Solar panels are a key element for off-the-grid vanlife; if you say freedom, we say solar power! The electrical system of our campervan is designed to power our appliances (fan, lights, 12V fridge, etc) and can be charged with solar power, alternator or shore. The present article covers the installation of our solar panels; if you are looking for more info about designing your own system, then we have a very comprehensive Electrical System Design Guide for you here: faroutride.com/electrical-system .
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|Wiring Diagram & Tutorial||Follow this for a safe and reliable electrical system||1||FarOutRide|
|Solar Panel||NewPowa 180W||2||Amazon|
|VHB Tape Roll||3M, 4991, Double-Sided||1||Amazon|
|Z Bracket Kit||Renogy||2||Amazon|
|Parallel MC4 Connectors||As Required (only if you choose to connect the panels in parallel)||1||Amazon|
|Cable Entry Gland||Right Angle, 3/8″ (what we used)||1||Amazon|
|Entry Box (other nice option)||1||Amazon|
|Extension Cable||15 feet, Pair with MC-4 Connectors, 8AWG||1||Amazon|
|Dicor 501 LSG-1 Lap Sealant||Self Leveling Lap Sealant, Grey (for horizontal surface)||1||Amazon|
|Isopropyl alcohol||To clean the surfaces|
|Primer, Paint & Clearcoat||To protect bare surfaces after drilling|
We would recommend this installation method for a new van, but we do NOT recommended this method for an older vehicle. Remember that the 3M VHB tape is holding on THE PAINT, so if the paint chips off (e.g. because of rust) you might loose your panels and potentially KILL someone.
2- Long Term Update
Hi, this is us from the future! It’s 2021, we still live full time in our van, and our panels are still holding strong (since 2016)! We didn’t have to re-do anything; we occasionally check them and it’s all good
3- Go Pro (An alternative to DIY)
Hi, it’s us again from the future. Vanlife has gone mainstream, it means a bunch of cool new products are now available! If we had to start over today, we would consider getting one of these new Flatline Van Co roof racks, because they have a few benefits:
FlatLine Van Co "Low Pro" Roof Rack
- Modular: you can shuffle the cross bars around to fit your custom roof layout (e.g. solar panels/roof fan/etc);
- Low profile: a bit more stealth and aerodynamic than the tubular aluminum “overland-style” roof rack;
- Easy installation: it’s attached to the van’s roof with the factory mount points (no-drill!), and because they are modular they ship flat packed in a box and they are easier to install (less bulky);
- Easy to install gear and accessories: the cross bars are 80/20 aluminum extrusions, so you can get creative and attach pretty much anything in any possible way: solar panels, decking, awning (Fiamma F45S direct-mount, no drill), light bar, etc.
For more info (features, specifications, installation, ordering, etc.) click below:
4- How we installed our solar panels on our van
4.1- Test everything
Just after 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.
4.2- Pre-install the brackets on the solar panels
It’s easier to do this on the ground…
4.3- 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.
4.4- Install the 3M VHB tape on the brackets
We selected 3M VHB tape to avoid drilling through the roof. AM Solar have been doing it for YEARS and never 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.
4.5- Trim Out the MC4 connector from the extension cables
This is to allow to route the extension cables through the roof AND to connect them into the Victron MPPT solar charge controller.
Trim out the MALE MC4 connector:
Trim out the FEMALE MC4 connector:
4.6- Route the extension cables through the cable gland
It’s easier to do on the ground! We used right angle glands, but if you chose an entry box it’s just fine too. Remember that the cable end with the MC4 connector goes OUTSIDE the van; the cable end without MC4 connector goes INSIDE the van.
4.7- Pre-Fit the solar panels on the roof
Now get up there with the solar panels and mark their exact location (e.g. by tracing the footstep of the Z brackets).
4.8- Drill the holes for the cable glands (or entry box)
We found it easier to do this by removing the solar panels. We pre-drilled and then used a hole saw:
4.8.2- Break the sharp edges with a file and smooth the surfaces with a fine sandpaper
This is to prepare the surface for touch-up.
4.8.3- Apply Primer, Paint & Clearcoat on hole edge
Paint protects bare metal from rusting. It’s important to restore the finish after drilling (or cutting) the metal.
TIP #1: 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.
TIP #2: Spray works best, but DO NOT spray directly on the surface for small touch ups (it does a messy job)! Spray a small amount of paint into a plastic container and touch up using a brush. This photo shows how NOT TO DO IT (lesson learned!) 🙂
4.9- Install the solar panels on the roof (don't secure them with the vhb tape just yet)
Connect all the cables. Route all the cables in a way that they won’t rub with the roof (because this would damage the paint in the long term).
4.10- Route the extension cables through the roof without securing the glands yet
4.11- Clean the roof with isopropyl alcohol, peel off the 3M VHB tape and press firmly to adhere
No picture here, sorry… We had to act fast and it turned out a bit 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…
4.12- Fasten the glands to the roof
No picture here, sorry…
4.13- 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.
4.14- Final Test
We don’t have the charge controller installed yet, but we can ensure there is voltage coming from the panels. It works!
4.15- Reward earned!
A fresh double I.P.A. and a poutine will do just fine as a reward 🙂
5- On second thought...
2 years 5 years later and we’re still super happy with the solar panels; it passed the test of time! We did upgrade our PWM solar charge controller for a MPPT solar charge controller, but we updated our Electrical System article and Wiring Diagram accordingly. We also reviewed the Victron MPPT charger and the Victron system monitor: