Planning to wire your van

Most DIY’ers who wire their van don’t think about the possibility of a fire. But it can happen if you use the wrong size wire.

Without going into theory and all the technical stuff; think for a moment what you know about an electric heater.

When you look inside the electric heater you see wire. It could be straight, coiled or whatever. But when power is turned on and electricity is applied the wires glow.

The more current/voltage applied the brighter and hotter it gets.

The knob on the electric heater, in theory, is like adding more electronic devices to a wire. The more you add, the hotter the wire gets.

Be mindful of this when you are planning and wiring your van. Here are some articles that may help you.

Choosing the right solar panel to fit your needs

Solar panels come in different sizes and types. If this is your first time looking into solar for your van, then your in the right place. If you choose the right type of panel, battery bank and build a environment to match your needs, you will have reliable and long lasting energy source.

7 Types of solar panels

  • Monocrystalline
  • Polycrystalline
  • Thin-Film
  • Amorphous Silicon
  • Biohybrid
  • Cadmium Telluride Solar Cell (CDTe)
  • Concentrated PV Cell (CVP and HCVP)

I will only discuss Monocrystalline and Polycrystalline which are the two most common used in a van.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels (Mono-SI)

Mono panels have a high power output and occupy less space and last the longest. I have one on top of my van from Harbor Freight $149.99. I purchased them because they work best in Washington State weather where the sun is a problem during overcast spring, fall and winter months.

My Mono panels still charges in overcast weather, although not as fast is if there was direct sunlight. Mono panels also are also slightly less affected by high temperatures compared to polycrystalline panels.

Polycrystalline Solar Panels (Poly-SI)

These panels are made by melting raw silicon onto the panels. This process is much faster and cheaper than monocrystalline panels.

This leads to a lower final price but also lower efficiency (around 15%) and shorter lifespan since they are affected by hot temperatures.

Making a choice

The differences between these two types of solar panels are not so significant. Your choice will depend on your specific situation and money.

How many watts do you need?

Solar panels are meant to recharge batteries and not meant to directly run 12 volt devices (unless you find one that has built in USB or other. Although sunless weather can affect the output of your panels, in a idea situation, the size (100, 200 or 300 watt) of the panel(s) determines how quickly your battery bank can be recharged.

I recommend that you concentrate on the battery bank size first. Heres why?

When I decided to convert my van to a camper I never had or used solar. So I spent several months dusting off my electronic skills and researching my options. I decided to start off small.

While visiting Harbor Freight for something else, they were having a Father’s day sidewalk sale (2019) and I saw 100 watt solar panels for $149.99 – I grabbed the last one and when inside and found a solar battery and purchased both. One 35 amp hour batteries from Harbor Freight, and their 100 watt mono solar panels – total cost around $250.00.

With the 2 batteries at 12 volts — doing the math 12 x 35 = 420 watts for camping. Keep in mind I was new to all of this.

I hooked up my 2000 watt inverter and added a bunch of stuff to my van and plugged them in with no regard to how much power I was consuming. BIG MISTAKE!!

Horrible first night

At camp I watched movies, listening to audio books and drank cold juice. I was in paradise. Throughout the day I kept cool by running a couple of fans. Kept my inverter on so that I had power to my laptop, tablet and cellphone. I also had a small refrigerator.

I was awakened at 3 in the morning by a loud alarm buzzing beneath my bed. It was my inverter warning me of low battery levels. I turned off my inverter and disconnected all of my devices and went back to bed.

The next morning I decided to do some calculations to determine what happened.

  • iPad (45 watts)
  • Seagate Wireless Hard drive (9 watt)
  • MacBookAir (65 watts)
  • Fan 1.8 watts (two of them totalling 3.6 watts)
  • Refigerator (45 watts)
  • Samsung Tablet (85 watts)
  • Water pump (1.3 watts)
  • Light (30 watt)

Add them up and I get 253.9 watts against, ideally, 420 watts of battery juice. I said ideally, because the inverter uses power when it converts 12 volt DC to 120 AC to run my lights and recharge my MacBookAir. I needed to subtract 15/20% used by the inverter from the available watts of 420 that my battery provides.

