THE D.I.Y. VAN CONVERSION
Trina 370W Monocrystalline Panel 77.2” x 39.1” x 1.4” -- $363 including shipping
XOOL Solar Panel Roof Mounting Z-Brackets -– 2 sets of 4 for $22
The next step was to mount the solar panel on Maxx’s roof. I had thought that Brian and I might finish the floor, then chill in the house or lounge in the pool, and – dare I say it – maybe have a libation or two, and then come back out in the very late afternoon, when the sun was not as enthusiastic, and mount the panel then.
Brian was in Work Mode, though, and he had momentum. I kinda got the feeling that it was mount now or mount alone later. Work Mode comes and goes. You just hope it doesn’t go when you’re only halfway through the job.
Inertia is a powerful force, too, and once the object at rest is comfortable in his pool (with beer in hand), said object will have a very strong tendency to remain at rest. Since the objects in question (i.e., Brian and I) were currently in motion, we had to utilize that inertia while we could and keep ourselves in motion.
So, before my own Work Mode could downshift, we grabbed the 10-foot ladder, a couple of drills, the package of Z-brackets and accompanying hardware, and, of course the 60-pound solar panel itself, and set to the task.
The selection of the Trina 370W Monocrystalline panel probably involved more research than everything else, except for the “solar generator” itself (see Step 7). I wanted a LOT of power. Many videos depicted vans with a single 100W panel and a happy couple inside gushing about how content they were in their solar-powered van life. But the numbers just didn’t add up.
I spent a good chunk of this research period taking a self-guided course in Electricity 101, wherein I learned the fundamentals of volts (power available), amps (rate of power flow) and watts (total power attained). The basic formula is: Volts x Amps = Watts. Thus, a DC device that runs on 12 volts and requires a 5 amp “pull” uses up 60 watts (12 x 5 = 60). Now, 60 watts is pretty low, especially when you look at a small microwave oven, for example, rated at 900 watts. Or small space heaters that have 1000w and 1500w settings. I just didn’t see a 100W panel as being anywhere close to enough.
Subsequent videos – my favorites were Will Prouse’s YouTube presentations (that dude is a kick) – touted the value of using multiple 100W panels “in series” or “in parallel”. One way keeps the voltage the same, but ups the amps; the other way keeps the amps the same but ups the volts, all depending on how you connected the wires. Something like that, anyway. I’ve forgotten already because I quickly decided that either way involved entirely too much wiring for the likes of me.
So, heeding my lifelong mantra of “It’s better to have and not need than to need and not have,” I decided that getting one big-ass, high-output panel was the way to go. And 370W was about as big as I could get for a van roof.
I shopped for a long time, doing research on each manufacturer, and the quality of the materials they used, and tedious shit like that. Prouse did a comparison video to see if polycrystalline was indeed better than monocrystalline. Much to his unbiased, sincere and entertaining surprise, mono proved to be the more efficient. To further muddle things, I saw two other videos where a high-priced panel and an economy panel were put in direct competition, with the bargain unit prevailing in both cases.
Some brands were better in this way, some were better in that way, yeeesh. Trina Solar seemed to have as good a reputation as many better-known brands – not at the top of any list, but not anywhere near the bottom either -- and they offered the highest wattage, so I locked in on them. But from which supplier?
To my surprise, price varied wildly, from as low as about $150 to more than $350, for the same panel! BUT, shipping a solar panel -- especially one that is more than six feet long, more than three feet wide and weighing as much as a 60-pound monkey -– is an expensive proposition. The $150 panel was going to cost almost $500 to ship! I ended up choosing Inverter Supply: $237 for the panel and $136 for shipping.
I gotta say here that I almost went with tape to hold the panel down. Ya, you read that right: tape. Several videos and articles touted the bonding strength of 3M VHB tape, and claimed that it was more than sufficient to hold a solar panel to a van or RV roof. VHB stands for “very high bond”, and it better be if it’s going to keep a 60-pound metal slab from peeling off at 80 MPH on I-75 and careening towards the windshield of the poor jamoke behind me.
The concept of tape as opposed to 16 holes, 16 screws, and 16 potential leaks was very appealing. Even the Hobotech guy on YouTube – another of my trusted mentors – had used it on his own van and gave it a thumbs up. But I just couldn’t shake the image of the panel gone airborne, so I settled on the more mechanical option.
The Z-brackets were easily attached to the panel’s frame and the beast was ready to be put in place. I had measured out a space from the back of the MaxxFan, and I had diagrammed the roof’s ridges on my laptop, so I’d be sure that the brackets would all sit on the plateaus and not in the valleys.
