How to Choose Your Van's Electrical: A Stroll Down Electric Avenue
No matter what your dream of vanlife entails at some point you'll probably want to add an external power source. Whether you want to have air conditioning and an induction cook-top or just want to keep your cellphone charged there's a solution to your power needs. However, unless you're an electrician this will be totally unfamiliar ground and even the simplest of tasks can seem very daunting.
While decisions about your electrical setup are important they're not impossible. This blog will take you through some of the decision making process and try to explain many of the common options that vanlifers use and hopefully get you one step closer to getting you powered up.
Before we go on, I want to point out that I am no expert. Please do your own further research before you make any concrete decisions.
HOW MUCH POWER DO I NEED?
First let's figure out how to 'size' your system. This may be hard to do when you're in the planning stages, but write down all the things you'll want in your home that will need electricity. Be sure to include anything that you're going to build in like heaters, roof-vents, pumps, or lights.
Next you'll have to do a little bit of detective work. You need to find how many Watts of power everything uses. If you have the item this information is usually on the data plate or sticker on the cord, if you don't have the items or can't find the info on it, look at the manufacturers website to find this information. You don't need to be spot on, this is only a rough estimate, even if you can only find similar items to the ones you plan to purchase you'll be fine.
Next, you'll have to estimate how many hours per day you'll be running these items, again you don't have to be accurate, but if you have to guess always overshoot. Some days our fan or our heater may be on nearly the entire day, and it's these power heavy days you'll want to prepare for.
For the next part there are mathematical equations to figure out how much power a device will use over a day, but there's also the internet! So, let's cheat and use the internet to figure all that out for us!
First off go to this website and fill in your information and add up all results from the 'energy consumed per day' column. Added together this will give you an idea of how much juice you'll go through in a typical day in Kilowatt hours. That format doesn't do much for us, but now go to this website. Enter the number you got from adding up your items, enter 12 in the volts field (Your battery in your system will most likely be 12 volts) and this will give you your daily use in Amp hours (Ah). Keep this number handy when moving forward.
One of the most common options to power your rig is, of course, solar. Vanlife and solar just seem to go together, but it's not your only choice. Before we dive into solar here are some alternatives you can choose from.
Small compact gas powered generators are one of the easiest ways to get strong consistent power when ever you need it. Some models weigh as little as 45 lbs (20kg) and can run for up to nine hours on one tank of gas. The power you get is enough to run small AC units and you can either plug your devices into the generators power ports or wire it directly to a simple interior electrical system, but generators do have some major drawbacks.
They have to be run outside so unless you have a place to mount it on the outside of your rig you'll have to keep it inside with you when not in use, along with the fuel to run it. It is loud and might take away from your and others enjoyment of nature, plus it's a dead give away that someone is living in the vehicle if you're a person who wants to keep it stealthy.
-produces large amount of power for size
-can run many high draw systems that other options can't
-requires its own fuel source
-loud and produces exhaust
-has to be run outside
These heavy duty battery packs are like small self contained power systems that you can use anywhere anytime without the noise of a generator. Charge it at home before you go, plug them into your rigs 12V adapter while you drive to charge up, or even hook it up to a portable solar panel, most models have an indicator that will tell you how full your battery is. As well, most systems come with multiple ways to get at that sweet juice inside with multiple USB ports, 12 volt 'cigarette' adapters, and even 120 volt plugs. With a good battery pack you can definitely keep your devices charged, run most 12 volt appliances (vent fan and lights) and even use some power tools for a bit in a pinch. One of the best features with most units is the inclusion of jumper cables for your van, just in case.
-portable, so you can take the fun with you
-get power to and from unit in a variety of ways
-easy to operate
-systems can't be too complicated
We all know what solar is. A series of photovoltaic cells usually hooked up to a battery bank to store excess power for later consumption. This is one of the most popular ways that vanlifers choose to meet their power needs. While the other options above are dependant on make and model and will only have small differences there's a lot of subtle choices when it comes to solar. You'll want to know what panels you want to use, what batteries, and whether or not you need other hardware.
Rigid v Flexible v Portable
All solar panels are measured in Watts, the more Watts of solar you have the more power you will bring in and the quicker you can charge your batteries. Keep in mind that when a solar panel says it's 100W, for example, that means that under ideal conditions that panel can produce 100 usable Watts of electricity in an hour. Ideal conditions are rare, but it doesn't mean that panels are garbage at the first sign of a cloud, it just means that their efficiency drops.
These are the panels that most people picture when they think of solar panels. Their heavy aluminum frame and clear Plexiglas surface help protect the sensitive solar cells within. Because of this many rigid panels have warranties of 20 years or more. While they may last a long time they are large, bulky, and can require a lot of work to attach to your roof. You can attach panels directly to your roof, but many vanlifers attach them to roof racks, even ones that tilt so you maximize the amount of solar you get.
For the most part, portable panels or suitcase kits are a great medium ground between mounting either types of panel. Usually fold-able for easy storage you simply set this up in the Sun to start producing power. Many models come with everything you need to hook up to devices or a (sometimes included) power bank. These systems are great if your power needs are on the low side or you don't want to or can't permanently install panels on your rig. On the downside this is another option that just takes up space when not in use plus, you may find yourself in some places where setting up a fold-able solar panel isn't convenient, in a pinch you can set some of these up in your front seat, if you can park facing the sun that is.
