Induction cooking is getting quite popular among the Vanlife community. An induction cooktop is more energy efficient than a traditional electric cooktop and it opens the door for "all-electric" van conversion, as propane is a source of concerns for some. That being said, induction cooking still requires a lot of energy and therefore has a significant impact on the cost of the electrical system and on autonomy. After reading this article you should understand the pros and cons of induction cooking VS propane, and make the right choice according to your needs. Keep reading!
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1- Induction Cooktop In A Nutshell
1.1- How induction cooking works
With induction cooking, heat is generated by the cookware; there is no heat coming from the surface of the induction cooktop itself. It means that a cooktop surface is cold to the touch, so it’s perfectly safe to touch it or to drop a cloth on it (that being said, the surface will get hot when cooking because of heat transfer from the cookware to the surface of the induction cooktop).
Induction cooking uses induction heat transfer to heat cookware, while gas or “normal” electrical element uses conduction heat transfer. The induction plate generates a magnetic field, which creates an eddy current in the ferrous cookware; the cookware provides resistance to that eddy current and as a result heat is generated.
It is very important to note that not all cookware is compatible with induction cooking: the cookware must be made out of ferrous material. Not sure if your cookware is compatible? Just try to stick a magnet to the bottom: if there is a strong pull, you’re in business! A soft pull might work, but not great. No pull will definitely not generate any heat.
Cookware with uneven (not flat) bottom surface might not work properly.
But these materials will work if there is a magnetic layer at the bottom!
One of the main selling point for vanlifers is that induction cooking is more energy efficient than traditional electrical cooktop. Indeed, heat is transferred directly to cookware, and as a result food heats up and water boils about 50% faster than electrical or gas. This is great news, as energy is not unlimited in a van! That being said, induction cooking still requires a great deal of energy… so you’ll most likely have to upgrade your electrical system components and battery bank to make it work, and it comes at a financial and autonomy cost. Power and electrical requirements is covered in SECTION 2 below; keep reading to find out what you’ll need!
1.2- What model to buy for Vanlife
To prevent overworking the inverter (and possibly preventing tripping the fuse in some situations), we want an induction cooktop with variable power. That means if we set the cooktop to medium (50%), we want the induction cooktop to run continuously at 50% of its power capacity (so 900 watts for a 1800 watts cooktop). A cooktop that runs full power (1800w) for 50% of the time is not really what we’re looking for here.
We also want its max power not so high so that it works with a 2000W inverter. (that being said we recommend a 3000W inverter, but that’s the topic of SECTION 2 below!)
2- Power Requirements
2.1- Inverter Size
A van electrical system is typically 12V DC, so an inverter is required to convert the power to 120V AC. You should choose a power inverter capable of delivering 2000W continuously, at the very least. Even so, a 2000W inverter might occasionally trip when using the induction cooktop at max power because:
- An inverter sold as “2000W” might actually be able to handle up to 2000W surge for a very short duration, but not continuously. So make sure to read the specification sheet of the inverter!
- Using other 120V devices simultaneously adds up the power requirement! For example, using an induction cooktop (1800W), a blender (350W) and a laptop (45W) at the same time would require over 2195W of power. Make sure to keep a buffer, because it will be irritating to trip the inverter constantly.
So even if a 2000W power inverter sounds like more than enough, it’s not really, and we’d recommend going for a 3000W inverter.
2.2- Battery Bank Capacity
Sizing the battery bank adequately has a direct impact on autonomy, that’s pretty obvious for most people. But did you know that the maximum current that a battery bank can deliver depends on its size (and type)?
We met several full-time Vanlifers with profesionally-built vans that gave up on using their induction cooktop and are using a gas camping stove instead, because their battery bank wasn’t sized properly. Induction cooking is trendy and pro-builders want to seduce their customers with it, but don’t make the same mistake of undersizing your battery as a cost-saving measure… especially if you plan on living full time in the van.
