DIY Solar Panel Installation for Van Living

by Vera Lawrence | LAST UPDATED October 4, 2021

Solar Panel Installation
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Van life isn’t just a big road trip. You need to make extensive preparations and ensure that you have all of your ducks in a row before you set off. Otherwise, you’re in for a very short trip before you need to head back home.

One of the most important things you need to do before starting out is convert your van into an off-grid house on wheels. This requires a lot of significant modifications, key among which is a stable power supply for any appliances or gadgets you might need on the go.

If you’re planning on doing this conversion yourself, then we can help you get started on your campervan solar system.

Disclaimer

It probably goes without saying, but this article won’t turn you into a DIY whizz in a single read. You should understand that this is a major undertaking, and you’ll need to be good with your hands or at least have some experience with installations and basic wiring work.

While we can help you pick out the right equipment and tell you how they fit together, we won’t provide you with a wiring diagram or a detailed explanation of how the electrical system should be installed. If you have done small electrical installations or understand the basics you should be good to go, but we leave that up to you. 

However, if you don’t know which end of a screwdriver to hold, then it’s probably best to spend a few extra dollars and leave the solar panel wiring to motorhome conversion specialists.

Dimensions

We won’t spend too much time on this topic since it’s pretty self-explanatory, but there are still a few things that we’d like to bring to your attention about the size of your campervan solar system of choice.

How you position the panels themselves and how many you place on your roof will depend on how much space you have available.

A Mercedes Sprinter van has a lot more space on the roof than a lot of other models, so they can usually fit two solar panels next to each other width-wise, while certain vehicles can only manage to hold one solar panel length-wise.

However, keep in mind that even if the panels can fit on your roof, the combined weight might warp the top of your vehicle. While the weight of the solar panel kit doesn’t play a significant role when they’re installed on the house, the roof of a van isn’t as durable and can also effect your gas milage.

When picking out your solar panels, you need to make sure that the top of your vehicle can hold the combined weight of everything you’re putting on top or reinforce the roof from the inside until it does.

Changing the Items

We’ll tell you exactly how we would handle the wiring and exactly what items we would use to install a solar power system. We’ll also take you through all of the camper van conversion modifications that you’ll need to make to accommodate these items. Let’s get a move on.

The decision on whether you go for a monocrystalline Newpowa rig, polycrystalline Renogy rig, or if you want to use a Victron MPPT charge controller is entirely up to you. Every item that we mention will be what we think is the best choice for a solar setup; however, you’re free to make any changes that you feel are necessary.

If you’d prefer to use 12-volt lithium batteries rather than AGM batteries, then there are plenty of choices on Amazon, and we even have an article that can help you with choosing the right type of battery for your rig.

Taking Measurements

One of the most challenging parts of buying solar panels is deciding which ones would be a good fit for your needs. When you’re on the road full time, and you heavily rely on your campervan solar system for your power needs, you’re going to need to know what sort of power consumption you’re looking at.

The best way to estimate your power consumption is to get a fresh 12v battery, hook it up to an inverter, then plug all of your devices and spend a day going about your business. After the day is up, you’re going to hook up your battery to a battery charger,, and you’ll see how much power your devices have spent for one day.

What You’ll Need

Here’s a list of everything that you’ll need to install your RV solar setup:

  • Solar panels
  • Mounting kit and Connectors
  • Solar charge controller
  • Solar battery bank
  • Power inverter/charger

Solar panels

As we mentioned before, the solar panels will need to fit on your van roof and conform to its weight limit.

The best choice in our opinion, is flexible solar panels. These models are known for being incredibly lightweight, and their versatility allows you to place them virtually anywhere.

The thinness of the solar panels also means that you won’t have to reinforce the inside of your van to account for any extra weight on the roof. You’re free to pick out the campervan solar panels that fit your power and dimension requirements the best, but we’d recommend going for a flexible model if you can help it.

Mounting Kit and Connectors

Every solar panel kit comes with its own mounting kit and connectors, so you won’t have to go hunting for any specific parts on Amazon. However, you might want to get yourself a proper toolkit with the necessary screwdrivers and wrenches before you start.

Most mounting kits can simply be attached to the roof of your van by using latches and adhesives. However, for a bit of extra insurance, you might want to drill a few holes under the mounts, and either tie them off with some rope or add a few screws underneath to make sure that they’ll stay in place while you’re driving.

After you’ve figured out the placement of the mounts, mark out where the connectors will be placed so you can make holes for the cables. After you’ve run the cables through and attached the connectors to the mounts, place the solar panels on the mounts and secure them tightly.

Solar Charge Controller

Once the cables are passed through the holes in the roof, connect them directly to your battery bank or your solar charge controller. We recommend that you go for the latter option.

The function of a charge controller is to modulate the amount of power that’s fed into the battery through your solar panels. In essence, this device ensures that the battery bank doesn’t get damaged due to overcharging. While it serves a simple purpose, it’s vital to ensure that the battery will last you as long as possible and doesn’t get worn out.

We’d recommend not skipping this item since it usually triples the lifespan of your batteries. A battery actually deteriorates much faster if it’s at maximum capacity, and the standard battery can only safely hold around 80-90% of its discharge potential.

Items like the PWM battery regulator cut off the solar power supply as soon as the battery hits its benchmark. While this might seem like a waste of viable energy, the truth is that this solar power won’t be discharged by the battery in any case, and it’ll only do damage.

Solar Battery Bank

Connecting your charge controller to your battery bank is as simple as taking the available wires and connecting them one to another. But, in all honesty, the more difficult part of the procedure is finding a place where you can safely stash your battery without it getting in the way.

You’ll want to keep it somewhere dry and far away from your water supply or sink. The best option is to place it away from your bed and close to your driver’s seat. Of course, if your bed is right behind your seat, then just put it on the other side of the van.

The type of battery you get will depend on whether you prefer to use lithium or gel and its capacity, which should be in line with the solar panels. 

The final issue that you might have is if the battery is moving while you’re driving. These are relatively heavy items, so they shouldn’t shift all that much, but if you’re still unsure, you can build a little section for them by simply nailing down four small planks of wood.

Alternatively, you can just use some gaffer tape to hold it in place. If you still think that it’s moving, then we refer you to this adage, “If it can’t be fixed with duct tape, then you just aren’t using enough duct tape.”

Power Inverter/Charger

power inverter

The final item that you’ll need to complete your campervan solar system is a power inverter/ charger. There are a lot of different models of inverters and chargers. While there are differences between the two, both types of items essentially have the same purpose - converting the direct current from the solar panels into an alternating current.

Since home appliances and electrical devices work on AC, this is a pretty essential piece of equipment for any van lifer.

There’s really nothing to installing this item since it only needs to be hooked up to your power bank. Additionally, many inverters, like the AIMS Power PICOGLF12W12V120AL already come with drill holes that you can use to hold them in place, so all you need to finish off the installation process are a few nails.

Conclusion

A great, way to tell if you should do this installation on your own or if you should take your motorhome to a professional is based on your reaction to our article.

If you understand the gist of the procedure and you think that you can manage to put up your solar panels even with this limited amount of instructions, then it might be worth giving it a shot on your own.

However, if you’re confused by the whole process and still need more information, then it might be best to defer this task to a professional since all you’ll do on your own is void the warranty on your campervan solar system.

Vera Lawrence
Vera is a part-time van lifer after spending nearly four years in her 1990 Ford E350 (named Fred). She currently lives in Utah and takes extended weekend trips into the desert with her two dogs. She is an ice cream fanatic and avid runner.

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