How to Install Solar Panels on a Camper Van Conversion with 3M VHB Tape (no holes!)

Solar Panels Installation

How to Install Solar Panels on a Camper Van Conversion with 3M VHB Tape (no holes!)

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 only covers the installation of the solar panels; if you are wondering “How many watts of solar panels do I need on my van?”, then we have a very comprehensive Electrical System Design Guide for you here:

 

 

TIME SPENT ON THE JOB: 6 hours

 

TOTAL COST : 570$ USD

 


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MATERIAL:

  • 2 x 160W (or 175W) 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 THE SOLAR PANELS ON OUR VAN

 

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…

2 years later and we’re still super happy with the solar panels! 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:

Victron Review

 

 

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, read our VanLife Guides, or if you’re new to this start by reading Our Story.

 

 

 

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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!

 

 

CONNECT

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CHEERS!

 

 

29 thoughts on “How to Install Solar Panels on a Camper Van Conversion with 3M VHB Tape (no holes!)”

  1. Hi guys! Love all these guides. We just bought our van, and we’re so excited to get started on this project. Solar installation seems like a good place to start. I’m wondering what kind of efficiency you guys see from the Grape Solar panels you have recommended. I’m doing my own due diligence by shopping around and some reviews I’ve seen on other panels around the same rating reported significant efficiency variation, so I was wondering what your experience has been with the panels that you went with. Thanks!

    • It’s honestly hard to tell how “efficient” they are in the real-world, since there are so many outside factor involved: sun angle, dirt, time of the day, etc, etc. But what I know is that we get up to 27 amp charge input (using an MPPT charger), best case scenario. We have a graph of our input in summer VS winter here: https://faroutride.com/electrical-system

      Bottom word: we’re happy with the panels and recommended them!
      Hope that helps!

      • One point: you may want to install solar first so that you don’t limit the amount of space available on top of your van. We put our fan about 4 feet back from the back of the van, then when we were installing solar, we noticed we could have fit a larger array had we moved the fan back a foot. Live and learn! We just went with slightly smaller panels that did fit in front of our fan.

  2. 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?

    • 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. 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

  4. 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?

    • 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. 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

    • 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. 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?

      • 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 🙂

  7. 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!

    • 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. 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

    • 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!

  9. 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!

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