How to install solar panels to roof of van so they are stealthy and blend in?

GervisLooper
GervisLooper Posts: 162
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Preface. Maybe I am being too self conscious but I dont want to be lumped with the cliche vanlifing glampers. I find it pretty cringey how mainstream it all is and dont want to be associated with those staycationers who do not respect the local communities they descend upon. I do not have any of the other accoutrements of a typical vandweller - no tinted rear window - no windows in the back at all in fact, so wonder if I could still pass as a workvan of some kind with just a couple of panels on top for powering of tools of the trade.

I have bought 2x of these. I received them and put them on the roof to see how they would look but the cursory look and they still stuck out like a sore thumb. I bought these slimline ones specifically for increased stealth.

Also the wires were a big eyecatcher when placed sideways so I might try lengthways to see if that will conceal them more.

When I have been driving around I have seen some other peoples setups of solar that look stealthy.

I was thinking maybe put a roof rack on around it, not over of course though even shadows on the corner may be of detriment to their output so not sure about that yet, depends on room up there which is tight. Will have to measure up.

My van is light metallic blue (ford transit connect) so I think that was making them pop out more than they could. I just thought that an easy way to do help is to paint the roof matt black then they will blend in to the background.

I know that they say it is bad for performance once it heats up but stealth is very high on my list and my electrical requirements are pretty modest that I dont mind taking a modest performance drop for maintaining stealthiness.

I have seen a couple of vans, when driving down hills where the roof was exposed, that this looked really discreet. I knew because I was specifically looking but the average jo I think would be none the wiser.

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Comments

  • ThisIsWeird
    ThisIsWeird Posts: 4,458
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    Can the roof actually be seen by passers-by? Or would it have to be the unusual scenario where you are drilling down a hill and other vehicles observe you from a distance - in which case they won't even know it's you?
    Anyway, painting the roof would seem a good option, but I'd suggest gloss black (or charcoal) for the reasons you mentioned. (I doubt the extra heat will make much difference as the panel itself will become hot in the sun in any case.)
    The panels you have seen which were stealthy, how did they achieve this?
  • Tucosalamanca
    Tucosalamanca Posts: 454
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    edited 14 November 2023 at 2:07PM
    I'm curious as to why you'd ask on MSE when there are so many better places to get advice?

    Solar panels will never be inconspicuous/stealthy on a Transit Connect due to its low roof.

    I'm not fan of flexible panels. As you've mentioned, they need airflow to maximise performance and have a reputation for failing prematurely.

    Any shadowing on the panels will significantly reduce output. Personally, I would go for rigid panels mounted on a Rhino rack or similar.

    How are you using the van, what are are your energy requirements and what battery/charging regime do you have in place?
    You might be better off having a larger battery bank (or Lithium) and a b2b charger, doing away with solar altogether.
    At this time of year, solar generation will be minimal, so you will need additional charging regardless.

    I'm in south UK, between now and March, I would only expect around 1amp/hour from a 150w panel. With only a few hours sunlight you might generate 10ah a day (if that), is this enough for your needs?

    EDIT 01.30pm

    It's currently sunny with some cloud, 11degrees, my 150w panel is generating 0.8ah.
    It's been raining all morning, realistically, the solar is going to generate less than 5ah today.
    That would barely cover my habitation lighting (which is LED) and maybe one phone charge.

  • GervisLooper
    GervisLooper Posts: 162
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    edited 15 November 2023 at 5:26AM
    I'm curious as to why you'd ask on MSE when there are so many better places to get advice?

    Solar panels will never be inconspicuous/stealthy on a Transit Connect due to its low roof.

    I'm not fan of flexible panels. As you've mentioned, they need airflow to maximise performance and have a reputation for failing prematurely.

    Any shadowing on the panels will significantly reduce output. Personally, I would go for rigid panels mounted on a Rhino rack or similar.

    How are you using the van, what are are your energy requirements and what battery/charging regime do you have in place?
    You might be better off having a larger battery bank (or Lithium) and a b2b charger, doing away with solar altogether.
    At this time of year, solar generation will be minimal, so you will need additional charging regardless.

