How to Install Solar Panels on a Camper Van

200W of solar power and the vent fan.

Panels in their final location on top of our Sprinter.

Solar power for our Sprinter camper van was a top priority from day one. After a few years of free energy charging our batteries and running our fridge and laptops, I can hands-down say it was one of our best additions to the van. I highly recommend it.

There is something magical about solar power. Put a few photovoltaic panels on your roof, run some wires to your inverter and battery and POOF, electricity to run your electric shaver. And that solar power frees us up to set out across the land in a van with nothing except the fuel in our gas tank, untethered to explore with the comforts of home.

My senior project in college was designing a solar panel and battery system for an off-the-grid house. Luckily, I forgot most of that knowledge and got to experience the learning process over again! To save you some time, here is how I went about it.

Where Should I Buy My Solar Panel Kit, And How Big a System Do I Need?

Probably the most important thing to consider when setting up your solar, battery and inverter system is how big the power draw on your system will be. Are you installing a fridge? Microwave? Electric heater? It is easy to determine how to size things by looking at:

  1. Renogy has great solar panel kits at amazing prices. Here’s their full lineup and here’s the 200W starter kit.
  2. The maximum voltage draw from your van’s juice-sucking components. You’ll need an inverter big enough to handle your biggest total voltage pull. Our max is ~1500W, so we got a 2000W inverter that has worked great. If you have the space, I say go big or go home. “Oh, I’ll never use more than 350 watts. We are minimalists,” you say? Mmmm hmmm. Famous last words.
  3. The estimated amperage draw on your system and how long you’ll be running each appliance. This will help you figure out battery system sizing. Sprinter-RV.com has a great ebook on Sprinter conversions that includes an in-depth discussion on solar setups. It’s worth picking up a copy like we did!

(Note: I’m not going to talk about wire gauge size or things like that in this post since it is so system specific.)

Sizing our system was easy. We don’t have many big loads that we run frequently except two big short-use items (Vitamix and hot water boiler at 1,500 Watts each).

LED lights, laptops, fridge, Fantastic Fan roof vent, the Espar heater fan, heating pad for bed (used briefly at night on cold nights instead of Espar), and our stereo system are the big power draws. That totals about 8-15 amps, which means we don’t drain the batteries all that fast. (With a 200 Amp-Hour system, we can theoretically run everything for 13 hours, minus the hot water boiler and Vitamix.)

 

Left to right: Solar tracking system, stereo amp, and the inverter/battery wiring.

Lots of wiring! Left to right: Blue Sky MPPT (final installation was inside wall after interior paneling went up), stereo amp (also recessed into wall), and the 2000W inverter/battery wiring.

I sized our system so that the solar panel system would put about 10-12 amps/hour into the system during the day in full sun at maximum power point, and then we have the electrical system rigged up to charge with excess current from the van alternator while we’re driving. This works great and we’re usually topped out with electricity unless we are not driving for awhile AND there isn’t any sunlight.

Note: we also have shore power in the form of a 15 amp cord to plug in… that we’ve used twice. I’d skip this if I did it again.

Should I Buy Individual Pieces or an Entire Solar Panel Kit?

Costs have dropped dramatically on solar components. We paid $1500 for our 200W kit in 2013; now you can get the same system from Renogy for $420! It’s amazing how cheap solar is these days.

Many shops also do solar installs, but the cost is painful. I say give it a shot yourself with one of the kits and save $1000+.

Below is the list of major components. All can be found on Amazon (links provided) or on Renogy’s Components page.

  1. Example of Panels: Grape Solar 100 W panels (two of them, easy to add more if needed)

  2. Charge Controller: Blue Sky Solar Boost 2512IX-HV

  3. Meter: IPN Pro Remote (this is the monitoring/control system for the solar setup)

  4. Batteries: Two Full River 6 volt batteries in series with 224 amp-hours capacity (installed beneath the van). Lithium ion batteries are freaking sweet, so check those out too, though they’re still spendy.

All our stuff showed up at our door in a big box and I got right down to being overwhelmed. When you do it, breathe deeply – it isn’t that bad and I bet you’ll find it to be a satisfying project by the time you’re done.

