Power is absolutely necessary. We like our computers and refrigerated food among other things. Living in Colorado makes solar a no-brainer with the 250ish sunny days we get per year, not to mention it is silent, stealthy, and reliable. In the future, when we’re out of debt and able to travel, we may end up in places with fewer sunny days, but hopefully it will still be a worthwhile investment. We know from past experience with solar on both of our previous truck campers that we want the most power we can get, but somewhere around 250 watts is just about right for us.
We ended up getting two 135 watt panels for a total of 270 watts. After assuming an 80% efficiency, we should be expecting about 215 watts of real output. If we need even more power, we have a pair of 30 watt portable solar panels that can be quickly deployed, boosting our total theoretical output to 330 watts, and the expected output to about 265 watts, but these will only be used when we don’t have to urban camp.
We anticipated wanting cargo boxes on our roof for extra storage for seasonal things, like skis/snowboard, backpacks, and other things, so we knew right off the bat that we’d want to come up with a solar set-up that would work around those. We have a standard length van, so roof space is limited, especially with a MaxxFan already poking through.
Because we want to keep the number of holes we drill/cut to a minimum, we chose to use Thule 65 inch wide load bars with 5 inch tall gutter mounts to mount the solar panels onto. This then created a new problem: in what orientation and location should the solar panels be mounted to not look so horrible!?
We moved the Thule bars and panels into multiple positions to see how it would look. Almost every position looked funky, and the panels stick out like a sore thumb; definitely not very stealthy.
Finally, we settled on mounting them as far forward as possible to yield the most room for storage boxes in the rear.
We did have to drill one hole for the wires to run through. We fed the wires through a 3/4 inch PVC conduit elbow. The wires enter directly above the driver’s head and run rearward under the headliner.
To remedy the “sombrero hat” look of the solar panels and (hopefully) increase the aerodynamics, we fabricated our own faring and side skirts with sheets of PVC.
The PVC is mounted only to the solar panels, not to the van roof, with stainless steel screws. Some bent sheet aluminum cut into straps angle the front fairing, and some slit rubber tubing along the bottom of the fairing keeps it from scratching the paint.
The roof is rounded enough and the side skirts do not contact the roof so any water drains right out.