How I Easily Installed Solar Panels on My RV Van Roof With No Experience
I installed a complete solar system on this RV with no experience; the panels, the batteries, the inverter, all the interior components.
And I really learned a lot along the way, and so I wanna share that with you today.
If you don’t feel like reading this post in its entirety, you can watch the video on my YouTube channel, but I do recommend you also read this post because I have included extra tips, tricks, and ideas along the way as a supplement to the video.
And I am not an electrician or anything like that, so please don’t copy exactly what I did and then go out and hurt yourself and blame me for that.
This is just what I learned over about two months of study, what I put together over another two months of work, and I just hope to share the information that I’ve discovered with you.
I’ve loved solar systems since I was a little kid.
I remember seeing in like a fourth-grade science book that every vehicle in the United States was going to be solar-powered by the year 2000.
It did pique my interest, and I’ve always been curious about solar systems since then.
So why would I just be buying one now?
Well, even just five to 10 years ago, their prices were highly unreasonable, and now they are much more realistic and make it much more worth their costs upfront.
And what those costs are paying for are basically the free electricity that we’re getting every single day.
But there’s also the hidden cost of having the freedom and the ability to move, especially in these days when there are closures and lockdowns and quarantines and all that kind of stuff. So it’s really a priceless addition to have.
So given all that: the reduced cost these days, the free electricity, and the enhanced mobility during a time of border closures and quarantines, I think right now is the perfect time to invest in a solar system.
What Can Solar Panels Run in an RV or Van?
Well, there are some limitations on my system.
For example, there is no air conditioner in there except for what comes out of the dash.
Now, a lot of these class B road trucks do have air conditioners.
And the second and only other limitation that I really have is that my inverter is only 1500 watts.
And that means I can’t run both my oven and two electric burners at the same time.
I probably should have gone with a 2,500 watt or a 3,000 watt inverter to handle more of a load at once.
But what does this system run for me?
It can run everything from AC to DC components.
It runs a water pump and heater, a furnace, a fantastic fan on the roof, which controls for temperature and humidity.
It runs all the lights.
It runs my computer.
It runs several tablets and phones.
It runs all of my gear like this camera that you’re looking at and the microphones here.
We have two electric toothbrushes, an electric razor.
We have a 43-inch TV with a soundbar that it runs as well, and don’t forget all of my cooking stuff that I mentioned.
I have an oven, two electric burners, and an Instant Pot and a waffle maker.
And all that can run off of my solar system.
And sooner or later, I’m gonna find an Xbox Series X. I’m gonna plug that in as well.
I just can’t find one yet.
But until then, thankfully, I can game on my computer through an HDMI cable into my TV. And that’s still pretty sweet too.
So now that we have a little bit of background, and you know what a system like this can actually run, let’s get into how to actually install it.
What Components Make Up My Solar Panel System in My RV?
And everything that I mention, all these tools and components, I’ve used, and there’s also great reviews for them. So you know you’re gonna get something that’s quality, no crap here.
Okay, so I have five 100-watt solar panels from Renogy.
They are their lightweight and smaller-edition panels, but still just as effective.
Two lithium iron phosphate batteries, also by Renogy, 12.8 volts.
Some additional components that you’re going to need are MC4 connectors to connect the panels together.
You might need some solar extension cables to connect them together as well. These effectively make the cables that come off the panels longer by a meter, which is useful if some of your panels are spread out and need that extension to get connected.
You’re gonna need an inline fuse to connect it at the end.
You’ll also need a 20-foot solar extension wire. And you’re gonna need to cut into this at some point, so don’t be worried that it comes with two connecting points.
You will just chop off one end, because you’re going to have to stick that through the solar entry gland, and don’t forget you need a solar entry gland.
I recommend you buy some prefabricated battery-to-battery cablesif you plan on using more than one battery. Remember to not mix and match batteries, and use the same battery if using more than one.
To fabricate some of your own wires, you’re gonna need four-gauge wire that comes in a pack with shrink wrap and ring connectors.
And don’t let that scare you. I will show you later how to do that. It’s really easy.
You’re also gonna need a 60-amp circuit breaker for this system.
The Tools For Installing Solar Panel System on RV or Van Roof
You need a heat gun for the shrink wrap when making your own wires.
Now I actually just use a candle.
You’re gonna need a power drill with some bits to get through the exterior of your vehicle. We’re not drilling the panels in place, we’re just making one hole for the solar cables to enter your vehicle through the solar entry gland.
Once everything is installed, I used a 42-foot steel cable to tie down all these panels and make sure they don’t go anywhere in case they break off.
You can get a steel cable like this at somewhere like The Home Depot and just ask for a custom length, whatever your vehicle needs. I have a 20 foot vehicle, so I got a 42 foot cable and cut it in half, and ran a cable down each side of the panels.
You’re also gonna need all the nuts and bolts and washers that you need to keep all this stuff together. Thankfully, a lot of the components come with all their own hardware.
And finally, you’re gonna need some cleaning equipment like some rubbing alcohol or just some alcohol wipes that you can use to clean off the roof of your RV or vehicle.
How to Pick the Right Solar Panel for Your RV Van Roof?
I think the most important thing that you really need to think about when deciding which solar panels to get on your roof is you wanna have ones that:
- are lightweight
- give you the most wattage per square inch
- and you also don’t want to be mixing and matching panels
And so that’s why I went with Renogy’s latest 100-watt panel.
It’s smaller than their traditional panel, both in terms of length and width, and it’s also about three times lighter.
So it was really easy to install.
Could just carry it up there on the ladder one-handed and really easily set it down. It’s quite light.
So let’s actually get into how to install the panels up on top.
Now, one of the first things you wanna think about is where is the solar entry gland going to go?
Because that’s going to determine how you should orient your panels and how they should be placed up on top of your roof.
And if you don’t know where you’re going to put your solar entry gland quite yet because you’re not sure where the interior components are going to go inside of your van, please skip ahead to the next section on the interior components.
And so you can see where I placed mine up there.
It’s right where all the panels come together in the middle, plus where it’s just above where my batteries and my charge controller and my inverter, right beneath that passenger rear seat there.
So you know where your solar entry gland is going to go.
That means you know how you should orient your panels, that is, which side the cable should go on to make it easy to connect them all.
Once you know that, you can start tinkering with the brackets a little bit to figure out where exactly you want to place them.
Now, I think at this point, I should mention that if you purchase some Z-brackets, I think they would be much more useful.
You have much more mobility to put them really wherever you want them on top of the roof.
You may find like I did that the brackets are going to look different on each panel.
And that’s because maybe the curvature of your roof isn’t exactly uniform.
And so every panel is gonna need a different placement for the brackets.
And the little key tip right here is to, if you are using these stock brackets here, is to flip them so they’re inside out.
It just makes them easier to get to once you actually have them installed there.
So once you know where all the brackets are going to go on each panel, and you know how they’re all going to be arrayed up there, you need to pencil in those locations.
Then you need to take some alcohol and clean off each area where they’re going to be.
You want each spot to be nice and sparkling clean. Try not to erase your pencil marks too much, as they might come off a little bit.
But just make sure that you get it nice and clean so that the tape or the PL Max will cure properly in there.
Once it’s all nice and clean, you need to decide how you’re going to actually stick it onto your roof.
Mine’s fiberglass, so I used two different types of adhesives. I used something called PL Max, which kind of comes out in like, a caulk gun.
And then I also used VHB tape, which is the same kind of tape that they use to tape up big glass panels on skyscrapers.
So you can trust that it’s quite strong.
Now, this is where I think you can really learn something from me.
PL Max I think is going to work fine on any of the panels that are in the rear that are not facing a strong wind shear.
And I say that because I initially used PL Max on these front two panels.
And the one that’s up on top right here, the front ones that’s above this passenger door right here, that one actually came off.
That PL Max broke off, and it felt like it was solid previously.
Thankfully, I had it safety-cabled down, so it didn’t go anywhere.
But that PL Max did not prove strong enough with the wind shear that that one was facing.
It was a lot: high speeds, high winds, and the panel itself sets in an awkward position that catches air as the vehicle moves forward.
