In this project I added LED lights to the headliner of my van, the kitchen and entry and I also designed a lamp frame for my reading lights.
I purchased a ceiling mount for TV from Amazon and originally had my 12 volt TV attached to the ceiling. But when I attached my Raspberry Pi 4, which runs my entertainment (Plex TV) amongst other things. The 12 volt TV would not display Ubuntu 20 and I had to try something else.
I looked at the power source for one of several monitors and the power source was 12 volts. So I connected the monitor to the ceiling mount and 12 volt power and it works. But I could not fold the monitor, it was hitting my Maxx Fan frame.
So I solved the problem by building my extension for the ceiling mount.
Making the custom mount
Installing the custom mount
After I built my custom roof rack and mounted my solar panels I wanted to run the wires into the van professionally. In the past I would run the wires along the back door. Since I was changing the direction of the water, sometimes I get small amounts of water leaking at the back gate.
I purchased a cable entry plate from Amazon.
To install it I did the following:
- Drilled a hole through the roof.
- Cleaned debris from the roof.
- Added putty to the cable plate.
- Use self-tapping metal screws and mounted it to the roof.
- Feed the wires through the holes,
- Tightened them up
I happened to visit Harbor Freight for something entirely different and walked out with their new Mono Solar Panels for $99.00. I bought two of them to replace the very large (4 x 25watt) 100 watt panels combined with 2 smaller 100 watt panels.
The problem is, the panels will not fit the roof rack on the Chrysler Town and County. So I built one myself from aluminum I purchased at Homedepot.
I made my own brackets and awning brackets.
I’ve had the new generator sitting outside the shipping box for several weeks. I was in a hurry to get the generator, but not in a hurry to try it out. Typical Bill King.
Today after working in the yard, and starting repairs on my yard fence I had some more strength left in my body to carry the propane generator into the garage and start her up for the first time.
I had to remove two screws at the very top to the maintenance panel so that I can access the oil fill to add motor oil.
With the panel removed I have access to the air filter, and the oil filler hole. Now that I’ve filled it with oil time to connect the propane tank.
I connected the propane tank.
Prime the tank.
This thing is really quiet. It started, for the first time, with 3 attempts. I let it run while I went into the house. I could not hear it running, not like I hear my lawn mower or my gas powered quiet generator.
I have a huge battery bank. To be exact 1.2 kilowatts of battery reserves. Eventually I’m going to upgrade my solar kit to 200 watts and larger than 35ah batteries. But for now Harbor Freight’s 100 watt solar panel kit and batteries have been working perfectly for me these last two years.
I purchased the kit in early 2019. As a beginner – the Harbor Freight (HF) solar kit wasn’t that expensive to buy, $149.00 for the 100 watt kit, if things didn’t work out for me.
The HF solar batteries were $79.00 each. I started with two and upgraded every year since. The the price of larger capacity batteries coming out for just pennies, I plan to upgrade to maybe a few 100 amp hour batteries in 2023.
This is an old photo before rewiring my van in 2020. Here is a photo of my humble beginnings. Inside my Chrysler Town and Country Tours front stowaway compartment is where I store my solar battery bank.
I recently purchased from Amazon and installed a battery percentage and temperature monitor. The benefit of having one of these is that I can see how much battery is used and what’s left so I ran a test to see how much power my little refrigerator would use.
I consider what happened, by accident, a really good outcome.
My intentions were to run my refrigerator overnight. I want to see how much power it consumes so that it helps me plan my usage.
At sunset on Friday, April 23, 2021 the battery monitor indicated I was at 100% capacity. I turned on the refrigerator and let it run through the night. My test was for only one night. I forgot.
At sunrise on Sunday, April 25th I woke up with this thought.
DID I LEAVE THE REFRIGERATOR ON AND ITS BEEN RAINING FOR TWO DAYS?
I jumped up quickly, got dress and ran to my van. I quickly glanced at the battery meter, 67% remains. I reached into the refrigerator and it was cold. I thought that was impressive. I turned it off and consider this a great example.
The Weather for two days
I was also fortunate to be able to test under cloudy conditions. I didn’t get a shot of the weather for Friday or Saturday. Friday was part of the stream of continuous sunny hot 70’s and 80 degree weather. When Saturday came it rained all day. No sun to recharge my solar batteries. Although the mono panels can charge during overcast days, the amount is very small.
What does that mean?
It means I can run my refrigerator the entire day without worrying about consuming too much.
