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Install a Camper Van Electric System (5 Simple Steps)

For many, installing the electrics is often the most challenging part of a van conversion. With so many different components, wires, and calculations, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed when planning your camper’s electrical system!

In this electrical guide, we break down everything you need to know in order to DIY your own electric system in a camper van. From start to finish. Step-by-step. No prior experience is needed, and no electrical engineering degree is required.

By the end of this post, you will be able to build your own van electrical system and understand how all the different components and wires come together to power all the devices in your camper. Our goal is to make this guide easy to understand with information that is practical and actionable.

We’re ready for the challenge. And we hope you are, too. So let’s go!

The 5 Parts of a Complete Van Electrical System

A van’s electrical system can be broken down into five distinct sections. In each section, we provide the information and recommendations you need to help answer all the questions you’ll have. Below is a summary of the five parts of a functioning camper electrical system.

Chapter 1: The Batteries

What kind of batteries and how many of them will you need? Should you wire multiple batteries together in series or in parallel? In this section, you will learn everything you need about the most important part of any electrical system: the batteries!

Chapter 2: The 12V DC System

Most of the electrical devices you install in your camper van will likely run on 12V DC. What does this mean? And why? In this section, we show you how to wire 12V devices to your batteries so that they function properly. Don’t fret, intuitive diagrams are included!

Chapter 3: The Solar ‘PV’ System

Using solar panels is the most popular way that camper vans charge their battery bank. In this section, we teach you how to properly size your solar panel system and wire all your solar components together to have a robust off-grid charging solution!

Chapter 4: The 120V AC System

In order to charge most laptops and other regular household appliances, you will need a source of 120V AC power. In this section, we show you how to wire an inverter so that you can run these types of devices from your 12V batteries.

Chapter 5: Charge While Driving (From Alternator)

We recommend having at least two ways to charge your batteries. The first is using solar and the second is to connect to your van’s alternator so that you can charge while driving. In this section, we show you how to do just that!

Chapter 1: The Batteries

Li Time lithium battery and Redodo Mini lithium battery sitting side-by-side
LiTime TM vs. Redodo Mini

The batteries are the “heart” of any camper van’s electrical system and should be the first components to plan for in an electric build. Batteries supply the power to run all your devices, such as the lights, USB ports, a fan, a fridge, laptops, a blender, and more.

Before installing any batteries in your camper van, you’ll need to answer three important questions.

  • What type of battery do you want?
  • How many batteries do you need?
  • Will you connect your batteries in series or parallel?

We will help you answer each of these questions below.

1.1 – Types of Batteries for Camper Vans

There are four different battery chemistry types that can be used in a camper van. They are:

  • Flooded Lead-Acid (FLA)
  • Gel Cell
  • Absorbent Glass Mat (AGM)
  • Lithium-Ion (LiFePO4)

However, only the last two types (AGM & Lithium) offer realistic solutions for camper vans. This is because FLA batteries require regular maintenance, and Gel Cell batteries require slower charge and discharge rates, which may not be compatible with van life. And ultimately, both of these two battery technologies have shorter lifespans when heavily used on a daily basis. (Source)

So then, which battery chemistry should you choose? AGM or lithium?

AGM vs. Lithium Batteries

In the table below, you can see how the two battery chemistries differ in characteristics.

From this table, you can see that these two batteries have different pros and cons. AGM batteries are almost always cheaper than an equivalent lithium battery but tend to have shorter lifespans and usable energy.

What Is “Usable Energy”? This is the amount of power that can be regularly & safely discharged from a battery without drastically shortening its lifespan. Lithium batteries can discharge ~90% of their power without any real negative consequences to their lifespan. Compare that to only ~50% discharge for an AGM.

Therefore, to answer the question about which battery chemistry you should use depends on your budget, travel timeline, and van life goals.

To learn more about which battery better suits your needs, read our leisure battery guide.

Our opinion: Lithium (LiFePO4) batteries are the clear winner over AGM. This is especially true as lithium prices have declined substantially in recent years.

Which lithium battery do we recommend? Read our Li Time vs. Redodo lithium battery review to see which budget LiFePO4 we recommend.

Recommended Lithium & AGM Batteries

Based on our experience and the experiences of others, below are our battery recommendations.

Budget Lithium Batteries

We almost never recommend AGM batteries to anyone. That is because the modern budget lithium surpasses AGMs in every important category. Due to their extremely low cost/charge cycle and long lifespans, we believe that selecting the no-frills LiFePO4 lithium battery from LiTime is the best option for most camper vans. This is especially true if you plan to live in a van for over 1.5 years.

Best Budget LiFePO4
Li Time | Lithium Battery (100Ah)

Our top lithium battery recommendation! The Li Time "TM" packs a serious punch in a compact enclosure. Wide-ranging BMS with low-temperature protection. And superior shock resistance.

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Picking up two 100Ah lithium batteries will adequately serve the needs of most modern van conversions. But if you are still unsure, check out our battery calculator to double-check.

Premium Lithium Batteries

If getting the best quality power supply is critical for your van life, we 100% recommend using Battleborn batteries. We’ve been using Battleborn for four years in our camper and never once had any issue with them. High-quality components and customer service.

Premium Pick
Battle Born Lithium Battery (100Ah)

We've used these Battle Born batteries for 4+ years in our camper and have kept up with our power needs the entire time. This is a premium battery that comes at a premium price, however.

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AGM Batteries

We don’t discount AGM batteries entirely. For many van lifers, AGMs are the battery of choice to supply their power needs.

If, after reading this article, you believe AGMs still provide the best battery solution for your needs, we recommend the following AGM model.

WEIZE 12V 100AH AGM Battery
$148.49

The Weize battery of the best-priced AGM batteries on the market. Will last up to 600 charge cycles if not discharged past 50%.

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02/16/2024 08:31 am GMT

1.2 – Connecting Multiple Batteries Together

You can connect multiple batteries together in different ways to increase total battery capacity and overall voltage. Batteries can be connected in either parallel or series. We discuss each type of connection below.

Parallel Connections

Three Battle Born lithium batteries connected in parallel
Three batteries connected in parallel

To connect multiple batteries in parallel, connect all the positive terminals together and all the negative terminals together. The effect is that the total amount of current (Ah) increases, but the overall voltage (V) stays the same.

