Solar Van Conversion (Under $500!) for Dummies

Any reading and research you do on van conversions will likely lead you to one conclusion: the electrical system in a van will make or break your conversion project.

Throughout the renovation process, there is literally not one better feeling than when you flip on the lights (and fridge, outlets, stove, speakers, etc) and everything is working flawlessly.

Is this going to happen the very first time you hook it all up? If you do your research and read everything we’re writing, then of course it will. If not, you might struggle, and I wish you luck!

Introduction

Now, you might think the title is click-bait, and that for under $500 you’ll only get some crappy solar set-up that can’t even charge your phone. WRONG! Couldn’t be more wrong.

Now, could you get a more intense and awesome system for more money? Sure. You could also bring your van to an contractor and have them do the whole set-up. You could also flush your money down the toilet, it is your life!

I am telling you that you (YOU! you all-powerful bad-ass human being, you!) can complete an entire van conversion solar electrical setup that will give you as much light and battery charge as you need to take on the world. And I’m telling you that you can do it for less than $500.

Okay, let’s get down to it, gotta get the gear, can’t do a job without the gear.

Solar Panels

As you can imagine, your solar panels will be a pretty critical portion of your solar system set-up. We chose to get 2 100 Watt solar panels from Renogy (through Amazon) for a few reasons:

  1. 200 Watts is more than enough power coming in on a sunny day for us to power our lives, including:
    • LED Lights
    • Refrigerator
    • Phone charging
    • Computer charging
    • Camera charging
    • Miscellaneous things plugged in
  2. These 2 panels fit side-by-side mounted on our roof rack
  3. Renogy is a solid company, and we have access to call their tech support team any time we have an issue or question

At the time of this publishing, a 100 Watt Renogy panel cost $94.99 on Amazon. Therefore, 2 of these brings our cost to about $190.

Solar Charge Controller

When we first started doing research, we had no idea what a solar charge controller was and why it was necessary. Now, we know, and lucky for you we love sharing.

The solar charge controller is basically the brain of your entire electrical system set-up. This bad boy takes all of the power coming from the solar panels, and routes it appropriately to the battery and the load.

What on earth is the load?

We had the same question. The load is everything that USES electricity in your system. The lights, refrigerator, chargers, all of it together makes up your system’s load.

Again, we went with Renogy for our solar charge controller, and specifically chose the Rover 20 Amp version, for the following reasons:

  1. The Rover is a Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) controller. Without getting too in-the-weeds, this means that the Rover knows how to MAXIMIZE the power output from the solar panels. Worse charge controllers will not do this, and your whole system will perform worse as a result.
  2. The Rover has a screen that tells you the current system status, and tells you about any potential errors occurring at any given time.
  3. Safety: the Rover has many safety features built-in, preventing over-charging and under-charging of your battery, something you DEFINITELY want to avoid, especially in the close quarters of a van conversion.
  4. Again, Renogy is a respected company with a good tech support team and a full 1 year warranty on your device!

At the time of this publishing, the Rover was $99.99, bringing our total cost to $290.

Miscellaneous Solar Set-up Items

Since we bought 2 separate solar panels, we are going to need a set of Y connectors to wire them together in parallel. If you want to read up on ‘parallel’ and ‘series’ circuits, here you go, but it is not necessary.

If you are mounting your panels onto a roof rack or in some other way, you will probably need mounting hardware for the panels. This may not be necessary in your set-up, but if it is, here is the hardware.

Finally, if you need wire extensions, here is a 5 foot wire extension you may need depending on where you are mounting your panels and solar charge controller.

Assuming we need all of these items a set of Y connectors ($8.00), 2 sets of mounting hardware ($15 each) and 2 extension cables ($11 each). This brings the solar accessory cost to $50, and the total cost so far to $340.

Deep Cycle Battery

If the solar charge controller is the brain of your set-up, then your battery is the heart. The battery is what will hold all of your electrical power, it is what the solar power is routed to, and what the system load is routed from.

Essentially, a bigger battery will give you more power, and a smaller battery will give you less. However , a bigger battery usually costs more. Note that ‘bigger’ doesn’t refer to size, but to the power, which is measured in amp-hours (Ah).

Also, note that any battery you get should have the correct voltage called out by your charge controller. For the Rover, that means a 12 Volt battery.

That’s a lot of electrical mumbo-jumbo, here’s what you need to know. If you’ve followed what we have so far, with 2 100W panels and the Rover controller, we recommend getting a 12V deep cycle battery that is between 110 Ah and 220 Ah.

We have a 110 Ah battery, and this provides us with enough juice to power our fridge, lights, miscellaneous chargers, and more.

Shopping for the Battery

Okay, being completely honest, the battery is where we were able to save a LOT of money compared to typical retail prices. How? A little bit of research and calling around.

