Our autonomy and comfort depend a lot on the electrical system of our DIY camper van conversion. No power means no fridge, no lights, no smartphone = no Instagram = no #vanlife as we know it 😛 Therefore, we want our electrical system to be safe, reliable and to work from the first time; trial-and-error is not acceptable here.
After two years on the road full time, we’re happy to report that our system works as we planned, nice! Designing the electrical system was one of the most intimidating task of the conversion process and if you’re reading this, you are probably looking for some guidance...
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click a product link and buy anything from the merchant (Amazon, eBay, etc.) we will receive a commission fee. The price you pay remains the same, affiliate link or not.
1- Campervan Electrical System in a Nutshell
In its simplest form, a campervan electrical system isn’t really complicated. It includes a battery bank, loads and charge sources:
Modern “off-the-grid” vans normally charge with solar power, alternator, shore power and can power 12V DC & 120V AC loads:
Makes sense so far, doesn’t it? Here is how all components work together to make a typical electrical system:
Our Wiring Diagram:
Here it is in action:
Our Items List:
|#||Item||Description||Quantity||View on Amazon|
|1||1000W Inverter||Samlex PST-1000-12 PST Pure Sine||1||View|
|2||Remote Control for Inverter||Samlex RC-15A for 600W/1000W Inverter||1||View|
|3||Cable, 2 AWG, 5 ft Black + 5 ft Red||WindyNation||1||View|
|4||Lugs, 2 AWG Cable, 5/16″ Ring||Connect to Terminal Fuse Block and Bus Bar (Pack of 2)||1||View|
|5||Terminal Fuse, 175A||Blue Sea (To protect inverter’s cable)||1||View|
|6||Terminal Fuse Block||Blue Sea (Connects directly on the Bus Bar. Holds the Terminal Fuse)||1||View|
|1||350W Solar||NewPowa 175W Mono Panel||2||View|
|2||Extension Cables, 8 AWG, 15 ft Red + 15 ft Black||With MC4 Connectors||1||View|
|3||Double Cable Entry Gland||For 8 AWG or 10 AWG Cable||1||View|
|4||40A Breaker/Switch, Surface Mount||Between Panels and MPPT Charger||1||View|
|5||MPPT Solar Charger||Victron 100|30 SmartSolar MPPT||1||View|
|6||40A Breaker/Switch, Surface Mount||Between MPPT Charger & Battery||1||View|
|7||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 8 AWG Cable, 5/16″ Ring||Connect to Bus Bar (Pack of 3)||1||View|
|8||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 8 AWG Cable, 1/4″ Ring||Connect to Breakers (Pack of 3)||2||View|
|1||60A Battery-to-Battery Charger (B2B)||Sterling Power BB1260||1||View|
|2||100A Breaker/Switch, Surface Mount||Blue Sea 285-Series||2||View|
|3||Cable, 4 AWG, 15 ft Black + 15ft Red||WindyNation||1||View|
|4||Lugs, 4 AWG Cable, 5/16″ Ring||Connect to Bus Bar (Pack of 2)||1||View|
|5||Lugs, 4 AWG Cable, 1/4″ Ring||Connect to Breakers (Pack of 2)||2||View|
|1||50A Charger||Samlex SEC-1250UL 12V||1||View|
|2||60A Breaker/Switch, Surface Mount||Between Charger and Bus Bar||1||View|
|3||Cable, 8 AWG, 5 ft Black + 5 ft Red||WindyNation||1||View|
|4||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 8 AWG Cable, 1/4 Ring||Connect to Breaker (Pack of 3)||1||View|
|5||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 8 AWG Cable, 5/16″ Ring||Connect to Bus Bar (Pack of 3)||1||View|
|1||Terminal Fuse, 250A||Blue Sea (Catastrophic Fail Safe)||1||View|
|2||Terminal Fuse Block||Blue Sea (Connects directly to battery post. Holds the Terminal Fuse)||1||View|
|3||System Switch||Blue Sea (Main System Switch)||1||View|
|4||Bus Bar (250A, 4 studs)||Blue Sea||2||View|
|5||Cover for Bus Bar (for 250A 4 studs)||Protect the Bus Bar||2||View|
|6||40A Breaker/Switch, Surface Mount||Between Fuse Block and Bus Bar||1||View|
|7||Fuse Block (12 circuits)||Blue Sea (12V Distribution Panel)||1||View|
|8||Fuses Kit||Assorted Fuses (2A 3A 5A 7.5A 10A 15A 20A 25A 30A 35A)||1||View|
|9||Battery Monitor||Victron BMV-712 with BlueTooth||1||View|
|10||Cable, 2/0, 5 ft Black + 5 ft Red||Between battery and Bus Bar||1||View|
|11||Lugs, 2/0 Cable, 3/8″ Ring||Connect to System Switch and Shunt (Pack of 5)||1||View|
|12||Lugs, 2/0 Cable, 5/16″ Ring||Connect to Bus Bar, Terminal Fuse Block and Battery (Pack of 5)||1||View|
|13||Cable, 8 AWG, 5 ft Black + 5 ft Red||Between Bus Bar and Fuse Block||1||View|
|14||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 8 AWG Cable, #10 Ring||Connect to Fuse Block (Pack of 3)||1||View|
|15||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 8 AWG Cable, 1/4″ Ring||Connect to Breaker (Pack of 3)||1||View|