It took me about 10 hours total to do the install. After a solid weekend of effort, you’ll be sitting pretty.

Here's the kit you get from AM Solar.

Wires, wires, everywhere.

Nine Steps to Glory! (Or Wait, Where the Heck Does All This Stuff Go?)

Here are the basic steps I followed for our install. I’m sure everyone will do it slightly differently, but this worked well for me and there aren’t many things I would do differently.

  1. Assemble your tools! I recommend a rachet/wrench set, heat gun, hole saw (~1.25”), cordless drill and bits, caulk gun and caulk, utility knife, wire cutters and crimpers, and some way to get on top of your van (ladder, tall friend, or sky hooks).

  1. Get the panels ready for installation on the van. Attach all the mounting brackets and feet and pre-wire crimps and other attachment so you don’t have to do it on the roof of your vehicle.

  1. Put the panels on top of the van. I recommend having someone help you, or you can do it off the top of a tippy ladder by yourself and provide entertainment for the neighborhood as you wobble about trying not to kill yourself.

  1. Move the panels 67 times to figure out the best place to put them. Think HARD about where you’ll route wires inside the van. Make sure you consider proximity to your roof rails if you are planning to install an awning, or location relative to a Rocket Box if you are getting one of those. I suspect mounting a panel at the very front is totally fine, but I didn’t want the force from the wind off the windshield so I mounted them behind our roof vent instead, and could have put two more panels back there.

  1. Drill the Boss-Size hole to route the panel wiring inside. I used a tap hole followed by a 1.25” metal hole saw. Nothing like tapping an inch-plus hole in the top of your new van to make measure twice, cut once sink in. Make sure you paint the edge of the hole with some kind of sealant to prevent rust.

Hole saw ready to roll. I used an 1/8" tap hole first so it wouldn't wander and scratch the top of the van.

Hole saw ready to roll. I used an 1/8″ tap hole first so it wouldn’t wander and scratch the top of the van.

  1. If you have multiple panels like we did, you’ll need to somehow combine the wires from each panel before routing them through the giant hole you just drilled in your roof. I used a combiner box that came with the kit and mounted it under one of the panels. It is screwed down and sealed with lots of caulk. No leaking so far!

Bringing together wires from each panel into the combiner box. The wires then all route to the interior via the orange/black pair at the top.

Bringing together wires from each panel into the combiner box. The wires then all route to the interior via the orange/black pair at the top.

Combiner box mounted. Notice the sealant around the perimeter of the unit to seal it to the top of the van.

Combiner box mounted. Notice the sealant around the perimeter of the unit to seal it to the top of the van.

  1. Once your combiner box is installed, you can mount the panels on the roof. (Or do this step last.) After a lot of research, I used 3M adhesive pads. Some people screw their panels to the roof, which certainly would work, but that’s just 16 more holes to rust or leak. Make sure to put a layer of self-leveling sealant over the top of the solar panel feet/adhesive pads to prevent dirt and water from compromising the attachment and haven’t had any issues.

No drilling or screws required! Make sure to put self-leveling sealant over the entire foot afterward.

No drilling or screws required! Make sure to put self-leveling sealant over the entire foot afterward.

  1. To the inside we go! Here is where you just follow all the wiring diagrams. (See how easy that was?) Buy a kit that has all the connectors and shrink tubing clearly labeled so you don’t have to go back to your favorite hardware store (where they probably already know you by name) five more times in a weekend to get this project done. Before cutting any wire, carefully fitting and laying out the location of the charge controller, on/off switch, IPN remote and shunt relative to your inverter (if you have one) and other stuff is very important or you’ll be cramming stuff into a wall cavity or struggle to find places to attach all the components. I mounted the charge controller inside the wall with flush-mounted face places after I finalized the interior.

  1. Turn on the beast! Hopefully there is exactly zero popping, crackling and fizzing. Crack a cold one and sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Solar works first try, exceeding my expectations!

Power flowing. Works first try, exceeding my expectations!

All in all, this install was surprisingly straight forward and easy. Save yourself $1,000-1,500 and do it yourself! It took me an afternoon and part of another day, plus research about the system. One weekend and you’re dialed in with power on your van!


