When I bought my first solar panel set three years ago, I knew nothing about them. You stick them in the sun, and they make electricity. I was clueless about cost, equipment needed, how to hook the solar panel to the battery storage. Nothing, I knew nothing.
Luckily, the clerk at my local hardware store was very knowledgeable. He told me what equipment I needed and explained how to connect everything. He also made sure that the system I bought would do what I needed it to do: power my Keurig coffee maker during an eight-day rustic retreat. That solar panel purchase was one of the best things I ever bought for camping. Ah, blessed coffee!
Essential Facts About Solar Panel Sets
Before understanding solar panel functions, it helps to learn some of the words that you will frequently hear during the entire process. Rather than explain volts, watts, and amps, this short video explains them well:
How a solar panel works
By collecting photoelectric light, a solar panel set can convert the power of the sun into usable electricity. But how does the entire process work?
The first step is the collection of sunlight. Photovoltaic (PV) cells collect, or capture, the energy from the sun. Next, as the photons, or particles of light, reach the solar cells, that energy is absorbed by electrons. Through the interaction of the photons and electrons, a difference in voltage occurs.
Because solar panels create energy known as direct current (DC), and standard appliances use alternating current (AC), a conversion process must take place. This mechanism requires a power inverter. In a portable solar panel system, the charge controller regulates how fast the batteries fill up. Appliances plug directly into outlets on the power inverter.
What equipment does a solar panel need?
So, you now know the basics of how solar panels collect and convert energy. The equipment necessary to perform this function is relatively simple. You can purchase entire sets that are ready for use. You can also buy separate components to configure your system.
The components needed are:
- Solar panels
- Net meter (for home-based systems)
- Charge controller (for off-grid systems)
- Storage battery or batteries
- Wiring and cables
Solar panel configurations can be one single panel or a series of connected panels. They can utilize one 12V deep cycle cell or a set of batteries linked to store energy.
Price Range for Basic Solar Panel Kits
Pricing varies depending on your needs. If you are purchasing just the solar panel, your cost will be less than if you need all the components for a complete assembly.
Pricing for individual 100-watt solar cells with connectors generally ranges from $100 to $200. Some of these panels have charge controllers installed while some have plug-ins to connect them.
Pricing for simple controllers begins at around $15 to $20. Controllers with higher rated capacities start at $50 and can go up to several hundred dollars.
Small power inverters with one or two AC outlets and a couple of USB outlets start at around $50 to $70. These are fine for most applications during camping use. If you need more, larger inverters can cost anywhere from $100 to $500.
A 12V deep cycle marine lead-acid battery will range in price from $100 to $300. You can pay more for a lithium storage battery, but please research them thoroughly as they are not all the same. Determine how many cells you need in your set and budget appropriately.
A pre-assembled kit will cost from $300 to well over $1,000. If you purchase one, make sure that all the components will produce the amount of power you need. They say that something is only as good as its weakest part, so it makes sense to conduct due diligence.
Finding the Best of the Best: How We Reviewed
When we reviewed solar panel sets, we researched many units that didn’t make our list. Our research included what components the kit had, how powerful it was, customer reviews, and professional ratings.
Most of the items presented are just solar panel assemblies, but one is a complete kit with all the components included. Determine your needs before spending great gobs of money. While more is usually better, in portable solar power units, just enough is often enough.
Top Portable Solar Panels
Based on our research and personal experience, we compiled what we consider the best solar panel kits for your money. Before you shop, determine what you want your rig to power.
All appliances should have a usage label that tells you how much power they need. A coffee pot will draw more amperage during the brew cycle than just keeping the pot warm. Cell phones, computers, tablets, and other smaller electronics don’t need a lot of power. Once you know this, you are ready to shop.
1. Renogy 100 Watt 12 Volts Monocrystalline Solar Panel
This product includes only the solar panel with no extras. You will need separate items to construct a camping solar power station. It provides up to 100 watts of power. With a junction box and MC4 leads on the back, it is easy to connect a charge controller or other solar collectors. At prices ranging between $110 and $135, it is affordable.
One of the downsides to this panel is that it does not have a stand. It does, however, include pre-drilled holes for easy mounting. Customers who left poor reviews mentioned problems with shipping and receiving damaged items or mismatched panels from separate orders. Others with complaints about the product say that the rated power of 100 watts doesn’t match the actual, which often measured under 50 watts.
