AM Solar’s RV Solar “Ease of Install” List

QUANTIFIABLE ISSUES that reduce the efficiency of Installing a solar system ON FACTORY RVs

DEFINE RV SOLAR -
Any Recreational Vehicle or Towed RV with Portable or Fixed Solar Panels on the roof that are wired to a Solar Charge controller that is in turn connected to the “House Battery Bank”. All electrical needs are fulfilled by the batteries, which in turn are charged by the sun.

RV Off-Grid System Clarified -
Any RV or Home not connected to the “Electrical Grid” that has the above described RV Solar installed, will also need a way to store more energy than may be available in a single day.
This means more solar panels, larger wire sizes for the added electrical generation, and a sophisticated Solar Charge Controller. Further, a bigger “House” Battery Bank will be needed
(more batteries or larger capacity units, or both). There is also a way to produce “Household Electricity” by using stored solar energy for day to day energy usage - an inverter.

Overview of RV Solar Installation Difficulty -
Given the broad range of solar components available, the “System Options” one can chose in addition to the varying layout and design differences (even within a range of similar RVs) - it is tough to say what “a normal Solar Installation” is.
For this list, we shall imagine a roof filled with solar panels, the largest wire sizes we can use (bigger wire is more difficult to handle and install), a sophisticated Solar RV Battery Charger that safely manages the batteries’ condition (with a remote monitor needing extra time and wire to install), a “full sized” inverter (to change the DC energy of solar and batteries into the AC “household” energy to operate “appliances”) and an electrical interface that will manage the engine alternator and battery of the RV to “charge” the RV House Battery Bank while traveling.

The list:

1 - Navion / View

2 - Lazy Daze

3 - Basic/Bare Van or Towable Camper

4 - Fifth Wheel Towable

5 - Class A or C with no Slide Outs

6 - Fifth Wheel / Class A Toy Hauler

7 - Airstream (easier wire routing, but more difficult roof work)

8 - Class A or C with Slide Outs (easier roof work, but more difficult wire routing)

9 - Roadtrek

10 - Newmar or Monaco

1. Navion (and view)

  • Winnebago’s nearly identical twins
  • Class C - MB Chassis -
  • Unified Chassis Component Locations
  • Roof has room for “full size” solar panels
  • Similar Floor Plans - convenient wire runs

These RVs aren’t easy because they offer zero challenges, they are easy because they are pretty much all the same. So that’s good for “production” type work.

They are also the easiest for the DIY-er (compared to all other Factory Built RVs). There is lots of room on the roof for several “full sized” solar panels.

There is plenty of room in the “basement” (under floor storage accessed from the outside). This is where additional batteries can be installed, larger solar charge controllers and inverters can be housed without intrusion into the “house” and without losing too much outside storage.

Lots of “voids” in the walls can accommodate “hidden wire runs”, and several locations will house a Solar Charger “Remote” or “Monitor”.

Very little drilling though walls and floors is required. When enough time is spent by a RV Solar DIY in planning and “dry fitting” components, the number of drilled holes can be significantly reduced.

 

2. Lazy Daze

  • A single product company
  • Only builds this RV
  • Class C - Ford Chassis
  • Universal Chassis Component Locations
  • Roof has room for “full size” solar panels
  • Only two Floor Plans - convenient wire runs

Lazy Daze has been building this motorhome for years. The advantages are many and obvious. Resale value is high (they all look alike). The Ford Truck Chassis that is used changes little from year to year. The body of the “coach” also hasn't changed since the first models.

For production work this is even easier than a View / Navion, but that’s where those benefits end. A DIY installation will be easier than on most RVs, but not as simple as the “Winnies”.

The roof offers sizable real estate, so a number of solar panels will easily fit. Tilting panels to take advantage of the low winter sun is also a plus. The roof is also easier to “navigate” because of the room.

A well thought out plan for the placement of all the solar, supportive equipment and wire runs will be time well spent (and time a DIYer will regain during the actual install). There are several places to install extra / upgraded batteries and the type of battery (flooded, AGM or Lithium) will also factor in to the location. Something will have to go in order to accommodate all this extra equipment - storage. This also needs to figure in to the layout and time allotments.

Again, the Ford Chassis affords ample room for the wire runs needed to include supportive engine alternator charging of the house batteries.

3. Basic/Bare Van or Towable Camper

  • Ease = Owner’s Flexibility
  • Empty Shell
  • Unknown Layout
  • What other parts will be installed
  • Wire runs open or hidden
  • Plans for Roof Vents & Antennae
  • Air Conditioning add on?
  • Potential convenient wire runs

A blank canvas.

Some artists “freeze up” over a blank sheet. At least you can “get to everything”. Yes, but…

This solar RV panel installation requires even more planning than a finished rig because all the finish parts have yet to be installed. Many times the finished “camper” is an afterthought.

In a production situation and unless the owner knows exactly where all the “other stuff” will go, the job becomes very straight forward. This rarely happens.

The key to this type of installation is to include and plan for the interaction of all the parts and pieces the now empty rig will eventually contain.

To the unwitting this can become a very bad trap…

4. Fifth Wheel Towable

  • A Towed Rig
  • Requires a Tow Vehicle
  • May have Slide Outs
  • ALL Have a “Generator Room”
  • Lots of Room for Components and equipment

Towed behind (in the bed of) a Pick-Up Truck, these rigs have a lot of room for everything -
solar panels on the roof, components can be placed in a number of areas and the walls are thick enough for serious wire runs.

This will be the first rig in the list to actually have some degree of difficulty inherent in its design. Still a bit easier than a Class A or Large Class C without “Slide Outs”, the main challenge is in adding supportive engine alternator charging of the house batteries.

