How many boaters invest hours researching solar panels? They go all wide-eyed at the shiny panels, marveling at their ingenuity, but how many consider the humble mounts those bright panels sit on?
Let’s face facts: Solar panels get all the glory, but spare a thought for the mounts?
A good mount can help you get the most out of your solar, increasing your capacity by up to 40 percent. So maybe it’s time for mounts to step out of the shadows of solar panels and into the sunlight. (Bad pun, I know).
Seriously, let’s give them some glory.
The type of mounts you have depends on what you want the solar to do and the space available. Is it to charge a cell phone or mobile GPS unit? Or is it to power your entire onboard needs when stationary? The engine does the hard work when you’re moving, so you only really need solar when you’re moored up, right?
So to find out what solar mounts are right for you, we first need to discover what type of boater you are.
Are You a Liveaboard Boater?
Being a liveaboard boater is a different experience to being a leisure boater. You can’t just plug-in to a marina or get into an SUV and tow the boat home at the first sign of a rain cloud. The boat is your home. So power is something you need to manage carefully. And the right solar panel mounts for your boat are essential to optimize the performance of your solar panels.
Are You a Leisure Boater?
As a leisure boater, you’ll have different priorities than a liveaboard, and your need to manage power is not so crucial. You’ll watch for sunny weather and head out in the boat for a day or weekend excursion. So why do you need solar?
Coolers need power to chill their contents and cell phones need charging. But in the main, the boat engine will power the electrical equipment onboard, because there won’t be long periods when you’re not moving, unlike a liveaboard boater.
Liveaboard or not, if the sun’s power reduces your costs, minimizes the engine’s wear and tear and you can afford it—why not?
What Are the Best Boats for Solar Panel Mounts?
It depends on the size and shape of your pontoon boat. Smaller vessels are designed to make the most of the available space, which means seating and guests take priority. Newer models, like the Cypress Cay Seabreeze SL 250, have virtually no surface to put solar mounts.
Some pontoons have living space. The Canadian manufacturer, Southlands, builds hybrid pontoon boats, but the average pontoon vessels are for day trips and fishing. Some pontoons have fixed canopies so solar mounts can fit the available flat surfaces.
But if you’re in the market for a pontoon boat, solar and how to mount it are way down on your list of priorities.
Yachts offer a multitude of opportunities to fit solar mounts. Pole mounts are popular with yacht owners, as are fixed and angled mounts. And because most yachts are seafaring, there’s little to obstruct the suns rays way out in the ocean.
In addition, yachts are designed to travel farther, making extended periods onboard inevitable. This means choosing the right mounts are crucial to achieving maximum input.
A canal boat’s design makes them ideal vessels to fit solar mounts. Their robust, steel roofs can withstand the most durable solar panel mounts. This means larger panels can be attached to increase onboard power input. And because of their long shape, canal boats also allow various panel mount options too.
In fact, the only solar panel mount that’s unsuitable for a canal boat is the pole mount because of low canal bridge clearances.
Motor cruisers, because of their shape, often have plenty of space for panel mounts to be fitted. With long, flat roofs, most motor cruisers (even the mid-range ones) are excellent boats for fixed, angled, and even pole mounts.
The Best Ways to Fix Solar Panel Mounts to Your Boat
There are numerous products available to bond panel mounts to any surface. If you choose this option, it’s worth remembering there’s some prep work before applying the glue. Most manufacturers recommend cleaning the surface area before bonding, and some recommend to lightly sand the surface before applying adhesive.
I recommend this Sikaflex-252 White Polyurethane Adhesive (Available on Amazon). The most significant advantage of this glue is that once dried, it can be sanded and painted.
Oh, and when choosing adhesives, there’s the small matter of no holes.
The fixing solution you choose depends on the boat you have and where it’s used. Gluing solar mounts on a seafaring yacht may not be the best idea, especially if you’re mid-Atlantic in force nine gales. You want to know the mounts are going to do their job and hold your solar panels in place.
This Temco Z Bracket Stainless Steel Mount Kit (Available on Amazon) can be easily installed to solar panels. And the stainless steel material means it’ll never leave rust on your boat.
You’re gonna need to bolt the mounts to the roof. Just make sure that when you’ve drilled the holes, you have enough marine grade sealant (Available on Amazon) to plug the gaps.
Panel Sizes Versus Types of Mounts for Your Boat
Some solar panel mounts aren’t suitable for different sized panels. The most robust by far is the fixed mount system. If you cruise a lot and don’t mind the panels being permanently flat, then these mounts can handle whatever weight you throw at them.
If you want tilt and angled mounts, then you’ll need to check with the manufacturer what the maximum load is. The general rule of thumb is; the larger the mount, the bigger the panel it will hold.
Panel weights 100w or less will fit cheaper mounts. If you want panels over 100w, again, check with the bracket manufacturer to see the maximum load weight.
The Best Way to Position Solar Panel Mounts on the Boat
Your first consideration is the obstructions that might hamper the performance of the panels. Get it wrong and all that hard earned cash you shelled will be for nothing. Putting a fixed mount for solar on a deck of a motor cruiser isn’t any good if you then use a retractable canopy to shield you from the sun and it blocks the panel producing energy. You’ve just wasted hundreds of dollars.
Another consideration is the mount type, especially if you’re stationary for long periods.
