How to Set Up Solar Panels to Create Off-grid Electricity

Harnessing the power on the sun can help you cut fuel costs and eliminate the need for a noisy generator in camp

Whether you’re looking to power an off-grid cabin or keep a camper juiced while you traverse the nation’s scenic byways, solar panels and batteries are an excellent alternative to generators. But before you rush into installing solar panels on the roof of your dream cabin or adventure mobile, give some consideration to what kind of panels you need. There are few different types with varying power outputs related to the panel’s components.

Solar Panel with flowers in background
A good set of solar panels can provide more than enough clean, free energy when your basecamp is far from civilization.Renogy

Monocrystalline panels are made from a single, large silicon crystal and are the most efficient, with a higher charge output and better low light performance. Polycrystalline panels are built with several small solar crystals, but have a similar, though slightly lower, output than their one-piece brethren. Amorphous, or "thin-film" panels are the cheapest but also the least efficient, requiring three times the surface area of the other options to produce the same charge. Take your anticipated energy use into account, and the space you have available for panels, before you make a purchase.

After your panels are set up, you’ll forget they’re there, and they’ll passively gather solar radiation and turn it into electricity that will charge your batteries while you go about your business. Here’s a few more reasons why should consider installing solar panels on your adventure rig or outpost and thoughts on how to finish off your setup to gather as much energy as possible.

Off-grid Power

Renogy 2 Pieces 100W Monocrystalline
Solar power can help you stay connected to civilization, even when you’re traveling off the grid.Amazon

If you routinely set up camp past the bounds of civilization, a solar panel can power a few luxuries or provide a lifeline. Though you probably head outside to leave technology and "the grid" behind, devices like weather radios provide warnings of impending storms and satellite phones can reach emergency services in the event of a catastrophe. Having a way to recharge vital communication devices in the field means you can wander longer, without the need to rejoin the grid for power.

No Noise

Renogy 2pcs 100 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline Solar Panel
Rather than listen to a generator putter in camp, use solar panels to recharge batteries.Amazon

Gas generators can produce an impressive amount of power, but they do so with the incessant hum of an internal combustion engine. If you really want to enjoy the solitude the great outdoors can provide, you probably don't want the sound and smell of exhaust fumes. You'll also cut down on your fuel consumption, which means you'll have less stuff to cart about. Solar panels and batteries are the solution to all of that.

Take Charge

SolarEpic
A controller converts the energy gathered from the solar panels and converts it into electricity you can store in a deep-cycle battery.SolarEpic

Unfortunately you can’t just throw solar panels on the roof and call it good. You’ll need to corral the power created by the panels with a charge controller. These devices take the variable volts supplied by the panels and convert it into volts deep-cycle batteries can use, usually in the ballpark of 10 to 15 volts. Some panels come with a controller already installed, so check before you buy.

Bank It

Optima
Use a deep-cycle battery to store the electricity generated by your solar panels.Optima

Now that you’re able to create all this energy, you need a place to store it. Deep cycles are ideal for creating reservoirs of power. Unlike starting batteries, deep cycles are designed to provide sustained power over a long period of time. You can draw deep-cycle batteries down to only 20 percent of their capacity and they’ll bounce back, unlike starting batteries. Again, you’ll need to do some math to figure out how much power you need and then get enough batteries to hold it all.

Plug it In

Richsolar 4pcs 100 Watt 12 Volt Monocrystalline
Some solar panels gather enough energy to power small appliances.Amazon

Once everything is installed, you can begin to enjoy your new remote power source. If you're setting up a remote camp for an extended stay, you should consider bringing a refrigerator to keep your perishables fresh. Most solar systems will handily power a small fridge so you won't need to worry about keeping ice in your cooler for weeks at a time. This can be a real time saver when the nearest store is 12 hours away, or when you just don't want to squander fishing time on errands.