Camper Van – Setting up the Electrics

Dual Battery System

Electric set up

Setting up a dual battery system is a key part of creating home in a camper van, especially if you want to travel with fresh food. For our requirements, we needed a fridge; lights (in the van and over the outside kitchen); an invertor to run our blender and charge our laptops & a USB connectors to charge our phones.

We ran our stove on gas as they use an immense amount of electricity. Kettles, toasters, etc also use huge amounts of electricity, so the stove was used for this as well … a pot for boiling water, and if you eat toast – a cast iron griddle with a bit of coconut oil will do the trick.

Below is how I did it … but just to mention, our van is older than 2011, newer models have a different electrical set up, and so the dual battery system set up is different.

Energy Requirements

Consider all your energy requirements and what you will then need. You want to run as much as possible off 12V – as this is what the battery system is. A lot of power is lost in the conversion to 240V on an inverter.

Fridges and lights, as well as USB connectors all run on 12V. House hold appliances and larger laptops, need to be run via the inverter. You do however get some small laptops that can be charged via the USB charger.

Here is a useful tool for watts to amps conversion.

To work out your power consumption, look at how many amps each appliance uses and how long it will be running for within a day. So for example if your lights use 2amp and are running for 4 hours a day, they will use 8ah (amp hours). The Fridge running at 5 amps and is on 40% of the time will use 48 ah over 24 hours. So for these two items, you will require 56ah.

An AGM deep cycle battery should never be depleted below 50% (or at most and only on occasion 40%), as this will reduce the amount of charge your battery can hold, and the life of your battery. Therefore a 120ah battery, gives you 60ah charge.

Make sure you have a watt mater and watch your battery – so that you can ensure you’re not draining it too low To properly check it, do it at night – when you’re not getting anything in from your solar panel, turn off all lights, fridge, etc – so nothing is inputting or outputting, let it settle for 15mins, then take a reading. I would suggest doing this every night, till you get an understanding. But if you’re driving a fair bit every day, and have a sufficient size battery for your requirements, it shouldn’t be a worry.

Watt Meter

It’s imperative you have one of these in order to watch your battery consumption. I purchased an AU for Analyzer Amp Ammeter Watt Meter LCD Wattmeter 60V 100A Power Volt, on eBay for $15 which served the purpose – most others out there are 5x the price.

Battery

When using a lead acid battery, it needs to be an AGM Deep Cycle. These are more expensive, but if the battery is inside the van, it needs to be AGM so there is no chance of it leaking poisonous gases. The deep cycle is also imperative as they are able to charge fully, so you get a much greater amount of stored energy.

Lithium Ion batteries are ideal, as they are much smaller and lighter, but at the time of set up were still far too expensive. Gel batteries are another option.

When choosing your battery, consider what your power usage will be so you can work out what size battery you will need. You can link up multiple batteries, it is more complex though, so we opted to get an SSB AGM 120ah deep cycle battery, which cost us about $300 at the time.

Also consider the make, SSB came recommended, and was also an affordable option. Century is one of the better known options, but after reading reports and talking to some people, it was said that the quality is not what it used to be as the manufacturing now being outsourced, the price remains high.

DC to DC convertor

It’s very important to get one of these, as this will charge your battery much quicker and deeper than if you’re running it direct. A lot of people didn’t seem to know about these, but it will make the world of difference to your power system.
It isolates the second battery from the alternator and offers a smart charging cycle, which is multi-stage, allowing you to get a full charge. Without one, you will probably only be able to get a 75% charge on your battery.
We went with a CTEK D250S for about $250. It works well with the battery to battery charging, but I am not too happy with the solar regulator, I think it’s dropping out some of our charge.

Other options include:
Projecta DC20
But you would need a separate solar regulator. $198
Projecta is a good, cost effective make with great customer service even when purchased from Ebay.

Redarc BCDC1225
This is the top of the range and so is costly. The cheapest I found was on ebay for $392.

Solar Panel

We bought a single semi-flexible 150 Watt panel. It’s not a top quality one, we bought it off ebay for under $200, but we’re not receiving the charge we should from it, so in hind sight a more expensive, better quality option would’ve been better.