  • Amps (Ah): Adds Up
  • Voltage (V): Stays the same

Series Connections

Three Battle Born lithium batteries connected in series
Three batteries connected in series

To connect multiple batteries in series, connect the negative terminal of the first battery to the positive terminal of the second battery. Then the negative terminal of the second battery to the positive terminal of the third battery. And so on. The effect is that the voltage of the battery bank increases, but the overall amount of current does not increase.

  • Amps (Ah): Stays the same
  • Voltage (V): Adds Up

Why increase the voltage? You should only wire batteries in series if you want to increase the voltage of your battery bank. Some campers like to run a 24V system, but most choose their battery banks to run on 12V. Read our 12V vs. 24V post to learn more.

Our opinion: Usually, only large, sophisticated RVs tend to utilize a 24V system, which offers little benefit for small to medium-sized electric systems. We recommend buying 12V batteries and keeping the system at 12V by wiring multiple batteries in parallel to increase power capacity.

Best Wire Size (AWG) for Battery Connections

If you’ve read our leisure battery wire size post, then you know we like to keep things simple. For all battery-to-battery connections, we recommend using high-quality 2/0 AWG stranded copper wire. This wire thickness will ensure that you can power all your van’s electrical devices without overheating and is safe for 120V inverters that are rated up to 2000W. (We talk more about inverters in Chapter 4)

Have a 3000W inverter? Consider upgrading to 4/0 AWG wires instead.

Windynation | 2/0 AWG Wire

100% pure copper wire. Perfect for battery and 12V wiring when used with 2000W inverters.

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Watch Our Video Review: In the video below, we review these high-quality EWCS 2/0 AWG wires. These wires, however, are the exact same quality as the Windynation wires we recommend above but are more expensive. If we built another camper van, we would go with Windynation instead.

We also recommend using 2/0 AWG wire when connecting the batteries to several other downstream electrical components (e.g. bus bars, inverters, & 12V panels). So be sure to get a enough length of red and black wire. 10-15 feet is usually sufficient.

Wire Quality: All wires that we recommend are high-quality, pure copper, stranded wires. Many cheaper wires found online are copper-clad aluminum (CCA). CCA wires are cheaper to manufacture and can safely conduct less current (Amps) than pure copper wires.

Additional Components & Tools

To connect the 2/0 AWG wires to the batteries, a copper lug (ring connector) must be attached to the wire end. The ring connector then connects to the battery terminal posts.

To attach the ring connector, you’ll need the following components and tools.

2/0 wire with lug terminal crimped on.
2/0 wire with lug crimped on
  • Copper Lugs – These lugs attach to the 2/0 wire ends and connect to the battery. Ensure you get the lugs with the correct ring size for your battery. Heat shrink is included.
  • Wire Cutter – This is the correct tool to cut through the thick 2/0 AWG wires.
  • Hydraulic Crimper – Crimps the copper lugs to the wire ends.
  • Heat Gun – Activates heat shrink over copper lugs and wire.

Watch the video below to learn how all these components and tools work together to attach a lug onto a stranded wire cable successfully.

1.3 – Calculating How Many Batteries You Need

Power capacity is rated in Watt-hours (Wh), and most 12V batteries that you can find online are rated at 1,200Wh.

Battery Capacity Note: Battery capacity is rated in Amp-hours (Ah), and most batteries are either 100Ah or 200Ah in size. To get Watt-hours, multiply a battery’s Ah by its rated voltage (usually 12V).

In order to figure out how much battery power you need, you must calculate how much power (Wh) your camper van will use in a 24-hour period. The more electrical devices your van has, the more power it will use and the more batteries you will need.

Do The Proper Calculations: We’ve seen too many camper vans trying to power too many devices with too little battery power. As a result, they are always running out of battery power, and their batteries die prematurely and need to be replaced. Take the time to calculate an appropriate battery bank size properly.

To calculate how much battery power you need to sustain your camper’s electrical system, follow these steps.

  • Decide the battery type
  • List all your desired electrical devices
  • Calculate daily power usage (Wh) for each device
  • Calculate total daily power usage
  • Determine battery size based on daily power usage

For more battery sizing information, read: “How To Calculate Your Ideal Battery Size”

1.4 – How To Charge the Batteries

There are four primary ways to charge batteries in a camper van.

  • Solar Charging |  This method uses solar panels to convert the sun’s energy into usable power. This is a great option for passive charging throughout the day, just as long as it’s sunny outside. Skip to Chapter 3 to learn more.
  • Alternator Charging (while driving) | This popular method charges the camper batteries while you are driving. This is a great option during the winter when solar power is less reliable. Skip to Chapter 5 to learn more.
  • Shore Power Charging | This involves connecting a 12V inverter/charger to any outside wall socket. This is a great option for a quick charge if you are near a socket. Skip to Chapter 4 to learn more.
  • Generator Charging | Portable generators use either gasoline or propane (LPG) to create power. However, you will need a converter (e.g. inverter/charger) to convert the AC power produced by the generator into DC power used by the batteries.

For more charging information, read: 4 Ways To Charge Camper Van Leisure Batteries

1.5 – Chapter One Summary

At this point, you should have a solid understanding of the following three points regarding the batteries of a camper van’s electrical system.

  1. What type of battery chemistry you will be using,
  2. How many batteries you will need,
  3. How to connect multiple batteries together.

In the next chapter, we’ll discuss how to begin connecting critical components to those batteries to build a functioning 12V system.

Chapter 2: The 12V DC System

Now that you’ve selected your batteries and wired them together, you’re ready to assemble the camper van’s 12V electrical system. This section includes wiring the batteries to individual 12V devices, like the ceiling lights, vent fan, and USB ports.

If you follow this chapter to the end, you should end up with a wiring system that is similar to the diagram below. We’ll discuss all the parts and components you’ll need to recreate this exact same setup.

Complete camper van 12V wiring diagram connecting leisure batteries to 12V devices
Complete 12V wiring diagram for camper vans

Download our free eBooks to view many more electrical diagrams like the one above!

There’s a lot going on in the above diagram. Lots of different components and wiring. So, to help you better make sense of this wiring diagram, we separate this 12V DC system into three parts.

  • 2.1 – Batteries to bus bars
  • 2.2 – Bus bars to 12V panel
  • 2.3 – 12V panel to devices

2.1 – Batteries to Bus Bars

The first step when setting up your 12V system is to connect the batteries to the bus bars. To complete the connection between the batteries to the bus bars, we will be wiring four additional components in between. We talk about each of these components below.

Wiring diagram for camper vans connecting leisure batteries to bus bars. Includes fuses, battery switch, and battery monitor.
Wiring 12V batteries to bus bars

What Are ‘Bus Bars’? Bus bars are power distribution & collection centers. Once bus bars are connected to the batteries, you then connect all downstream electrical components to these bus bars instead of directly to the batteries. This keeps your wiring system clean and simple.

List of Materials

Below is a detailed list of materials you’ll need to wire the auxiliary/leisure batteries to the bus bars.

2/0 AWG Wire

2/0 AWG wire is ideal for connecting the batteries to the bus bars, and recommend this wire size if you install up to a 2000W inverter. (If you are using a 3000W inverter, consider upgrading to 4/0 AWG)

This is the same cable we recommend when wiring multiple batteries together. We will also use this same wire to connect several other devices in the later chapters.

Windynation | 2/0 AWG Wire

100% pure copper wire. Perfect for battery and 12V wiring when used with 2000W inverters.

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Copper Lug Terminals

Lug terminals are essential to attach electrical wire to various components. If you’re using the 2/0 AWG wire we recommend, you’ll need a combination of lugs with 3/8″ and 5/16″ ring diameter sizes. You can refer to our lug sizing chart below. Our lugs are color-coordinated and match with our wiring diagrams so that you know which lug goes where.

(Note: We will get into the 4 AWG (green) lugs in another section)

Copper lug terminal sizing chart for 12V systems
12V lug sizing chart

Below, we list the two sets of lugs you’ll need below to complete this part of the wiring process.

To learn more about lugs, their dimensions, and how to crimp them onto electrical wire, watch our Wirefy Lug review below.

300A ANL Fuse/Holder

Fuses prevent unforeseen spikes in electrical current from overheating and burning your wires. The 2/0 AWG wires we recommend are welding cables and can safely withstand up to 400A of current. (Source)

We suggest a 300A fuse to protect the 2/0 wire and all downstream electrical devices. You will almost never draw more than 300A of power in your camper.

Windynation | ANL Fuse (300A)

Protects 2/0 AWG wire from overheating and potentially catching on fire. This fuse accepts 5/16" lug terminals. Comes with backup fuse.

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Watch our Windynation 300A ANL fuse review below.

Master On/Off Switch

This master switch keeps you safe from electrical hazards when you a building and maintaining your electrical system.

Whenever we need to add & remove components or touch any electric terminals, we turn the switch to ‘OFF’ to stop the flow of electrical current from the batteries.

Blue Sea | Battery Switch

This heavy-duty master switch is used to disconnect & isolate the leisure batteries from the rest of the electric system. This is useful for safety when conducting routine electrical maintenance and during long-term vehicle storage.

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Watch our short battery switch review below to see this switch in real life.

Battery Monitor

Unlike a phone or laptop, 12V batteries do not display their state of charge (SOC) percentage. But by installing a battery monitor, this device will display your battery’s SOC by monitoring the watts as they enter and exit the batteries.

Although pricey, we recommend the Victron BMV-712 because its Bluetooth capabilities allow you to pair the device to your smartphone. Read our battery monitor wiring post to learn more.

Victron | Battery Monitor

Prolong your battery's lifespan. Knowing your battery's state-of-charge (SOC) is a critical factor in preventing it's premature death. This monitor displays percentage charge, voltage, instantaneous power flow, and more. Bluetooth capable means easy connection to any smartphone.

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Bus Bars

Bus bars are power distribution and collection centers. By connecting your batteries to these bus bars, you can then connect all future downstream electrical components (e.g. the 12V panel, solar charge controller, & inverter) to these bus bars instead of directly to the batteries.

Prioritize proper cable management with bus bars.

Bus Bars

Bus bars are power distribution centers that collect and distribute electricity to/from multiple sources. They simplify the wiring process and help keep electric wiring clean and orderly. Connects to batteries, solar charger, inverter, and DC-DC charger.

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2.2 – Bus Bars to 12V Panel

With the bus bars now connected to the batteries, you can connect the 12V fuse panel to the bus bars.

Wiring diagram connecting bus bars to 12V fuse panel
Bus bars to 12V fuse panel

List of Materials

Below is a list of materials you’ll need to wire the bus bars to the 12V fuse panel.

4 AWG Wire

We recommend 4 AWG wires to connect the bus bars to the fuse panel. This is because Windynation rates their 4-gauge wire at 150A, but the Blue Sea Systems fuse panel is rated for only 100A. This means the fuse panel will not be limited by the wire.

Windynation | 4 AWG Wire

100% stranded copper wire. Rated for 150 Amps of continuous current and is ideal for connecting the bus bars to the 12V panel. Resists UV, water, oil, and salt corrosion.

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Watch our Windynation 4AWG wire review below to see why we recommend these wires for van life.

Copper Lug Terminals

To help save you money, we recommend getting this lug terminal set, which covers 2 to 8-gauge wires. This set will have the 1/4″ and 3/8″ lugs you’ll need to complete this section, and you’ll need other lug sizes for other parts of your electrical system.

Sanuke | Lug Terminal Set

Save money with this convenient lug terminal set. It covers 12 different lug sizes from 2-8 AWG wires and M6-M10 ring diameters. Heat shrink is also provided.

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Watch our Sanuke lug set review below. With so many different-sized lugs, this kit will help you save money and reduce waste when building your electrical system.

120A Circuit Breaker

To protect the 4-gauge electrical wire and the fuse panel, installing a 120A circuit breaker is recommended.

GLOSO | Circuit Breaker (120A)

Protects the 4 AWG wire that connects the bus bars to the 12V fuse panel. The Blue Sea Systems fuse panel recommends a 125A breaker, but this 120A will also do.

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To learn more, watch our Gloso 120A circuit breaker review below.

12V Fuse Panel

This fuse panel connects to all your downstream 12V devices and allows for up to 12 device connections. In our van, we connect this panel to our:

  • LED lights
  • Vent fan
  • 12V fridge
  • Water pump
  • Diesel heater
  • USB sockets
Blue Sea | 12V Fuse Panel
$38.43

A 12V fuse panel is essential for distributing power from the leisure batteries to each 12V device. This panel accommodates up to 12 circuits with slots for blade fuses. The plastic cover with labels helps keep everything organized and safe.