Production installations can be relatively smooth because of the limited design of these rigs. As form usually follows function there aren't too many variations on this theme. So once again, rote installations eventually reduce time spent.

DIYers most likely will find all the challenges this style RV offers. Very careful planning and a
“hands on” inspection of where everything will go is what is required on this rig.

5. Class A or C with No Slide Outs

  • First of the Actual RVs on List
  • Usually Lots of Roof Space
  • No moving walls or appliances
  • Room for Components and equipment
  • Engine Available for Support Charging of House Batteries

Our “first” true RV (by connotation). Nothing is like any other in this category. Once more, the efficiency of production installations become more routine with the route of numbers.

DIYers- do not get sucked into this class of rig until you have carefully plotted your course of action. These jobs look easy at first (and can be) if you remember to plan it all out (cardboard cut outs and product boxes are typical for these jobs).

Try to not get caught discovering the need to re-plan a wire run or component placement part way into one of these “full boat installs” (meaning solar and Inverter and supportive charging). Look for “hollow” spots in the walls and voids behind panels that could aid in your install.

Know this - no matter how tough you think this is - there are five others more difficult.

6. Fifth Wheel/Class A Toy Hauler

  • Class A (front engine) OR
  • A Towed Rig
  • (Requires a Tow Vehicle)
  • Usually has Slide Outs
  • Limited Outside / Under Storage
  • Little Room for Components and equipment

Be it a Class A with a gasoline front engine or a Fifth Wheel towed by a truck, these rigs are difficult.

With a wide-open area in the back for a garage, you'd think there would be plenty of extra room. Not so. Much of the support “stuff” that goes with “Toys” that are hauled is included in/on the rig. Like a dedicated gas tank for fueling the toys. A helmet shelf and riding suit locker take up space. Some even have a dedicated wash down area that also occupies otherwise valuable solar system space.

The theme continues from the previous five - Plan, plan plan.

Thin walls that keep weight down offer little room for wire runs. The undercarriage is also usually beefed up or otherwise filled up, making that space unusable.

Concluding - Production Installs and RV Solar DIYs alike are going to be a challenge. What always seems to throw everyone off – all that space!  That’s the real problem - no hidden space!

7. Airstream

  • A Towed Rig
  • Requires a Tow Vehicle
  • Never has Slide Outs
  • All Have a “Soft Roof”
  • Limited Room for Components and equipment
  • Wire routes straight forward

The biggest challenge for an Airstream (and there are quite a few challenges) -
the “Soft Drop In” roof. To keep intrusions into the living space with Air Conditioners and Fans and hanging lights, Airstream has a “new” roof. The thing is kind of hollow in that it carries overhead vents for the HVAV as well as flush mount lighting besides.

Special mounting hardware and sealing systems have been developed in order to safely and non-destructively mount solar panels on the roof (semi permanently). RV Solar DIYers should track these mount systems down and just use them. The time and monies involved in re-inventing this could leave you with leaks.

Wire runs become obvious once the initial inspection begins. Removing a few panels and other components will reveal some great places for components and wire runs.

Plan. Plan. Plan. Then inspect by taking things off and apart. Then “test fit”. Finally -
install the system.

8. Class A or C with Slide Outs

  • Roof Space Limited
  • Moving walls and appliances
  • Restricted Room
  • Some Areas unusable
  • Engine Available for Support Charging of House Batteries

Big Challenge here. No two of these are alike, yet they share similar difficulties - the walls move. Called “Slides” or “Slide Outs” these mini rooms are stored inside the main body while traveling, then, once parked, the rooms are electrically “Slid” out and thereby increasing the living spaces.

Does your rig have a bathroom in a slide? If so, flexible plumbing and moving electrical wires are a real issue. Or how about a kitchen that slides?  Moving propane lines too?

The walls may be able to accommodate wire runs, but those runs may stop to make room for a moving wall. Much more planning is needed inside these “slide out” rigs.

The roofs are also problematic because of the slides that may limit mounting options for solar panels. This category of RVs has earned it’s #8 place on the difficulty list.

9. Roadtrek

  • Roof Space very Limited
  • Very Restricted Room
  • Some Areas unusable
  • Engine Available for Support Charging of House Batteries

Big Challenge here.

No space- Anywhere. On the roof? No. In the walls? What walls? Under the rig? What, with the spare? No.

Are you sensing a theme? This is why we consider this brand (and type) of RV to be next to the most difficult RVs into which a full solar system can be installed.

Again, yes, it is possible to load this rig up so that two people could “live” off grid - but. You may also need to redefine “off-grid”.

This job will take at least twice as long as a Slide Out Class A or C.

Planning is paramount. Period.

10. Newmar or Monaco

  • Roof Populated w/Air
  • Moving walls and appliances
  • Restricted Space Inside and on Roof
  • Some Areas unusable
  • Engine Available for Support Charging of House Batteries
  • Expensive Vehicles

The high-end coaches are a problem. Yes, the cost of the rig is a consideration, but the real issues are electrical. Sure, accessing the voids takes great care and skill, but once opened the areas are available. You can cover the interior with mover blankets and you’re safe, but it’s all about the electrics.

The roofs on these types of rigs are usually populated with Satellite Dishes, multiple Air Conditioners, “smart” vents and booster antennas. This limits where and how many solar panels can be installed.

Further, trying to interface with some very sophisticated electrical systems that can be sealed up for proprietary matters, is a real-time consumer.

A full system solar RV install on a typical Class C with slides will average one week. With the same facilities and technicians, this rigs average is two to three weeks.

By Ray Monigold