Solar Panels Installation on our Camper Van Conversion

2 x 160W

The autonomy of our DIY camper van conversion depends on power, and extracting power from the sun feels a bit like cheating to us:) If you say freedom, we say solar panels! The key to freedom is to select appliance that draw low electrical consumption and then select the solar panel(s) and charge controller accordingly. More of that in our Electrical System Design page.

 

 

TIME SPENT ON THE JOB: 6 hours

 

TOTAL COST : 570$ USD

 

DISCLOSURE:

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Buying through our product links is the best way to say thanks if we were of any help for your conversion! Thanks for supporting us and for keeping this website alive 🙂

Alternatively, you can visit our Say Thanks! page.

 

MATERIAL:

  • 2 x 160W 12 volts panels (Buy from Amazon)
  • 3M VHB double-sided tape 1″ width  (Buy from Amazon)
  • 2 x Renogy Z mounting brackets (Buy from Amazon)
  • MC-4 Multibranch Connector pair (Buy from Amazon) (This is to wire the panels in parallel if using a PWM charge controller. If using an MPPT charge controller, do not buy this)
  • Right angle cable gland 3/8″ (Buy from Amazon)
  • 15′ Extension Cable Pair with MC-4 Connectors 8AWG (Buy from Amazon)
  • Dicor 551 LSG-1 Lap Sealant (Buy from Amazon)
  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Primer, Paint & Clearcoat

Solar Panels installation, material

 

TOOLS:

  • Drill
  • Caulking gun
  • File and sandpaper

 

HOW WE INSTALLED OUR SOLAR PANELS*

*Disclaimer: we’re good, but not that much. Use these instructions at your own risks 😛

 

1- Test the setup before the installation

Right when we finished installing everything, we realized that we did not test any of the components! If any item was defective (panel, connector, wire), we would have to disassemble everything… Fortunately, things always work for the best so we did not have to undo our work!

To test, we could have just connect the panels to the MC4 parallel connector, then connect to the extension cable, and finally check the voltage at the end of the extension cables. We did that at the very end of our installation.

 

2- Pre-install brackets on the solar panels (4 brackets for each panel)

It’s easier to do this on the ground…

Solar Panel Installation, fastener stackup

 

3- Relocate the brackets in the inside edge

This is to minimize the gap between the panels, so they are installed toward the middle of the roof and are less visible from the ground. A minimum gap should be left to account for thermal expansion and for installation access.

Solar Panel Installation, relocating bracket

 

4- Install 3M VHB tape on brackets

We selected 3M VHB tape to minimize drilling through the roof. AM Solar have been doing it for a long time and reported to never have lost a panel. Where a screw will grip through the sheet metal, the tape rely solely on the paint to hold; therefore, we don’t recommend to use tape on rusted, damaged or used paint. In other words, we trust the tape method because the van is NEW. Also, we check our panels installation regularly.

 

Per manufacturer recommendation, the minimum application temperature for 4991 tape is 60F.

Solar Panel Installation, apply 3M VHB to brackets

 

5- Cut the 30′ extension cable in half and pass it through the glands. Leave about 12 inches between connectors and gland.

It required a lot of force to pass the cable through the gland thanks to the right angle. It’s better to do this on the ground.

 

6- Pre-fit solar panels on the roof to define location of cable glands

This extension cable is not very flexible. We found it easier to work with if we install the glands at approximately 12 inches from the panels.

Mark the location of the solar panel to avoid having the measure again afterward.

 

7- Remove solar panels and drill holes for the glands

We pre-drilled and then use a hole saw.

Solar Panel Installation, drill roof

Solar Panel Installation, saw roof

 

8- Break the sharp edges with a file and smooth the surfaces with a fine sandpaper

To prepare the surface for touch-up.

Solar Panel Installation, file and sand

 

 

9- Apply Primer, Paint & Clearcoat on drilled holes

This is an important step to prevent corrosion in the future.

TIP: You can have your exact van color prepared for you in almost any auto-parts store. Just give them your color-code (printed on the driver’s door frame), year of production and make.

Solar Panel Installation, edge touch up

 

10- Think and prepare cable routing on solar panels

This is to prevent cable chafing on the roof and damaging the paint. We also installed a protective tape on the roof afterward just in case.

Now that we look at the picture below, we’re not sure it will pass the test of time. You might come up with a better idea!

Solar Panel Installation, cable routing

 

11- Fit solar panels on the roof and connect all the cables

See previous picture.

 

12- Pass wire through the roof without securing the glands yet

Solar Panel Installation, cable interior routing

 

 

13- Clean roof with isopropyl alcohol, peel off 3M VHB tape and press firmly to adhere

No picture here. We had to act fast and it turned out more complicated than anticipated: you get no access to the center of the roof, the cables must be neatly fitted and you get one chance only to stick the 3M tape at the right place…

 

14- Fasten the glands to the roof

 

15- Seal all the brackets and the glands with Dicor Lap Sealant

The bracket are sealed to prevent water contamination with the tape; it should help in the long run. We could not seal the inner edge of each bracket because we had no access.

Solar Panels Installation, sealing the brackets

 

 

16- Final Test

We don’t have the charge controller installed yet, but we can ensure there is voltage coming from the panels.

It works!

Solar Panel InstallationSolar Panel Installation, testing the voltage, testing the voltage

 

17- Have a pint of fresh Double I.P.A

We deserved it!

Solar Panel Installation, double IPA

 

18- Have a Poutine

We know what you are thinking; but we also know that you would love it if you try. This is Quebec fine cuisine. 

Solar Panel Installation, Poutine

 

ON SECOND THOUGHT…

We chose a PWM charge controller because it is cheaper; we were then “forced” to use 12V solar panel (because the excess voltage with PWM is lost, while a MPPT will reduce and use the excess voltage), hence our choice of 2x 160W 12V solar panels.

As it turns out the use of two solar panels increases installation complexity, increases the number of parts required (and cost) and a PWM is not as efficient as a MPPT. If we were to do it again, we might consider a MPPT charge controller with only one solar panel. That being said, we’re very confident with our setup. The Bogart Engineering SC-2030 is a neat charge controller and with 320W we have more power than we need.

If we had to start over, we would consider:

Renogy 280W Mono Solar Paneljpg

Renogy 280W Mono Solar Panel 24V. Buy from Amazon.

Victron MPPT 30A

Victron BlueSolar 100V/30A MPPT. Buy from Amazon.

 

INSPIRATION OF THE MOMENT

Drive Nacho DriveDid you ever have this wild dream of quitting your job and travel the world in a van? These guys had this dream, and went after it… very motivating reading!

Download the eBook from Amazon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WANT MORE?

Check out our Build Journal, learn everything about The Van, join us for The Ride, or if you’re new to this start by reading The Prologue.

 

 

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ABOUT US

Hello! We’re Isabelle and Antoine 🙂 In 2017 we sold our house (and everything in it), quit our engineering careers and moved into our self built campervan. We’ve been on the road since then and every day is an opportunity for a new adventure; we’re chasing our dreams and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!

 

 

CHEERS!

 

 

24 comments

  1. Comment by Eric

    Eric Reply July 17, 2018 at 11:58 am

    I just bought a Promaster…Let the fun begin. Would you install fan first or Solar first?

    Thanks,
    Eric

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply July 17, 2018 at 12:03 pm

      Fan! Both ways would work I guess

  2. Comment by Clay

    Clay Reply May 20, 2018 at 6:07 pm

    Would you be able to replace a panel with this setup? It seems like once it’s taped to the roof you might not be able to access the bracket bolts (to the panel) anymore? I don’t want to put a roof rack on the van but am considering taping 2″ angle aluminum to the roof so I can drill through the side of the panel vs the bolt underneath, if it’s not accessible. Thoughts?

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply May 20, 2018 at 6:41 pm

      You are right, the bracket bolts is not easily accessible anymore! To remove a panel, we might have to remove the 3M tape (it’s removable by heating). You can probably do better than us, the alu angle make sense! (except I recall reading that it could void the panel warranty, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that…).

      Cheers!

  3. Comment by Ryan

    Ryan Reply March 15, 2018 at 10:11 am

    Hey guys. Did you end up putting bolts through? In previous comments you discussed doing that for extra safety. Hows everything holding up? Just installed three 310w panels on my roof yesterday

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply March 15, 2018 at 10:16 am

      No screws.
      We check them from time to time and so far it’s holding super strong!

  4. Comment by T

    T Reply February 25, 2018 at 12:38 am

    Hi Antoine,

    Great post! I had a few questions…

    1. What made you decide to use the glands instead of a combiner box? I see most people using a box and I wanted to hear your thoughts.

    2. Did you drill a 3/8″ hole for the glands or did they need something a little bigger?

    2. Did you use any else besides the Dicor to seal the glands?

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply February 25, 2018 at 9:29 am

      Hey,
      1. Can’t remember why exactly, I think both solutions are acceptable (unless if you have more than 2 cables a junction box would probably be better)
      2. I honestly don’t remember, but looking at the holesaw picture it looks like, maybe, 1/2″?
      3. The glands themselves are sealed, but we added Dicor for extra safety (nothing else).