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02/16/2024 08:35 pm GMT

We wouldn’t use any other 12V panel for our van conversion’s electric system. Watch our product review below to learn more.

2.3 – 12V Panel to Devices

Once the fuse panel is connected to the bus bars, you can connect all your 12V devices to the panel. Below is everything you will need to get this done.

Wiring diagram connecting the 12V fuse panel to individual 12V devices
12V fuse panel to 12V devices

List of Materials

Below are the materials you’ll need to wire the fuse panel to each of your 12V devices.

Ring Connector (#8 – 14AWG)

These specific ring connectors fit the #8 terminal posts on the fuse panel. Each 12V device will need two of these ring connectors: one for the positive post and the second for the negative post.

HKS | #8 Ring Terminals

Use these ring terminals to connect the 14 AWG wire to the 12V fuse panel. Heat shrink is built into the terminals to reinforce and protect the connection.

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14/2 AWG Wire

14AWG wire is the preferred size for connecting all 12V devices to the fuse panel. These wires can handle 240W of power (20A) at 12V, which is more than enough for each device.

We recommend getting ’14/2′ wires, which means two 14AWG wires (red and black) are encased in an outer jacket. This gives an additional layer of protection against vibrations, sliced wires, and short circuits.

GS Power | 14 AWG Wire

The #1 seller on our site. Get this 14AWG wire for all your 12V device connections. We like the tough outer jacket that protects the inner wires from the constant vibrations when driving. These tinned copper wires are 'marine grade' for superior resistance against corrosion.

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We only recommend GS Power’s 14 AWG wire duplex wire. Watch our product review below to learn more.

Butt Connectors (14 AWG)

Each 12V device comes attached with a short length of red and black wire. You will need to extend these wires to the fuse panel with butt connectors.

These butt connectors also come with heat shrink pre-attached for improved connections to the copper wire.

Wirefy | Butt Connectors

Use these butt connectors to extend the red & black wires from each 12V device to the fuse panel.

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Blade Fuses

The connection of each 12V device to the batteries isn’t complete until a blade fuse is inserted into the slots in the fuse panel to complete the circuit.

Blade fuses come in different amp ratings (color-coded). To calculate the correct fuse size for each 12V device, find the device’s peak current draw and round up to the next fuse size.

Example: The Maxxair vent, fan at its fastest speed, uses 5A of power. Rounding up to the next fuse size, give us 7.5A.

Assorted Blade Fuses Set

Insert these blade fuses into the appropriate slots in the 12V fuse panel to complete each circuit.

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2.4 – Popular 12V Devices for Campers

Below is a list of popular 12V devices that are commonly installed in camper vans and RVs.

  • LED Lights:  These 12V puck lights are popular in the van life community. But light strips and fairy lights are also common.
  • Ventilation Fans | Proper ventilation is a must for van life. The Maxxfan and FANtastic Fan are the two most popular models.
  • USB Sockets | We like these USB/12V combo sockets. The number of electric devices that plug into these two types of sockets is virtually endless.
  • Fridges | Our electric fridge cooler is a top 3 van life essential for us. Read 6 Reasons To Get An RV Fridge and our Dometic Fridge review to learn more.
  • Water Pumps | Pumps water from your fresh water tank to the faucet.
  • Fuel Heaters | Whether a heater runs on diesel, gasoline, or propane, it will require a 12V connection to the batteries.
  • Composting Toilets | Several professionally made composting toilets, like Nature’s Head, include a small 12V fan to exhaust the bad air.

2.5 – Chapter Two Summary

At this point, you should be able to connect all the 12V devices to your battery bank through the bus bars. For more detailed help and explanation, check out the following articles.

Chapter 3: The Solar ‘PV’ System

Relying on solar panels is the best way to keep your batteries charged on a daily basis. Spending the time to install solar panels is worth it. And if you’re on a tight budget, just know that you can build a complete solar system for less than $450.

But before you start randomly buying solar panels and hoisting them up on your van’s roof, you’ll need to answer the following questions:

  • What type of solar panels do you want?
  • What size solar array do you need?
  • What size charge controller?
  • Will you connect your panels in series or parallel?

We will help you answer each of these questions below.

3.1 – Types of Solar Panels

When building a solar system for a camper van, there are three types of solar panels to choose from.

Rigid Panels

These are the most popular solar panels for campers because of their durable construction, which includes a rigid aluminum frame and a top layer of tempered glass for added protection.

100W BougeRV 9BB Solar Panel
100W rigid solar panel

Flexible Panels

These panels are much thinner than their rigid panel counterparts and do away with the thick aluminum frame. As a result, these solar panels are highly flexible and have a lower profile, ideal for stealth camping.

Renogy flexible solar panel
Flexible solar panel

Foldable Panels

Renogy 100W foldable suitcase-style solar panel
100W Foldable Solar Panels

These solar panels fold up and store away inside your camper when not needed. The ultimate panels for complete stealth. And when you need to charge, simply take the panels out and point them towards the sun.

Our Opinion: Get rigid solar panels, and don’t try to be stealthy. Rigid panels last longer, are more durable, and better withstand scruffs from low branches, dirt, and dust.

To learn more, read our more thorough solar panel comparison for campers.

3.2 – How To Calculate Your Solar Array Size

It is important to have the proper amount of watts in your solar array because if you install too little wattage, you won’t be able to recharge your batteries each day properly. This can lead to running out of power during the night.

If you have already correctly sized your battery bank system (Section 1.3), then figuring out your ideal solar array size is easy. This is because the size of a solar array should correspond to the battery size.

A Common Misconception: Some van lifers calculate their solar array size based on their daily power usage. However, if you properly sized your battery bank to meet your daily power usage, then you should match your solar array size to your battery bank size.

If you have a 12V battery bank, use the below ratios to determine your solar array wattage size.

  • Using lithium batteries? Use a 1:1 ratio of battery bank Ah to solar array watts.
  • Using AGM batteries? Use a 2:1 ratio of battery bank Ah to solar array watts.

Have A 24V System? Use a 1:2 ratio for lithium batteries and a 1:1 ratio for AGM batteries.

