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Old 04-24-2014, 08:24 PM   #1
cgale
 
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Default Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Solar power for our Sprinter camper van was a top priority from day one. Now that we've had six months of free energy charging our batteries and running our fridge and laptops, I can hands-down say it was one of our best additions to the van and something I highly recommend. Do it!

To save you some time, here are a few notes about how I went about it. A few pictures are on my writeup at my blog (copied here).

How Big a System Do You Need?

Probably the most important thing to consider when setting up your solar, battery and inverter system is how big the power draw on your system will be. Are you installing a fridge? Microwave? Electric heater? (Forgive me if this is elementary to some of you.) It is easy to determine how to size things by looking at:

1. The maximum voltage draw from your vanís juice-sucking components. You'll need an inverter big enough to handle your biggest total voltage pull (ours is 1500W).

2. The estimated amperage draw on your system and how long youíll be running each appliance. This will help you figure out how big your battery system needs to be.

Note: Iím not going to talk about wire gauge size or things like that in this post since it is so system specific.

Sizing our system was easy. We donít have many big loads that we run frequently except two big short-use items (Vitamix and hot water boiler at 1,500 Watts each). LED lights, laptops, fridge, Fantastic Fan roof vent, the Espar heater fan, heating pad for bed (used briefly at night on cold nights instead of Espar), and our stereo system are the big power draws. That totals about 8-15 amps, which means we donít drain the batteries all that fast.

I sized our system so that the solar panel system would put about 10-12 amps/hour into the system during the day in full sun at maximum power point, and then we have the electrical system rigged up to charge with excess current from the van alternator while weíre driving. This works great and weíre usually topped out with electricity unless we are not driving for awhile AND there isnít any sunlight. Note: we also have shore power in the form of a 15 amp cord to plug in... that weíve used twice. If I did it again, Iíd go with a simple 15 amp power cord with a retractable cord that could store under the van like my brilliant friend Dave Orton did on his build. (Check out his forum posts on Sprinter-Source.com if you want to read some well-done work!)

Should I Buy Individual Pieces or an Entire Solar Panel Kit?

I tend to do things myself and generally donít like kits. However, after lots of research and realizing it would make my life much easier, I ordered our panels and other hardware from the helpful guys at AM Solar. Dave was fantastic and Iíd highly recommend their services. Here's the system I ordered, the SunRunner Signature, which is good up to 400W, perfect for a van. They also do installs, but the cost was the same as the solar panel system (ack) and it seemed like a fun project anyway. Hereís the list of major components in our system, which was the GS-100:

Panels: Grape Solar 100 W panels (two of them, easy to add more if needed)

Charge Controller: Blue Sky Solar Boost 2512IX-HV

Meter: IPN Pro Remote

Batteries: Two FullRiver 6 volt batteries in series with 224 amp-hours capacity (installed beneath the van)

When you buy a kit, it all shows up at your door in a big box and you can get right down to being overwhelmed. Breathe deeply - it isnít that bad and I bet youíll find it to be a satisfying project by the time youíre done. It took me about 10 hours total to do the install, and a solid weekend of effort and youíll be sitting pretty.

Nine Steps to Glory! (Or Wait, Where the Heck Does All This Stuff Go?)

Here are the basic steps I followed for our install. Iím sure everyone will do it slightly differently, but this worked well for me and there arenít many things I would do differently.

1. Assemble your tools! I recommend a rachet/wrench set, heat gun, hole saw (~1.25Ē), cordless drill and bits, caulk gun and caulk, utility knife, wire cutters and crimpers, and some way to get on top of your van (ladder, tall friend, or sky hooks).

2. Get the panels ready for installation on the van. Attach all the mounting brackets and feet and pre-wire crimps and other attachment so you donít have to do it on the roof of your vehicle.

3. Put the panels on top of the van. I recommend having someone help you, or you can do it off the top of a tippy ladder by yourself and provide entertainment for the neighborhood as you wobble about trying not to kill yourself.

4. Move the panels 67 times to figure out the best place to put them. Think HARD about where youíll route wires inside the van. Make sure you consider proximity to your roof rails if you are planning to install an awning, or location relative to a Rocket Box if you are getting one of those. I suspect mounting a panel at the very front is totally fine, but I didnít want the force from the wind off the windshield so I mounted them behind our roof vent instead, and could have put two more panels back there.

5. Drill the Boss-Size hole to route the panel wiring inside. I used a tap hole followed by a 1.25Ē metal hole saw. Nothing like tapping an inch-plus hole in the top of your new van to make measure twice, cut once sink in. Make sure you paint the edge of the hole with some kind of sealant to prevent rust.

6. If you have multiple panels like we did, youíll need to somehow combine the wires from each panel before routing them through the roof. I used a combiner box that came with the kit and mounted it under one of the panels. It is screwed down and sealed with lots of caulk. No leaking so far!

7. Once your combiner box is installed, you can mount the panels on the roof. (Or do this step last.) After a lot of research, I used 3M adhesive pads that AM Solar provided. Some people screw their panels to the roof, which certainly would work, but thatís just 16 more holes to rust or leak. Make sure to put a layer of self-leveling sealant over the top of the solar panel feet/adhesive pads to prevent dirt and water from compromising the attachment and havenít had any issues.

8. To the inside we go! Here is where you just follow all the wiring diagrams. (See how easy that was?) As I said above, I recommend saving yourself 12 tons of headaches by buying a kit like the one from AM Solar that has all the connectors and shrink tubing clearly labeled so you donít have to go back to your favorite hardware store (where they probably already know you by name) five more times in a weekend to get this project done. Before cutting any wire, carefully fitting and laying out the location of the charge controller, on/off switch, IPN remote and shunt relative to your inverter (if you have one) and other stuff is very important or youíll be cramming stuff into a wall cavity or struggle to find places to attach all the components.

