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How To Collect Electricity When Living In A Van

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When it comes to powering electronics in your camper van, there are four main ways to collect energy. The most common ways are: your vehicle’s alternator, hooking up to a campground electrical system, using a generator, or using solar panels. The type of energy collection you choose to use will be dependent on the type of trip you are taking, budget, and location.

The first step to collecting power is figuring out how much energy you need. If you haven’t done so already, read our post on how to calculate electricity needs, and create a list of all the electronics you plan to use and their energy usage per hour. Using this list, you should have a general idea of how much electricity you need to generate in order to power your van accessories each day.

Remain flexible with your ideal list of electronics. As you’ll quickly find in this post on energy collection, and the next post on solar panel and charge controller basics, some methods are more suitable to your situation than others. Not all approaches to collecting power are going to give the same results.

Keep in mind that this post is written for beginners and we will not go into too many technical details here. This post was designed to be a general overview so you know what options are available. Check back in the future for more advanced posts on power collection!

Powering the the van with an alternator

Powering electronics with your vehicle’s alternator

Powering electronics using your van’s current electrical system seems like a straightforward solution. People can charge their phones while driving, so why not just use those same systems for all of your electronics? Unfortunately, not everything can be plugged into a cigarette lighter.

What is an alternator?

An alternator is a little component with a wheel that is bolted to the engine. As you drive, one of the belts on your engine spins that wheel generating electricity. This uses the same method that a spinning windmill or a hydro generator uses to make electricity. Your car charges the starting battery with this alternator. That battery allows you to use your radio, headlights and other vehicle components. The battery that is currently in your van has one main purpose: to start the van.

The cigarette lighter in your car is a 12-volt socket connected to the starting battery. The car’s alternator has plenty of power to keep the starting battery topped off and power some devices. The problem comes when you turn car off (which many of us do when we park at our destination). When the vehicle is off, there is no longer alternator power going to your starting battery.

If you drain all of that power, you will kill starter battery and be unable to travel! Most people are pretty familiar with this concept. What to do about this issue is where the options start to get blurry.

Buying a backup jumper battery

If you do plan to use only a few electronics like a cell phone, and power them mostly while driving it might be a good idea to have a backup battery and jumper cables handy. Backup batteries are inexpensive and can be stored away until needed. A backup car jumper battery can be found for as little as $50 at any big box retailer such as Walmart or Costco. Realistically, a backup battery should only be used in emergency situations when the car will not start. They are not intended for the long-term use of powering devices. You can read more about this topic in our post on choosing a battery.

Recharging a secondary battery with the car’s alternator

To store large quantities electricity for later use, you need secondary battery. The alternator has plenty of extra power and you can tap into this to charge a deep-cycle battery (ideal for electronics) without taking up much space. This solution is very stealth as you aren’t adding anything to the outside of your van. In addition, it works well at night and in all weather conditions. Connecting a deep-cycle battery to the car alternator is a pretty inexpensive system, but comes with some notable caveats:

  1. Vehicle alternators aren’t well suited for charging deep-cycle They are mainly meant for a starter battery. This means that a deep-cycle battery will not be getting charged in the most efficient, healthy way. This is not the end of the world but there is some efficiency loss.
  2. Using an alternator to charge a deep-cycle battery requires that you drive the van! For even basic power needs (laptop and lights), you will need to drive for a few hours every day at a minimum. If you’re traveling frequently then this makes it a great option, but most people want to stop for a few days and you will run out of power at inopportune times.
  3. It’s not good to let the car idle to charge your batteries. Not only do alternators perform best at higher engine speeds, they are incredibly inefficient relative to a generator. More importantly, this is hard on the car. Without moving through the air and varying engine speeds, your motor is not operating with optimum cooling or oil pressure. Over the long term, this is quite hard on the motor and shouldn’t be done regularly.