A Few FAQs

Q: Is 200W enough?

A: Yep! The only time we’ve run lower on power is when we have practically zero sun for awhile and haven’t driven recently. You could certainly put more on there if you want. When we’re in direct sunlight, which isn’t all that hard to find where we like to go, our system is at 100% almost all the time even with the fridge running, stereo on and laptops and other stuff charging.

Q: Is your Vitamix/hot water boiler (1500W each, for the record) always able to run?

A: NO. When the voltage in the batteries gets below about 12.2V, which happens around 70% battery life, the inverter will fault. Gotta keep the system pretty topped out to run that kind of wattage and amperage pull. Note: We have started the van up and run it for a few minutes while boiling water to get around this. Works great, and only has been necessary a couple times before you think we’re earth haters.

Q: Aren’t you worried about your panels blowing off while you drive?

A: Initially, I was worried about this. I haven’t had a single issue with it. Make sure to use the sealant to cover the solar panel feet and I suspect you’ll be fine.

Q: Do I need to wash my panels?

A: Yes! After a few months driving around, I got on top of the van and the panels were practically coated in dirt. I’d say a solid wipe down every month or two would be a good idea.

 

70 replies
  1. keenan
    keenan says:

    Great write up/van! Starting my build soon.. Why’d you go with the 400 dollar Xantrex PROWatt SW2000 over something like a
    $180 Cobra CPI 2575 or Whistler Pro-2500W? Love how efficient your fridge is, any other recommendations on similar brands you found during your research (kinda expensive)?

    Reply
    • Dakota Gale
      Dakota Gale says:

      Hey Keenan,

      Thanks for the kudos. It was (is!) definitely a fun project. Glad to hear you’re embarking on your own.

      The Xantrex was recommended by a local build-out company and others online have mentioned it, so I just went with that. I am not that well versed in the differences and didn’t feel like researching too much.

      I didn’t find any other fridges that I liked as much. The stainless steel finish was something we wanted, which was expensive, but something I’m glad we did. I frankly can’t recall which fridges we considered, just that the Isotherm one was the biggest in stainless that I could find. If you want a smaller fridge in another color, they all pull about the same current since any RV/boat fridge uses a Danfoss compressor, which is the efficient type.

      Good luck and maybe we’ll see you on the road sometime. What part of the world are you in?

      Reply
      • keenan
        keenan says:

        Thanks for the info. Also, how did you make use of the alternator? Did you just connect the new batteries in parallel with the one under the hood? My concern is draining the original and not being able to start.

        I’ll be in southern California and Colorado come August.

        Reply
        • Dakota Gale
          Dakota Gale says:

          I had the batteries mounted underneath the van since I didn’t have a lift and didn’t want to kill myself. The installer also connected the battery system to the main van battery. SO, I don’t have an answer to that. Sorry! Check around on the forums, somebody on there will have an answer.

          Reply
          • Max
            Max says:

            You mentioned you did this over the weekend then you reference the installer connected the system to your battery. Who did what? The tap in to the Sprinter electrical system is pretty important. Any diagrams you can share? Do you have an aux battery? Love your website and approach.

          • Dakota
            Dakota says:

            Glad you’re digging the site. Sorry, I don’t have any diagrams. Check the forums, people may be able to help you out.

            I installed just the solar panel, MPPT and other components myself. The inverter/batteries (two aux underneath the van on top of the van’s battery) were installed by Van Specialties in Tualatin, Oregon. I could have done the inverter myself, but didn’t have a lift for the van and the batteries would have been a nightmare without it. Decided to just have someone do it for me! Good luck with your build.

          • Dakota Gale
            Dakota Gale says:

            Good find – that’s a solid write up. Thanks for pointing it out Chris. What are you doing with your install and what kind of rig are you putting solar on?

      • Evan Martin
        Evan Martin says:

        Very inspiring and helpful page! My wife and I are working on our sprinter and will be living in it come June!

        Our solar setup and van build is turning out to be pretty similar to yours. Did you go with one of AM Solar’s solar panel kits or did you order the Grape Solar Panels that you provided a link for? I Bought panels with MC4 connectors like the ones you provided a link for and am trying to figure out how to get the MC4 10/1 wires from my Grape Solar Panels into the 10/2 wire that AM Solar’s uses for the weathertight entrance into their combiner box. How did you go about doing this?

