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When I was seeking to build out my camper van, I was certain that I wanted to integrate a solar system into my build. Solar power just makes sense for someone who wants to travel in a van and boondock occasionally in remote places where power hookups are likely not available.
I was building out my van myself and I don’t have any experience with electrical systems. I understand the basics but I’ll be the first to admit that I was a little scared to piece together a system by myself. I was worried that something wouldn’t work right or even worse, it might catch on fire and burn the van down.
I was having some difficulty in understanding what I would need in order to accomplish what I needed for my electrical requirements.
I didn’t want to create a potential safety hazard especially if I decide to sell my van in the future.
I also factored in that I would not be living in my van full time so I wouldn’t need a massive solar system. My power requirements are pretty low. The following items are what I intend to use with my electrical system.
- Refrigerator/freezer – Dometic 75DZW top loader, which runs very efficient compared to traditional refrigerator/freezer combos.
- Water pump (Surflo Revolution) – this only runs for small amounts of time when you are running the water.
- LED lighting – ceiling and garage lights that have minimal power draw.
- Charging for laptop, phone, iPad, camera batteries and other small electronic devices.
- TV – this will run for a minimal amount of time if I ever get bored out on the road.
Other items that I may need to power but will likely only be used with shore power when I am in a place with hookups.
- Space heater in the winter
- Portable AC in the summer
That’s it. I’m pretty minimal with what I need in order to function and live with all of the conveniences that I am used to living with at my house.
I learned about the Goal Zero company during my search for a plug and play solar system that I could use that would take the guesswork out of the design and installation.
I was particularly interested in the Goal Zero Yeti 1400 since this would provide all of the wattage/amps I would need.
The main thing that drew me to the Yeti 1400 was how simple it was to install and use. It doesn’t even need to be installed. You can just set it where you need it and plug your devices into it and you are ready to go.
However, it is also easy to set up to be able to use with outlets and other electrical devices just like you would a full-fledged solar system.
Another thing I liked about the yeti 1400 was that I could also remove it from the van as needed. This means that if I need a solar unit at my house or anywhere else I can take it out of my van and use it anywhere that I need electrical energy.
This could be especially useful during a power outage in my house because I can easily retrieve it from my van and power most all the small devices that I use within my house including lights, TV, radio, refrigerator, fans, etc.
If I had opted for a solar system that is installed permanently in my van, I would not be able to do this. This probably doesn’t matter to a full-time RVer or van dweller but for me as a weekender or part-time van lifer, it’s perfect.
Installing The Yeti 1400 in My Van.
I chose a location in the rear of my van above the wheel well for the place that my Goal Zero Yeti 1400 would live. This is a good place in my van because it’s under the bed and out of the way.
It’s also easy to get to from the rear doors for when I need to access it for any reason or remove it from the van.
I was also able to create an electrical board behind the Yeti where all of my 12-volt wiring ties into a fuse block. The fuse block then connects to the Goal Zero and allows me to have 12-volt power whenever I need it.
For the AC power, I simply used recessed power strips that are typically used in offices as desk power outlets. These easily plug into the two provided AC outlets on the Yeti. This setup works great although the outlets I used happen to be 12 amp instead of the normal 15 amp.
This will likely not be a problem since I will only run smaller items through these outlets and will probably never reach the 12 amp capacity.
Because of the Goal Zero unit, installing solar power in my van was a breeze. It was much simpler than I imagined it would be in the beginning.
I didn’t have to do any research for batteries, charge controllers, converters or anything else used in a solar system. The Goal Zero comes ready with all of these in a plug-and-play system.
The only other parts that you will need to charge the Yeti 1400 is solar panels. I opted for Renegy 100 watt flexible panels and taped them to the top of my van using Eternabond. Eternabond is extremely sticky and I don’t foresee any issues with the panels ever coming off the roof.
Of course, I check them often and after a year of use, they are still as tight as they were the day I installed them.
Installing the solar panels was probably the most difficult part of the entire system since I had to figure out how to wire them, and how to bring the wires down from the roof in order to connect to the unit.
I opted to bring the wires through the rear camera housing so that I wouldn’t have to drill any holes in the roof.
Using the Goal Zero Yeti 1400 in my Van
After installing the Goal Zero and solar panels into my van, the next step was to use it and see how well it works on the road.
Since the 12-volt wiring was one of the first things I did in my van build, I was able to connect the lights and switches as well as the Maxxair fan to the Yeti and use it as I was building out the rest of the van.
Those devices worked great throughout the build and since I have finished my van build completely, I have been able to power these devices along with all other devices on actual road trips.
I have put the Goal Zero unit to the test and can now report my findings as to how well it works in a van environment when out on the road.
For the most part, the unit has worked like a charm. It has been more than sufficient for keeping up with my electrical demands from all of the devices that I use while also maintaining a 100% charge on most sunny or partly sunny days.
The most challenging part of depending upon a solar system is making sure you have a large enough battery bank and that you can receive enough sunlight to keep it charged regularly.
Using solar may also require a change in the way you are accustomed to living. Since we have unlimited power in our homes, we don’t think about how much we are using daily. This will change once you are out on the road and know that you have a limited amount of electrical power you can use.
I’ll admit, this took a little getting used to at first. On my first trip, I used electrical power probably more than I should have. It was my first time using all of the systems at once and it used more than I imagined it would.
With the refrigerator running, the Maxxair fan, the water pump, lights and other things like radio and TV, I found myself losing battery percentage faster than I thought I would.
However, this is not to say that the unit couldn’t handle it. The Yeti still kept everything charged close to 100% each day.
It was more of an eye-opening experience for me and made me consider a more energy-saving approach going forward.