That would leave me with 399 watts to work with. But because my batteries are acid based I should not drain them below 50% which is what happened.

399 minus 253.9 watts is about 145.1 watts left over, in which my inverter was kind enough to let me know I was in the danger zone. Also, my solar control turned off and showed a low battery warning. That ruined my first night out in my solar camper van. I had to wait until morning for sun in order to recharge my batteries – which seemed like forever.

Today

Since May 2019, on that dreadful day, I built my battery bank up slowly. Today I have a total of 2.5 kilowatts of power (6 batteries at 35ahr). More than I’d ever need. I still have my 100 watt panels on my van and they work so well.

I also run some electronics 24/7 with no worries (sun or shade).

Kitchen light project 2020

I wanted to add lighting to the kitchen. Since you may customize your van differently I’ve only included materials to get the lights working.

The light is a kit of 6 lights. In this project I am only showing two (2) of them. If your interested in the wiring see the wiring diagram blog.

Material

  • 1/4 inch plywood with a 2 7/8 circular cut
  • LED Light Kit (6) lights.

Ceiling lights project 2020

Note: I’ve since took these down. They didn’t feel right. However, I left the article if someone wants to do this as a project.

I did use them in my Tiny Kitchen which turned out really nice.

Amazon purchase $29.99, 12 Volt Led Lights for RV Boat Trailer Camper – Warm White 3000K 300 Lumens 3W, Low Voltage Recessed Light Dimmable, Pack of 6

Metal railing so that I can adjust the position or placement of the light.

Electrical redesign project 2020

It’s that time of year for van upgrades in this post I plan to redo my camper van’s electrical system.

The Plan

  • Add two additional Harbor Freight 35 amp hour batteries bringing the battery bank total to 2,520 available watts (2.5kw).
  • Wire and block: Add two 10 feet – 6 gauge positive wires from the battery bank to block feeds (left and right side of the van) for positive feeds.
  • Wire and fuse block: Add two 10 feet – 6 gauge negative wires from the battery bank to fuse blocks (left and right side of the van) for negative fees.
  • Add shore power: Drill a hole in the rear stowaway and mount the 125v 15A plug.
  • Redesign lighting and privacy.
  • Add security system and motion sensing devices.
  • Rewire electrical for plumbing.
  • Wire refrigeration
  • Wire fan and circulation

The material

Some items aren’t listed here because I purchased them from HomeDepot. The items you see below came from Amazon.com so it was easy to source the photos.

What your looking at is my van’s stowaway compartments. The floor is a 4 x 8 plywood with two doors cut where the stowaway seats were located. This is where my solar battery bank is located. I purchased 2 more batteries from Harbor Freight 6 x 35 amp hour = 210 amps. Take that value 210 x 12 volts and I get 2,520 watts available. That around 2.5 kilowatts of power.

6 AWG terminals

The Tiny Office wiring

I purchased 25 feet of 6 gauge red wire and 25 feet of 6 gauge black wire from Home-depot for about $35.00. This wire is the same thickness as the wires used by the battery terminals. Since all of the voltage from every connected device will be drawing current I needed the largest wire possible, since there is only a single run for the positive and negative connections chances of the wires heating up is reduced. A wire too small for the current will warm up and possibly damage the shielding; eventually catching fire.

Wire run

I ran the 6 gauge wires from my battery bank – under the exposed gap underneath the 4 x 8 plywood floor (along the sides) to the back of my tiny office.

The gaps under my plywood floor made it easy to run my wires.

The 6 gauge wire is very stiff and coated with an additional plastic shielding, which means its hard to cut or damage. I ran the negative wire to the fuse box and the positive wire to the wire block.

