Installing Flexible Solar Panels From the Side of the Van

by | Jun 17, 2015 | 22 comments

Installing Flexible Solar Panels From the Side of the Van

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Fred’s three Renogy Flexible Solar Panels laid out on the ground charging.

I’m getting complaints about too many travel blogs, so I’m going to mix it up. My good friend Fred is a retired full-timer and has been on a journey of downsizing since I’ve know him. He started in a Travel Trailer, but felt restricted by it, then downsized to a slide-in camper on a pickup. But even that limited his freedom so he finally downsized to van which was just right! But the drastic loss of space required some sacrifices and changes, one of those was his solar setup.
This is what he usually does, he attaches them to holes in the gutte rand hangs them down resting on two painters poles.

This is what he usually does, he attaches the panels to holes in the gutter and hangs them down resting on two painters poles.

He didn’t want to mount the panels on his roof  because he prefers the versatility of laying them out on the ground away from the van and tilting them. The solution he settled on was to buy three Renogy Flexible solar panels that he carries inside the van and then lays out when he is camped. (Get the panes from Amazon here: Renogy® 100W Bendable Solar Panel) or get the complete kit here: RENOGY® 100 watt Flexible Solar Kit:
They have the advantage that they are so light and easy to handle he can move them in and out of the van very easily, much easier than any fixed panel. They are very easy to store in the a and then he can lay them out flat on the ground if he needs to, but he prefers to lean them up against the van attached to two painters poles. That accomplishes two very good things:

  1. It puts the panels at a good angle to the sun for better power production especially in the winter when the sun is low on the horizon..
  2. It puts some shade onto the side of the van

Fred very generously took these pictures of his solar setup and answered these questions for me.

  • Where do you carry the panels?
  •  I store the panels in the van either lying on their side but leaning up against the bed (against the covers) or upright against the drawers on the opposite side of the bed) with a bungee across the center.
The Renogy panels come with grommet hols so Fred put "S" hooks through the ones at the top of the panel.  He drilled holes through the gutters just large enough for the "S" hooks to go through.

The Renogy panels come with grommet holes so Fred put “S” hooks through the ones at the top of the panel. He drilled holes through the gutters just large enough for the “S” hooks to go through.

  • Do you worry that the panels could flip up and the “S” hooks could come out of the holes?
  • So far the s-hooks have never flipped out of the gutter since I have bent the hook together just a bit so that it barely fits through the hole in the gutter.  If there is THAT much wind, then I would suggest removing (stowing) them away for the moment.  BUT I have laid them flat on the ground in 50 mph winds and they stay put.
The first step of hanging the panels is to put the poles in place on the side of the van.

The first step of hanging the panels is to put the poles in place on the side of the van.

  • Do You attach the poles to the van?
  • The painter poles do NOT attach to the van at all.  They are held in place on the bottom with the 80 penny nail and are pressed under the top lip of the window.  This has always held (so far).  There are additional bungees (the small ones with the sharp hook) that hold the poles in place.
He drilled a 5/16th inch hole through the bottom of each pole as a stake hole. He uses 80 penny nails as stakes.

He drilled a 5/16th inch hole through the bottom of each pole as a stake hole. He uses 80 penny nails as stakes.

  • Do you Stake out the panels?
  • I do NOT stake the panels themselves but I DO stake the bottom of the painters poles by drilling a hole about 2″ above the threads in the bottom.  (see pic) It is held with an 80 penny nail (5 /16″ inch drill bit for the hole) and perpendicular to the ground when the pole is extended.
The three panels are attached to each other with key rings through the grommets.

The three panels are attached to each other with 1  1/2 inch key rings through the grommets. He originally tried zip ties but they didn’t work well.

  • The panels are attached to each other only by key rings? Is that working okay?
    Yes, that’s all, but the grommets sure need improvement as far as reliability and quality.
To attach the panels he walks between the poles and hooks the "S" hook of the top panel to the holes in the gutter.

To attach the panels he walks between the poles and hooks the “S” hook of the top panel to the holes in the gutter.

Next, the second panel just flips down like a three-ring binder.

Next, the second panel just flips down like a three-ring binder.

Finally the third panel flips down and you are done!

Finally the third panel flips down, connect the wires and you are producing power!

DSCF0165

Extension cord from solar controller to the panel. The cord from the panels is actually a 20 foot extension cord cut in half and the ends cut off and the bare wires connected to a standard three-prong household end. If he had cutoff the ends of the cords coming from the panel, that would have voided their warranty.

He uses the mini-sized bungee cords to hold the two poles together.

He uses the mini-sized bungee cords to hold the two poles together. They’re so small you look at them and think they will just fall apart, but they  have worked well for Fred. Home Depot sells them.

Then he runs a bungee from the poles to the key rings on the panels.

Then he runs a bungee from the poles to the key rings on the panels.

Finally, he runs a bungee from the bottom grommet to the hole in the pole.

Finally, he runs a bungee from the bottom grommet and wraps it around the pole.

You might think that the system is fragile but all the small connections make it surprisingly rigid. It’s firmly attached to the van at the top by the “S” hooks and to the ground at the bottom by the stakes through the poles. Best of all it weighs next to nothing and can be set up and taken down in just a few minutes. When stowed away it takes up almost no room in the van. But does it work?

  • How is your system working? Do you have enough power?
  • I have 3 panels right now all in series (100w x 3) = 300 watts into 2, 12volt AGM, 150 AH batteries in parallel (300 AH total).  I would like to get one more panel for a total of 400w.  Right now I have no trouble having enough power to run my fridge, TV and power antenna, charge and run my computer, charge my phone, charge my MiFi, and interior lights.  The longest I have been without any measurable sunlight is about 2½ days and the volts were down to 12.1.  I may in the future rewire the panels into 2 sets of 200w and 11.8a each when I get 4 panels, but I am not convinced that it would work better than what I have now.

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Next Installing Flexible Solar Panels on a Fiberglass Roof

22 Comments

  1. Ming

    love this! This is what I’d eventually like to do with my truck. Light, minimal, and flexible. Did Fred give a tour of his van yet? I remember his slide-in camper.

    • Fred

      Thank you Ming. Yes, Bob gave a tour of my van a few months ago.

      • Ming

        ah yes, found it. Lovely, lightweight build all the way through.

  2. Calvin R

    Fred combines simplicity, flexibility, and function very well.

    • Fred

      Thanks Calvin. It’s much easier that way.

  3. Barney Ward

    OK three panels in series at 17+ volts each is sending 50+ volts to his controller for battery charging. That sure cuts back on voltage drop in the wiring. Good idea and more efficient than parallel panels on the voltage drop. I like it.

    • Fred

      Thanks Barney. According to my measurements, I get about 19v from each panel for a total of approx. 55-57v at the plug. Wiring, especially when I have to use my 50ft extension cord in the summer because I am in the shade and the panels are in the sun, drop the voltage going into the controller about 4-6 volts. So you are right when I use the extension cord. Without extension=56v With extension=50-51v

      • Barney Ward

        That is still good electrical production. I have 350 watts in three panels set up parallel and have no power trouble at all. If my situation was different I would prefer the series set up as you have done it.

  4. Rob

    A fine idea, thanks again for sharing the knowledge.

  5. Fred

    Thanks Barney. Your very welcome.

    • Fred

      I mean thanks Rob. I guess I should use my glasses!! lol

  6. Colvin Goree

    I watched the evolution of Fred’s system, and he has it tuned up nicely. It works so well that he has even supplied me with volts as well, during a few days that I was without power of my own. And the restraint/mounting system looks light, and is, but in fact works very well under high wind load, and sets up and breaks down fast. Impressive. BTW I was there during one of the high wind episodes, and still can’t believe they stayed put!

  7. Fred

    Hi Colvin,
    Volts are our friend. Thanks for the pat on the back.

  8. Canine

    Wow! I am impressed. Thank you very much for taking the time to share this one! It is really simple, but that is part of why it made such an impression on me.

  9. Fred

    Thanks Canine.
    Keeping it simple is what makes it easy to use and maintain.

  10. CAE

    Very nice. What kind of controller do you use?
    Thanks

  11. Fred

    Hi CAE,
    My controller is a renogy 40A MPPT Tracer. It sells for 209.95 on Amazon. Very simply to setup and use. You will need to buy a separate meter since the Tracer only has a green light telling you if the battery is OK. But a digital readout is only about 15-20 bucks.

