Partly to do with keeping costs down and partly to do with wanting to do as much of our vanbuild ourselves as possible, we opted to build our own DIY Sprinter roof rack.
So in this blog post we’ll be sharing with you step by step instructions on how we did just that. Plus providing you with a list of all the tools and materials you’ll need.
DIY Sprinter Roof Rack
There are lots of different roof rack options for camper van conversions, most of which are pretty damn expensive. But all we needed was a simple and sturdy roof rack system on which to mount solar panels.
Whilst we love the idea of roof decks, that coupled with adding a fixed ladder was just additional weight that we didn’t have the allowance for. Plus we wanted to maximise our renewal energy capability, so it made sense to use more space for solar panels.
Not only did our DIY Sprinter roof rack work out so much cheaper, the system also allowed us complete flexibility on where exactly to fix our solar panels and install our roof vents.
Homemade Roof Rack
As with most things during our van conversion, it took us a long time to figure out how to do it. And even longer to source all the different bits and pieces that we needed.
Thankfully it was however relatively quick and straightforward to put together once we had everything. So hopefully we can save you a lot of time and head scratching with the information in this homemade roof rack blog post.
The material we used for the Sprinter roof rack rails that run along the length of the van and are fixed through the roof gutters down each side, is Unistrut. It’s basically a galvanized steel channel with slotted holes through the bottom for securing it in place.
For our LWB Mercedes Sprinter roof rack we needed two 41x41x2.5mm lengths of 3000mm unistrut channel.
It’s widely available, we ordered ours from Ebay – here’s the link.
Then for the mounting structure for the solar panels, i.e. the cross beams, we used aluminum angle. Compared to the steel unistrut, aluminium angle is so much lighter.
We needed 6 pieces of 40x40x3mm in 1400mm lengths to build this part of the camper van roof rack for our 3 solar panels.
Again aluminum angle is widely available, here’s the Ebay link we ordered ours from.
DIY Roof Rack Materials List
So that’s the metal that made up the frame of our homemade roof rack, but of course we also needed a whole bunch of fixtures and fittings, so here the material list in full.
- Unistrut Channels
- Unistrut End Caps (x4)
- Aluminium Angle
- Mastic Sealing Strip
- Sika 210 Primer
- M6 x 20mm Penny Washers
- Hexagonal M6 x 40mm Bolts
- M6 Nyloc Nuts
- Two Hole Angle Brackets (40x40mm)
- Unistrut M6 Channel Nuts
- Solar Panel Cable Gland Box
- Mini Heat gun
- Trim tools
P.S. These are affiliate links, so if you buy through them we may earn a small commission from the seller. It’s at no extra cost to you so is a lovely way to say thanks for the free info we’re providing here.
Sprinter Roof Rack Installation
Part 1 – Unistrut Roof Rack Bars
Okay, now you know what materials you need to build our DIY roof rack, we’ll go you through each step of how to make a roof rack. First up let’s get the DIY camper roof rack rails on.
1. First and foremost you’re going to want to give your van roof a good clean. If it’s a second hand vehicle it likely won’t have been cleaned for a while. And who knows when it’ll be cleaned next once you have your solar panels mounted up there. Be sure to treat any rust if you have any at this stage of building a roof rack.
2. Lay the unistrut along the length of the van close to the gutter channel. Use it as a guide to mark out which plugs you will take out, also marking which corresponding holes in the unistrut you will be using.
3. It’s likely not all of them will meet up, so aim for one close to each and a few spaced out along the unistrut roof rack bar. We used 6 on each side.
4. The easiest way to get the plugs out is using a heat gun and trim tools, with someone on inside the van to push them from there too. You’ll need to do this before you install your ceiling insulation of course so that you have access.
5. Make sure you completely clean off any leftover adhesive from around each hole. Then prepare the surface around holes with a good quality primer – we used this one.
6. Next up we stuck two squares of mastic sealing strip over each hole and poked a hole through with a screwdriver.
7. Add a bead of sikaflex around each of the holes you just poked through.
8. Now lift the unistrut roof rack bar into the channel, lining up your markers with the holes.After this run another bead of sikaflex around the hole on top of the unistrut.
9. Put your penny washer on your bolt, push through the hole, place the nyloc nut on the inside & tighten up. Make sure you are using stainless steel fixings otherwise they will rust. And also tidy up an excess sealant that has squeezed out.
10. Finally pop your end caps on the end of the unistrut roof rack bars and you are done with the DIY roof rack mounts part of the install.
Part 2 – DIY Aluminium Roof Rack Install
The next phase is fitting the actual mounting structure for the solar panels. First off you’ll need to attach the solar panels to the solar panel racks. Then take them up onto the van roof to secure them to the DIY roof rack mounts you already have fixed in place.
1. If you need to, cut the aluminum angle to the correct length. Because it’s so lightweight, this is easy enough to do just using a sharp hacksaw.
2. Our solar panel frames had holes in them, but they weren’t in the best place, so we added some better placed ones. Then it was simply a case of lining up where we wanted them to sit on the aluminium angle, marking out the holes that needed drilling and doing just that.
3. Then secure the solar panels to the aluminum angle with a penny washer, nut and bolt and it’s up onto the roof with them. Definitely a two man job. And do be careful where you’re putting your body weight while up installing solar panels on your camper roof.
4. Now to secure the aluminium angle to the unistrut channels using the two hole angle brackets, penny washers, bolts, unistrut channel nuts and nyloc nuts.
5. If you’re installing them quite close together, like ours, you’ll need to connect the solar panels up as you go. So you need to have worked out whether you will be connecting them in series or parallel. And have the cables prepped with connectors ready to join up.
6. Now decide where you want the solar panel cables to feed into the van and cut an appropriate sized hole.
7. File, treat the bare metal edge with hammerite and place a rubber grommet around the hole to prevent the cables from rubbing and becoming damaged. And be sure to thoroughly clean up any metal filings that might have scattered around.
8. Finally feed the cables through the solar cable housing mount into the van. Prime the surface of the van and secure the mount in place with sikaflex.
And that’s it, you and your DIY Sprinter Roof Rack are done!
As with any big job on a van build, especially ones that involve cutting holes through the vehicle sheet metal, ensure you allow yourself plenty of time. And obviously this particular DIY camper roof rack can be done in two parts, on separate days.
While we designed our DIY roof rack for a Mercedes Sprinter van, there’s no reason the same setup wouldn’t work for any flat roof van with lengthways channels running down each side.
As usual, if you have any questions, we’ll do our best to help, just drop us a comment below.
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