        Thanks!

        Reply
        • Dakota
          Dakota says:

          Yo Evan,

          Glad it helped you out! Stoked for you two and your upcoming adventure. Where are you two launching from, and what kind of Sprinter (and the build style) did you go with?

          I ordered the AM Solar kit because I was in a hurry and needed to get it done. Not sure what you mean by not being able to get the wires into the combiner box – with the screw-down clamp seals, they’ll accommodate pretty much any fairly large wire, in my experience. Perhaps I’m misunderstanding your question? Feel free to snap a picture and I’ll see if I have any insight…

          Reply
          • Evan Martin
            Evan Martin says:

            Were working on the van here in Laramie, Wyoming and will be moving into the van when I start a short internship in Idaho Falls this June. Adventures begin after that! We went with a 170″ WB with no windows. A good amount of shelving on the walls, and storage space for 4 bikes and lots of climbing gear.

            I’m using the Home Depot Grape Solar panels, which are different than the Grape Solar panels that come in AM Solar’s kits. I called up AM solar and decided to splice the panel’s wires to the 10/2 wire that goes to the combiner box, instead of using the MC4 connectors that come on the Home Depot panels.

            A couple other questions for you… I’m thinking of going with an Isotherm Cruise 85 refrigerator, similar to the one you guys have. How is yours holding up? The West Marine site says that your the CR-130 draws 5 amps. Have you found this to be accurate? Apparently ours should only draw .8 amps… this seems almost too good to be true…
            Also,Is it ok for these compressor refrigerators to be placed snugly into a cabinet area? What kind (if any) of ventilation do they require?

          • Dakota
            Dakota says:

            Our fridge pulls less than 5 amps – closer to 2-3 is what I usually see. 0.8 is insanely low… I would optimize more for space in the fridge vs the draw on the system if I were you – having the ability to hold a lot of fresh food is a total game changer.

            I left a few inches of clearance at the rear of the fridge, which has worked fine. The specs for each fridge vary, but I don’t think the Danfoss compressors need much (based on what I’ve read, at least).

            Good luck with your build!

    • drew
      drew says:

      Hey! We’re building out our van and you have tons of great beta on here. Question: how did you mount the batteries underneath for your solar setup. We’ve got space where the spare tire was before but trying to figure out best way to suspend 2 batteries. Also did you consider goal zero as an option when you were considering best way to run your a/c?

      Cheers! -drew

      Reply
      • Dakota
        Dakota says:

        Hey Drew! I didn’t look at Goal Zero at all, so I can’t comment on that. So many options out there, and I suspect most will work well.

        The batteries are mounted underneath via a welded bracket formed from L-angle metal. That is then bolted to the frame. Works great and keeps the batteries out of the interior, which is safer and saves space as well. Good luck with your build!

        Reply
  2. Sam Tall
    Sam Tall says:

    First off this was a lot of help. At first I was going to only use 100 watt solar system but that has changed since I did my research . I have just purchased my solar panels and charge controller. Know I am wondering what batteries should I use or what batteries did you use?

    Reply
  3. Aaron Wells
    Aaron Wells says:

    Thank you for the nice write up about your solar panels. Couple of quick questions, if you’ve got the time. As a fellow Portlander I’ve been hesitant about putting in an RV solar panel system, since of course half the year we get rained on. Since you have almost exactly the same sort of system I’ve been considering, I was wondering what sort of current your able to generate during the rainy half of the year? And, if you were remaining in the Oregon climate full time, would you consider solar to be worthwhile? How long does it take to charge up your batteries under cloud cover? Does it work at all? Thanks so much in advance, and happy travels:)

    Reply
    • Dakota Gale
      Dakota Gale says:

      Hey Aaron,

      Good questions! I frankly don’t have much experience in the rainy NW with solar since we headed south last winter to avoid the clouds. 🙂 However, we saw some clouds in N. California and were able to get maybe 3-4 amps tops in those conditions. If it’s REALLY overcast, you’re probably out of luck.

