The ability to harness solar power is very significant for van life. Fitting solar panels on the van’s roof is an intricate process as the components involved are pretty delicate. Solar-powered electricity helps you power up like a refrigerator, cooler, laptops, and mobile phones on the road. It is one of the most rewarding and satisfying Do It Yourself (DIY) activities. It just grants you the power to pull renewable energy right out of thin air. Who wouldn’t like that?
So without further ado, let’s get started on how you can attach the solar panels in the right and safe manner to help you get off the grid.
Before You Get Started
There is no single way to set up solar panels on your van. Different methods have been followed depending on the van category, the budget, the power specifications, and the electrical design you prefer. The following article helps you quickly set up the solar panels on the van roof with an approximate budget of about $2,000 for the entire assembly with the option to expand your power wattage.
Kindly note the following requirements that you would need to complete before going about attaching the solar panels to your van roof.
Can’t wait to catch some rays with this beaut. Picked up this 300 watt solar panel for the vans roof along with the rest of the solar setup today! #diycampervan #solar https://t.co/za2NmTvZo6 pic.twitter.com/s6YuTooo0h
— Adam Steeper (@asteeper) September 9, 2018
The entire activity can take from 4-6 hours. The measuring and prepping can eat up considerable time.
You would most probably need two people, especially for lifting the panel onto the van roof.
This activity requires intermediate knowledge of electrical and wiring know-how for easy fitting and connection configurations.
Material Inventory Required
|Item Name||Number||Cost ($)||Purchase Link|
|Solar Panel Kit for 2×100 Watts (Renogy)||1||350||Amazon.com|
|Cable Entry Housing Mount (Renogy)||1||14||Amazon.com|
|Self-drilling Screws (3/4”)||1 box||7||Homedepot.com|
|Wooden Furring Strip (1 in. x 2 in. x 8 ft.)||1||1.5||Homedepot.com|
|Electrical Tape (Red)||1||4||Amazon.com|
|Tool||Cost ($)||Purchase Link|
|Jig Saw Bare Tool||159||Amazon.com|
Step 1- Choosing the Right Solar Panel Kit
First, we need to select the right panel for the job. We recommend the Renogy 2×100-watt starter kit for the solar panel setup. It comes with an MPPT charge controller, MC4 adaptor kit, fuses, tray cables, and mounting brackets (Z Type).
The selection would also depend on your daily power consumption in the van regarding what appliances you will use daily and for what durations. E.g., if your phone charger uses 10 Watts and you use it for 2 hours a day, your power consumption would be 20 Watt Hour per day for that appliance alone.
The reason we selected the Renogy starter kit are as follows:
- Option to expand power to 2×200 – 400W using its charge controller component.
- Solar cell efficiency as high as 21%.
- The panels offer ideal solar energy output of 1000Wh per day.
- 8 ft. tray cables included in this kit, which will help connect batteries and the charge controller
- The panel frames are constructed out of Aluminium. The Aluminium ensures corrosion-free outdoor use for decades.
Step 2 – Initial Prep Work
- Initially, attach the 4 Z-type mounting brackets to the solar panels by screwing and nutting them one-by-one. This step is required for the panel to sit tightly on the van roof.
- Now, with your partner’s help, raise the panels to the van’s roof and use a marker to mark the spots where you will be drilling and attaching the panel setup. (To avoid scratching your van’s paint job, place a thick blanket where your ladder touches the van.)
- Mark the two panels as “Panel X” and “Panel Y.” (You can name them as A or B too! Whatever floats your boat!)
- Carefully bring down the panels.
- Once the spots are marked, drill them using the driller tool. The screws would pass through the holes made later on.
- It is always recommended to apply primer and paint the area to avoid corrosion on the drilled surface.
- Cut the wooden furring strip into six smaller pieces. Each piece is 4 inches in length, using the Jig Saw Bare tool.
The furring strip helps create a level surface for panels. It is effortless to glue and hold screws in place.
- Using the adhesive spray, stick the smaller furring strips under the holes you drilled earlier.
With that, we have completed the prep work!