|16||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 8 AWG Cable, 5/16″ Ring||Connect to Bus Bar (Pack of 3)||1||View|
|17||Heat Shrink Tubing Kit (with adhesive)||To protect lug after crimping||1||View|
|1||12 AWG Black/Red Duplex Cable (12/2), Ancor Marine Grade||100 feet||1||View|
|2||14 AWG Black/Red Duplex Cable (14/2), Ancor Marine Grade||100 feet||1||View|
|3||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 12 AWG Cable, #8 Ring||To connect to Fuse Block (25 Pack)||1||View|
|4||Heat Shrink Terminal Ring, 14 AWG Cable, #8 Ring||To connect to Fuse Block (25 Pack)||1||View|
|5||Heat Shrink Butt Connector, Ancor Marine||To connect to Loads (75 Pack Kit)||1||View|
|6||Heat Shrink Disconnect, 10-12 AWG Cable, 1/4″ Tab, Female|
To connect to certain loads (i.e. 12V Sockets) , to make “removable” connections (i.e. Fridge, LEDs) and to connect cable of different gauge together (i.e. LED Dimmer) (25 Pack)
|7||Heat Shrink Disconnect, 10-12 AWG Cable, 1/4″ Tab, Male||1||View|
|8||Heat Shrink Disconnect, 14-16 AWG Cable, 1/4″ Tab, Female||1||View|
|9||Heat Shrink Disconnect, 14-16 AWG Cable, 1/4″ Tab, Male||1||View|
|10||Heat Shrink Disconnect, 18-22 AWG Cable, 1/4″ Tab, Male||1||View|
|11||3M Scotchlok Quick Splice with Gel (14 AWG stranded)||We used that to parallel our LED lights (25 Pack)||1||View|
|12||Split Loom Tubing, 3/8″ diameter 20 feet||To protect wire bundles||1||View|
|13||Split Loom Tubing, 1/2″ diameter 20 feet||To protect wire bundles||1||View|
|14||Split Loom Tubing, 3/4″ diameter 20 feet||To protect wire bundles||1||View|
|15||Nylon Cable Clamps Kit||To secure cable/split-loom to wood||1||View|
|16||Zip Tie Mount with Adhesive||To secure cable/split-loom to metal||1||View|
|17||Nylon Zip Ties Kit||To secure cable/split-loom||1||View|
|18||Rubber Grommet Kit||To protect wire from sharp edge (going through metal hole)||1||View|
8- 12V Loads:
|1||Maxxair 6200K Roof Fan||See our Installation or Review article||1||amzn.to/2qJCbA1|
|2||LED Ceiling Lights||See our Installation and Review article||3||amzn.to/2vpyyVs|
|3||Dimmer for LED (PWM), 12V, Slider||To control intensity of LED lights||1||amzn.to/30dDyak|
|4||Blue Sea 12V Socket||4||amzn.to/2JVPypv|
|5||Shurflo Revolution Water Pump, 3 GPM||See our Installation article||1||amzn.to/2J9NqZQ|
|6||ON/OFF Switch for Water Pump||1||amzn.to/2Oiyhvy|
|7||Webasto Air Top 2000 STC Gasoline Heater||See our Installation article||1||eBay|
|8||Propex HS2000 Propane Heater||See our Installation article||1||eBay|
|9||Novakool R5810 Fridge, 12V only||5.8 cubic feet||1||Campervan-HQ|
|10||Sirocco ii Gimbal Fan, 12V||See our Review article||1||amzn.to/2HKy7HR|
|11||Nature’s Head Composting Toilet||See our Installation or Review article||1||amzn.to/2qJOsEA|
|12||Propane Solenoid Shutoff Valve||See our Propane System Guide||1||eBay|
|13||ON/OFF Switch for Propane Solenoid||See our Propane System Guide||1||amzn.to/2LB5Gjr|
Well, that escalated quickly… If you can’t “read” the wiring diagram above, don’t give up just yet. Keep reading to build your knowledge and work your way up! Be patient, sleep on it; it might takes multiple reads before it all starts to make sense…
2- Battery Bank
Because power from the charge sources is not available at all time, a battery bank is mandatory in every van electrical system. The role of the battery bank is to accumulate energy from the charge sources, store it, then release it to the loads when needed.
2.1- Battery Types
A battery stores energy under chemical form, then convert it to electrical energy when needed. There are many battery types (chemistry) available and each have their pros/cons:
Unless your budget is very critical, we don’t really recommend flooded lead-acid or GEL (because of the maintenance aspect). That brings us to our next topic:
Choosing between AGM or Lithium (LiFePO4) Battery in 2019
When we built our van in 2016 (researching and designing during 2015), AGM was the obvious choice because it was a tried-and-true option (good performances, safe & reliable). Lithium (LiFePO4) batteries were a relatively new thing (in the van/RV world) and we were concerned about reliability & safety (and cost!). Technology advance so let’s see if, 4 years later, our concerns have been addressed:
1- B.M.S. (Battery Management System)
There are a few scenarios where it could be unsafe to operate a LiFePO4 battery:
- Temperature too low / too high;
- Voltage too high;
- Current too high.
