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Mounting solar panels on our curved van roof was one of the more puzzling challenges we faced during our build. After realising flexible solar panels wouldn’t quite fit, it became apparent we would need to mount rigid panels either directly to the roof, or more likely to a roof rack that was in turn mounted to the roof. We needed to design a DIY van roof rack, from cheap materials available from the hardware.
While there are plenty of options for standard cars and SUVs, finding one for a high fiberglass topped conversion van was little more difficult. Especially considering our particular needs and sizing. The next thing that became apparent was that we would need to be able to create a custom roof rack suitable for our vehicle and needs.
As the solar panels were to be a permanent feature of the van, making a roof rack that would be permanently attached to the car wasn’t a problem.
After conducting thorough research (i.e. perusing the web for a couple of hours and trolling YouTube for instructional videos) we still were at a loss for how we were going to construct and install a roof rack.
Thankfully, Charles, the resident family handyman/engineer, dropped by at the perfect time to help us to create our very own DIY custom roof rack, suitable for permanent installation to all vans, even those with a curved fiberglass roof. He helped us design a DIY van roof rack for our specific needs and hopefully we can do the same for you!
First step, establish your needs. Do you want the roof rack to extend the length of the car or only the cab? Do you want the roof rack to be mounted high enough that you can slide something, say a surf board, underneath the rack? Will your roof rack run front to rear, side to side, or both? All of these things must be considered when determining how to design the roof rack. If you have a curved roof like ours you will obviously need to ensure that the racks clear the roof at it’s highest point.
The design itself couldn’t be more simple. Half inch galvanized steel pipes form the bars of the roof rack. Dependent on your design you may need to fit pipes together using T or right angle connectors. The roof bars will connect to the roof with a tee junction, ‘nipples’, short bits of pipe which connect to the junction at one end, and screwed into flanges at the other. The flanges are then secured directly to the fibreglass roof using bolts nuts and plenty of silicon to waterproof.
As we only wanted to mount three rectangular solar panels, our simple design required just two 4 foot roof bars running front to back on either side of the vehicle.
Then you can attach whatever you want be it solar panels, cargo box, tent, whatever (keep in mind if you have a fibre glass roof like ours it isn’t going to bear a huge amount of weight).
Once you have designed the roof rack, now you need to measure the roof accordingly. Measure the roof two or three times to confirm the measurements because once you cut the steel, there is no going back.
Having the right tools is key. There is nothing like getting halfway through your project and realizing you forgot something. Here’s a list of everything we used for our DIY van roof rack:
- Measuring tape
- Electric drill and small drill bit to match holes in flanges (for affixing the roof rack)
- Socket wrench
Roof Rack Materials:
While preparing your tools is important, so is preparing your materials. I cannot tell you the number of times, we started a project only to find out that we did not have all the pieces. For this DIY roof mount, you can find all the materials we used listed below and purchase them online in advance from Home Depot. Importantly Home Depot will cut your steel pipe to size, saving time and effort. (Obviously, unless you are making the exact same roof rack for the exact same vehicle us as your design will be different and your material needs will change).
- 2x – 1/2 in x 4 ft (13mm x 1200mm) Galvanized steel pipes (length will vary based on preferences)
- 4x – 1/2 in x 8 in (13mm X 200mm) Galvanized steel pipes (length will vary based on preferences)
- 4x – Galvanized steel 2 in (13mm x 50mm) nipples (length will vary based on preferences)
- 4x – Galvanized steel tee branches
- 4x – Galvanized steel flanges
- 4x – Galvanized steel caps
- 16 x – Philips round head bolts w/ nuts to secure the flanges
- 12x – 3/4 in (20mm) U-bolts to secure solar panels to roof rack
The construction of the DIY van roof rack itself is easy. Simply screw together the poles with the tees with the flanges and viola! We have drawn together a basic picture of how each supporting piece should look.
If you are extending the roof rack to the front of the van, consider adding a tee bracket in the middle. This will help support the weight instead of one long piece of steel.
Mounting the DIY Van Roof Rack
Next, we need to secure the rack to the vehicle. Attaching the rack permanently to the van is the scariest part of the whole build. Drilling holes into the van is not something you want to get wrong so be sure to measure twice drill once!
Set the assembled rack atop the vehicle. Using a measuring tape move the rack into the desired position. Ensure its sits properly and no further adjustment is required. Once you have double and triple checked your measurements, use a pencil, draw a circle around the flange and in each of the screw holes. Remove each bar of the rack and grab the cordless drill!
Drill a hole slightly smaller than the screw to bolt the flange to the fiberglass roof. Once all holes are drilled, it is now time to mount the roof rack.
This step requires two people. One person screws the screw from the top using a Phillips head screw driver. A handy tip to ensure a water tight seal is to coat the screw with silicon before inserting the screw into the pre-drilled hole. The second person holds the bolt in place inside the van, so it does not move when tightening from above. With the screws fastened tightly, use silicon again to cover the tops of the screws. Repeat this step for each flange.
The Completed DIY Van Roof Rack
With the roof rack complete, you can now mount solar panels or whatever it is you want to attach.
For our solar panels, we used U-bolt to secure them to the round pipe. The “U” cups the bar and is bolted into the solar panel itself. No additional mounts are used or required with this custom DIY van roof rack.
Make sure to tighten the bolts as securely as possible to avoid losing a panel (or a roof) in your overlanding journeys.
Have you had a go at making your own DIY van roof rack? Let us know below!
LOOKING FOR More DIY VAN CONVERSION HELP?
Looking for more DIY conversion inspiration? Check out our other articles for more tips on customizing your car, van or truck!
- How to Install an Awning Without Roof Racks
- DIY Van Conversion: A Beginner’s Guide
- How to Build Your Own Hardwood Floors Using Plywood
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