I climbed up the back ladder and onto the roof while Brian steadied the Trina on the 10-foot ladder. We used that ladder as a ramp to slide the panel up to roof height, then I manipulated it into its designated position. (The brackets scratched the side of the roof a bit, but a little touch-up paint cured that later.)
We drilled small pilot holes through the roof (not so traumatic after doing the fan and the windows) and then power-screwed the brackets down. I surrounded them all with butyl tape that I had leftover from Step 1, then covered them generously with Dicor lap sealant (also from Step 1) to leakproof and rustproof the holes.
Finally, a hole had to be cut to pass the wires from the panel into Maxx’s interior. Prior to this project, I had never heard of a Hole Saw. These things are the bomb, though. It’s a drill bit with a barrel on the end, and the barrel has saw teeth on the outer rim. They come in many diameters. I had a 1” hole saw that was perfect for this. I put it on the drill, announced to Brian that “I’m going to start drilling the hole now,” and about a second later announced, “OK, that’s done.” It just effortlessly chomped a perfect 1” round hole in that sheet metal. Part of me wanted to keep cutting more holes, just for the thrill. Brian was wise to keep me out of his garage.
The wires already had MP4 connectors on them, and they fit just right through that hole. I butyl-taped and lap-sealed the hell out of that little orifice. We went inside and attached some locking nuts to the end of the screws that protruded through the ceiling. We put the big items back in the van – Brian’s neighbors were probably wondering about that bed in the front yard – and pushed the rest into the garage “for now”. We decreed Job Well Done and escaped from the hot midday sun into the cool of the abode.
We had started working on the floor at about 9 AM, and finished the solar panel task at just about noon. Three hours for two significant steps. Not bad at all.
But, as a wise man once said, “The job isn’t finished till the clean-up is done.” So true. But that part would wait until later. Cold beers and a cool pool were the rewards for our labor, and we pursued them forthwith.
Five hours later, I returned to the work area to tidy it up. The huge, clear plastic “body bag” that the Trina 370 had been packed in would prove to be just about the perfect size to stuff all the trash and junk into. Work Mode came back and, rather than do a half-assed job of it, I dove into the task of reorganization. As The Project began, things were acquired a few at a time, and I tended to just jam or squeeze them anywhere they would fit. Hence, there was no logic to any of it.
I took all the brown plastic storage bins, which had been lurking under the bed for a few years, and emptied them on the garage floor. Then I started sorting everything into an organized system: saws, blades and other cutting devices in one; drills, bits and screws in another; adhesives, bungees, tape and such in yet another; hand tools; auto-related things; lights and batteries; yada yada. It took a couple of hours and a couple of beers, but when all was done, everything was packed sensibly in the van, and I knew exactly where everything was.
NOW, the job was done. Back the pool!
HUGE thanks to Brian, of course, for all his efforts, know-how, and eagerness to work. These two steps might have been possible solo, but they would have been a bloated bitch to do, and significant injury may well have occurred.
Some people I know would have been, like, “Here’s your ladder. I’ll be inside. Let me know if I can help you by bringing you another beer or something…”
What would I have done differently? So far, nothing. This Trina Monocrystalline panel chugs sunshine. Freaking chugs it. It's going to take a week or more of rain for me to run out of power.
Newpowa 100w monocrystalline 12V solar panel - $106.96
Renogy 20’ 10AWG Solar Panel Extension Cable with M&F Connectors - $34.99
The Trina 370-watt monocrystalline panel that I adorned my roof with has been working great since Day 1.
But, pretty much on a whim, I climbed by backdoor ladder, took a look, and decided the vacant space near the rear of the roof could be out to better use. It was not large enough to put any kind of worthwhile platform up there, though I did toy with that idea.
There was this vision of a small but sturdy wooden platform that I could (a) plunk a chair onto and veg out cliffside somewhere, or (b) set up my camera tripod for long time-lapse videos or even astrophotography, like star trails and Milky Way stuff.
Tempting ideas to be sure, eh? You bet.
But I did not feel like building a platform. Or carry a chair up that ladder. And I can set up my tripod up there anytime anyway, platform or no.
So, it was decided that using the space to gather more of Sol’s precious rays would be a very good use of it indeed. I took measurements and dove into Amazon to size up (literally) what I could get and for how much.
I settled on the Newpowa 100W mono, mainly because it was cheap, and my “budget” for this project had pretty much topped out. I couldn’t be sure, because I had cleverly stopped updating the Excel spreadsheet that I had been keeping when it looked like I might pop through the ceiling sometime. It was never a very strict budget anyway. 😉
Size-wise, it was great fit. I orientated width-wise, perpendicular to the big Trina, and right up close to it. This was key because of the holes I had to drill to secure it with the Z-brackets. Everything topside was fine, but I wanted to secure them from the inside too, as Brian and I had done when we mounted the 370.
