Caravan-Roof-Solar-Panels

Where’s my solar panel gone?

Article from 4WDing Australia.

A few weeks back we returned from a truly amazing 4WD and camping trip on the south coast of WA. We had a brilliant time, and found some spectacular camp sites, 4WD tracks and local attractions. However, we had a few electrical issues on both our camper trailer and Dmax which were a pain at the time.

When we got home though, I found our Lifestyle Reconn R2 wasn’t charging from the solar panels, which it had been the entire trip (as that’s what kept us limping along due to the alternator charge not working). I didn’t think too much about it as the Enerdrive DCDC kept popping the breaker for alternator charge and I assumed it might have been related.

Instead, I got our awesome mobile auto electrician out and gave him a list of things to diagnose and fix, and a couple of new things to install. He spent the better part of a day doing what I’d asked (on both the camper and Isuzu Dmax), and just mentioned to me at the end of the day that the solar panel cable was damaged on the roof, and that he’d fixed it and had a hard time to getting access to the panel.

It wasn’t until a few days later, when I was trying to see what size panels we had for an upgrade down the track that I realised something was very wrong. We only had one panel, and the other was missing! Where’s my other solar panel gone?

I sent our auto electrician a message, asking how many panels where on the roof when he worked on it, and he promptly replied with 1! My first thought was that someone had pried it off and stolen it until I remembered I took a drone shot of the camper trailer the night before we left to come home, and both panels were in place. The solar was also working, as I recall checking how many watts were going into the batteries early that morning.

Camper trailer solar

It came off while we were driving

The only explanation then, which is not unlikely at all, is that the panel broke off somewhere between Albany and Perth on the way home, and snapped the cables which stopped the solar working. I didn’t notice any noises, or see anything happen, but given where they are mounted you never would anyway.

I have no idea what happened to the panel, and I dearly hope it flicked off the road and out of harms way (and perhaps someone has scored a nice, free, undamaged panel). However, it could have easily killed someone, or done some nasty damage to a vehicle, or caused an accident. I haven’t heard anything, and hope it didn’t wreak havoc!

About the solar panel mounting

From the factory, Lifestyle supply one 120W panel on their Reconn R2 Hybrid Campers. The original owners purchased it like this, and installed a second, identical panel but with a different mounting method. I knew this, as they passed the information on and there was a detailed post on Facebook about how they installed it, and when.

They purchased the usual plastic solar panel brackets that thousands of people use. These particular ones were from Kogan, and you can see them here. They are a pretty standard solar panel mounting bracket, and you can get them from BCF and a heap of other stores.

They then followed the Sikaflex instructions (which you can read here), and glued the mounts to the roof of the camper trailer. The cables were then connected to the other solar panel, and the Enerdrive DCDC unit took care of the rest. The panel had been mounted for nearly two years, with a significant number of km’s under its belt prior to letting go.

Now, I do want to make it very clear that this post is done with the best intentions, and I’m not trying to shame anyone or point out mistakes but just to prevent this from happening again. I honestly believe the original owners installed the panel in a way that thousands of others do, but for a number of reasons this one let go.

Solar panels on a Caravan Roof

Why did the solar panel come off?

Of course, I wanted to know why the panel broke off, so I spent a bit of time looking at it, and thinking about it all. Looking at the Sikaflex on the roof, you can clearly see that its been cleanly torn away. There is no missing Sikaflex at all, its literally sheered off. Now, I have a number of theories, and I’m sure they all contributed to the solar panel flying off on our way home.

Forward air flow

When you look at the way that both panels were originally installed, the major difference is what would happen to the air flow as you drive along. The installation done by Lifestyle is using aluminium angle at the front and rear of the solar panel. This physically blocks any air flow from going under the panel in a forward/reverse direction, which is a good idea, in my opinion.

The panels are mounted high enough from the roof for good heat dissipation, but it means that at 100km/h air is not constantly trying to get under the panel, and lift it off. The second panel (not installed by Lifestyle) used the Kogan solar panel corners and supports, which allow a huge amount of air to go under the panel when you are driving along, and I’m positive would be constantly trying to rip the panel off.

Both panels were mounted with about 50 – 60mm of clearance, so well and truly enough to allow air to get under and pry against it.

Lifestyle Camper Trailer

Roof design

The second issue is that the Reconn R2 roof is not very solid. By that, I mean that the top is made from thin metal (1mm I believe) which flexes a lot. You can push down in areas and see it move up and down. It’s also not entirely flat due to the way the different sheets of metal are joined.

When you mount a rigid panel and brackets onto a roof that flexes up and down, and that isn’t completely flat, you will end up with some taking more of the load than others. You’d think that the Sikaflex would overcome this, but only if the right quantities are put in under each bracket to make it sit nice and flat. 

Either way, a soft and wavy roof isn’t going to help things.

I also wonder whether the roof flexes at all each time you push it open and closed, which would stress the Sikaflex over time. I’m told the structure is only 25 x 50mm aluminium RHS, which is likely to twist a bit each time.

Reconn R2 roof

Incompatible bonding materials or incorrect preparation

The fact that there is no Sikaflex missing from the roof suggests to me that it never bonded properly to the plastic mounts in the first place. If you’ve ever tried to scrape silicon off something, you’ll know it doesn’t come off easily, and when it does you usually end up with some on one piece, and some on the other. 

There would be nothing on the solar panel brackets, as its cleanly ripped off. I don’t know if Sikaflex is not compatible with some plastics, but there are so many different types these days that it is entirely possible.

I also don’t know whether the plastic mounts were ‘roughed up’ prior to installation. This is required to give the Sikaflex something to bite into, rather than a flat, smooth surface. Given the patterns you see in the Sikaflex, I don’t think it was done.

Sikaflex solar panels

Limited sikaflex

Looking above, there doesn’t appear to be a huge amount of Sikaflex used on each bracket. Now, I’ve had my fair share of experience with silicone and Sikaflex, and know that you don’t need much to create an insanely strong bond, but I feel there could have been a bit more applied to each bracket. 

No fixings

Of course, if there were some rivets or other fixings also holding the panel down, it probably would never have come off. The OEM installation uses both Sikaflex (or silicone) and rivets, and its rock solid, and this is a good fail safe.

Of course, the whole reason for going down this path in the first place is so you don’t need to drill holes in your roof, but it does make you feel better about the panel’s security.

Thunder solar panel

We never inspected it

Even with the camper roof down, its well above my eye level, and without climbing on a ladder you’d never see what’s up. In the past I had a brief look at the roof, but never inspected the way the panels were mounted. I didn’t ever think that they could be a disaster waiting to happen.

Camper roof solar

Check your roof mounted solar panels

So, what’s the purpose of this post? It’s to remind people that solar panels can, and do come off caravan and camper trailer roofs. 

Do me a favour and grab yourself a ladder, and check your panels out. Make sure they are mounted properly, that nothing has torn or moved so you don’t end up like us! Are your solar panels secure enough on the roof?

Solar panel bracket

Solar upgrade options

So, we now have a Hypercamper with a 120W panel on the roof, and its not enough to keep up with our 82L fridge and other accessories. We made do up north recently with folding solar panels, which are a good alternative, but overall a pain in the backside to deal with.

I’d much rather fixed panels that you never have to touch, so we need to plan an upgrade. I could just purchase another Thunder 120W panel, and mount it again (differently though!), or I’m toying with the idea of removing the other panel and mounting a couple of bigger ones on the roof. 

We will eventually go down the path of Lithium batteries, and I hate doing things twice, so it will be done well the first time. If we add too much more weight to the roof, I’ll have to go down the path of stronger gas struts, or actuators to lift the roof. With the two 120W panels it was OK, but any more and you’d have issues. Decisions decisions.

Overall

So, we live and learn. We’ve thrown a few hundred bucks away in the solar panel that came off, had to pay for an auto electrician and could have caused an extremely bad accident to occur. The next panels that are mounted will be done so that nothing will move them, ever. 

The most important thing for us is to share this as a learning opportunity for everyone out there, as there’s a lot of Caravan and Camper roof mounted solar panels today. If you are going down the path of a Caravan Solar Panel Installation, do it so even a cyclone won’t take it off, and regularly check it!

Have you ever had a panel come off? What’s the best way of mounting them?

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Comments 13

  1. I had a folding 120W panel fitted to roof bars on the PJ which flew off after a triple road train passed in the opposite direction. The panel punched a hole in the front roof of the caravan causing over $3000 damage so even though it was repaired through insurance the cost of the replacement panel ( now 250W) was not covered and the excess made it an expensive exercise.
    Needless to say the new panel is overly secure.

  2. Well written and informative. Also explains why i saw a solar panel on the roadside between Wilcannia and white cliffs recently.
    Austrack Hybrid.

  3. Had the same thing happen. Used “Gorilla” tape as it is highly recommended. Thin flexible panel taped down, seemed very secure but did not count on the Aussie sun making the glue as soft as KY.
    Second trip in summer and the panel ripped off during the mid day heat.
    Lesson learned. If it ain’t bolted down you will loose it. But what can you do when the roof is 1mm thick aluminium and no way to permanently fix anything to the surface?

    1. Steven L
      Hello Steven. Simple answer don’t fit solar panels to the roof of your camper trailer. Just because you see them fitted to a properly designed and built caravan so they don’t come off doesn’t mean you “auto strap solar panels” to your flimsy unsuitable roof. On this forum people are generally drive 4 wheel drives and don’t think there is other road users in smaller vehicles or even motorcycles. I drive a Landcruiser regularly with a Bushtracker in tow with solar panels that will NEVER depart that roof. However I also regularly ride a motorcycle. About 6-12 months ago a motorcyclist was innocently riding between the Gold Coast and Brisbane and a large ladder departed the racks on a 4wd tradie ute. He desperately avoided the large ladder coming at him at high speed, un-alerted, however lost control and ended up under an on coming car and died. How many times do you see ladders on tradie’s utes with one dodgy strap on the front and rear. How about all the tradies out there put at least 2 separate serviceable straps on the front and one on the back of their ladders, so in the event one strap breaks on the front of the ladder you are not going to kill someone behind you. The applies to other roof loaded items like surfboards and canoes boats etc. I smile when the cops throw the book at people who carry stuff in trailers and utes either not strapped down with the attitude “I know boats, too bad if my crap comes out and kills someone”

  4. Well you said it
    “The OEM installation uses both Sikaflex (or silicone) and rivets, and its rock solid, and this is a good fail safe.”
    The second one didn’t. Says it all most probably.
    And:
    “In the past I had a brief look at the roof, but never inspected the way the panels were mounted. “
    Not good enough when someone else (unknown to you) installed additional items. It’s yours, make sure it all works and is secure. It might be your family following that panel flying off the roof.