      The most important complement to our solar installation is tying the electrical system into the alternator so you can charge the system with excess current while you’re driving. Solar tops things out nicely while you’re stationary and in the sun, but keeping your voltage high lets you run big-ticket appliances like Vitamixers and hot water boilers. (Important to us at least, if slightly ridiculous!)

      I’ll say this: we love our solar panels and I would absolutely do it again. For $1,500 (assuming you do the install), I think it’s worth it if you’re planning to take trips longer than just weekend expeditions AND you have a refrigerator. If you don’t have a fridge, 200+ amp-hours will take you a long way and you can probably get a full week of travel with just lights/light electrical usage. Throw the fridge in there and you’re drained in 2-3 days tops.

      Feel free to ask more questions, happy to help. Peace out from Ithaca, NY!

      Reply
  4. Kent
    Kent says:

    How are the 3M double sided tapes holding up? I don’t want to drill that many holes either. Any suggestions about fixing the panels or things you have noticed over time?

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      I wondered about that too…but 1.5 years into having them on the van, they have held up. Even with driving 75 on the freeway with crazy gusts of wind. If you go the 3M tape route, just be very sure that you have a sealant of some kind puddled over the solar panel feet.

      Reply
  5. Kent
    Kent says:

    For reference I have been fine with 200amp battery bank and off-engine charging. We use LED lights and an Espar and rarely see the battery bank dip. I am adding the solar because I want to add a fridge. I plan to use a small company here in portland and add a 245watt panel. Guy says it should charge my batteries in 4 hours if full sunlight! Sounds like I should be saving up my vacation days for longer trips 🙂

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Agreed – with just a heater, lights, and laptop/phone charging, you would only need the engine. If you want to camp somewhere for awhile, the solar is the way to go. Get a fridge – it’s a game changer. Kinda like the heater. Ah, we’re getting soft! 🙂

      Reply
  6. Wide Wendus
    Wide Wendus says:

    I’m trying to decide how to wire my batteries. Why did you go with two 6V batteries wired in series vs two 12V wired in parallel? How did you decide to go with 6V vs 12V? Also, your blog is amazing! I’m picking up my 2008 Sprinter today! Thanks for all the wonderful advice!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Hey, thanks! Glad you like the blog. Click around, there’s something for everybody. Where did you pick up your van? (And welcome to the club – it’s a fun one!)

      Two reasons that we went with 6V, neither of which may apply for you. First, they’re cheaper. Second, the 12v models just don’t have the plate thickness necessary to make them good for a deep-cycle application where you are drawing them down a lot (12v are good for starter batteries). I suspect either application will work these days, as there has been huge progress in batteries in the last couple years. Post a comment back here if you have any additional feedback – I’m sure other people have similar questions and just about anyone doing a DIY Sprinter seems to see this site. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Ken Bell
    Ken Bell says:

    reading your blog, getting reading for a 6 week MTB trip out west. Quick
    question, any issues with having the batteries being charged from the
    alternator and solar panels at the same time? We will be driving long
    distances between races and dont want to overcharge anything

    Has anyone found a nice plastic battery enclosure for 2 batteries?

    Finally, the inverter you have seems to be on the less expensive side of things, is it still working? we also have a vitamix…

    Thanks,

    Ken

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Howdy! Six week mountain biking trips is what these rigs are built for. Where are you heading?

      The power point tracker on the solar panels will regulate the voltage/current flow into the batteries, so you shouldn’t have issues with overcharging. Same for the alternator current, though I can’t speak for how you set up your design. As for the inverter, ours works great and hasn’t died yet! You will find that if your battery charge drops under ~85%, the Vitamix probably won’t work – the inverter will error out. Gotta keep the voltage above about 12.2V in my experience. I don’t know of a plastic battery case – mine are mounted using metal angle iron that is welded together. I didn’t make it myself, but purchased it from Van Specialites in Tualatin, Oregon and had them install it since I didn’t have a lift to get the van high enough to do the install without breaking my body.

      Good luck with your build!

