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Flexible solar panels are becoming increasingly popular among outdoor enthusiasts, tiny home and RV dwellers, and people looking for the off-the-grid lifestyle. Their affordability, versatility, and simple installation are just a few of the benefits that make them attractive to people looking for an easy solution to their renewable energy needs.
One of the best things about flexible solar panels is that they can be attached to surfaces where other options cannot. You can affix them to an awning on a boat or pop-up camper, the curved roof of an RV, or even strap them to a backpack to charge electronic devices when hiking through the woods.
So, what are flexible PV panels, how are they used, and do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?
Here’s the ultimate guide to everything you need to know about flexible solar panels.
What Are Flexible Solar Panels?
Flexible solar panels, also known as bendable renewable energy encasements, are different from the rigid solar panels you commonly see on home rooftops or large-scale ground PV installations.
Flexible solar panels come in various shapes and sizes. Because solar cells are encased in a flexible structure rather than glass and metal, they’ve become extremely popular among outdoor enthusiasts and people living off-grid.
Flexible solar panels are ideal for RVs, boats, electric watercraft, tents, vehicle roofs, awnings, or even strapped to a hiking pack of someone trekking through the woods.
Although flexible solar panels are not intended to power the engine of an RV or boat, installing them strategically, combined with rigid and portable PV panels, portable power stations, or a Power Kit, is an excellent way to meet your off-grid energy needs.
How Do Flexible Solar Panels Work?
Flexible solar panels work similarly to traditional rigid panels, more so than portable and thin-film panels. Like rigid panels, flexible solar encasements use either monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon cells to absorb the sun’s energy and generate electricity.
The technology used by flexible solar encasements (and other PV panels) is called the photovoltaic effect. When the sun shines on a flexible solar panel, it transmits electromagnetic radiation (photons) directly to the PV cells located in the panel.
The energy absorbed by the PV cells is converted into electricity through a response to an internal electric field inside the PV cell. The electricity flowing from the panels can be used or stored in solar batteries or portable power stations.
What Are the Differences Between Flexible Solar Panels and Traditional Solar Panels?
There are many differences between flexible and traditional rigid solar panels. The main difference is that the flexible option is better suited for mobile or temporary applications, and rigid panels are best for permanent solar installations designed for long-term use.
The main reason that flexible panels are better suited for mobile applications and rigid ones are better for fixed long-term solar use has to do with how they are installed.
Rigid solar panels are heavy and more expensive. They also have more electricity generation potential. Typically, the solar cells are encased in glass and aluminum. Rigid panels almost always require an additional mounting bracket system for installation that their flexible counterparts do not.
Flexible panels, on the other hand, are lightweight, inexpensive, and can be installed using industrial adhesives or VHB tapes. A flexible solar panel installation can typically be done DIY-style, whereas rigid encasements may require a professional installer.
Here are some additional differences between flexible and rigid options.
- Efficiency: Although rigid solar panels are more expensive, they also often come with much higher rated power output than flexible options. It’s also crucial to remember that solar panel efficiency can vary depending on the manufacturer. Typically, rigid panels are better at converting the sun’s energy into usable electricity.
- Lifespan: Both flexible and rigid panels are designed to last a long time; however, rigid encasements can come with a life span of up to 40+ years, whereas flexible solar encasements typically last closer to 15 to 20 years.
- Bendability: Another difference between flexible and rigid solar panels is the bendability of flexible encasements. Rigid encasements require more space in flat, wide-open spaces like the roof of a house, whereas a flexible product can bend and shape to be installed on curved surfaces like the overhang of an RV or the awning of a pop-up camper.
Aside from these factors, flexible solar panels tend to be less expensive overall. However, when it comes to price per watt of energy production, rigid panels are by far the most cost-effective option costing nearly 50% less.
Types of Flexible Solar Panels
Currently, there are two primary types of flexible solar panels available on the market. The first kind of flexible solar panel is a thin-film solar panel that contains photovoltaic material printed directly onto a flexible surface.
The second type of flexible solar panel is made from crystalline silicon cells. The crystalline silicon is molded into wafers and then encased in flexible plastic that provides enough bendability to mount onto irregularly shaped surfaces.
Of the two main types of flexible solar panels, the crystalline silicon option is the most commonly used.
Components of a Flexible Solar Panel
The components of bendable solar installations are basic, making them easy to install on their own. Here are the basic components you typically receive when you purchase an EcoFlow flexible solar panel for installation on your RV, boat, or tiny home.
- An encasement housing 182 monocrystalline silicon cells form the photovoltaic part of the panel. This is the electricity-generating portion of the encasement that can be molded to fit irregular surfaces.
- Solar charging cable to connect the solar encasement to additional panels as well as the portable power station or other balance of system being used for the installation.
- Steel-reinforced eyelets for mounting with screws if you prefer not to use an adhesive for securing the PV panel to the surface.
What Are the Advantages of Flexible Solar Panels?
