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Van life can be a freeing experience. It can allow you to escape the normal way of life and enjoy a different life out on the road. A life where you are not attached to society in normal terms. You make your own way, do what you want to do and whenever you want to do it.
Many people who live the van life are not the type of people who want to fit in with the crowd. These are the type of people who go against the grain and make their own path. People like me who want to make their own path and enjoy adventures that aren’t typical of what the majority of people would want.
Having solar installed in a van, allows you to accomplish this type of lifestyle and be independent of life on the grid. With a capable solar system attached to your van, you can live and do normal things that you may be used to doing with normal household electrical outlets. Solar gives you the energy you need while allowing you to remain independent from a grid.
Many people wonder what type of solar is best for their van when they first get into van life. There are many different options to choose from and some systems can get quite expensive. There are also some cheaper options that you can use for your van and get the job done without spending a fortune.
In this article, I will discuss a few different ways that you can accomplish having solar energy in your van. Many of these ways are common and make great options because they have been tried and tested over the years. I have experience with using solar in my van because it is typically what I use 95% of the time.
Except for occasionally plugging up at an RV park, I use my solar power to accommodate my needs nearly all of the time. I am a big fan of solar because it allows you to be independent and not have to worry about where you are going to get electricity from.
It’s a nice feeling when you park somewhere and you can still get on with your life without being plugged into a grid. You can still charge your phone, run your laptop, watch TV, and do anything else that you would be used to doing.
If you are looking to install solar in your van, I hope the following recommendations will help you out on your journey.
Basic Solar System For Van Life
The first type of system that I will discuss is the basic installed solar system. This system consists of a few parts and can seem quite difficult at first. However, once you understand all of the components required, it isn’t that difficult.
The first thing you will need is a solar panel or most likely, multiple solar panels. These come in different sizes and can be rigid or flexible. Typically, rigid panels are going to give you more bang for your buck. They are more efficient and will pull in more energy from the sun.
However, the downside of using rigid panels on a van is that they will likely need to be installed on a roof rack. You can choose to mount them directly to the roof of the van but I would recommend using a roof rack for this installation.
With flexible solar panels, you are able to work with them a little bit easier. They will fit the contours of a van roof and can be easily stuck to a roof securely.
I have flexible solar panels on my van but I am sure that rigid panels would be more efficient and provide me with more energy. However, the convenience of flexible solar panels is a big selling point. The flexible solar panels that I have on my van are very light and were easy to install using Everbond tape.
I’ve driven thousands of miles on my van and they have never moved and the tape holds them down very securely, no roof rack needed.
These tried and true solar panels are a great option for van lifers. The cost is low but the performance is on par with some of the more expensive panels on the market. You’ll be sure to have efficient solar panels when you choose these rigid panels.
If you want flexibility, these flexible solar panels from Renogy provide a great solution. I have these installed on my van and can say for sure that these are great panels. They are not as efficient as the rigid panels above but the flexibility of them makes it worth it.
Solar energy is only as good as the battery bank that you have available. The amount of energy that you have will depend upon the size and capacity of the batteries that you choose. This is an important part of the system because this is where your electrical energy is stored.
The sun shines down on the solar panels and the energy from the sun is then used to charge these batteries. The charge within those batteries is what you will use to be able to power your devices.
Currently, AGM and Lithium batteries are the best battery technologies on the market. AGM batteries are considerably cheaper but are not as efficient as lithium batteries. You will have to determine whether the extra cost of lithium is worth it for your situation. If you are more interested in saving money, AGM will be your best bet.
Renogy also makes great batteries and are among the more affordable option that you will find. AGM batteries are heavy but they are the most affordable option you will find for your solar system.
Lithium batteries are more efficient and lighter in weight. They are much more expensive though. Renogy also makes lithium batteries that can be used with their solar systems.
Once you have the solar panels and the batteries, you will need a way to manage the charging that is done. The charge controller controls how much voltage is going into the batteries as well as preventing the battery from becoming discharged when the sun is not shining.
The charge controller is what connects the solar panels and the batteries together and allows you to have a fully functioning solar system capable of delivering useable electrical energy.
An MPPT charge controller is going to give you the best performance with your solar system. This MPPT charge controller from Renogy keeps your system running smoothly and also allows you to connect to it and monitor it with your phone.
AC Power Inverter
The three items listed above will allow you to have a fully functioning 12 V system. If you want to also be able to connect 120 V AC devices, you will need an inverter. An inverter takes the direct current and inverts it to make it alternating current.
This alternating current is what you will typically find in a standard house. In the United States, the standard household plug is 120 V alternating current. If you intend to use your solar system to be able to plug-in normal household items, an inverter is a necessity.
Without it, you will only be able to use 12 V items. This is probably not good enough and you will most likely want to have an inverter added to your system.
Run all of your AC powered devices with this 2000 watt inverter. 2000 watts is a good size for those with a solar system in a van. It will give you enough wattage to run most any device that you would be likely to use.
Cables & Connectors
There are a variety of cables that you will need to connect everything in a solar system. The panels will need to be connected to the charge controller and the charge controller will need to be connected to the batteries. If you use an inverter, it will also need to be connected to the battery.