      Reply
      • Ken Bell
        Ken Bell says:

        We will be following the ProXCT Mountain Bike “summer tour” Leaving VA for Missoula, Colorado Springs, Breckenridge, Park City, Mammoth (Nationals) then back east to Wisconsin and then finally home. We are actually going to be making this trip in an F150 but will be beta testing the electrical equipment for a future Van build. Still trying to decide between Sprinter, Ford Transit and possibly the Promaster although not sure about the FWD.

        Any thoughts on the vans would be appreciated.

        Reply
        • Dakota
          Dakota says:

          Nice trip! Good luck, assuming you’re racing. I can’t give much insight into various vans – since buying ours and doing the buildout, I frankly haven’t followed anything in the industry while we’ve been traveling. I do like the 4WD Sprinter option, which is only $7,000 more and would be GREAT in some situations.

          Reply
  8. S. Lengyel
    S. Lengyel says:

    Hi there! Longtime blog follower and subscriber. I have a couple questions about your solar panel installation. Love seeing your adventures, very jealous you went from van trip to bike trip! Your outlook and values are very similar to our own.

    After years of dreaming we finally bought a used van to support our road/mtb/cx/surf/hike/run/camp/etc adventures. Van 1.0 will support us for 4-5 years till we build the sprinter of our dreams. (Van 1.0 is a low miles loaded Ford E350 15 passenger van 139WB. Total cost should be under $15K for complete build out with solar, custom cabinets, 20+gallon water system, etc).

    On to my solar questions! How did you seal around the giant 1.125″ hole required to pass the wire/connectors through the roof? I’ve found very little information on how to make a clean leak proof hole through the roof. Lots of pics of gloppy (suspect looking) caulking jobs on van solar installations. Seems like most people skip right to the sexy solar charge controller and don’t cover weatherproofing the holes in the roof! Any suggestions or things you would change now that the panels have been on for a while? Thanks!

    P.S. Look us up if in Tahoe again. We are on the very quiet, non-touristy West Shore. You are welcome to stay or park in our driveway. We spend our days here mountain biking, road biking, hiking, SUPing, and making the best of the healthy mountain lifestyle.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Yo! You guys sound totally awesome. We’d love to meet you when we come through Tahoe. Didn’t happen this trip through CA thanks to another top-secret trip I’ll announce soon. It may involve parking the van and having some fun with bikes again this summer…

      I’ve got yer solution. On the solar panel post, there’s a bullet point that talks about a combiner box. I put that over the big-ass hole that I drilled in the roof and it hasn’t leaked yet! Here’s the direct link to the AM Solar page with the box; it also comes in the kit that I recommend/used myself. http://www.amsolar.com/home/amr/page_72_16/roof_c-box.html

      Catch you on the flip side! Glad to have you along for the ride.

      Reply
  9. Eric Aldenhoff
    Eric Aldenhoff says:

    Great Info! 🙂 I’m putting together a system myself and was wondering why you went with two 6v batteries rather than 1 12v. Was it cheaper? Id just look it up myself, but I’m not sure if each of your batteries were 224 amp/hrs or was that the total for the system(ie each of the batteries was 112amp/hrs).

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Glad you found it helpful. There’s another comment up above yours that I’ll repost here:

      Two reasons that we went with 6V, neither of which may apply for you. First, they’re cheaper. Second, the 12v models just don’t have the plate thickness necessary to make them good for a deep-cycle application where you are drawing them down a lot (12v are good for starter batteries). I suspect either application will work these days, as there has been huge progress in batteries in the last couple years.

      Reply
  10. Bence
    Bence says:

    Hi Dakota,

    Congratulations on what looks to be a great installation! I’m sitting here with drill in hand nervous to plunge into my roof. You mentioned you coated the edges with rust proof material, but could you also share that material used to prevent leaks?

    Thank you, and safe travels!
    Bence

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Hi Bence,

      The solar install hasn’t leaked yet, so I guess that counts as a win! I highly recommend a combiner box (it is linked to in the comments somewhere) to cover the hole you drill through the roof. I don’t recall exactly what I used to seal it, but it was a tube of white caulk that I think is pretty standard.

      Good luck with your buildout!