Fuse Block

I choose to buy two smaller fuse blocks for my van so that I have one on each side of my van. One for the office and one for the bedroom and kitchen area.

Making the marine switch panel

Once I removed the station for my Jackery (generator) I had a gap at the back of the office where my 120 volt AC box was located, so I grabbed a piece of paneling and traced, cut and mounted the switch.

2019 van setup. Notice where the Jackery 240 watt inverter is located.
Notice the Jackery is replaced by a control panel.

The control panel

I took a piece of paneling and did some tracing and cutting. Then cut the sticky tile I purchased from Walmart.

I don’t show the inverter installation, but I do have a 500 watt inverter installed and controlled by a switch on the panel.

Finished Work

The Kitchen and Bedroom cabinet wiring

Installed a new refrigerator, reading light, switches. Rewired the water pump, kitchen light.

Wiring

Finished electrical work

Solving a problem

I try to use space as wisely as possible. One problem I need to overcome is using unnecessary floor space. My struggle was where to put my dishes, food and sometimes the clothes I’m wearing.

I also had a challenge of where to put my coat or rain gear. So I came up with a solution.

My Shelf-ie thingy (Headliner)

I don’t know what to call it. I just wanted a place to put my stuff so they aren’t thrown under the bed or in the middle of the floor.

I went to home depot and purchased a 1 inches x 10 inches x 10 Wood board to build this.

This is the thingy majig shelf
Night shot.

This morning when I got up, I decide to add a shelf.

Then some lighting and my blackout curtains (gotta replace them.

Choosing the right DC wire for your van.

Current flows through electronics is converted to energy and measured in amps.

Since a wire that is too small can overheat and eventually catch fire its important that you choose the correct wire.

How to use the chart

  • Locate the amps: Most electronic devices include a ratings chart either as a label on the device or a document accompanying the device.
  • Measuring how long: Measure the distance from the source (battery) to the device then multiply by 2. The total length of the measurement is called the circuit round-trip.
  • Determine the allowable voltage drop: Voltage drop is the decrease of electrical potential across connectors. Voltage drop in your home, for example, is when you turn on a fan and the lights flicker. Electronic devices (such as tablets, cell phone, laptops are) sensitive to voltage drops and are considered critical devices.

Example:

  • You have a refrigerator rated at 80 amps and determine it is not a critical device.
  • Locate the Non-critical column on the chart.
  • You’ve measure the distance from the battery and the electronic device and determine the distance to be 25 feet.
  • To get the round-trip total multiply by 2. (25 x 2 = 50)
  • From the non-critical column slide your finger down on the chart until you locate 50 ft.
  • Slide your finger to the right and locate 80A (amps).
  • 80 amps at 50 feet require 4 AWG wire.

Questions and Answers

Q: Is it okay to use a wire that is larger than needed?

A: A wire too large for the circuit is not a problem; it costs more. But you should be fine.

Q: How warm can a wire get before I should be concerned?

A: A warm wire indicates that the load (current) flowing through the wire is higher than the wire is rated for and could potentially melt or weaken the sleeve preventing and protecting the circuit from shorting out on the other wire causing a fire.

Another note:

If you plan to run more than one device on a wire. Add the amps together to determine the correct wire size.

Q: Can I safely hook up a tinkle charger to my batteries.

A: Yes it’s okay to use a trickle charger. You don’t want to over charge your batteries so make sure you have a device to warn you or a trickle charger that will not over charge your batteries by shutting off. I have one for my motorcycle, that shuts off and on when needed.

Overcharging a battery will heat the battery, cause swelling and smell like rotten eggs.

Q: How many batteries can I add.

A: You can charge as many batteries together as you like but all of the batteries must be the same amps. You cannot mix 35ah batteries with smaller or large amps.

You also do not want to mix battery types. If you purchased acid batteries, then use all acid batteries.