How to Install Solar Panels on RV To Increase Resale Value

Whether you’re interested in fitting solar panels on your RV so that you can recharge without using gas or so that you can go fully off the grid, putting new panels on your recreational vehicle is a great way to increase your vehicle’s resale value.

Most RV owners don’t have the slightest idea about how to install solar panels on an RV, however. The prospect of electrical work can be frightening, and the technical skills involved during installation may seem unduly complicated.

As it turns out, it isn’t very difficult to increase your RV’s value by installing solar panels. In this article, you’ll learn all about how to install solar panels on your RV and learn a bit about the implications of adding solar panels for your RV’s resale value.

Preparing To Solarize Your RV

RV manufacturers love to pack devices and features into their RVs, but seldom is fuel economy or energy efficiency a major concern. As a result, many RVs burn through their batteries and require the engine to be running to be fully functional.

The very first step in the solarization process is to determine how much space your RV has for solar panels. This step won’t cost you anything except your time. Grab a tape measure, a pencil, and a piece of paper.

Take a look on top of your RV and use a tape measure to find the dimensions of areas which are not obstructed by vents or other elements of the RV.

In particular, you should try to find the largest area where the small shadows cast by other features on the roof will not land on a solar panel.

Areas that are further to the rear of the RV are preferable to those in the front because any panels you install on the front will be subject to harsher aerodynamic forces while you are driving on the highway.

Because of the way roof features on many RVs are configured, you will probably find that there is at least one or two unobstructed areas which are at least 1-2 feet wide and 3-4 feet long. Mark these down on your piece of paper.

The space you have available determines the number and size of the solar panels that you’ll be fitting. More space doesn’t necessarily mean that you will need more panels.

As far as the wiring goes, you’ll have an easier time installing one large panel -- if you have space for it -- than several smaller panels.

At this point, you should also consider that each solar panel you add will make your gas mileage slightly worse because it will add weight to the vehicle. You may be tempted to add a handful, and doing so might be the right decision -- but it will have a financial cost too, so be mindful.

Some camping trailers may also work for installing solar panels, but it varies from model to model.

Gather Materials

You’ll need to purchase solar panels of the correct size for your RV’s roof before moving on. As a rule of thumb, a three-panel system which includes an inverter, wiring, and batteries costs around $1500.

Aside from the panels themselves, you’ll need the following tools before you get started:

●   Charge controller (if not included)

●   Power inverter (if not included)

●   Solar panel mounting bracket (if not included)

●   Screws (if not included)

●   Additional battery (optional)

●   Plywood

●   Power drill with metal-ready bit

●   Silicone caulk

●   Panel mounting brackets

●   Self-sealing coated bolts

●   At least 4 AWG wires (if not included)

Thankfully, aside from the solar panels, batteries, and inverters, the other materials you need aren’t very expensive. You should expect to pay less than $100 for the tools and infrastructure materials that you’ll need for the next steps, assuming you already have a mounting bracket.

On the off chance your panels weren’t sold with a mounting bracket, you’ll need to purchase one. The purpose of the mounting bracket is to keep the solar panels firmly attached to your RV’s roof while you’re driving, so you don’t want to skimp.

Many mounting brackets run for around $200.

Installing Your Panels

Now that you’ve purchased the panels, gathered the materials, and selected the sites where you’ll install the solar panels, it’s time to start. You should probably have someone to help you to make the process easier, but you can work alone if you prefer.

First, make sure your RV is parked somewhere safe where nobody will need it to be moved. Take note of the dimensions of the solar panels which you purchased. Then, climb back up top with your tape measure and your pencils.

Using the tape measure, carefully identify the installation sites of each of your panels and mark the four corners with a pencil. Bring the mounting bracket up on the roof and position it such that its four corners are directly over your pencil marks.

Charge your power drill and get ready to fit the mounting bracket.

Fitting the Bracket

Now comes the fun part. Check the inside of the RV to make sure that the areas you selected are not obstructed on the interior by any light fixtures or other features. If they are, pick another site.

Grab your drill, ensure that you have a metal-capable bit that’s the same size as the screw holes in the mounting bracket, and drill three holes through the roof of the RV. Repeat the process for each of the legs for each corner of the mounting bracket.

 

Next, position the mounting bracket’s feet over their corresponding holes and drive in three screws so that they poke all of the way through the ceiling of the RV. Apply a thin layer of caulk to prevent any gaps between the roof and the interior.

Then, cut your plywood into several small rectangular pieces and drill holes in them that correspond to the holes in the ceiling.

Next, inside the RV, place the plywood piece such that the screws fit through the holes you drilled. Press the plywood all the way to the ceiling and then attach the bolts to the bottoms of the screws that are sticking through. Tighten the bolts until you can’t make them turn any more.

It’s acceptable for the bolts to cut into the plywood slightly. But, it isn’t acceptable for your roof to leak, so apply another layer of caulk to the edge of the bolt just in case.

The idea behind the plywood is that it will prevent the bolts to dig into the roof of your RV, which will cause it damage over time and eventually cause leaks as a result of the metal’s warming and cooling cycles. When the plywood is compacted by the bolt, it’ll crush gracefully.

You’ll need to repeat this process for each solar panel you want to install.

Fitting the Panels And Wiring

Once your mounting brackets are installed, you can move on to connecting the solar panels themselves. Seat each panel into its mounting bracket and attach it by screwing in the panel on all four corners. The panel shouldn’t have any motion to it when you apply mechanical force.

Note where on each panel the wiring attaches and ensure that if you are installing multiple panels, they are oriented such that the wiring attachment points are in the same direction.