Some of these problems can be solved by buying an aftermarket alternator. There are larger alternators for many vehicles that provide significantly more power and you can tune them to work at lower engine speeds. If you are commuting in your van every day you might as well use the power that is available. Some people only need 15 minutes of extra juice for an electric stove, and an alternator can provide that.

Hooking a deep-cycle battery to the alternator

The bottom line is, it will be more efficient to power a van full of electronics with either a generator, solar panels, or RV hookups. We don’t recommend relying on the alternator unless all you are charging is a cell phone and a reading light or driving consistently every day. However, alternators are a great supplement to an electrical system.

There are safe ways of hooking up a deep-cycle battery using a switch, relay, or isolator. We will not get into the details of how to do that in this post. Check back for more advanced posts on batteries.

powering a van with electric hookups

Using RV hookups to power a van

If you’ve got the means, paid campsites with electrical hookups can be one of the best choices out there. This energy source is clean, quiet, and can power high-demand amenities such as microwaves and air conditioners. Staying in an RV park or campsite with electrical hookups can cost as little as $20 per night or as much as a hotel room.

Before going out and spending a few hundred dollars on solar panels, it might be worth looking into how often you might stay at an RV park. If you are planning to travel for only a short period of time or require 24/7 hookups, an RV park may be the best option for you. A popular combination is an RV hookup and a backup generator as the systems share many components and it is easy to switch between the two.

Shore power basics

Electrical power from the grid is often referred to as shore power. The term shore power comes from the marine world. Boats dock at the shore and plug into the electric grid. This is because their engines, which usually provide the power at sea, are turned off.

There are two ways most people use shore power in a van: direct connection, and charging a secondary battery.

Connecting directly to shore power

Shore power coming out of an outlet in the U.S. produces 110-volts of alternating current (AC) energy. This is the same type of energy used in your house. An easy way to make use of shore power is to simply plug electronics directly into the outlet. Bring an extension cord along to power things within the van. This is a surprisingly effective method for those on a budget. If you find a cheaper campsite you can charge your devices, take a shower and fill your water for $20. On the road you can charge one or two devices at a time using libraries or coffee shops.

If you want to get more involved with your install, it’s possible to wire a breaker box and outlets in your van. This is how RV’s connect in campsites. One large plug goes from the campsite into your van and it is then spread to smaller household plugs. This method is a bit more advanced so we recommend you have some experience with electricity or have a pro install the system if you do decide to go that route. Usually only larger vehicles use this method and it is paired with a smart charger and battery bank.

Charging a secondary battery

The other way to use shore power at a campsite or RV park, is by charging a secondary battery. The secondary battery can then be used to charge your devices after leaving the campground, or at a later time.

Batteries are best stored at 100% charge. Both overcharging, and undercharging a battery will wear it out over time. A smart battery charger will keep your battery charge floating at a safe level by reducing the electricity input once full. If you are planning to frequent electric sites, and power up a secondary battery, get a smart charger. This will save you money on having to buy a new battery in the near-future. A typical smart charger will cost between $50-$100. Make sure to get one specifically for charging deep-cycle batteries as they need different power settings than a starter battery.

Anywhere you find a plug you can use a smart charger to fill your batteries and then use your electronics as normal.

If you want to learn more about smart chargers, this website has a great overview of how they work. We also go into a lot more detail about batteries in our post: choosing a battery for your campervan.

Powering a van with a generator

Powering your camper van with a generator

Many vanlifers choose to power their electronics with a generator. Generators are a practical solution because they can create electricity at night or in bad weather (unlike solar panels). They can also be easily moved around making you less location dependent (unlike shore power). When it comes to power, generators can pack quite a punch. If you are planning to use a large amount of electricity then having a generator will allow you to run things like an air conditioner, microwave or electric heater. That type of power capacity is impractical for solar. Generators are also an excellent backup option if you are using solar power and run into a couple of weeks without sunny skies.

Generators use a gas or diesel-powered engine to produce electricity. This is done through an on-board alternator. Unlike your car motor, they are designed to run in place for extensive periods of time and for the sole purpose of producing electricity.

Generator storage and safety

Because generators run using gas, it will be necessary to carry extra gas containers on your road trip journey. Gasoline needs to be highly ventilated when stored- the same is true for a generator. Generators and their fuel are commonly mounted to outside of the vehicle. Most vanlifers choose to mount the generator and fuel tanks on the back of the van nearer to the gas tank making it easier to fill with fuel. Some more dedicated builds mount the generator inside the van, but sealed off from the interior and vented to the outside similar to an RV.

Generators are a major carbon dioxide risk and should never be run inside the vehicle. In fact, there is an entire website dedicated to this notion called takeyourgeneratoroutside.com. Be sure to always take your generator outside. Mounting the generator to the back of the van also makes it an easy process to ‘set it and forget it’ when traveling.

Generators take up a lot of space and can be pretty heavy when full of fuel. Keep this in mind when determining where to store a generator. Some vanlifers have questioned whether mounting a generator on the roof of a vehicle might be a good place to put it. If you choose to do this, be aware that you will be making your van ‘top-heavy’ and filling the generator with fuel is going to be a challenge.

Choosing a generator for vanlife

Choosing a specific generator is going to be very dependent on the type trip you are planning to take, and your electric needs. Some of the most popular portable generators brands are Yamaha, Honda and Ryobi.

Most vanlifers decide to purchase either a 1,000 or 2,000 Watt generator. Calculate how much energy you plan to use to help determine which generator is best for you. The initial cost of a small portable generator will run between roughly $700-$1,000. The ongoing costs are going to be dependent on the efficiency of the generator and power usage.

Most generators include a combination of both AC (household plugs) and DC (cigarette and USB) electric options making it easy to charge all of your household items and electronics. A 1000W generator is probably ideal for powering lights, fans, laptops, phones and other small accessories. If more power is needed for a refrigerator, water heater, or air conditioner, you will probably want to look into a 2000W generator.

Charging up a spare battery with a generator

One of the downsides to using a generator is it has to constantly be on in order to get power. Do not expect to run a refrigerator or anything 24/7 off a generator unless you intend to keep it outside and running the entire time.

Generators also make noise while running- even the quiet ones. This limits where you can run them and severely limits your ability to hide that you’re living in a van if that is your intention. It is common to run the generator for a few hours while charging up a spare battery with a smart charger. Then using that spare battery to power electronics when the generator is off. Read our post on choosing a battery for your campervan for more information on which battery types to use.

Powering your van with solar panels

Solar panels are quickly becoming one of the most popular options of power collection for vandwellers. Solar panels can be a great solution for someone living in a van because the power is clean, renewable, makes no noise, and the cost of solar has gone down significantly in the past few years.

Parts of a solar power system

Powering a van with solar is going to require three main components: solar panels, a charge controller, and batteries to store the power. Deciding on which solar panels to use can be a complex process. The first thing you want to decided is if you want portable solar, or permanent fixed solar.

Parts of a solar power system

Portable solar panels

Portable solar panel systems are solar panels that you store in your van and then set in the sun when you arrive at camp. You can make your own portable solar system out of rigid panels or buy a pre-made briefcase. You’ll pay a bit of a premium for the briefcase but it saves you time figuring out the details.

Advantages to portable solar

Portable solar panels are less complicated and generally cheaper to install in your van. You still need to have a place for batteries and a charge controller, but wiring and mounting are less intimidating than fixed panels. You also don’t have to worry about mounting to a round roof or making sure the system can handle driving on the highway.

Portable solar allow for more flexibility in your campsite. You can easily park the van in the spot that you want it; such as flat ground, shade, or facing a picturesque overlook. Then move your panels to where they will get the most sun (within a certain range). This also means that generally you can get more power out of the same panels because they can get direct sunlight.