A power inverter draw a huge amount of current, and the battery bank must be able to deliver it. For example, a single 100Ah Lithium battery cannot deliver more than 100A. It means a 100Ah battery bank (one battery) can support a 1000W inverter and no more. A 200Ah battery bank (2 batteries) can support a 2000W inverter and no more, and so on. But for a robust system, a 2000W inverter should be paired with at least 3 x 100Ah Lithium batteries, and a 3000W inverter should be paired with at least 4 x 100Ah Lithium batteries. That’s to ensure the inverter AND other 12V devices can be powered simultaneously (which is very most likely the case).
2.3- Wiring Diagram & Items List
At this point we understand that sizing the power inverter AND the battery bank is critical to ensure the electrical system works as it should. But there’s actually more: solar, alternator charger, shore charger, fuses, breakers, wires must all be sized properly as well… And because everyone has different needs, no one has exactly the same system. So how do we do it? That’s a problem we solved with our unique tools: a van electrical calculator and a customizable wiring diagram. It doesn’t get any easier than this!
3- Induction VS Propane
3.1- Cost Comparison
We see many people trying to avoid propane these day and go for an “all-electric” build, so it would be interesting to compare the cost of each. For this exercice, we will assume that a “Standard” electrical system (per faroutride.com/wiring-diagram) is sufficient when propane is used:
Electrical / Propane Hybrid Cost
Standard Electrical System
1000W inverter, 2 lithium batteries
High-Power Electrical System
3000W inverter, 4 lithium batteries
The prices above exclude the appliances cost (stovetop, etc). Yes, it’s possible to build a similar system for cheaper. But cutting down on cost usually means going for cheaper and unbranded components, which means gambling on quality and safety. Our goal here is to build a reliable, safe and performant electrical system; so we invest in quality components.
Cutting down on cost
Shortly after publishing this article, we got a few reactions and questions about our cost comparison which seems on the high-side: Would it be OK to go for a 2000W inverter, 200Ah Lithium battery bank, and only use the induction cooktop at lower settings?
Yes, it could work. But in our opinion, any design that requires the user to “be careful” in order to prevent failure is a poor design. You’re building a van for yourself right now, but remember that eventually all the vans end up on the used market… You have to build your van with the next owner in mind as well (for safety and re-sale value)!
As an analogy, you could design and build a floor in your van that’s not waterproof (on the edges or whatever) and “be careful” not to spill any water. Reality check: water spills WILL happen eventually. It’s not an “IF”, it’s a “WHEN”. So you’re better take the extra efforts to build a waterproof floor…
That’s a philosophy that we applied through our entire build and we’re proud of it. We feel good about it, and we can’t recommend it enough; it is worth the extra time, money and effort! 🙂
As we mentioned in the previous section, we met several vanlifers that were let down by the autonomy of their induction cooktop. Professional builders (and amateurs) often cut back on batteries to reduce the cost, only to find out later that their autonomy isn’t great. Reality check: sun is not always shining, so size your system to get enough autonomy without solar!
We personally went with a propane system (faroutride.com/propane-system) in our van. That’s because we live full time in our van and autonomy is critical for us. We use the van for skiing during winter (faroutride.com/winter-vanlife) and solar input is neglectable during that time. Propane is an extremely dense source of energy: we only need to refill our 20lbs tank every two months when using our Atwood Range (faroutride.com/wedgewood-vision-range-review) and our hot shower (faroutride.com/exterior-shower) regularly. One refill cost between $12-$20 USD.
No sun, no shore power, no driving any time soon to recharge the batteries... we stay here as long as the snow is good 🙂 Autonomy is the key for a good adventure!
For most people, propane = danger. In our opinion, there is a (manageable) risk in both propane and electrical. Indeed, keep in mind that a 3000W inverter can draw a tremendous amount of current (around 350 amps, that’s huge) and that’s a potential risk for an electrical fire if a connection gets loose over time (due to vibration). So whether you work with propane or electrical: be humble, educate yourself, use quality components, quality tools, appropriate techniques and ask for professional help as required.
- That's it folks, hope that helps! -
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!
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