To mitigate these scenarios companies like Battle Born Batteries, Trojan, Relion, Victron, now include BMS (Battery Management System) built-in their batteries. The BMS is in charge of watching if parameters (temperature, voltage, current) are within safe range. For example, the BMS will prevent charging the battery if the temperature is too low; it will also regulate the amount of power you can take out of the battery. It makes using a Lithium battery safe.
2- Lithium batteries can't be charged below 32F/0°C (more or less)
That’s quite an issue for us, knowing we use our van for skiing all winter (faroutride.com/winter-vanlife). An AGM battery do better in that department, but still performs better around room temperature; that’s the main reason why we installed our AGM battery inside the van. Because we live full-time in our van, we never let the interior freeze (because food/liquid/comfort) so that solves the issue for us!
Note 1: While LiFePO4 cannot be charged below freezing temperatures, they can still be discharged. So it would be possible to install a 12V heat mat to prevent the battery from freezing…
Note 2: In fact, some brand of Lithium batteries can be charge below 32F/0°C, but at a slower rate. Check your battery specification sheet!
3- AGM vs Lithium Comparison
Let’s compare our actual Rolls AGM battery (210Ah) to a BattleBorn LiFePO4 battery bank (100Ah). What really matter here is the “Actual Capacity Available” (remember that ideally an AGM should not be discharged below 50% of its capacity); so that’s why we compare a 210 AGM to a 100Ah Lithium:
|210Ah AGM||100Ah LITHIUM|
|ACTUAL CAPACITY AVAILABLE||105Ah||100Ah|
|WEIGHT||133.5 lbs||31 lbs|
|TOTAL LIFE CYCLE*||1200||3000|
|COST PER CYCLE||$0.54||$0.32|
For full-time Vanlife (1 full cycle daily), it means an AGM will cost roughly $200 per year to operate and will last 3.5 years; while a Lithium will cost roughly $120 per year to operate and will last 8 years.
Soooo, AGM or Lithium?
If we had to start over (in 2019), we would go for Lithium (LiFePO4). Oh wait… as of June 2019 we just upgraded to Battle Born Lithium batteries (2 x 100Ah)! We LOVE staying up-to-date with technology and we enjoy testing products, so we made the leap 🙂 Our first impressions:
- These things are crazy light weight!
- They reach 100% SOC much faster than the AGM (absorption phase in AGM occurs quite slowly), and keep in mind we made no change to our solar & alternator charging. That means more power, faster. Nice.
- Since we have two batteries in parallel, we can charge up to 100A if we upgrade our b2b charger (right now we have a 60A b2b charger); that could be nice for winter.
- So far so good, highly recommended!*
*Note: We would NOT go for Lithium if our battery bank was installed outside the van (too cold during skiing season).
Quick interruption: Our Opinion About Product Quality
What differentiate the “cheap” products (unbranded, very cheap products on Amazon & eBay) from the “Budget” products:
We took our chance with cheap products on non-critical components (radio unit, inclinometer, electrical connectors when we ran out of the good ones –> we replaced them with good ones afterwards!) and the result is always the same: product doesn’t last long, it’s buggy and has to be replaced soon enough. Even if the low initial cost is very appealing, we will NEVER recommend a cheap product for the electrical system (or else); we’re not rich enough to constantly replace our stuff.
This is our entry-level. To save cost, budget products typically don’t use the best internal components and consequently don’t show the best performance and durability. We recommend products within that category if budget is your priority.
This is our mid-level and most components in our van stand within that range. We don’t mind paying more initially if the product delivers good performances and last in time. We think it’s the best bang for the buck.
This is the “pro-level”. Products within that range deliver the ultimate performances. It’s pricey but for critical components of our electrical system, there’s no price for peace of mind.
OK we're done, thanks for listening!
Not all batteries are made equal! A cheap battery won’t be able to give as much current as a high-quality battery… it is YOUR responsibility to make sure you’re not going overboard, so read the spec sheet! Any reputable brand should publish one for each of its product. Cheap products often don’t publish spec sheet; that a good enough reason not-to buy their products!
Here is an example of how a spec sheet should be (click the image to view the pdf):
2.3- Combining Batteries
While we prefer to use a single battery, batteries can be wired together in parallel or series. In both cases:
- You should always use identical batteries (brand/capacity/age) so they work equally together.
- You should always use identical cables (length/diameter) so they offer the same resistance, ensuring all batteries work equally together.
For example, adding two batteries of 12V/100Ah (50A charge rate / 100A discharge rate) in parallel results in a battery bank of 12V/200Ah (100A charge rate / 200A discharge rate).
For example, adding two batteries of 6V/200Ah in series results in a battery bank of 12V/200Ah.
2.4- Charge Profile
Charging a battery is NOT like filling a car with gas…
- With a car, bringing the fuel gauge up to 100% is all that matters. Then, maintain your car periodically (oil change) and it’ll be running smooth for a long time 🙂
- With a battery, how you bring it up to 100% really matters: you are filling it and doing the maintenance simultaneously!