While the solar industry as a whole is ever changing, no part of it changes more rapidly than
flexible solar panels. A few years ago flexi panels were something to use only if you had to because of weight issues or ease of install. The rate that they converted solar energy into electricity was laughably different, but the same can't be said now, with both rigid and flexi performing about the same. While flexi panels are easier to install because of their low weight, they can be attached with heavy duty adhesives, it should be noted that for the most part this lack of weight comes from the lack of protection. Both panels cost the same, but warranties on flexi panels are only around five years, meaning you have to be extra vigilant against damage to your panels.
Lead Acid v Lithium
OK, so you're going to make your own electricity, but where are you going to put it? Deep cycle batteries store your electrical power for use at a later time. All batteries that you'll be looking at have some things in common.
AMP HOURS- Batteries capacity is usually measured in amp hours (Ah) a battery that says that it has 100 amp hours, when fully charged, should be able to run a device that uses 1 amp of power for 100 hours, a 100 amp device for 1 hour, a 20 amp device for 5 hours, and so on.
VOLTAGE- Understanding Voltage is critical to understanding your batteries health. Put basically, when batteries are full their voltage stays stable, when you draw power from it that causes the batteries voltage to then drop. Although batteries are designed to be drained and refilled multiple times lowering your batteries voltage too much or keeping it drained may cause poor performance in the future. How much depends on what type of battery you have.
TYPES OF BATTERIES
This term covers multiple types of batteries but there's really only two types that you need to worry about. Avoid any type of battery that says it's 'Flooded' as these batteries must regularly be topped up with electrolyte fluid and they off gas dangerous fumes and are best avoided for use in vanlife.
Valve Regulated Lead Acid Batteries recycle the fluid that flooded style batteries leak creating a closed system that doesn't need maintenance. It should be noted that all batteries have the potential to release some gasses and should never be kept in a closed off compartment. The following 2 batteries are examples of VRLA.
Absorbed Glass Mat use a fine fibreglass mesh between lead plates to store and release energy. They are the most cost effective battery but are susceptible to being damaged by repeatedly being drained. Most vanlifers, myself included, don't let our systems go below 50% (and even that is pushing into the danger zone) which means that if you take that number you came up with at the start of this blog that you'll want twice that amount plus another 25 to 30% on top of that meaning your shelling out money for capacity you'll never use.
Gel Batteries use a thick gel to keep you powered. They are more expensive than AGMs, but do tend to last longer and be more tolerant of being depleted. That being said you'll still need to oversize your system for your power needs.
These are the Cadillac of batteries and are the envy of anyone who doesn't have them. They are extremely expensive but you get what you pay for. Lithium batteries weigh much less compared to lead-acid, and due to them having much more tolerance for being discharged (80 to 90%) they will last for much longer. If you have the money up front Lithiums will end up costing around the same as buying and then re-buying AGM or Gel batteries.
CHARGE CONTROLLERS, ISOLATORS, & INVERTERS, OH MY!
Even when you decide on the size of a solar setup it's not as simple as just grabbing some wire and attaching your panels to your batteries. You'll often here about the three items below when people talk about their electrical set up. While only one of them is really
Solar panels are dumb and greedy. If they're in the sun they will produce energy and will keep feeding it down into your battery bank, even when your batteries are full, which can cause damage. Charge controllers act as the brain of your system. By monitoring the voltage of your batteries the charge controller knows when to turn the juice on or off.
There are two different types of Charge Controllers PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) and MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking). PWM's are the grand-pappy of charge controllers and are basically just fancy on/off switches, while MPPTs constantly monitor your panels and your batteries ensuring that the maximum amount of power is delivered to your power bank. No matter what type you get charge controllers are vital to any solar setup.
Another smart switch, this one optional, goes between your car battery and the ones in your system. When you drive your engine produces loads of extra energy and the isolator allows some of that extra juice to flow into your house batteries. It also protects your car battery keeps separated from your system so that you don't have to worry about draining your starter battery and get stuck in the middle of nowhere. This little gizmo is great to have especially if you live in Canada where the sunshine, particularly in the winter, might not be as strong as you'd like it to be.
As you know most of the electronics that vanlifers tow around with them are12V, but what if you want something with a little more oomph? That's where you'd want an inverter. These puppies change 12V power into 120V meaning that you can now use household appliances in your van. (Although most of these will be big draws on your batteries.) We not only have a small Eco-friendly bar fridge hooked to ours but also a power bar so that we can easily charge a lot of our devices at the same time. These are measured in again Watts, from the mid hundreds to the high thousands which one you pick will depend on the amount of high draw devices you're bringing with you. If you don't plan on having any devices like this than the inverter isn't necessary! They are fairly easy to add later to a system if you leave room to mount one.
Choosing your power options isn't hard or complicated, but explaining it to someone can make it seem like it is. Luckily when shopping for solar set-ups many companies offer kits with different panel size and power output. These are a great place to start as all the different parts are meant to work with one another. Batteries are harder to shop for. While you may find some good prices online the cost of shipping can add hundreds of dollars to the price. If you can find a local dealer you may save money by picking them up yourself even if you pay more than you would online. I hope this article helped make thinking about your builds electrical less of a headache!
Next in this series we'll look into the basics of putting your electrical system together and how to avoid some common mistakes. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below, and if you haven't joined Vanlife Ontario on Facebook or Instagram you're missing a great community with tons of friendly people who would love to share their experiences with you!