As mentioned before, flexible solar encasements have become increasingly popular among outdoor enthusiasts due to their versatility. This type of encasement can be used in far more applications than their conventional rigid counterparts. However, each has advantages that make them better suited for different uses.
Here are some of the main advantages of flexible solar encasements.
- Easy installation: Flexible panels are easy to install. Because they are lightweight and moldable, they can be installed on different surfaces without needing heavy-duty mounting brackets. Flexible solar panels typically do not require drilling, and they can be installed on your own using industrial adhesives or VHB tape.
- Lightweight: The lightweight nature of the flexible solar panels makes them ideal for RVs, boats, and other uses where weight can be a concern. For example, if you drive an RV with low fuel economy, you are most likely looking for ways to increase your fuel efficiency to save on costs. Flexible panels can help you meet your electricity demands without adding significant weight to your RV.
- Bendable: The bendability of flexible solar panels can be up to 258°. That is an incredible amount of flex that makes these panels ideal for almost any irregularly-shaped surface.
- Less expensive: Flexible solar panels are much cheaper than rigid panels, making them ideal for smaller solar installations designed for outdoor recreational use.
What Are the Disadvantages of Flexible Solar Panels?
Although the advantages of flexible solar encasements are pretty compelling, it is equally important to consider the disadvantages to make the right choice for the type of solar panels you need for your specific project.
Here are some of the main disadvantages of flexible solar encasements.
- Less efficient: Although some brands may produce flexible solar encasements with a similar efficiency rating to their rigid counterparts, overall, rigid solar panels generate electricity much more efficiently.
- Shorter life span: Flexible solar panels are only designed to last between 15 and 20 years, whereas rigid solar encasements can last up to 40 or more years.
- Poor installation can lead to problems: Although installing flexible encasements is more straightforward than installing rigid solar panels, if you do a poor job, you may have your flexible encasements blown off in a storm or when traveling down the freeway. Flexible encasements are lightweight and susceptible to high winds if not securely fastened to a surface. If you have any doubts about your ability to install flexible solar panels on your own, seek the services of a professional solar installer.
Uses and Applications of Flexible Solar Panels
For most applications, a combination of rigid, portable, and flexible solar encasements is best due to the limited electricity generation capacity of flexible solar panels. Flexible solar panels are best suited to maximize available surface area by bending to affix to irregularly shaped surfaces that rigid encasements can’t be mounted to.
Here are a few examples of how flexible encasements could complement a solar installation project by maximizing available surface area to generate as much electricity as possible.
At home, your roof is typically the best place for rigid solar panels as they are more efficient at generating electricity and they have a higher-rated power output. However, what if chimneys, vents, and other obstructions obscure some areas of your roof?
Flexible encasements can fit perfectly in tight or irregular spaces that rigid encasements can’t.
Additionally, if you have a detached garage, storage shed, or an outdoor sauna that is smaller with a lower weight capacity, flexible encasements weigh much less and can be installed on low-weight-bearing roofs much more easily.
The same thing that applies to home roofs applies to RV roofs. There are sometimes vents, satellite dishes, and other obstructions you must work around. By combing flexible and rigid solar panels, you can better utilize the available surface area on the roof and other exterior areas of your RV.
Additionally, some RV models have a curved front overhang section of the roof. Flexible solar panels are ideal for forming the overhang’s curved shape, giving you even more surface area to work with to generate off-grid electricity.
Flexible solar panels are so lightweight that you can even strap them onto your backpack on long trekking expeditions. You can generate electricity and store it in a portable power station like RIVER 2 to charge your smartphone or laptop and recharge electric lanterns for nighttime use.
How to Choose the Right Flexible Solar Panel
There are several factors to consider when deciding which flexible solar panel is best for your needs. These include rated power wattage, durability, flexibility, efficiency, and size.
Let’s break each down in more detail to discuss what you should look for when choosing the right flexible solar panel for you.
- Wattage: The higher the rated power of a solar panel, the more electricity you can potentially generate. Keep in mind that solar panels rarely produce 100% of their rated power in real-world conditions. 75% of rated power (so 300W from a 400W panel) during daylight hours is a safer assumption when planning your solar array.
- Durability: Most flexible solar panels are designed to withstand rain, snow, high winds, and debris from dirt and sand for 15 to 20 years. However, you still should choose a product that comes with a warranty.
- Flexibility: Flexibility can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Make sure you measure the surface you’ll mount the panel carefully to estimate how much flex you need for the panel to form correctly to the surface.
- Efficiency: Different types of bendable solar encasements come with different efficiency ratings. With PV panels, efficiency is a specification that measures how much of the sunlight a panel is exposed to and can be turned into electricity. Most of EcoFlow’s solar panels (including the flexible ones) boast an industry-leading efficiency rating of 23%. Check the efficiency rating of any panel you are considering. It will substantially impact your return on investment (ROI).
- Size: Measure the area you are looking to install your bendable panels carefully before making your purchase. You need to make sure you order the correct size for your array.
