Solar Screens for RV
August 31, 2021 – Shane
Cool off your RV with a quick DIY project!
It can get pretty hot in a camper when you’re sitting in the sun. Our families live in the South, so we spend way too much time in 90+ degree weather. During our first summer as full-timers, we knew we had to do something to reduce the heat inside our fifth wheel, and started researching. It was obvious the windows were letting in a lot of heat, so we did what campers have done for decades, add Reflectix. . . but it wasn’t enough.
In the simplest terms, Reflectix is bubble wrap with a reflective coating on both sides. It’s used as insulation in the construction industry and RV’ers use it to help keep the sun’s heat out of their rigs. You buy a roll and cut it to fit against the inside of your windows, but there are a couple of problems.
- By the time the UV rays hit the material, it’s already inside your camper. The heat passes through the glass (heating it), reflects back and hits the glass again (further heating it). There have been reports of people overheating their windows to the point that they crack. Does it help keep you cooler? Yes, but not real well.
- The manufacturers of this type of material state that you must have an air gap between the heat source and the material. Reflectix states “If the reflective surface is in contact with another building material, it becomes a conductor (transmitting the energy by conduction).” So without the air gap, it slows down the transmission of a lot of the heat. It’s rare that someone follows this air gap requirement in an RV.
- Humidity gets trapped between the glass and the material. In my years as an RV technician I saw a lot of wall water damage from windows not getting enough air flow across them.
- This one is more personal. Sunshine. Why have I drug my home halfway across the country to some incredible location if I can’t see out the windows?
The engineer in me was not happy with letting the heat through the window and then trying to combat it. Awnings would be a great solution, but we had a problem. Besides being useless in windy areas and pricey, the big problem was they wouldn’t work on our windows.
- Our living room /dining room slide has two large windows with only a 3 1/2 inch space between them. This area wasn’t enough for the arms of a window awning. We looked into adding another rv awning, but standard sizes didn’t fit the width of the slide out. I would have to go with the lateral arm, scissor style. When asking around the campground, owners of this style awning were all leery of how they would fare in the wind.
- The rear window is our biggest and definitely a source of a lot of heat. Unfortunately, the roof ladder is in front of one end, making an awning unusable.
Over the years I’d heard of people making up “solar shades” or “sunscreens” to put on their windows, but I had a lot of questions. Here are my biggest concerns and the answers I’ve found:
- Do they really keep out heat? This one is simple. In high temperature places like Las Vegas, sun screens are installed on most new homes. They do this for a reason…it works.
- How ugly are they going to be? At my age comfort is a lot more important than style, but we still didn’t want some big ugly thing hanging on our fifth wheel. Since I wasn’t finding anyone with solar shades where we were at the time, I was just going to have to make one and see.
- How expensive was this going to get? All told, I’ve got less than $200 invested.
- We don’t need some big long process when we move. If they couldn’t be installed or stored away quickly then we didn’t want them. The last time I put them on it was just under 10 minutes to install seven of them. Most of that time was spent trying to get my step ladder out of the truck.
- Speaking of storage….since there are no side frames, they all roll up into a 4 inch by 5 foot bundle. I throw an elastic strap around them and hang them in the top of my basement.
- Can you still see out? We used 90% blocking screen, so yes, our view is partially blocked. Unlike window tinting, it doesn’t look dark outside. Instead, things lose their sharpness. Have you been in a fast food restaurant and looked out through one of the perforated window clings? It’s the same sort of thing. I’m writing this in 98 degree weather looking out at the White River and I can see the hummingbirds at the neighbor’s feeder.
- What about the wind? The industrial Velcro does a great job. In four months we’ve never had a problem.
- How effective are they? We were camped outside Lake Charles, LA the day I tested the first one. I hung it on the window in front of my desk. Kate and I decided that it wasn’t ugly and I should make the one for the other slide out window so we could see if they helped the heat. It took me about 30 minutes to make the second one and I went inside to grab the Velcro. Just for fun, I brought in the IR temperature gun I use for my tires and brakes.
I checked the window frame in the middle of my desk. Then I checked the window frame in the middle of the recliners five feet away. I checked them again. I repeatedly checked a spot on the floor, thinking my gun was acting up. It wasn’t. I checked them again and sure enough there was a 23 degree difference between the frame with the shade and the frame without.
Let that sink in for a moment.
