What to know about installing solar panels on your van

How to build a solar installation for your van

For those thinking about converting a van to travel or live in, the question of, “How will I have access to electricity?” is one of the first concerns that pop up. After all, when it comes to settling in to a night in after a day spent driving, hiking, adventuring, or working, the last thing you want is to be left in the cold or dark. For many van dwellers, going solar is a great way to get their energy needs met while living a minimalist lifestyle on the road. What should you keep in mind before installing solar on the roof of your beloved van, and how do you ensure a smooth installation?

What are the benefits of solar?

Solar and van life go hand-in-hand. Solar is a reliable, cost-effective, sustainable, and virtually maintenance-free energy solution. Contrary to noisy, dirty gas-powered generators, solar systems are virtually silent and because you’re harnessing the power of the sun, you don’t have to rely on using gas to power your home.

Solar panels on your van can recharge your batteries, allowing you to run AC appliances while on the road without needing to hook up to external power sources. Having a solar installation can also expand your camping options. While you may have previously stayed in campgrounds or RV parks with hook-ups ensure steady access to electricity, now you can go off-grid in your van and head into more remote areas without worrying about being left in the dark.

What do I need to buy for a solar van installation?

Solar installations aren’t as complex as you might think, but there are some key essentials you’ll want to know the basics of.

1. Solar panels: solar panelscome in two main types: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. Polycrystalline panels are cheaper, but they are also less efficient. Monocrystalline panels are highly efficient, but they cost a bit more money. For vans with limited space, we’d recommend going with monocrystalline panels for the most bang for your buck. Rigid, roof-mounted panels are the most common solar panels, but flexible solar panels are also an option for those that want to mount on a curved surface. Portable, folding suitcase panels are also a great option for those who have limited energy needs and who aren’t ready to mount panels on their roof.

2. Charge Controllers: Charge controllers sit between the energy source (panels) and storage (batteries). It prevents overcharging of batteries by limiting the amount and rate of charge to your batteries. They also prevent battery drainage by shutting down the system if stored power falls below 50 percent capacity and charge the batteries at the correct voltage level. This helps preserve the life and health of the batteries.There are two main types: pulse width modulation charge controllers and maximum power point tracking charge controllers. Between the two, MPPT controllers are the most advanced and are the best option if efficiency is your highest priority.

3. Battery storage: Once you’ve collected energy with your solar panels, you need a way to store that energy. There are a range of battery options that range in price from $100 to more than $1200, depending on the technology. Lead acid batteries are the most inexpensive option and are available at most big-box and auto stores. Absorbed glass matt batteries store 10 to 15 percent more energy than lead acid batteries and charge up to four times faster. Lithium ion batteries are the most expensive option, but also last four times longer than lead-acid batteries and weigh much less. We typically recommend lithium batteries for van dwellers because they are the most efficient at using the limited space you have.

4. Inverters: Inverters turn DC power produced from your solar panels and stored in your battery into AC power. An inverter is necessary to power the common appliances found in your RV or van, from laptops to microwaves. Inverters range from $150 to more than $350.

5. Mounting Hardware and Wiring

Don’t forget about how your components will be safely connected. Renogy has a range of weatherproof wires,  adaptor cables, tilt mounts, and other accessories to connect your system and get it up and running.

How many solar panels do I need?

Properly sizing your system is crucial to make sure you don’t over- or under-build your system. To decide how many panels you need for your van, we recommend using the Renogy solar panel calculator to help determine your specific needs. The Solar sizing calculator allows you to input information about your lifestyle to help you decide on your solar panel requirements.

How much power does a 300 watt solar panel produce?

A 300 watt panel that receives 8 hours of sunlight per day will produce almost 2.5 kilowatt-hours per day. If we multiply this by 365 days per year, we get a solar output of about 900 kilowatt-hours annually. In short, each panel will provide 900 kilowatt-hours each year.

To get an accurate calculation of what you can and cannot power with a single 300 watt solar panel, you’ll need to compare the output per day or month (so 2.5 kWh/day for the solar panel) with the needs of an appliance. If you’re trying to power a refrigerator that uses 3.8kWh per day for a refrigerator, a 300 watt solar panel would not be enough to power that refrigerator.

How do you set up a solar system for a van?

When it comes to the actual installation process, we recommend reading through and following all the instructions included with all of your components. We also encourage the following when you’re installing:

  • Visually examine all your components once they arrive to ensure nothing has been damaged.
  • Test all your components before you mount them to the van.
  • Ask for help! Having someone to help you when you’re handling solar panels to mount them to the roof makes a big difference.
  • Mark the location of your solar panels and mounting points to avoid having to measure again.
  • Measure twice (even three times!), drill once.
  • You probably need less power than you think. Don’t forget to use the solar panel calculator for an accurate estimate of your energy needs.
  • Remember not to drive your vehicle with your solar panels in a tilted state.
  • When flipping the switch, remember that if your solar panels are connected to the charge controller, and the charge controller isn’t connected to the batteries to move the current, you could blow up the charge controller. Make sure everything is connected!
  • Not ready to take the full solar plunge? Consider trying portable products that don’t require you to mount panels on (and drill holes into) the roof of your van.