This 'Zero Fuel' Electric VW Bus Conversion Features Its Own Rooftop Solar Array

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©. Brett Belan

When the classic style of a '73 VW bus is combined with an electric vehicle conversion and an onboard photovoltaic array, you get an eye-catching family-sized clean transport solution.

Adding solar modules to the top of an electric vehicle (EV) for self-charging isn't quite feasible for mass-production vehicles (yet), but for those willing to do the work on an aftermarket conversion, a DIY solar EV is certainly a viable option, as this project from Brett and Kira Belen illustrates.

This EV conversion project isn't Brett's first, nor is it the Belen's only experience with off-grid solar, but it is the most ambitious, as the ultimate goal will be to travel coast-to-coast, completely on solar electricity. That won't occur until after the next round of upgrades to both the solar array and the battery bank, but the current configuration was sufficient to take the Belens on a 1400-mile roadtrip down the west coast of the US.

Solar Electric VW Bus project

© Brett Belan
The Solar Electric VW Bus project takes advantage of the spacious roof of a 1973 VW Transporter as the platform for mounting a 1.22 kW solar array, complete with a hinged mechanism that can tilt the solar panels at up to a 40% angle, which also creates a sleeping loft underneath when deployed (similar to the way stock VW pop-up campers work). A rooftop frame and aluminum racking system supports four 305 W LG solar panels, and a custom canvas 'tent' enclosure, complete with rear window, is attached directly underneath the solar array.

The battery bank of this EV is currently a set of 12 Trojan T-1275 lead-acid batteries sitting in a custom battery box under the rear bench seat just in front of the rear wheels, and although this electric 'gas tank' only provides a range of up to 50 miles per charge, the choice of lead-acid batteries was a matter of affordability, according to Brett. "For three times the price, I could have installed some lithium iron phosphate batteries, but I'm trying to make a point about the affordability of such a vehicle," he said. It takes a bit longer than a day to fully charge the battery bank (which also depends on the length of the day and the geographical location), and an average day of charging at the Belens' house in Ashland, Oregon is said to produce a range of about 15-20 miles of city driving. The vehicle can also be charged via grid connection, with a full battery recharge taking about two hours and 20 minutes (using two 20 A chargers).

Solar Electric VW Bus project

© Brett Belan
The original EV conversion project set the Belens back about $25,500, including the cost of the bus itself and an interior overhaul, and all of the various electric drive controller and charging system components necessary to create an electric mini-RV. However, the plan is to upgrade in the spring of next year to what they call Phase Two of the solar electric bus project, which will replace the lead-acid battery bank with a 32 kWh lithium iron phosphate battery bank, essentially doubling the onboard storage capacity (and boosting the range per charge to 100 miles) while dropping 500 pounds of weight from the bus. In addition to the new batteries, a new 6 KW folding solar array, made from lighter solar modules, will replace the current array, giving the upgraded vehicle a potential 150 mile solar range per day. The combined costs of upgrading to Phase Two are said to be in the neighborhood of $27,000.

Get the full scoop on the project at Solar Electric VW Bus or the Facebook page.