An adequate charge cycle goes through multiple stages; each stage has specific current/voltage parameters. The combination of these stages is called the charge profile. Different battery chemistry (AGM, Lithium, etc) and different brand (Rolls, Trojan, BattleBorn, etc) requires different charge profile. Why you should care about charge profile:
Lead-Acid (Flooded, Gel, AGM)
Typical Charge Profile
Stage 1: BULK
During that stage, the battery doesn’t offer much resistance to charging. It’s easy for the charger to push energy into the battery so a low voltage results in a large current; in other words most of the energy is transferred during that stage. As the battery charges, it offers more and more resistance; it’s much more difficult for the charger to push energy into the battery. If only bulk stage is used, the battery cannot be fully charged…
Stage 2: ABSORPTION
Near 85% the battery become much more resistant to charging… to keep pushing energy into the battery, the charger raises the voltage. You can clearly observe that on your battery monitor (high voltage, low charging current). It’s kind of like switching to first gear on your car: it’s more powerful, but slower. During that stage, the high voltage results in gassing inside the battery; this gas stirs the electrolytes and helps dissolve the small sulfate crystals. That’s why a proper absorption stage is so important! It prevents hard deposits (sulfuration) and therefore prevents loss of total capacity memory.
Stage 3: FLOAT
The float stage prevent self-discharge and can be maintained indefinitely.
Typical Charge Profile
Lithium batteries don’t suffer from sulfuration, so charging with the wrong charge profile is not as bad as with lead-acid batteries. Charging with the wrong profile could prevent reaching 100% charge, but that won’t hurt the battery in the long term. Good to know: Most Lithium batteries are OK to charge with an AGM profile!
Stage 1: BULK
The bulk stage is terminated when the absorption voltage is reached (around 14.4V).
Stage 2: ABSORPTION
The absorption stage is terminated when current decrease below approximately 5% of the battery capacity (approx. 5A for a 100Ah battery).
Stage 3: FLOAT
Consult the specification sheet of your battery brand/model to find its specific charge profile!
2.5- Discharging Batteries
We’ve just seen how charging a battery impact its life cycle & performance. Discharging a battery has similar implications; let’s see how!
State Of Charge (SOC)
It is defined as “how fully charged” the battery is.
Depth Of Discharge (DOD)
It is defined as “how deep” the battery is discharged. (it’s the opposite of SOC…)
In a typical usage, a battery starts fully charged (100% SOC), then goes down to a certain level (e.g. 80% SOC), back to fully charged (100% SOC). This is defined as a cycle.
A cycle is independent of calendar, so there could be multiple cycles per day or one cycle per week… But typically, a campervan/RV battery cycles once per day because of solar power.
The life span of a battery (how long it will last) is mostly defined by the number of cycles… in a similar way that mileage defines the life cycle of cars.
As a battery ages (cycles), it holds less and less energy. Generally, manufacturers consider that a battery has reached its end of life when it cannot hold more than 70% of its initial capacity (i.e. eventually, a 100Ah battery becomes a 70Ah battery).
It is defined as how fast (current) a battery bank is charged/discharged.
“0.2C Rate” means 20% of the battery bank capacity; “0.5C Rate” means 50% of the battery bank capacity; and so on. For example if the battery bank is comprised of 2 x 100Ah Battle Born Batteries, “0.5C Rate” =0.5 x 200Ah = 100A.
Discharge Current Rate
1- Its Capacity:
A Lithium battery (black curves) is able to deliver pretty much the same amount of energy regardless of how fast it’s being discharged, as opposed to a lead acid (red curves).
2- Its total life cycle:
Discharging a battery more rapidly will reduce its total life cycle (AGM or Lithium).
Depth Of Discharge (D.O.D.)
For full-time Vanlife, a battery will typically sees 365 cycles per year. But keep in mind that while cycle life plays a major role in the life span of the battery, calendar also has an impact as materials (used to chemically store energy) degrade over time. Many factors influence degradation, temperature being one of the most important.
Generally, batteries perform better near room temperature. For example, take electric cars: their range in cold climate is greatly reduced during winter! That’s another reason why we installed our battery bank inside the van; exterior temperature has less impact on our battery that way.
Charging A Frozen Battery
Lead-ACID (Flooded, Gel, AGM)
First of all, unlike water, a battery will not freeze at 32F (0°C). The freezing temperature of the battery depends on the state of charge. As the state of charge in a battery decreases, the electrolyte becomes more like water and the freezing temperature increases. It is very important to make sure your battery stays fully charged in extreme cold weather. If a battery freezes, it can damage the plates and container leading to a potential explosion. A frozen battery must NOT be charged! Consult your battery manual.
As a guideline, this is extracted from our Rolls Battery Manual:
State of Charge
We often hear that a lithium battery cannot be charged below 32F (0°C); In fact, some brand of Lithium batteries can be charge below 32F/0°C, but at a slower rate. Check your battery specification sheet!
Take a look at Trojan Trillium LiFePO4 battery for example:
Good to know: the built-in BMS in high-quality batteries will take care of cutting-off the current if temperature gets too low.
