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Harbor Freight Solar Panels: An Inexpensive Energy Boost to Our RV Solar System

Harbor Freight solar panels are working! We recently purchased a solar kit with a set of three panels, and installed them on our motorhome. They are giving us more electricity. They were inexpensive. Harbor Freight advertises them to campers and RVers, but I was skeptical. Now, I am glad we bought them for our RV.

Harbor Freight Solar Panels Are a Welcome Addition

Harbor Freight solar panels catch my attention every time we get a new Harbor Freight catalog advertising them. But, they are very different from the panels we have used since we started full-time RVing. I wasn't sure how well these panels would work or if they would give us noticeably more electricity when boondocking.

The RV (Class C motorhome) we are currently in has two of the original solar panels we purchased in 1992. They have been in continuous use for over 25 years. They still work fine. The other original panels are now on our travel trailer that we leave in Alaska. With our system split between two RVs, we want more watts of charge from the sun here in the motorhome.

Harbor Freight Solar Panels Installed on our Class C MotorhomeHarbor Freight Solar Panels Installed on Our Class C Motorhome

We went to the Harbor Freight store in Brownsville, Texas, on an outing with friends from the RV park. Harbor Freight had a set of three 15-watt solar panels. They tied together, for an output of 45 watts. With a 20% off coupon I had from a magazine, the price was very reasonable. I was there, there would no shipping charges; and I felt they were worth taking a chance. So we bought them.

The new Harbor Freight solar panel setup came with a framework and legs, some wiring, a set of alligator clamps, a charge controller, and two 12-volt compact fluorescent lights with fixtures. With the addition of a battery, this would be ideal for a standalone system to light a tent or canvas shelter.

I would use it differently. The lights, alligator clips, legs, and some wiring would end up as spare parts.

Coleen and I like to keep things simple. I installed theses new Harbor Freight panels so they are left permanently in place. There's no need to set them up and put them away. They sit on the roof, always in use. We leave them flat; we do not raise and tilt them.

I modified the frame and mounted the solar panels permanently on top of the motor home. I used the existing luggage as a mounting base. I reinforced it with salvaged aluminum angle iron as a cross member. This set up made mounting possible without putting any screw holes in the roof. Mounting them this way served two purposes. It didn't add holes in the roof to leak. I can move the panels to another RV, leaving no trace behind.

Harbor Freight Charge Controller that We Added to Our RV Solar Electric SystemHarbor Freight Charge Controller that We Added to Our RV Solar Electric System

I ran the wiring down the refrigerator vent and drilled a hole behind the refrigerator to route the wire into the motor home. I sealed around the wire with some silicone caulk. I located the charge controller behind some drawers under the refrigerator. From the charge controller, I routed the output wire, under the cupboards to the DC power panel. I wired in directly to the main positive lug coming from the batteries, and the main common ground (negative) lug. I flipped the switch on the charge controller and the solar panels started charging.

Here are some of the differences between our old solar panels and components and our new ones from Harbor Freight. The old solar panels were original built for a government funded study, to see if solar energy was a feasible option for the nation’s electric power. The solar panels were built to exacting standards with monocrystaline silicon wafers; aluminum frames; tempered glass; and watertight junction boxes, with duel sets of heavy lugs for output wires. The new solar panels are a thin film amorphous silicon, plastic frame, and thin glass with thin wires coming directly out of the frame.

Our Original Monocrystaline Solar Panels on Our MotorhomeOur Original Monocrystaline Solar Panels on Our Motorhome

The new solar panels took up about the same footprint for 45 watts of panels as 96 watts of the old solar panels. The old charge controller was designed with the latest electronic technology at the time, and sized to allow adding extra solar panels to the system. The new charge controller has a lot of power outlets and is impressive looking, but is just heavy enough to handle the solar panels that come with the system. The old system was connected with heavy gauge copper wire, protected by a heavy sunlight resistant sheathing. With my previous experience sizing electrical wiring, considering load and voltage drop, I questioned if the wire provided with the new solar panels was heavy enough.

Knowing what I do about solar played a part in this purchase. I knew I would be able to add them to our existing system. I figured these new Harbor Freight solar panels would help us with enough extra charging to make a difference -- and they have.

A Close-Up of Our Harbor Freight Solar Panels Mounted on Our Class C MotorhomeA Close-Up of Our HF Solar Panels Mounted on Our Class C Motorhome

I would not recommend this system to an RVer looking to be energy independent. I would not recommend it to someone who wants the freedom to park an extended time without shore power. It isn’t big enough for normal use of electric household appliances and power tools. It isn't enough to let you boondock for days on end without a generator. If we had bought these for our first RV, I would have been disenfranchised with the whole idea of a photovoltaic system. As a standalone system for us, this set would have been just a disappointment and waste of money.

But, remember, we bought them to supplement the solar system we already had. I am happy with how they are working for that. They extend the length of time we can go without using our generator or plugging in to campground electricity.

I would also recommend this system to someone who is curious about solar power and wants to get some idea of how it works. This Harbor Freight solar kit could be a fun learning tool. It could get you excited about a full-fledged solar system.

Living off solar created energy requires learning the capabilities and limitations of your individual system. It also requires a commitment to living within those limitations. With a little effort it can save you money and greatly expand your RVing experience. And, if you find you are just a little short on power, adding inexpensive panels like these from Harbor Freight is a big help.


Editor's note: My husband, Bob Nilles, wrote this article. Solar power fascinated him when he installed our first photovoltaic system on our travel trailer, and lo and behold, without being hooked up to a regular electrical connection, we had electricity to power our lights, tools, and appliances. He now has a better understanding of how it works, but the end result -- electricity from the sun -- still amazes him.

Go to the RV Life and Travel home page to find more articles about RVs, RV camping, and full-time RVing.

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