How Can We Help?

Mounting a Solar Panel to a Ladder Rack

You are here:
< All Topics

The installed solar panel.

Recently on my forum a member named PeaceTara posted that she had a solar power system installed, but she still needed to mount the panel to her roof. When I found out she was in the San Francisco area (which isn’t too far from where I am camped) I invited her to join us and we would install her solar panel for her. She thought that was a good idea, so she joined us last week and we installed her solar panel. When I say “we” I mean Steve (“Soulraven” on the forum) Tara and I. Between Steve and I, we had all the tools we would need and a Honda generator to power them. This blog explains how we did it (of course I am very biased, but if you aren’t on the forum, you should be!).

Steve and Tara Bolting 2x4s to the Solar Panel

Installing the panel on the ladder racks is actually very simple. I bought 8 nuts, bolts washers and lock washers to mount the panel to the plywood—4 per side. The bolts were 5/16 wide and 2 inches long. I made a mistake with their length, they needed to be 2 ½ inches long in order to go through the 1 ½ inch wide 2×4, the aluminum frame and then have room for the lock washer and nut. I bought 2 inch bolts, but we managed to make it work.

Steve and I lifting the panel on the roof.

In the picture above, you can see how I  laid the solar panel upside-down on the ground and laid the 2×4 on the edges where I wanted them. Then I used a 3/8 inch drill bit to drill a hole through the 2×4 and frame. The 2×4 was lined up flush with the outside of the panel, and we drilled the hole 1 inch in from the outside edge. That’s important because you have to leave room to get the nut onto the bolt and turn it. Then it was simple matter of tightening the bolts. We used a socket set and open-end wrench set for that. Both are tools every vandweller should carry because they are so universally useful.


Here I am drilling the hole to mount the panel to the ladder rack. Steve has bad knees, I have a bad arm–between us we are a whole man!

You need to know how long to cut the 2x4s, and there are too many variables for me to answer that. Tara has an extended van, so her van came with 3 ladder racks, so ideally we would have bought a 10 foot 2×4 and then she would have covered the whole roof with plywood if she wanted to add that later. Since we weren’t putting up plywood, we just cut the 2x4s to fit in-between two of the racks. Once the panel was mounted to the 2x4s and ready to go up, Steve and I hoisted them up in place. I like to help people with their solar projects, so I carry an 8 foot step ladder just for that purpose.

Here, Steve is tightening the bolts. My damaged arm won’t let me get them tight enough.

The next step is to bolt the 2x4s to the ladder rack (see picture above). This is easier than it sounds. We used 4 bolts that are 5/16 inch, washers and lock washers to go through the 2×4 and ladder rack. Again I used a 3/8 drill bit to drill through the 2×4 and ladder rack. To make it easy, I climbed up on the roof and drilled down so I could get good leverage. Having good tools really helps and Dewalt makes one of the best drills. It went through it like butter! We did that at all four corners, then tightened up the nuts and bolts and we were done!

This is the bolt through the 2×4 and the ladder rack. The solar panel is mounted in the same way to the 2×4.

Next we had to get the power cord into the van. We both are big believers in the KISS (Keep It Super Simple) principle, so we just ran the cord through the door way and used plastic cable ties to hold it in place. The power cable is very tough, and the weather stripping on the door is flexible enough to conform to the cable so it doesn’t do it any harm. That way we avoided any holes. Tara had already installed everything else so we didn’t need to wire the solar controller. However, like many vans, her house battery was located under the floor, which makes maintaining it very difficult. That greatly increases the chances you simply won’t maintain it and it will fail prematurely. So we moved it from down there up to behind the passenger seat where it is out of the way, safe from flying around in an accident, and also very easy to reach to add water. While we were at it Steve went ahead and rewired everything to make it much neater and mounted the components to the wall so they were more out of harm’s way. She needed more light, and I had an extra 12 volt LED light, so I sold that to her and we mounted and wired it.

The finished installation.

