How to Maximize Your Solar Power Setup

Laura & Shane spent two years converting their Ford Transit 250 into an adventuremobile. They learned about insulating their walls, installing a sink and floors and decorating their tiny space. Now they've just wrapped up their latest project, setting up two solar panels on their van's roof. I read Laura's piece on her blog and asked her to share it here as I knew some of you might have questions about choosing solar and how to maximize your power source on the road.

Solar is one of the things we have been thinking about since the early days with our van, but we did not know exactly how we would go about it, mostly because we did not know what our unique blend of vanlife would look like. After learning, testing and iterating on various setups, we have something that we really like and expect to fit our current needs, so we figured this was a good time to share. I’m not going to get too heavy into the technical aspects of the solar setup, but since we gleaned a lot of lessons from this process, I’ll cover some general advice on DIY solar setups, as well as some show-and-tell on the hardware Shane used to install Vanna White’s rooftop setup.

Note: If you’re reading this at the early stages of a build-out because you feel like you need to get your solar setup figured out right away, I would encourage you to perhaps wait until the later stages of the conversion so that you know how much power you’ll actually need to generate (more on that below).

Biggest Takeaways

Here are some of the major learnings we (and when I say “we," I mean Shane, who is now our van power expert) picked up from our time spent building out Vanna’s solar system:

Reflect on what you’ll be using energy for, and be honest.

If you’ve lived in your camper long enough, you can probably do the calculations fairly easily based on what you use that needs wattage to run. If you want a quick lesson on how to calculate wattage, try here.

For Shane and me, we had to start by guessing what we would use in the van. In fact, it was our continued wattage calculations that led us to installing solar panels. After hooking up our house battery to run off the extra charge created by the van’s alternator, we thought that we might not need a solar power setup. But after getting a refrigerator, which pulls a charge from the house battery regularly, it got us thinking about our consumption. Even though our power needs are generally small, we realized that the more we camp, the less we will drive, and the less the alternator’s charge will be effective.

The good news: You probably need less power than you think you do.

Unless you’re running a blender or a hair dryer in your van (and maybe even then), you probably don’t need as much power stocked up as you think, especially if you’re going solar. So before you go purchasing half a dozen house batteries, do the calculations and decide for yourself.

It’s all about the angles.

How much energy you can get from a solar panel depends greatly on the angle of the sun, and this varies by your latitude and the season. Before installing our permanent setup, we had a large, portable solar panel and really enjoyed being able to position it in just the right spot for maximum energy by propping it up against a plastic bin or a rock. Wanting to keep the same benefit with our new system, Shane got creative and came up with a pretty unique set up. Needless to say, the new install had to be a lot more sophisticated than just propping it up against the closest thing.

Long story short, if you want to get maximum energy, consider the angles. Here’s a simple calculator that will show what angles are best to use by season and location. Have fun with it!

A good charge controller is worth it. Get one with MPPT.

What is MPPT? It stands for maximum power point tracking. Why is it good? It converts the voltage from the sun into the optimal voltage for your battery. More easily digestible information about MPPT can be found here.

Get a good system monitor, because you’ll use it.

The cost of batteries, solar panels, and so on can really add up, so it might seem like overkill to spend some extra cash on a monitoring system. But believe me when I say that we use this thing. All. The. Time. It’s how we know when the battery is taking a good charge, and whether our refrigerator and other devices are draining it. We know when the battery is running to the red. We use the Blue Solar Victron Energy MPPT Control and keep it in a pretty accessible spot right on the outside of our electrical box.

The Solar Panel Install

Here’s a quick rundown on how we installed our solar panels. In building out this project, we wanted to make sure that we could accommodate two solar panels, allow them to adjust to any angle needed based on location, be able to lock them down safely for freeway driving and maintain enough rack space for rooftop yoga and naps in the sun. Shane did an excellent job coming up with a solution that we’re both really excited about.

The two solar panels are fixed together with some custom framing, making it effectively one giant solar panel. Thanks to our roof rack we could do the two panels lengthwise along the van, which optimized our space.

The U bracket in the middle has a vinyl-coated wire attached. This prevents the solar panels from moving past a 90-degree angle.

Shane also made sure our wires would say tucked neatly underneath the panels. Zip ties are your friends!

This cable box is what allows our wiring to go from the house battery up to the roof.

This is the large, custom hinge that Shane created with U-bolts and some steel tubing. The frame for the solar panels came in handy for this part as well.

In order to prop up the solar panels to the optimum angle, Shane used dinghy standoff bars, which are both sturdy and adjustable. Like tent stakes, these standoff bars can be clipped onto the solar panel frame when the panels are collapsed flat and only need to be adjusted when there is a change in location or season.

The white clip in this photo is the locking mechanism for the system. When the black toggle is screwed out, the lock opens and can be clamped over the cross beams on the roof rack.

This is the base for one of the standoff bars attached to the roof rack.

This photo shows the clip-in mechanism Shane installed.

Whew! That’s a lot of solar power talk for one post.

How do you solar? We’d love to know what your setup looks like. Leave us a message in the comments or use the hashtag #campermakersunite on Instagram. Until next time!

Follow Laura & Shane and their rig Vanna White

Produced by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos courtesy of Laura Hughes.