Now that you have an idea of what you need, head to your best friend www.google.com and search for battery retailers near you. Then, one by one, give them a call, explain what you’re looking for, and ask what they can do for you.

If you want help learning some negotiation tactics, here are our best:

We were able to find a battery retailer in our area that had 110 Ah batteries on sale for $65. Zach rushed out right away to pick one up, and we never looked back.

This $65 brings our total cost up to $405.

Lights & Switches

You are going to want lights in you’re van, no doubt about it. Now, there are good lights and bad lights. The good ones are LED light strips, in our opinion. These are cheap, extremely easy to install, and can be ‘hidden’ up in corners and other nooks and crannies in the van. Here’s what we have:

Switches. We couldn’t live without the switch system we mounted in the van. We have a switch that turns on the refrigerator, lights, and basically every part of our system that uses power.

Why? In case of emergency. We want to be able to turn off the fridge if we don’t have enough power, especially if we don’t have perishable food in there. We can then conserve our power to use on more important items, like lights or chargers.

Here’s the switch system we bought and absolutely love:

We love that all of our switches are mounted in one place. It makes things so easy to turn off and on, and as an added bonus there are 2 USB chargers that are wired right into this panel for you to use however you wish!

Of course, there are a lot of options for lighting and switches. However, you should ABSOLUTELY stick with LEDs no matter what. With what we’ve chosen for lights ($8) and switch ($22) our total cost is up to $435.

Refrigerator

The refrigerator was a bit of a deal breaker for us. We did NOT want to get on the road and only eat fast food, or only eat from the dry goods aisle. We wanted fresh produce, fresh snacks, and of course CHEESE!

Therefore, we made sure we designed a refrigerator into our solar system set-up. Now, which refrigerator to choose. This will be largely up to you, but here’s what we recommend.

This bad boy is efficient and should fit nicely in any number of places in your van. It should also have enough space to fit a good week’s worth of food! Best part, it doesn’t break the bank at $65.

This Wagan refrigerator is the one we ended up going with. We have loved the size and efficiency, and it is GREAT at keeping our food cold (it better be, right?..). At the time we bought it the price was just right at $63. However, the price has increased up to $110 (at the time of this publishing) so we’re not sure it is worth it at that price point.

Either way, whichever you decide, you’ll be able to keep a good amount of food at a great temperature! If you choose the top fridge, that will bring the total cost of your ENTIRE electrical system up to $500!

Optional Additions

There are so many things you can add to your electrical system to make it yours. Really, there are endless opportunities, especially if you’re willing to think outside the box! Here are a few more standard items that you may want in your system.

Inverter

If you plan on routinely using items that have a traditional plug-in (versus a USB plug-in, you’ll probably want an inverter. Here is one that should be able to accommodate most (if not all) of your travel needs in your van conversion.

This inverter can plug-in to your 12V plugin that is attached to the switch panel you’ve already purchased!

What’s more? While the van is on and in-use, you can plug the inverter into your van’s 12V outlets (cigarette lighters) and you won’t be pulling any charge from your solar system battery! Just make sure you don’t do this while the van is off, or you might drain your van’s battery.

Flood Lights

You may be worried about camping out in the wilderness at night. You may want a well-lit area for evening card games or an outdoor food-prep station. You may just have a thing about lights!

Whatever your reason, there are a LOT of uses for a movable LED light as part of your electrical system. Here is an option with a TON of versatility that would be a welcome addition to anyone’s van life adventure.

Battery Charger

You may want a back-up to your solar power system as a ‘just-in-case’. Maybe you’ll run into a ridiculously long string of sun-less days. Maybe your a tree falls on your solar panels and blocks them without you noticing. Maybe you accidentally park for a week in the shade.

Regardless, it will give you peace-of-mind to have a battery charger along. This type of charger plugs into a standard wall outlet, and will charge your deep cycle battery, if for any reason your solar panels are not able to.

An added benefit, you can also use this to charge your van’s battery if you ever are in a pinch! It might be a random scenario where you have a dead van battery AND access to a wall outlet, but still, you never know!

Now What?

Okay, now that you’ve purchased everything that you’ll need for your off-grid solar van conversion, now what? Time to put it all together.

We’re working on a post on how to assemble your solar power set-up for your van. Stay tuned! In the meantime, we learned a TON about assembly from Gnomad Home.

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About the author

We are Zach, Julie, and Kobe, the creators of Ruhls of the Road! We would love to hear from you, send us a message!

Comments

  1. What is the disadvantages of this rig? I’m thinking of doing it this way myself, but I would like to know what to watchout for?

    1. We have found it to be really nice! Since writing this, we have increased our battery capacity from 110 AH to 220, but the solar panels and controller have worked beautifully. Our fridge works great, but if we hit a streak of days without sun it can drain the battery. So we be careful not to overdischarge the battery, which is a pain, and something to watch out for

What do y'all think??

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