Optimizing Your Camper Van Electric System
Your van is your home. It is your go-to comfort zone. But unlike most homes, a camper is not hard-wired into a nationwide grid of cheap and reliable electricity. Instead, your electrical system will be most likely designed from scratch by you or someone you know. Electricity can be one of the most expensive parts of a conversion van build so it’s important to optimize this system.
Adding additional electrical wiring and mounting solar panels weren’t given a second thought by the manufacturer of your van. On top of that you are probably also trying to find time to plan insulation and a bed layout all while working a day job. We understand how foreboding an electrical system can be, so we want to help ease the burden.
Before jumping into how to build your van, the first thing to tackle is how you use electricity. Your mindset is the most influential component when it comes to designing an electrical system. That’s why we feel it deserves this article.
Power Saved is Power Earned
Electricity in a van is expensive. And we don’t mean that it’s pricey to add a few solar panels. Panels are pretty cheap. What we mean is that in addition to the financial cost, there is also a mental cost. If you cut corners or misunderstand how your batteries are working:
- You will constantly be fighting to keep a charge on your laptop
- You may realize that running a microwave for five minutes will use half your allotted power for the day
- You can be needlessly frustrated on the third day of clouds because it means you have to drive around to keep your refrigerator running
- You may need to choose between running your batteries too low and shortening their already tenuous lifespan
To make the most of your electrical system, the first step is to analyze and reduce your reliance on electricity.
Story time: before living in a van, we loved weekly food prep. One of our go-to meals was to throw green chili pork, potatoes and carrots in a slow cooker. Switch it on low overnight, and in the morning we’d have delicious pulled pork burritos for the first half of the week.
Naturally, we thought this would be amazing to do in the van while we went on a hike in the afternoon. Once we sat down and did the math, we realized that we would need twice as big of an electrical system just for a couple of creature comforts. Only then did it dawn on us that we hadn’t really ever seen a slow-cooker in van builds, and that was for good reason.
It turns out there is a silver lining to adjusting lifestyle habits. We discovered that if we make a full box of pasta, it’s good for about four servings. Just cook one meal at night, then breakfast is already made for the next morning.
We also now order food at restaurants using a custom menu of Things We Can’t Make In The Van.
What does this have to do with electricity? It is just one example of how some lifestyle flexibility and practice can reduce the impact on your daily stress and wallet. By skipping a slow-cooker, we saved big bucks on the size of our electrical system and it’s one less thing to worry about. We find that exploring different ways of doing things is fun. After all, it’s part of living in a van!
Catering to your needs
In a van build, there is no single way to live and electricity usage is no different. This will come down to personal preference, although we do find that there are variations on a theme in builds.
For every piece of electrical equipment, a good thought experiment is to figure out how you could conceivably deal without it.
Some things are easier to adjust for than others. This process of examination should help you determine what you need versus what you want. The second piece of the puzzle is figuring out how much electricity things actually use. If something takes next to no electricity, there’s no reason to sacrifice without it. Lights, for example, are pretty efficient with all of the LED’s available. We cover calculating individual devices in more depth in our Calculating Electricity post.
Pro Tip: If you have the ability early on to take the van out for a weekend or two you can get an idea of what it would take to make van life comfortable for you. Some things you’ll quickly find you appreciate and others you don’t miss at all.
Everyone will be different in this aspect. Some people do indeed end up installing a microwave, coffee pot, and blender. Some just use an ice box and portable solar charger for their cell phone. If something like cooking is a main goal, many people build elaborate kitchens that function quite well.
Common electric appliances and their alternatives
Below is a list of electrical components that many people come into vanlife curious about. We give some alternate options so that use little or no electricity.
Use fuel-based stovetops instead of electric stoves
There are a plethora of propane, butane, and alcohol stove options. Some people eat cold food and at restaurants. Read up on the different fuel types available for cooking, and decide if there is a better option than electric.
Heat food using a pan instead of a microwave
As our story illustrated, most things can be heated, if not improved upon, by using a stove. We’ve become quite good at making stovetop popcorn after a dozen burned attempts! Consider what you plan on heating in a microwave, and contemplate whether other options are available.
