Thinking about taking some trips to remote locations but still need to keep your phone charged and beers cool? A campervan solar panel could be the solution you’ve been looking for.
Here we will look at the different types of solar panels available and which ones might be right for you and your Transporter campervan.
Not got time to read the entire article? Here’s a quick rundown of the solar panels we considered below.
Photonic Universe 120W rigid Most liked on forums
Why solar panels?
Breaks at caravan/campsites can be great, but many of us would like to take longer breaks in remote, wilderness areas without compromising on amenities like fridges, heaters or charging our electronic devices all of which would normally keep you tied to an electric hook-up. Installing motorhome solar panels frees you – you can travel anywhere and still enjoy your amenities!
They are a sustainable source of energy, which can also save you money in the long term on electricity costs while making sure that you can enjoy your breaks knowing that you’re minimising your contribution to climate change.
What devices can a solar panel power?
Whatever you want – as long as you generate enough power!
Generally speaking, you can power any electrical device in your VW Transporter. Common ones include a fridge, a waterpump, lightbulbs and charging points (especially handy for any digital nomads). You can also keep your main battery topped up during winter.
Selecting the right option for you, your van, and (of course) your budget, can be tricky – let’s take a look at which size and type of panel might be right for you.
Types of campervan solar panel
To fold or not to fold…
The first distinction is between folding, rigid and semi-flexible panels.
Folding panels are portable – as the name indicates, they fold up and can be taken out and set up when you stop. They allow an ease of use, allowing you an optimised position into the sun, and also allow you to park in the shade while the panels sit in the sun (although this is perhaps less of a concern in the UK!). There are a few cons – they will take up space in the transporter and can’t be left unattended.
Rigid panels have been fairly popular in the past – they are mounted on the roof of campervans and their installation allows for air circulation underneath. They can be ‘tilt mounted’ so you can slightly angle them to face the sun.
Semi-flexible panels (sometimes referred to as flexible solar panels for campervans) seem to be the top choice among VW Transporter enthusiasts at the moment. They can simply be fixed to the roof with suitable adhesive and some clever souls are able to self-install with minimal drilling! However, bonding semi-flex panels onto the roof does mean that cool air cannot flow underneath, impacting efficiency. They also can’t be tilted or moved to face the sun, so you have to park in direct sunlight to get the best out of them.
Solar panels come in three main types:
- Monocrystalline – these are the smallest and therefore you can get the most wattage out of your roof space.
- Polycrystalline – these panels are the cheapest option, but take up more space per watt generated.
- Amorphous – these take up the most space per watt and are also the most expensive option, but (critically for those of us living in Scotland and probably the UK generally!) these panels perform well in cloudy weather/partial shade.
What size of panel should I get?
Your choice is going to be limited by two things – the space you have available (e.g. the size of your roof) and how much power you need.
You can work out how much power you use by monitoring how quickly your existing leisure battery runs down (more accurate) or by estimating your projected usage by adding up the power consumption of your electrical devices. This can be a bit tricky, as for example a fridge will go on and off during the day. Once you have a total wattage, you can then narrow down the panels and look at the physical size appropriate for your space. Each solar panel will come with a ‘STC’ – this is a measure of how much power it can use under standard test conditions. Of course, you won’t be using your solar panels in a lab environment so the STC figure should just be used to help you refine your search rather than as an absolute guide.
As a general rule of thumb, if you are only looking to run a couple of lights and charging points and keep your main battery topped up, less than 100 watts will suffice. If you are looking to run fridges/heaters etc then you will need to look at panels above 100 watts, or installing multiple panels.
Best campervan solar panels
The forum Pick – Photonic Universe 120W rigid
Photonic Universe is a brand that gets great feedback on the VW Transporter forums. One satisfied customer wrote “Always use them on my hire campervans – great bit of kit”, and several posters on the TW T5 T6 forum mentioned that the company will advise you what other kit you need to get the system set up.
At £164.99, it is a mid-range option and comes with a 1 year warranty on materials. The additional manufacturer warranty comes with a guarantee that the solar cells will keep 90% of their function over 10 years, and 80% over 25 years. As a rigid panel, it is a bit heavier at 8.3kg and measures 107x67x3.5cm.
Premium Price – Solara M525M35 120W semi-flexible
This premium product comes in at £744.13 on Barden UK. It comes with a 5 year warranty, which is a bit longer than the Renology budget option. Weighing 4.4kg and measuring 125x55x0.4cm it is suitable for roof mounting. It certainly has a premium price tag, and makes a big deal about being German manufactured, but we found it difficult to find stockists or any independent reviews from customers.
Budget Option – Renology 100W semi-flexible
This semi-flex panel bends in a 248 degree arc and can be glued onto the top of your van. It measures 148x66x0.2cm Weighing only 1.27kg, it is suitable for pop top campervans and comes with a 5 year warranty on materials and a 25 year warranty on solar output – one of the longest available. It gets 4.5 out of 5 stars on Amazon and costs £125.99.
The ‘Big Daddy’ – Photonic Universe 300W or 200W solar panel for campervans
A rigid panel with high wattage, the Photonic Universe panel is suitable for roof mounting, but will definitely need a bit of drilling! It weighs 15kg and is 164x99x3.5cm. It comes in at £249.99 on Amazon (at the time of writing). A 200w solar panel is also available at £179.99.
Wildcard – Kingsolar 100W Semi-flexible
At £289.99, you would expect a decent product, but several users report that the panels fail shortly after installation. Advertised at 2kg and 107x55x3cm, it is likely that the measurements are inaccurate and we would advise buying with caution.
Solar panel kits – everything you need?
Buying a kit can take a lot of the legwork out of choosing the ancillaries for your campervan solar panel set up. A kit will usually include your panel, a connector, cabling, a cable entry gland and a bonding agent.
Many of the kits contain a basic PWM charger – upgrading to a MPPT charger with display will be more expensive, but can add around 5-15% to the performance of your chosen panel, which can make a significant difference to bigger set-ups.
You might also need extra cables, or a better adhesive so researching and buying separately might work out better if you are looking for a bespoke set up that will be perfect for your van.
Needless to say, you’ll need some toolbox staples if you are going to self-install such as a multimeter, a drill, low adhesive tape and wire crimpers to name but a few…
Fitting a solar panel to a campervan
With a bit of knowledge and a few tools, you can install solar panels yourself – there are a few guides available on YouTube.
We’ve seen a few people mention that drilling through the roof might be a better option than having cables running through the fabric of a pop top or down the back of the van – not least that this may invalidate any water ingress warranty you have!
However, if you don’t have a lot of time or space to work in or don’t fancy splashing out on lots of tools for a one-off project, arranging for professional installation might be your best bet. How much that will cost will depend entirely on your campervan, the solar panels, and the going rate in your local area.
On the forums, we’ve seen prices starting from £260 for an independent installer doing a special offer (including the campervan solar panel) right the way through to £1,200 at a campervan dealership. You should get a few quotes to make sure you are getting the best price.
There’s a solar panel out there for everyone – but most VW Transporter owners will likely prefer to have the convenience of a roof mounted permanent fixture above 100W like the Photonic Universe 200W option.
If you are on a tight budget, the Renology 100W semi flexible might be a better pick, and might be easier to have a go at installing yourself. Have a think about the size of your roof and how many electrical appliances you are going to use before making a final decision.
If you liked this article, you might also like https://www.camperbrain.com/campervan-toilets/campervan-toilet-solutions-chemical-cassette-composting-and-more/ where we review another necessity – the best campervan toilet solutions.