      Reply
  11. Ken
    Ken says:

    Awesome writeup and blog. Could you take a picture of the feet with the sealant over it so I can get an idea of how much you used and what the finished feet attached to the roof will/should look like? I know you stress the sealant as an important thing to do when people have been questioning how strong the ‘feet to roof’ really are. A picture would be nice.

    Thanks again for the passion you have in sharing your knowledge!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Glad to help you out, Ken. I can’t take a picture right now because we’re cycle touring in Europe, but basically I put an 1/8″ layer over the entire foot and called it good. Seems to be doing the trick so far! Good luck with your buildout.

      Reply
  12. Daniel
    Daniel says:

    Hi,
    I love your site – well done! I just bought a 2014 170″ and am pouring through design considerations.
    Question is: you mentioned you had the batteries installed underneath and tied into alternator, and that you had someone do that for you – where do you look for that kind of service? I don’t even know who does that sort of thing – general mechanic?
    Thanks!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Glad the site is helpful. Congrats on your new van – you’re gonna have some fun with that rig!

      I took my Sprinter to Van Specialities near Portland, Oregon. I would search for “RV retrofitter” or something like that if you aren’t in the Portland area. If you can’t find something on Google, check on sprinter-forum.com. The people on there are tremendously helpful. Good luck!

      Reply
  13. Jason
    Jason says:

    I just bought a 1997 Ford Aerostar conversion van. I want to install solar power for a mini fridge. I’ve done some research on diy solar set ups, and am looking forward to putting one together. On the downside, I don’t have much money to spare. I have a gofundme, but I don’t really expect anything to come of it. So I’m trying to go as low cost as possible. I found a second-hand 12v 15 watt solar panel I can easily dash-mount (the top of the van is inadvisable in some of the areas I drive), and I was wondering if it would be enough to keep the deep cycle battery charged… I’m having trouble finding the answer researching online. If you know anything to help me figure it out, I would be grateful.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Howdy Jason! A 12V, 15W panel will generate maybe 1 amp of current in the best conditions. A mini-fridge probably pulls 5-6 amps, which means you will quickly outstrip the capacity of the panel and drain your battery in perhaps 1-2 days, depending on the conditions outside.

      What I’d look into is how you can take spare capacity from the van’s alternator while driving and use that overflow current to charge the battery. That will likely be a better way to accomplish your goal. Good luck, and let me know how it goes!

      Reply
  14. Frank
    Frank says:

    For cloudy weather or shaded panels you can get more power into your batteries if you simply wire your panels in series to get a higher V then your MPPT controller turns those higher V’s into higher Amps for battery charging. If you want to go with a single panel you can find one that will put out about 42 -46 Volts. In the early stages of planning my Sprinter convert !!!!!! Frank

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Yep, that’s true. We’ve had great success with our setup, and cloudy/shaded usually results in very little power generation either way. Good luck with your build!

      Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Yep, it’s pure sine. The main van writeup page has a link to the inverter we have. We have a new Vitamix (as of early 2015), which is about 2.2. HP.

      Reply
      • Shawn
        Shawn says:

        Thanks. We have a campervan on order with two 6V AGM batteries and a 1500W inverter. I’m going to see if I can upgrade to the inverter you have. We’ll probably travel with our smaller S30 Vitamix machine which has a 790W motor. Knowing your larger one works well with your setup is encouraging.

        Reply
        • Dakota
          Dakota says:

          For the extra size/cost, I think a 2k inverter is well-worth it. Then you won’t have limitations on equipment in the future. Good luck with your build!

          Reply
  15. drew
    drew says:

    Hey Dakota,

    I’m about to mount my battery setup underneath van in front of rear wheel. I was wondering if you had to penetrate the floor and (if you did) where you did that.

    Thanks!

    -drew

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Hey Drew,

      Yep, I tapped a hole about a foot behind the driver’s seat near the wall. My battery and heater wiring routes through this. Really any clear spot should give you a spot to tap a hole. Good luck!

      Reply
  16. matt
    matt says:

    i am looking at running a portable induction hot plate rated at 800watts. have you had any experience running these off a solar system? do you think it would run for 20 mins or so?