Refer to the sizing table below to locate your ideal solar array size (based on 12V battery Ah size AND chemistry)

To learn more, read our post on how to calculate your perfect solar array wattage

3.3 – Series vs. Parallel Connections

Just as when wiring multiple batteries together, you can choose to connect multiple solar panels together either in series or parallel. You can see the wiring differences between the two styles in the graphic below.

Two solar panels wired in series and two solar panels wired in parallel
Series vs. parallel solar panel connections

Wiring Panels in Series

To wire multiple solar panels in series, connect the negative line of the first panel to the positive line of the second panel. Then, connect the negative line of the second panel to the positive line of the third panel. And so on.

The result is that the voltage (V) of each individual panel is added together, but the overall current (A) only equals the output current of a single panel.

  • Current (A): Stays the same
  • Voltage (V): Adds Up

Wiring Panels in Parallel

To wire multiple solar panels in parallel, connect all the positive lines together and all the negative lines together using MC4 branch connectors. If you have two solar panels, use a 2-1 branch connector. If you have three solar panels, use a 3-1 branch connector. And so on.

The result is that the individual current (A) of each individual panel is added together, but the overall voltage (V) equals the output voltage of a single panel.

  • Current (A): Adds Up
  • Voltage (V): Stays the same

Series vs. Parallel: Which Is Better for Solar?

It is up to you to decide how you like to connect your solar panels together. Panels wired in parallel are more efficient when partially shaded but require additional components (branch connectors), and you ‘might’ need to install a solar fuse.

Have A 24V System? You will likely need to wire your panels in series to create a higher voltage with which to charge your batteries.

Our Opinion: If you only have two solar panels, connect them in parallel for added efficiency in the shade. Two panels in parallel do not need to be fused. If you have three or more panels, consider wiring them in series for a simplified wiring process without fuses.

Learn More: Series vs. Parallel Solar Panel Wiring

3.4 – Solar Charge Controllers

After the solar panels, the solar charge controller is the most important device in any solar PV system.

What Are ‘Solar Charge Controllers’? Charge controllers regulate the voltage from the solar panels so that a battery can receive the power and charge properly. Without a charge controller, the solar panels will overcharge and kill the battery.

What Size Solar Charge Controller Do You Need?

Charge controllers come in different sizes (amp-ratings). The larger the solar array, the larger the charge controller will need to be. Find your ideal charge controller size using the table below based on the total wattage of your solar array.

Note: If operating a 12V system, use the leftmost column to locate your solar charge controller size. If you are operating a 24V system, refer to the center column.

Our Opinion: We love our Victron charge controller and connect our smartphones to the device via Bluetooth multiple times per day. Check out our Victron charge controller review to learn more.

To learn more, check out: What Are Solar Charge Controllers? And What Size Do You Need?

3.5 – How To Wire a Solar Systemv

In this section, we go over all the wires and components required to connect the solar panels to the bus bars. In the end, your solar system should look like the diagram below.

Complete solar wiring diagram for camper vans for up to 440W of solar
Complete solar wiring diagram for camper vans

Download our free eBooks to view many more electrical diagrams like the one above!

Solar Panels

With so many types and sizes of solar panels on the market, it can be paralyzing to know which panels to choose.

Whichever you do select, make sure you’re getting the highest efficiency solar panels with ‘9BB’ technology, like these panels from BougeRV.

BougeRV | 200W Solar Panel

We've spoken with BougeRV reps and came away impressed with their customer service. They also make excellent quality, highly efficient '9BB' solar panels. Consider installing a larger 200W panel instead of multiple smaller panels.

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Learn more: What are 9BB solar panels?

Stranded Copper Wire (Red & Black)

It is important that you use the correct size wire when assembling your solar system. The two most important factors that decide solar wire size are:

  1. Solar panel connection type (series vs. parallel)
  2. Total wattage of the solar array

10 AWG wire is what most camper vans will need, but check out our solar wire calculator post to help you choose the best wires for your solar system.

Ancor | 10 AWG Wire (Red)

We love Ancor's 'marine grade' wires for solar installations. The insulation jackets are UV & salt water resistant (good for rooftop installations).

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Watch our wire review below to learn why we recommend Anor’s ‘marine grade’ wires for solar wiring projects.

MC4 Connectors

MC4 connectors are the standardized connection type for solar systems.

Although solar panels come with two pre-attached MC4 connectors, you will need at least one additional pair to complete your system.

BougeRV | MC4 Connectors

Crimp onto solar wire ends and connect to other MC4 solar components (e.g. in-line fuses & branch connectors). Connectors come with spanners for assembly.

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Solar Entry Gland

This entry gland attaches to the roof of your van and protects the solar wires as they enter the vehicle from the outside.

Silicone sealant comes included with this product.

Passes Wire Through Roof
Link Solar | Entry Gland

This solar entry gland protects the solar wires as they pass through the van's roof to the interior. If sealed properly, a solar gland also prevents water leaks from entering the camper.

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Solar Charge Controllers

Charge controllers regulate the voltage from the solar panels to the batteries and is a critical device for any solar system. Check out our additional charge controller resources to learn more:

Victron | Solar Charge Controller (30A)

We love this Victron controller not only for it's high quality build, but the Bluetooth feature is rock solid. The Victron smartphone app provides an amazing interface to monitor all your solar data. This 30A charger is good for solar systems up to 440W (for 12V batteries).

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Circuit Breaker

The circuit breaker protects the solar wire from overheating and all downstream electrical components from any unforeseen surges in power.

The amp rating of the circuit breaker should match the amp rating of your solar wire, so be sure to size your solar wires first.

T Tocas | 40A Circuit Breaker

This circuit breaker protects the solar wire from overheating and is installed between the solar charge controller and the positive bus bar.

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To learn more about this breaker, watch our product review below.

3.6 – Mounting Solar Panels on Roof

Before hoisting your solar panels onto the roof, there are two things to consider.

Solar Panel Layout

Will you be laying out your solar panels length-wise or width-wise? And which way is the most space-efficient?

Laying solar panels lengthwise vs. widthwise on a camper van roof
Solar panel layout options on van roof

To answer these questions, you’ll need to know the individual size of your solar panels and the dimensions of your van’s roof. Then, you can play around with different configurations to help you choose the best fit.

