Electrical power is a necessity in modern life, even when that includes exploring the distant corners of Australia. Solar panels are often key to solving this problem, but there are some things to know before purchasing them.
When getting off the beaten track, it’s important to make sure you have a source of power. And, given we live on one of the sunniest places on earth, solar power through solar panels is often the easiest way to do this.
There are many different types available, but all work in a similar way — when the sun hits the silicon wafers that make up the panel (a series of connected solar cells), it’s turned into electricity and sent to a battery. Often, solar panels produce more voltage than a battery can accept, so a regulator between the two is a must to moderate the input.
What Types of Panels are Available?
There are three main types of solar panels available for today’s offroad adventurers — monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and amorphous cells. Monocrystalline panels are the most common type of cell used in 12V solar panels and are made from single crystal silicon. They work best in direct sunlight. Polycrystalline panels, meanwhile, are better suited to low-light conditions, and are made from multi-layered crystal wafers. Both of these panels are quite rigid and heavy, though they have different strengths — monocrystalline panels are slightly more efficient, while polycrystalline panels can deal with higher temperatures.
Amorphous cells are the final type, and their main difference lies in their flexibility. With thinner cells, this panel type can fold away like a blanket. Their portability is handy, though they tend to be less robust than the other two types of panels, and despite being the most efficient, they need double the surface area to achieve the same output as a monocrystalline panel.
Choosing the Right One
Picking which solar panels will best match your travels depends largely on your budget and where the solar panel is to go.
Fixed solar panels are the more no-fuss option of power gathering — pick your spot, pull up, and plug in. However, given both monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are quite heavy, depending on your set up — be it a rooftop tent, camper, pop-top, hybrid, or full-blown caravan — things can get difficult if there isn’t the space and/or weight bearing tolerance for them. Also, though they can help insulate your setup from the sun’s heat, they rely on sunlight to be efficient so it can still get hot inside.
Portable solar panels allow you to park in the shade and then set the panels up in direct sunlight close by — and they can be easily moved to follow the sun as it travels throughout the day. But the manual setup is a drawback for some, as is the risk of theft and the fact more surface area is needed for the same output provided by fixed panels.
The price of solar panels varies according to its type and cell makeup, plus the numbers of watts it can produce. Smaller versions can be available for as little as $400, while others can stretch out to upwards of $2000. Popular brands include Redarc, Projecta, and Dometic, but others such as Hard Korr and Goal Zero are also common. Whatever you go with, read reviews carefully before purchasing because there are any number of cheap panels available online.
Also remember to factor in the purchase of a regulator if you’re planning to hook your panels up directly to your battery — if you’re using a DCDC charger you shouldn’t need this as the unit often includes a Maximum Power Point Tracker that will regulate the charge.
Once you’ve decided what you need, remember to periodically clean your solar panels, and they should keep you charged on the road for years to come.