Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Solar Panels for a Van Roof: Installation

With the insulation and plywood walls up, the inside of the van was starting to look good. I had planned my electrical system, but had no idea how to install solar panels for a van roof. Before I could move on to the ceiling, though, we needed to do the scariest part:

Cut a hole in the roof to install a fan.

Layout of Fan and Solar Panels for a Van Roof

I purchased a MaxxFan to keep the inside of the van cool in the summer and well-ventilated while cooking. It offers some great options, like the ability to maintain a preset temperature, turning on and off automatically, while keeping closed and sealed when off.

Looking at the roof, the way the steel support “ribs” were laid out, it became evident that the fan would be easiest to install right in the middle. I also wanted it to be located overtop of the kitchenette. Using painter’s tape, we measured the location such that we could also fit three solar panels.

I also skewed the solar panels slightly to the left. This way, I left some room on the right side of the van overtop the sliding door, where I plan to install an awning that pulls out to provide cover for an outdoor camping area.

Fan Installation Process

After drawing with a grease pen on the top of the van, we taped over the edge of the line in order to reduce the chatter when sawing through the roof with a jigsaw. We were able start the cut by first drilling a small hole, which you can see in the first photo. The fan then dropped in pretty easily, and we caulked around it with silicon (making sure to choose a brand rated for outdoor use on both metal and plastic). The instructions which came with the MaxxFan were great, and all of this took only a few hours.

Installing Solar Panels for a Van Roof

I used 3x 170watt Newpowa solar panels, for 510 total watts.

Many people use a single, long bracket when configuring solar panels for a fan roof. Instead, we used brass “expansion nuts.” These are great: you just drill a hole to fit them, and then screw them in through the brackets for the solar panel. As they tighten, the brass expands and causes the rubber to create a seal with the metal of the car. Thus, the mounting is water-tight, but also low-profile and secure atop the van. The whole thing ended up looking like this:

solar panels for a van roof
The completed roof.
The wires for the solar panel, and the finished fan, several days later.

What you can’t see here is the cable running from the solar panels inside the van. We used a 4-way branching solar cable to attach to the three panels. We ended up cutting off and sealing the 4th cable so it did not flop around, but in retrospect, this was a mistake. I should have left it available for plugging in a 4th, mobile solar panel which I could point toward the sun for additional power.

To get the cable inside the van, we used an entry gland. This seals against the wires securely, covering up (yet another) hole drilled in the roof (which is hidden behind the fan in the above photo). From inside the van, you can see the positive/negative wires dangling down toward the battery (before I installed shelving and the actual electrical system).

Conclusion

Though this was perhaps the scariest part of building my van (cutting holes in the roof), I don’t think I’d change much for my approach. The system provides a lot of power (510 watts!) and the fan works great. I’ll be detailing the rest of the electrical grid in a later post on the project.

About the author

(zane) / Technically Wizardry

I've been a game designer, startup founder, and @Airbnb for 6+ years. This blog documents my hobbies of building a vanlife van, "magic" home automation, and interesting software to control it all.

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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

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