Solar Panels for Narrowboats and Canal Boats

solar panels for narrowboats

Solar panels on a narrowboat

Solar panels are a great way to keep your leisure and engine batteries charged up ready for use.

So fitting a solar panel will enhance your time aboard by providing additional power, free of charge.

Fitting a solar panel: DIY or professional?

So how do you go about fitting a solar panel? If you have reasonable DIY skills and a little time to spare, fitting a solar panel will be straightforward. We will guide you through the installation step by step.

If you want a professional installer to do the job for you, please let us know and we will put you in touch with one in your area.

The best types of solar panels for narrowboats.

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Rigid aluminium-framed solar panel.

There are two types of solar panel suitable for use on a canal boat or narrowboat.

The most commonly used solar panels have rigid aluminium frames. These panels are very sturdy and are protected by a toughened glass front. You will have probably seen lots of these on other boats. Consequently they are the least expensive type of panel and are a good choice in most situations.

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Semi-flexible solar panel.

The second type of panel is the semi-flexible solar panel. These panels are only 3 mm thick and are built on a special plastic laminate called TPT. The resulting panel is very weather resistant and remarkably flexible. We recommend you use these panels on curved surfaces such as your cabin top or on top of your wheelhouse. They are usually glued in place and have the advantage that they will not get in the way of mooring lines and other ropes. Choose one that uses monocrystalline ‘back-contact’ technology for space saving efficiency.

Whichever type you choose, make sure it has ‘monocrystalline’ solar cells. These cells provide the highest output for the size of panel.

Where is the best place to fit a solar panel?

Canal boat solar panel

Adjustable solar panel mounting frame

Your solar panel will perform at it’s best in full sunshine. If your boat never moves from its mooring fit the solar panel on the cabin-top facing South and tilt it up to face the Sun. Tiling the panel up at an angle can provide over 30% more electricity. These fully adjustable frames can be tilted by up to 90 degrees.

If you move from location to location, fit the panel somewhere on the cabin-top where it can benefit from all-round sunlight.

Furthermore, keep it away from anything that might obstruct the light such as deck equipment and chimney pipes.

Keep in mind that solar panels are relatively fragile and generally cannot be walked on. So keep them away from areas that have a lot of foot traffic!

If you are concerning about mooring lines and other ropes snagging on the solar panel, choose a thin, semi-flexible solar panel and attach it directly to the cabin-top.

What size of solar panel should I use?

solar panels for narrowboats

Adjustable frames on a narrowboat. Courtesy M. Morehouse.

To simply trickle charge your engine battery use a solar panel of about 30 watts. To trickle charge a single leisure battery, use at least 50 watts.

Most owners will want much more power so we recommend a panel of at least 100 watts. This will provide a good maintenance charge and will keep your battery in good order. During the summer months in the UK a 100 watt panel will provide a lot of useful extra power and significantly reduce the need for a mains connection.

If you are looking for complete independence from the mains supply, we strongly suggest that you consider a solar panel array of 200 watts.

All types of solar panel can be used singly or connected together to form a more powerful solar panel system. If you decide to use more than one solar panel make sure that they use the same monocrystalline technology.

Fitting a solar panel to your boat.

solar panel corner mounts

PVC corner mounts

Rigid-framed solar panels need a small air space underneath to allow air to circulate. Attach them to your cabin-top using PVC corner mounts or aluminium mounting brackets. These mounts and brackets will support the panel securely and allow air to flow freely. Or use an adjustable mounting frame to extract more power from your panel.

Semi-flexible solar panels are glued permanently to the cabin-top. They are only 3 mm thick and are less obtrusive than rigid-framed solar panels.

Other items you will need.

Watertight cable gland

Route the cable through the cabin-top

The cable from the solar panel has to be taken through the cabin-top via a water-proof junction box or gland.

On route to the battery the cable must connect to an electronic charge controller. The charge controller protects the battery from overcharge, and can increase the life of your battery. They are available as ‘single battery’ types that will charge one battery, or as ‘dual battery’ types which will charge both your engine and leisure batteries from the same solar panel.

Finally, a fuse must be fitted between the charge controller and each of the batteries.

Which charge controller and what type of cable should I use?

Charge controller for a narrowboat

SunWorks charge controller

Select a charge controller that has a higher rating than the solar panel. For example, a solar panel that produces 8 amps should be connected to a charge controller of 10 amps or more.

A charge controller with an LCD display will let you see how well your solar panel system is working.

For solar panel arrays of up to 250 watts use a cable with a cross-sectional area of 2.5 mm sq, or more. The cable should be multi-stranded and double-insulated.

solar panel kit for motorhome

50 watt rigid frame solar panel kit

If you are uncertain about which charge controller and cables to use take a look at a solar panel kit.

SunWorks solar panel kits. What’s included?

Each of our kits contains one or more solar panels, a matching  charge controller, and suitable cables. These are the main electrical items needed for your solar panel system.

semi flexible solar panel kit

100 watt semi-flexible solar panel kit

We have been designing and producing solar panel charge controllers since 2002. We consider the charge controller to be heart of any solar panel system. So all SunWorks solar panel kits have the correct charge controller included.

SunWorks solar panel kits are available in several sizes. Once you have decided which type and size of solar panel to use, select the appropriate kit from our range.

For example, the 50-UNO kit contains a 50 watt rigid framed solar panel, a single battery charge controller with LCD display, and the correct cables for this system.

Our 100-DUO-FLEX kit has a 100 watt semi-flexible solar panel, a dual battery controller that will charge engine and leisure batteries from the same panel, and the correct cables.

Please contact us if you need help choosing which kit is best for you.

Alternatively, download the “SunWorks Guide to installing solar panels on your Narrowboat”. See the left hand column on this page.

Still not sure about fitting a solar panel?

Portable solar panel

SunWorks portable solar panels

The simplest and quickest way to use a solar panel on your narrowboat is to buy a portable solar panel. These panels have a stand that allows you to set the panel up outside the boat, pointing it directly at the Sun.

SunWorks portable solar panels have an adjustable stand that allows the panel to be tilted up or down. Pointing the panel directly at the Sun makes it much more effective.

Our 50 watt panel is capable of powering a small television or laptop computer on a bright sunny day.

Portable solar panel in bag

Portable solar panel

To use a portable solar panel, simply take it out of its bag, set it up on the deck (facing the Sun of course) and clip the lead to your battery. That’s it!

The solar panel will convert the Suns energy into electricity and charge up your battery.

At the end of the day, unclip the battery and fold away the stand. The solar panel can then be put away in its bag ready for the next day.

SunWorks portable solar panels have a robust aluminium folding stand, and a built-in SunWorks PWM charge controller. This charge controller is designed specifically with boats in mind. It will protect your battery from overcharge whilst ensuring that the battery receives the maximum charge possible.

The panel come complete with a strong and attractive carrying bag.

For more information, please take a look at our product page which has more details, and buying information.

For more information, download the “SunWorks Guide to installing solar panels on your Narrowboat”. See the left hand column on this page.