Most of the van build is things I can always rip out and redo if I really screw them up, and that is a helpful thing to reassure me as I go along. When it comes to cutting holes in the van roof, though - that's not something you can really turn back from if you do it wrong, so I had to tread carefully here.
Butyl Sealant Tape
Any place with roofing materials should have this.
Make sure you get one appropriate for metal roofs, like the advanced one. Lap sealant is also fine (it's more waterproof and more permanent).
Price About $30
Primer and Paint
Pop down to your local car parts store and get the right colours for your vehicle!
Buy from Flatline Van Co
Low Pro Roof Rack
I also got the extra front fairing.
MaxxAir 6200K Fan
There's several models - I picked the mid-range.
Price $175 each
Buy from Amazon
Newpowa 180W Panels
I bought two, but the choice here is mostly about dimensions.
Buy from Amazon
8 AWG Solar Panel Cables
These go from the Y-connectors down into the van.
Buy from Amazon
Solar Y Connectors
The panels come with short cables each, so this bridges them in parallel to the main cables.
Buy from Amazon
Cable Entry Gland
Provides a waterproof cable entry point. Loads of options for these.
Price $8 each
Buy from McMaster-Carr
1010 Series T-Slot Flat Brackets (8)
I used these to connect the solar panels to the roof rack crossbars, but there are cheaper options!
Buy from Amazon
Peplink Mobility 42G
The rest of the networking gear will be in a future article!
Buy from Amazon
It's worth paying that little extra for a nice smooth one!
Any reasonably powerful cordless jigsaw will do (I use DeWalt 20V tools). Make sure it has a metal-cutting blade!
You'll want a nice set of bits in various sizes that are rated for light metal work, too.
Before I cut any holes, I installed the roof rack - partially because I would need it anyway to mount the solar panels, but also so I could make sure it would be clear of the fan and the antenna locations.
The Ford Transit has built-in mounting holes along the roof for a roof rack - one on each structural rib, on each side. That means that you can buy pre-made roof racks that require no drilling - I opted for the Low Pro Roof Rack from Flatline Van Co., which is really nicely made and also uses standard 10-series extruded aluminium for the crossbars (so it's easy to mount things to it).
The roof rack is relatively easy to install with the instructions it comes with:
- Peel off the rubber plugs that cover up the M8 mounting holes on the roof.
- Install the ten brackets, with their neoprene pads and sealing washers to help prevent water ingress.
- Run an extra bead of silicone around the base of the bracket for extra water protection.
- While you have the silicone out, also waterproof the remaining rubber plugs as the paint that protects them will crack and let water in otherwise.
- Bolt the side rails to the brackets (and the two pieces of each side rail to each other), keeping everything loose.
- Slide the crossbars in, and bolt everything together.
It's really not that bad! The worst part is having to climb up and down a ladder and move it around the edge of the van a lot to get to everything - if you have a lower roof, or want to clamber on the roof itself, that would make that bit a lot easier.
The rest of the items require cutting holes in the roof, and there's a general method I followed that tries to keep the risk of rust and water ingress low:
- Measure twice - or thrice! I generally measured locations from both on top of the roof and inside the van to make sure there were good clearances, particularly bearing in mind the structural ribs and the roof rack.
- Make an initial hole with a small diameter drill bit.
- Enlarge the hole with successively larger drill bits until it's either big enough for a cable, or big enough to then enlarge further with a jigsaw or hole saw.
- Deburr the edges of the hole with a file.
- Add a coat of primer and two coats of paint over the bare metal edges to prevent them rusting.
- Mount whatever you're installing to the hole with a layer of butyl rubber rope sealant under it to prevent water ingress.
- Finally, finish around the outside of the item with silicone (or lap) sealant for a second waterproofing layer. Add sealant on top of any exposed screws too.
You can never have enough waterproofing, and you really don't want rust happening where you can't see it!
The ventilation fan is by far the biggest hole, and requires additional consideration as to where you put it. There's generally two locations:
- At the rear of the van, which is the most popular. This lets you crack the front windows and pull/push air through the entire length of the van easily.
- At the front of the van's cargo area, which is what I did. Getting full airflow is harder, but it lets you ventilate from a kitchen and shower directly if you have one.
With my choice of fan at the front - both because of the shower/kitchen, as well as wanting to follow the Ford BEMM guidelines in case I ever install a heavier unit - I also needed to ensure I'd get airflow throughout the van.
This is doable on any van by drilling ventilation holes in the floor at the rear and adding mesh/ducting to them, but on the Transit I have it's even easier, as the D-pillar has a pre-made hole on the bottom that you can pull the plastic plug out of, and openings from the pillar into the cargo area just above the bed height. Add a little mesh and protection to the hole to stop insects and road dust, and maybe a little ducting, and you have your full-van airflow.
There's also the choice of which fan to go for - thankfully, they pretty much all fit a 14x14 inch hole in the US at least, but I opted for the MaxxFan, since a large number of other van builders seem at least mostly happy with theirs after a year or two, and the design means it's easy to replace the fan unit itself as it has a separate mounting flange.