The brackets along the very back were cake; the screws popped through behind my RAMACK logo panel where I did not put any ceiling.
Then I attached a couple of brackets on each side, which popped through within the upper confines of the rafter cabinets, where they, too, could be easily washered.
The hole saw was brought out of semi-retirement and whirred a quick and tidy 1” hole near the very back, through which I ran the panel’s cables. They are short, so I purchased a 20’ extension cable set, which I ran under the bed, through the wheel well frame, and forward through the dark recesses behind the dresser, where it emerges, as luck would have it, right next to the Maxoak Bluetti EB240 solar generator. Well, who woulda thought? How handy is that?
Blue was the impetus behind the whole concept, to be honest. Sharing with Delta was getting challenging; Blue’s recharge rate was just too slow, and Delta had chilling duties that could not be set aside for anything but very short periods. So, this 100W panel as all Blue’s. Those two are connected all the time – unless shore power is there for the taking.
The Newpowa pulls in pretty good sun, I have to say. I’m still trying to figure out how the hell the solar industry comes up with their numbers. This 100W panel shows and average of about 55-60 on Blue’s input display. From my experience, this is pretty good! Delta registers 220W or so from the Trina 37, which is pretty close to 60%, so that’s about the same.
If that is the reasonable expectation across the board, why not just rate the for what the actually provide, not something 67% higher?
And, yes, that math is correct, you can put your hand down. If A is 60% of B, then B is 167% of A. Go ahead, get out the calculator and prove me right.
A = 60
B = 100
A/B = 60/100 = 0.6 = 60%
B/A = 100/60 = 1.67 = 167% (60 + 40 = 100)(40 = 67% of 60)
This is the same math that merchants dazzle consumers with every damn day.
Getting 4 instead of 3 is a good example. You get 4, and 1 was the bonus, which is 25% of your total, right (1 out of 4)? But they advertise 33% more, because you got 3 plus 1 and 1 is 33% of 3. Same quantities, just a different perspective.
Yeah, so, right, whatever, yes?
Back to solar. When you shop for panels, you are likely to see companies boast about “22.5% efficiency!” like that is something to marvel at.
First of all, I have no idea what it really means. It only has value compared to panels with less that that number, I reckon.
Secondly, 22.5%??? That SUCKS! Can you imagine if everything in your life had a success rate of 22.5% or less? Ya, good luck driving home tonight. Car might start, traffic lights might work. And, yeah, brakes might too. Are you feeling lucky? Well, are ya? Things will FAIL almost 4 out of every 5 tries!
And enjoy that airplane ride. And hold your breath as you flush that toilet, too; it worked the last two times. Ewwww.
22.5% indeed. And 22.5% of what??? Does that mean I should expect only 22.5 watts out of my 100W panel?? I HOPE NOT!
So, I admit that much of solar mystifies me, and I do think that is on purpose. If the purchasing public is too knowledgeable, it is too hard to fool them.
But, bottom line is that the Newpowa was a good addition. So there.
And, if I do want to set up my camera up on the roof now, the flat panel will serve as a nice platform, especially at night.
SOLAR EXPANSION, PLAN A
Flexible solar panels intrigued me. The ones being sold on Amazon were so cheap – and so readily returnable – that I could not resist trying out a set.
And when I say set, I mean quite a set indeed. The ‘zon was offering up a pair of 200W flexible panels, just 11” wide by 42” long, for less than $200 for the pair! So, how, oh how, could I resist buying FOUR PAIRS? Ha!
Think about that. 400W per pair, four pairs. Eight panels taking up an 88” x 42" area. 1600 WATTS OF SOLAR in the same amount of space that is currently giving me a very capable 470W. 1600!!!!!
Wire them in series, run 2 pair into D-Max (which can handle 800W input) and 400W each into Bluetti and Delta (their max inputs). Perrrffect! I will be king of the Solar World. They will laud me as the Sun King and build me a palace. I shall name it Versailles and make it the gaudiest shitshow of a palace ever …
And then never live there. Because I am a Van Man, Stan. And a van man with 1600W of solar on his roof. I will NEVER run out. My SGs will be full all the freaking time! This is too good to be true, right? (Spoiler alert: yup.)
Now, I know that I’m not expecting the full 1600. From my 470, I’m having a good day if I’m reaping 280, and a HUGE day if I’m up around 320. So, by that logic, I’ll be happy with 800-1000 and ecstatic with 1200. But even if I only pull a measly 600W out of those eight 200W panels – a paltry 75W each! – I’ll still be more than doubling the feed I get now.
Gotta give it a try. I ordered my four sets and waited my 2-3 weeks for them to get here (from China, apparently).