    I'm in south UK, between now and March, I would only expect around 1amp/hour from a 150w panel. With only a few hours sunlight you might generate 10ah a day (if that), is this enough for your needs?

    EDIT 01.30pm

    It's currently sunny with some cloud, 11degrees, my 150w panel is generating 0.8ah.
    It's been raining all morning, realistically, the solar is going to generate less than 5ah today.
    That would barely cover my habitation lighting (which is LED) and maybe one phone charge.


    Whatever is produces would be 100% more than I currently have. I will make use of whatever it produces. The main reason I want it at the moment is to power a (dry) heater as the condensation is really a problem. It is like living in a swamp most days as the damp isnt drying out from day to day unless I use my mums shore power electric heater which I am looking to replace with my own solution. Even run sporadically it would do a world of good. Everything else is bells and whistles.
  • @GervisLooper if you want to live in a van full time it's essential that you understand the basics, you run a real risk to your physical and mental health otherwise. Particularly in the UK, it's a hard life for 2-3 seasons and why so many van dwellers head to southern Europe / North Africa for much of the year.

    There are lots of online communities with a wealth of experience to help you on your journey.
    I encourage you to visit them.

    If you have a problem with condensation this is for a number of reasons.
    • Lack of airflow, a window or vented rooflight needs to be open at all times.
    • Lack of insulation. The vehicle needs to be insulated in every nook and cranny. There are a number of ways to do this. It is time consuming and will cost some money. Youtube is a helpful guide for this. If not done correctly, other than damp, the vehicle will rust from the inside out. Many 'vanlife' vehicles end up getting scrapped for this very reason.
    • Unless using external screen covers, water will condensate on glass. This can be reduced by using internal screens but they're not as effective, and you will have some condensation, it's unavoidable in the UK (unless peak summer).
    It's essential that you understand electric/battery basics. Battery capacity, usage and how you will replenish it.

    A and N Caravan Services have some excellent information on their website.

    Batteries are not suitable for heating in most circumstances. General rule of thumb is gas for heating and cooking, 12v for everything else.
    Diesel is an option but has some downsides (costs, noise)
    It's possible to have a lithium set-up which is sufficient to provide heat but the cost will be well into four figures and you will still struggle to replenish energy in the UK (you can't physically fit enough solar onto a van).

    You say that it's like living in a swamp. This needs to be rectified before you move away from Mum's, you could end up really ill otherwise.

    I live in an area with a very high number of people living in vans. Most are effectively homeless and living in vans by necessity, not by choice. Many are lacking in knowledge and living in grim conditions.
    I help where possible. I've helped seal up leaky vans, towed caravans, gifted tarpaulins, offered battery recharging, given dry bedding and clothes, even let people park up and shower at my house before now.

    I've been a part-time van dweller for 20+ years, so understand the issues that we face.

    You might have simple needs, I get that, but you still need to be able to stay dry and warm.
    While you're still at Mum's, do lots of reading, watch videos and spend time preparing the van properly.
    It's possible to have a fantastic van life but just as easy to have grim time barely living better than someone in a tent.

    Planning and preparing makes all the difference. I hope it works out for you.

  • Murmansk
    Murmansk Posts: 874
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    There are lots of videos on YouTube about turning vans into campers so there are bound to be ones on what you want
  • GervisLooper
    GervisLooper Posts: 162
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    edited 16 November 2023 at 5:50AM
    @GervisLooper if you want to live in a van full time it's essential that you understand the basics, you run a real risk to your physical and mental health otherwise. Particularly in the UK, it's a hard life for 2-3 seasons and why so many van dwellers head to southern Europe / North Africa for much of the year.

    There are lots of online communities with a wealth of experience to help you on your journey.
    I encourage you to visit them.

    If you have a problem with condensation this is for a number of reasons.
    • Lack of airflow, a window or vented rooflight needs to be open at all times.
    • Lack of insulation. The vehicle needs to be insulated in every nook and cranny. There are a number of ways to do this. It is time consuming and will cost some money. Youtube is a helpful guide for this. If not done correctly, other than damp, the vehicle will rust from the inside out. Many 'vanlife' vehicles end up getting scrapped for this very reason.
    • Unless using external screen covers, water will condensate on glass. This can be reduced by using internal screens but they're not as effective, and you will have some condensation, it's unavoidable in the UK (unless peak summer).
    It's essential that you understand electric/battery basics. Battery capacity, usage and how you will replenish it.

