Van Conversion: Solar Power Set Up
Solar is one of the things we have been thinking about since the early days with the van but did not know exactly how we would go about it, mostly because we did not know what our unique blend of van life would look like. After learning, testing, and iterating on various set ups, we have something that we really like and we expect to fit our current needs so we figured this was a good time to share. I’m not going to get too heavy into the technical aspect of the solar set up in this post, but since we gleaned a lot of lessons from this entire process, I’ll cover some general advice on DIY solar set ups, as well as some show-and-tell on the hardware Shane used to install Vanna White’s rooftop set up.
Note: If you’re reading this at the early stages of a build out because you feel like you need to get your solar set up figured out right away, I would encourage you to perhaps wait until the later stages of the conversion so that you know how much power you’ll actually need to generate (more on that below).
Here are some of the major learnings we (and when I say “we” I mean Shane, who is now our van power expert) picked up from our time spent building out Vanna’s solar system:
Reflect on what you’ll be using energy for – and be honest.
If you’ve lived in your camper long enough, you can probably do the calculations fairly easily based on what you use that needs wattage to run. If you want a quick lesson how to calculate wattage, try here.
For Shane and me, we had to start by guessing what we would use in the van. It was our continued wattage calculations that led us to installing solar panels, in fact. After hooking up our house battery to run off the extra charge created by the van’s alternator, we thought that we might not need a solar power setup. But after getting a refrigerator, which pulls a charge from the house battery regularly, it got us thinking about our consumption. Even though our power needs are generally small, we realized that the more we camp, the less we will drive, and the less the alternator’s charge will be effective.
The good news: you probably need less power than you think you do.
Unless you’re running a blender or a hair dryer in your van (and maybe even then) you probably don’t need as much power stocked up as you think, especially if you’re going solar. So before you go purchasing half a dozen house batteries, do the calculations and decide for yourself.
It’s all about the angles.
How much energy you can get from a solar panel depends on the angle of the sun greatly, and this varies by your latitude and the season. Before installing our permanent set up, we had a large, portable solar panel and really enjoyed being able to position it in just the right spot for maximum energy by propping it up against a plastic bin or a rock. Wanting to keep the same benefit with our new system, Shane got creative and came up with a pretty unique set up. Needless to say, the new install had to be a lot more sophisticated than just propping it up against the closest thing nearby!
Long story short– if you want to get maximum energy, consider the angles. Here’s a simple calculator that will show what angles are best to use by season and location. Have fun with it!
A good charge controller is worth it – get one with MPPT.
What is MPPT? It stands for Maximum Power Point Tracking. Why is it good? It converts the voltage from the sun into the optimal voltage for your battery. More easily-digestible information about MPPT can be found here.
Get a good system monitor, because you’ll use it.
The cost of batteries, solar panels, and so on can really add up, so it might seem like overkill to spend some extra cash on a monitoring system. But believe us when I say that we use this thing. All. The. Time. It’s how we know when the battery is taking a good charge, and whether our refrigerator and other devices are putting a drain on it or not. We know when the battery is running to the red. We use the Victron Energy Battery Monitor and keep it in a pretty accessible spot right on the outside of our electrical box.
The Solar Panel Install
Here’s a quick run down on how we installed our solar panels. In building out this project, we wanted to make sure that we could accommodate 2 solar panels, allow them to adjust to any angle needed based on location, be able to lock them down safely for freeway driving, and maintain enough rack space for rooftop yoga and naps in the sun. Shane did an excellent job coming up with a solution that we’re both really excited about!
The two solar panels are fixed together with some custom framing, making it effectively one giant solar panel. Thanks to our roof rack we could do the 2 panels lengthwise along the van, which optimized our space.
The U bracket in the middle has a vinyl-coated wire attached. This prevents the solar panels from moving past a 110-degree angle, past which point it could pose a hazard to the windshield.
Shane also made sure our wires would say tucked neatly up underneath the panels. Zip ties are your friends! **UPDATE** We have since used Marine-grade Sealant to adhere the wires to the bottom of the panels, which holds in any weather.
This cable box is what allows our wiring to go from the house battery up to the roof.
This is the large, custom hinge that Shane created with U-bolts and some aluminum tubing. The frame for the solar panels came in handy for this part as well.
In order to prop up the solar panels to the optimum angle, Shane used dinghy standoff bars, which are both sturdy and adjustable. Like tent stakes, these standoff bars can be clipped onto the solar panel frame when the panels are collapsed flat and only need to be adjusted when there is a change in location or season.
The white clip in this photo is the locking mechanism for the system (the specific piece is called a rail mount clamp, which can be found at many marine stores). When the black toggle is screwed out, the lock opens and can be clamped over the cross beams on the roof rack.
This is the base for one of the standoff bars, attached to the roof rack. The two photos below show the clip-in mechanism Shane installed.