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When I first began building my custom camper van, I knew I would be installing solar panels on top of it. It took me a while to decide on using flexible panels because I just wasn’t sold on them in the beginning.
I had read and watched videos about how they don’t last as long and they also are not as efficient as rigid panels. However, I was intrigued by the way I would be able to install these on top of my van and no one would even know they were there.
In comparison, rigid panels stick out like a sore thumb on top of your van so all the world will know that you are in a camping rig. This is not a problem if you don’t mind being seen as an RV and are not interested in maintaining a stealthy existence.
I originally wanted to have a stealthy van so that I could pull up to a place and stay under the radar. I thought this was feasible in the beginning but the more I got into my van build, the more I learned that being stealthy wasn’t really a thing. I already had a roof fan on my van so anyone in their right mind would know that a person was inside.
Nevertheless, I still decided to install flexible solar panels. It made the most sense for my van build.
The real question you may want to know is how good are they? Well, let’s talk more about this.
Are Flexible Solar Panels Good For Campers?
At the time of this writing, I have had my flexible solar panels installed for a little over a year now. I have been on numerous trips and have used my electricity in my van extensively.
Even when I am not on trips, I generally am inside my van every single day. I am always improving something inside or working on something that never got finished. During these times, I use my lights and electrical outlets and I keep my solar battery bank charging and in use regularly.
I have been highly impressed with how my panels have held up and how efficient they have been. My doubts, in the beginning, were unfounded and I have become a fan of using flexible panels after my time with them.
Flexible solar panels are a great option for campers because they are easy to install, lightweight and can be curved to match the contours of the camper. Today’s solar panels have improved greatly and are efficient enough to provide a great solar power experience.
With that being said, flexible solar panels would not be a great option for a home or other off-grid install where they will be mounted stationary on a flat surface. In this case, I would suggest standard solar panels because you will be able to capture more of the sun’s energy with them.
Flexible panels work for campers because of the convenience. I have been happy with mine but I will admit that I wish I could get a bit more out of them.
I have 200 watts (2 x 100-watt panels) installed on my roof and on the best, full-sun day, I will get about 140 watts coming into my charge controller.
That isn’t great but it serves my purpose well and considering that I don’t use a lot of electricity in my van, they keep my batteries fully charged most of the time.
How Long Does A Flexible Solar Panel Last?
I certainly hope they last a long time since I am depending on mine to capture the sun’s energy. This depends on the brand of the panel you use as well as how they are installed and how well they are maintained.
It’s not always easy to maintain solar panels because they are often mounted in obscure locations that make them difficult to get to. I have used a ladder to get on top of my van to check mine ever so often.
I do not have a ladder attached to my camper van so it is a chore having to set up a ladder. Not that it’s difficult, it’s just something that tends to get put off for another day.
It also depends on the type of panel that you have. There are different types and each of them may have a different lifespan. Let’s look at two of the most popular types of flexible solar panels and the lifespan you can expect from each.
- Monocrystalline – The highest quality, most expensive panels that are made of the highest quality silicon. They are long-lasting and may last up to 25 years with 80% efficiency. This is the type that I chose for my camper van.
- Polycrystalline – Lower priced and not as efficient as Monocrystalline. These are also designed to last up to 25 years with 80% efficiency.
Note: There are other types of solar panels but the two types listed above are mostly what you will find on the market.
The years listing in the above options are based on product warranties. Renogy warranties their flexible panels for 25 years with an 80% efficiency rating, meaning that after 25 years, they should still be working at 80% of their original efficiency.
This is for the power output rating and not for the materials themselves. They offer a 5-year warranty on the material and workmanship of the product.
I’m not sure how this will play out since I have never owned solar panels that long. I would be a happy camper if I was able to get 5 – 10 years out of them.
Renogy Flexible Solar Panel Review
I chose to use Renogy 100 watt flexible solar panels on my camper van build. I researched a few different brands and finally settled on Renogy because of the reviews I found on them.
I used Goal Zero as my solar energy solution and the Renogy panels are what I chose to use in combination with it. Goal Zero doesn’t offer flexible panels so I had to seek them out from other companies.
I got a good deal on them during their Holiday sales so I ended up getting them at a great price. I’ll admit that these are the first flexible solar panels that I have used but upon receiving them, I could tell that they were of great quality.
These panels are Monocrystalline which are made from the highest quality silicon. They really do feel like they are well made and will last a while.
They are also very lightweight with each one weighing in at only 4 pounds. This is minimal and will not even be a noticeable addition in weight for my camper van. This is one of the main reasons that I went with the thin, flexible option.
I didn’t mount the panels directly to my roof. Instead, I installed them on top of Coroplast corrugated plastic which was cut just a bit bigger than the panels. I did this so that the panels would have a buffer from the hot metal roof and would be able to run at a cooler temperature.
This worked great and made the installation a simple process. I’m hoping that this will help to avoid overheating on my panels and allow them to perform better and last longer.
