THE D.I.Y. VAN CONVERSION
XOOL Solar Panel Roof Mounting Z-Brackets
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.