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
- 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 as you’ll most likely wire the panels in series)
- 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
- 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…
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- 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.
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.
8- Break the sharp edges with a file and smooth the surfaces with a fine sandpaper
To prepare the surface for touch-up.
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.
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!
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
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.
16- Final Test
We don’t have the charge controller installed yet, but we can ensure there is voltage coming from the panels.
17- Have a pint of fresh Double I.P.A
We deserved it!
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.
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:
INSPIRATION OF THE MOMENT
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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!
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