How many solar panels do you need in an RV or camper van conversion? Simply fill out the calculator below to find out.
This solar calculator is meant for camper vans, RV motorhomes, and small off-grid solar systems. The goal is to help you find the correct size solar panel, charge controller, inverter, and battery bank for your DIY build.
We also include links to solar wiring diagrams so you can fully connect your own system. Let’s get started!
Watt Calculator (Amps x Volts = Watts)
List Your Devices
Enter number of Watts each device uses and your estimated max hours of use per day. Click the to add a new row. Click the to delete a row. Select whether your device is DC powered or will be using an AC inverter.
Estimated Watt Hours
This is the maximum power you will expect to use on any given day. If using heaters and fans, it is helpful to do a calculation for a winter month and a summer month (including sun hours below) and use the larger of the two.
Daily Power Usage
12V Battery Size
Select whether or not you will be using a Lead-Acid (AGM) or a Lithium battery chemistry. AGM batteries wear out quickly if you use more than 50% of their charge, so they require a larger battery bank to compensate.
Solar Panel Size
Recommended Min Solar Watts
This is the fewest recommended solar power based on the daily power usage and battery size. Check out the FAQ for info on charging while driving and upgrading panels. PWM charge controllers are much cheaper but less efficient than MPPT technology, so they take more minimum solar watts to charge the batteries.
Estimated Sun Hours:
Charge Controller Size
Charge Controller Size
This is based on your solar panel wattage. It is the smallest size charge controller that you will want to use. Going smaller will be giving up power from your panels. Remember to check the requirements of your specific charge controller to make sure it will work with your panels before buying it.
Recommended Inverter Size
This is based on your battery size and is a recommendation of max discharge rate from your devices. If it is significantly lower than your needs, consider getting a larger battery bank to compensate. See the FAQ for further reading on running a larger inverter.
Solar System Results
How to use the solar calculator FAQ
- Make a list of your devices
- Enter the watts for each device
- Enter your estimated hours of use
- Select whether it is an AC or DC powered (AC uses an inverter)
- Choose which battery type you want to use
- Choose your charge controller type
- Enter your estimated sun hours (direct sunlight you expect on the panels)
How do I find the Watts of my device?
In most cases you can find the Watts listed online, in the owner’s manual, or on the product itself. In some cases, a product will list Amps and Volts instead.
If you still don’t know how to find these numbers, read our article on calculating your power usage for each electronic device for some tips and real-world examples.
What if I know my total Wh and just want to get calculations for components?
You can enter it as one component line. Type in your total Wh for “Watts” and 1 for “Hour” and the rest of the solar calculator will function as normal.
Why is my solar system so big?
You are probably still planning to use power like you would in a house. Living in a van or RV requires cutting down on unnecessary electronics as much as possible.
The size of your system is also directly related to cost. Here are some tips to cut back on electronic use.
- Aim to use as many 12v DC powered electrics as possible
- Cook efficiently – fuels like propane and butane will make your system smaller than cooking with electricity. Try to cut back on induction burners, coffee makers, crockpots and other high-energy devices
- Make sure you have the correct hours listed for your refrigerator and electronics. Your fridge will not be running 24 hours per day. In cold weather, the compressor in a fridge may only be running 2-4 hours per day, despite the fridge being on the whole time. In hot climates it may be running as many as 8-16 hours. Similar to laptops and induction burners; they are not usually running at their max rated watts.
- Look back at your components. See what is drawing the most power and look at ways to reduce or eliminate it.
How much does AC vs DC power change the numbers?
We based our calculations on a 10% efficiency loss that occurs when using an AC inverter.
What is the difference between AGM, FLA and Lithium Batteries?
There are many differences between these batteries. But the main difference (as it relates to this calculator) is the depth of discharge – or DOD.
A lithium battery can be safely discharged up to 90% without shortening its lifespan. AGM and FLA batteries should only be discharged up to 50%. The less you discharge per cycle, the longer the batteries will last.
Because of these discharge rates, you will need a larger AGM or FLA battery for your system than you would with Lithium. You can read more about batteries here.
Can I also charge batteries using my vehicle?
Yes! Absolutely, and it is recommended to supplement any solar system unless you plan on driving infrequently.
What is the difference between a PWM and MPPT charge controller?
The actionable difference lies in efficiency. A PWM controller uses less complicated and less efficient technology. With that said, for smaller 12V systems, it is often advisable to get a PWM controller and more solar panels get more bang for your buck.
We recommend reading our post on charge controllers for more information.
Can I get a bigger charge controller and add more solar panels later?
Yes, this component can benefit from upsizing if you’re not sure if you’ll need more solar or not.
With that said, it’s usually a lot of work to add more panels on the road so we like doing them all at once. Check out our article on charge controllers for more in-depth info.
What number should I use for Sun Hours?
The amount of power you get from the sun is determined by how much direct sunlight your panels get. If you are in the sun more often, then you need fewer panels to charge your batteries.
Basing your calculations at 4 sun hours is a good conservative estimate for most full time travelers varying lifestyles. If you have tilt-mounted panels or are mostly living in a sunny place like Arizona, then you might need less solar watts because you’ll be getting 5-8 hours of direct sunlight.
You are welcome to play around with this number, and even combine it with your winter/summer total watts to see what a comfortable system size is for you.
Do I need an inverter?
No! If you don’t have any household (AC) electronics you do not need an inverter, saving some money and efficiency.
How much lower than the recommended inverter size should I go?
As a general rule, smaller inverters are more efficient. If the biggest item you will be running is a 150W laptop, then getting a 1000W inverter is a waste of money and efficiency.
Go with the smallest inverter that you will need with a bit of wiggle room. In this example, a 200W or 300W inverter would be fine for a 150W laptop.
Why is my inverter sized so small? I see other people recommend 1000W+ inverters all the time with a small battery bank.
Battery life is affected by how quickly you are using power. This is relative to how much total capacity the battery has, so larger batteries can discharge more quickly (hence a larger inverter).
If you occasionally are using more power – such as a hair drier for a few minutes once a week – then you won’t be doing too much damage to your batteries. But if you’re twice daily using an 1800W induction burner, you’ll want a large battery bank to handle the heavy loads or else will be replacing your expensive batteries quickly.
Read our article on inverters for more information. As a side note, the discharge capabilities of lithium batteries are significantly better than those of AGM or FLA.
Why didn’t you list ALL of the components I need? Wires, fuses, ect.
Your wire size is going to vary greatly depending on how far you are running them. Read our wiring guides for more details on how to size your specific system.
It is difficult to predict how much wiring each different van build will have and the lengths needed, and we don’t want to have you ordering things that you don’t need.
Solar power looks dangerous and scary – what do I do?
If electricity is intimidating to you, we recommend looking at solar powered generators which are plug and play devices that require little-to-no wiring. These are safe for anyone to use. The only difference is that you’ll be paying extra for the privilege.
Consider purchasing an RV solar panel kit which comes with compatible parts that are already designed and sized to work together. This takes a lot of the guess-work out of buying each item separately.
Ok I got everything, now how do I put it all together?
Solar Panel Wiring Diagrams
Use these solar panel wiring diagrams for information on putting together your DIY solar panel system. These include all of the components, fuse and wiring sizes, and directions to get started.
Helpful information on choosing components
- Camper van solar panels
- Solar panel kits for an RV
- Solar charge controllers
- Battery banks for solar storage
- 12V inverters
- Converters, inverters, and inverter/chargers for RVs
- Solar generators
- How to install a battery monitor
Battery charging tutorials
In a camper van – or any vehicle where you drive frequently, you can supplement your solar system by charging your battery bank using your car’s alternator. These are the most common ways to do it:
Visit our Electricity Main Page to see all of our camper van electrical posts. There is further reading on all parts of the system, extras to install tips and advice on all things electric!