So there you have it, how to mount a solar panel to a ladder rack. Not bad for a couple of old crippled guys! If you have a van, I highly recommend it to you for your solar installation. If you are ever near my camp, you are welcome to stop by and I will help you with whatever project you are working on. Bob


  1. bikerrpm

    That was a great idea,also really like the way you added pix’s so we can see how it was all done!
    thank’s Tom

    • Bob

      Hi bikerrpm, I am a very visual person, you can use words on me till the cows come home (when do the cows come home?)and I probably will still get it wrong. But show me a picture or draw a map/diagram and I can get it. I think there are lots of people like that. Glad it helped! Bob

  2. Tim McDougall

    Nice pics and very detailed. How many watts is the panel and what is its appx weight?

    • Bob

      Hi Tim, that is a 200 watt panel. I’m not sure how much it weighs. I would guess about 30 lbs, but that is just a guess. Because the 2x4s are treated, they are pretty heavy, at least 5 pounds each. So my guess is the whole thing weighed 40-50 lbs. After we hoisted it on the roof a friend came by and suggested we should have just set it up on the back ladder rack and lifted it up and pushed it forward. NOW he tells us!! That would have been easier. Bob

  3. Cedric

    Nice job guys. I wish I lived out there somewhere. I have to mount two panels on my RV and could use your ingenuity. I was wondering about the underside of the panels catching wind on the roads at 65mph. Will this cause any problems with warping or distortion of the solar cells?

    • Bob

      Hi Cedric, if you ever get out here I would be glad to help you install your panels. On an RV the easiest way to mount them is with what is called “Z feet”. They are brackets that are designed to bolt to the bottom of the panel, then be screwed or bolted onto the roof. They literally look like a “Z” but the vertical bar is straight, not angled. To keep the roof water tight you use mastic tape on the bottom of the foot and then use caulking (Dicor is your best choice of a brand) around the foot.
      Some people use a Super Tape from 3M to tape the panels to the roof, and it is supposed to work really well. Sounds a little scary to me, so I have never done it!
      Oddly enough, Solar panels work best when they are cold, so you always want to mount them so they are lifted up off the roof and you can get ventilation underneath to cool them. That’s why you use feet. On Tara’s van we mounted the panel pretty far forward. In my experience when the van speeds up the wind blows up and over the roof and comes back down to strike the roof about 1/2 way back. So by having the panel mounted forward there should be very little air hitting and lifting the panel from underneath, the air should be falling down and hitting the top of the panel about half way back. Remember the panel is fully supported by the 2x4s on its long axis, only it’s short width across is not.
      We tend to think of solar panels as fragile, but really they are not, they are built very tough. I don’t think she will have any problem with it. Bob

  4. Tim McDougall

    Hi Bob. I meant to ask about the time stamp on postings. It is 7:41am here in Arkansas but the posting time is 5 hours in the future. Is there a setting for me to correct this?

    • Bob

      You are right Tim, the time is way off. We must have chosen the wrong time zone when we set it up. When I get a chance, I will look into correcting that. Thanks, Bob

  5. CAE

    The philosophy of life and solar panel installation….you got it all right here. Now if you could just figure out how to get 30mpg out of my Astro, you’d get the Pulitzer prize. 🙂

    • Bob

      Hi CAE, yes, we are your one–stop shopping source! To be honest with you, I had been worried that people wouldn’t like my philosophical musings and would just want the practical stuff. But it turns out I get a lot more comments on the musing than the nuts and bolts. However, after the depression talk I was definitely ready for a change of pace. Problem is, I can do the practical stuff anytime and the philosophy has to come up organically; I can’t do it on demand.
      Hey, if I figure out how to get 30mpg out of your Astro, I think Einstein will roll over in his grave! Bob

  6. cyndi

    I wonder how many happy campers there are out there with solar installs thanks to you et al.
    Is there a place to sign up for my install in Q?
    Counting the days…

    • Steve & Zeke the Mountain Dog

      Cyndi, just show up at the RTR and let us know you want something installed and it will get done, that is if you have the gear there ready to be installed…

      • Bob

        Even if you don’t have it all, we can order it over the web and get it in Qzt. There is a store in Qzt that accepts UPS and FedEx for $1 a package. Plus there are two Solar Stores that will have all the little parts we might need. So if anyone has the money we can order everything we need there. I am really busy that two weeks, but there are so many knowledgeable and helpful people that most things get done. Bob

