The Battle of Off Grid Power: Solar Panels vs Generators

Which is the better off grid power option: solar or generators?

The solar vs generator debate isn’t new – but it is becoming more important for anyone thinking of travelling or living off the grid.

Let’s face it. We can’t leave home without our smart phones, tablets, laptops, air-conditioner and maybe even a coffee machine. But with all these creature comforts, we need a reliable power solution to keep everything running when we need it.

The most popular way to top up your batteries is either by using solar panels or a generator. But which is better?

Here’s the thing, both solar and generators have their pros and cons. Let’s take a look at how they weigh up in our solar vs generators review:

SOLAR VS GENERATORS

BENEFITS OF SOLAR

Clean power

This is easily the most important benefit of solar panels. There’s no noise, no fumes and they’re environmentally friendly.

Free power

Solar panels are free to run. With solar, there’s no need to buy fuel to keep the panels running. The sun’s energy is completely free. So, once you’ve bought the gear, you don’t need to pay a cent.

DRAWBACKS OF SOLAR

Takes a lot longer to charge up

One of the biggest drawbacks of solar is that it takes a lot longer to charge up your batteries than a generator. So, if you’re running appliances with high energy consumption all the time, such as heating and air-conditioning, solar isn’t always enough. The energy produced by a solar system is limited by the number and size of panels you can fit on your roof (or near your van).

solar vs generators
The amount of energy produced by your solar system will depend on how many solar panels can fit on your vehicle roof

Bad weather = no power

If there is a run of bad weather and no sun, you will not be able to charge up your batteries. No charge = no power. And the last thing you want is to run out of power early in your trip and find yourself in the middle of nowhere without any power.

Initial set-up costs

The initial outlay for solar panels can be more than generators. That’s because solar panels only supply charge to a battery, where a generator can supply power directly to your appliances.

For solar, you need a regulator to safely regulate the charge to your batteries. You also need a longer cable to you can park in shade and still soak up the sun’s rays. These things cost money – but once you have it all set up, the power is free.

BENEFITS OF GENERATORS

Fast charging

If you want to charge your battery quickly, the best way is to run a 240-volt battery charger off the generator’s AC output. This will recharge the battery much faster than solar, while regulating the charge. 

Run appliances directly

A generator can run appliances directly without needing to charge the battery first. In fact, they are better than solar when you’re using them with power-hungry devices, like your air con and coffee machine.

solar vs generators
The Briggs & Stratton 3000W Inverter Generator is a popular generator model for off-grid travel!

Not dependent on the weather

Probably the biggest advantage of generators vs solar is that they are not dependent on good weather. A generator provides reliable power, so long as you remember to keep it fuelled up.  

DRAWBACKS OF GENERATORS

Fuel

Fact: Generators consume fuel. This means you not only have the continuous running cost of a generator, but you also have to make sure you’re carrying enough fuel.

Emissions, noise and restrictions

Unlike solar panels, generators can be noisy. How noisy depends on the model. There are definitely quieter generators on the market, but you can’t get away from the fact that they still make noise. 

Because of this lots of national parks and public places don’t allow the use of generators, or put strict time restrictions on when they can be used.

Heavy and bulky

Generators are heavier than solar panels, with generators weighing anywhere between 13 – 30kg – before you add fuel. They are also bulkier, taking up more room in your caravan.

That said, there are more and more lightweight, compact units coming onto the market especially designed for campers.

Our Solar vs Generator Verdict

There is a way to benefit from clean solar power and reliable generator power – combine them. Use solar panels to top up your battery whenever the weather is good. Then, use a back-up generator when the weather is bad or you need to run power-hungry appliances, like air-con.

Combining the two options will reduce your generator’s run time and ensure you still have reliable power when you need it.

Pro Tip

For a high end combination set up, look for an Inverter Charger that offers Power Assist. Victron Energy developed Power Assist years ago and it is very relevant for off grid campers today. Power Assist allows you to use power from a very small generator (like a 1000W) in combination with power from your battery Bank via your inverter charger .

So you might pull 800W out of a generator and 600W or 50Amp out of a 12V system to runt the Dometic Ibis MK4 Reverse Cycle Roof Top Air Conditioner on max power. If you were only using Battery you would be using 116Amps out of your 12V system, which would drain your batteries far too quicklys

Need help choosing a generator or solar panel to suit your needs? Give one of our product experts a call on 1300 400 122!

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