To learn more, read: Solar Panel Roof Layout Design

Direct Mount vs. Roof Rack

Will you be installing the solar panels directly onto your van’s roof with screws and silicone sealant? Or will you install a roof rack first?

  • Direct Mount | By installing the panels directly onto your van’s roof, you will have the lowest profile for your solar panels. This is the stealthier option. The downsides are that you will create holes in your van’s roof (leak potential), and removing the panels for maintenance will be a hassle.
  • Roof Rack | All roof racks increase public awareness of your camper but offer a less invasive installation process for your panels.

Our Opinion: We installed the solar panels directly on our van’s roof. They’ve worked great, look streamlined, and we haven’t had any leaks (yet). But if we could do our build again, we’d spend the money on a low-profile roof rack instead.

Learn more: How To Mount Solar Panels Directly To A Van’s Roof (Without Leaks)

3.7 – Solar System Summary

After reading this chapter, you should have a solid understanding of the following concepts.

  • The ideal solar array size that meets your electrical needs.
  • Your perfect solar charge controller size.
  • How to wire the solar panels to the batteries.
  • How to mount solar panels to your van’s roof.

Remember to visit our solar wiring diagrams page to download our latest Solar eBook to help you get started.

Chapter 4: The 120V AC Inverter System

To run many common household appliances and most laptops, you will need a source of 120V AC power. The 12V power supplied by the batteries will not be enough to operate these types of devices.

To get 120V power, you must connect an inverter to your 12V batteries. An inverter increases the 12V power from the batteries and outputs 120V AC power.

This section will help you answer the following questions:

  • What size and type of inverter do you need?
  • What size wires are required?
  • How to install an inverter and all related components?

We will help you answer each of these questions below.

4.1 – How To Size an Inverter for Your Camper Van

Getting the right size inverter that meets your energy demands is important. If you select too small of an inverter, some of your larger appliances may not function properly. There are two factors to consider when sizing your inverter.

Add Together the Total Simultaneous Load

To know your minimum inverter size, you will need to calculate the maximum wattage your AC loads will require when run at the same time. If you don’t plan to use two certain appliances simultaneously (like a hair dryer and blender), don’t add them together. Lastly, be sure to account for an appliance’s peak power and not its continuous power. Some appliances require additional wattage on startup.

Example: Perhaps you plan to run your laptop (~100W), an InstantPot (~850W), and charge your camera (~30W). The max wattage from your AC loads is 980W.

Next, take the wattage sum and add 20% to this figure to ensure you don’t trip the inverter’s safety shut-off feature. Lastly, round up to identify an inverter size that is right for you.

Example: 980W * 1.2 = 1,176W. Rounding up means that either a 1,500W or 2,000W inverter would be the right size for your AC loads.

Battery Bank Chemistry & Capacity

You must also be conscious that the inverter size you calculated appropriately matches your battery bank’s capacity and chemistry.

Because lithium and AGM batteries have different Peukert Exponents, we recommend the following ratios of battery capacity to inverter wattage (for 12V battery banks).

  • AGM Batteries: 350W of inverter power for every 100Ah of AGM battery capacity.
  • Lithium Batteries: 1000W of inverter power for every 100Ah of lithium battery capacity.

Example: 980W * 1.2 = 1,176W. Rounding up means that either a 1,500W or 2,000W inverter would be the right size for your AC loads.

4.2 – Standard Inverters vs. Inverter/Chargers

Standard inverters will only take 12V power and convert it to 120V power. For these inverters, electricity only flows in one direction.

However, there are inverters that double as a battery charger. Not only do they convert 12V battery power to 120V, but they can also convert 120V power back to 12V power when connected to shore power to charge the batteries. When you read about charging batteries by connecting to ‘shore power’, you must have an inverter/charger model to do this.

But picking up an inverter/charger model will cost you extra. These models can often cost almost twice as much as a standard inverter. For many camper vans, however, this additional cost is worth it. Below, we list three of the most popular inverter/charger models installed in camper vans.

Example: 980W * 1.2 = 1,176W. Rounding up means that either a 1,500W or 2,000W inverter would be the right size for your AC loads.

Our Opinion: If your budget allows, get an inverter/charger. Charging from shore power is a great backup option when solar power can’t meet your energy demands (i.e. during winter or when parked in shade).

4.3 – Wiring an Inverter in a Camper

In this section, we go over all the wires and components required to integrate an inverter into your camper van’s electrical system. In the end, the finished result should look like the diagram below.

Wiring leisure batteries to the inverter
Complete inverter wiring diagram

Download our free eBooks to view many more electrical diagrams like the one above!

We break down the inverter wiring process into three sections:

  • Bus bars to the inverter
  • Inverter to sockets (AC Out)
  • Inverter/Charger to shore power (AC IN)

Bus Bars to Inverter

The first step in the inverter wiring process is to connect the inverter to the batteries. Because we already connected the bus bars to the batteries (in Chapter 2), we only need to connect the inverter to the bus bars to complete the circuit.

Wiring diagram connecting the inverter to the bus bars
Wiring inverter to the bus bars
Inverter (Or Inverter/Charger)

At this point, you should know what size inverter you need to power your 120V system and whether you will be getting an inverter only or an inverter/charger combo.

Every inverter has two large terminals (usually color-coded in red and black). You will need to connect these terminals to the bus bars.

Learn more: How To Install An Inverter In A Camper

Victron | 2000W Inverter & Charger

We love our Victron 2000W Multiplus. It's built tough, and we've had no issues during our 65,000 miles to Argentina. This unit powers our Instant Pot, water kettle, hair dryer, and toaster oven. This inverter will also charge the batteries when connected to shore power.

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2/0 AWG Wire

2/0 AWG wire is the perfect size for any inverter rated up to 2000W.

This is the same wire thickness we recommend when connecting multiple batteries together and when assembling the 12V system.

Windynation | 2/0 AWG Wire

100% pure copper wire. Perfect for battery and 12V wiring when used with 2000W inverters.

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Copper Lugs (3/8″ – 2/0AWG)

You will need copper lugs to connect the 2/0 wire to both the inverter and the bus bars. The 3/8″ lugs we recommend will fit the bus bar terminals any any Victron-branded inverter, but you will want to check the terminal size on the particular inverter you selected to ensure these lugs will fit.

