If you like free, silent, maintenance-free power to extend your camping time away from hookups, adding solar panels to your Airstream is an obvious choice. You’ve got two basic choices: fixed panels on the roof, or portable folding panels that you deploy as needed on the ground.
Fixed panels are convenient and always available without any setup, but they can’t be turned to optimize their angle to the sun (although with some installations you can at least tilt the panels). As a result, they tend to produce less power. Also, the installation cost of fixed panels can be fairly high.
The alternative is portable panels. These have to be taken out and placed on the ground, but once you do that you’ve got freedom to place them where the sun is shining (a very handy feature when your Airstream is parked in the shade), and you can angle them for optimal power generation.
There’s no reason not to use both fixed and portable panels. This combination offers the best of both worlds, if you can justify the investment.
We’ve been testing a 120-watt portable panels system by Go Power. This comes as a kit, including two panels that fold down to 32.5 x 19.9 x 2.8″, which is a reasonable size for tossing in the back seat or cargo area of an SUV, or storing inside the Airstream during travel. We chose this size as the best balance between size, weight, and power output. There are larger 200-watt panels available but they weigh as much as a 2000-watt generator (nearly 50 pounds) and are harder to store.
Smaller panels, in our opinion, are not worth it. For example, an 80-watt panel will keep a pair of Airstream batteries charged when there’s little or no power being used in the trailer, but you’ll probably lose ground quickly on a typical day at the campsite. Just one laptop can consume more power than an 80-watt panel can generate. If you really want to extend your camping time, the 120 watt system is a far better choice, and it weighs only about 35 pounds, so it’s not hard to carry.
The kit from Go Power also includes a padded nylon carry case, a convenient carry handle, a heavy-gauge 15-foot extension cable, a digital solar charge controller (essential) and connections for battery terminals (both ring-type connectors and alligator clips). This is enough to get you started.
Quality is the major differentiating factor we’ve encountered. All 120-watt solar panels will produce the same power—the difference you’ll notice is in the build quality. Go Power impressed us with quality touches all around. The folding legs are easy to adjust and stay in position without a hassle. The panels are protected with plastic corners and deep aluminum edges. The carry case (the best protective feature) is really tough. The wires and connectors are rugged, and the digital charge controller leaves the older analog controllers typically found on other brands in the shade.
You might think that these are all features that should be found on any portable solar panel kit, but sadly that’s not the case. We also tested an inexpensive Chinese brand that had plenty of signs of cheap manufacture: metal burrs along the frames of the panels, no carry case, non-adjustable legs, flimsy cable connectors, thin wires, and an extremely basic charge controller that only showed green, red, and yellow lights. Solar panels are a commodity item these days, so when buying a portable kit you definitely get what you pay for. Cheap solar kits have cheap (or no) accessories and poor build quality.
For convenience, Go Power also offers a unique 7-pin plug adapter, which means you can connect the panels directly to the same 7-pin cable you use while towing, and avoid having to run a wire to the battery terminals. A 30-foot extension cable is also available, which gives you much more range to find the ideal sun-gathering spot. You can combine the 15-foot and 30-foot extensions to make a total of 45 feet—enough to reach a sunny spot even in very shaded camping areas.
In real-world testing with a Tri-Metric amp-hour meter, we found the performance of these panels to be exactly as advertised. We used the panels to augment a fixed-panel installation on the Airstream roof, which worked well. In the early morning the angled Go Power portables produced power when the fixed panels were still staring straight up at the sky and waiting for the sun to rise.
Same was true in the late afternoon when we were making dinner—the output of the fixed panels (facing the sky) trickled down to virtually nothing but the Go Power panels were pointed west and still gathering energy. During the middle of the day, the combination of fixed roof panels and portable Go Power panels was frankly awesome.
We recommend portable solar panels as a relatively inexpensive way to break into solar. You get immediate usability: no installation and no drilling required. You can expand your system by chaining multiple panels together, so there’s an expansion path if you need it. Even if you decide to add fixed roof panels later, you’ll still be able to use the portables whenever you need an extra boost, making them a safe investment.
The Go Power 120-watt solar panel kit is available in the Airstream Life Store, along with all accessories. Shipping is free and each kit comes with the exclusive Airstream Life booklet “Tips For Using Solar Power.”