Step 3 – Panel Connection
After the prep, we need to connect the solar panels in “Parallel” mode. (For those readers who are new to electrical wiring, when you connect both positive terminals of a panel X to positive terminals of panel Y, the connection between X and Y is said to be “in Parallel.” On the other hand, if you connect one positive terminal of panel X to one negative terminal of panel Y and vice-versa for the other terminals, they are connected “in Series” configuration.)
- Take the positive wires from panel X and panel Y and join them into a single wire. Repeat the same for negative wires of panel X and panel Y.
- To differentiate the positive wires from the negative, mark the positives using the red electrical tape.
- Connect the positive and negative wires to the MC4 adaptors on each panel. The following video demonstrates how we can make the wire connections.
- Attach them to the tray cables that come with the Renogy starter kit. The electricity would flow into the charge controller located inside the van via the Renogy cable entry mount through these cables. Note:
The cable entry mount selected is made from 100% recyclable material and fully waterproof. It perfectly complements the Renogy Aluminium-framed solar panels.
- To keep all the wires and cables in place, use the duct tape generously on the backside of the panels, wherever necessary. This step will help keep the wires appropriately attached.
Step 4 – Attaching the Panels
Once the solar panels are connected in parallel successfully, the time has come to pick them up and attach them to the van roof.
- Bring the panels on the van roof. This time it is not as easy as during the prep work since the two panels are connected by plenty of wires. So ensure to be extra cautious of not ripping open the connections. Do it slowly and carefully.
- Assuming you did the prep work steps correctly, the panels and the holes should align perfectly on the roof. You had drilled through the spots marked as per the panel design. Then, you are good to go!
The hole alignment may not be proper if you swap the positions of both panels. This scenario is why we mentioned naming your panels ‘X’ and ‘Y’ during the prep work. Not to worry if you swapped the positions, bring them down from the van once, and swap their positions when you take them up again.
- Once you ensure the solar panels are aligned correctly with the holes, screw them tightly.
- Double-check that screws are attached tightly and the panels are held as strong as ever.
- Use the cable entry mount to pass the wires inside the van.
Step 5 – Connect the Cable Entry Mount to the Charge Controller
After ensuring that the panels are in position and the wires from the cable entry mount are inside the van, it is time to create the electric current passage to flow through. The wires are to be attached to the charge controller.
- Use the neoprene (rubber) grommets in the holes as protection for the wires.
The wire lengths may be excessive in most cases. Apply a bit of lubricant on the wires so that you can easily pull them through the holes and inside the van. If the wires are pulled too fast and in a rough manner, the grommets might get dislocated. Then, you will need to repeat the earlier step.
- After ensuring the wires are in place within the van, we must ensure that the entry mount is thoroughly attached to the roof. Use the lap sealant to glue the mount to the inside of the van roof. The sealant will help prevent potential water leakage through the screws and into the van.
- The gluing is a two-step process.
a)- After a generous lap sealant application on the entry mount, hold the mount firmly on the roof beneath the holes for two minutes.
b)- Post step 1, apply an additional sealant on the sides of the entry mount to seal the deal.
While connecting the charge controller to your batteries, ensure that its positive terminal is connected to the battery’s positive, and the same goes for the negative or ground terminal as well.
Once the solar panel attachment is complete, the red and black wires beneath them may look a bit glaring. To avoid this situation, you can always go ahead by applying a coat of white paint on their exteriors so that they don’t stand out much when looked at from the outside.
Step 6 – Test the Panels
If the sun is out there, cross-validate your newly attached solar panels by connecting the wires inside the van with voltmeters. It will show a reading. With this testing step, we have come to the end of attaching the solar panels.
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It is now time to celebrate the achievement with your partner with a beer. You are now all set to connect the wires to the required electrical / electronic gadgets once you finish the wiring inside the van. You have brought in solar power inside your van / RV. You no longer need to rely on alternators or other conventional electric power systems to run your appliances in the van. The solar panel attachment is just the first phase after which, is installing all the necessary appliances to the wires. They will then be solar-powered.
You can now live the van life completely off-grid. Happy camping, fellas!