Semi-flexible panels can be put straight on the roof, whereas for the others need to have a gap below. Find out more
Most people just glue their semi flexible panels straight on to their roof, we built a frame so we can slide it in and out – so if we stop somewhere long enough, we can pull it out and leave it in the sun (whilst parking in the shade). We mostly didn’t stopped anywhere long enough to warrant the extra hassle that involved though.

Power Charger

This charges your battery from a mains powerpoint. We didn’t use this all that much, but it did come in use when visiting people from time to time for longer periods, and would be useful if you frequent caravan parks.

On this system, you can just plug in, and your electrics continue to run via your battery (without needing to change everything over to 240V). We went for the Projecta IC1500 for $150, it has the 7 stage AGM charging cycle. The model required is determined by the size battery.

Wiring

This is a topic in and of itself. You need to work out how much voltage is being run through your wires, and what the length of the wire is, so you can see what gauge of wire you require (in order to prevent voltage dropout). This calculator can assist, and here is a link with some further reading.

Be sure to include circuit breakers within your set up, in order to know what size circuit breaker you need, work out the amperage that will flow to the appliances past that point. You can see on my diagram below the estimated amps for each appliance and the circuit breakers used.

I found it very helpful to draw up this diagram to work out how I wished to set everything up, what cable I would be using and therefore what size lugs I would need to buy. To connect the lugs / anderson plugs to the cables, you need a set of crimping tools, which I was lucky enough to be able to borrow. You then also need heat shrink, preferably the one lined inside with glue, and a heat gun. Cut your heat shrink, place it over the wire, put on the lug, crimp it, then pull the heat shrink over the lug and heat it up till it snugly wraps around the join.

Inverter

When choosing your inverter you will need to see what the maximum power requirement will be, and how many appliances may be running at once. For household appliances, we wanted a blender and food processor. To find one with low wattage, your best bet is to look at second hand options – for an older model, as they used to use much lower wattage and are just as efficient. So a simple stick blender that uses 300 Watts, and a food processor that uses 400 Watts cost us less than $10 together at the charity shop. A lot of these appliances will have an initial power surge that can be double that of the continous load. Most inverters these day will allow for this short additional burst.

Very importantly – if you will be running anything electronically sensitive, such as a laptop, you must have a pure sine wave inverter, not a modified sine wave.

They’re pricey as you go bigger, so we originally bought a Super Cheap Auto Calibre one 1000W for $249, but it was affecting the trackpads on our computers, we didn’t want to risk damaging our laptops and so took it back. Repco was having a half price special and we got a 600W one for $190 which has been great. The fan is noisy while it’s running, I don’t know if that’s the case with all of them (the Super Cheap one didn’t have a fan).
The Projecta ones I found cost 150W – $150; 350W – $220; 600W – $345; 1000W – $450

Lights

LEDs are by far the best option. We chose to use strip LEDs with dimmer switches. I was concerned that they may not be bright enough, but they were perfect. I just put a few strips up – one in the middle of the van, one towards the back, and one over the kitchen area.
I would also advise on getting yellow lights to minimise insects, otherwise they’ll just pour into your van. (From a health point of view, yellow lights are also advantageous as they don’t inhibit your melatonin production).

There are various options, but after some research I decided to buy these off ebay:
Lights 5050/3528 Flexible 300 SMD Light Strip LED Tape Car Outdoor Waterproof 12V 5M
Dimmer switches For each light – Mini LED Strip Light Controller Dimmer 12V 3528 5050 Sinlge Color ON/OFF Function
Connectors10pcs LED Strips 10mm PCB board with wire Connector Adapter for 5050 LED Strip

Fridge

For the fridge, I chose an Evakool RV 62l fridge – bought on special at Rays for $500. (If you’re on the Sunshine Coast though you can also get a factory seconds one – which are also available online). Evakool fridges are Australian made, so are well suited for the climate, they’re also much cheaper and don’t need an insulation case.

We keep ours at 10 degrees, as we mainly just use it for vegetables. This setting keeps the battery consumption lower, and doesn’t freeze up the veg. It’s best to keep your vegetable away from the back wall so they don’t ice up. We also have turned ours around, so the vents are the at the front, allowing it to cool down easily, it uses less power this way and keeps the fridge colder.

We turn ours off at night, as the EMF’s coming off a fridge are harmful to your body, so we don’t want to be in the electrical field while we’re sleeping. Here is a good read on fridge tips.