With the location decided, marked, and clearances triple-checked, it was time to cut the hole. Before I started with the actual cutting, though, I made a test hole and jigsaw cut in the middle of the piece I was about to remove - after all, you're not going to have it on the van after this, may as well make it useful.
With the practice cut done, I then proceeded to drill out the four corners, and then do the straight cuts between then with the jigsaw. I wore eye and face protection during this as tiny metal shards go everywhere - and had a drop cloth over my nice floor to protect it.
With the hole made and protected from rust with paint, the remaining steps are:
- Separate out the flange from the rest of the fan if they're together in the box.
- Layer up butyl rubber below the flange, being sure to add more where the roof curves away from it. You can also buy an adapter that fits this curve if you want.
- Drill small pilot holes for the mounting screws, and optionally add wooden blocking below them to give the screws something more to hold onto that isn't thin sheet metal.
- Secure the flange with the screws, doing opposite screws evenly balanced around the outside to provide even pressure. The rubber should squish out.
- Run a bead of silicone around the outside of the flange for secondary water sealing.
- Secure the fan body to the flange using the four screws it comes with.
And then you should have a fan! I also ran some spray foam around the inside to protect everything else against the sharp screw tips poking out where there wasn't any wood blocking, as well as to provide a little insulation and further waterproofing.
The solar panels need two main pieces of work - cables run inside the van to where the electrical systems will be, and to be mounted onto the roof rack itself.
The cable positioning was chosen to be relatively close to the electrical area (over the left rear wheel well) while also being under the panels, to provide additional protection against rain. The two panels are connected in parallel, so there had to be room underneath the panels on the roof to wire the panels up to Y connectors before a single positive and negative cable work their way through the roof.
You'll also need some extra cables to go down through the roof holes - these need to be sized appropriately for the current and voltage (I went with 8 AWG in case I ever add more panels), and you want them to terminate in MC4 connectors on the roof side. I bought a set with MC4 connectors on both ends and cut the connectors off one end (be careful about which end to cut - I bench-assembled the panels, connectors and cables before I then cut the loose ends).
Where the cables actually enter the roof, you want a cable entry gland that provides the actual waterproof seal, as the cable will be loose in the actual hole and won't seal well. These are relatively cheap to buy and install, thankfully.
So, when I knew where I wanted my cable entry holes, I:
- Drilled out two holes big enough for the 8AWG cables.
- Primed and painted them to prevent rust.
- Added a plastic grommet to prevent the cable rubbing against the sheet metal (but you should use a rubber grommet really!)
- Threaded the cables through the entry gland and then the holes.
- Secured the gland onto the roof with butyl rubber and then silicone (no screws in this case - we'll see if it holds, but it feels very secure!)
At this point, I had connector ends on the roof, waterproofed on their entry down into the van. Now it's time for the panels themselves.
The roof rack I chose is standard 1010 series aluminium extrusion, so I got some rectangular plates (1x2 inches) with two mounting holes and the appropriate nuts/bolts, and mounted the solar panels with those:
- Decide on the orientation and positioning of the panels so you know where the crossbars of the roof rack will be.
- Drill holes in the solar panels if there aren't any where you need them - I wanted to mount mine on the short edge and their only holes were on the long edges, so I had to add some holes.
- Mount the plates to the solar panels with loose T-nuts on the other holes on the plates.
- Move the solar panels to the roof of the van (careful on that ladder now!) and plug them into the Y-connectors for parallel wiring.
- Slide the crossbars over the loose T-nuts on the plates so the panels are loosely attached.
- Place the crossbars onto the side rails and bolt down.
- Tighten up the bolts on the plates, and you're done!
The Low Pro rack has a slot along the sides so you can choose where the crossbars go, which helps immensely in making everything fit nice and tightly. There's also room on the roof still to mount a few more solar panels either side of the fan in future, if I want to.
As for the choice of panels themselves? I just got the biggest reasonably-priced ones that would fit on the roof, in this case a pair of Newpowa 180W ones that some other folks have had success with. I may also add the ability for more ground-standing panels in future, via a plug in the rear of the van.
Wave your phone around all you like, the only real way to get better mobile signal in the middle of nowhere is more gain on your antenna, and that means two things - a bigger antenna, and having it outside the giant metal box that is the van body.
I chose to install a Peplink Mobility 42G, which, while pricey, has decent reviews and appears to be an actual antenna rather than a circuit board in a plastic housing like some of the cheaper options, including multiple antennas for different LTE bands, as well as WiFi and GPS ones in case you want those too. It'll be hooked up to a Mikrotik LTE wAP router that I used to run the workshop off before I started paying Comcast too much money for Real Internet.
Installation here is rather easy comparatively:
- Cut the hole in the roof with a hole saw, prime and paint
- Place butyl rubber under the antenna around the hole, thread its cables through and place it on the roof
- Secure it from underneath with the giant nut that fits around the stem
- Run a bead of silicone around the outside of it once it's secured in place
An initial speed test of it seemed to look good, but it'll be hard to judge truly how well this performs versus my phone until I take the van for its first trip into the Rockies.