      • Gypsy108

        Dear Bob…I’m so happy to know that it is possible to rig a solar panel to the ladder rack !!! I recently bought a Nissan 2500 NV (high top) with a ladder rack on top…was thinking to have it removed…but now i am happy it’s there !!! How much does it cost to have you guys do a “van build” ? Should i just pack up my van with all the supplies that you need, and meet up somewhere ? I’ve been watching your videos and i am obsessed now with this life style !!!!! Thank you !!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Bob

      Cyndi, you know I can’t refuse you anything! Whatever you need, if I am able, we will do it for you! I too am counting the days! Bob

  7. Tara

    I’m that peacetara person, and I just want to say THANK YOU to Bob and Steve! they have been absolutely fantastical! I wish I could have stayed longer, but I’m sure I’ll meet up with them again at some point. If you ever get a chance to camp near them, I totally recommend it, they pick beautiful locations, and are very friendly and helpful!
    I showed up with a mess, and left all cleaned up and organized! I owe them massive amounts of thanks! This is the information on the panel itself:
    Max Power: 200W
    Voltage at Peak Power: 21.9V
    Current at Peak Power: 11.8A
    Open Circuit Voltage: 17.8V
    Short Circuit Amperage: 10.97A
    Connectors: MC3
    Dimension: 61 3/4″ X 37 1/2″ X 1 1/2″, or 1571x951x41 mm
    Weight: approx 36 lbs or 16kg

    • Bob

      You are very welcome Tara! It was a pleasure to meet you and be of some service! If anyone is in in Southern Cal, I am in Victorville and ready to help. Bob

    • hitekhomeless (jenn)

      Hi, Tara. I just wanted to jump in and say that it was great meeting you on the mountain. I hope you are having a fantastic time in the great wet north. Cheers, Jenn.


    hey bob, email me your location in victorville.gary

    • Bob

      Hi Gary, I should have thought to post that in the blog post. I will go back and add directions to my camp in the last paragraph. Bob

  9. Steve & Zeke the Mountain Dog

    395 North or South, Mile post 24.5 exactly, go east on the trail for 2 miles and you will find us… North of Adelanto CA…

    • Bob

      Steve is a man of few words. Those are the directions to our camp. We are off 395 between Victorville and Kramer junction. Kramer Junction is a group of businesses (a Pilot Truck Stop and a couple other gas stations and a Burger King) at the intersection of 395 and 58. There are mile markers every 1/2 mile on the road and you want to turn left (Eest) at mile marker 24.5. Bob

  10. hitekhomeless (jenn)

    I’m gonna have to start calling you Solar Bob. You’re too awesome. You have physically helped so many folks install their solar and now you are helping them through your blog.

    • Bob

      Thanks for your kind words Jenn! Did you guys stay at lake Isabella? We considered it but were concerned about the strong winds blowing off the lake. How was it? Bob

      • hitekhomeless(jenn)

        I wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.
        We are still in the LI area. We have only camped directly on the lake a couple of nights. Thankfully, they were calm. We have been camping in the area near the Kern River. I will definitely be coming back to this area… in the shoulder season. It seems like the perfect time to be here. Great weather and empty.

        • Bob

          That’s good to know Jenn. You are amazingly good at finding the best camping spots. Maybe that is why you own the best place on the web to find the best campsites. You owe me for the free plug!! Just kidding, but Jenn and Johnny really do own it and it really is the BEST place on the net to find campsites. Bob

  11. Solar Panels Melbourne

    The solar panel is used as a component to generate electricity. Mounting a solar panel to a ladder rack is easy and not that expensive so it is a great idea for those users who want to use this technique.