    A and N Caravan Services have some excellent information on their website.

    Batteries are not suitable for heating in most circumstances. General rule of thumb is gas for heating and cooking, 12v for everything else.
    Diesel is an option but has some downsides (costs, noise)
    It's possible to have a lithium set-up which is sufficient to provide heat but the cost will be well into four figures and you will still struggle to replenish energy in the UK (you can't physically fit enough solar onto a van).

    You say that it's like living in a swamp. This needs to be rectified before you move away from Mum's, you could end up really ill otherwise.

    I live in an area with a very high number of people living in vans. Most are effectively homeless and living in vans by necessity, not by choice. Many are lacking in knowledge and living in grim conditions.
    I help where possible. I've helped seal up leaky vans, towed caravans, gifted tarpaulins, offered battery recharging, given dry bedding and clothes, even let people park up and shower at my house before now.

    I've been a part-time van dweller for 20+ years, so understand the issues that we face.

    You might have simple needs, I get that, but you still need to be able to stay dry and warm.
    While you're still at Mum's, do lots of reading, watch videos and spend time preparing the van properly.
    It's possible to have a fantastic van life but just as easy to have grim time barely living better than someone in a tent.

    Planning and preparing makes all the difference. I hope it works out for you.

    I have done plenty with the van already, just not posted about it here. I spent the last 4 months on insulation. I am now looking at the electrics.

    I didnt mean heat with electric, I meant that all common heating devices, be it gas or diesel, require some form of electrical connection.

    Here is what I have planned out so far.

    Also to add I plan to do in series as I am loosely following Will Prowses the minimalist setup.

    Even though I am following that he gives precious little information about the wiring required which is what I am having most issues figuring out. Also I plan on DC only for now and that setup is using an inverter so not sure how much applies.

    So my main question is what size wire do I want for each thing given the powers stated for each item in the image.

    The other questions you can see on the top right of the image I posted. Also someone mentioned in a previous post I made to buy and use all one wire gauge to save money. Is this a good idea?

    Could I just work out the biggest gauge and then buy a coil of that and use that for everything as over gauge is always good right? Seems like it would be a waste of money if it cost considerably more for thicker wire.

    As for the appliances I put in the image I realized that most of those apart from the heater/hob will be on usb ports. I think I recall Prowse say in one of his videos that 10 gauge will be good for most cases. Is that correct here? Here in one of the images is the data for the combihob. It looks similar to usual chinese diesel heater for consumption right? The other things mentioned are low draw too so I guess wire gauges no larger required for those than the hob/heater.

    What thickness for the other stuff charge controller to battery and fuse blade to whatever that is meant to connect to? I saw 6mm wire sold on some online stores and, making sure it is copper wire, I was thinking to just buy theirs rather than trying to make mc4 wires myself since they seem pretty commonly available and I can work out the recommended size by what renogy recommends for their panels, which is either 4mm or 6mm solar wire.

    So what size wires and what other stuff? For fuses will that all be handled on the fuse blade or do I have to get them for elsewhere too? Do I have to get for the solar panels to mppt or will the circuit breaker be doing that job or is it best to have both circuit breaker and fuse? Anything else to add?

    Also, beyond the panels to mppt to battery I am not sure yet how everything connects up but I guess there will be plenty of videos for that. I just want to get my itinerary of kit to buy and try and order in as few orders as I can to save on shipping fees then once I got it I can look up information for each step of the way.​