The weather forecast for today indicates that it will continue to rain today. I plan to go out at sunset to see how much my monocrystalline panels recharged my batteries.
The refrigerator was not the only load on the battery bank during this test. My 12 volt TV, USB charging station, and security system are always on.
Update on battery bank recharging
It has been completely overcast today here in Washington State which means minimum sunlight to reach my battery bank. The battery monitor tonight reads 78% from two days letting the refrigerator running none stop.
To get my battery bank restored to 100% on cloudy days while still using power will require that I use a generators DC battery charger to restore them.
I plan to test that tomorrow using my generator and updating this post.
I recently ran across a news article in my google news feed demonstrating a generator running off propane. This wasn’t the first time I came across a generator like that except it was a hybrid running gasoline and propane. The problem with hybrids is they aren’t meant to be efficient running on propane. Most of the comments I see on the forums are that they burn the same amount of fuel.
I purchased the ALP 1000 watt propane generator from ourgenerators.com because the generator does one thing. It powers the generator using propane, but it does it efficiently. It does one thing and it does it well. I placed the order on a Friday afternoon and my generator was delivered Monday.
Why not continue to use my gas generator
My gas generator is very heavy when empty and extremely heavy when filled with gas. My wife and daughters would not be able to handle a gas generator by themselves. One problem I needed to solve with my camper-van was how to safely store the fuel. I cannot keep it inside my van with all my electrical. Although I may not smell it, one spark and well I just don’t feel safe with it in my van. On top of my van are my solar panels. Can’t store it there. I do have a trunk attached to the van’s hitch, and I have stored both the generator and gasoline can in the trunk. But the trunk is sealed. No air in or out. So image as the heat from the sun raises the temperature of the trunk. I have electrical wires going through the trunk to supply power to the lights and so on. There are other reasons for upgrading to propane, such as the problems with letting a gasoline engine sit for long periods. It’s not good for it. The gas can separate and clog the fuel line.
Why switch to propane
Propane can be stored safely. The small 1lb bottle can sit in the van safely without leaking. The larger bottles have air vents and can expand and contract venting into your van without you knowing it. I will most likely have the larger canister mounted somewhere outside my van until needed.
I already travel with 1lb propane for my cooking stove. It made sense to me to carry one type of gas instead of two.
The propane generator is very light. My wife can carry it around.
Here are photos of my unboxing.
Compare a hybrid gas and propane generator with ALP generator
I’m comparing my new generator with the Sportsman Sandstorm 4000 Watt Dual Fuel Generator from Walmart.
|20lb tank||12 hours||60 hours||Until the tank is empty|
|1lb tank||Not supported||3 hours||Until the tank is empty|
|Weight||91lbs||28lbs||Weight without fuel|
|EPA & CARB Approved||No||Yes|
|ultra quiet||<69 dBA||>52dBA||With no load|
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
- Amorphous Silicon
- 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.
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).
There are various resources and sites you can visit to get great ideas for building your vans off grid power. Below are sites I used:
- Facebook groups
- Google images
When the question about solar comes up in most FB groups there aren’t enough people knowledgeable of the process to help, or those who know how usually explains how in language difficult to understand. So I wrote this article to make it simple.
The story begins with batteries
Say you have two 35Ah (amp hour) batteries.
2 x 35 = 70
That’s 70 total amp hours.
Your batteries are 12 volt batteries. Multiply the amp hours by 12.
12 x 70 = 840
You have a total of 840 watts of available power to power all of your devices.
Then there’s using the batteries
You want charge your iPad. A iPad Air 2014 uses about 45 watts.
To calculate how long you can keep the iPad plugged into your battery, divide 45 from the 840 available watts.
840 / 45 = estimates 19 hours
You can left your iPad plugged into your 12 volt system you will drain your battery.
But that’s a very simple explanation because usually your running more than one device, like a refrigerator, TV, game console, and etc.
Wait there’s more to know
The idea behind off grid power is to plug in and use more than one device. Let’s look at how you calculate that.
- iPad = 44 watts
- 12 volt TV 62 watts
- iPhone 12 watts
44 + 62 + 12 = 118 watts
Now divide 118 (watts used) by the 840 (battery) watts.
840 / 122 = estimates 6 hours
You can run all these devices together for 6 hour before the battery is dead.
Recharging your batteries
Your batteries need a charging source. I will list 4 of them.
You can use the following methods to recharge your system batteries.
- Van alternator
- Shore power with a battery charger
- Solar panels
- Gas generator
Inverters are bad
You can read the article here: