A view from the top of a van overlooking the mountainside and showing the solar panel built into the top of the van
Installing a solar panel can make all the difference to the van life traveller, image credit: Adobe stock

To live the nomadic life means potentially compromising on the modern luxuries of hot water, heating and electricity but installing solar panels can make the van life easier and much more comfortable.

How do solar panels work?

Solar panels work by allowing particles of light to knock electrons out of atoms, creating a flow of electricity. Solar panels are made up of smaller units called photovoltaic cells (PV cells) which convert sunlight into electricity. The general rule of thumb: more PV cells means that more electricity will be generated.

Know the electrical output

Before buying any solar panels, it’s important to calculate the amount of power that the van and all of the appliances will need.

Shannon Lawford, 26, has been living in her self-converted van for the past three years. She says, “The best advice I can give is to see what electrical items you will have in your van before deciding on what panels suit your build,” adding, “if you’re building a micro-camper you may want to go for a flexi panel. They’re stealthier, a lot easier to install and provide enough power for small devices.”

In contrast, if you want a big, fully off-the-grid set up Shannon recommends larger panels to accommodate the electrical devices that you will need.

Solar panels range from less than 100W to 400W; according to a 2023 Roaming Home study the most popular size for vans was 300W.

Shannon decided on two rigid 170W panels and a DIY installation process, but added: “I did have someone help me lift them up as they’re very heavy and hard to lift on your own.”

A portrait of Shannon Lawford standing in front of the backdrop of very sandy looking mountain area, with large mountains behind.
Shannon Lawford on her travels. Image credit: Shannon Lawford

Choose the solar panel type

Monocrystalline solar panels

Pros: They are most efficient for your van, live a long life and have a warranty of over 20 years.

Cons: They are very heavy and cannot bend.

Polycrystalline solar panels

Pros: They have a long life, a warranty of over 20 years and are cheaper than monocrystalline panels.

Cons: They are heavy, do not bend and can be less efficient.

Flexible solar panels

Pros: They are very light and bend to the shape of your van.

Cons: They are the least efficient of the three options and tend to have an average warranty of five years.

Shannon Lawford sat on top of her red van in the middle of an open car park, taking a selfie that shows the solar panels on top of her van
Try installing solar panels yourself and the open road in style this year. Image credit: Shannon Lawford.

Batteries

A good battery is also essential when installing solar panels. With good battery excess, solar energy can be saved and used at night or in periods of low sunlight.

The most popular batteries for van conversion include:

  • AGM
  • Gel
  • Lithium-ion

The best battery differs for every van build as the amount of power that each van needs is different, depending on the owner’s needs and appliances.

Lithium-ion batteries are favoured in the van life community due to their high quality, high longevity and low maintenance needs.

Solar panel facts: