Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Roof Rack and Solar Panels

Solar Panels From Above

Solar Panels From Above

WICKHAM CP, FL—My brother Jeff, nephew Michael and I assembled and mounted the roof rack and solar panels last Sunday.

I/We/She decided to go with an entirely new solar system rather than cannibalize the one off my trailer. Not sure exactly why, but who am I to question Her? More below the break (huh?).

Roof Rack

The roof rack is made up of two, 2 inch square aluminum tubes mounted lengthwise along the NV’s roof mounting points, plus three (soon five) 1.5 inch square aluminum tubes used to support the panels (with the last two for future, no-solar supports). These smaller tubes lay on top of the 2″ runners—on top so that they can clear the curve of the NV’s roof.

On both Jeff and Micheal’s recommendation, I ordered all the metal tubes from OnlineMetals.com and it was super convenient. I highly recommend.

Panels,  L-Brackets, and Crossbar.

Panels, L-Brackets, and Crossbar.

Solar Panels

I purchase three 140 watt, low voltage panels from Sun Electronics down in Miami and will wire them in parallel with #8 gauge wire. The 8 gauge is probably overkill (the smaller the number, the lower the resistance, the more power gets through the wires to the batteries), but too much is preferable to too little.

The three panels will give me about the same power as I’m getting on the travel trailer with my two 200 watt panels (420 van vs 400 trailer).

Assembly

One of my requirements is that the panels be modular, that I—alone in the Wild—will be able to (fairly) easily remove a single panel all on my own.

This requirement turned out to be quite a complication until it suddenly appeared as an elegant solution:

  • Each panel has one of the 1.5″ square aluminum tubes attached flush with its front edge.
  • Miraculously (since I originally designed the roof rack to work with my larger 200 watt panels), each panel is 58″ wide and fits perfectly upon the long 2″ “runner” tubes. Seriously, they fit perfectly… completely by “accident.”
  • Each panel is mounted to the runners via two #12 sheet metal screws run through the 1.5″ tube (one on each side), plus (on each side) 2 L-brackets holding the 1.5″ tube to the runners, plus two wider L-brackets holding the short side of the panel to the runners.
Detail of the leading crossbar and how it is attached to the runner.

Detail of the leading crossbar and how it is attached to the runner.

Then the next tube/panel is mounted flush against the one in front of it.

Each panel is thus mounted to the runners (large tubes) with a total of 14 #12 sheet metal screws:

  • 2 for the Crossbar (small tube) to the Runners (large tubes)
  • 4 for L-brackets on Crossbar to Runners
  • 8 for L-brackets on Panel to Runners
Side L-Brackets

Side L-Brackets

Note: We (Jeff) cut the L-brackets from a single piece of aluminum L-angle bracket. This resulted in strong, custom-sized brackets.

We encountered a couple problems, but worked them all out with a test layout on the asphalt of Jeff’s driveway:

  • How to use the existing NV’s mounting points? Because of the gutter/ridges next to a couple of the mounting points, it was impossible to get a wrench under them to hold a nut still while the bolt was tightened. We ended up using 5/16″ speed nuts.

    Roof Rack Mounts

    Roof Rack Mounts

  • How to mount the 2″ square tube to the mounting points? Here our problem was getting a bolt to mount flush with the inside (lower wall) of the tube, through the lower wall and through the mounting point. We ended up cutting a larger hole in the top (using a universal bit) that was large enough to allow the wrench socket to fit through.

    Access hole large enough to allow a socket wrench to tighten down the screw/bolt.

    Access hole large enough to allow a socket wrench to tighten down the screw/bolt.

  • How were we going to mount the cross bars (1.5″ tube) to the runners (2.5″ tube)? We had the same problem (and solution) as above. For strength, we wanted the shortest screw possible to hold the cross bar to the runner. Again we used the larger-hole-on-top-for-the-socket-wrench solution (plus an L-bracket on each side of the cross bar).
  • How were we going to support the back of the panels and still make it modular? We had originally thought to attach the back of one panel and the front of the next panel to the cross bar that lay between them (Panel-Crossbar-Panel). This though, conflicted with the Prime-Modular-Panels-Directive and would have required us to lift all three panels up onto the roof as a single unit. It was only when we realized that one of our assumptions was false that a solution became apparent. The false assumption: “We have to attach the back of the panel to the crossbar.” Once we saw through this—once we gave it up—we realized we could support each panel’s rear edge with a side mounted L-bracket toward each of the panel’s back corners. This made the panels completely modular.

Some areas of interest:

  • Roof wiring: Because my salesman at Sun Electronics was resistant to selling me the wiring from their stock (“Most our customers just buy the wire at Home Depot”), I—who has learned not to fight Life/circumstances—didn’t buy their cables either even though I doubted I’d find UV resistant wiring at Home Depot. So though I bought larger wire than most use, it isn’t UV resistant. Even though the wires will be pretty much in permanent shade, they may very well need to be replaced in a few years (here the modular panels will help).
  • Sheet Metal Screws: I was concerned that by using sheet metal screws—rather than nuts and bolts—the screws would come loose eventually, but my brother assured me otherwise, that they are designed this way, to hold metal to metal. After thinking about how some people use RV tape for their panels and my trailer panels are held in place by wood screws, I realized the wisdom of this method.
  • Rear Roof Space: While there is room for a fourth panel on the NV (for a total of 560 watts (4×140)), it would not leave room for a roof vent or anything else up there. While my ego wanted to kick Morrissette’s solar butt (he has 500 watts), my… no, Her whispers, said otherwise. 420 watts will be more than enough for my humble needs (I’ll be using less power in the van while generating more power than the travel trailer does).
  • Power Considerations: How much power do I need? This was an easy one as I could use my current trailer as a guide (and I originally designed my trailer’s solar needs based on The Kodger’s current setup). My travel trailer has 400 watts of panels which fill 300 amp/hours of batteries and this has served me very well. So 420 watts will be more than plenty (even overkill). Since these panels only cost about 85 cents a watt (about $120 a panel), the deciding factor was really roof space and not cost.

Huge “Thank-You” to Brother Jeff and Nephew Michael for really doing all the work on this project. Seriously. Thank-you.

Sorry for the long post. Though this was NV-centric, hopefully someone considering a van conversion might find some ideas here. If you’ve run into similar issues/solutions with your solar rack/panel system (NV or not), feel free to post them in the comments as a help to others. Please save your internal wiring/components comments for the (future) post on that subject.

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14 thoughts on “Nissan NV Stealth Camper: Roof Rack and Solar Panels

    • Thanks John. I’ll probably wait to see if any damage occurs first (as I’d have to remove the panels to access the wiring), but that is good to know for next time—or for others who haven’t “wired up” yet.

  1. That top photo (of the van from above) is so sexy it is positively indecent! I’ll bet your 400 Watts will be plenty. Thanks for mentioning the solar panel seller — I’d never heard of that one.

    By the way, what fuel economy do you expect to get on the highway and in town?

  2. How did you pass the wires thru your roof? I have a conduit box from home depot i was going to use, But I have also seen Cableclams used for kayacks and such. I need a ground wire, four smaller flood light wires, and the wiring for three panels.

    • Hi Daniel, welcome to the blog.

      I went around on this for a bit, but ended up just drilling a hole that the wires fit snugly in and filling in the gaps with silicone.

      It has a teeny leak when I’m driving and it’s raining (I think the wind blows it along the wires), but that’s it. I’ve never seen more than a few drops on the top of the refrigerator (which it drips on).

      On my travel trailer, I used a junction/conduit box and that worked fine.

  3. Wayne-
    I was wondering about the van itself. It looks like a passenger van, with windows. A cargo van has minimal windows. Since I’m thinking of buying one of these vans-did you order a passenger van without the seats, or did you have to get rid of them? I read your intro where the salesman said it was the ONLY van in your area. Sure. But since they often have these “build your van” sections on web sites, I wonder if you can dispense with the seats. I like the windows, but certainly don’t need room for 12 passengers.
    Best,

    Steve

    • I didn’t order it. I asked if they had a cargo van with windows and they did. Don’t ask me why they would have one, but they did.

      I expect you’d have to special order it.

  4. hello and thank you for the write up its been very helpful. I was hoping to get the measurements of the rails so i can order the aluminum for my van. I have the same van as you. Thank you for all that you do.

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