Installing Solar Panels and a Fan on a Van Roof

With the insulation and plywood walls up, the inside of the van was starting to look good. Before I could move on to the ceiling, though, we needed to do the scariest part: cut a hole in the roof to install a fan.

This is part of a series of posts about building a tiny home inside a cargo van (#vanlife).

Layout

I purchased a MaxxFan to keep the inside of the van cool in the summer and well-ventilated while cooking. It offers some great options, like the ability to turn on automatically, while keeping closed and sealed when off.

Looking at the roof, the way the ribs were laid out, it became evident that the fan would be easiest to install right in the middle. I also wanted it to be located overtop of the kitchenette. Using painter’s tape, we measured the location such that we could also fit three solar panels.

The frame for the fan, measured to have two solar panels in front and one behind.

I also skewed the solar panels slightly to the left. This way, I left some room on the right side of the van overtop the sliding door, where I plan to install an awning that pulls out to provide cover for an outdoor camping area.

Process

After drawing with a grease pen on the top of the van, taped over the edge of the line in order to reduce the chatter when sawing through the roof with a jigsaw.

Cutting the hole with tape around it.

We were able start the cut by first drilling a small hole, which you can see in the above photo. Here’s what it looked like from the underneath once the hole had been cut:

The hole in the roof

The fan then dropped in pretty easily, and we caulked around it with silicon (making sure to choose a brand rated for outdoor use on both metal and plastic).

After we applied silicon to the edges.

The instructions which came with the MaxxFan were great, and all of this took only a few hours.

Solar Panels

I used 3x 170watt Newpowa solar panels, for 510 total watts.

Many people use a single, long bracket for their solar panels. Instead, we used brass “expansion nuts.” These are great: you just drill a hole to fit them, and then screw them in through the brackets for the solar panel. As they tighten, the brass expands and causes the rubber to create a seal with the metal of the car. Thus, the mounting is water-tight, but also low-profile and secure atop the van. The whole thing ended up looking like this:

The completed roof.

What you can’t see here is the cable running from the solar panels inside the van. We used a 4-way branching solar cable to attach to the three panels. We ended up cutting off and sealing the 4th cable so it did not flop around, but in retrospect, this was a mistake. I should have left it available for plugging in a 4th, mobile solar panel which I could point toward the sun for additional power.

To get the cable inside the van, we used an entry gland. This seals against the wires securely, covering up (yet another) hole drilled in the roof (which is hidden behind the fan in the above photo). From inside the van, you can see the positive/negative wires dangling down toward the battery (before I installed shelving and the actual electrical system).

The wires for the solar panel, and the finished fan, several days later (I ended up later painting the fan-housing).

Conclusion

Though this was perhaps the scariest part of building my van (cutting holes in the roof), I don’t think I’d change much for my approach. The system provides a lot of power (510 watts!) and the fan works great. I’ll be detailing the rest of the electrical grid in a later post on the project.

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zane

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Thank you for your comments — they help motivate me to keep writing. The kindest show of support is to share this with someone who'd like it.

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