How Do I Use This Solar Calculator?
- Make a list of your devices
- Enter the watts for each device
- Enter your estimated hours of use
- Select whether it is an AC or DC powered (AC uses an inverter)
- Choose which battery type you want to use
- Choose your charge controller type
- Enter your estimated sun hours (direct sunlight you expect on the panels)
How do I find the Watts of my device?
In most cases you can find the Watts listed online, in the owner’s manual, or on the product itself. In some cases, a product will list Amps and Volts instead.
If you still don’t know how to find these numbers, read our article on calculating your power usage for each electronic device for some tips and real-world examples.
What if I know my total Wh and just want to get calculations for components?
You can enter it as one component line. Type in your total Wh for “Watts” and 1 for “Hour” and the rest of the calculator will function as normal.
Why is my solar system so big?
You are probably still planning to use power like you would in a house. Living in a van requires cutting down on unnecessary electronics as much as possible. The size of your system is directly related to cost. Here are some tips to cut back on electronic use.
Some general rules to follow are:
- Aim to use as many 12v DC powered electrics as possible
- Cook efficiently – fuels like propane and butane will make your system smaller than cooking with electricity. Try to cut back on induction burners, coffee makers, crockpots and other high-energy devices
- Make sure you have the correct hours listed for your refrigerator and electronics. Your fridge will not be running 24 hours per day. In cold weather, the compressor in a fridge may only be running 2-4 hours per day, despite the fridge being on the whole time. In hot climates it may be running as many as 8-16 hours. Similar to laptops and induction burners; they are not usually running at their max rated watts.
- Look back at your components. See what is drawing the most power and look at ways to reduce or eliminate it.
How much does AC vs DC power change the numbers?
We based our calculations on a 10% efficiency loss that occurs when using an AC inverter.
What is the difference between AGM, FLA and Lithium Batteries?
There are many differences between these batteries. But the main difference (as it relates to this calculator) is the depth of discharge – or DOD.
A lithium battery can be safely discharged up to 90% without shortening its lifespan. AGM and FLA batteries should only be discharged up to 50%. The less you discharge per cycle, the longer the batteries will last.
Because of these discharge rates, you will need a larger AGM or FLA battery for your system than you would with Lithium. You can read more about batteries here.
Can I also charge batteries using my vehicle?
Yes! Absolutely, and it is recommended to supplement any solar system unless you plan on driving infrequently. The best option is a battery to battery charger, many of which double as a solar charge controller. A cheaper option is to go with a battery isolator.
What is the difference between a PWM and MPPT charge controller?
The actionable difference lies in efficiency. A PWM controller uses less complicated and less efficient technology. With that said, for smaller 12V systems, it is often advisable to get a PWM controller and more solar panels get more bang for your buck. We recommend reading our post on charge controllers for more information.
Can I get a bigger charge controller and add more solar panels later?
Yes, this component can benefit from upsizing if you’re not sure if you’ll need more solar or not. With that said, it’s usually a lot of work to add more panels on the road so we like doing them all at once. Check out our article on charge controllers for more in-depth info.
What number should I use for Sun Hours?
The amount of power you get from the sun is determined by how much direct sunlight your panels get. If you are in the sun more often, then you need fewer panels to charge your batteries.
Basing your calculations at 4 sun hours is a good conservative estimate for most van dwellers’ varying lifestyles. If you have tilt-mounted panels or are mostly living in a sunny place like Arizona, then you might need less solar watts because you’ll be getting 5-8 hours of direct sunlight. You are welcome to play around with this number, and even combine it with your winter/summer total watts to see what a comfortable system size is for you.
Do I need an inverter?
No! If you don’t have any AC electronics you do not need an inverter, saving some money and efficiency.
How much lower than the recommended inverter size should I go?
As a general rule, smaller inverters are more efficient. If the biggest item you will be running is a 150W laptop, then getting a 1000W inverter is a waste of money and efficiency. Go with the smallest inverter that you will need with a bit of wiggle room. In this example, a 200W or 300W inverter would be fine for a 150W laptop.
Why is my inverter sized so small? I see other people recommend 1000W+ inverters all the time with a small battery bank.
Battery life is affected by how quickly you are using power. This is relative to how much total capacity the battery has, so larger batteries can discharge more quickly (hence a larger inverter). If you occasionally are using more power – such as a hair drier for a few minutes once a week – then you won’t be doing too much damage to your batteries. But if you’re twice daily using an 1800W induction burner, you’ll want a large battery bank to handle the heavy loads or else will be replacing your expensive batteries quickly. Read our article on inverters for more information. As a side note, the discharge capabilities of lithium batteries are significantly better than those of AGM or FLA.
Why didn’t you list ALL of the components I need? Wires, fuses, ect.
Your wire size is going to vary greatly depending on how far you are running them. Read our wiring guide for more details on how to size your specific system. It is difficult to predict how much wiring each different van build will have and the lengths needed, and we don’t want to have you ordering things that you don’t need.
Ok I got everything, now how do I put it all together?
Awesome! Click on the solar panel wiring diagram below closest to your numbers and get started! If you want more information on electricity, head over to our electrical home page.
This calculator is awesome! How can I support it?
Thanks! We fund our effort and research through affiliate links and advertising, so just by being here and using the site you’re thanking us. We want to share access to this amazing lifestyle with as many people as possible so this is our contribution.
That said, if you want to give us an extra boost, order your products through our Amazon Links!