  5. Hello Arron
    I have followed your blogs for some time now as I too have (had since sold) a D Max and camper trailer. I fitted flexible light weight solar panels (supplied by solar4rvs.com.au) to the roof top of my camper. I went with the flexible panels due to the weight (3kgs for flexible v’s 20 kg’s approximately for the glass panels.) The 3 flexible panels are each 135 watt (total 405 watt) and feed two AGM 175 AH batteries via a Redarc 30amp Battery Management system. This is a plug and play system and simple to install. The panels are fixed to the Bundutec roof top by aluminum strips at the front and double sided tape as per the supplier’s spec’s. Believe me it is secure! But I do take your point on checking the panels regularly. Just see the the u-tube clips of roof tops / solar panels coming loose while travelling the highways, its frightening. I could upload photos of my installation but this messaging system doesn’t provide for that.
    I have since purchased a second hand Bushtracker caravan and are in the process of refurbishing it ( a good lock down project!!). The electrical system is to be upgraded to lithium and flexible panels. $$$$$$ but worth it in the long run. Significantly reduced weight and helps keep it within the GTM.
    Thank you for your blogs as I have found them very interesting and can relate to them. Safe travels
    Regards Bernard

  6. I also noticed only 3 pop rivets joining the panel to the angle iron pop rivets are hollow so there should have been more rivets to allow for deterioration of the rivets

  7. Im a fan and have 2 x160w folding solar panels, yes bulky, but i can park the car and camper in the shade and just run the panels out into the sun.
    I can also plug them into the car or camper or anything else very easily as there not fixed, much more easier to steal though, each to their own as there are pros and cons with every setup

  8. Hi sorry to read about your bad luck but some body messt up for got the screws and stainless steel one at that. My solar panels have been on my Jayco poptop for many many years now with no problems home made brackets stuck down with selleys armour flex and then screwed also with stainless steel screws and anybody who has had anything to do with poptops knows that they are a very thin fiberglass sheet,
    I check them from time to time when I wash down the roof of my poptop and check on the conduction of the sealer to make sure I got no leaks coming and everything is all ok
    But then again I also do a bit of work for a caravan repair center north of Melbourne and I got to tell you one see’s all sorts of repairs that leave one wondering what the hell ??
    I looked at the marks on your roof and had they been screwed down as well the panel may still be there as for the plastic mounts that are common to see used they have marks on them to drill out and put screws through them the mounts are quite good to use have used them me self at times but with stichy stuff and screws

  9. Hi Guys
    I have worked as a foreman/ site manager in the commercial building industry for over 45 years, and seen a lot of waterproofing failures. There are many different silicones out there and buying cheaper items won’t always work, I have seen failures between waterproof membranes around widow when certain silicones got wet, there was a chemical reaction and failure. There are some silicones that are not UV safe especially clear, although I have recently seen these now say they are OK ?
    It is important to clean surface and get right product, there are great info sheets from all the top companies so do not use handyman cheap ones for a job like this.
    I have been 4WD for 50 years and always use a bit of silicon on all my fixings as I tighten them never lost a thing in all that time. fix it properly once and you won’t be stuck somewhere without help.

  10. Well this is interesting.We also lost a panel in WA, between Perth and Geraldton, ironically also driving D max. We lost it off a caravan, I will not name the brand. The vehicle behind us called us on the radio and as luck would have it, we were on the same channel. It was an extremely windy day and we were sitting on around 85kph. The panel missed them and was swept into the bush. The wiring was secured later in the day and a local electrician installed a new one for us in Broome. He doesn’t normally do caravans but as a member of our family he did it for us. He was gobsmacked at the way the panel had ripped out of the aluminum angle plates, held in by 3 small tech screws each end. Totally inadequate, in his view. On getting on his ladder I was able to see the tops of many caravans and almost without exception the panel fixing the same. On going to google I saw where a family of 3 was killed in a car accident allegedly as a result of a panel coming loose in Tasmania. In my view the industry needs to have a look at this matter and the fixings on panels should be the subject of a recall, it’s that serious. The industry needs to take a good hard look at this. Its preventable and it won’t happen unless people are made aware and agitate for change.

  11. A little tip from my own experience of mounting solar panels to a roof rack; don’t forget about cross winds. I use alu angle bolted to the rack and the panels on all four sides after my initial install (alu angle front and rear only) came loose during a freeway drive involving a very stiff cross wind. And always always always use a few extra bolts as a fail safe.

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