sales@oej.com.au   0400 159 359   0400 159 359
  Free Shipping Australia Wide!
Ultimate Guide to buying the best Camping Solar Panels

Ultimate Guide to buying the best Camping Solar Panels

So what are solar panels and how do they work?

Solar panels are used to convert sunlight, which is made up of energy called photons into electricity. Solar panels absorb this photon energy in cells of the panel and use this source of energy for generating electricity. And in the case of camping, the solar panel works to produce power similar to a battery charger.

What are the best 12v portable solar panels for camping?

There are three types of solar cells commonly used in portable solar panels.

  1. Monocrystalline cells

Monocrystalline Cell Folding Solar Panel

  1. Polycrystalline cells

Polycrystalline Solar Panel with aluminium frame

  1. Amorphous cells

Amorphous Foldable Solar Panel

  1. Monocrystalline cells are made up of a large single crystal of silicon

  2. Polycrystalline cells are made up of many smaller crystals of silicon

  3. The amorphous is a thin-film silicon solar cell

Mono-crystalline panels are more expensive than polycrystalline, and because of lower silicon purity, polycrystalline solar panels are less efficient than monocrystalline solar panels. As a result, comparing two panels of the same size, a monocrystalline solar panel will generate more solar energy. Comparing this to the amorphous panels, they are significantly cheaper than crystalline panels. However, they are far less efficient. This means a greater number of cells are needed to produce the same amount of energy - this requires a significantly bigger surface area.

There are four types of portable mono or polycrystalline solar panels; the lightweight folding solar panels and blankets, the flexible solar panels and traditional glass and aluminium panels. The traditional glass and aluminium frame panels are rigid, fragile and thus require lamination to glass for adequate protection. This means they cannot be folded down to a compact size for storage and creates more logistical problems when trying to pack the 4WD or camping vehicle.  Flexible solar panels while being quite light cannot be folded down, which makes it hard to conserve precious space, as compared to the folding solar panels and blankets which are very compact, lightweight and easy to store.

Lightweight Folding Solar Panel

Lightweight Folding Solar Panel

Lightweight Folding Solar Blanket

Lightweight Folding Solar Blanket

Flexible Solar Panel

Flexible Solar Panel

Glass and Aluminium Solar Panel
Glass and Aluminium Solar Panel

The latest solar blankets and panels now come with a protective coating called ETFE, which makes the panels and their cells anti-reflective, scratch and UV resistant. They also utilise high-quality Sunpower® Cells which are extremely efficient monocrystalline cells. They have a solid copper backing, thick connectors and no grid lines on the front of the cells.

The latest product to hit the market is an interchangeable portable solar panel. The lightweight, compact camping solar panels with Anderson plug are 50W each, zip together and connect together so you can custom make whatever size Watt panel you need. Each panel you add increases your power by another 50W, which means you are future proofed and can buy as many as you need to build your perfect set up. The interchangeable panels come with ETFE protection and feature Monocrystalline SunPower® cells.


Do solar panels generate DC or AC?DC v AC current difference

Solar panels produce Direct current (DC) electricity and are what batteries hold in storage. Cells and batteries provide an electrical current which always flows around the circuit in the same direction. Alternating current (AC) is the type of electrical power that is delivered to homes and businesses and powers most household devices. If you are wanting to use an AC appliance with your solar panel kit, you will require a device called an inverter so that you can convert the DC electricity from your battery into appliance-friendly AC.

Why use solar power?

Solar power is the best form of natural energy, its renewable, and best of all it is entirely free. Check these additional benefits. Using a lightweight folding solar system allows you to travel to unpowered and remote locations. You can move wherever you choose and always know you have the power to charge your battery setup and keep all your essentials operating.

 

Portable Solar Panels Beach Camping Set up


What are the benefits of camping with solar power?

The ability to be able to travel off-grid without sacrificing items like fridges, LED camping lights, mobile devices, laptops and more. Camping off-grid will generally mean you can avoid paying heftier fees for powered sites. Also, you will be steering away from older technology like generators that have an ongoing cost. With a solar panel camping setup, you don’t have to keep forking out money to top up oil and fuel and also disturb the peace and quiet you went outdoors to find in the first place.

What equipment do you need to camp with solar power?

A self-sufficient solar setup may include:

  1. Camping solar panels

  2. Solar regulator

  3. Anderson to Anderson plug lead

  4. Alligator clips to Anderson plug

  5. Deep cycle battery

The way that these work together is simple, the solar panel absorbs power from the sun, which then flows into the connected deep cycle battery via the solar regulator, putting charge back into the battery. Also known as solar charge controllers, solar regulators are essential because they regulate the flow of power preventing damage to your battery from fluctuating charge or overcharging.

We’ll cover more on solar regulators further down.

 

Solar Regulator MPPTDeep Cycle BatteryAnderson to Alligator ClipsCamping Solar PanelAnderson to Anderson Plug

By just adding a high efficiency portable solar panel to your campsite, can turn out to be one of the easiest, effective and clean ways to get power back to your depleted batteries. Now you can keep that beer fridge cold and keep travelling to exciting off-grid destinations and not have to worry about flattening your battery and running out of power.

How much power do solar panels produce?

How much power your solar panels produce depends on their size, how you operate them and critically the number of sunlight hours in a day. Other factors like geographic location, time of year and temperature will govern how your solar panel performs and how much power it can produce.

Solar panels do have a slight loss in output performance above a temperature of 25 degrees Celsius. This accounts for a power reduction of -0.3% per degree Celsius above 25 degrees.

All of these combined factors make it difficult to guarantee an exact number that your solar panels will consistently generate, and for these reasons, it will always be better to overestimate usage when doing your calculations. This will help account for days with lack of sunlight, geographical and temperature changes.

How do I calculate solar power requirements?

You really want to have a basic understanding of how much power your equipment is using, that way you will ensure you purchase the correct battery, solar regulator and solar panel for your usage. If any of these products are the wrong size and too small for your requirements you could end up with an unexpected flat battery, or worst case scenario, a damaged battery or solar regulator.

To calculate your usage most devices are labelled with their power draw; from there you need to estimate how long per day you will use the device to work out your overall power consumption.

So let’s get into some basic maths to help you work out your power consumption.

Ohm’s Law:

Volts x Amps = Watts (Power)

The formula can also be changed around so that:

Watts / Volts = Amps

or

Watts / Amps = Volts

Watts - the total quantity of power the solar panel is producing, and this is dependent on conditions such as temperature and direct sunlight exposure. The total wattage of the panel can only be achieved in ideal conditions, for example, if the solar panel is at the perfect temperature and angled at direct full sunlight.

Volts - the force of electricity being produced by the solar panel, the more power being absorbed from the sun, the more voltage will flow.

Amps - the level of electricity flowing through the solar panel and cables or the flow of the current. The flow of volts will vary depending on the amount of sun on the solar panel or if the battery is at capacity, or in need of charge, which is all regulated by the solar charge controller.

Next, to calculate our usage we will need to look at Amp draw.

(Disclaimer - different products have slightly different power usage and below is meant as a guide only).

Solar Panels for Camping Fridges

12v Fridge Power Draw Reference
Fridges usually account for more than 60% of your total power draw.
(The unit will draw approx 25% more Ah if used as a freezer)

Product

Fridge Draw (on avg over 24 hrs)

Hourly Amp Draw (on avg over 24 hrs)

Total Amp Hour Draw over 24 hrs

Chest Fridge 30L - 50L

6.5 hrs

1.3 Ah

33 Ah

Chest Fridge 50L - 60L

7.5 hrs

1.5 Ah

38 Ah

Chest Fridge 60L - 80L

9 hrs

1.8 Ah

45Ah

Chest Fridge 80L - 110L

11 hrs

2.2 Ah

55 Ah

Upright Fridge 110L

14 hrs

3.75 Ah

90 Ah

Upright Fridge 140L

15 hrs

3.95 Ah

95 Ah

Upright Fridge 220L

17 hrs

5.20 Ah

125 Ah


LED Camp Lighting Power Draw

So now let’s take an led camping light kit that contains 5 x 50cm-long LED strip-lights (at 7W each). These at full power (they come with dimmer switches) draw close to 0.7 Amps, and during a night's use of 5 hours or so, these five LEDs will set our battery back by 3.5Ah.
(5hrs x 0.7Amps = 3.5Ah).

Now combining your lighting with your 80L fridge, we have a daily total of LEDs 3.5 Ah + Fridge 55 Ah = 58.5 Ah daily total draw.

What size Battery do I need?

A popular choice with campers is a 120Ah deep cycle 12v battery. Most battery manufacturers recommend that a battery is not discharged more than 50% capacity to ensure the life of the battery. That means that you have 60Ah per day of usable battery life. If we go back to the example of an 80L fridge with some LED strip lights using approx 58.5Ah per day, it’s easy to see why you need a reliable solar set up to ensure that the charge is being returned back to your battery.

Next, to help calculate usage and what size panel you need, let’s take a look at some common 12v camping gear.

12v CAMPING APPLIANCE POWER USAGE

Here are some other common 12v camping appliances that will help with your calculations. As mentioned above, power usage varies greatly between different models and manufacturers, so please check the tag of the appliances you are going to use. But as a general guide:

12v Appliance

Amps or Ah

Description

Lighting

0.2A - 1A

Most lights designed for camping will use between these amounts depending on their size and power.

Phones

1.5 - 3Ah

USB chargers for phones will generally draw either 1A or 2A depending on what charger you are using

iPads & Tablets

7 - 11Ah

USB chargers for tablets will generally draw either 1A or 2A depending on what charger you are using

Music

5 - 10A

A normal car stereo will probably average this draw. However, if you have a powered amplifier that will greatly increase the usage, so make sure you check your equipment.

Fan

0.5A or less

12v Fans

TV

About 5A

12v TV

Oven

6 - 10A

12v Oven

Microwave

50 - 60A

12v Microwave - they are extremely draining on your battery.

Water Pump

4 - 6A

12v water pump

Hairdryer

10A

12v hair dryer

Please note that you must consider your battery’s requirement to maintain a certain level of charge (above 50% is optimal) to avoid any damage. Lithium-Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries, however, can be drained to 20% without any damage - and charge much quicker - the reason why they have a much heftier price tag. The Lithium Iron (LiFePO4) battery also has approximately 5000 charge cycles, compared to the 120Ah lead acid battery with only approx. 1000 charge cycle life. Additionally, the Lithium Iron is almost half the weight of the lead acid.

How can I work out the sunlight hours?

Another thing to consider when calculating your solar power requirements is how much Solar Power you will have access to - let’s take a look at sunlight hours around Australia.

The map below demonstrates the Average Daily Sunshine Annually for Australia. An excellent place to start to get a grasp on which areas around the country experience their length of daylight hours. However, seasonal changes happen as we know, so your best bet is to follow this link to the BOM website and you can check month by month to establish winter and summer month variations. The BOM also offer May to September and October to April average periods if you’re lucky enough to be going away for extended periods.

Camping Solar Panels Average Daily Sunshine Hours Australia

So now let’s go back to our example of a setup that includes a 12v fridge and also some camping led lights.

To work out the size our 12v solar panel needs to be, we need to ascertain how much sunlight you are going to catch.

We already know if we are travelling to Queensland we will get on average 7 hours a day of full sun. If we divide our total daily usage of 58.5 Amp hours used over 24 hours by our time in sunlight (58.5 Ah / 7 hours sunlight) we know we will need to generate at least 8.35 Amps an hour during the day in order to keep our system continually running.

So to ascertain our Amps let’s take a look at two different sized panels, the 160w solar panel and a 200w solar panel:

Watts / Volts = Amps

Volt measurements are derived from looking at your solar panels specifications tag or the product informtion online.

160W / 18 volts = 8.88 Amps

200W / 18 volts = 11.11 Amps

So how do I calculate the size of the solar panel I need?

To use our previous example of an 80L fridge and LED camping lights for the full day would total 58.5Amp hours. We can then calculate what we need to support this power draw with power generation, and this is where we can calculate the size of the solar panel required.

To work out the size our panel needs to be, we need to ascertain how much sunlight you are going to catch.

We already know if we are travelling to Queensland we will get on average 7 hours a day of full sun. If we divide our total daily usage of 58.5 Amp hours used over 24 hours by our time in sunlight (58.5 Ah / 7 hours sunlight) we know we will need to generate at least 8.35 Amps an hour during the day in order to keep our system continually running.

So if we look at our solar panels - the above example of a 160w panel can produce roughly 8.9Amps per hour,  and we need to generate at least 8.35 Amps an hour during the day to keep our system continually running. Which means in perfect weather, and temperature conditions all we will need is a 160-watt solar panel. But as we all know the climate is continually changing with potentials of extreme heat and also overcast days, which will affect how much power your panels will generate. So for those reasons, it’s always a great idea to give yourself some extra capacity.

What should you try not to power with solar?

Avoid using any major heating appliances like hair dryers from your power inverter. While devices such as power inverters and air compressors can draw a lot of power, usually they are only operated for small amounts of time, but they are energy-intensive and will quickly deplete your battery’s power. If you do utilise these devices, make sure you are monitoring your solar regulator to ensure you will do not leave yourself with a flat battery.

What types of solar regulators are there?

In nearly all portable solar power systems that utilise batteries, a solar charge controller is required. The task of a solar charge controller is to regulate the power generated from the solar panels going to the batteries and keep the batteries charged without overcharging. If you were to overcharge your battery, it will at the very least significantly reduce the batteries life, and worst case scenario, damage the battery to the point that they are unusable.


PWM Solar Controller

Newer charge controllers use a process termed Pulse Width Modulation (PWM solar charge controllers). This is where the unit slowly lowers the amount of power applied to the batteries as it gets closer to complete charge. This type of controller allows the battery to be more fully charged with less stress on the battery, resulting in extended battery life. It can also keep batteries in a fully charged state (called “float”) indefinitely.

PWM Solar Controller

MPPT Solar Controllers

The latest and best solar charge controller is called Maximum Power Point Tracking or MPPT. The major point of the MPPT is to extract the maximum available power from the solar cells.

The MPPT Solar Controller features a smart tracking algorithm that maximises the energy harvest from the solar panel by quickly finding the solar array’s peak power point based on varied temperatures with high efficiency - up to 98%, with minimal power loss.  If there are low light levels or high temperatures, an MPPT ensures that you get the most power possible from your Solar Panel.

MPPT Solar Controller

Conclusion

As we have discussed there are a range of camping solar panels to suit almost any application. Portable folding panels are a great option as they are easy to set-up where you need them and angle to follow the sun - some come with adjustable legs and a carry bag. When the direction of the sun has changed, you can quickly change the location of the panels to make the most of any sunlight available. Additionally, with extension leads you can have your camp set up in the shade, but position your solar panel out in the sunshine.

If space and weight is an essential factor for you, and you are a frequent camper, then solar blankets would be an ideal choice. Yes, they may be a little more expensive; however, they are very efficient, scratch resistant and also can fold down to be comparable in size to a laptop.  You are also investing in a product that will likely last you a lifetime. Also, they are very easy to set-up and more straightforward to pack up and store away. Nowadays the latest panels come with ETFE coating to protect the cells from scratching and UV damage. The great thing is that you can place one over your vehicle windscreen, or lay it on the ground to start absorbing sunlight. Then when it’s time to pack up, fold it up to a very compact size for easy storage and transport.

No matter whether you purchase portable solar panels or solar blankets, there really isn’t a wrong choice as they both have very similar benefits, being highly portable and producing the best output. Using the rigid aluminium style monocrystalline panels or flexible panels would be necessary if you are wanting to mount your panels permanently to your caravan batteries or 4WD setup for solar charging while on the road driving. But if not, and you prefer to be lightweight and more flexible with where you set up, folding solar panels and solar blankets are superior. And remember if you want to build your perfect custom watt set up and be future proof, check out the brand new interchangeable 50W solar panels.

Now that you know how to calculate your usage and which types of solar panels there are,  why not check out our range of camping solar panels and blankets to see which product suits your needs?

02 October, 2018