When designing a camper van, most of us intend to utilize solar panels to charge our camper batteries. Solar panels are an obvious choice because living off-grid independently is an important aspect for many van lifers.
“But how will you lay out the solar panels on your van’s roof?”
Will you install the panels in the front of the van, or the rear? Will you lay the panels horizontally or lengthwise? And finally, will you mix and match solar panels of different sizes to maximize your solar wattage intake?
There are many questions to answer in regards to solar panel layout design.
In this post, we will go over several of the major issues to consider when planning a solar panel layout on your camper van roof. We will also look at several popular solar layouts and provide our pros and cons for each.
So if you’re ready, let’s get to it!
Confused where to start with DIY solar? Check out our comprehensive camper van solar system guide to start from the very beginning.
What To Consider When Choosing A Solar Panel Layout
When you begin to design the layout of the solar panels on your van’s roof, there are several important factors to think about.
1. Location of Ventilation Fan(s) and Other Rooftop Installations
Your solar panels will need to share space on the roof with your ventilation fan. And if you decide to have more than one fan, that will be even less space for your panels. (We talk about analyzing available roof space below).
In our van, we installed our fan above the kitchen area, which is located in the front-half of the van. This meant that our panels had to be installed in the rear half of our camper’s roof.
If you have a more complicated build, you may also want to plan for other rooftop installations like an A/C unit, satellite dish, sunroofs, and more. All these extra roof additions will mean less overall space for your solar panels.
2. Dimensions Of Available Roof Space
After factoring in the location of your ventilation fan (and other roof installations), analyze the remaining available space on your camper’s roof. Every camper van has slightly different dimensions.
Some vans are longer, some are shorter, and other vans, like the Ram Promaster, are wider than the average cargo van.
Knowing the dimensions of the remaining available space is a critical part to selecting the right solar panels for your camper van.
3. Solar Panel Physical Dimensions
We don’t believe in having wasted space on our camper van’s roof. So finding the right solar panels that can most efficiently fit on your roof’s remaining available space is ideal here.
Most camper van’s simply mount 100w solar panels on their roofs. But if a 150w, 180w, or even a 200w panel is a better use of space, use them instead!
Therefore, it’s a good idea to start jotting down the dimensions of different solar panels and seeing if you can fit them on your camper’s roof. You can usually find solar panel dimensions on the Amazon product page, like on the page of this Newpowa 180w solar panel.
These 180w solar panels are what we use on our camper van.
4. How Much Solar You Need
If you haven’t already, it’s also a smart idea to do some basic calculations as to how much solar power you’ll need to charge your batteries each day. Everyone’s solar calculations are slightly different since we all have different electrical requirements.
We cover EXACTLY how to calculate your “solar number” in our other blog post. It’s an easy, intuitive step-by-step guide.
Sketch Your Van’s Roof With Different Solar Panel Arrangements
In the remaining sections below, we talk about some of the popular roof arrangements for solar panels on camper vans. And to help you decide which solar layout works best for your situation, it helps to have pen & paper (or your favorite design software) to sketch the different layouts for your own roof.
Again, you’ll need the dimensions of the available roof space on your van and the dimensions of several solar panels of varying watts
Check out our blog post to learn how to create your own van interior digital layout.
Laying Solar Panels Lengthwise
Mounting solar panels lengthwise, from back to front, is the most common layout for solar panels on camper vans. And the above pictures shows exactly is how our own solar panels are laid out on our van roof.
In this way, you can easily put two solar panels side-by-side with usually plenty of room to spare on the roof edges.
One common mistake we see sometimes is camper vans installing only two 100-watt solar panels lengthwise. We think this is an inefficient use of space because these smaller panels usually leave a considerable amount of space on the edges of the roof. That’s empty space where you could have put more solar!
In the below image, you can see the difference in the amount of leftover space between using 100w panels and our larger 180w panels.
Laying Solar Panels Widthwise
Another common layout scheme is to lay the solar panels out horizontally.
Although not as common as laying solar panels our lengthwise, there are several situations where mounting horizontally can be beneficial:
- Trying to squeeze 1 or 2 panels on the roof of a very short vehicle.
- Intending to install 3 or more panels on a longer (>20’/6m) van.
However, in our case, even if we were to install 3x100w panels, the total wattage is still less than our current 2x180w setup. So the widthwise setup didn’t make sense for us.
Again, we recommend doing multiple roof sketches with multiple size solar panels to see if laying panels horizontally is right for you.
Mixing Different Solar Panel Sizes
If maximizing your solar wattage is critical for you, you can mix and match solar panels of different sizes to take up all the available space on your camper’s roof.
We’ve only seen this done once before.
For example, you can place larger solar panels on the back of your van’s roof, and fit smaller panels along the sides of your ventilation fan.
For space efficiency enthusiasts, this is a solution for you.
The largest drawback of this layout style is that because you’ll be using two different sized solar panels (with different wattages), you will have to either:
- Purchase a second solar charge controller to connect to the additional panels, or
- Connect all the different panels together anyway and accept some loss in harvesting efficiency. For more on how much efficiency you would lose, check out this informational post from Solar Panels Venue.
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Interested In The MOST Efficient (9BB) Solar Panels?
“9BB” solar panels are becoming the next big thing in the solar panel industry. Read our 9BB solar panel post to learn why these panels are more efficient AND have a longer usable life than traditional solar panels.
By now, we hope we’ve given you enough information and inspiration to start designing the size and placement of your solar panels on your van’s roof. If you’re still new to the solar build process and are looking for more information, check out our resources below.