Charging A Battery At High Temperature
Charging a battery at high temperature generally affects its cycle life (lifespan). For example, here is Trojan Trillium Lithium Cycle Life VS Temperature:
3.1- Solar Power
Harvesting power from the sun feels a bit like cheating to us; this is the exciting part of the electrical system! It is free to use, but it is not exactly cheap to setup at first.
First of all, do you really need solar power in your system? If you’re thinking on charging only from the alternator, keep in mind that while the bulk charge is relatively fast, it takes a long time to complete the absorption stage (even if you have a powerful charger). So unless you like to drive A LOT everyday, solar power will ensure you get a full charge and will increase your battery life!
3.1.1- In a Nutshell
For example, here is a screenshot from our Victron solar charge controller (faroutride.com/victron-review). Notice how the voltage/current coming out of the panels are different from the voltage/current going into the battery:
3.1.2- Monocrystalline or Polycrystalline?
Monocrystalline used to be more efficient than polycrystalline, but it’s not so true anymore. The quality of the solar panel (manufacturer) is more important than the type of the panel. Here is a good article if you want to learn more about that: Pros and Cons of Monocrystalline vs Polycrystalline solar panels.
3.1.3- Combining Multiple Panels
Partial shading is not a myth, but unfortunately professional solar installers (or DIYers) seem to ignore that a lot, judging from how solar panels are installed relative to the fans/roof racks… Take the time to read the next section!
3.1.4- Partial Shading
Blocking a single cell from a solar array can completely bring the solar output down to ZERO. That’s right! Bear with us…
Solar Panel Construction
Solar panels are made of multiple solar cells all connected together in series; blocking one of the cell totally kills the output of the solar panel. Think of the old Christmas tree lights: if one of the bulb blew, the entire thing would go off. Meh. Typically we see roof racks or fans creating partial shading (this is totally avoidable!):
What if the solar panel above is part of an array connected in series? The resulting total power is ZERO. See the water analogy below:
Fortunately, modern solar panels have built-in bypass diodes that helps with partial shading. In such solar panel, cells are split in 2 or 3 groups; if one cell is blocked, only the group comprising the blocked cell is “killed”. Other groups bypass the killed group:
Don’t celebrate too fast: even with bypass diodes, a solar array (in series) total power will be considerably reduced:
In the example above:
Total Power Without Partial Shading
Total Power With Partial Shading (Series)
Total Power With Partial Shading (Parallel)
Conclusion on partial shading
And that explains our roof layout:
3.1.5- Panel Orientation
A panel will deliver more current if oriented perpendicular to the sun. On large commercial solar plant, the panels are mounted on a motor-driven device that will optimized the orientation of the panel automatically throughout the day. Obviously there is no such device for a van roof (until when?), but with some out-of-the-box thinking you can build your own system:
We reached out to Ray at Rayoutfitted and he claims his tilt system can increase solar input up to 50% in winter. Pretty good!
Adding a tilt kit will obviously add weight, raise the panel(s) and have a negative impact on fuel consumption. If we were to park for extended period of time at the same place, we might consider a tilt kit. But with our lifestyle we generally move a few times each day, so we personally don’t feel like it’s worth the hassle.
At last, having several panels with dissimilar orientation has a similar effect as partial shading. If you must have dissimilar orientation, consider connecting your panels in parallel.
3.1.6- Solar Charge Controller
MPPT vs PWM
MPPT are more efficient than PWM in cold temperature, partially sunny day and if the voltage of your solar panels is superior to the voltage of your battery bank. However they consume a small amount of power for themselves (it’s almost nothing really) and are more expensive than PWM. The debate rage about the MPPT efficiency over PWM, but it is believed to be around 10%-20% more efficient depending on the conditions.
MPPT VS PWM, What Others Have to Say:
- See Bogart Engineering take on MPPT vs PWM charge controller debate here (see FAQ “C1″)
- MorningStar MPPT vs PWM comparison.
- Victron MPPT vs PWM: Which solar charger to choose?
- Side-to-side, real world testing of MPPT vs PWM charge controller here.
MPPT VS PWM, What We Have to Say:
- We first installed a PWM charge controller (Bogart Engineering) and then upgraded to a MPPT (Victron SmartSolar).
- While we can’t exactly quantify the improvement, we immediately noticed more charging current; we observed 24A with the Victron while the most we got with the Bogart was 16A.
- We also noticed more power earlier in the morning and during overcast weather.
- OK we’re sold to the Victron MPPT!!
Choosing the size of the Charge Controller
All Victron solar charge controllers are denoted by MPPT XXX | XX:
Choosing the size of the charge controller is also covered in our “Victron Review” above 🙂
When driving, the alternator role is to convert mechanical energy (engine) into electrical energy. This electrical energy is delivered to all the vehicle’s electrical components (lights, radio, etc.) and to charge the starter battery as well. It’s possible to “borrow” electrical energy from the alternator to charge the house battery…
Do you need alternator power in your system? It depends:
- If you live full time in your van, we say it’s a must. Energy is a basic need, it’s not cool worrying about running out of it…
- If you take your van for adventures in summer only, you can probably live without it.
- For fall and spring adventures, we highly recommend it as the solar days get shorter and weaker. Alternator power is a good way to quickly go through the bulk charge, then solar power can complete the absorption stage.
