Today, I want to tell you about my solar panel install, but I am amazed how fast time has flown by. It feels just like yesterday when I was hiking the mountains in Big Bend, but that was exactly one year ago. That’s crazy. My Dad and I had just finished the Power Center in the van and I was ready to go out and test it. Now, a year later, we have built the roof rack and completed the solar panel install. It’s time for another test run. 🙂
Van Roof Preparations
If you recall from my previous posts and videos, my van originally had a ladder rack on the roof. I removed the ladder rack and sold it with the brackets in preparation for eventually installing a new rack with solar panels. At the time, I didn’t imagine it would take more than a year to replace the rack. Oh well, finally got it done.
If you prefer to watch the video version, you can check that out below:
The first steps I needed to take in getting the roof ready for the new rack was to give it a good cleaning. It had been sitting under trees in the shade through a few seasons and accumulated quite a bit of dirt. After a little elbow grease, it was looking pretty good, or at least it was well on the way to looking great.
One of the lingering issues with this van was from the holes left after the removal of multiple antennas on the roof. I didn’t need them and I guess I could have left them, but I chose to remove them and seal them at a later date. For the time being, I just taped over the holes with 3M tape. The tape actually worked incredibly well. No water leaks and the tape was on for many months.
To repair the antenna holes, I took 3/4 inch grommet plugs, added some clear silicone to the bottom of the plugs and pushed the plug into the hole. I did this for all the holes on the roof. After 24 hours, I added more clear silicone over the top and edges of the plug to make sure there would be no leaks in the roof. To further ease my mind, I also re-taped the holes with the 3M tape as a final barrier against leakage. Fingers crossed. 😉
Roof Rack Build
While I was playing around with the roof, my Dad was busy doing the hard stuff. Drawing up the plans for the roof rack and sourcing the materials needed to get the job done. Go DAD!! The plan was to have one solar panel at the very back of the van and then two more solar panels up in front of the fantastic fan. My Dad drew up the plans and had 4 or 5 revisions along the way. Below is one of those revisions:
We used rectangular aluminum tubing and angles to build the roof rack for the solar panel install. The tubing was used as the main frame for the roof rack and the angles were used to hold the solar panels in place. My Dad ordered the materials, picked everything up, pre-assembled the rack and tested the measurements, then delivered the assembly to the welder. Have I mentioned yet that my Dad is AWESOME for doing all this for my little Astro van? Well he is. 🙂
Take a look at the cost for the materials below. If you plan on doing something like this, you can expect to tack on an extra $100-$300 for the welding work. We did it “off the books” for cash, so it wasn’t too bad.
The roof rack was made so that the panels sat on the angle brackets flush with the top of the roof rack, but left room below the panels to run the wiring.
Here is a look at one of the solar panels installed for accuracy testing before taking to the welder.
With the rack frame ready to go, my Dad and I worked on making the brackets. My van had a ladder rack on it previously, so we re-used some of the holes for this new solar panel rack. All the brackets had to be custom made to fit the previous holes and to fit the shape and angle of the new rack. The brackets actually took a lot of time to make, but I don’t have any pictures of that process. 🙁 After making the brackets, we riveted them on to the rack frame and took it to the welder for one final weld job.
Solar Panel Install
While the welder was handling that project, we figured it was a good time to drill a hole in the roof. Yikes!! LOL! We needed to run the cabling from the power center and the solar controller to the roof of the van for later connection to the panels. The best spot for our build was the back right corner of the roof above the batteries and power center and just inside the planned location of the back right bracket.
Below is a look a the grommet plug we used after drilling a hole. We added clear silicone to the bottom of the grommet plug and fit the grommet in the hole. After the silicone dried, we drilled two holes in the plug to slip the wires though. This was a very tight fit, but we later went back and sealed these wire holes with more clear silicone.
The rack was finally back from the welder! Time to put this all together. We laid out the rack frame and then laid out the panels next to the frame. The next step was to assemble the wiring for the solar panels.
After attaching the panels to the rack, we hoisted the whole rack up on the Astro van roof and bolted it down. The solar panel install was just about complete and all we needed to do was test the finished product. We moved the van to a sunny spot on the street and immediately registered 9.0 amps. Not bad. We’ll test more over the next few months to see just how well the rack and solar panels are working.
Curious about how I’m how I using the power from the solar panels? Well, check out my previous post on the Power Center and Shore Power.