In a popular RV forum, it was recently expressed that the most inexpensive solar panels could be purchased from a place you probably never thought of: Harbor Freight Tools. A quick check of the figures relates that the "advertised" web price of a kit of three 15-watt panels, plus a small solar regulator would set you back $249.99. A cagey forum-goer let the feline out of the container by revealing that if you requested the price for this same kit (Lot #90599) from the company's mailer P-387, you could have it for a mere $190.00. That's a tad over $4 a watt, plus a free solar regulator thrown into the bargain. Compared to what RVers often pay--even in such bargainlands as Quartzsite--that's a pretty good price. But is it really?
Consider first, that economies of scale should be called into the equation. Most RVers will need more than just 45 watts, yet those three panels will take up 9.4 square feet of precious RV roof surface. May not sound like much, but the more panels you add, the more you have to watch out for shadowing from other items up on your roof, for even a small shadow slanting across a solar panel will simply throttle power output.
Now, how about a panel that kicks out 120 watts of power for $358? That's $2.99 a watt. How big a footprint? A slightly larger 10.77 square feet. Fifteen percent more roof space given up for over two and a half times the power. And for a third-less the price per watt. What's the catch? In this case, the retailer needs an order of a minimum of two panels. But even with this "catch" why such a deal?
The price of solar panels is highly volatile. The secret is simply finding out who has the special today. And there's a place you can go to find these prices: ecobusinesslinks.com has a web page that posts solar panel deals every day. But what about those "minimum purchase" requirements? Like prices, the situation is fluid. We saw single panels for sale, as well as lots running a minimum of nearly 400 pieces. Go in with a buddy? Go in with an RV group? As Spock says, "There are always possibilities."
photos: top, Harbor Freight Tools; bottom, Idaho Department of Energy