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Hey man! You should be fine. Detailed explanation: It’s more of a calculation of battery capacity than solar unless your system can generate 800+ watts of power, which I rarely see people do. It’s a simple calc based on Amp-Hours of capacity. If you have one battery, you’re probably around 100 A-H; with two, double it to 200 A-H. If you have a 12v system, that hot plate pulls 66.7 Amps. SO, that means you could run the the system for 200/66.7 hours, or roughly 3 hours on a 200 A-H system and 1.5 on a 100 A-H system…so 20 minutes will be just fine! Hope that helps.

      Reply
  17. Mike
    Mike says:

    Great write-up. Can you provide more specific info on the 3m product that you used to secure the brackets to the roof? Is it still holding up?

    Thanks.

    -Mike

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Howdy Mike. Yep, the panels are still hanging on the roof. Since the 3M adhesive simply came with the kit I ordered, I have no idea which specific type I used. However, I’d say any high-adhesive pads will probably work. I bet someone on the forums has linked directly to a specific product (if you feel like searching around). Good luck!

      Reply
  18. John Mathews
    John Mathews says:

    Very nice writeup! Thanks for sharing. I wanted to ask if you considered installing some sort of asun tracker mechanism to increase the efficiency? From what I’ve read, there are optimal angles at which solar panels should be placed. Also, you’ve mentioned that they require a 1-2 months wipe downs; do you have the data as far as the power generated goes? It would be really interesting to see how soon they become “ineffective” due to buildup.

    Cheers,
    John
    John Mathews recently posted…Arduino based Solar Tracker – Stepper Motor & Light Resistor TutorialMy Profile

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Sure thing! I briefly looked at sun trackers before deciding I didn’t need extra stuff breaking. Haven’t tracked power generation that closely either – too busy mountain biking, I’d like to think!

      Reply
  19. Sean Madsen
    Sean Madsen says:

    Hey Dakota,
    Thanks for this write up. I’m about to put in a pair of Renogy panels on my new Transit. Like you, We’re building a van to go mountain biking all over the West! All you used to attach the panels is the VHB tape? No screws? and it’s holding fine? It seems so. Also, for the wiring hole in the roof, how did you create a tight seal? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Yo! The VHB tape works great – no screws. Many other people have done the same thing as me and it works well. The seal is achieved via the combiner box, which there are pictures of (and I think a link?). Good luck!

      Reply
      • Sean
        Sean says:

        Ok. Thanks. The Renogy panels have these branch connectors, so no need for a big connection box anymore. I’ll try and figure something out.

        Reply
        • Dakota
          Dakota says:

          The connection box is handy for splicing on additional panels without having to penetrate the roof again. Plus it’s a double seal against the weather. I’m sure Renogy has a great system for it – their panels are a DEAL compared to when I was looking at solar stuff a few years ago. Good luck!

          Reply
  20. TwoBirds
    TwoBirds says:

    Dakota, your info is fantastic! Wondering if you are still using your vitamix daily? We are building out our Ford club wagon 350 and so far have total 375ah of 12v agm batteries and a 2000watt pure sine wave inverter. We have a domestic fridge/freezer that draws 2-3a and would like to run our precious vitamix once a day at least. Do you think 200 watts of panels will be able to replenish the vitamix draw? We will mostly be in AZ (tons of sun) but will spend the rest of time traveling around the country exploring. Thanks for your help. Also, we’re very new to this and will be installing everything ourselves, so forgive my ignorance if my question makes little sense:) There is so much we’re learning it’s a bit overwhelming at times, but slow and steady wins the race! Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Hey! I’d wager you’ll be just fine with that setup. Solar will replenish things (the blender pulls about 1%/minute for our system, so .5% for yours), but I’d consider linking your alternator up to charge your batteries when you’re driving. All that said, we wound up leaving the Vitamix behind and getting a 900W NutriNinja – it’s both cheap ($80), smaller than the Vitamix, pulls less power, and doesn’t error out the inverter when battery voltage drops below ~80%.

      Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Just adhesive, no racks! If you go with the 3M pads, make sure to get a solid layer of self-leveling sealant over the pads so dirt and grime can’t work in and break the seal. Four years and so far, so good… I am going to update the sealant this spring since it’s weathered quite a bit. Good luck!

      Reply

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