Roof Rack & Patio

Early on in the build process I began investigating ways to “get up on that” seemingly vast rooptop that a sprinter van has. I consulted the forums, and was pretty quickly disheartened to find out that an aluminum fabricated rack, with mounts for solar panels and an opening for the roof fan, could cost upwards of $5,000 CDN. No thanks!

The solar panel mounting method using aluminum unistrut and stock roof rails, w/ cheap fasteners, is holding up extremely well. Well now, how about a more robust version of that for people to stand on?

This entire build cost less than $200, including the cedar decking for the patio area, excluding the stock roof rails, Thule and solar shower. Using 1-5/8″ aluminum unistrut, elevator bolts, and spring nuts, we’re gonna get it on!

From the ground up

You need stock roof rails. They are $270 from the factory and worth every penny!

Eurocampers sells roof rail fasteners, but delivery to Canada is a pain, so I made my own using 5/16″, 1″ elevator bolts and with the sides ground off. You’ll need some nylon nuts and washers to match the bolts. Four crossbars equals 8 attachment points. Way cheaper than the fasteners from Mercedes ($$).

To avoid the rails resting on the van roof itself, we need to boost up the height using 2″ sections of the 1-5/8″ unistrut, herein known as the ‘feet’. I had some strut left over from the propane install, which was handy. Chop off 8 of these puppies and file down the pointy bits!

The crossbar is the next layer of this sandwich, channel facing the sky. Eye-to-eye, the roof rails are 52″ apart. Unistrut comes in 10′ (120″) lengths, cut two in half, leaving four 60″ sections. The surplus rail (8″) overhangs the left side of the van, outside the roof box, to mount the solar shower. Perfect! Spring nuts and 1/4″, 3/4″ long bolts with washers are used to secure these sections to the unistrut “feet”.

5, 5.5″ wide 72″ cedar boards make the patio surface. Cedar has naturally antibacterial properties, does not require staining, resistant to warping, and SMELLS SOOO GOOD. The boards came in 12 foot lengths, and the shop chopped them in half for me. I think that math checks out to 72″.

The ‘strut makes securing very easy. We countersunk room for a 1.5″ fender washer, then drilled through the centre to yield way for a 2’ long, 1/4 stainless bolt.

The bolts thread into spring washers placed in the strut, which easily slide along the length for adjustment. I found that loosely attaching all of the spring nut, and sliding it in from the side of the rack, made for easy installation.

Tropical hats mandatory for install phase

To evenly space, I used a two scrap 1/2 cuts of plywood on each end, tighten bolts, and voila! To finish, a $5 black gate handle makes a nice assist with getting up/down, and a section of rubber matting, backed with 3M two sided tape, serves as an intermediate step onto the patio.

Reflections

Length: It would be nice to have an extra foot on the boards, making the patio 7″ long instead of 6″, if you can live with the extra cost/waste of having a 5″ scrap of wood with each board length.

Squishy: There is a soft spot in the roof just past the rear door seam/joint, which is tempts users to place their foot when getting up, and the rubber step also helps a suggestion with this issue. The additional length would provide coverage of this zone, and possibly room for an extra friend up top!

Shower Mounting: It turns out that you won’t need the front unistrut bar to extend beyond the roof rail, due to ABS pipe being sold in 6′ lengths, and with the end caps in place, you are left with about 5.5′. The front bar sticks out, but not like a sore thumb, and I am a bit tired of tinkering, so mine stays as is!

Spec Sheet & Supplies

(Download a high quality printable pdf here)

2 replies
  1. Mike Sheppard
    Mike Sheppard says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I was thinking there had to be a nice (and cheaper) alternative to Aluminess. This looks fantastic! I had considered wood, but didn’t have any idea how to build the base and was nervous about maintenance and logevity of the wood.

    Aluminum Unistrut seems to be significantly cheaper up in Canada. I was quoted $60 per 10′ beam of 1 5/8″ in Portland, OR that you paid $20 for. I assume that I really want to use aluminum and not go for the cheaper $24 galvanized ones I can get from Home Depot? Still a huge savings over a full Aluminiess rack.

    I assume that you used the 1 5/8″ feet because you happened to have them, but using 13/16″ feet like you use for your solar panels would work fine for the deck feet? Or is it nice to have your deck/crossbeams a little higher for some reason?

    Is there a good reason not to use a single bolt from the roof rails, up through the feet and into the bottom of the cross beam? Is it stronger using 2 bolts? Did you do it the same way on your solar panel cross beams with the shorter feet?

    What sort of wood treatment did you put on the cedar? How long have you had them up there, and what sort of maintenance have you done on it? I love the look and smell of cedar too, but living in the Pacific NW, I’m concerned about the wood lasting. We used a marine grade sealant on our back porch that I’m thinking might be a good option for the wood.

    Thanks again for sharing your build with all the details! This is super helpful to the rest of us. I can’t wait to get started!

    Reply
    • sjacklin
      sjacklin says:

      Mike!

      You’re not the first person i’ve mislead about the aluminium unistrut… sorry! It turns out that i definitely have galv steel unistrut throughout my entire van. Using 1″ 5/8 was primarily because the thickness of metal, I believe by standard its double thickness, but you also get a little extra clearance which helps with clearing debris and cleaning underneath.

      Regarding the use of a single bolt. It’s not a bad idea! The local fasteners shop here were limited in the length department unfortunately. If you can find the right length of elevator bolt to make it work – get after it!! With the solar panels, I definitely used a single bolt as this unistrut is much lower profile.

      Lets talk about our wood. At the lumber store, the fella heard what I was trying to do and first showed us the pressure treated timber with some form of sealant/treatment on top… I think the boards were cheap but the sealant was about $100 for the can, yikes! Then he unveiled the cedar, no contest. The quality of the boards was so much higher, and even though they might only last for a few years, the lesser cost in tandem with not having to deal with any icky treatment stuff sold em right away. We’re 9 months in and the boards have lost a bit of colour but still look like they are in great shape!

      Hopefully the above helps. Fire any more questions away!!

      Reply

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