The aluminum frame on two identical windows set into the same wall, right next to each other, and the solar shade was preventing 23 degrees worth of heat from entering our living room. Placing a hand on each frame or window gave us proof that the IR gun wasn’t lying. The glass temperature is never a good indicator since a lot of it’s heat passes straight through to the furnishings or Reflectix. But even the glass showed a 17 degree difference.
Needless to say, we were sold on the solar screens. I made the rest of them that day. Well, all but one, since I ran out of material. Not being able to finish them all turned out to be useful, since now I can document how to make them. I learned a lot on the first set, so this one will be easier, and quicker!
- Phifer Super Solar Screening 90% – Amazon
- Screen spline. If the screen lists two sizes of spline, go with the smaller spline. The material is very thick and stiff. – Amazon
- Frame rail – Amazon
- Frame rail corners – plastic (4 pack) – Amazon
- Extreme Outdoor Velcro 1″ – Amazon
- Screen roller. A wood and metal roller works much better than the plastic – Amazon
- Utility knife or heavy scissors – Amazon
- Tape measure – Amazon
- Hacksaw – Amazon
- File – Amazon
The links lead to Amazon, where we will make a small commission off of a purchase. The price you pay will not be affected. You probably don’t need that much frame rail, but when writing this that was the smallest amount being sold on Amazon. It can be found at most home improvement stores in single pieces and often longer lengths.
- Measure the outside dimensions of the glass. You can make the width a bit wider and get more coverage. The height has to be the right size.
- Determine the order you need to make them – tallest to shortest. You need to make the tallest screens first, since you’ll reuse the side frame pieces with each screen. Cutting it shorter and shorter as you go.
- Cut four pieces of rail to create a frame for the tallest window. Be sure to deburr the cut ends.
- Mark the side frame rails with tape so you know which ones they are. You’ll be reusing them.
- Trim the fingers off of the 4 corner pieces until they will slide in and out of the frame .
- Assemble the frame on a flat surface. Make sure that the spline channels are all facing up and on the inside of the frame.
- Unroll the solar screen material onto the frame.
- Using the rounded side of the screen roller, roll the screen into the upper spline channel.
- Flip the tool over and use it to roll the spline into the channel. Unlike creating a regular window screen, you’re only going to put spline in the top and bottom. Trim the spline at the end of the frame.
- Repeat the spline process for the bottom of the frame.
- Using your utility knife or scissors, cut the screen along the spline channel of the side rails.
- Remove side rails and corner pieces and then finish trimming the screen.
- Wipe down the side of the rails that does not have the spline channel. Cut 4 inches of Velcro and adhere the fuzzy side to the rail, 6 inches from the end. You want the fuzzy or “loop” side so they don’t stick together in storage. Repeat for the remaining 3 corners. By putting the Velcro on the side that is away from the screen, it holds the screen away from the glass, creating a very efficient airgap.
- Label the bottom frame so that you know which window it goes in.
- Clean the window along the top and bottom. Clean it real well, as things don’t like to stick to glass. Don’t use Windex, the adhesive won’t last.
- Attach the hook side of the Velcro to each of the 4 loop pieces. Hold the completed screen centered on the window. Along the top, stick the hook side the Velcro to the window.
- Repeat for the bottom side.
- Repeat these steps to build the next shade, cutting the side rails, if needed.
- Remove a bunch of that Reflective stuff so you can see the beauty of the outdoors again!!!
- We didn’t make framed screens for the sides of the slideouts. If we forgot them and brought the slides in, it could do thousands of dollars in damage. Instead, I cut the solar screens a little wider than the outside dimensions of the window frame. Then I added a small piece of Velcro to each corner. Without the air gap it doesn’t work as well as the framed screens, but it won’t cause damage if we forget them.
- Some RV’ers have used magnets instead of Velcro, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The frames get pretty hot in the sun and the magnets could potentially transfer all of that heat to a pretty concentrated spot on the glass. There is also the possibility of the frame being forcefully smacked against the glass by the pull of the magnets.
- You may need to add extra Velcro on larger windows or in high wind areas. However, you don’t want to add too much or it’s difficult to remove the frames without bending them.
- Wrinkles in the solar screen will usually disappear after a day in the hot sun.
- You may be tempted to use the 70% or 80% solar screen. The logic being that it’s cheaper and you can see better out of it. Don’t do it. Your goal is to make your RV more comfortable in the sun, so why make the shades less efficient?
UPDATE: We’ve had a lot of questions about how well you can see out through the solar screens. Today I took down the screen on the left so that you could see a comparison. Ignore the dirty windows!!!
Let us know if you make a set of solar screens. Comment below and tell us how well they worked!
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