When it comes to the wattage of any solar power system, more is better. But building a big solar power system on a truck camper it isn’t easy. The problem with the truck camper, of course, is the lack of roof-top real estate. Compared to other types of RVs, there isn’t much. As a result, every square foot must be utilized. Unfortunately, covering the roof of your truck camper with solar panels also makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get around safely without walking on them and damaging them. Then there’s the problem with weight. Rigid solar panels are bulky and heavy. That’s where the new RuggedFlex solar panel comes in. Not only does the RuggedFlex solar panel weigh half of what a rigid panel weighs, but it can also be walked on. This makes the RuggedFlex solar panel perfect for all types of truck campers and vans, which is why we’ve decided to give the new semiflexible solar panel a try.
The RuggedFlex is better than any semiflexible solar panel we’ve seen. Originally developed for the US Army and used overseas in two military campaigns, the RuggedFlex is made for heavy-duty use in the worst environments on the planet. Each 98 watt panel weighs 8 pounds and features 32 highly efficient SunPower Maxeon 5 x 5-inch solar cells encased in a proprietary liquid-polymer monolithic casting with a fire-retardant fiberglass backing. Each panel is IP68 rated (meaning it’s dust tight and can be submerged in water up to 1.5 meters deep for 30 minutes), sports an efficiency rating of 17 percent, and can support bends of up to 30 degrees. This makes the RuggedFlex perfect for sloped and curved roofs like those found in many RVs. Every RuggedFlex semi-flexible solar panel comes with a 5-year manufacture’s warranty and a 20-year performance warranty.
Truth be told, the rigid solar panel lasts twice as long as a semiflexible solar panel, so why did we decide to try the RuggedFlex out? Several reasons. We already mentioned the RuggedFlex’s light weight and how it can be walked on, but Rugged Product’s new casting process looks like a game changer when it comes to efficiency and longevity. We also never liked how visible the two Zamp 170 watt rigid panels were on our roof. Not only that, but the old panels were simply too big. For us, a better approach was to go with a physically smaller panel in order to maximize every square foot on our roof. Doing this allowed us to install five 98 watt RuggedFlex solar panels with room for one more. This simple change boosted our rooftop solar system from 340 watt to 490 watts, and this doesn’t include the two 100 watt Jackery portable arrays that we are now using to supplement our system when needed.
Mounting the RuggedFlex solar panels to our truck camper’s roof was fairly straightforward. We used a combination of pan head screws, self-leveling Dicor, and Eternabond tape. So why did we decide to use screws instead of Eternabond tape or a very high bond (VHB) tape? Because of the extremely high winds we typically encounter on our excursions. We simply don’t trust tape as the only means of securing our panels, we’ve heard too many horror stories of solar panels being pulled off of roofs. In addition to the Dicor and screws, the front edges of each panel were “smoothed over” and secured with Eternabond tape. The wires were routed and secured using insulated wire clamps mounted with the panel’s mounting screws.
The rest of the installation was even easier. For the roof-top combiner box, we simply reused the Zamp Triple-Port Roof Cap that was on our roof before. To accommodate the additional panels, we used three Zamp Solar SAE Y Connectors. When ordering your panels from Ruggedflex you can elect to go with either MC4 connectors or SAE connectors. We went with SAE connectors since we decided to reuse the Zamp Combiner box.
As you can see from the photos, we still have room to step around the panels. Yes, you can walk on the RuggedFlex in stocking feet, but we will rarely do that. Most of the time we are on the roof we will be in shoes. Additional work is planned for the roof-top air conditioner, after that is finished we will install a sixth panel for a total of 588 watts.
So far, RuggedFlex testing has yielded excellent results. Each panel is rated for 5.5 amps, but we’ve seen even higher numbers here in Oregon. Yesterday, we were able to pull a maximum of 27.8 amps total from all five panels in clear skies and in 40F temperatures. What’s more, we’ve been able to harvest up to 113 amp hours in overcast and snowy skies. Not too shabby.
We’ve been hoping for years that someone would build a military-grade, semiflexibile solar panel and we think the RuggedFlex is it. Yes, there is still a concern for heat since the panels are mounted directly to the roof with no air flow underneath, but we are pretty optimistic that these new panels will be able to handle summer temperatures without too much degradation. After all, this technology has been tested in the harshest environments around the world including in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Stay tuned for a detailed review of the RuggedFlex solar panel later this year. You know, we will give you the straight scoop.