Building out a campervan can be a learning experience. You have to learn about installation, flooring, cabinetry all in a very small space. If you want to have lights, running water, or electricity then you also have to learn how to install a campervan solar system. This means learning and understanding electricity in a small space.
In our first van, we had zero electricity. We used solar-powered cube lights and charged our phones/ computers at coffee shops. In our second van, we knew wanted electricity and so we learned how solar worked and how to install it. Now after building out a third van, we feel we finally have a true basic understanding of a campervan solar system and what it entails.
If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed and need some guidance on what you need to purchase for your campervan solar system then continue reading as we dive into all the different components to make your van have electricity.
Having power in your van is a game-changer when hitting the open road and living like a nomad. Many have done it successfully without a solar setup by just using a deep cycle battery and battery isolator. We traveled for a few months from Washington state cross country to North Carolina without a campervan solar system or electric system. However, we learned real quick that it was important to have some sort of electrical system to continue traveling full time.
Electricity in a campervan allows you to feel like you are living in a home instead of a van. You are able to have lights, a fan, running water, and are able to charge your devices. If you add solar panels and batteries you can then go without plugging in and are able to go off-grid. This means you don’t have to pay for camping because you don’t need a power source.
Van Life Power Options
Campervan solar systems range from custom component installations such as what we have used in our previous two vans to a simple plug-and-play Goal Zero or Jackery type system. While the component campervan solar system sounds intimidating after reading this our goal is to take that intimation away and give you the confidence you need to dive in and hit the road all powered up.
How Much Solar Do I Need For My Van
This is the number one question most people ask about a campervan solar system and honestly, there isn’t a right answer to this. It all depends on what you want to power, where you’re primarily going to travel and stay, and for how long. For example, if you are planning on staying in the Pacific North West you will likely need a larger battery bank and solar set up than if you were say in Southern California or Florida where there are fewer cloudy days.
We currently have a Maxxair fan, 14 LED lights, USB outlets, a couple of 110v regular house outlets, a 12v refrigerator, and a water pump. If that sounds like a lot then prepare to be surprised, all of this is powered by 300 watts of solar panels and 300 amp hours of batteries. This works well for us as we tend to travel all over the country from Florida to the PNW.
When planning out your campervan solar system a good rule to go by is to match your solar panel wattage to your battery bank size. A basic campervan solar system for sunny climates with limited overcast days would be 200 watts of solar and a 200 AH battery bank.
In theory, this would be enough to power a 12-volt refrigerator, campervan lights, charge your phones, and a computer. However, ideally, 300 watts of solar and 300 AH would be a better option for those cloudy/shady days. In addition to the campervan solar system, we definitely advise on getting a DC-DC charger or get one built into your charge controller like the Renogy one we have. This DC-DC charger also known as a battery isolator works by harnessing excess power created by your vehicle’s alternator and charges your solar batteries.
How an isolator works is when your vehicle’s started batter is at the optimal voltage the isolator or DC-DC charger will take the extra power from your alternator and top off or charge your solar batteries. Now if you opt for the Renogy DC-DC MPPT charge controller like we did you will also have the ability to reverse that charge when needed.
For example, when you are camping in a remote area and haven’t started your vehicle in a few days your starter battery will have some discharge. The DC-DC MPPT will take the extra power your panels are pulling in after charging your solar battery bank and send that power to your starter battery, thus giving you peace of mind to never be with a dead starter battery.
Camper Van Solar System
When it comes to building out your campervan solar system there is no competition like Renogy. Renogy has been around for years, has great customer service, and is priced well. We highly recommend Renogy and have had great success using their products.
If you opt for a simpler plug-and-play system then we recommend going with Goal Zero. Plenty of van lifers have used their system and find it easy to install and use.
A campervan solar system component set up consists of solar panels, batteries, a charger controller, and a power inverter. These are the exact components we purchased from Renogy for our Ford Transit build.
50amp DC-to-DC MPPT charge controller
BT-2 Bluetooth module
20 amp Inline waterproof Solar fuse
3 – 100 watt compact solar panels
3 to 1 Solar Branch Connectors
Solar Cable Entry Housing
or purchase on Amazon
Campervan solar system plug-in-play system consists of a charger controller power inverter and battery combo unit that allows you to simply plug your solar panels into the unit and has output plugs for powering your lights, refrigerator, charging your phone and computer, and so on.
