With so many components, installing a solar system in your camper van can be very intimidating. Luckily, there are dozens of resources online that can help you become a pro in no time! Here is an overview of what each component does and why you need to install it.
The battery is the most important and most expensive component of your campervan solar system. These days, lithium batteries are the go-to. If you can afford it, our vote is lithium all the way! However, if you’re trying to stay within a tight budget, it`s okay to start with a flooded, gel, or AGM battery. You can always upgrade in the future!
One of the most important differences here is that you can use 100% of the power in a lithium battery without damaging it. A deep cycle lead-acid battery (flooded, gel, or AGM) can not be drained past 50% without damage.
Another key component that should be considered for anyone who lives in colder climates (like Canada) is that lithium batteries will not charge below 0°C! Canbat, a Canadian company out of Vancouver, has come up with an awesome solution to this. They offer a cold weather lithium battery that actual heats itself when the temperature drops below 0°C. These batteries can charge at temperatures as low as -35°C!
Although these batteries are a little pricier off the get go, they will save you a world of hassle down the road. If you are interested in purchasing any item from Canbat, you can use code MADETOTRAVEL at checkout for 5% off your entire order!
When it comes to this component you have 2 options. You can buy an inverter that will convert 12v to 110v power or you can buy an inverter/charger that will also charge your batteries when connected to an external power source (also known as shore power).
The inverter/charger is one of the most expensive components of a solar system besides the batteries, but it is extremely important. The inverter takes 12v energy from the batteries and converts it into 110v energy for you to use inside your camper van. Even though some of your components will probably be able to operate on 12v power, you will need a 110v outlet to charge laptops, camera equipment, or operate kitchen appliances.
When it comes to choosing an inverter, make sure to purchase a “Pure Sine” inverter. These are the most efficient inverters on the market. The biggest draw back to other inverters is that they will use power even when they aren’t in use.
The solar charger takes energy from your solar panel and converts it into an appropriate amount of power for your batteries. Each type of battery can accept a different amount of power. On most solar chargers, there’s a setting for both lead-acid and lithium batteries.
The most important part of choosing a solar charger is making sure that it is in fact an MPPT controller. These chargers use the most efficient kind of solar charger for your campervan solar system.
Renogy has created a Solar Charger/DC-to-DC Charger combination that can also be connected to your vehicle’s alternator.
DC to DC Charger
The DC to DC charger enables you to take power from your alternator in order to charge your solar batteries while driving. This can be quite useful on cloudy days or on days that you plan on doing more driving than being parked.
Renogy’s DC to DC Charger/Solar Panel is a great option to reduce cost and save some space. If you would like to keep these components separate, you can do so as well.
Solar panels are becoming more and more efficient and there are a few important things to consider before you purchase panels for your solar system. First, how much room do you have to mount them? On our van, we made sure to have enough room for 3- 180 watt panels. When your designing your roof layout (fan, skylights, etc.), its important to take into account the size of panels you’d like for your system.
The most efficient panels on the market today are called Monocrystalline panels which we would highly recommend. You can choose from soft or rigid panels. Soft panels are much more expensive but allow you to stealth camp easily. With that being said, as soon as you put a window or ladder on the side of your van it pretty much blows your cover anyway!
We chose to go with 2 of the BougeRV 180w solar panels and left room for 1 more panel in the future. This would allow us to have a total of 540 Watts of solar power! These panels are about $200 CAD each on Amazon.
Next up is to figure out how many amps/volts your solar charger can handle which will determine whether you wire your panels in series or in parallel. What does that mean? Well, wiring in series multiplies the voltage but keeps your amps the same. On the contrary, wiring in parallel multiplies the amps but keeps the volts the same.
The Renogy DC to DC Charger with MPPT can only handle a maximum of 25 volts (which sucks!) so we were stuck with wiring our panels in parallel. This means that we can have a maximum of 30 amps running through the 10 AWG wire between the charger and the panels. Luckily, we are okay with that, since our panels won’t exceed 30 amps.
Lastly, always use MC4 connectors on the exterior of your van. These connectors are completely water proof and easy to use. To penetrate through the roof or side of your van, use an entry gland. An entry gland will help ensure a weather-tight seal for your wiring.
Wire is an important component that is often overlooked in these campervan conversions. The reality is, using cheap wire can be dangerous and can actually damage your electrical devices.
Purchasing marine grade wire is key since camper vans can endure significant temperature changes, moisture, and vibrations. Marine-grade wire is rust-resistant, remains flexible in all temperatures, and has a durable coating that will protect it from rubbing against sharp edges when vibrating.
Fuses and Breakers
Fuses are one of the most essential components of the entire electrical system. Not only do fuses protect the wire, but they can also protect your electrical device when properly sized. Figuring out what size fuse to install on your circuit is important and is easier to do than you think!
- Step 1: Find the continuous amperage of the electrical device and multiply that number by 1.5
- Step 2: Round that number up to the nearest size fuse.
There are a few types of fuses in your solar system. The first is an ANL fuse. This is a large single fuse that is usually used to protect large wire/electrical components like inverters, chargers, and batteries.
While ANL fuses are perfect for DC circuits, circuit breakers work great for AC circuits. A breaker box is more expensive and larger, but is much easier to reset in the case of an overload. A fuse box is perfect for all of your DC electronic components and make for a clean install.
I would recommend installing a distribution panel that can handle fuses/breakers for both the AC and DC circuits. This will save you a considerable amount of space!
Busbars and Isolators
Busbars are installed to help organize your wiring by providing a stud for each electrical component. Instead of installing 5 lugs on your battery stud, you can install each wire lug on each stud, making it a much easier and cleaner install.
Isolators are just an On/Off switch used to isolate different parts of your electrical system during maintenance or repair. I would recommend installing an isolator switch on the positive lead for your battery, as well as on the positive wire for the solar panels.
Campervan Solar System Sources & Manufacturers
Canbat, Renogy, Victron, and Battleborn are among some of the more popular brands when it comes to choosing components for your solar system. Before choosing a brand, its VERY important to research the company to see how its customer service is and their warranty information.
Below are two resources that were extremely useful during my solar research and I would highly recommend checking them out! These guys really know their stuff.