Meantime, more than a little bit skeptical, but rolling with the “what if’s” of it all, I set to work on my roof rack. The flexies would be attached to aluminum 1” square tubing, cut and fastened together in a grid. Attaching flexies directly to a flat surface causes them to overheat and have a dramatic drop in performance. Having that 1” air gap under them would cool them – especially while driving – and eliminate that issue.
It would be easy to make, too. ZMax brackets and screws, zoom zoom. Two almost full-length tubes (they come 96” long, I cut off the last 8”), and nine 40” crossbeams spaced 11” apart. I cut and assembled the whole rack in one evening.
Then I’d fasten the panels to the grid tubes with washers and screws at the grommeted locations, overlapping the panels back-edge-over-front-edge for maximum wind flow, and hoist the whole light-weight contraption up onto the roof.
The Rack would sit on top of – and be bolted to – the existing panels. I even finagled some side flaps to slide perfectly to the sides of the Trina 370 so I could drive a dozen or more screws into that panel on both sides and the front.
But, before I went toooooo far, I waited for the flexible panels to get here. I was eager, for sure, but not quite to the point of idiocy. I had never dealt with flexible panels before. If they were so damn good, why were they so damn cheap? Before I totally committed, I had to test one under the Florida sun.
When they finally arrived, the temptation to secure those flexies to the Rack and just go ahead with the install was strong indeed. I mean, how bad could it be, right? Even if I only got a quarter of the total wattage – a mere 400 out of 1600! Just 50W per panel! – that would still be a 25% improvement over the status quo of ~300. How can I go wrong here??
But I waited.
Finally, a blazing sunny day dawned. I checked the input gauge on Bluetti. From the Newpowa 100-watter, it was taking in a steady 59, so almost 60%. That’s a good day, though there are sometimes better.
I unpacked one of the new 200W panels and peeled off the cellophane mask. Then I carried it out to BM, opened his rear doors, and unplugged the Newpowa from its extension cord. I plugged the 200W in and lifted it up and laid it on the roof, on top of the 100, so I knew that the sun angle et cetera et cetera would be identical to what had been sucking in 59 watts.
Eager as all get-out, I scampered around to the side door, climbed and peered at the input gauge. Would it be 118, the same % but double the watts? More? Or maybe a respectable 90?
I stared in disbelief. 20. Twenty fucking watts. Are you shitting me?? 20?? Nope, then it moved. 21. 22. 19. 18. 19. Back to 20, and stayed there.
Stupidly rationalizing that maybe it needed to “warm-up”, I busied myself with a couple of other tasks. When I came back … 20. It might as well have had a raised middle finger on the display beside the number.
So, I get 60 watts out of a 100W panel and 20 – TWENTY??? – out of panel that should be TWICE as powerful????????
I was unhappy. If you know me, you know how unpleasant I can be to be around when I am unhappy. Ever see The Hulk? But without the bigness and greenness.
Once the earth stopped shaking and traffic returned to normal, I unplugged the useless piece-of-shit 20W panel and put it back in its box. Then I went to Amazon and launched the RETURN process. Give me my $787 back, ya rat bastids, your panels are c-r-a-p CRAP.
Which I should have known. Right?
So, I DEFINITELY should have known six weeks later when pairs of 400W panels were on sale for almost the same price. I laughed and said “WTF? I got this dumb Rack sitting here, maybe these panels are better??”
Long story very short, they were not. Exactly the same, pulling 10% of their advertised wattage. So, they went right back as well.
Worth a try, I guess. Sure would be a lot easier if there was a place I could go, pull a panel off the rack, plug it in and see what I’m getting. Shit, I would have paid $2000 to get a legit 800W of solar up on that roof. With conventional rigid panels, though, there just isn’t room. They are too long to have more than one 400W up there length-wise, and wide enough that they would overhang the sides of Blue Maxx by a good bit if I turned them that way.
SOLAR EXPANSION, PLAN B
But hold the phone, Joan. The Delta Boys, with the fast recharge, seem to do OK. It’s Bluetti that needs help the most. Poor guy only gets to suck on a 100W teat while the Deltas get to take turns on the big juicy 370 boob.
Maybe I just have to boost Blue’s binky a bit.
Hmmmm. What’s thisssss? Newpowa now has a 200W panel, with all the same specs as the 100W that I’m currently feeding to Blue. Interesssting.
It’s about $200, and it definitely should double the input, and hence cut the recharge time in half. The panel (a rigid one) is BIGGER, like a lot bigger, like as-long-as-the-van-is-wide bigger, but, if I reconfigure the Rack, I could attach Newpowa 200 right on top of Newpowa 100 and it would fit.
It would be a modest upgrade, but with a modest price tag as well. And I spent a couple hundred bucks on all that aluminum tubing, so I gotta use it.