I put that one back down with VHB tape, and then I eventually built these wind guards right here that you see, and that has worked out really well since then.
But saying that, I would just think that on these front panels where they’re catching a ton of wind, have a windshield built like this.
It was actually quite simple. I just used Reflectix and Gorilla Tape to put it up there.
But also use VHB tape instead of the PL Max to glue those down.
And make sure you’re using as much as you can.
Now, what you wanna do is just attach it to the bottom of that bracket and cover as much of the spatial area on the bracket as you can, and then press it down.
And you’ll do the exact same thing with the PL Max too.
Just cover as much as that bracket as you can.
And then you want to press that down and let it cure for at least 72 hours.
Once those brackets are actually down, I like to take another step, which is either take some Gorilla Tape or some EternaBond and put it over top of the bracket itself.
That kind of tapes it down. and it also creates another windshield for the bracket.
Once all the brackets are down and in place, then you can actually start connecting the cables.
Now, this is where your MC4 connectors are gonna come in.
And you wanna connect them in parallel all the way down.
Here’s a diagram of how mine is set up.
So, black to black to black to black, red to red to red to red all the way down until you get to the solar entry gland because each of these connections is going to end in an MC4 connector.
And on the positive MC4 connector, you want to install your fuse right there.
This is where you’re gonna wanna get out your power drill and drill through your vehicle as few holes as possible to make way for the 20 foot solar extension cables into the vehicle.
And so we did a half-inch drill.
And that’ll go through the solar entry gland as well.
And we were able to get both of these cables through there.
Now, it was a really tight fit.
Once those cables are through, you can take some putty and just kind of putty up the interior of it.
You can use either PL Max or VHB tape to secure the solar entry gland to the vehicle. I also placed some Eternabond over two of the edges (the top and front) to further protect from wind shear and water entry.
Once that’s all done, and you have those 20-foot cables running to the outside of the solar entry gland, you can finally connect that to the MC4 connectors and the fuse.
So this means that you have your solar panels all installed.
You have the wires running through the solar gland into the vehicle, and you have your cables at the end inside ready to go.
Do not plug them in yet, not until the charger and the inverter and the batteries are all ready to go.
Where To Put An Inverter, Batteries, and Charge Controller inside of a Van or RV?
So you need to start scouring your RV or van or vehicle or whatever you’re in at this point and start thinking about, which cabinet can I sacrifice?
Can I move stuff underneath the sink? Is there somewhere underneath a seat somewhere?
You really need to find the space for all this stuff because it’s unlikely that it’s just built in somewhere into your vehicle.
After scouring high and low in mine, I finally found some space underneath this rear passenger seat right here, as I mentioned earlier.
There used to be a drawer here as I mentioned.
But I took a Skilsaw to it and completely emptied out the inside of this seat.
Now, as you can see in here, it gave me room for two batteries, my inverter, all the wires, and a 60-amp circuit breaker.
And then on the outside, over here is where I’m actually keeping the charge controller.
And that allows all the wires to run out and through the bottom and up into it like that.
And just be sure that when you’re installing it, you give space out the top and bottom of it because you’ll need to attach the wires through the bottom.
And it just needs space to breathe out the top as well.
And I use the drawer opening over here as a place to access my inverter.
I’m gonna have access to three AC ports and two USB ports on the inverter itself there.
Again, needs a little bit of space to breathe, but it’s been doing just fine down in here for me.
That is bolted down with the bolts and nuts and washers that comes with it.
As you can see, I have my two lithium-ion batteries strapped down with a bracket down there and another bracket down there, kind of with a custom top that I did there.
And so those are both bolted down.
I have them also with that piece of styrofoam right there, just jammed in there perfectly.
And then those stay together with a piece of cardboard in between them.
They’re not the most expensive Battle Born Batteries that most people get, but they’re also not the budget batteries.
And I really like the balance that I’ve struck here.
They’re quite a bit less expensive than Battle Born.
They give me over 2,500 watts to discharge.
I can fully discharge them, and you know they don’t have any gases like some other batteries.
And they just last a lot longer than like AGM batteries and stuff like that.
So, a great investment, I think, for this type of system.
