One of our ‘must-haves’ for or van was a Solar Panel. We wanted to travel to more remote locations and stay at wild campsites that might not have hook-up. Having a solar panel topping up our leisure battery while the sun was shining would allow to enjoy #vanlife without worrying about lighting and charging our phones.
There are lots of things to consider when sizing up your solar system:
- Solar controller – The solar controller turns the electricity from the panel into something your van (and leisure battery) can use. The cheaper controllers are PWM which produce good peak power. The more expensive controllers use MPPT which has similar maximum output, but can continue to produce juice even when it’s cloudy or the sun is lower in the sky…
- The UK – Blighty is actually quite a long way north and very temperate. So in the spring and autumn, your upwards facing solar panels isn’t catching much sunlight, especially with the passing showers, so you get much less chooch.
- How far are you from a hook-up – Is your solar just to keep the batteries topped up when the van is in storage? Or to keep you going for a day between hook-ups? Or are you long-term off-grid?
- How much energy? – If you are just charging your USB gadgets, you probably don’t need much. TVs are pretty efficient now days, but still suck down a few Amps. Most things that use an invertor probably chew through a few amps. And compressor fridges and the fan to run gas/diesel powered heating all night long will take a big Amp-Hour hit on your battery.
Although we don’t watch much TV and we have a ‘3-way’ gas powered absorption fridge, we wanted to use the van all year round. By our calculations we needed about 200w of panel with MPPT. We could have got something smaller, but this kit squeezed on to the roof and ticked all the boxes:
What we didn’t consider was the installation! It turns out that a +200w mono-crystalline solar panel is nearly the size of a door and nearly as heavy. First we screwed the corner brackets on to the panel with roofing screws. Then, with two ladders and the pair of us, we laid the panel on the van for fit. We then thoroughly cleaned and outlined where the brackets rested on the van with masking tape. Moving the panel to the side, we then splurged nearly 2 tubes of Sikaflex 512 adhesive in the bracket footprints and carefully squidged the panel back down. Running a finger around the edges to tidy the goop and lifting the tape left a reasonably neat finish… not that anyone can see.
The electricals wasn’t too hard. We drilled a hole in the roof using a step drill. The cable gland that came with the kit was then glued to the roof using the Sikaflex to waterproof the hole. The MPPT solar controller was mounted near the leisure battery. The battery is hooked to the battery terminals, the solar inputs have their own connections, and lighting, pump and other equipment was connected to the ‘load’ terminals. Easy. I’ve got every connection going though 20A fuses, but I’m not entirely sure it’s necessary.
It took about a bit over a day to get the solar panel mounted and wired in. Not too technical and far cheaper than getting someone else to do it for you. And we’re now off-grid and ready for wild camping and Aires.