Our plan to self-install solar was a good one. We planned to mail the solar supplies to a friend’s house, then courtesy park for the install using his garage and tools. As it turns out, our awesome friends Ben and Emily live on an Army Base, with plentiful restrictions that foiled our plans. Our Plan B was a trailer/rv park just outside the base in Sierra Vista.
This RV Park might have been the dodgiest place we have ever stayed. Plenty of the single-wide mobile homes appeared abandoned. The gravel surface was covered with a goat-head like plant that produced painful, spiky stickers. The only benefit to this place was that nobody minded me doing a full solar install while I was there. Plenty of higher-grade RV parks have strict rules against maintenance of any kind, or even washing your RV. If you ever need management to stay out of your way during an install, this is the place!
Our schedule placed us there over the weekend. We arrived Friday, and I picked up the panels and some tools from Ben that night. Having a good plan, I only pulled out the install instructions and gave them a glance that night. Saturday was our Big Install Day, where I would try and get as much done as possible. I also squeezed in a trip to the hardware store, where I bought the cheapest 8 foot ladder I could buy.
We had three 135 watt panels to install, each shipped in it’s own box. The smaller additional box held everything else. The AMSolar people did a great job packing everything, and had included plenty of extras that made the install nice and easy. Crimp connectors, wire, heat-shrink tubing, and wire labels were all included in nicely labeled bags.
According to plan, the first step was to mount the panels on the roof. Using the sawhorses I borrowed, I pulled out each panel to install the rocker feet. The instructions were clear and easy. Each rocker foot had the 3M VHB (that’s Very High Bond) tape pre-applied. Before working with each panel, I taped one of the packaging cardboard pieces over the front. It was a sunny day, and I wanted to keep the panels from generating much electricity. For the first panel, I mounted the feet, then climbed up the ladder and set the panel on the roof. It fit nicely, and gave me some confidence that this whole crazy thing would work.
The rocker feet sold by AMSolar (and included with the panel kits I ordered) were perfect for an Airstream roof install. The feet have a flat bottom where the VHB tape bonds with the roof. Three mounting holes provide a few height options, and a screw handle attaches the rocker foot to the mounting bracket that you install on the corner of each panel. The ‘rocker’ part of the foot is that the angle can change, allowing the panel to be mounted not entirely parallel to the surface of the roof. For a curved roof, this allows the foot to securely mount to the panel AND to the roof surface. Optional tilt bars allow easy tilting of the panels if you desire a better angle, and can be easily used by detaching the panels from the rocket foot and secured to the tilt bar at the desired angle. I’m not a panel-tilter, but it is a very nice option if you are.
Jess joined me outside to help me as much as possible. Despite much of the work being kind of a one-man job, the panel mounting was a perfect time for some extra help. I began to attach the UV-safe wire to the panels, route it on the roof over to the fridge vent, and cut it to just a bit longer than I thought I’d need. I tried to melt the shrink-wrap tubing using my wife’s 1800 watt hair dryer, but it just wasn’t hot enough. A quick trip to the hardware store yielded a small butane torch which managed to do a good-enough job. The AMSolar included instructions were also helpful here, helping me cut and strip the wires to the right length to attach them to the connectors mounted on each panel.
We began mounting the panels, first by marking the position of each foot. We then shifted the panel enough to clean the roof where the pad would attach. I used rubbing alcohol and a paper towel, and some elbow grease. We cleaned a generous size to make placement a little easier. The ladder I had was not one of the cool ones that you can climb up on both sides, so I was the only one on the ladder to mount the panels. After moving the panel into position, I propped up one end of the panel with two of the cardboard corners that came in the packaging of each panel. These held the panels high enough for me to peel the plastic off the VHB tape on those two feet, gently remove the cardboard supports, and then lower the feet onto the roof in the desired place. I then moved the ladder to the other end of the panel, and repeated the process.
The rocker feet from AMSolar have three holes you can use. I experimented a bit with the first panel, and decided that the lowest setting gave me the clearance I needed to route the wires underneath. Being as low as possible would minimize the effect and force of the wind the panels would experience. During my purchase, AMSolar offered to sell me feet that were taller and would allow me to mount the panels to be flat on top despite the curved surface of the Airstream roof. I declined, as I wanted the panels to be angled slightly to follow the curve of the roof and keep the profile low.
At this point, I should mention a mounting option used by Dan of Malimish Airstream. Dan purchased a second set of rocker feet for each panel, and mounted the L shaped feet back to back at each point. This provided twice the surface area of VHB mounting tape with minimal fuss and nearly no additional work. Had I known/thought about his mounting option I would have done it. Overkill? Maybe, but inexpensive and easy.
I mounted all three panels with wires attached. Before the project was over, I used Dicor Lap Sealant to seal around the edges (and screw holes!) of each rocker foot. I should note that the picture above doesn’t show the full lap sealant application, as I also covered the top of the foot to cover the spot where the tape can be seen through the screw holes. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I’ll cover that later. The next step of the project is wiring the panels into the combiner box.