General Installation

As this is being put into a moveable vehical, be sure to bolt everything into place. Batteries should be be placed into a housing unit, we welded a case cage together as you can see in the pic. The bolts are drilled through the floor of van, and a similar stainless steel plate (like the one on top of the battery) is placed underneath the van to provide the strength needed. The same was done with eyebolts to tie the fridge down. Of course be sure to check that you’re not going to hit anything before drilling through the floor of the van.

As this is being put into a moveable vehical, be sure to bolt everything into place. Batteries should be be placed into a housing unit, we welded a case cage together as you can see in the pic. The bolts are drilled through the floor of van, and a similar stainless steel plate (like the one on top of the battery) is placed underneath the van to provide the strength needed. The same was done with eyebolts to tie the fridge down. Of course be sure to check that you’re not going to hit anything before drilling through the floor of the van.
For all the electrical elements, we created a shelved box that housed everything, and bolted each item into the box, wires all cut to length, and also labeled for easy identification.

More information

This is such a huge topic, as all the aspects are interlinked, it took a lot of research, and talking to people who do know what they’re talking about … and then so many people who don’t. I would highly recommend the book Recreational Power Guide – Batteries and Charging for further reading, it explains everything in depth, whilst being simple and clear.

Best of luck on the set up of your power system. Check out my other blog on how I set up the living space in my camper van.

By | 2017-12-28T10:03:27+00:00 December 20th, 2015|Lifestyle|5 Comments

About the Author:

Natalie has a passion for healthy and circular living, and is always exploring spaces where she can learn from people with expansive knowledge. With a background in graphic/web design and film, she uses these communication skills to share the valuable knowledge she encounters. Following 10 years in London, feeling the disconnection of society on so many levels, she explored the more alternative lifestyle communities in Wales and France, and then spent a year in a camper van travelling around Australia, living in the bush and visiting eco villages, learning about health, nutrition and regenerative/natural living. She has since returned to her home country, South Africa, where she works in multimedia and communication with projects that focus on a healthy world. Some of these include African Earth Rights (Love local, love sustainable); Soil for Life (who teach organic gardening, and wellbeing in impoverished areas); Good Life Organics (suppliers of organic products); Wild and Waste Free (Packaging free, community focused shop); TAGDit (social media app for deep democracy and information sharing within groups); PHA Campaign (Protecting Cape Town's primary food growing area).

5 Comments

  1. Mikal February 22, 2017 at 8:52 am - Reply

    Very comprehensive overview of the requirements for setting up the “electrics on the road”. I got lost somewhere along the way as i get shocked changing a light bulb or trying to get the toast out the toaster with fork and can never understand why. Perhaps you can help? I hvent had toast in 6 months as I still have toast in the toaster and too afraid to change the bulbs in the house.

    Please help.
    Mikal

    • natnol February 22, 2017 at 5:52 pm - Reply

      Dear Mikal
      My recommendation would be to switch to salads, they don’t need toasting….
      and perhaps keep to daylight hours.
      Good luck!

  2. joe hempstead January 19, 2018 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    Wow! Really appreciate your great efforts in product description and lay out! This is exactly what I have been seeking before I make the plunge into the world of electronics, I did a small conversation a few years back and had the same lack of power in my inverter which would never really charge my lap top… just about to start a new small project & this is all wonderful helpful!
    So much appreciated Natalie

    Joe

    • Natalie Nolte January 22, 2018 at 12:56 pm - Reply

      Hi Joe
      Thanks for your great feedback .. it took so much research via different sources to piece together the puzzle, so I’m happy to be able to share the information and hopefully make it a little simpler for others.
      For your laptop make sure you use a Pure Sine Wave Inverter, a Modified Sine Wave gives ‘dirty’ electricity, and will damage sensitive tech like laptops. I even initially had a cheap Pure Sine Wave inverter, and my mouse was doing it’s own dance, and the computer was behaving very strangely, I replaced it with a better quality option and it was perfect. Some of the smaller notebooks can even be charged directly via the USB socket.
      Best of luck with your setup!

  3. Anna Varney-Wong January 26, 2018 at 5:06 pm - Reply

    Super work Nat! I’m a big fan!

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