  • chris_n
    chris_n Posts: 605
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    You are asking a lot of very specific questions here on a general DIY forum, you would be better off asking on a forum that is dedicated to mobile solar applications such as Will Prowse's own forum https://diysolarforum.com/forums/vehicle-mounted-systems.7/ .
    Living the dream in the Austrian Alps.
  • ThisIsWeird
    ThisIsWeird Posts: 4,458
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    Hi GL.
    First, Tuc's advice and info above is solid, and it's good that you have tackled issues like insulation as that is essential.
    Just to add to that point, the single biggest key to reducing condensation is ventilation. It seems clear you won't be able to heat this van to 20+ oC on a near constant basis (another way to keep cond at bay), so the alternative is to have a good through-flow of air, even tho' that means it'll be cold. In essence, if you cannot heat the whole van, then you need to heat yourself - the same applies to folks in houses who cannot afford to run their CH.
    In theory, it should be super-easy to insulate a van successfully - it's such a relatively small space - but you'll still have very cold areas of single glazing. Mop them up thoroughly each morning.
    Anyway, electrics in 'general'. 4mm cables will be more than adequate for a couple of panels. You could go thinner, but it makes sense to continue with whatever is already fitted to the panel, and MC4 connectors are standard and cheap, so also makes sense. Don't contemplate 6mm, tho'!
    My recommendation is to stick with 12V DC throughout, for everything you possibly can - lights, and as many appliances as possible. Reasons - safety, and efficiency. Only invert up to 240v where unavoidable. 
  • Tucosalamanca
    Tucosalamanca Posts: 454
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    edited 16 November 2023 at 8:59AM
    Glad to hear that you're taking positive action.

    I'm not qualified and don't have enough in-depth knowledge to advise on cable sizes.
    You do need to get it right, as under specified cables, particularly from battery to inverter, can be a real fire risk.
    For the solar, ready made 6mm cables with MC4 connectors are the way to go. 4mm is a bit under spec'd.
    It will bend around corners better but won't maximise yield generated by the panel (*edit* thinking about it, 4mm would be ok based on the short lengths required in a Transit connect, it's not quite the same on a 7.5m motorhome!)

    A company like Rayne Automotive will advise and supply bespoke kits if you send them your designs and van model.
    Other, more general off-the-shelf kits are available on eBay.

    DC only is certainly an option and works well for me.
    My campervan is powered by180ah wet battery, 175w Victron panel and Victron MPPT controller. It's enough to keep the 12v compressor fridge running as well as led lights and device charging. It also has a simple split charge relay.
    I do also carry a 240v 3 way mobile mains kit and small battery charger for those odd occasions when grid power is needed/available.

    I have a motorhome for longer term living, this is powered by 180ah wet battery, 150w panel and Schaudt MPPT controller. The main difference is a 50amp b2b charger, this allows the battery to replenish quickly when depleted after a longer off-grid stay.

    A lithium battery will take charge at a very high rate, a 50amp b2b charger would allow you to maximise the battery's potential. If budget allows, I would have this top of the list, just daily driving would be enough to ensure that you never ran short of power.
    I have a Sterling b2b charger, as my set up is a few years old.
    I've heard good things about Victron Orion b2b chargers and it's probably what I'd go for if buying again (due to seamless integration with other Victron products and their Lithium charging profiles).

    As I mentioned previously, A and N Caravan services have a wealth of knowledge on their website.
  • Section62
    Section62 Posts: 7,535
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    Anyway, electrics in 'general'. 4mm cables will be more than adequate for a couple of panels. You could go thinner, but it makes sense to continue with whatever is already fitted to the panel, and MC4 connectors are standard and cheap, so also makes sense. Don't contemplate 6mm, tho'!
    My recommendation is to stick with 12V DC throughout, for everything you possibly can - lights, and as many appliances as possible. Reasons - safety, and efficiency. Only invert up to 240v where unavoidable. 
    Don't forget though that for the same power demand, lower voltage = higher current.

    Whilst the risk of electric shock is lower with 12v DC, the risk of electrical cables overheating, melting and starting a fire is potentially greater - and being a space in which someone is living/sleeping (and not necessarily with the best egress design) this is something which needs to be considered in selecting cable sizes (and quality, including care in installation).

    In other words, 12V DC should be though of as 'safer' not 'safe'...

    Likewise with the efficiency side of the coin, cables getting warm = wasted energy.  Spending a bit more money on extra copper may pay for itself in terms of reduced energy loss.
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