- For winter there’s no question about it, our opinion is that you want it.
3.2.1- Isolator / Automatic Charging Relay (ACR)
Isolator and ACR combine the starter battery and the house battery together during the charge and disconnect them during discharge. They’re good at “bulk-charging” the house battery, but they’re not so good at finishing the charge properly because the house battery is not getting an adequate charge profile. That’s not great for the cycle-life of lead-acid batteries (flooded, gel, AGM) and they tend to overwork alternators, so we prefer the B2B option.
3.2.2- Battery to Battery Charger (a.k.a. "B2B" or "DC to DC")
This option is quite popular these days as it provide many advantages:
- It’s a Smart Charger, meaning it provides a multi-stage charge adapted to the battery type (Gel, AGM, LifePO4, etc). That’s important, because it will keep your house battery healthy and maximize its lifecycle (especially for lead-acid batteries “flooded, gel or AGM”).
- It acts as current limiter to prevent overworking the alternator (choose between various models: 30A, 60A or 120A).
- Easier to install: no need to wire to the vehicle ignition.
- It’s plug-and-forget: the B2B will automatically activate/deactivate when driving to keep the house battery topped up.
3.2.3- Accessing Battery Power (alternator power) on the Ford Transit
Please check this official Ford SVE Bulletin on how to use the battery power (alternator) on SINGLE or DOUBLE battery variant: SVE Bulletin Q-226 (.pdf)
3.2.4- Accessing Battery Power (alternator power) on the Mercedes Sprinter
THE PICTURES ABOVE ARE EXTRACTED FROM THE BODY AND EQUIPMENT GUIDELINE, PAGE 246, 247 & 248. MAKE SURE TO READ THESE PAGES FOR MANUFACTURER RECOMMENDATIONS AND LIMITATIONS:
3.3- Shore Power
Do you need shore power in your system? We think it’s a good option if:
- You spend extended time in campgrounds with full service.
- You use your van to chase the snow. Indeed, solar is VERY weak in winter and it takes a LONG drive to complete a full charge so it’s sometimes required to plug in for the night.
3.3.1- Battery Charger / Converter
A smart Battery Charger / Converter will:
- Charge the house battery from a 120V source by providing a multi-stage charging profile adapted to the battery type (Gel, AGM, etc).
- Provide power to 12V loads. This means using 12V loads (refrigerator, lights, etc) won’t discharge the battery when the charger/converter is plugged in.
3.3.2- Inverter / Charger
An inverter / Charger is a battery charger AND an inverter combined into one device. It is quite convenient because it simplify the installation (one device instead of two), but it’s more expensive (between 1000$-2000$ for high-quality ones) than installing a separate inverter and a battery charger…
4- 12V DC Loads
Installing appliances and devices that work on 12V DC is efficient, because there’s always a loss when converting to 120V AC. Here are all the 12V loads we’re running in our van:
5- 120V AC Loads
The role of the inverter is to convert the voltage from 12V DC to 120V AC. Just remember that there is a loss of around 15% efficiency during the conversion from DC to AC, so try to avoid it when possible. For example, get a 12V power adapter to power your laptop, phone, camera, etc:
Now, there are some appliance that must use 120V AC such as microwave, gaming laptop, milk frother, blender, coffee machine, etc. In that case, you will need an inverter. You should size your inverter according to your most demanding appliance; check the owner manual or check online to find out how much Watt an appliance draw. If you can’t find the info, you can use a Kill-a-watt. The Kill A Watt is plugged into the 120V outlet (of your house), then the appliance is plugged into the Kill A Watt and then the consumption will be displayed.
And remember that a microwave rated for 1500W will most likely draw more than 1500W… so get a 2000W inverter.
Modified VS Pure Sine Inverter
There are two types of inverter: modified and pure sine inverter. This short but comprehensive article makes a good job at explaining the differences and there’s a list of appliances that might not work with a modified sine wave inverter: https://www.samlexamerica.com/support/faqs/faq02.aspx
In a nutshell:
About Power Rating
Normally inverters are rated for the power they can continuously deliver on the 120V AC side. But remember that because there is an efficiency loss (around 15%), more power is draw on the 12V DC side (battery). For example, a 1800W inverter will draw more than 1800W on the DC side:
We had really good luck with our Samlex pure sine wave inverter (and our Samlex charger as well!) and highly recommend it. It’s been running great since 2016.
Remember that inverters draw HUUUUGE amount of current (i.e. a 3000W inverter draws over 300 amps!) and are the most “dangerous” component of your electrical system. Make sure that your connections are p-e-r-f-e-c-t (and won’t loose over time/vibration) or else, enjoy the fireworks. In doubt, ask a professional to install/verify it for you.