And I have the Bluetooth adapter so I always know what’s going on with my batteries.
And you can see these longer cables here.
That is the 20-foot cable that I was talking about earlier that runs to the outside through those holes back there and up into the solar entry gland, which is located behind that panel up there that we remove.
And this itself right here is a little controller for the inverter, which also a wire runs down back in the same place back to it, so I can turn it on and off quite easily.
So actually bolting all this stuff down isn’t quite difficult since they all come with their own hardware and stuff like that. And you can read inside the manuals on how to actually do that.
The tricky part is determining where to actually put them and place them in a layout scheme.
You want all of the components kind of close to each other.
You see I have the inverter in the middle with its posts kind of close to the batteries and then close to the circuit breaker.
And then those all kind of are right next to the charge controller.
So like I said earlier, the tighter the system, the more efficient it’s going to be, and the shorter the cables, the better.
So just before you bolt everything down, make sure you’ve kind of tested that everything fits and that all the cables are actually going to make it from post to post.
And of course, some of them you’re going to make yourself, and it’s not that difficult.
So don’t worry about those ones.
But bolting things down and bracketing them in is actually quite simple, their instructions are found in the box and they come with all the parts they need.
That’s except for my batteries with I bolted down with some spare brackets, screws, and ‘plumber’s tape’.
Now, when you’re installing everything, just make sure everything is positioned and ready to go before you start connecting them.
Now again, a lot of prefabricated wires are going to be very obvious on where they go from battery to inverter or from battery to battery, for example.
But for some of the wires going to the circuit breaker, for example, you may need to custom-make those.
Now, it’s actually quite easy.
You just need to:
- Measure out your wire and then make a marking with a sharpie and cut it it with the wire cutters.
- Then strip it back about an inch so you can put on one of the connecting rings on that you need for it.
- Place the neck of the connector ring into the hammer crimp, and then hammer it down there until it’s nice and solid. You should hear a thud.
- Put a little bit of the shrink wrap on the connection, and then just give it a little bit of heat to shrink wrap it. Be sure to leave the ring exposed so it can make a clean connection to the post.
It’s actually quite easy with the right tools and these instructions. I did it right on my first try.
Once you have all your wires ready, the prefabricated ones and the ones that you’ve made yourself, it’s time to start connecting them.
How to Connect Batteries/Inverters/Solar Panels to Charge Controllers.
You’re gonna want those batteries connected, if you’re using two or more like me, before you start connecting the inverter and charge controller and things like that as well.
So make sure you use those prefabricated battery-to-battery cables for that.
When connecting wires to the charge controller, simply remove the faceplate of the controller, and unscrew the ports until you can insert an inch or so of exposed cable.
Then, screw in the ports until you hear a good, small crunch of the wires and there is a strong connection.
So you can connect the inverter to the charge controller by placing the black wire directly into the charge controller and then the positive wire via the circuit breaker, as I’ve done with mine.
And from there, you can connect the inverter to the battery, first the positive, and then the negative cable. If you used two Renogy LiFePo4 batteries like I did and connected them together, then the inverter-to-battery cables should connect on separate batteries.
And then once everything is connected up, you should see the charge controller kick on as the batteries give it juice.
Now this may not happen, and it didn’t happen for mine right away, so I was a little bit concerned that I didn’t have everything connected properly.
But the moment that I connected a small solar panel to my charge controller, it fired right up. So that’s when I was confident that I could finally install the actual solar panels.
So that’s when it was time to finally take those 20-foot cables, measure them out to the length that I actually wanted them, cut them, and strip them down, and then attach them up into the charge controller.
Just make sure again that you’re connecting the solar panels positive and then negative.
At this point, it should all be working.
You should be able to generate power into your charge controller, and you should be able to get energy from the solar panels into the batteries and then pumped into the inverter.
You just wanna make sure that they’re nice and charged up all the way before you start actually trying to draw power from them.
And the most important thing when you finally have your solar system set up is that you actually tie down the panels with safety cables.
Do not let one of these snap off and kill somebody in the expressway.
Get them tied down.
And if you want to see a tour of this RV when I first bought it, you can watch it right here.
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