Minivans and small RVs are ideal for 12V power systems and lend themselves to DIY installations. A solar installation on a minivan is an excellent way for solar enthusiasts to learn more about solar power and get to know the pros and cons of living off-grid on solar.
Most vehicles already have 12V power systems installed to power the starter battery, and many 100W 12V (8.33 A) solar panels are available on the market. The decision is to go with rigid, flexible, fixed, or portable solar panels to suit the needs of your minivan lifestyle.
The alternator on the minivan’s engine is designed to maintain the charge in the vehicle’s starter battery, but it can also be used to charge the solar battery bank when the vehicle is underway.
The most crucial factor in deciding how much power you will need to generate and store is to power your minivan appliances and electrical devices. The shape of the minivan and amount of roof space will also help to determine whether you need to have:
- Rigid solar panels
- Flexible solar panels
- Fixed, sliding, or folding solar panels
- Portable solar panels
- Mono Vs. Polycrystalline solar panels
- Larger alternator charger
- Solar Charge Controller
- Dedicated battery bank
- Inverter for AC power
Let’s consider all these factors when planning to install solar energy on your minivan.
How Much Power On A Minivan Is Needed?
Minivan installations are typically 400W or 800W solar arrays that generate 2000W to 4000W of solar power per day, assuming 5 hours of solar charging at maximum efficiency. A battery bank of four 100Ah 12V Deep Cycle batteries or two 100Ah 12V Lithium-ion batteries is also required.
Four 100Ah 12V flooded deep cycle batteries can store 4,800W of power but can only be discharged to 50% state of charge; thus, 2,400W of DC power is available.
Only two 100Ah 12V Lithium-ion batteries will give you the same energy storage and availability as they can be discharged to almost 0% SOC.
How Many Solar Panels Will Fit On The Roof Of A Minivan?
Most minivans will be able to accommodate four solar panels on the roof of the vehicle. The panels will either be installed on a fixed roof rack or stuck onto the surface of the roof. Additional solar panels may require folding or sliding systems to accommodate them.
To get 400W of solar energy, you will need four 100W 12V solar panels wired to the solar charge controller. Consider buying a monocrystalline solar panel as they are more efficient than polycrystalline and generate more Watts per square foot of solar panel surface.
Determine what size roof space you have available on your minivan and whether you want to mount a solar roof rack that will increase the minivan’s fuel consumption or if you wish to apply flexible solar panels directly to the roof of the minivan.
Flexible solar panels can be glued directly to a contoured roof and will not increase the minivans coefficient of drag as much as a roof rack and thus not have such an adverse effect on the fuel consumption.
Most minivans will easily fit four 100W 12V solar panels on the roof, but you must consider higher output 12V solar panels for larger arrays.
You can even opt for 24V solar panels, but you must accommodate stepping down the voltage via an MPPT charge controller.
Portable Solar Power Systems For Minivans
An excellent option for minivan power systems is investing in a portable power station that can be recharged from AC mains, the vehicle’s alternator via a cigarette lighter outlet, or portable solar panels.
The advantage of this system is that it allows you to take the power system with you when you sell the minivan or use another vehicle. Jackery Solar Generators come in a range of Watt outputs from 240W, 300W, 500W, 1000W, and1500W.
The Jackery Power Station comes with foldable easy to set up 100W solar panels that are plug-and-play accessories to recharge the battery bank.
- Jackery Solar Generator 160 (60W solar panel) costs $320
- Jackery Solar Generator 240 (60W solar panel) costs $400
- Jackery Solar Generator 300 (100W solar panel) costs $600
- Jackery Solar Generator 500 (100W solar panel) costs $830
- Jackery Solar Generator 1000 (2x100W solar panels) costs $1650
- Jackery Solar Generator 1500 (4x100W solar panels) costs $2900
With as little as four hours of sunlight, the Jackery 1500 can be recharged, supply 1534 Wh of power via an 1800 W pure sine wave inverter, and cope with surging demand of 3600 W.
The Jackery 1500 has three AC 120V outlets, a 60W USB-C charger port, a quick charge 3.0 port3, a USB-A port, and a 12V car charger port. The device will be able to power lights, power tools, microwaves, refrigerators, and other more significant power demands.
Other brands of portable solar power stations are available in the market and should also be considered:
These portable solar power systems have fast become a favorite of the off-grid adventure community. No installation is required, and there is no space needed on the vehicle’s roof to install the solar panel.
The system can be removed from the vehicle and deployed at a campsite or picnic spot without having the vehicle nearby. The system can also be removed from the vehicle when selling the vehicle.
What Can I Run On A 400W Solar Panel System?
A solar array of 400W will conservatively produce 1600W of power during five hours of productive solar radiation. This will require a solar charge controller to charge a 100Ah 12V lithium-ion battery to provide 1200Wh (100Ah x 12V = 1200Wh) of stored energy per day.
A pure sine-wave inverter will enable you to convert the 1200W of DC power to 1000W of AC output, taking conversion losses into account. With 1000W of AC power at your disposal, you will be able to:
- Power lights for 75 hours
- Recharge a laptop eight times
- Run a mini-fridge for 17 hours
- Watch TV for 13 hours
- Power an electric grill for 50 minutes
Check the back of your electrical devices and appliances for their power consumption in Watt on the information label and divide this number into 1000W to see how many hours you can run the device.
Installed Vs. Portable Solar Power For A Minivan
Portable power stations with foldable and easy-to-store or deploy solar panels are highly rated by the off-grid community. Whether they are Van Lifers, Camping or RV enthusiasts, Boon Dockers, Cruisers, or mobile tradespeople, the popularity of portable power stations is snowballing.
Solar power installation in mobile off-grid applications requires that you permanently fix the solar panels on the vehicle where they will receive direct sunlight. Reducing the amount of roof space for storage and increasing the vehicle’s wind resistance thus negatively impact fuel consumption.
The installation and wiring of a solar system will require you to purchase the solar panels, wiring, charge controller, battery bank, and inverter and power distribution outlets separately and install them yourself.
All the components must be correctly sized and wired to ensure that the system is efficient and safe. It would seem that the best solution for Minivan campers the portable power station would be the best option.