Home, Vanlife Build

Vanlife Build: Electrical, Part 1: Planning / purchasing

We’re finally at the point where it’s time to electrify this thing. This can be a daunting task, and it’s been weighing on my mind for months. Luckily, as with all vanlife problems, there’s a wealth of information out there on how to proceed. I especially want to give a shout out to Gnomadhome for their “Epic Guide to Van Build Electrical” https://gnomadhome.com/van-build-solar-electrical-wiring/ I would have been lost without it.

Initially, I wanted to take the easy way out. The brand GoalZero makes an all-in-one power station. It incorporates a battery, inverter, charging station, plus some outlets. I would have to run wire to a fusebox to run the lights, fan, fridge, etc. Once the solar panels were feeding the GoalZero, you’d be done. Even though it was pricey ($1400), I liked the fact that the GoalZero was portable, and I wouldn’t have to learn how to be an electrician.

Yeti 1000 Lithium Highlights
Goal Zero Yeti 1000. Not purchased. Thanks pandemic!

COVID strikes again. I ordered a Goal Zero 1000 from REI, and waited. And waited. Then without explanation, the order was canceled. According to customer service, they were on indefinite back order. Inquiries to other vendors revealed the same thing. Time for a new strategy: I have to learn how to be an electrician.

I started really studying other peoples systems, particularly Gnomadhome’s. The one big thing he stressed was to draw out your schematic. It really helps you wrap your mind around individual components, what they do, and how they interact with the other components. Here’s mine:

Egyptian hieroglyphics are easier to read than this.

Once, I had this, I could start researching and purchasing. The following are all of my purchases so far with a brief description of each. I’ll also try to include a link to where I bought it.

Solar panels, 100w each.
Solar charge controller

The solarkit was handled by a company named Renogy. I purchased their 200w Premium kit for $465. https://www.renogy.com/200-watt-12-volt-solar-rv-kit/

VMAX 155ah deep cycle battery $359 on Amazon
Xantrex 1000w inverter, $244 on Amazon.
This is for converting 12v to 110/120v for standard wall outlet stuff.
Blue Sea Systems 12 circuit fuse box, $42 on Amazon
Keyline Battery Isolator, $114 on Amazon. This is a device that lets the van’s alternator switch from charging the van’s battery to charging the deep cycle battery. Very handy on cloudy/shady days when the solar panels might not be getting much sun.
Switch x2, $25 each on Amazon.
LED lights and dimmer switches. Eight warm light LED’s for living area, and two each cool white for the garage and kitchen. $30 per 4-pack on Amazon. Light switches were $17 each on Amazon.
12v power sockets, $7 each on Amazon
110v outlet with USB ports, $14 each on Amazon
More or less what my schematic looks like. Now, time to stuff it all into the van.

My next post will detail hooking all of this up. Hope it goes well!

Post script: It seems that for every confidence inspiring victory I have with this project, there’s a humbling mistake that proves that I am indeed a gigantic dolt. Example: Once I had gathered everything up in the living room, I decided to see if I could make some stuff work right there. I knew the battery had at least a little charge, so why not? I took some wire and ran it from the fuse box to a light switch to four of the lights. I put in a fuse, then cabled the fuse box to the battery. It works!! For ten minutes I sat and played with the switch, dimming the lights up and down, and making sure that Charisse was there to witness how amazing I was. With this confidence, I figured I’d try out the inverter next. I un-cabled the battery, and set about getting some cable for the inverter. I got it all sorted out, then attempted to cable it to the battery. ZZZZZZZTTT!! Big sparks. Inverter no worky. I had just made the most elementary of mistakes when hooking up electricity: I mistakenly went positive to negative, negative to positive. And because I didn’t run it through a fuse, the inverter was instantly cooked. Just when I thought I could let the credit card cool off a bit…

$250 boat anchor

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