Flexible Solar Panel Installation
Installing flexible solar panels is simple, and many people can do it on their own. However, if you want to ensure the installation is done correctly and securely, hiring a professional to help you with your solar installation never hurts.
This is especially true if you plan to use flexible photovoltaics in concert with additional rigid and portable solar panels. Combining multiple encasement types to maximize your available space is the best way to ensure you generate enough electricity to meet your off-grid power needs.
Here are some crucial tips for installing flexible solar panels on an RV.
1. Plan ahead
Before installing anything, you should know what kind of mount you will use, what tools and materials you need, and where exactly your bendable panels will be installed. Measure your panels and use a marking pen or colored tape to create a mockup of your installation before you drill.
Another step to planning ahead is deciding whether you will install spacers or lay down material to create an air gap. An air gap is important to help keep your panels cooler to ensure they last longer and perform to their full potential. High temperatures can decrease the efficiency of the panels.
2. Mount the panels
With bendable panels, you have two main ways of mounting. If you decide to create an air gap with spacers, a layer of cardboard, or a polycarbonate sheet, you need to mount that first. You can mount your air gap by either screwing down the spacers or brackets to the surface or by using double-sided 3M VHB tape or industrial adhesives.
If you are using cardboard or polycarbonate sheets as an air gap, you can install them using 3m VHB tape or industrial adhesives first, then once the panels are placed, screw everything to the surface.
Suppose you are not creating an air gap. In that case, you can simply screw the bendable panels to the surface using the mounting holes on the corners of the panel or use double-sided 3M VHB tape or industrial adhesives along the edges.
If you are using tape or industrial adhesives, leave some space to allow air to flow beneath the panel to prevent it from trapping air, which can cause damage to the panel and surface.
3. Connect the panels to the rest of the solar installation
Once the panels have been securely mounted, it is time to connect them to the rest of your solar installation. If you have installed other panels, simply connect your new panels to the existing ones using the “in-series” or “in-parallel” method. If you don’t have other panels installed, then you can connect directly to the portable power station, power kit, or BOS that your setup uses.
For more detailed information about installing flexible solar panels, check out this blog at EcoFlow.
How Much Do Flexible Solar Panels Cost?
The cost of installing flexible solar panels can vary depending on the type of panels you purchase, the wattage, and how you intend to install them. On average, a 100 to 150-watt single flexible panel can cost around $200, whereas a multi-panel 350-watt system can cost about $1,000.
If you want to install the panels yourself, you may have some additional costs for materials needed, but you will not need to pay a professional solar installer for labor.
3 Maintenance Tips for Flexible Solar Panels
Not only are flexible solar panels easy to install, but they also require very little maintenance. The main priority is keeping your panels clean. Clean panels can help to ensure you are maximizing the panels’ efficiency by preventing any obstructions from blocking sunlight from reaching the solar cells.
Here are three maintenance tips for flexible solar panels.
- Clean frequently: The surface of the panels should be cleaned often with soap and fresh water. Use a microfiber cloth or something that is not made from abrasive materials to remove any sand, dust, tree sap, dust, pollen, or bird droppings. If you live near the ocean, remove any salt that may accumulate on the panels. If the soap is not strong enough to remove tougher grease and/or sap or bird droppings, feel free to use rubbing alcohol.
- Inspect regularly: All of your solar panels should be inspected regularly to ensure that the integrity of the installation is secure and that all the connections are in good condition and free from debris or signs of corrosion.
- Check the efficiency of the system: Look at any displays or monitoring functions and use a multimeter to double-check that your bendable renewable energy encasements are working correctly and efficiently. Solar panels and portable power stations from EcoFlow let you monitor your system performance using a smartphone app.
Aside from these three main maintenance tips, make sure you take precautionary measures if you are using these panels on a recreational vehicle. Avoid low clearances like bridges, tunnels, and restaurant drive-thrus that are not marked with height information, and never take your RV into a drive-thru car wash.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Effective Are Flexible Solar Panels?
Flexible solar panels can have varying efficiency ratings depending on the manufacturer and the quality of the materials. Some inexpensive bendable renewable energy encasements may have an efficiency rating closer to 10% to 15%, whereas more high-quality panels — like EcoFlow’s 100W flexible solar panels — have an efficiency rating closer to 23%.
Do You Need an Air Gap for Flexible Solar Panels?
Yes, when installing bendable renewable energy encasements, you should include an air gap of some kind to prevent your panels from overheating, becoming less efficient, and not lasting as long. The easiest way to create an air gap is to install your panels to spacers instead of directly to a vehicle surface.
There are many situations where flexible solar panels can be highly beneficial. Flexible panels help maximize available surface area to generate as much electricity as possible. They are affordable, easy to install, and can last a long time with little maintenance.
Although some flexible solar panels have a much lower efficiency rate than their rigid counterparts, EcoFlow’s 100W flexible panels are produced with high-quality monocrystalline silicon solar cells, making them just about efficient as rigid or portable PV panels.
Check out EcoFlow today for all your off-grid electricity needs.