This product received very high marks on the Renogy site at 4.9 out of 5 stars. This panel is also available at local retailers, which makes it appealing if you can’t wait for shipping. Look at local chains like The Home Depot.
Because this unit is just the solar panel, you would also need to purchase a charge controller, power inverter, and storage battery to use this completely off-grid. This panel would need to be mounted to provide an angled face for maximum solar absorption.
If you need replacement solar panels for an existing system, this is an outstanding choice.
2. Zamp Solar USP1003 180-Watt Folding Portable Solar System
The Zamp 180-watt solar panel is a two-piece package with a built-in controller. These Zamp products are wired to plug into an RV or attach to a battery easily. Zamp offers a variety of panels ranging in size from 40-watts to 230-watts. This set is their most popular.
There are not many reviews on this item, and it is very high on the price scale. We included it because of the reliability noted by people who did leave reviews.
Sales for Zamp are processed through Specialized Products Company and Amazon. The pricing on this two-panel set ranges from $780 to $1,000. While it is more expensive, buying this product will be worth the money you spend if you plan on long-term use.
3. ECO-WORTHY 100W 12V Foldable Polycrystalline Solar Suitcase
This unit is a two-panel foldable set with a pre-installed 15 amp controller. In a sturdy anodized aluminum frame, the solar panel has folding legs and a carrying handle. Amazon sells this in a 100-watt version, and a 50- and 100-watt version is available on the ECO-WORTHY website.
Pricing will vary depending on the size and the vendor but will range from $95 to $210. This unit has polycrystalline panels with tempered glass and weighs just under 30 pounds. The availability of different wattages allows the customer to purchase precisely what they need.
On the ECO-WORTHY website, the reviews are all 5-star ratings with comments praising both the equipment and customer service. The positive comments stated that this set is well worth the money. Many are using the unit to plug directly into an RV system, while others have combined it with a storage battery and inverter for independent use.
4. Go Power! 120-Watt Portable Solar Kit (GP-PSK-120)
This unit is two hinged solar panels with a built-in control unit. It comes with a variety of connectors and cabling. As solar panels go, these are on the expensive side, ranging in price from $500 to $800 at various online retailers.
They do have a 25-year warranty, which is much longer than many competitor panels. The manufacturer also offers a similar 80-watt kit (GP-PSK-80) that is slightly less expensive.
Because this is a panel assembly, it will need a power inverter and a storage battery for a complete setup. Many RVs have plug-ins that allow this to be connected directly to the camper to power internal outlets and lights. The unit folds in half for flat, which makes storage a breeze.
Amazon is the only online retailer we found that had ratings on this unit. Customers who interacted with the manufacturer rave about the customer service and responsiveness to problems.
5. Newpowa High-Quality 100W 12V Monocrystalline Solar Module
This item is a 100-watt solar panel with a simple connector assembly. Sold as a one- or two-pack unit, each module can connect to increase their capacity. The pricing on this panel is excellent, ranging from $95 to $115 for the single-panel and from $200 to $220 for the two-panel set. The panels can be purchased from NewPowa, Amazon, eBay, and through various online outlets.
The biggest thing to note is that this panel does require the addition of a control unit. The attached connector box contains fuses for circuit protection, but no power regulation. It is a versatile panel assembly for use with a controller to power a boat or RV. It can also connect to a battery, controller, and inverter for complete off-grid performance. While the anodized framing doesn’t include a stand, the panel can be mounted easily.
Customers rave about the responsiveness of the NewPowa customer service personnel. At NewPowa, one reviewer complimented the patience and knowledge of customer service. Customers love this product, and many stated that they would recommend it.
6. KOMAES 100W Monocrystal Solar Panel
Connecting this 100-watt panel in a series of four will supply 400 watts of power. The monocrystalline solar panel comes with a 30 amp controller, 20 feet of tray cable, 20 feet of MC4 connector, and a mounting kit. The aluminum frame has pre-drilled holes for easy mounting. They are available from the manufacturer and on Amazon in one- and two-panel kits, that range in price
The Best Solar Panel
When I purchased my setup, it cost around $900 for everything, including extra cabling and a 12V marine battery. This year, my panels and stand unit need replacement, but my other components are still going strong. I will also be able to replace my three-panel system with one solar panel that will provide the same output more efficiently.
When you determine what your needs are, you can shop with confidence. Solar power allows much greater versatility for both camping and home use. Are you ready to reduce your carbon footprint? Drop a comment and tell us about your adventures.