Replace the refrigerator with a high-quality cooler
A cooler re-filled with ice is a pretty good refrigerator imitator. There are plenty of “perishable” foods that can go a day or two without refrigeration. We wouldn’t recommend milk or steak (or a milksteak) without a fridge, but butter and cheese can last a while. If you cannot live without a fridge, research 12V energy efficient options.
Charge your computer and small electronics at public places
It’s not really possible to find an analogue computer. But you can alter the way you use your current one. In cities, towns, and public places, outlets can be found everywhere. You can work at McDonalds for an hour or two charging your computer and have enough battery to work later as well.
For less than a $2 coffee you could do this every other day and you just saved yourself $800 in a solar setup. You can even buy external or integrated replacement batteries for your device to charge. I bought a spare battery on Amazon for my Lenovo and it buys me a couple house that I don’t need to turn on the inverter.
Avoid the air-conditioner and take advantage of location and ventilation
Air conditioners are incredibly taxing on electrical systems. The vast majority of van dwellers will have no choice but to make do without out. You can use ventilation techniques to keep airflow throughout the van. Move to colder locations during the summer. Park your van in the shade during the day. Read our post on tips and tricks to stay cool in summer.
Keep your van warm with insulation and other heating techniques
Like the stove, there are fuel-based options to stay warm as well as having a well-designed insulation system. Utilizing your body heat with sleeping bags and blankets reduces the need for heat. There are also a number of heating setups that can keep you warm without the use of electricity.
Use a foot pump instead of an electric water pump
Hand and foot pump options for a van build can be just as useful as an electric water pump. Other builds forgo the sink altogether. Dishes can easily be washed outdoors or with a gravity-fed setup.
Substitute the coffee maker and heat your own water
If I had to name one electrical comfort besides air conditioning that most people deem a necessity, it would be the morning cup of coffee. The common drip coffee pot, espresso maker, or Keurig style system use a relatively large amount of electricity.
If you are planning on an economical electrical system, skip the traditional coffee pot! There are almost too many options once you begin to research heating water. Pour-over, French press, AeroPress and percolated coffee are all energy-efficient alternatives.
Remember: Less Is More!
None of these are hard rules to dissuade you from using electricity. It is to get you thinking about how valuable each component is, and if you’d be happy giving it up to reduce your electrical burden. If you are unsure of whether or not you need something, wait until you calculate its energy cost before going without it. You might be surprised that a particular device is quite efficient.
The less electricity you have to deal with, the more relaxing your lifestyle will be. Your time and money is valuable, so optimize both!
This Post Has 5 Comments
Incredibly helpful real-world info about what electrical options makes sense in a camper van. Thank you!
Thanks for all this great information! We are in the very beginning steps of our Promaster conversion. Wondering if you think we could get by with just a smart isolator connection to the starter battery if we plan to drive almost every day and only have a small efficient fridge and vent fan to power.
Failing to plan is planning to fail they say. Taking a weekend out is seriously important, especially before you even buy the van – you want to make sure you really want to do this, and the only way you can do that, is by trying it out.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with the rest of us!
Very useful. I love the focus on coffee, clearly written by a caffeine addict, made me laugh!! This is the most useful site on building I’ve found. Thanks you.
One thing re saving electricity for a laptop is using a charger from a car lighter plug in rather than an inverter as laptops only use 20v and therefore don’t need the big inverter charge. The universal ones fit many otherwise you have to shell out a bit more for individual one if it’s an awkward size (like mine!!).
Gender comment – I’m presuming this (and most posts on electrical set up) was written by a guy as no mention of hair dryers. These cane the power and I haven’t figured it out yet. I have a travel one that reduces to 120w so I’m presuming that’ll be OK for short occasional use (I have a 120ah deep cycle battery)? Any comments on this would be useful. Thanks again.
Very thorough and easy to understand. I can tell you have a great knowledge of this and appreciate you sharing it!! Any updates since your post a year ago?