Tracking the sun by tilting the panels when not moving will increase power input massively.
If you’re mostly moving and rarely still, then flat is best. This position optimizes the sun’s rays, drawing power in whichever position the boat sits.
Look at your own boat. Does it have large flat areas, preferably high up and unaffected by shadows or obstructions? If the answer is yes, then the next consideration is what type of solar panel mount is best for you.
The Different Types of Solar Panel Mounts for Boats
The HQST Z-Bracket (Available on Amazon) is an excellent example of a fixed mount. It’s lightweight and inexpensive. And I mean cheap! It isn’t complicated to fit, although it does require you to drill holes in whatever surface you attach it too. This bracket also enables you to mount the panel to many styles of vessels. The manufacturer even recommends them for RV’s.
The other advantage of a fixed mount system is its ability to handle panels sizes from the smallest all the way up to 300w.
While these look like a good option, it’s worth remembering that if you need the flexibility of moving the panels to chase the sun, fixed mounts won’t be for you. On an ocean-going yacht or a pontoon boat (space permitting) on a lake, the fixed mount system would be worth considering. There’ll be minimum obstructions, and while you’re always moving, the flat, fixed mounts will optimize the charge into the batteries.
There are other types of fixed mount systems that don’t require any drilling.
The Renogy Solar Panel Drill-Free Corner Bracket (Available on Amazon) is a good choice if you don’t want to drill holes in your boat roof. They aren’t as cheap as the Z-Brackets, but primarily they do the same job. And if you own a boat with a fiberglass body, drilling into the roof simply isn’t an option.
So how are they fixed? Good old bonding adhesive like Sikaflex 252 (Available on Amazon).
There is a vast variety of adjustable mounts, but I thought I’d focus on the most popular types. Firstly there is the:
This mount enables the solar panel to be adjusted to directly face the sun, a feature, commonly used when the boat is still. For the liveaboard boater, the adjustable mount is crucial. By adjusting the angle of the panels, you can increase the input of energy by up to 40 percent. This particular model can only support a maximum panel of 150w, and the adjustment angle does decrease depending on the size of the panels. So it’s worth considering that the max 150w panel, while the most powerful, could give less performance with this bracket, because of the angle that it can be mounted.
What makes this mount different is that the brackets that attach to the roof of your boat are independent of each other, rather than on a long aluminum bracket joining them together. It means the roof doesn’t have to be completely flat. Canal boats would benefit from this type of bracket because they have slightly curved roofs.
The rack mount is another adjustable bracket, enabling the maximum performance of the panels. It’s a rack system, so has a long strip bracket that attaches to the roof. The beauty of this system is the capacity it can handle. If you invest in the 41-inch bracket, it will take the weight of a 300w solar panel. It may cost more, but given that you’ll probably only need two brackets if you’re mounting 300w solar panels, it could still be a cost-effective choice.
Just remember is where you’re going to mount it. Because it’s a rack system panel mount, it only fits on perfectly flat surfaces.
Okay, I’m a bit sneaky here. Technically, these mounts are for RV’s. But if it attaches to RV’s, it’ll attach to your boat. They’re light, compact and give vital adjustability to maximize the sun’s power.
This mounting system’s advantage is you’ll avoid drilling holes in your roof. Each bracket has a VHB tape strip, which bonds to most surfaces. Fiberglass gives the best bond, but if it works for RV’s, then metal surfaces will work too.
A word of caution: These brackets attach by drilling into the solar panel’s side. And this is the crucial bit: If you’re piercing the side of your panel, there’s a strong chance you’ll invalidate the warranty. It’s worth checking before you do. AM Solar sells compatible panels with pre-drilled holes, which massively cuts down on your choices and ability to shop around for the best price.
Missouri Pole Mount (Available on Amazon) Let’s start with a positive: This pole mount is 100% American. That’s got to be a good thing, right?
Pole mounts are excellent for panels that can be raised up to avoid obstructions. They’re also good for boats with limited solar panel mounting space. Pole mounts are popular with yacht owners, due to their maneuverability and height adjustment properties. This particular pole system can handle two 100w panels, so there’s no need to compromise on the energy you create.
What We’ve Learned
All the solar panel mounts featured are value for money. What to consider is the panel size.
Is it better to have two 300w panels, reducing the number of solar mounts? Or do you go for six 100w panels, increasing the mount’s overall cost? That’ll depend on your boat’s available space.
By far, the easiest to use is the fixed, flat system. Glue or bolt the brackets on and away you go. No fuss. But again, mounting space may be an issue, so this type of mount won’t be for everyone.
And the most efficient is the angled, adjustable mount. Liveaboards should consider this when buying solar. Increasing your panel’s performance with the ability to angle towards the sun is vital if you’re stationary for extended periods. And in winter, when the sun sits lower in the sky, you’ll reap the benefits of angled mounting systems for sure.
One Final Point
Choosing the right panel mounts for your boat is crucial for the best solar performance. When shopping for your shiny new solar panels, and considering what wattage and type of panel you want, spare a thought for the unsung hero in the solar success story and choose the best solar panel mounts for your boat.
Mark Weir lives on a canal boat in the heart of England, with his wife, Julie, and his grumpy dog, Eric. Mark likes to travel the waterways in his wide-beam barge, filming his exploits as he travels. Julie paints the wildlife, and Eric likes to bark, mostly.