Next, you’ll need to drill a hole for the wires on the exterior to pass through the roof of the RV so that they can connect to the inverter and the battery. This hole will need to be a bit larger than the screw holes which you made earlier, and its placement may be more difficult.

The ideal location for the wiring hole is directly beneath one of your solar panels. But, this may mean the wire has a long distance to go on the interior before it reaches the inverter.

Wiring The RV

If you plan on installing more than one panel, only drill one hole for wires to pass through to minimize the potential locations for leaking. Be sure to apply caulking liberally to ensure that there isn’t any leaking from the wiring hole’s grommet.

Drill the hole, fit a grommet to protect the wiring and caulk the edges, then connect the wire from the panel and slip it through the hole. Avoid securing the wire to anything until you’re finished with the job, as you may need to move it within the RV quite a bit.

Go back inside the RV, and snake the wire towards the inverter, which should be placed near the front of the vehicle. You may want to make a mount for the inverter so that it doesn’t bounce around. The same goes for the charge meter.

Connect the wire to the inverter’s voltage inflow contact. Next, connect the inverter’s meter contact to your charge meter. Then, connect the inverter’s voltage outflow contact to the splice on your batteries. A small amount of sparking is normal when you connect to the battery.

If you’re only using one battery and one solar panel, that’s all the hooking up you’ll need to do. You should see your inverter and charge meter light up if you’re in the sun and you’ve hooked everything up correctly.

If you removed the battery’s connection to your RV’s power bank -- which you should have in the first step before starting work -- you should now reconnect it.

Be aware that you should only attach the battery to the power bank at the same contact point as you did before installing the solar panels. If you attach the wrong wire to the contact, it may be dangerous for you.

Checking The Current

Assuming you have the solar panel connected to the inverter and the battery, you should be able to see the voltage flowing via the charge meter immediately, provided that it is sunny outside.

The principal challenge during this step is to ensure that the solar panel you purchased is not defective. To accomplish this, check the rated voltage inflows registered on the charge meter when the solar panels are fully exposed to the sun at noon on a clear day.

You should see the voltage inflow at 95-100% of the rating of your solar panels. If the voltage inflow is too low, you may have an exposed wire, defective panel, or a shadow blocking the light before it can reach the panel.

If the voltage inflow is lower than 50% of the panel’s rated capacity, the chances are good that you have a defective solar panel. Request a new one from the manufacturer and get ready to unscrew the one you have and package it for return.

If the voltage inflow is too high, you probably have a defective meter or inverter. Disconnect your panels from the battery contact immediately to prevent damage to any electrical components.

Assuming everything is working, you’re almost ready to hit the road.

Checking Your Workmanship

The last step before you’re ready to ride will be to check for leaks. Perform a basic test by laying some $5 paper towels on the floor of the interior of the RV and then pouring a bucket of water onto the roof, underneath the solar panels.

You could even pour water directly onto the mounting bracket’s feet or onto the hole for wires to pass through. The most important thing is that you check the inside of the RV for any wetness on the ceiling or the floor after your test.

It may take you a while to test all of the feet of all of the mounting brackets. If you do find a leak, don’t be afraid -- you probably just need to apply more caulk to both sides of the leaking point.

If that still doesn’t work, you can unscrew the plywood from inside and replace it with a smaller block which can sit fully flush against the roof. Sometimes a smaller plywood piece will do the trick because a larger one is slightly uneven, leaving room for liquid to flow in. 

Tips and Tricks

There are a few tips and tricks that you’ll need to know to get the most out of your newly-installed solar panels.

The first is that you’ll need to park in a place without an obstructed view of the sky if you want your panels to charge the most efficiently.

While this seems like a no-brainer, the real takeaway here is that small shadows which you probably won’t be able to see from the ground can cause the efficiency of panels on the roof of the RV to take a huge hit.

This means that if you park in the center of a small parking lot that is surrounded by trees -- much like most campsites --  your panels may appear to have a clear view of the sun when in fact they’re being obstructed at the edges by small shadows cast from the tops of the highest leaves.

The second trick is that you can actually measure the amount of light hitting your solar panels at any given moment if you’re willing to invest a little extra money into a software-ready charge controller for your panels.

Basic charge controllers don’t include a metering kit, but having one may save you a few headaches.

A metering kit will show you real-time updates regarding the efficiency of your panels and their estimated time to fully charge the battery. You can fine-tune your parking spot by glancing at the display rather than waiting and seeing if the batteries charge.

With a basic charge controller, you can only tell when the battery is charging and how full it is, so you won’t be able to tell how rapidly it is charging in comparison to what it is capable of.

The next trick is that during installation, use caulk liberally.

While using self-sealing bolts and other innovations can help to reduce the chance of leaks stemming from the mounting bracket or the wiring hole in your RV’s roof, caulk will be pulling the majority of the weight with regards to keeping water out of the interior.

Furthermore, caulk is cheap, easy to apply, and won’t damage your solar panels or your RV’s roof in the way that adding more bolts or more complex mounting systems might.

So pick up a good caulk gun with a canister for less than $20 and you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble down the road.

Finally, you should probably test the solar panels, inverter, battery, and charge meter before installing them in the RV. Wiring up the components and making sure that everything appears to work beforehand will save you a lot of problems if you have a defective unit. 

Driving Off

Now that you’ve installed new solar panels on your RV, you’re ready to sell it at a higher value than you might otherwise.

Remember to list the modifications you’ve made on your RV’s history listing, and be sure to inform potential buyers about the systems you’ve installed and how you’ve installed them.