so all you need to do is give them a wipe now and again, particularly if the weather has taken a turn for the worse. Look after them and they'll look after you!
5. More freedom
With a solar power system, you're not tied to any particular campsite or location with a mains power source. This means you can enjoy the freedom to camp anywhere you want! Okay, anywhere it's legal to camp...
What does a basic solar panel setup require?
If you're looking to invest in a solar camping kit, there are a few things you'll need to put on your shopping list.
1. Solar panel
First things first, you'll need to choose which type of solar panel you want to go with. There are two main types of panels:
- Crystalline: The most common type of solar panel, they're available as monocrystalline (13%) and polycrystalline (16%) models. Monocrystalline panels are typically more efficient at converting sunlight into energy but are also more expensive.
- Amorphous silicon (thin-film panels): These are cheaper and less efficient than crystalline models, and require more space to produce the same amount of energy. They are, however, flexible and foldable which means they're easier to take on camping adventures. This type of solar panel is more tolerant of shade and less affected by higher temperatures.
Solar Panel Comparison Table
When it comes to efficiency, crystalline (monocrystalline in particular) offer the best efficiency of the two types. That being said, they're also more fragile and more susceptible to weather conditions. They also require a clean, unobstructed surface to operate best, which can prove challenging to achieve when they're outside in the great outdoors or installed on the roof of a camper.
On the other hand, thin-film panels are less vulnerable to high temperatures so their efficiency is less affected by the weather. Moreover, they're more compact so they can be folded and stored for enhanced portability, making them the best choice for hiking, outdoor camping, and backpacking trips. Ultimately, it's up to you to consider which of the two types of solar panel suits your needs and your budget.
It's also worth noting that a monocrystalline panel with a 100-watt rating will likely be smaller than a polycrystalline one with that same 100-watt rating. For this reason, monocrystalline solar power panels are easier to carry and better for packing away in the car for camping trips. However, many solar panels are placed in standard-size frames, so be sure to compare the overall size before buying.
Luckily, choosing a battery for camping is a lot less confusing than choosing a solar panel! The batteries store the power being produced by your solar panels. Deep cycle batteries are highly recommended as they can be discharged over and over again without their efficiency rating being disrupted.
When looking at batteries, you should also consider how much they weigh as you'll be traveling with them. Lithium batteries are much lighter than lead-acid batteries, so these are better suited to camping, hiking, and backpacking where you'll be carrying the weight. It's important to be realistic about how much wattage you need from your batteries to ensure you don't go over or under your estimate.
To convert the direct current (DC) power into alternating current (AC) power that can charge all your devices, you'll need an inverter. Make sure you choose one that'll power your devices to an acceptable level.
4. Solar regulator
This piece of equipment will help to prevent your battery from overcharging.
How do you use solar panels when camping?
When camping, the best method for using solar panels is to use roll-up solar blankets that you can place anywhere to absorb the most sunlight. The positioning of the solar panels is a key element to consider when camping, as this will determine that they function with the best efficiency levels.
It's important to note that even the slightest inclination can affect the solar panel's energy output, so be sure to check on them regularly and remove any dust that accumulates on the surface. You can easily remove dust with a non-abrasive cloth that won't damage them.
Choosing the Right Solar Panel for Camping
Are you asking yourself "what size solar panels do I need for camping?"
Choosing the right camping solar panels can be challenging. With so many options out, how do you know which solar panels are right for you?
If you select a solar panel with too low of a wattage output you might find you run out of power before you'd expected. In the same way, you might over-estimate your needs and spend a fortune on a new solar power system only to find you won't need to use its full capacity.
If you're not sure where to start, you're in the right place. In the next part of the article, we'll consider the main considerations when it comes to choosing solar panels to use when camping. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you'll be able to choose the right portable solar panels to suit your need and harness all that wonderful solar power energy!
First things first, let's get familiar with some measurements for discussing solar power.
There are some key measurements you should understand before beginning your search for the perfect solar panels. These will help you to make vital calculations regarding solar panel size and battery requirements.
- Watts: Watts refers to the amount of power the solar panels are producing. It's important to note that the total wattage of the panel can only be achieved in perfect location and weather conditions, which will rarely happen. Watts = Volts x Amps.
- Volts: The electricity pressure the solar panel produces. The higher the voltage level, the more electrical current can flow through the circuit.
- Amps: The actual electricity amount flowing through the solar panels and cables. This depends on the amount of sun the panels receive and whether the battery is large, small, full, or empty.
