A solar panel on your campervan is a great way to provide yourself with a power source wherever you are. You can travel the world without fear of running your batteries flat and be a little bit more self sufficient. This in turn allows you the freedom to stay almost anywhere and not need to plug into the national grid.
With just 100 watts of solar power you can run a 12v compressor fridge, charge all your portable devices (laptops, mobile phones, tablets etc.), power lights and run the van stereo without the need for an electric hook up. (EHU)
You might decide that you’d like a little extra power and install a 150 watt or 200 watt panel but the chances are, you just don’t need it.
I own an unconverted Mazda Bongo with fold up seats in the back. Some of you might have sliding rear seats or a rear kitchen unit but the process is very much the same. It will only be different if you have a full side conversion in your van, in which case this guide might not be best for you… although the same principle applies with regards to wiring.
Where to find a solar panel kit for your Bongo?
I purchased a kit from Solar Camper Solutions in Devon. Roger was very helpful in answering any questions I had and the kit arrived next day with everything I needed to get the job done. I installed the panel and charge controller in under 2 hours and managed to document the process. So I’d like to share this with you in this step by step guide.
You can also purchase all the components separately. The only thing that you won’t find easily is the roof mounting brackets which will need to be made up specifically for this job. This is why I decided to buy the kit from Solar Camper Solutions.
The solar panel is mounted to the existing roof rack holes in the AFT. If buying the kit from Solar Camper Solutions then you will need to select the correct roof type so that you have the correct mounting brackets. They provide brackets for both the old style AFT or the new style which has a bump at the back. I have the old style as shown here:
If you already have a roof rack on your Bongo then you can still fit a panel by sandwiching the mount between the roof and the rack.
The solar panel
Rigid panels are said to perform better than the flat panels as they don’t overheat. This is because they allow cool air to flow underneath the panel. Solar panels are more efficient when cool.
Here are the two types of panel available
Bear in mind that it is easier to hide the cabling with the rigid panel as there is a void underneath the panel once it’s installed.
The charge controller (MPPT)
The maximum power point transfer (MPPT) controller is a small unit that controls the amount of power sent to charger the battery. There are many different types of controllers on the market so it’s a good idea reading into the differences before making a purchase.
I went for a Victron 75/15 as is is small and has bluetooth built in. This way I could hind the unit behind a side panel in the van and access the unit via my smart phone.
Victron 75/15 – pictured above can handle up to 220W 12V solar power (75V/15A)
How to install a solar panel on an unconverted Mazda Bongo – Step-by-step guide
For this guide I’m going into detail for a tidy permanent install on the van. This involves drilling a small hole in the ATF (fibreglass roof) and running the cables behind the side panels inside the Bongo.
Step One – Check you have everything you need along with the correct tools
If you have purchased a kit, check you have all the correct components. You’ll need a solar panel, charge controller, roof fixing brackets (inc. bolts) and two sets of cabling. One set of cables should have a fuse in line which is connected between the leisure battery and the charge controller. The other cable will go from the solar panel to the charge controller and have the correct connections for the solar panel.
As for tools you will need a spanner or socket set, a drill with a 6mm drill bit, some black electrical tape and a little bit of silicone sealant.
Step Two – Locate panel installation point
You’ll need to check that the panel and roof fixings all line up to the correct place on your roof. Firstly attach the fixings to the panel and ensure they are sure and tight. With the roof in the closed position, use a ladder to lift the panel into place to ensure the holes line up nicely with the roof rack mounting points. Be careful not to scratch the roof with the solar panel. You can use a soft blanket to help manoeuvre the panel.
The panel should have soft sponge strips down the underside of the panel frame. These help the panel grip to the roof and prevent any damage to the fibreglass. It does however make it a little difficult to move the panel around whilst installing.
Step Three – Drill a hole in the roof
You’ll need to get this correct to ensure the hole lines up in the back void, behind the canopy or compartment of the roof. Aim for the centre of the sides of the roof and about 25 – 30cm from the back of the roof.
The panel will fit over the hole by about 5cm. A 6mm drill bit should be used to drill the hole.
Now you can feed the cable through the hole and into the space behind the tent. Feed all of the cable leaving a small amount of slack between the panel and the hole.
