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solar sizing - the Big Picture

There are many calculators where you can plug in the numbers. This page is a 35,000ft view of how choices affect what you will need.

overall economics

Solar is extremely expensive when used alone. Since solar is dependent on local conditions one has to size the system to the worst conditions: winter, high latitudes, bad weather. Adding in another form of charging not affected by local conditions means you can downsize your solar to fit average conditions, saving money and space.

In general bigger systems (higher wattage panels, bigger controllers, bigger battery banks) cost less per-watt-harvested.

days of reserve

Your reserve requirements will profoundly affect the size, complexity, and cost of the system. Sizing for an overnight camping trip is easy; sizing for a three day trip a challenge; sizing for a long trip or full-time vandwelling is serious business. See the bottom of this article for example configurations.

solar panels

The bare-bones minimum for solar, assuming everything goes exactly right,1) is 1:1 panel-to-Ah. e.g. 150w for a 150Ah battery bank. In reality, solar that small is usually insufficient unless one has unusually small power needs or adds in another form of charging (see below). Newbies typically think their power needs are small until they sit down to read those power labels on the stuff that want to run. D'oh!

Most people will do best with much more panel-to-battery depending on battery chemistry, geography and use patterns.

You will need somewhat more solar

  • if you live in an area with relatively little sun, like the American Northwest.
  • if you want to run more loads
  • if you live offgrid full time (FT)
  • to run things off inverter rather than 12v
  • to charge a bigger battery bank
  • to charge lead-chemistries (FLA, AGM, Gel) rather than lithium

You will need somewhat less solar

  • if you live in an area with a great deal of sun, like the American Southwest.
  • if you augment solar with generator, isolator, etc
  • if you live in the vehicle part time (PT) and can charge consistently from shore power when not camping.
  • if you voluntarily reduce your power consumption
  • if you time-shift loads to periods like the afternoon when excess power is available

solar charge controller

controller choice

Most people do fine with a PWM controller. Folks who live off-grid with lead-chemistry batteries can get by with a $10 cheapie.

You may want an MPPT controller:

  • if you discharge your batteries deeply overnight2)
  • if you have a lithium or AGM bank3)

You will need an MPPT controller:

  • if your panels are higher voltage than your battery bank (e.g. 24v panels and 12v bank)

controller sizing

Controllers are rated by the Amps they can pump out. A 20A controller can handle up to 20 Amps (about 250w incoming power, depending on battery voltage).

A common rule of thumb for sizing PWM controllers is to divide panel wattage by 10; 300w4) of panel on a 30A PWM controller. They are cheap enough that a little oversizing is not a big deal, and they need a bit of headroom since they do not throttle incoming current to protect themselves.5)

MPPT sizing is less straightforward. These tend to cost 2-3x as much for a given rating as PWM, so oversizing can get $$$. MPPT have the ability to clip power during unusually-high harvest to limit current to their rated capacity. For this reason they are often sized to the power the panels make under normal circumstances rather than the panels' lab rated power.


  • A 200w panel might really only make 166W in actual use under good conditions. This panel might be used with a 15A MPPT controller.
  • 300w of panel might make 249w under good conditions. 25A controllers are rare, so they might be put on a 20A mppt controller
  • MPPT smaller than 10A are rare, so 100w-150w of panel are usually put on 10A mppt.

battery bank

Having an undersized bank means running out of power at night. Sitting in the dark at night with no fan.

Having an oversized lead bank for your charging ability results in battery murder and replacement. Having an oversized lithium bank is $$$ and can strain the alternator if a current-limiting isolator isn't used.

IMO, it is better to have an undersized bank you can charge fully and consistently rather than a bigger bank you cannot charge.

You will need somewhat more Ah capacity

  • if you have undersized solar

You will need somewhat less Ah capacity

  • if you run loads in the daytime instead of at night
  • if you have oversized solar

alternator charging

For most people living in vehicles alternator charging + modest solar will be the best-performing system for the dollar.

You will need some kind of alternator charging

  • if you have no solar
  • if you have insufficient solar ←- very common
  • if you have AGM, which craves a ton of current in Bulk charging

You will not need alternator charging

  • if you have a ton of solar
  • if you stay on shore power much of the time
  • if have solar and most of your driving happens after noon6)

More expensive DC-DC chargers are warranted when

  • you have no solar
  • current-hungry battery like AGM or lithium threatens your alternator's longevity, or you need to restrict charging rate for lithium.
  • you have a voltage-sensitive battery like gel or lithium

example setups

overnight camping

  • advantages - only 24 hours away from home (and grid power), only need to store power for 24 hours of use. No need to generate power.
  • challenges - need to keep battery bank on a small charger/maintainer at home to avoid sulfation and early death

The battery is used occasionally and briefly then put back on the maintainer at home. The battery doesn't have to be particularly good7); it can be a chain store battery, often labeled “marine” or “hybrid” or similar.

It is used to run small fans, LED lights, recharge phones.

weekend camping

This is like the scenario above, only with more battery capacity required.

For a longer discussion Also see blog article AGM Charging for Weekenders.


In this scenario you are away from home for long stretches of time, driving daily to the next campsite. The system needs to be self-sufficient

  • advantages - driving daily makes DC-DC chargers highly effective.
  • disadvantages - rough roads increase likelihood of damage to plain lead batteries. Forest camping can make shade a challenge. Fully-provisioned roof racks make mounted solar a challenge.

More expensive chemistries like AGM or lithium are warranted; plain FLA batteries may experience plate damage from vibration and rough driving. DC-DC charging will do the majority of charging, with a portable panel or two supplementing charging/loads during the day.

stealth camping

Stealth camping has some similarity to overlanding in that the stealth camper will likely drive every day.

  • advantages - driving at least a short distance every day for relocation or work commute makes alternator charging effective.
  • disadvantages - need to remain stealthy limits solar array mounting

The relatively short distances driven by stealthers means that a plain isolator will likely outperform a fancy DC-DC charger. These quick blasts suggest the need for a bank that can suck up power fast: AGM or lithium.

The need for stealth suggests smaller (more discreet arrays): higher-effiency panels, parhaps with black frames to minimize visual impact to onlookers.

The possibility of shore power charging, even rarely, means the stealther may want to adding a shore power port and converter/charger.10)

fulltime boondocking

  • advantages - roofspace can be devoted to large solar arrays. Can choose batteries based on long-term value.
  • disadvantages - in-place camping makes DC-DC charging less cost-effective. Entire life must be powered, not just recreational loads while camping. Days of autonomy == forever.

This isn't a game or vacation anymore; this is your life. You need power every day and under all conditions. The most reliable way to do this is by overpaneling (having massive solar to account for all weather conditions), although you could do it with smaller solar combined with a generator.

Battery banks tend to be either lithium or flooded 6v golf cart11) batteries in series, both of which have lifetime $/kAh costs under $2.

shallow discharge, excellent solar conditions, well-designed system
low battery voltage hamstrings PWM
they have lower resistance and so come up to voltage more slowly; see point above
rated power
they do use PWM switching to throttle current to hold a given setpoint
the isolator contributes best during Bulk, which typically occurs in the morning
it will die within a couple years no matter how good or bad we treat it
unless isolator installed
and carry a long, heavy, outdoor-rated extension cord!
opinion/solar/sizing.txt · Last modified: 2021/10/04 12:00 by frater_secessus