Roof Rack – Solar Panel Install – Camper Van Build 7

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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.

Cleaning roof of van

Cleaning roof of van

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. 😉

Grommet plugs used for roof hole repair

Grommet plugs used for roof hole repair

Roof hole repair 3M tape

Roof hole repair 3M tape

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:

Roof rack plans & dimensions

Roof rack plans & dimensions

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.

Roof rack parts cost

Roof rack parts cost

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.

Roof rack pre-assembly

Roof rack pre-assembly

Testing solar panel install

Testing solar panel install

Here is a look at one of the solar panels installed for accuracy testing before taking to the welder.

solar panel roof rack

solar panel roof rack

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.

About to drill a hole for solar panel wiring.

About to drill a hole for solar panel wiring.

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.

Solar panel wiring - grommet plug

Solar panel wiring – grommet plug

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.

Welded roof rack completed.

Welded roof rack completed.

Preparing the solar panels for install and wiring

Preparing the solar panels for install and wiring

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.

Stealth Solar Panel Roof Rack

Stealth Solar Panel Roof Rack

Solar panel farm on 98 Astro van

Solar panel farm on 98 Astro van

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.


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4 Responses to Roof Rack – Solar Panel Install – Camper Van Build 7

  1. Yong July 7, 2016 at 8:55 AM #

    Keep it up man. Go Troy! 🙂

    • Troy Wiedeman July 8, 2016 at 10:01 AM #

      Thanks for stopping by the site, Yong. I’m looking forward to finishing it and really putting it to use with business from the road and lots of travel exploration. 🙂

  2. zan thornton October 29, 2016 at 11:28 PM #

    Thanks for sharing your van /RV/ camping vehicle ideas.Did I ser that yall drew a template for holes and placement of solar collectors? How much labor /hours did it take to do the whole thing?
    We are adding to our rv/van soon, but still contend with leak after leak. This is not counting our concerns after we place the solar units. How much did the solar units cost etc. ? Did your van ever leak after you installed the solar? What do you do to ensure enough solar? I ask because here in GA, SC, NC, FL it’s too hot to park in a sunny spot? ! So how do you deal with sun vs. Shade? Thanks so mucj

    • Troy Wiedeman October 30, 2016 at 8:29 PM #

      Hi Zan. My van had a ladder rack on it previously, which I removed and sold. The good thing about the rack was that it had bolt holes already there for us to plan the solar rack. We didn’t do a template. We just measured the distances between all the bolt holes from front to back and side to side. Then we had the rack manufactured to fit the roof.

      Before tightening the rack to the roof, we put clear waterproof silicone in all the bolt holes, then bolted it down. So, no leaks thus far from the roof rack.

      As far as hours spent on the rack, it wasn’t much for the actually assembly. We spent most of the time on the design and trips to the fabrication shop. Installing the solar panels and mounting the rack to the roof took half a day.

      As far as shade goes, I’m rarely in the van during the day, since it has been way too hot. So, the van charges during the day while I find things to do.

      Good luck with your build. They are fun, but challenging.

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