Learn about electric options for van campers for part-time and full-time van life explained in simple, easy to understand terms.
When traveling or camping in your minivan, you will almost certainly need some sort of electricity supply. Cell phones, cameras, laptop computers, are the most common items that need power. Or perhaps you have more power-hungry devices like CPAP machines, refrigerators, coffee makers, electric blankets, television, or DVD players? Whether your van life electricity needs are for luxuries or essentials, you will need a way to keep them powered. So what are your electric options for van campers?
The Most Popular Electric Options for Van Campers Are:
- Alternator and built-in 12- volt DC cigarette lighter socket.
- Plug-in power inverter.
- Battery Banks
- Portable power stations (Jackery, Goal Zero, Bluetti, etc.)
- Solar panels
- Custom Built Solar and House Battery Systems
Choosing a system
A few questions that you should ask yourself to help you decide what option is best for you are:
- Full-time or part-time use?
- Will this be a permanent van conversion?
- What is your total power consumption?
You will need to assess your needs by determining how many devices, do they us AC or DC electricity or both, what devices need recharging versus being directly powered?
Alternator and Built-In 12-Volt DC Cigarette Lighter Socket
This is the standard auxiliary electrical system in virtually every van and a convenient source for your 12-volt DC power needs.
Your van has an alternator that keeps your starter battery charged. This operates only while the engine is on. I prefer to using this only while driving or while the engine is running so that the alternator is the primary source of electricity rather than relying on your starter battery.
Most vans will have a 15-amp fuse to protect the vehicle’s wiring from overload. Typically, this would limit the outlet to 180 watts. This should allow you to charge cell phone, laptops, and other smaller devices or appliances. Of course, you will want to check your vehicles specifications to be sure.
Plug-In Power Inverter
These allow you operate devices that require AC power. Inverters plug in to your 12- volt DC cigarette lighter socket and convert the 12-volt DC power to 110 volts AC power.
Wattage will vary based upon the inverter you purchase.
One advantage of this option over the 12- volt DC cigarette lighter socket is that the higher amperage will allow for faster recharging of devices using their AC power adapters.
A note of caution though - Delicate electronics prefer pure sine wave AC power. Pure sine wave inverters produce cleaner more consistent electricity to operate appliances and electronics without interference. Avoid using non-sine waver inverters with laptops or other sensitive electronics. Check your devices owner’s manual to see whether pure sine wave is a requirement.
By this, I mean smaller battery banks that are typically used to recharge smaller electronic devise like cell phones. If your electrical needs are small, and you value small and portability, you might want to consider a battery bank.
These are great for recharging cell phones or cameras. Their smaller size is convenient for backpacking or day hikes, but this also limits their total capacity. Most connect using a USB cable.
Portable Power Stations
Similar in concept to battery banks but with much more capacity, portable power stations are one of the most popular options for your van camping electricity needs.
Slightly larger than a car battery, portable power stations contain a battery, (typically lithium), an AC inverter, a charging input, and usually a variety of power outlets (USB, 12-volt DC, 110-volt AC). Most also include a charging port for solar panels. All of this comes packaged in a convenient, easy to carry enclosure.
Pros And Cons of Portable Power Stations
- Already built
- Plug and play
- Compact, saves space
- Portable, can be used for other purposes, not just the van.
- Manufacturer warranty (varies by brand)
- Price per watt is higher than custom built.
- Longevity if used full-time.
Unless you are building a dedicated van camper or plan to be a full-time van dweller with high power demands, a portable power station usually makes the most sense.
Before You Buy, Determine Your Power Needs.
You will want to be sure that you have enough capacity to operate your devices. The worst mistake is buying too small of capacity.
To determine your needs, you will need to know how much power each device draws. Every electric appliance or device will specify it's voltage, amperage and wattage.
For example, my laptop requires 60 watts.
You can calculate the charging time by the formula: Working time = Explorer's capacities * 0.85 / operating power of your device. For reference, assuming power consumption of your device is 60W and you want to use the Explorer 500 to run the laptop. The working time will be 508Wh*0.85/60w=7 hrs. (rough calculated).
At a minimum, get a power station that can supply at least one full day of your power needs. Ideally a two-day reserve is best. This allows for unexpected power consumption as well as times that you may be far away from convenient recharging of the power station itself. For this reason, I prefer to have a solar panel to recharge my power station.
I personally use the Jackery 500 and Solar Saga 100 combination in my Honda Camper Van.
Here is what I what I typically need to keep charged: cell phone, GPS, camera batteries, USB rechargeable fan, USB rechargeable lantern, USB rechargeable flashlight, laptop computer, bike computer, bike headlight and taillight.
Solar panels are invaluable if you are traveling or camping where access to 110-volt power scarce or non-existent. If you are boondocking on BLM land, you’ll almost certainly want to consider adding solar panels to your van’s electrical system.
All solar panels will have an outlet cord that plugs-in to your portable power station or your DYI power supply. Some panels feature USB ports that allow you to charge directly from the panel to your device.
Custom Built Solar and House Battery Systems
Custom built systems favor full-time van dwellers or permanent van camper conversions with higher energy demands such as refrigerators, televisions, electric stoves, blenders, blow dryers, electric blankets, etc.
These combine solar panels with battery monitors, inverters, electrical controllers, fuse blocks, lots of wiring, switches, outlets, and of course, a battery to store the power harvested from the solar panel.
Custom built electrical systems allow you to build the exact system you want. You can design a system with the amount of power as well as AC and DC options. You can place outlets exactly where you want them just as you would in a house. This also means that you will most likely have to remove or modify the interior of your van to install the wiring and components that make up the system. Again, not really for the part-time or weekend camper but if you are a full-time van dweller, this is probably your best option.
Update - Plans for building custom system are coming soon!
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