Now is a good time to seal the hole with some transparent silicone sealant. Don’t worry about a perfect seal as if any water does get through here it is only going into a void anyway. No water will be able to get into the van.
Step Four – Secure the solar panel
Attach the cables to the panel with the specially designed clip. You should feel a click once the cables are correctly inserted. The solar panel can now be secured in place and bolted to the roof. Check this is nice and firmly fixed. You might see a slight flex in the panel which is absolutely fine.
Step Five – Cable run one
Now that the cable has been fed through the roof it’s time to work it into the van. I pulled the rubber grommet free and pushed the cable into the grommet, then into the hole in the roof.
This grommet is located on the drivers side and has a number of other cables running into it.
The cable can then be located from inside the van. On the rear pilar (drivers side) you will see a small plastic cover. If you remove this and wiggle the cable you should be able to grab it and push it to one side so that it can be fed down the side of the pilar behind the cover.
You can wiggle the cable until it can be reached beside the curtain rail. I didn’t remove the plastic panel for this part.
I used the electrical tape to bind the solar cable to the other cables and used a cable tie to attach along the black rail you can see on the left in the picture above.
Once you have the cable pulled all the way through it’s time to feed it behind the side panels in the van. Again, I didn’t remove the panels, I just popped the top poppers off. This can be done quite easily. Just grab the top section on one of the panels and give it a little tug and it should come free.
Once you have the cable pushed down behind the panel you can just pop it back on with a gentle push.
Now repeat the same process with the next panel. This is where you can place the charge controller. The cable you have should be long enough to reach the section next to the rear heater matrix.
You can leave this panel loose for now as we need to feed the cable from the leisure battery now.
Don’t connect the solar panel to the charge controller just yet as you might damage it! Wait until the battery is plugged in first.
Step 6 – Cable run two
Now it’s time to link up the leisure battery to the charge controller. It’s best to start from the battery and work your way back.
There are two routes you could take but I’m going to show you the route through the bulkhead behind the coolant header tank. The other option is on the drivers side where most of the electrical cabling goes through the bulkhead.
Here is the rubber grommet behind the coolant header tank.
Here is an image of my leisure battery. You can see the positive (red) cable and negative (black) cable have been attached to the battery. It is better to attach these after you have completed the cable run to avoid a shock!
Once you have pushed a few centimetres of cable through the grommet, you can go round the the cabin and pull the rest of the cable through. You will need to remove the glovebox to reach the cable. Here is an image of where it will come through.
Now it’s time to feed the cable towards the centre console. I fed the cable behind the cubby hole and up towards the gear leaver. For this part you will need to remove the centre console cover.
Now feed the cable up and over the centre console. You can run it along the existing cable that is there.
And down the back of the centre console to run behind the drivers seat.
From here it should be easy enough to feed the cable behind the middle panel and pull it up from the inside.
Now it’s time to connect the controller.
Step 7 – Connecting the charge controller
Connect the leisure battery first. Match the positive and negative terminals together. This is important as you will damage the unit if done incorrectly. Positive to positive, negative to negative.
I then simply wrapped the unit in a little bubble wrap and placed it behind the panel. The panel was then popped back on.
Now you can connect to the device with your smart phone. You will need to download the app from the Apple Store or Google Play Store.
Once installed you should be able to search and connect to your device via bluetooth.
Don’t worry if your readings are only showing 1W and something like 0.2A. This is probably because the battery is fully charged and nothing is drawing power.
You will find that once you are running a fridge or another higher power item that the stats will change.
This pretty much completes the installation. If you’d like to avoid drilling a hole in the roof then you can simply run the cable backwards along the roof and tuck it under the rubber seal in the middle of the roof. It doesn’t look as nice but if you ever decide to sell the van separately from the panel you won’t have the job of having to seal the hole again.
Please take a read of my other posts about the Bongo here: https://travelvixta.com/2021/05/07/how-to-go-off-grid-in-your-mazda-bongo-or-any-other-camper-van/
I’ve owned my Bongo for about 3 years now and love the experience. I’ve been working on little bits and pieces for quite some time and always happy to share experiences. Please feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll respond asap.