Inverter To Sockets (AC Out)

Every inverter has an ‘AC Out’ section, and this is where the 120V power gets distributed to all the AC devices in the camper van. In this section, connect the 12/3 AWG wire from the inverter to a circuit breaker (and box) and then connect the wire to all the downstream sockets.

The final result should resemble the diagram below.

Wiring diagram connecting the inverter to the power outlets
Wiring inverter to power outlets

A Simplified Solution: Many inverters, like the AIMS 2000W, have AC sockets built into them. Oftentimes, many van lifers will simply plug an extension cord into these built-in sockets and be done with their 120V wiring.

Popular Pick
AIMS Power 2000 Watt Inverter/Charger
$856.00

The AIMS Power inverter is another popular and robust inverter/charger combo for van lifers. Delivers up to 2000W of pure sine AC power.

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02/16/2024 12:30 am GMT
12/3 AWG Wire

Assuming you won’t be using AC devices simultaneously with a combined wattage of more than 2,200W (which is A LOT for a camper), this 12/3 wire will meet your electrical needs.

12/3 means that there are three 12 AWG wires packed inside an outer jacket. One wire for positive, one for negative, and one for ground.

Our Recommendation
Ancor 12/3 AWG Triplex Wire
$44.61

Perfect for all 110V wiring. This 'marine grade' wire is perfect for all AC Out connections from the inverter to standard 15A outlets. The tough outer jacket resists cuts & abrasions and like that the copper wires are tinned to resist corrosion.

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Breaker Box

This breaker box stores the 15A AC breaker. This particular box has two slots for circuit breakers, although we only use one slot in our camper.

Square D | Breaker Box (2-Spaces)

Holds up to two 15A circuit breakers for 120V circuits. Cost-efficient household design that can also be used in camper vans.

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Circuit Breaker (15A)

This 15A circuit breaker fits into the breaker box.

Using this circuit breaker protects your 12/3 AWG wire, which is rated for 20A, from overheating and keeps all your downstream electrical devices safe from surges.

Square D | 15A Circuit Breaker

This 15A circuit breaker is sized specifically to protect the 12 AWG wires in 110V circuits from over-current situations.

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Gang Box

If you want to install a socket into your walls (like at home), you’ll need to pick up a gang box to install behind your walls first. Then, the socket gets installed onto this box.

Carlon | Shallow Outlet Box

When installing standard "household" style light switches, you will need a gang box for the switch to mount to and protect the wires. We recommend this gang box for it's narrow profile design, which takes up only 1.25" in depth.

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Power Outlet & Wall Plate

There are lots of different wall socket types out there. We recommend going to a hardware store and perusing all the styles.

Enerlites | Wall Outlet

One of many standard wall socket designs you can choose from.

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Inverter To Shore Power (AC In)

If you have an inverter/charger combo unit, you will also have an ‘AC In’ slot. This is where power from an external socket (shore power) enters the inverter/charger and charges your camper batteries.

Inverter and charger wiring diagram that connects inverter to shore power via a power inlet
Wiring inverter to shore power

12/3 AWG Wire

You can use the same 12/3 AWG wire that you used for the AC Out wiring. This wire is rated for 20A and can handle over 2,200W when connected to shore power.

Our Recommendation
Ancor 12/3 AWG Triplex Wire
$44.61

Perfect for all 110V wiring. This 'marine grade' wire is perfect for all AC Out connections from the inverter to standard 15A outlets. The tough outer jacket resists cuts & abrasions and like that the copper wires are tinned to resist corrosion.

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02/16/2024 12:10 pm GMT

Power Inlet

The 12/3 AWG wire connects to the back side of this power inlet. The front side of the power inlet faces outside and is connected to a 15A shore power outlet.

Larger Power Inlets? There are also 30A & 50A power inlets. But 15A is plenty for small and medium-sized electric systems. A larger inlet also means using thicker wires.

Welluck | Power Inlet (15A)

Connect this power inlet to an inverter/charger unit to charge the leisure batteries from shore power. Easily installs on plywood boards or van's metal frame.

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Extension Cable

Whichever extension cord you get, make sure your cord contains 12 AWG wires. Many cheaper extension cords usually contain 16 AWG wires, which cannot safely conduct as many amps and tend to get hot when connected to shore power.

This high-quality extension cord works great for battery charging from shore power.

Clear Power 12/3 Outdoor Extension Cord

The ideal cord size for an inverter/charger rated up to 2000W. Perfect for outdoor use and resists water and UV corrosion.

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4.4 – Connecting Inverter To Ground

Wiring inverter to ground point on vehicle chassis

The last step is to connect the inverter to a designated ground point on your van’s chassis. Your vehicle’s handbook should have a picture and a list of approved ground points you can utilize.

You can ground the inverter with a single 4 AWG wire and appropriately-sized lugs.

4.5 – 120V Inverter System Summary

After reading this chapter, you should have a solid understanding of the following concepts.

  • How to calculate your ideal inverter size.
  • Whether or not you want an inverter or an inverter/charger.
  • How to wire an inverter into your camper’s electrical system.

Learn More: How To Wire An Inverter In A Camper Van

Chapter 5: Charging the Batteries While Driving (From an Alternator)

Charging camper batteries while driving is the second most important battery charging method after solar power. After a long drive, it’s nice to arrive at a campsite and start the evening with 100% battery charge.

This is arguably the easiest wiring section of all the chapters that we cover. By the end of this chapter, you should have a wiring system that resembles the diagram below.

DC-DC charger wiring diagram connecting the vehicle starter battery to the camper van bus buars and leisure batteries.

DC-DC Charger

The 12V DC to DC charger senses when you turn on your vehicle’s engine and begins to send power from your vehicle’s battery to your electric system’s battery bank. The higher the amp rating, the faster the charge rate to your batteries.

We like the Victron DC chargers because they work seamlessly between AGM and lithium batteries. They are also Bluetooth enabled for easy access from your smartphone. Victon’s DC chargers come in 18A and 30A models.

6 AWG Wire

To wire either side of the DC-DC charger, we recommend using 6AWG wire. With a minimum amp rating of 55A, 6AWG will keep your system safe when using most standard DC-DC chargers.