    • CAE

      Good stuff. Thanks

  12. Corky

    Fred, thank you for the great info even seven months later. I bought 2 100W HQ Solar flexible panels because the Renogy panels have been hard to find these days. A friend bought me the 100W Renogy solar suitcase. Your post has given me some great ideas on how to hook it all up to my 2 Sun Xtender AGM batteries and the Renogy 40A MPPT controller. I am in a Honda CR-V with a roof cargo carrier and hitch cargo carrier so I don’t have the space to mount permanent panels. This makes a great solution.

    • Bob

      Corky, Fred probably won’t see this comment, but I’m sure he would appreciate it! He’s a really good guy!
      Bob

      • Corky

        Thanks, Bob, and thanks for this great resource you provide. Hoping I can make it RTR next year or at least to Quartzsite around that time.

        • Bob

          I hope you can make it next year Corky.
          Bob

Table of Contents

22 Comments

  1. Ming

    love this! This is what I’d eventually like to do with my truck. Light, minimal, and flexible. Did Fred give a tour of his van yet? I remember his slide-in camper.

    • Fred

      Thank you Ming. Yes, Bob gave a tour of my van a few months ago.

      • Ming

        ah yes, found it. Lovely, lightweight build all the way through.

  2. Calvin R

    Fred combines simplicity, flexibility, and function very well.

    • Fred

      Thanks Calvin. It’s much easier that way.

  3. Barney Ward

    OK three panels in series at 17+ volts each is sending 50+ volts to his controller for battery charging. That sure cuts back on voltage drop in the wiring. Good idea and more efficient than parallel panels on the voltage drop. I like it.

    • Fred

      Thanks Barney. According to my measurements, I get about 19v from each panel for a total of approx. 55-57v at the plug. Wiring, especially when I have to use my 50ft extension cord in the summer because I am in the shade and the panels are in the sun, drop the voltage going into the controller about 4-6 volts. So you are right when I use the extension cord. Without extension=56v With extension=50-51v

      • Barney Ward

        That is still good electrical production. I have 350 watts in three panels set up parallel and have no power trouble at all. If my situation was different I would prefer the series set up as you have done it.

  4. Rob

    A fine idea, thanks again for sharing the knowledge.

  5. Fred

    Thanks Barney. Your very welcome.

    • Fred

      I mean thanks Rob. I guess I should use my glasses!! lol

  6. Colvin Goree

    I watched the evolution of Fred’s system, and he has it tuned up nicely. It works so well that he has even supplied me with volts as well, during a few days that I was without power of my own. And the restraint/mounting system looks light, and is, but in fact works very well under high wind load, and sets up and breaks down fast. Impressive. BTW I was there during one of the high wind episodes, and still can’t believe they stayed put!

  7. Fred

    Hi Colvin,
    Volts are our friend. Thanks for the pat on the back.

  8. Canine

    Wow! I am impressed. Thank you very much for taking the time to share this one! It is really simple, but that is part of why it made such an impression on me.

  9. Fred

    Thanks Canine.
    Keeping it simple is what makes it easy to use and maintain.

  10. CAE

    Very nice. What kind of controller do you use?
    Thanks

  11. Fred

    Hi CAE,
    My controller is a renogy 40A MPPT Tracer. It sells for 209.95 on Amazon. Very simply to setup and use. You will need to buy a separate meter since the Tracer only has a green light telling you if the battery is OK. But a digital readout is only about 15-20 bucks.

    • CAE

      Good stuff. Thanks

  12. Corky

    Fred, thank you for the great info even seven months later. I bought 2 100W HQ Solar flexible panels because the Renogy panels have been hard to find these days. A friend bought me the 100W Renogy solar suitcase. Your post has given me some great ideas on how to hook it all up to my 2 Sun Xtender AGM batteries and the Renogy 40A MPPT controller. I am in a Honda CR-V with a roof cargo carrier and hitch cargo carrier so I don’t have the space to mount permanent panels. This makes a great solution.

    • Bob

      Corky, Fred probably won’t see this comment, but I’m sure he would appreciate it! He’s a really good guy!
      Bob

      • Corky

        Thanks, Bob, and thanks for this great resource you provide. Hoping I can make it RTR next year or at least to Quartzsite around that time.

        • Bob

          I hope you can make it next year Corky.
          Bob