  12. roblox generator download

    It’s actually an incredible and valuable item of information. My business is happy that you embraced this useful data about. Please stay all of us well informed this way. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Ross Macintosh

    Thanks for all the practical information.
    With regards to mounting panels to a ladder rack I’d suggest on another install that instead of using wood 2×4’s (that can rot & looks kind-a ugly [sorry I said that!]) that you could use solid PVC lumber. Brands like Azec & Certainteed are sold at building stores and are typically used as exterior trims & to build things like railings or gazebos. The material is solid PVC with uv stabilization and can be cut, bolted & screwed like wood. It is white all the way through and does not need to be painted. If preferred it can be painted.
    Another option would have been to use aluminium angles instead of the lumber. With the panel set between two angles the panel would mount nominally 1.5-inches closer to the ladder rack for a lower profile. Another benefit of using angles is it would likely be easy to include a padlock(s) so the system is more difficult to steal.
    Regards, Ross

    • Bob

      Ross, those are both good ideas!! I’ve installed several systems using the ladder racks and in fact I did use aluminum angle “iron” on one of them. I only use treated wood so it lasts a long time. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I don’t mind the wood. But aluminum is stronger, lighter and lasts forever. Wood is cheaper, plenty strong enough, and easy to work with. The PVC will last forever but not worth the money to me.
      As far as the height goes, I have a friend that used 2x4s and mounted them UNDER the ladder rack which made them even lower than aluminum angle on top. I could do the same by unbolting the U bolts and reversing there position to underneath. It’s not worth the extra effort to me. I don’t think you could do that with angle iron but you could do it with the PVC.
      I’ve never thought about the padlock before, but I’m not sure it helps that much. If someone has time to unbolt the U bolts holding on the 2×4 they have just as much time to cut through the 2x4s or aluminum supporting the panel–or the bolts holding the panel on for that matter.
      But those are good suggestions and I appreciate them! I may switch my next time around or when these 2x4s finally rot.

  14. Mariana

    How do you attach plywood to roof racks? I have a van and I need help with the solar set up.

    • Bob

      Mariana, the easiest way to buy a set of ladder racks that calamp very easily onto the rain gutters of your van. Then you can bolt long arms between the crossbars of the ladder rack. The cheapest way is with pressure treated 2x4s but a lighter way with with Aluminum angle iron.
      Then you bolt the plywood to either the 2x4s or the angle iron. It really is very simple. It puts your roof in shade all day and makes mounting panels very easy. The sun and rain will ear up the plywood pretty fast so marine plywood is best but expensive. Next best is to just paint it really well and finish with a coat of varnish.

  15. Offgridder

    Hello Bob and fellow travelers,
    I will be mounting 2 (and more in the future) 100 watt mono-crystalline solar panels to my E250 van. I am considering two options. 1. gutter-mounted ladder racks. 2. lower profile angle iron or similar. Whichever option I choose it must be able to tilt towards the sun.
    There are pros and cons to each option I am sure. One concern with gutter-mounted ladder racks is that the 4 corner posts are pretty tall and will cast shadows on the solar panels reducing their output. I like the standard (gutter-mounted) ladder racks because I can build on them later to put other things like plumbers pipe for water storage, luggage rack, and I think it would make adding additional solar racks much easier in the future.
    Option #2 is to use angle iron or something with lower profile which will be more stealth but at the same time require me to drill through the roof which I would prefer not to do. What is your take on this and how has it worked for you? I think I will eventually end up with 500 watts of solar as I like to cook and use 23″ tv often.
    Thank you all and hope to see you on the road.

  16. Richard

    The pictures on this post don’t seem to work anymore 🙁 I’d love to have seen better what you did!

  17. Nick

    Love it, too bad don’t have a ladder rack

  18. ELTEC

    Great idea! Let’s go green 🙂

  19. James Messick

    Almost 12 years later and this post is still helping people. I picked up several ideas but most helpful is about running the cable in through the door! I was afraid this would damage the cable but I want a setup that I can move to another vehicle someday and really didn’t want to start drilling holes into my E150. Already been across the US once and ready for my next rip!

  20. ASH Green

    Thank you so much for such an informative piece of information 🙂
    If anyone interested similar one’s have a look here

  21. David Campbell

    Solar panels are interesting. It saves electricity bills. I’ve been thinking of trying solar panels myself.
    Thanks for sharing.

Table of Contents