Windynation | 6 AWG Wire

Recommended size for DC-DC chargers. These 100% pure copper stranded wires are what you'll need. Perfect for high amperage environments (up to 115A)

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60A Fuse & Holder

Use a 60A fuse to protect the 6AWG wire from overcurrent situations.

Baomain | ANL Fuse (60A)

This 60A ANL fuse pairs with our recommended 6AWG wire for all DC-DC charger wiring. The fuse protects the wire from overheating during over-current situations.

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Watch our Baomain 60A ANL fuse review below to see how this fuse works and how to connect to it.

Copper Lugs

Copper lugs are used to connect 6AWG wire to the batteries and fuses. The diameter of the ring is dependent on the specific products you want to connect to. Below are our lug size recommendations for 6AWG wire.

  • Car battery: Check your battery for terminal size
  • To/From 60A Fuse: 5/16″
  • To Bus Bar: 3/8″
Sanuke | Lug Terminal Set

Save money with this convenient lug terminal set. It covers 12 different lug sizes from 2-8 AWG wires and M6-M10 ring diameters. Heat shrink is also provided.

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For more information, read: How To Install A DC-DC Charger In A Camper Van

Frequently Asked Questions

“What Tools Do I Need To Build a Camper Electrical System?”

The following tools are instrumental in building an electric system:

“Do You Recommend All-in-One Power Stations?”

These power stations, like the Bluetti Portable Power Station, are convenient devices that make building a camper electric system quick and easy. And if you have a small, modest-sized electric system and don’t have the inclination to build an entire system from scratch, an all-in-one power station can be a great option.

BLUETTI Portable Power Station (2000Wh)
$1,249.99

For its size, the BLUETTI lithium power station packs serious power. Includes DC and AC sockets and can accept solar panels for charging. Visit Amazon to learn more.

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But convenience comes at a cost. These power stations are relatively expensive for the amount of stored power that you’d be buying. For almost the same amount of money, you can DIY your own battery bank and have 50-80% more power capacity!

And if you plan a more elaborate electric system with numerous 12V devices, you should skip these power stations and build your own system.

“Do You Recommend Electric Water Heaters?”

If you have a large enough battery bank and are willing to invest in a 3000W inverter, electric water heaters can be a useful addition. However, water tanks do take up valuable storage space, and we never took enough showers to justify keeping our tank.

Top Heater Pick
Bosch Electric Water Heater (2.5-Gallon)
$231.99

Compact, yet powerful, mini water heater. Plugs into standard household sockets. Requires 1440W, but you will need a 3000W inverter to power this heater.

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02/16/2024 05:40 pm GMT

Unless you plan to build an indoor shower stall, we think skipping an electric tank is the smart option. Instead, opt for a solar shower bag. They’re compact, cheaper, and more convenient to use. You can always boil water to fill the bag if the water isn’t hot enough by the end of the day. We use ours ALL THE TIME.

Top Shower Pick
Advanced Elements Solar Shower - 3 Gallons
$29.99

Forget the plumbing, this solar shower bag is the perfect solution for minimalist van life. Fill the bag with water, lay it out in the sun, and several hours later you have hot water. No sun? Boil some water and mix it with half a bag of cold water.

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“Do You Recommend Induction Stove Tops?”

Cooking with electricity (as opposed to using propane) can be a viable option, but only if you have sufficient battery capacity.

  • If using lithium batteries, we recommend having at least 300Ah of battery capacity (at 12V)
  • If using AGM, we recommend having at least 800Ah of battery capacity (at 12V).
Popular Cooktop Model
Dual Burner Induction Cooktop

For those with sufficient battery and a large inverter, this dual burner is a popular choice. It's a portable stove, allowing you to pack it away when it's not needed. It's 1800W max, but you will need a 3000W inverter to operate it at max levels properly.

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If you’re not installing a battery bank of this size, we think going with a standard propane cooktop is the way to go. Propane is cheap and easy to refill. It’s the reason why we usually don’t recommend induction stoves.

Useful Tip: If you want to extend the lifespan of one propane tank, pick up an electric water kettle. This way, you can use electricity, instead of propane, to boil water for coffee and tea. This can extend a tank of propane by 10-20%.

“How Do You Maintain a Camper Electrical System?”

There are three things we like to do to help keep our camper’s electric system in tip-top shape.

  1. Ensure bolts and screws remain tight: Once every few months, we use a screwdriver and socket wrench to tighten any screws and bolts that may have become loose due to vibrations from driving.
  2. Ensure proper battery state-of-charge (SOC): Did you know AGM and lithium batteries like to be kept at different SOCs? For example, AGMs prefer to remain at 100% charge, while lithium batteries prefer to be around 40-80%. Read our battery maintenance post to learn more.
  3. Prepare for long-term storage: When prepping to store the camper for long periods, we shut off our electric system and keep our lithium battery bank at ~50%. We would purchase a battery maintainer (trickle charger) for AGMs to keep them consistently charged at 100%.
Car Battery Charger (1A)
$29.95

Prevent your van's starter battery from an early death by keeping the battery charged during long periods of idleness.

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02/15/2024 07:50 pm GMT

“Can You Make Me a Custom Wiring Diagram?”

We receive several of these custom wiring questions every month, and unfortunately, we need to start declining these requests. We put a lot of love into our wiring diagrams, but they do take up a lot of our time.

If you are looking for diagrams that are a bit more customized, check out our “Custom Solar Wiring Diagrams” on our eBooks download page. We detail four different solar builds for four different budgets, from <$450 to ~$6,500.

Electrical System Regrets

Wires Are Not Secured Properly to Van

When we laid our electrical wire throughout the van, we simply taped the wires to our van’s frame and insulation boards. Big mistake.

Next time, we would use a combination of split wire loom and cable zip tie mounts to secure all our wires to the van properly.

Poor Choice of 14 AWG Wire Type

When purchasing our 14AWG wire, we opted for the most flexible wires possible. This led us to purchase ultra-flexible silicone jacket wires. However, these silicone jackets offer much less protection than these much sturdier 14/2 AWG wires, which have an additional outer jacket for extra protection.

Conclusion

We hope you enjoyed reading our camper van electric system guide and hope you found the information useful. Building your own system takes time and lots of homework, but if you go slow and are careful, we’re confident you can arrive at a successful installation.

If you have any questions on how to install an electrical system in your camper van, please post a comment in the section below.

Happy building!

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