      Good luck!

  5. Comment by Terry Bugera

    Terry Bugera Reply February 2, 2018 at 8:41 am

    Hey Antoine, So would you use just one Renogy 280 watt or two? Also are you still happy that you installed the MaxAir fan up front? Thanks again

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply February 2, 2018 at 10:21 am

      Hi Terry,

      I would install one. Of course, it all depends on your needs; if you plan on using induction cooktop and such you might need more…

      Because we cook (a lot) in the van in winter, I think the fan up front is a must. If not cooking, front or rear works. The advantage of installing the fan in the rear is that when driving you can just open the front windows and it makes a very good air circulation.

      Cheers

  6. Comment by Gary

    Gary Reply January 1, 2018 at 9:21 pm

    I’m looking at adding panels soon. I have a transit as well but I’m concerned that the roof will flex too much with the panels just being mounted to the thin metal roof. How did you anchor things on the inside of the van?

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply January 1, 2018 at 9:44 pm

      We installed them directly on the roof and it didn’t flex.
      We anchored everything inside using Plusnut: faroutride.com/plusnut

      Cheers

      • Comment by Gary

        Gary Reply January 3, 2018 at 12:30 am

        Ok, just to be clear, the photo in step 15 above shows the angle brackets attaching the solar panel to roof. You just used a standard bolt and nut through the thin metal roof to mount them. I am assuming the plus nuts refer to how you mounted everything else inside the van. Thank for the help 🙂

        • Comment by Antoine

          Antoine Reply January 3, 2018 at 10:02 am

          No bolt and nut! It’s holding with the 3M VHB tape only!
          You’re correct about the plusnut; it’s for mounting stuff inside the van.

  7. Comment by Dean

    Dean Reply October 2, 2017 at 10:01 am

    Hi, I’m enjoying following your van life. I’m doing a similar setup for my own solar system in my ford transit. Could you tell me how you wired your panels, series or parallel and why? Thanks!

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply October 2, 2017 at 10:32 pm

      We wired them in parallel, to keep the voltage in the 18V area because our PWM Charger Controller works better at this voltage. If you’re going MPPT, I think you can wire them in series, really it depends on your charge controller.

      Hope that helps!

  8. Comment by Joey

    Joey Reply September 27, 2017 at 5:22 pm

    Hey Antoine,

    What kind of tape did you use to affix the wires underneath the panels? Is it still holding up?

    Thanks for all the help

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply September 27, 2017 at 7:35 pm

      We used red tuck tape, I think it’s still holding, but I would not recommend it… There must be a better way!

  9. Comment by Wes Greenwood

    Wes Greenwood Reply August 10, 2017 at 10:25 am

    Antoine,

    I had an interesting discussion with solar panel retailer.

    Not sure if his advice was profit driven or actual good advice, but the theory makes sense:

    He said he would advise against using a panel with a footprint larger then the 160w panels you have as the span and surface are of the glass surface on a panel larger then this would be at high risk for cracking due to the body of the van flexing.

    Since the cost becomes close to even with one broken panel, I decided it wasn’t s risk I wanted to take…

    I could be cursing the decision when I start to install these 6-100w panels instead of 2 300 watt panels lol…

    Just thought id let you know!

    Wes

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply August 10, 2017 at 10:36 am

      I doubt it will crack because
      1- People have been using even larger panel for a while (Orton and it’s 300W panel for example)
      2- The panel is not entirely glued to the van roof; only 4 points are attached so (if) the roof is to flex, the panel won’t necessary flex too.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Future will tell 🙂
      Cheers!

  10. Comment by Beek

    Beek Reply July 5, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    Nice work! At one year plus how are the 3M VHB mounts and cable glands enduring the test of time?

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply July 5, 2017 at 1:35 pm

      It’s all good!
      Holding strong!

  11. Comment by Chris

    Chris Reply February 26, 2017 at 11:51 pm

    Very detailed instructions! Thanks for the writeup. I did a very similar install on the roof of my 5th wheel about 1.5 years ago, also using the 3M VHB tape. I did end up losing one of 6 panels while on the highway somewhere in Arkansas… still don’t know where that panel ended up! As a result I installed a single screw in each of the Renogy mounts, and installed a wind-guard in front of the forward set of panels. I’ve since traveled 18,000 miles with all panels still attached. If you are interested in pictures of the wind guard, shoot me an email.
    Thanks for the great site and detailed descriptions!

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply February 27, 2017 at 7:29 am

      You’re the first to report this. Thanks for letting us know! I think we will add screws, we don’t want to kill anybody…

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