The days of my first road trip were sunny but it made me wonder how well the system would perform on cloudy days.
After going on several trips, I have discovered the good and the bad of using the Goal Zero system for my van. Below are the pros and cons of using this type of system.
- It’s a self-contained unit that is easy to install or remove whenever needed.
- It’s safe. The engineers at goal zero have constructed the system and I don’t have to worry about my homemade contraption catching fire or not working.
- It’s easy to use.
- It’s powerful enough for most uses that people would have living in a van.
- The readout and display are very good.
- It has Wi-Fi so that you can connect and interact with it, although I’ve never had much luck getting it to work consistently.
- It has lithium batteries which means that you can use the entire battery bank unlike AGM batteries, which you can’t completely drain.
- It’s lightweight considering the amount of electrical energy it provides. The weight saving is important for van life.
- It’s very well constructed and will withstand the rigors of mobile living.
- The readout is not accurate although it is very informative.
- It doesn’t have as much electrical power as a custom-built system would likely have.
- It has the potential to stop working at any time although this is easy to remedy (more about this below).
- It’s expensive for what you get. Although I would argue that the added cost saves you time and headaches of designing your own system. Besides that, you can often find them on sale around the holidays.
- You have to purchase an extra 12 volt regulated cable in order to maintain 12 volts. This is especially important if you are running a Dometic fridge. It’s ridiculous that you have to purchase an extra part to make the Yeti work the way it should in the first place. Note: I believe they have corrected this oversight and now have this built into the units.
There are two specific problems that I have had with my unit. I’m not sure if this is common with all of them or not but I have experienced this with mine.
1. The battery percentage readout is not accurate.
Most of the time when the yeti is fully charged, the percentage meter only reads anywhere from 94 to 97%.
This was very confusing in the beginning and I thought something was wrong with it. However, after speaking with technical support, I learned that the battery meter was simply out of sync with the battery.
They told me how to sync it back up by letting the battery drain down to 0-20% and then holding down the units button for 5 – 10 seconds. This will re-sync the display with the battery level and then attempt to charge the unit to full.
This seemed to work but it was out of sync again within the next few charges.
I have seen this pattern the entire time I’ve had to Goal Zero so I assume it will always be this way. I don’t worry about it any longer. As long as the input says zero, it doesn’t matter what the percentage of the battery says.
If the solar panel input is at zero, that means it is not charging from the sun so it is fully charged.
It’s also important to note that this problem is more prevalent when using solar to charge versus a standard household plug to charge.
2. It has completely stopped working once.
The generator completely shut off on me once when I was using a very small load of devices, somewhere in the 40 watt range. The unit was dead and none of the buttons would do anything to bring it back to life. It was fully charged so I knew the battery couldn’t be dead.
I assumed it had gone bad and I would have to send it in for repair.
However, I was able to find a fix for this myself.
I opened the unit up using the four bolts on top and unhooked the cable from the battery, waited a minute or two and then plugged it back up.
After doing this, it started working again. I’m not sure if or when this is going to happen again so I am always sure to keep the proper size wrench in my van so that I can remove the top as needed if it should ever happen again while I am out on the road.
How Well is the Goal Zero Constructed?
I have been very impressed with the quality of the yeti 1400. It is high-quality as you would expect from something that costs as much as this unit does. Mine has been in use for over a year now and it has gone through its amount of testing over that time.
One time, in particular, I ran over it with a pickup truck. I had placed it on the floor in my garage and forgot about it as I was pulling my truck in.
I quickly realized that I was running over something because I heard it scooting across the garage floor. I stopped my truck, got out to check what I was certain was a damaged unit.
To my surprise, the unit still worked as it always did and it only had a small rubber tire mark on the side of it. I was relieved, to say the least, but more than that, I was happy and impressed that the unit survived and I didn’t have to purchase a new one.
This incident won me over as far as the quality goes for the Yeti 1400. I’m not sure there’s anything I could do that could cause more damage than running over it with a pick-up truck.
If it can survive this, it will likely survive anything else that might happen out on the road and I am confident that it will be a good, working unit for years to come.
If you are like me and don’t know where to start as far as designing and installing a solar system, I would strongly suggest looking into the Goal Zero products.
Also, if you are a weekender like me and only use your van or RV on occasion, it makes sense to purchase something like this that can be used in other ways besides powering your van or RV.
I’m convinced that this product will provide years of service and allow me to enjoy the conveniences of home when I am on the road. I have had my van for only a short time but I have already enjoyed the benefits of using a well constructed solar system.
If the Yeti 1400 is not powerful enough for your needs, you can always opt for the Yeti 3000 which provides a whopping 3000-watt hours.
Goal Zero also offers an array of solar panels and other products that go hand-in-hand with the larger units. The solar panels that they offer are portable and since I needed something that would be installed on my van, I opted for another company’s panels.
Besides that, the solar panels that Goal Zero offers are a little bit on the expensive side.
I am not sure how long my unit will last or if it will begin to lose its capacity after a certain amount of time but so far I have been very impressed with it.
It has provided me with everything that I expected and needed out of the system in order to provide electricity for everything I need in my van.
Goal Zero Crush Light
Although the flagship products of Goal Zero are their solar powered generators and solar panels, which I have discussed in this article, they have
other products that are also great for van life and go hand in hand with the solar generators that they offer.
One of my favorites is the Crush Light.
This is a great little lantern that weighs almost nothing and takes up almost no space. It provides a bright light source when opened up and stores away easily when it is crushed down. It has a built-in solar panel for charging or you can simply plug it up to a power source such as the Yeti 1400.
Although my van has lights built in, I often find myself in need of light as I venture out away from my van during the night, especially in remote areas.
The crush light gives me the light I need in a convenient package.