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Solving the Limited Van Roof Real Estate Dilemma

Solving the Limited Van Roof Real Estate Dilemma

Van Roof Real Estate

One thing we learned early on was that we only had so much space available on the roof.  You’d think a long length Ford Transit has an almost infinite amount of space on top, but it has less than you think.  Due to the aerodynamic curve upward from the windshield, less space exists on top than inside the van. This means that everything you want to do on top of the van has limited space.  My buddy Daniel asked us very early on in our planning how we wanted to use our “roof real estate” and the phrase really stuck for us.

Van roofs have all sorts of layout options and we all must decide how to prioritize that space. 

This is entry two in the van conversion log. If you missed entry 1, you can find it here!

What Goes on the Roof vs Can Go on the Roof

What goes on a van roof and what can go on a van roof are two completely different questions.  Common items that use roof real estate include: fan(s), solar panel(s), rocket box(es), skylight window(s), a deck, surf boards, etc. 

What it comes down to is: what is the best use of limited space for you and your power needs vs outdoor activities.  Do you need more solar power than space for outdoor gear?  Is more light inside the van a priority?  Do you have more gear and less charging capabilities?

What Are We Prioritizing in our Roof Real Estate?

Our roof real estate needed to include three main things.  First, after experiencing extremely poor ventilation in our last van, we needed a fan.  For real.  Moisture control is important in a van and a fan on the roof is one of the best ways of achieving some level of it. 

Second, we needed solar.  While we love disconnecting for a week here and a week there, for the long term, we need a sustainable power source.  Because we are two people, we need a decent, but not decadent amount of solar wattage. 

Third, we wanted to have the option of a roof deck.  We enjoyed the idea of sitting on the roof to drink our morning coffee and yerba mate.  Practically, this would also give us better access to clean the solar panels as well.

Where Does the Fan Fit into the Roof Real Estate?

One of the first items we purchased for Polysprout was our fan.  We’d seen enough reviews by that point that we knew with certainty which fan we wanted.  That was the MaxxAir Fan Deluxe with the remote.  C’mon, I’m 5’2”.  I need a damn remote or I’d drive Karma nuts every time I wanted to adjust the fan speed!

Why the MaxxAir Fan?  From everything we read, it worked the best, remained reliable, wasn’t super loud, and we could have it open in the rain. 

Where we placed the 14×14 inch hole in the roof had to be determined from inside the van.  In the Ford Transit 148 wheelbase, we had three options of where to put our fan based on the roof support beams that we could not cut through.  That meant that we could put the fan in the front near the slider door, in the middle (and need extra side supports because the space between beams is more than 18 inches), or in the back in a very tight space over the bed.  We chose to put it the fan in the back of the van over our bed.  Why?  Because we generally need it to be cool to sleep and we figured most of the time spent in the van would be when we’re sleeping. 

The Solar Panel Puzzle

Ok, so we’ve decided we need between 350-500 watts of solar based on online calculators like this one.  Now we have two dilemmas: what company do we buy solar panels from and what size panels do we buy that fit in the roof real estate?  Really, a third and forth question exists as well: where will we put the fan to not add shading to the panels and how will the panels fit with wherever we place the fan. 

Having already decided to place the fan over the bed, that meant that we had a limited amount of space between the front of the fan and where the van curved down toward the windshield to place our solar panel(s).

After a lot of online research we discovered there were four main companies that made solar panels: Renogy, Newpowa, EcoWorthy, HQST.  Countless blog posts and reviews later, we landed on Newpowa, although Renogy came in a close second.  We also decided that we would buy directly from the company verses buying from a third party like Amazon.  Why?  Because if anything went wrong, mostly in the initial shipping, NewPowa had a great reputation for their customer service if you went direct.  All of the companies seemed to have second rate customer service if purchased through a third party.

Once we decided on NewPowa, we had to figure out how many watts that we could fit into the space we had.  Since I did not have the energy to learn a 3D modeling program, we got a tablet of graph paper, a ruler, and a few highlighters to view our options.

How to Map Van Roof Real Estate without a 3D Program

We got two ladders and climbed up the van to get some measurements.  While we planned on getting a roof rack, we just used the actual roof dimensions for this exercise.  After climbing down, we drew the roof dimensions to scale on the graph paper.

We went on NewPowa’s website and looked at the dimensions of various panels and combinations of panels.  The ones that looked the most promising, we wrote down.  On a separate loose page of graph paper, we draw the panels to the same scale as the roof area.  We gave it a highlight around the edges and wrote which panel it was. 

Now, came the fun part.  We placed the fan where we wanted it and we tried as many combinations of solar panels as we could think of to get to our target solar wattage.  This is definitely a low-tech method of determining what to do with your van roof real estate, but it worked just fine.

A Few Combinations of the Graph Paper Maps

This is entry two in the van conversion log. If you missed entry 1, you can find it here!

There is a limited amount of space on a van roof.  How will you use your van roof real estate?  We're opting for solar panels, a Maxxair fan, and a deck.