Every day, I find that more and more van dwellers are choosing to stay connected while on the road. Many are using their mobile devices as GPSs and their laptops to work. However, this all requires electricity, but where exactly do you find a reliable power source on the road?
Plain and simple: solar panels.
A common problem that people experience is that they buy a bulky solar panel that, energy-wise, just doesn’t cut it for their needs. Think of buying a 30lb solar panel, except that it can only charge your phone. Luckily, there are some very lightweight and powerful solar panels that I can recommend. My favorite is the Renogy 100W Solar Panel, available on Amazon.com. This is the solar panel that I’ve been using on my van for a few months and I completely adore it.
I really like that this solar panel was easy to install. Truth be told, this was my first solar panel, and after hearing horror stories about people’s solar panels flying off their roofs, I wasn’t taking any chances. The sturdiness of this solar panel is a definite plus.
Features to look for in van solar panels
- Compact size
- Easy installation
How much solar do I need for my van?
Your solar requirements will depend on your energy usage and consumption, but I’ll give you a pretty good idea of how to calculate it.
For now, let’s work towards understanding how solar panels work. Solar panels affect how long it takes your battery to charge. A stronger solar panel will charge your battery faster, so you’ll get more return for your energy needs.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that you have a fridge in your van. These usually consume a lot of energy. Therefore, you need a solar panel that is strong enough to sustain this. Assuming everything is working fine, if every time you plug in your fridge, your battery runs out, you have one of two problems. Either your battery doesn’t have enough capacity or you need a stronger solar panel with more wattage.
You want to avoid your battery running out at all costs – that’s how the food in your hypothetical fridge goes bad. Therefore, you need to invest in a solar setup that can power all of your electronics.
To give you a general idea, a single, 100-watt solar panel can power several small devices at a time. This includes phones, lamps, laptops, and hotspots. I recommend a solar setup of at least 200-watts for more van dwellers with a simple setup, just to be safe. This may be enough for you, but it never hurts to make sure.
Here’s how to calculate how much solar you’ll need:
- Collect every electronic appliance that you plan on using in your vehicle.
- Find the wattage of each appliance (usually found on a sticker, put there by the manufacturer).
- For each item, write this number on a piece of paper.
- Once you’re done, add up all the numbers.
This will give you a pretty good idea of how much wattage you’ll need for your vehicle.
Are solar panels worth it for a van?
Whether you’re in the United States, or on the coast of Africa, solar panels are one of the most amazing things that you can get for your vehicle. Personally, I’ve found that it opens up a lot of opportunities.
I can work in my car. With an electric stove, I can cook food without having to open all my windows (compared to propane stoves which release toxic fumes).
The main reason that I was interested in buying a solar panel for my van was that I wanted to charge my laptop and phone. I didn’t need a super big setup, just big enough to charge my electronics. Not only did this make work a whole lot more pleasant (I didn’t have to worry about my laptop dying), but it also provided me with peace of mind.
If I’m hiking and my phone dies — no worries. I have somewhere to charge it when I get back to my van. I don’t have to drive over to a random Starbucks or Mcdonald’s to get find an outlet in some nook or cranny.
And also, — I’ll be honest — it’s slightly terrifying to be stuck in a place that you don’t know without power. With solar panels, I can, at the very least, ensure that my phone never runs out of battery.
So yes, solar panels can be worth it.
Why I picked the Renogy 100W Solar Panel
I picked this solar panel because it was powerful enough to charge my phone and laptop at the same time without adding too much weight. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t need too much power, but I did want enough to power the basics (and a dometic fridge, if I got one in the future).
I know that some van dwellers eventually do get problems with their solar panels. They either don’t charge as efficiently as they once did or they just crack, but I can attest to the durability of this solar panel.
A few weeks ago, I made the mistake of parking under a pretty big tree and some branches hit it pretty hard. I checked to see if it had any damage had been done, but the solar panels held up quite well.
Something to note is that the installation was also pretty easy. I don’t really like installing things if it takes me more than half an hour, but attaching these solar panels actually didn’t take too long.
Like I mentioned earlier, I was also looking for a solar panel that seemed pretty secure. I love flexible solar panels, but they look like a piece of paper that could fly off your roof at any second. Hence, I went with this one.
It had a lot of positive reviews on Amazon, so I felt comfortable buying it online.
- It hasn’t broken down after taking a beating from a rouge branch.
- I didn’t have to struggle with installing this panel.
- All the power I need to energize my small electronics.
- Hasn’t flown off my roof.
- It’s a bit bulky.
Here are a few other solar panels to consider
I’ll be honest, I haven’t tried these solar panels before, but I was considering them before I bought my current one. I did my research and they all had amazing reviews and features. In case you’re interested, here they are:
I think these would all be pretty great options, depending on your needs.
There’s a lot of great solar panels to choose from, but not all of them will fit your needs. Therefore, it’s important to do your research.
If you only want to charge a small device, like your phone, I’d recommend a portable solar panel that fits in your backpack. It’s way cheaper, and that way, you can take it everywhere, even hiking. If you’d like to power your laptop, lights, or even fridge, I’d recommend a roof-top solar panel that’s at least 200 watts with a powerful battery to back it up.
The Renology 100W Solar Panel has served me fairly well over the past few months.
If you’re looking for good quality van-tested gear, I have other pages like this one recommending my favorite camper mattresses, batteries, and accessories on the recommended gear page of this site. It’s all gear that I’ve used myself and love.
NOTE: If you're looking to purchase a new tiny home, but aren't sure if it's right for you, be sure to check out Escape Campervans. They allow you to rent unique vans and RVs all around the US. Book today!