DIY CAMPERVAN OFF-GRID ELECTRICAL SYSTEM
Van lifers always have the option of DIYing their own campervan’s electrical system. Electricity is needed for work, entertainment, and even comfort, which is why an autonomous off-grid electrical system is a non-negotiable for nomads or van lifers.
Over the last few years, more people have been exploring the possibility of living a nomad lifestyle. And with remote work getting more popular, campervans and RVs are seeing a rise in sales.
In this article, we have compiled everything DIYers need to know to set up a campervan’s electrical system with their own two hands.
HOW TO DIY YOUR RV'S ELECTRICAL SYSTEM
Fully Understand How the Electrical System Works
In a nutshell, an off-grid electrical system of a campervan has three main components. The charge source, a battery bank, and loads.
The charge sources vary from system to system. The most common charge source is the sun through solar panels. They add energy to the battery bank, which serves as the source of power for loads– which are the devices and equipment in the van, such as lights, water pumps, and outlets.
Here is a list of the equipment needed for the off-grid power system.
- Battery Bank - for storing power
- Power Generator - usually solar panels or wind turbines
- Alternator - to harvest power from the car when running
- Shore - to connect a direct power source when available
- Inverter - to be able to use AC appliances
- A Transfer Switch - to easily switch from shore power to the autonomous system
- Distribution Panel - serves as the electrical system’s central hub and equally distributes the correct amount of power
- Wires - to connect everything together
THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF BATTERY BANKS
Battery banks are equipped with various types of chemicals since they store energy in a chemical form and convert it to electricity when required. The following list consists of the different types of battery banks that may be used in a DIY project, along with their pros and cons.
|Requires high maintenance (needs to be filled with water every now and then and stored in a vented compartment)
Requires high maintenance (like flooded lead-acid)
|Gel does not spill as easily as flooded lead-acid
Must be charged at a low voltage
AGM (Advanced Glass Mat)
|Easy to maintain (no water and ventilation needed)
|Heavier than lithium
|Functions well under most climates and temperature ranges
|Has a short lifespan
|Can be charged and discharged at a higher rate than Flooded Lead-Acid and Gel-Cell
|Can last for a very long time (without affecting battery life)
|High upfront cost
|Functions well under most climate and temperature ranges
|Has a short lifespan
|Can be charged and discharged at a higher rate than AGM
|Requires a Battery Management System to regulate intake and outtake in relation to temperature, voltage, and current
COMMON CHARGE SOURCES FOR CAMPERVANS
There are 4 main types of power or charge sources.
- Solar Power
It converts the energy of sunlight into electricity. It is harvested through solar panels that absorb light and heat from the sun. They can be coupled with a portable wind turbine to maximize all available resources and charge your electrical system as quickly as possible.
An alternator converts your engine’s mechanical energy into electrical energy and stores it in the battery. In a normal car, the alternator is used to power a car’s electrical components (radio, lights, etc.) without discharging the battery.
- Shore power
Campsites are equipped with shore power which serves as an actual charger for your campervan. It’s rigged to the grid system and directly transfers electrical energy to your RV’s battery bank.
- Wind power
Campervans can also harvest energy from the wind through wind turbines. As the wind blows and spins a wind turbine's blades, kinetic energy is captured. Wind turbines are efficient and affordable, which makes them a good addition to a campervan’s electrical system.
SIZE UP YOUR CAMPERVAN'S NEEDS
Steps on How to Calculate the Power Usage for a Campervan
One needs to have a good estimate of how much power is consumed on a daily basis in order to know which kinds and sizes of batteries and other equipment to purchase and install, especially while attempting to ‘DIY’ their own electrical system.
Most of the appliances and devices are labelled with how many watts or amps they use. With this information, it becomes easy to calculate which battery bank would be the best to purchase.
As an example,
A typical microwave uses 1100 watts of power.
When converted to amps, it uses 91.67 amps per hour.
It’s safe to assume that the microwave will be used 15 minutes per day
15 minutes is 0.25 hours
Hence, 91.67 amps x 0.25 is 22.92 amps
Apply this method of calculation this for all the electrical equipment in the campervan and sum them up to get an estimate of how much power is needed to run the campervan and its appliances.
MOST SUITABLE BATTERY SIZE FOR A DIY CAMPERVAN OFF-GRID ELECTRICAL SYSTEM
After calculating the amperage on all of the appliances, sum up all the devices that will most likely run simultaneously– this total is the energy consumption in the unit of watt-hours.
The next step to identify what battery bank size to get is to convert the total watt-hours into ah or ampere-hours. To do so, simply divide it by the voltage. In most circumstances, the voltage is 12.
If the calculation is below 100Ah, one can opt for a 100Ah Lithium battery; but if the battery is an AGM or a Gel-Cell, one should double the ampere-hours (Ah) and go for 200Ah. This is because these types of battery banks need at least 50% of their power to recharge safely.
HOW TO KNOW THE PROPER INVERTER SIZE FOR A CAMPERVAN
The rule of thumb for an inverter size is to base it on the appliance which has the biggest wattage need. For example, if a microwave has the highest wattage (at 1100 watts), then a 1500W inverter would be perfect with no foreseeable headaches.
VISUALISE THE CAMPERVAN'S ELECTRICAL SYSTEM
When all the numbers have been crunched, it’s time to draw a diagram of what the off-grid power system should look like. One can start by making a 2-dimensional drawing just to see which components connect to which. This example from camperguide.org can be a great example of a van’s schematics.
BONUS TIPS TO HELP EASE THE DIY PROCESS
After creating a diagram of the electrical system’s key components, it’s time to get pliers, electrical tapes, and rubber-coated gloves and get to work. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when setting up a van’s off-grid electrical system.
- If Solar panels are used, remember to keep them clean and perpendicular to available sunlight.
- Keep the wires properly organized– adding labels and tags to them may also help.
- Make sure that you purchase your equipment based on your research and consumption calculations.
- Consult professionals when unsure. It may cost a bit more, but safety is priceless.
- Consider having multiple charge sources like portable panels and portable wind turbines, and further consider using them concurrently.
WIND POWER TO SUPPORT A DIY CAMPERVAN OFF-GRID ELECTRICAL SYSTEM
Portable wind turbines like the Texenergy’s Infinite Air 18 can charge portable power stations and support a van’s off-grid electrical systems.
In addition, Texenergy’s Infinite Air 18 is compatible with Texenergy 5V solar panels to create an even more powerful electrical system for your van. The combination of Texenergy wind turbines and solar panels can help to keep your devices charged extended periods of time.
Have fun DIYing!