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 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 .

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click a product link and buy anything from the merchant (Amazon, eBay, etc.) we will receive a commission fee. The price you pay remains the same, affiliate link or not.

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Time Spent

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Total Cost

$ 0 USD

Material

ITEMDESCRIPTIONQUANTITYLINK
Wiring Diagram & TutorialFollow this for a safe and reliable electrical system1FarOutRide
Solar PanelNewPowa 180W2Amazon
VHB Tape Roll3M, 4991, Double-Sided1Amazon
Z Bracket KitRenogy2Amazon
Parallel MC4 ConnectorsAs Required (only if you choose to connect the panels in parallel)1Amazon
Cable Entry GlandRight Angle, 3/8″ (what we used)1Amazon
Entry Box (other nice option)1Amazon
Extension Cable15 feet, Pair with MC-4 Connectors, 8AWG1Amazon
Dicor 501 LSG-1 Lap SealantSelf Leveling Lap Sealant, Grey (for horizontal surface)1Amazon
Isopropyl alcoholTo clean the surfaces  
Primer, Paint & ClearcoatTo protect bare surfaces after drilling  

1- Disclosure

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. It’s 2021 and 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, photos, installation, shipping, 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…

Solar Panel Installation, fastener stackup

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.

Solar Panel Installation, relocating bracket

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.

Solar Panel Installation, apply 3M VHB to brackets

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.

Red Cable

Trim out the MALE MC4 connector:

Extension-Cable-for-Solar-Panel-with-MC4-Connector-(RED-TRIM)
bLACK Cable

Trim out the FEMALE MC4 connector:

Extension-Cable-for-Solar-Panel-with-MC4-Connector-(BLACK-TRIM)

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)

4.8.1- Drill

We found it easier to do this by removing the solar panels. We pre-drilled and then used a hole saw:

Solar Panel Installation, drill roof
Solar Panel Installation, saw roof

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.

Solar Panel Installation, file and sand

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!) 🙂

Solar Panel Installation, edge touch up

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). 

Solar Panel Installation, cable routing

4.10- Route the extension cables through the roof without securing the glands yet

Solar Panel Installation, cable interior routing

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.

Solar Panels Installation, sealing the brackets

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!

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

4.15- Reward earned!

A fresh double I.P.A. and a poutine will do just fine as a reward 🙂

Solar Panel Installation, double IPA
Solar Panel Installation, Poutine

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:

6- Inspiration of the moment

Did 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.

STAY IN TOUCH!

Join 30,000+ followers via Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, e-mail or Patreon:

about us

Nice To Meet You.

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!

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

  1. Thank you so much for your dedication to your van and to this website. Your work has been SO helpful to me.

    Quick question: Why did you decide to drill two holes in your roof using the right angle cable glands instead of something like this https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00KV1PFS0/faroutride_parts_list-20/
    which would only require drilling one hole? I’m thinking about drilling one hole, and using the VHB tape and lap sealant to secure the gland to my roof.

    Reply
  2. I’ve seen many van builds with solar power but they always mention a battery of some sort (usually lithium). Does this particulate setup not require one at all? Have you ever had an issue because of this?
    Thanks!!

    Reply
    • The whole idea of having solar panels is to store the energy from the sun in a battery so when you don’t have sun, you can still use your electrical devices (fan, light, fridge, etc). I strongly recommend reading this article: faroutride.com/electrical-system/ 🙂

      Reply
    • Hey Patrick! I just installed my solar with a second fan in the rear. With the angle of the maxxair / orientation of the lid when raised (high end faces the back of the van) there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, shadow casting onto the panels. I’ll know more tomorrow as I check it throughout the day but as of this afternoon it looked good! Hope that helps some

      Reply
  3. Hello and like the rest THANK YOU!

    I’ll be installing my solar panels soon and I plan to use the pre-drilled/tapped M8 holes in the roof for the outside brackets of the solar panels to secure them down, while using your method with 3m tape & sealant for the inside brackets. But I’m thinking it must be a bad idea to use the predrilled holes if you didn’t do the same in your conversion?