- Amp-Hour (Ah): The steady flow of amps per hour.
If you're in the market for a solar panel, then one of the first things to think about is power.
How much power will you require to charge all your devices?
Knowing the amount of necessary solar power will help you to choose the right size portable solar power system to use, and prevent you from buying one that doesn't provide enough to last your trip.
When purchasing a battery for your solar panels you should look at its watt-hour storage. Choosing a battery with a higher energy storage potential means you can use the battery to charge more devices. A 400 watt-hours battery will allow you to charge multiple devices several times.
Luckily, it's easy to calculate how much power you'll need by adding together the power draws on all of your devices. These are typically shown on the label, or if not, you can almost always find them by searching for the device online.
To figure out which is the best solar system size for your needs, it's best to compare all the different kinds of solar panels by their wattage or power rating.
If, like us, you've forgotten most of your high school physics knowledge - here's a quick reminder about how to calculate watts (the basic unit of power that measures how much electricity your solar panel can provide):
Watts = Volts x Amps
So, before you buy it's important to consider what size camping solar panel will suit your needs. Think about the appliances and devices you plan on taking with you that'll need power. We'll go into further detail about appliances and their power consumption later in this article.
Tip: Always overestimate your power requirements by at least 20% to ensure you definitely have enough solar power per day to charge all your important devices, and you're not left without power to charge something essential. It's always better to have too much solar energy than too little!
2. Which devices do you want to charge?
Consider which devices you want to take with you and use on your camping trip and how many watts or volts are required to charge them. Common devices include LED lights, mobile phones, tablets, laptops, 12-volt fans, etc.
If you're camping with kids, you might consider bringing along a TV for keeping them entertained on days where the weather isn't so great, or you might need to power a fridge if you're camping in an RV.
Generally, the larger the electronics and the more of them you bring, the higher wattage you'll need.
A cell phone battery, for example, can be charged for the weekend with a 5-watt solar panel. However, a larger device like a 12-volt compressor refrigerator will require much more power and take up most of the power draw to keep it running.
Some other common equipments that can be powered by solar panels include camping lights, air compressors, and inverters responsible for charging 12v appliances like TVs and laptops. LED lights are more energy-efficient than fluorescent or halogen lights, as they draw less energy due to their light patterns being more focused.
Avoid taking energy-consuming heating appliances such as hairdryers or stylers and powering them from your inverter. These will quickly use all of the energy your solar panels have been working all day to store!
Calculating power usage by device
It's not difficult to figure out the power usage required by each device you bring. The chart below looks at the most common devices and how much power they require to charge.
Once you know which devices and appliances you want to run with your solar panels, and whether you'll do so during the day or night or both, there are two more things to calculate:
- Total daily amp-hours (Ah). Ah = Amps x No. hours use. This is used to calculate the size of your solar panels.
- The total night time only use, as this will help you to size your battery.
Let's look at an example.
Take a 16W light that draws a current of 16/12. The first calculation we need to do is 16/12 = 1.33A. Let's consider that we turn it on for three hours each day. The next calculation we have to do is 1.33A x 3h = 4Ah. Therefore, we need 4Ah from the battery to power that one light.
If we take another example of a 45W 12V TV and charge it for the same number of hours, we'll need a different power output. In this case, we can consider: 3h x 12V / 45W = 11.25Ah per day from your batteries.
To understand the amp hours you need for all your devices, you should complete this calculation for each individual device.
How big of a solar panel do I need to run a refrigerator?
It all depends on the size of the fridge you want to power, how long you're going to stay away from other power sources, and the size of your battery. You can follow the same calculation mentioned above to figure this out.
Tip: If you're RV camping and need to power a fridge, it's a good idea to use the solar energy panel to charge the battery, as opposed to charging directly from the solar panels. This is because the voltage can drop quickly due to weather conditions like clouds. Instead, using the battery charged by your solar devices, your fridge will stay up and running even if the voltage output drops. If you need to run a camping fridge, a popular size for charging batteries is a 120-160 watt solar panel.
3. Location, weather, and temperature
When it comes to choosing the right solar panel for camping, location is a key factor you'll need to take into consideration. By location, we mean where you plan to be using your solar panels and the weather and temperature conditions that affect them.
Where should I put my solar panel?
Ideally, your solar panel should be placed under direct sunlight to perform at its best. This means that it should be placed perpendicular to the sun to get the best of the sun's rays. It goes without saying that solar panels need direct sunlight to function properly. In this way, clouds, shade, and hours of direct sun can impact the amount of UV light you get on your panels.
Moreover, the angle at which you set up your panels to face the sun also matters. If you're on a family camping trip, it's unlikely that you're going to get up every 20 minutes to readjust your solar panels to the best angle for the sunlight to hit them. This means that your solar panels will rarely be producing full power, so this is something to consider when choosing which solar system to invest in.
What is the best time of day to use my solar panel?
Your panels will provide the most energy at peak sunlight hours. For best results, this requires there to be no cloud cover and the panels to be placed under direct sunlight during the middle of the day. After the peak sunlight period, they'll continue to provide power, albeit at a reduced rate. They won't provide power before dawn or after dusk, however, you can still use the stored power from the battery to charge devices during these hours.
Temperature also affects the voltage output of your solar panels. As the temperature increases, the voltage output will drop. So most 12 volt solar systems will actually start at around 17-21 volts. In higher temperatures like 40 degrees, you'll often see the voltage drop by as much as two or three volts! It's important to take this into account, as temperature could affect your solar panel's ability to power your battery.
As much as you might wish it were possible to get the best quality solar panels at the cheapest price, it's not always that simple. You should consider your budget when in the market for solar panels. There are plenty of cheap deals out there that simply won't provide the quality and reliability that you require from a camping solar system.
If you've had a tough year and your budget is a bit tight then buying the best quality panel can seem like a pipe dream. If you have a low budget but do have some time on your hands, it might be a good idea to save up for a bit longer and invest in a higher quality solar panel. You can also look into stores that allow you to pay in installments if you'd rather spread your payments out than pay in one lump sum.
As always, it's important to look carefully at reviews to get a good understanding of particular solar panels' performance from people who have experience using them. Be sure to focus on their performance, rather than get hung up on fancy features like digital displays and wireless connectivity. At the end of the day, you want your solar panels to produce the power needed for you to power your devices. Keep in mind that it's always better to go for a higher amp output than you technically need to ensure you have more than enough power to last.
If, however, you do have a roomier budget to work with you might want to consider:
- The Physical dimensions and weight of the solar panel
- Whether it features a multi-stage charge controller or a simple voltage regulator?
- Does it come with a protective bag? Is it simply a thin dust cover or a more robust and rigid case?
- Are heavy duty cables included that will help to reduce potential drops in voltage? Typically, the thicker the cable the better the performance will be.
1. What size solar panels do I need to charge a 12v battery?
If, for instance, you have to replace 100A/h of charge to your batteries per day, and your location receives 8 sunlight hours, you can calculate:
100AH x 12V = 1200WH
1200WH / 8H = 150 watt solar panels.
As previously mentioned, keep in mind that it's always better to increase the requirements by 20% to ensure you have power in an emergency.
2. What size solar panel do I need to charge a 100ah battery?
If you charge your battery at 12 volts and 20 amps, it'll take five hours to charge a 100 amp/hour battery. Then, we can use the equation:
12 volts x 20 amps = 240 watts
So, you'll require a 240 watts solar panel to charge a 100Ah battery. However, as mentioned it's always best to overrate the number of watts you need.
3. How do I know what size solar battery I need?
After you've answered the question "what size panels do I need?" you'll have to consider the size of the solar battery. The wattage of your solar power panels determines the rate that you can charge your solar system.
Let's imagine that you buy a solar system batter that's 12 volts and has 100 amp-hours of storage capacity. You can find out how much energy it'll store and provide by calculating watt-hours. To do this follow this equation: Volts x amp hours / 100. In this case, it would be 12(v) x 100 (Ah) / 100 = 12 watt-hours.
4. Do I need a regulator or charge controller?
Often, larger solar panels can cause problems by overcharging your battery unless you add a regulator into the solar panel system circuit. This will restrict the current to an appropriate level that won't over-charge your battery.
If you want to know whether you require a regulator simply take the battery rating in amp-hours (Ah) and divide that number by ten. If the wattage is lower than this figure then you typically won't require a regulator. Eg. 90Ah / 10 = 9W. Therefore you won't require a regulator for a 9W or less solar panel.
Usually, a charge controller will include a regulator and diodes to protect your battery. However, these terms are not always defined by producers in the same way, so be sure to check what's included in a kit before making a purchase commitment.