Are you looking for an alternative energy source in your camper van and have come to the realization that there is no better place to look than solar energy?
That’s a great realization to have and in this article, we will help you actualize this.
You are going to learn exactly how to install solar panels on a camper van, what you need to know, what you need to look out for and all you need to consider.
So, shall we?
Determining the Exact Size of Solar Panels for Your Camper
Getting familiar with the right specs of the solar panel kit that you wish to install is essential. Make sure to measure the roof of your van before purchasing solar panels and make sure the right-fit panels can actually power your camper van as you require.
Another thing you should consider is the weight of the panels. Just because they are fit for the space on the roof doesn’t mean they are fit for your vehicle. Heavier panels commonly fall off the roof during the trip so it is better if you can find some lightweight panels to install and power your van.
Mounting the Solar Panels to the Roof
There are several ways to mount solar panels to your camper’s roof. These are through:
- Roof Rack
- VHB Tape
Some solar panel kits have Z brackets included. These can be used when the vehicle’s roof is curved. If the panels are few and scattered, you can use C brackets instead. They are available in different sizes.
For bigger solar panels, it is recommended you mount a roof rack first before you attach the panels. There are roof racks that can directly be installed if the surface is flat. But if it is curved, you can mount some C roof rails first on both sides of the roof. When the roof rack is in place, you don’t need to drill some holes in the center area of the roof. You can rather attach the panels onto the roof rack with brackets, bolts, and nuts.
In case the solar panels are lightweight, there is no need to mount brackets to the roof surface. Instead, you can use 3M VHB tape to directly attach the panel to the roof. However, the bond between the roof and the panels will depend on the adhesion strength of the paint on the surface. Nonetheless, it works best with urethane paint which is common for new vehicles.
Installing a wiring system for solar panels may be difficult when the camper’s interior is surrounded by fixed insulation. To determine the appropriate wiring path, remove all the insulation that covers the skin of the vehicle’s body so that you can easily place the wires based on your diagram.
Meanwhile, your diagram should match your plan. If you plan to fix the solar panels permanently, the interior insulation can be fixed permanently as well. Your decision to change some home equipment like the fridge and heater may also affect the entire wiring system. Will you alter the interior soon? Plan ahead of time.
Once it’s clear where the wires must run through, don’t forget to get some tools together such as:
- Soldering Equipment
- Electrical Tape
- Razor Blade
- Wire Strippers
- Wire Crimpers
- Diagonal Cutter
Installing the electrical wires on your camper is not much different from installing them inside the ceiling of your home. The wires are directed toward switches, plugs, circuit breakers, and fuse boxes. When installing them on a camper van, the skeletal structure of wires may depend on the brand’s recommended use. Therefore, be aware of the solar panel kit’s manual to guide you.
Knowing the Components of Your Solar Panel Installation
It is important to note that every DIY project does not only entail knowing the process but also knowing its components. The same is true with installing a solar panel on a camper. The solar panel itself is just one of the components within the process. It does not operate alone. You need some other devices and tools to make it work for your camper.
These components are:
Solar Charge Controller
Your solar panel is not directly connected to a battery in a similar way your phone’s battery is not connected directly to an electrical plug. You will need a charger to charge the phone’s battery. It is the charger that regulates the current.
The solar charge controller performs the same task. It manages the amount of electricity that flows from the solar panel to protect and charge the solar panel battery at the same time. Without it, the battery may explode.
Fire hazard is inherent in faulty electrical wiring connections especially if wire connections are merely covered by electrical tapes that loosen over time. Heat shrink has chemical properties that cause it to shrink and to seal around a wire connection. This will protect bare wires from external exposure.
Solar Panel Cable
This cable is installed to connect the solar panel and charge controller. It is designed to handle an enormous amount of energy that comes from the panel. Bigger solar panel cables can absorb as much voltage as what is produced by the panel. Therefore voltage loss is more common when using smaller cables.
Another name for wire lug is the battery terminal eye. It is a piece of metal that has a hole where battery terminals are encapsulated. You will need it when you connect the battery to the solar charge controller.
Battery Disconnect Switch
This mechanism is designed to protect a device from fire and theft. When you switch it off, nobody can use the device. It’s like turning on your phone without knowing that it has run out of battery. It is also used as a safety measure when the device it powers will not be used for a longer period.
This is important as it protects the battery from the fuse itself. The fuse is a safety device that melts and stops the abnormal supply of the current especially when the voltage is too high. When installing the fuse holder, place it between the battery disconnect switch and the charge controller.
Solar Panel Cable Gland
Solar panel cables carry a significant amount of current. They are connected to solar panels on a camper’s roof. You can’t connect them without a weatherproof protection. A solar panel cable gland is a device where you can plug the cables so as not to expose the bare wires to water when it rains or when you are washing your camper.
To install it, drill a hole in the roof area where the cables run into the interior of a camper. Attach it with its bolt. Plug the cables and thread the gland collars to tightly seal the plug.
MC4 connectors are used to connect multiple panels. They can also be used to extend or add more cables to connect to the charge controller. This device works similarly with a cable TV splitter.
These batteries are not the usual batteries in your camper’s engine. Rather, they are specially made for the solar panel to store energy. However, you should decide which type of solar panel battery to choose. You can choose between FLA, AGM, Gel, or lithium.
Finalizing the Specific Steps
Now that you know the components of solar panels and the things you need to consider before you start, we can now discuss the specific steps to make the installation process very simple.
Let’s get into it!
- Remove the camper’s interior insulation and skin covers.
- Install the wiring system inside.
- Drill the holes on the roof for brackets and for cable glands.
- Install the panels on the roof.
- Plug the solar panel cable into the cable gland.
- Insert the solar panel cable into the hole on the roof.
- Inside the camper, pull down the cable.
- Connect the solar panel cable to the charge controller.
- Connect the charge controller to the battery disconnect switch.
- Install the fuse box next to the battery disconnect switch.
- Connect the battery disconnect switch to the battery terminals with wire lugs.
- Connect the battery to the wiring system.
Wrapping Things Up
Installing a solar panel on a camper van seems to be a daunting task. But if you consider the simple tips above, the whole process won’t be that intimidating. You can even develop your own better steps as you go through the process. There is no single way that applies to all. The key is to become as resourceful as a handyman.
Moreover, the success of your installation project can be affected by several factors such as the brands you use, the availability of materials, and professional services. Therefore, I recommend that you explore them in advance to ensure your satisfaction when carrying out the task.
Nevertheless, there are solar panel companies that offer installation services. Check some of their packages and figure out which one fits your need according to your budget if you can’t do it yourself.