Solar panels are sold separately.
Best 2000 Watt Inverter
The inverter takes the 12v power made by the charge controller and inverts it to regular 110v power so you can charge your computer or use a blender. We chose a 2000 watt Pure Sign wave inverter by Renogy because of their excellent quality control and top-notch customer service. 2000 watts isn’t necessarily needed if you are only planning on charging computers and cameras, but if you want to use a blender or even a hairdryer you will need something around the 2000 watt range. We have a Vitamix which is a beast and is a huge addition to our kitchen but it takes about 1,400 watts to power.
After analyzing your needs for 110v whichever inverter you go with make sure it’s a pure sine wave inverter as they are much more efficient and put less strain on your battery system when powering electronics.
Our Top Choice: Renogy 2000 Watt Pure Sine Inverter
Use code WildGooseCreatives to receive 10% off your Renogy purchase at Renogy.com.
Honorable mention: GOWISE – a more cost-effective option
Van Life Battery Setup
A vanlife battery setup is a powerhouse for your entire campervan solar system. The two types of batteries most people consider are AGM and Lithium batteries. Each battery has its pros and cons. When wiring up your batteries you need to wire them up the same way you wire your solar panels as in series or parallel. I will differentiate between the two options below in the solar panel wiring section.
AGM batteries are what you are going to see used the most amongst vanlifers. They are cheaper and more readily available. The downside is that they are not going to last as long as lithium batteries.
- Less than half the cost of lithium batteries priced at $250-$300
- Last 4-7 years with proper care and maintenance.
- Only half of the battery storage can be used before deteriorating the life of the battery.
- Larger and heavier than lithium.
Our AGM Battery Choice: Renogy 200 AH
Use code WildGooseCreatives to receive 10% off your Renogy purchase at Renogy.com
Lithium batteries are the gold standard in the van life world. They last for years and are won’t deteriorate if you happen to zap your solar system. If you are heavily using your solar system then it might be worth the money to invest in lithium.
- Availability to use the entire battery storage without harming the battery life.
- Lithium batteries also last twice if not three times as long as AGM.
- A lithium battery can last 8-10 years.
- Expensive cost around $700-$1000
Our Lithium Battery choice: Renogy 170AH
Use code WildGooseCreatives to receive 10% off your Renogy purchase at Renogy.com
For all of your lights and outlets, the gold standard is 12 AWG sized wire, we opted for a marine grade wire as it has thicker insulation. For wiring between the batteries, charge controller, and inverter, we used 4 AWG wire. You will also need to install a positive power wire between your batteries and the charge controller, then again between your inverter and charge controller, and finally between your solar panel and charge controller.
Campervan Solar Panel Installation
Before starting your campervan solar panel installation you need to decide if you want to wire them in series or parallel. I will explain why both options are used for different reasons below.
Parallel Solar Panel Installation
Parallel Campervan solar panel installation is used in smaller more basic solar installations such as a van, RV, or tiny home. This method will double your amps all while keeping your voltage the same. More amperage means more power and faster charging times but the downside is that large solar arrays such as up to 1000 watts of panels have a hard time traveling over long distances due to the high amperage without using large 4 AWG cables.
In a van, you should not have a problem as this distance is typically rated for over 100 feet. How to install solar panels in a parallel system is fairly simple, all you do is plug all the positive lines into each other and all the negatives into each other, this is done by using a branch connector.
Series Campervan Solar Panel Installation
Series Campervan solar panel installation is used in smaller installations as well, series connections will double your voltage while keeping your amperage the same. The main benefit to using the series connection is that the voltage is able to be transferred over a longer distance without losing power. The downside to series and its biggest threat is shade. Solar panels connected in series depend on each other, therefore if one is shaded it will affect the entire array, where this is not an issue when wiring panels parallel.
To wire your panels in a series you do not need a branch connector like you do when using the parallel option, all you do is plug the negative end of one panel into the positive end of the other.