6- Battery and System Monitoring
6.1- Battery Monitor
A battery monitor is not mandatory, but we strongly recommend it. Depending on your model, it will display the house and van battery voltage, amperage coming in/out of the house battery, % battery left, amperage used since last charge, etc, etc. You will learn a lot from the battery monitor on: 1- the impact of shade on solar (and help you choose the right parking spot) 2- the impact of your load(s). This will help you better manage your energy. We tested and recommend the Victron BMV-712 because it’s a modern, high-quality monitor:
6.2- System Monitor
The Simarine Pico system monitor enables to monitor much more than just the battery. It can also monitor the consumers (current consumption of individual loads), tank levels (fresh, grey, Nature’s Head, propane, etc), temperatures (interior, exterior, fridge, etc) and pitch/roll (inclinometer to park level). We installed it recently and we’re blown away by the quality of that thing! Not to mention it is VERY sexy and looks much better in our van than any other monitor 🙂
7- Electrical Wiring
7.1- Wire Diameter (AWG)
Choosing the correct wire size (AWG) is essential for SAFETY (fire hazard due to ampacity) and PERFORMANCE (intermittent problems due to voltage drop) of your electrical system.
The ampacity is the maximum current that a wire can carry continuously without exceeding its temperature rating. For example: if a wire ampacity is 60A (AWG 10) and there is a continuous current flow of 61A, the wire will overheat and the insulation could melt, creating a fire hazard. An overcurrent protection device (fuse/breaker) prevents going over the ampacity rating of the wire (the fuse/breaker size should always be smaller than the wire ampacity).
7.1.2- Voltage Drop
There is a loss of energy (voltage drop) as current moves through passive elements (wires, terminals, etc) of an electrical system. The wires are a big contributor to the voltage drop and this should be taken into account when designing the electrical system. How? By selecting the appropriate diameter; the bigger the diameter, the smaller the voltage drop. Generally, wire diameter should be selected to provide a maximum of 3% voltage drop for critical loads (panel main feeder, inverter, electronic) and 10% maximum voltage drop for non-critical loads (lightning, fan, etc). That being said, we personally like to use around 3% voltage drop for everything in our van.
7.1.3- Selecting the correct wire diameter
Now, really, how do you selected the correct wire diameter? It can be done manually by following ABYC standards (ABYC E-09 1990 pdf), but to make your life easier we designed this WIRE GAUGE CALCULATOR:
Making things easy:
Did you know that our Wiring Diagram features a built-in wire gauge calculator? So you don’t actually need to size each wire individually… it doesn’t get any easier that this!
7.2- Wire Type
Electrical wire is made of a conductor inside an insulator. There are two types of wire depending on how the conductor is made:
Solid wire is commonly found in houses, not in moving vehicles (car, RV, boat). Because of the vibration and tight turning radius (when routing), the conductor in solid wire will most likely break in the long term. Therefore, it is mandatory to use copper stranded wire that’s rated for 105°C (lower rated temperature cannot handle as much current, so it invalidates the wire sizing per ABYC):
(6/2 AWG up to 16/2 AWG)
7.3- Wire Crimping
There are many ways to connect wires together or to a terminal. We will go straight to the point here, the best way to do it is crimping. Crimping will deform the connector into the wire and ensure a solid permanent mechanical connection with low resistance. To crimp, you need quality crimping tools and quality crimp connectors.
7.3.1- Crimp Connectors
There’s 3 types of material:
One word: CHEAP. With this type of crimp, the wires remain exposed to the elements and can corrode. Moreover, the insulation can become brittle and crack over time. The vinyl/PVC are not great against pull-out. We pass.
Like the Vinyl, the wires remain exposed to the elements. However, the nylon is more durable than the vinyl and is double-crimped, which provides more tensile strength and strain relief against pull-out.
The connector is crimped (single-crimp, because double-crimp might damage the insulation) and then heated to shrink the insulation around the wire and the melting adhesive adheres to the wire insulation. This provides a waterproof and permanent connection. Heat shrink connectors are more expensive, but there’s no price for safety and peace of mind!
We recommend the Ancor, marine-grade connectors:
Disconnects are commonly used to make “non-permanent” connections (i.e. to our fridge which we periodically pull-out to clean the back) and to connect to certain appliances (i.e. 12V Sockets, switches, etc).
*Hint: Female disconnect should be on “hot” side of the wire (that’s the wire closest to the battery), male disconnect on the side of the appliance. This is to prevent short circuit when manipulating the “hot” wire.
Quality tools = safe and durable electrical system. Do not use pliers as you will get poor connections = safety and reliability issues.
7.4- Wire Installation
Before or after the insulation?
Current flowing through a wire generates heat. In steady state (after a long and continuous usage), the wire must be able to evacuate as much heat as it generates. Otherwise the temperature inside the wire keeps increasing, leading to a few possible problems:
- Resistance of a conductor increases with temperature. In other words, higher temperature equals more voltage drop.
- The maximum current that a wire can carry continuously without exceeding its temperature rating is called “ampacity”. Installing a wire inside insulation reduces the ampacity rating of a wire by approximately 30% (it’s huge!), because the ability of the wire to evacuate heat is greatly reduced. For example, a 6 AWG copper rated for 105°C can normally carry 120A continuously, but if it’s buried in insulation it can only carry 84A continuously. Going over 84A will overheat the wire and create a fire hazard.
Securing the Wires
For safety sake, the wires should not be installed loose and unprotected; as opposed to a house, there is a lot of vibration and movements that will damage the wires in the long run.
The wires should be routed through Split Loom Tubing (make sure to buy several diameters) attached with zip ties.
