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