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Van Build Diary 5.0 : The Roof – and Everything that Requires Cutting It

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

It’s been a bit since we’ve updated you on the van build. While I’ve mentioned to those of you who have subscribed to the blog (if you haven’t and are interested, please click the button above this post) that Marino has been slowly cutting away at the roof, we haven’t really discussed what’s up there, why we’re installing it so early in the game, and why we went with the brands we chose.

the roof of the van with a maxxair fan in the back, and A/C in the middle and another maxxair fan in front. The roof rails are not pictured here
The major components of the roof install - A/C and two vents. . . Roof rails not pictured here (see below)

So, the next five posts in the van build series (including this one) are going to be on that topic and will catch everyone up with where we are in the build process!

5.0 – Figuring out what needs to go where on the roof and timing (the one you’re reading now!)

When Does Everything Need to Go on the Roof?

If you have no idea what you’re installing on your roof – you HAVE TO figure it out ASAP. Why, you may ask?

Because you have to install the items ASAP.

Why, again, you ask? Because you have to make all the cuts into your roof and seal it all back up before you put down the roof bed liner.

Roof bed liner (discussed in more detail in 5.4) is just a really solid extra layer of protection against rust, knicks and scratches. However, the rubber seals frequently used in the installation of everything that goes on the roof, usually require sitting flush to seal.

The rest of the build just becomes easier because you already have installed the roof components you need to connect to the rest of your electric system and you’re just left with that last step of connecting them. You have to do it anyway before you seal your walls and ceiling up. So, it was just easier for us to have that all done right away.

Plus, you can test for water damage before installing too much else in your van that you don't want water getting to and it makes the clean-up, if there is a leak, easier.

So, just do it first. Figure out what you need, order it, install it, roof-line it and you’re good to move on to other parts of your build.

You can be doing other things at the same time as well, like sound and thermal insulation, electric and plumbing. None are mutually exclusive. Just make sure you’re not taking too much on at a time.

Figuring Out What Needs to Go on the Roof?

While there is some variation, you’ll more or less find that most van-lifers have vents, A/C (if they have it), roof rails, and solar in some way, shape, or form installed on their roofs and therefore, have to make the accompanying cuts into the roof. Some also use cell boosters, that require an antenna on the roof, too.


So, I hope you are planning on installing any kind of air ventilation system and I feel confident in saying that EVERY van-dwelling person will strongly, strongly urge you to do that. As I will discuss further in 5.1 of this series, ventilation helps with temperature, moisture, and odor control and general air quality. So, trust them all, you need ventilation.

To get ventilation, you need to cut a hole in your roof.

Marino sitting on the roof of the Sprinter pointing to the 2nd installed Maxxair Fan
Already a pro after installing this second Maxxair fan!


This is a less common feature of many van builds I’ve seen. Still, it is going in our van – mostly for my mom’s sake but also to make everyone’s life easier (5 people in a van generate a lot of heat!). While there are a few models out there that can be mounted inside the van, and I even know of one van-lifer who built his own A/C system and floor-mounted it, we really needed a non-vented A/C that we could direct forward and backwards at the same time.

That means that we would have the most options if we went with a roof A/C. A roof A/C means cutting a hole into your roof.

Again, I promise I'll go into much detail in 5.2 of the roof series.

the A/C unit installed flush against the roof
Ready to get connected and keep us cool during those summer months

Roof Rails

If you plan on having solar, or installing a roof rack or storage compartment on the roof, or creating a deck to lounge on or anything else on your roof, then you HAVE to install roof rails.

Clarification: Roof rails. NOT roof rack. Roof racks install onto the roof rails, as does anything else you want to put up there.

While you’re not cutting holes into your roof (those have been pre-cut by the manufacturer), you are unplugging the seals and resealing the holes again. So, again, with this install there are lots of holes in the roof that you will be opening up and closing.

As I mention in more detail in 5.3, I recommend that if you are ordering directly from the manufacturer, you just get them preinstalled, especially if you have the Sprinter 170-extended. If not, it really isn’t difficult – it’s just that it can be a hassle (again, read 5.3 for more details on our install).

The right roof rail installed on the roof of the Sprinter
These are what your rack, your panels, etc. will attach to.

Cell-Signal Booster or Other Antenna

If you’re planning to boost your cell-signal and use your cell data for internet or some other sort of antenna, it will likely go on your roof.

This means… you’ll need to cut a hole into your roof to pass the wiring through.

Solar Panels

While the panels themselves will go on the roof rack (see more in my upcoming discussion of solar panels – hit the subscribe button if you want alerts to new posts), you will need to install a cable-entry gland into the roof itself.

Guess what this means. . . you’ll be making a small cut into your roof to run the cables through.

a cable entry gland - with entry for two cables
Ours isn't pictured yet. We're still waiting for our Solar Panels and kit to arrive (more on that soon!)

Where Everything Needs to Go

Another great reason to do this part early is it helps to flush out your layout even more. We had to adjust our not-yet-in-existence lighting plans and ventilation placement once we saw the taped-out layout and decided on what we’d be needing on the roof.

The placement of each component is discussed in great detail in the subsequent posts. If you'd like to understand all the considerations that go into placement of fans, the A/C, and other roof-top components (I guess the roof rails are self-explanatory), please stay tuned for the subsequent posts in this series. I go into all the considerations (and you all who've been subscribed and reading know that when I say "detail" I mean "detail"!)

As discussed in more detail in 5.1, we went with two ventilation vans – one toward the front and one toward the back. There are seams in the roof you can’t touch, considerations of shower placement, and, unless you’re building a high roof rack like we are, you’ll want to see how you can place your solar panels between your roof items to maximize solar capacity (we are covering the whole roof in solar, which is why we need a high rack).

The short answer for us is that we have one vent in the back over the main and bunk beds, one vent in the front, between my mom’s bed and the shower and kitchen area, and the A/C in the middle to direct air to both directions. The gland for our solar will be cut toward the back so the wires don’t have to run as far to get to the battery bank.

Internet is unfortunately still a conundrum for us – can’t find anything that works everywhere (the subject of a whole entire future post, I promise). We’re deciding that whatever our solution will be, it will have to be without a hole in the roof because we’re not making that hole just so we can install a device that will only work in 1/3 of the world!

Please stay tuned as we discuss in detail the what, how and why of each component of our roof install. Again, subscribe by clicking on the green button above to get alerts as to new posts and updates!

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