To route a wire through a metal hole, always use a rubber grommet to protect it from the sharp edges.
Split Loom Tubing
Adhesived Zip Ties Mount
8- Fuses and Breakers
Fuses and breakers are essential in any electrical system! It will protect the circuit wires and the components against over current and ultimately fire. If you blow a fuse during your system installation (we did a few times), it means that you just avoided a potential failure or fire! Nice!
In our wiring diagram, every positive wire has a fuse or a breaker to prevent going over the ampacity (max current rating) of the wire. To select the correct fuse/breaker size, consult the owner’s manual of the load or use our calculator above. To keep things neat and organized, a fuse block is used for all our 12V loads:
The fuse will drive the wire diameter selection. For example, if wiring a load that draw 5A and a fuse of 15A is used, you should choose a wire with ampacity rating (max current rating) of more than 15A! This is safety matters.
Breakers are similar to fuses, except that if it blows it is possible to reset it without replacing it. Fuses generally blow faster than breakers and therefore fuses are preferred for sensible electronics. We added a few 40 amp breakers in our system. Why? First, to avoid having to use big electrical wires. Indeed, our fuse block is capable of 100A; even if we know that we will never draw 100A, we need to size our wires for 100A ($$$). By adding 40A breakers, we can size our wires for 40A. We can also turn off portion of the system by switching a breaker off (for example, turn off solar panels to display on our system monitor the draw that the loads are pulling. Or the opposite to display the charge that the solar panels are providing).
Here is a more complete article about this topic: http://www.12voltplanet.co.uk/fuses-guide-uses.html
Connecting the Blue Sea 285 breakers:
We recommend the Blue Sea 285 Series breakers. On the breaker, you’ll find a terminal labeled as “AUX” and a terminal labeled as “BAT”. For this type of thermal responsive breaker, it does not matter how it is connected. BUT this is not the case for all breakers, so be careful and check for each type of breaker.
9- Short and Long term Van/RV Storage
Not planning on using your van for a while? Then you’ve got a few things to do in order to maximize your battery lifespan! For either short-term storage (weeks) or for long-term storage (months), here are our recommendations:
Loads & Charge Sources
10- Power "Generator" (Goal Zero, Kodiak, etc)
Designing and building an electrical system is far from an easy task, so Power “Generators” (thanks marketing people for this confusing term… how about “Power Station” instead?) seems like a simple alternative, right? Well, it depends.
We think it’s a great solution for photographer (for example) working and living for short stretches in their vehicle:
However, we don’t think they’re really meant for a “true” van electrical system, because they have far too many limitations:
Aware of the pros/cons? Still think it’s the adequate solution for you? Awesome! Here are the latest Power Stations from Goal Zero:
11- Real World Data
11.1- Measured Summer Daily Power Usage
Thanks to the Victron SmartSolar Charger it’s possible to measure our actual power usage, if:
- We don’t use any other charge source (alternator, shore).
- There is more solar than we need.
When both conditions above are fulfilled, we can then say that our harvest = our usage. Here is what we measured from June 25th 2018 to July 24th 2018:
The data was gathered when we did not use our inverter at all*, so our actual power usage for the 12V DC loads is very close to what we calculated in Part B.
*At that time, our inverter was still hooked to the van battery. Since then we updated our system, so our inverter is now connected to the house battery (exactly like our wiring diagram).
11.2- Summer VS Winter Solar Harvest
Because there’s not enough solar during winter and that we can’t measure the power provided by our Sterling B2B charger (which is our main charge source in winter), we can’t deduct our exact power usage. But we can still gather and manipulate data 🙂
In the graph below, we superposed our solar harvest (harvest, not usage) during summer and winter:
No surprise here: winter harvest is way, way lower than summer. Note that during summer, the harvest stops when the battery is full; so we could have actually harvest even more.
What’s the point? We’re glad we installed a Sterling Power B2B (faroutride.com/b2b-review) to charge from the alternator! The Sterling is our Plan B in summer, Plan A in winter. We think the combination of solar + alternator makes a nice and balanced electrical system. It’s nice not relying on a single charge source.
12- If We Had To Start Over
Indeed, the actual wiring diagram as you know it is the result of 2 years of full-time testing, so it doesn’t get any better than this. Because our mission is to stay up-to-date with the latest and greatest products, we update our system periodically. For example, here are a few upgrades we performed over the years:
- Upgrade our PWM solar charger to MPPT Victron Smart Solar Charger.
- Delete the option to power our loads directly from the van battery (we never used that and it made our system wayyyyy overcomplicated).
- Install the Sterling Power B2B instead of the inverter+battery charger combo.
- Install Lithium (LiFePO4) Battle Born Batteries instead of our AGM battery.
- Upgrade our monitor for the Simarine Pico. Note that we still recommend the Victron Monitor as baseline (Get the Simarine Pico if you want something high-end with advanced features).
We're not done yet...
Nice To Meet You.
Hello! We’re Isabelle and Antoine In 2017 we sold our house (and everything in it), quit our engineering careers and moved into our self built campervan. We’ve been on the road since then and every day is an opportunity for a new adventure; we’re chasing our dreams and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!