    Leslie

    Reply
  4. So there is no need to buy a roof rack system (i.e., either rails and/or cross bars) to attach the solar panels? You just simply put the VHB tape on the anchor of the solar panel and attach to the roof and cover with the lap sealant? With no roof rack system, is this why there seems to be a slight angle where the solar panels meet in the middle of the roof? I’m getting excited to find out there might not be a need to purchase a roof rack/rail/cross member system. Please advise

    Reply
    • We didn’t want to install a roof rack and using VHB tape on our roof was possible because the van was new (tape is holding on the paint; it would not have been possible if there was any sign of rust!). And you’re right, the panels are slightly in angle as they follow the roof curvature.

      Reply
  5. I’m a fan of your site and info, but can I kindly ask you to remove the suggestion of mounting panels via VHB (or any structural adhesive for that matter).

    This approach it too prone to error, and failure at highway speeds can cause death/injury to other motorists.

    Here’s a recent story of 3 dead as the result of dislodged solar panels, though the article does not mention how the panels were fastened.

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-10-02/tasmania-fatal-crash-midland-highway-near-ross/12726538

    Reply
    • Hi,
      I see your point.

      But it makes me wonder: where do we draw the line? Because one could say that building your own electrical system is dangerous. It is prone to error as well, because all the connections (crimp, wire gauge, fuse, etc) and all. And the same could be said about Propane, all the wood work inside (in case of accident)…
      So I think I’ll leave it there, with a proper warning:
      “We would recommend this installation method for a new van, but we do NOT recommended this method for an older vehicle. Remember that the tape is holding on THE PAINT, so if the paint chips off (because of rust) you might loose your panels and potentially KILL someone.”

      Cheers,
      antoine

      Reply
      • I agree here that this is not the best method. You will have a bunch of people copying this method which is great but imagine a solar panel in a few years or with poor workmanship done that does not stay on. I get it everything has a danger involved but if you could minimize it then that is much better. If you are negligent then it could come back to bite you.

        Reply
  6. Hi guys!
    I’ve been working on my camper for the last couple of weeks and have been putting off the solar panel install since I can’t quite bring myself to cut my brand new cables in two. Did you guys just snip them, and then crimp them back together on the inside?
    Thanks!
    Noah

    Reply
    • Don’t cut the panel’s cables. Leave them on and connect them to the extension cables. Cut the other end of the extension cables; discard the MC4 connector on the end that you just cutted as you don’t need them (the solar charger connections require bare wire). Route the extension cables through the roof and connect them to the solar charger.

      Hope that makes sense.

      Reply
  7. I’m thinking about getting solar panels so that I don’t have to spend that much on power anymore. Knowing I won’t have to take time out of my day to clean them off and maintain them makes this decision so much easier.

    Reply
  8. Thanks so much for all your notes. I followed your instruction for my solar panel installation exactly.

    I found a bolt loose lying on my roof near one of my solar panels. It obviously came from one of the brackets but because of the tape and the dicor, I can’t get access to find the problem. It worries me that one of the brackets will no longer hold the panel securely. Have you ever had loose bolts and how did you fix it?

    Reply
  9. Okay. Did the solar panels today, finally.

    Different from you guys, but I did incorporate some of your crazy ideas!

    Same panels (I didn’t know they were Canadian! You guys are shameless!) Same fittings.

    Turns out, if you drill a hole in the middle of the 4 mounting holes in the fitting, for a M8 bolt, and use the FORD roof anchor holes, the panels end up about 8 mm apart in the middle. So I got a 3/4″ box aluminum rail from Lowes, set it in lapping sealant to be under the inside edges of the panels, and used two 1/16″ lines of your VHB tape to glue the panels to the box rails. (So I DID use one of your ideas! So there!)

    I do plan to attach the panels together front and back with aluminum straps.

    In the end, I am about 1/2″ lower than your setup (because the roof over the bolt holes is recessed), so better gas milage I guess. But poorer cooling, esp since air can’t get through the middle of the panels via convection. Should be okay, but we will see.

    For the wires, I was a little worried, what with having done the ceiling of the van last summer, and not really wanting to rip it down. But now, I am going thru one of the access holes in the back and covering it with a Go Power Plate. Wires about 5 ft longer than yours, but okay I think.

    So, I was happy. The Panels are bolted to the roof. And I did not drill a single new hole in the roof of the van. Now, I may be need to buy a 1K$ battery…there goes my stimulus check…

    One Q: why did you cover your VHB attachments with lapping sealant? Is it because water degrades the VHB attachment? If true, I might haf to put a bead of sealant in the “V” between the panels, over the aluminum box.

    Cheers in lockdown,

    Don

    PS Good time to rotate your tires…

    Reply

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