Installing solar panels for when you’re driving 4×4 or with a caravan represents one important aspect of why we all go bush in the first place – freedom. Solar panels generate electricity for our “can’t live without” modcons such as portable fridges, camping lights, and mobile phones. That, and once you invest in solar panels, you’ll make it back by saving money on powered site fees at caravan parks or the like; and you won’t have to contend with the noise and bustle of a dozen different families parked around you. So what’s the best choice for your 4×4 – a fixed solar panel, or a portable panel?
How solar works
Solar panels, much like the bigger solar panels you find on homes and offices, convert sunlight into electric current using a photovoltaic cell. Usually 4×4 solar panels are 12V cells, using an inverter and/or regulator to safely power 240V appliances such as lights, laptops, or mobile phone chargers. Once set up, you can set and forget, letting the panel absorb sunlight as it pleases.
The holidaymaker’s choice – portable
If you only plan to travel a few times a year – perhaps even fewer times – a portable solar panel is the way to go. If you’re only looking to power some lights, a fridge, and your mobiles, a small solar panel that can be tilted to maximise sunlight absorption is a fine choice for the occasional holidaymaker. Look for a sturdy aluminium frame when considering these types of solar panels, as lighter frames may become unstable. They should have thick and insulated cabling to maximise current draw. You should also look at hail-proof and waterproof cells, if possible. (You can read more on making the most of low-light conditions below.)
Pictured: Goal Zero Solar Panels
The full-time nomad – fixed
Fixed solar panels are a must for the full-time traveller, whether you’re on permanent holiday or working remotely. Fixed panels are at work when you’re out and about, and a full day’s absorption can fill your battery. However, these panels can be hard to find space for, especially if you’re using a roof rack. They aren’t tilted in most cases, which drops the efficiency by 20%. They could also theoretically reduce aerodynamics. However, it’s all worth the investment if you come to rely on such panels.
Tips on buying solar panels
Currently there are three types of solar cell on the market: mono-crystalline which works best in direct sunlight, poly-crystalline which functions more efficiently in low-light conditions and the less common amorphous cells which can be found in solar blankets. It’s also a good idea to look for European or Japanese made solar cells, as the technology developed in other areas such as China are not as reliable.
Pictured: Projecta Solar Panels
You should also consider how big your battery will be, especially if you’re going to connect up everything but the kitchen sink when camping. You should figure out how much power you’re going to consume by adding up the draw of your devices, and get a battery that exceeds that total. Your solar panel should also draw more power than your battery can store; just in case you run into bad weather, and to account for inefficiencies in solar energy production.