9. Turn on the beast! Hopefully there is exactly zero popping, crackling and fizzing. Crack a cold one and sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

All in all, this install was surprisingly straight forward and easy (other than all the wires in the below picture). Save yourself $1,000-1,500 and do it yourself! It took me an afternoon plus part of another day, plus research about the system. One weekend and youíre dialed in with power on your van!

Hereís to free power from the sky! Clarifying question/answers are below as well.

Cheers,

Dakota

A Few FAQs

Q: Is 200W enough?

A: Yep! The only time weíve run lower on power is when we have practically zero sun for awhile and havenít driven recently. You could certainly put more on there if you want. When weíre in direct sunlight, which isnít all that hard to find where we like to go, our system is at 100% almost all the time even with the fridge running, stereo on and laptops and other stuff charging.

Q: Is your Vitamix/hot water boiler (1500W each, for the record) always able to run?

A: NO. When the voltage in the batteries gets below about 12.2V, which happens around 70% battery life, the inverter will fault. Gotta keep the system pretty topped out to run that kind of wattage and amperage pull. Note: We have started the van up and run it for a few minutes while boiling water to get around this. Works great, and only has been necessary a couple times before you think weíre earth haters.

Q: Arenít you worried about your panels blowing off while you drive?

A: Initially, I was worried about this. All I can say is that the guys at AM Solar know what theyíre doing and use it on all their installs and that I havenít had a single issue with it. Make sure to use the sealant to cover the solar panel feet and I suspect youíll be fine.

Q: Do I need to wash my panels?

A: Yes! After a few months driving around, I got on top of the van and the panels were practically coated in dirt. I'd say a solid wipe down every month or two would be a good idea.
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Old 04-26-2014, 11:56 AM   #2
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Default Re: Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Did you install a Trik-L-Start to keep your chassis battery healthy during storage periods?
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Old 04-26-2014, 01:05 PM   #3
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Default Re: Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Thanks for the informative write-up. I am about to embark on a similar install and your write-up and many others already posted have helped in the planning.

The Blue Sky charge controller cited has the ability, via an auxiliary power output, to provide a 2 amp charge to your vehicle battery at the same charge voltage set for the house batteries when excess power is available. This was a factor in my decision to use this model charge controller. I was wondering if you used this feature and what feedback you might have?

Oops, this alternate power source won't help you because you are using 6V batteries. I will let others know about my experience when I am up and running.
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Last edited by JohnY; 04-26-2014 at 01:24 PM. Reason: correction
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Old 04-26-2014, 01:46 PM   #4
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Default Re: Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Quote:
Originally Posted by kmgwood View Post
Did you install a Trik-L-Start to keep your chassis battery healthy during storage periods?
Nope, I didn't install any trickle charging for the chassis battery. Next time, I would, but our van is on the road a lot (it's our only vehicle) and so keeping the battery topped off shouldn't be an issue.
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Old 04-26-2014, 01:48 PM   #5
cgale
 
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Default Re: Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Quote:
Originally Posted by JohnY View Post
Thanks for the informative write-up. I am about to embark on a similar install and your write-up and many others already posted have helped in the planning.

The Blue Sky charge controller cited has the ability, via an auxiliary power output, to provide a 2 amp charge to your vehicle battery at the same charge voltage set for the house batteries when excess power is available. This was a factor in my decision to use this model charge controller. I was wondering if you used this feature and what feedback you might have?

Oops, this alternate power source won't help you because you are using 6V batteries. I will let others know about my experience when I am up and running.
Good question. The 6V batteries won't affect the solar charger, which is 12V. I run my batteries in series, which results in 12V, so that wouldn't be an issue either.

That said, I didn't do the auxiliary power output since our van is a daily driver and we don't drain that battery. I'd probably go to the trouble to install it if I did this again though!
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Old 04-26-2014, 02:24 PM   #6
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Default Re: Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Nice installation and great write up with lots of useful information. Thanks!

Superb job on the wiring (below) and I like how you mounted some components
inside the wall. Good idea!

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Last edited by hein; 04-26-2014 at 02:28 PM.
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Old 04-27-2014, 04:59 PM   #7
cgale
 
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Default Re: Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Quote:
Originally Posted by hein View Post
Nice installation and great write up with lots of useful information. Thanks!

Superb job on the wiring (below) and I like how you mounted some components
inside the wall. Good idea!

Thanks Hein! The final install had the Blue Sky MPPT inside the wall as well after I finalized all the interior paneling and insulation.
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Old 04-27-2014, 11:21 PM   #8
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Default Re: Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Quote:
Originally Posted by kmgwood View Post
Did you install a Trik-L-Start to keep your chassis battery healthy during storage periods?
That Blue Sky controller has a 2 amp auxilliary charger that can be connected to the chassis battery. When the solar charging goes to float the auxilliary charging is active.
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Old 04-28-2014, 02:36 PM   #9
cgale
 
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Default Re: Solar Panel Installation on 2013 NCV3

Quote:
Originally Posted by jackfish View Post
That Blue Sky controller has a 2 amp auxilliary charger that can be connected to the chassis battery. When the solar charging goes to float the auxilliary charging is active.
Yep, that 2 amp aux charger is a good idea. I decided not to hassle with it since there was some other stuff in the way of the install, but probably a good idea for most people to do it!
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