After using my flexible solar panels for over a year now, I can say that I have been very happy with the performance that I have gotten from them. In the hot summer sun, the surface temperature typically measures about 135° with the full sun beaming down on them.
I am aware that rigid solar panels would likely be more efficient and provide me with more wattage coming into my solar charger. However, the easy installation, as well as the stealthy nature of flexible solar panels, made it the best option for me to use.
If I had gone with rigid solar panels, I would have installed a roof rack to place them on and this roof rack would’ve added to the weight and took away any stealthiness from the van. Also, rigid solar panels are much heavier than flexible ones so this alone steered me in the direction of flexible panels.
I have not had a problem with them yet and they have functioned as they should on many trips and provided me with all the solar energy that I need. I am happy with the Renogy solar panels and recommend them if you are building a van yourself or would like to use them on your camper or RV.
5 Simple Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Your Flexible Solar Panels
- Don’t install them directly on a metal roof.. Overheating can be a problem if they are installed on a hot metal roof. It’s a good idea to create a buffer from the metal roof that you can install them on. Corrugated plastic is a great solution for this.
- Keep them covered when not in use. When you are not using them and not using the camper that they are installed on, it’s a good idea to keep them covered. You can cover them in the off-season by using an RV cover.
- Keep them clean and free from debris. Use soap and water often to scrub the panels clean. If you don’t, your panels could become covered in dirt and grime, bird poop, bugs and other things that might restrict their performance.
- Avoid walking or stepping on them. Many flexible panels are marketed as being strong enough to walk on. I wouldn’t do it unless you want to damage them or send them to an early grave.
- Avoid too much bending. Although they are flexible, I wouldn’t suggest bending them any more than you have too. Just because they can bend doesn’t mean you need to take it to extremes. Try to keep them as flat as possible for the best performance.
Flexible Solar Panels vs Rigid Solar Panels
If you are having a hard time deciding between flexible and rigid solar panels, I know exactly how you feel. I went through the process myself and nearly pulled my hair out trying to make the best decision.
It comes down to solar efficiency. If you have a large requirement for energy, you probably want to stick with rigid panels as these will be able to capture more energy from the sun.
On the other hand, if you are like me and live a more minimal lifestyle, flexible panels will give you all that you need. 200 watts of solar panels have been more than enough for my needs so far. If I need more, I have room on my roof for another panel or two so I can always add to it in the future.
Flexible panels are more expensive than traditional rigid panels so you will need to consider this as well as you go about choosing your panels.
Why Do Flexible Solar Panels Fail
Flexible solar panels are more fragile than the traditional, rigid panels. This makes sense because flexible panels need to bend and be able to be mounted into positions that rigid panels might not be able to be.
Rigid panels are covered in tempered glass and maintain a decent amount of protection from the elements. Backing your RV up under a low hanging tree and having tree branches rubbing on your flexible panels could be damaging. You should consider things like this when you choose to have flexible solar panels and be extra careful.
Another big reason that flexible solar panels sometimes fail is that they tend to overheat more than rigid panels do. They often do not receive any airflow in the positions that they are installed in since they are usually installed on metal roofs.
You can combat this by installing them on corrugated plastic as mentioned earlier in the post. This will help to lift the panels off of the surface and will allow for better airflow and heat dissipation.
There is no reason that you shouldn’t be able to expect a decent life span with flexible panels as long as you take care of them. Understand that they are more fragile than rigid panels so you will need to do all that you can to not put them in situations that may damage them.
The Best Flexible Solar Panels
I have been very happy with the performance of the Renogy flexible solar panels. They have met my requirements very well and I have been pleased with the performance of them. I will admit that these are the only flexible solar panels that I have used but I have done a fair amount of research.
Renogy makes a few options of flexible panels and I have chosen the 100-watt panels for my use. They also make a 50-watt version and also a 160-watt version.
Pros & Cons of Renogy Flexible solar panels
- Customer Service – The customer service is reported to be great and I have dealt with them myself and had a pleasant experience. They were knowledgeable, helpful and gracious in helping me with a beginner issue of figuring out the proper parts I needed to connect to a Goal Zero Yeti 1400.
- High Quality – These panels are high quality and have a sturdy, well-made feel to them. I expect them to last for many years.
- Lightweight – Like most flexible panels, these are lightweight and at only 4 pounds for the 100-watt panels, the load is negligible.
- Expensive – While there aren’t many cons to purchasing these panels, they are not the cheapest option on the market but you often get what you pay for.
Flexible solar panels can be very good when installed and used in the right application. They are best when used in areas where it would be difficult to mount rigid solar panels.
Campers and other odd-shaped vehicles are great candidates for flexible solar panels and they will serve the purpose quite well.
As technology keeps improving, they will only get better and better which is great for consumers who need a more flexible solution.
I have been happy using flexible solar panels and would probably use them again if I had it to do over. I can’t say yet whether they will stand the test of time but so far they have held up well and have done a great job.