Disadvantages to portable solar

With portable solar, you pretty much have to be at a campsite to use the system. Because they are easy to steal, you can’t leave them out most places while you head off to adventure. The panels are stored away when driving and running errands so you won’t get any power while you do those things either. You also need space to store the panels in your van. These systems are heavily favored for people living multiple days in one spot in the wilderness. They are less intimidating to install and more easily upgradable.

Fixed solar panels

Fixed panels are those that are permanently attached to your rig, most often to the roof. You can buy as few or as many as you want and wire them to be a part of your van.

Advantages to fixed solar

Fixed solar panels are more of a set-and-forget system. Once they’re installed, you don’t have to fuss as much with pulling out pieces and putting them back as you move camps. They also would take quite a bit more effort to steal and so you can leave your van unattended.

Fixed solar panels are working whenever the sun is out. This means when you are driving or at a grocery store, they’re charging. While it’s pretty obvious that someone is charging electronics in a van with fixed solar, it is not nearly as obvious as a solar array sitting outside. Many “stealth” dwellers do get by with fixed solar.

Disadvantages to fixed solar

Fixed solar panels require some kind of mounting solution. This means drilling into your roof of your vehicle, getting a rack or using strong adhesive. Flexible panels make this last solution an enticing one. However, flexible panels are less efficient than rigid ones, easier to scratch, and don’t get ventilation when mounted directly. Solar panels work better when they’re cool, so we recommend only using them if your specific circumstances fit the bill.

Fixed solar panels must be positioned towards the sun when you’re at camp. This will limit where you can park your van, and how much power you get when the sun is not directly overhead. You can mount your panels onto hinges to help increase the amount of sunlight the solar can receive, but it is still more limiting than portable solar.

If solar is your power source of choice, we go more into more detailed planning here.

Powering a van with solar panels

How much does a solar panel system cost?

Solar panels can be one of the most expensive options up front, but over time they are quite economical. You will need to budget for panels, a charge controller, batteries, and wiring. You can get a 100W solar/controller kit from Renogy for around $170, plus a 100Ah battery from Walmart for another $90 and expect to pay another $30-100 on wiring and mounting depending on your setup. For good solar you’re looking at $300 minimum for a basic 100w system

Charge controller basics

Charge controllers get the energy safely from your panels to your batteries. Solar panels can actually put out more voltage than your batteries can handle and if wired directly will keep trying to charge your batteries when full. For this reason, we use a charge controller that acts as a middle man to get the wild-and-crazy solar energy to a civilized 12v battery.

There are two basic types of charge controllers: PWM and MPPT. In a very general sense, MPPT controllers are more efficient (and more expensive). They also usually come with more features than the PWM controller. As a general rule of thumb when planning a build, if you’re on a budget or have less than 300w of solar, you don’t get much advantage with an MPPT controller. You’ll get more out of 200w of solar and a PWM controller than 100w and and MPPT. We go into more depth on these items in our next post: solar panel and charge controller basics.

Battery basics

Batteries come in many different forms and because of this, we’ve written an entire post on them. Collecting energy is just one piece of the puzzle, storing energy is a completely new topic. Not only will batteries differ in how they can be charged (requiring smart chargers or charge controllers), but they also differ in how much power they can lose. In most cases, it is unhealthy to leave a battery at less than 50% charge.

Continue reading our post on: battery basics – which battery is right for you? (COMING SOON)

Next Steps: Solar power and battery basics

Now that you know how much power is necessary and the options available to get that power; it’s time to start thinking more about batteries! If you’ve decided to go with solar, read our post on how much solar do you need? If you’ve chosen to use one of the other power options, skip ahead to battery basics:

  1. Calculating how much energy you need to live in a van
  2. How to collect electricity when living in a van
  3. Solar panel and charge controller basics
  4. Battery basics: finding the right battery for your campervan (COMING SOON)
  5. How to wire electronics: hooking up your van’s electrical system (COMING SOON)

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