All of these cables that are needed can get a bit confusing. It isn’t always a case of knowing exactly what you’ll need. Depending on your installation and positioning of components, you may have some trial and error on different lengths of cables.
For the most part, you can expect to need the following:
- Branch connectors (if you have more than one solar panel)
- Cables to connect solar panels to charge controller
- Cables to connect the charge controller to battery or batteries
There may be more cables necessary but each configuration may be different so you’ll have to play it by ear depending on your specific setup.
One way to make the whole process easier is through the use of a kit. Let’s look at how these may be the best solution for your van.
Solar System Kits
If you were going to create a DIY solar system for your van, you might have a hard time deciding on what to buy. It can be a confusing process, especially considering that the system can get quite expensive. In this case, many companies have kits that you can buy that include most of the necessary parts to create a fully-functioning system.
These kits are excellent for beginners or for anyone who doesn’t want to take the time to piece together their own system. With a kit, you won’t second guess your choices since the kit already contains most of the parts needed and have been put together from the company that sells them. They have been put together to work flawlessly and can make the entire process easier for you.
An example of a great solar system kit for a van would be the following.
Renogy 200 Watt 12 Volt Solar RV Kit
This kit includes the following:
- (2) 100 Watt Solar Panels With Mounting Brackets
- 30 Amp Charge Controller
- Bluetooth Module
- Cables & Connectors
- Cable Entry Housing
A couple of things missing from this kit that you will need to purchase in addition are the AC power inverter and the battery(s).
These items will complete the kit and allow you to have a fully-functioning system. The only thing left to do is install it.
Portable Solar Generators
If the DIY route is not for you, there are portable solar generators that are packaged as one whole system. These portable systems save you time by having everything done for you. The only thing that you need to do with a portable solar system is to connect a solar panel to charge the batteries contained within the unit.
This makes it very simple to install a solar system wherever you want. For a van, these types of systems are ideal because they can serve multiple purposes beyond being the main electrical hub for your van.
You can also remove them easily from your van and use them in other places. You could take the unit to the beach with you so that you can power devices. You could use the unit for other purposes rather than just sitting in the van waiting to power your life in the living space.
The downside of a portable system is the overall cost. You would be able to piece something together yourself for a cheaper price. However, if convenience is your goal, a portable system will work well.
The three options listed below are popular models that van lifers use. There are more options for solar generators but the ones I have listed below will get you up and running with minimal work and minimal money.
One of the most popular portable options is one of the Goal Zero Yeti units. These units provide solar energy in a small portable package and unlike traditional solar systems that are installed, these can be moved from place to place. Goal Zero has options for different power needs. Whether you need 400 W of power or 3000 W of power, Goal Zero has you covered.
For most van lifers, Goal Zero provides options that are more than sufficient for providing energy.
If you are looking for something that will provide a little energy to supplement your needs when you aren’t plugged in, the Yeti 400 may be a good choice for you. However, if you are looking for something that will power your van the majority of the time, the Yeti 1400 (1400 watt-hours) or the Yeti 3000 (3000 watt-hours) will work better.
You can read more about my goal zero installation and usage here and why I think it is the best portable option for van life.
The Inergy is another portable solar generator that you can purchase. This brand is also capable of delivering a large amount of power for your van life needs. It is 1100 watt-hours so it is not quite as powerful as the Yeti 1400 listed above.
It’s a convenient system that only weighs 25 pounds and has a carrying handle on the top of it, making it a truly portable unit. The unit can be tucked away nicely into an area inside your van and be used permanently or removed as needed.
As with the Goal Zero units, it has everything that you need already built into it including the AC power inverter. It comes with six standard 120 V plugs so that you can easily plug your AC devices into it.
Jackery makes portable solar systems that are smaller capacity than what you would find from the other two companies listed above. These make great units as a backup or if you are just needing a small portable system to add to an existing system. If you only use small items or want to charge your phones or other devices, one of the Jackery units will serve you well.
With the smallest unit being 240 watt-hours and the largest unit being 1000 watt-hours, there is something for a wide variety of needs in their product lineup. These are a great solution for van life and can come in very handy for those with smaller needs. These are more affordable units since they are smaller.
Solar Panels For A Portable Solar Generator
No matter what type of solar system you use, solar panels are a vital part of the system. You need panels in order to harness the energy from the sun. There are different types of solar panels that you can use and this will depend upon your situation.
If you are going to be using a system that is permanently installed in your van, you will probably want to mount solar panels to your roof. On the other hand, if a portable solar generator is what you will use, you may decide to use portable solar panels as well.
However, just because you have a portable solar generator that you use, it doesn’t mean that you must use portable solar panels. In my van, I have used permanent solar panels that are installed on my roof but they connect to my portable Yeti 1400 solar generator.
I could just as easily have gone with portable solar panels but I wanted the convenience of my solar panels always being connected and charging.
Using portable solar panels has advantages though and may allow you to get more out of your solar system because you can move them around and aim them directly at the sun.
If you have solar panels installed flat on your van’s roof, there are times during the day when the sun is not aimed directly at the panels so you are not drawing as much energy as you could be if the solar panels were facing directly towards the sun.
The portable units that I have listed above all have their own brand of portable solar panels. These fit well with their units and are designed to easily connect and disconnect with a minimal amount of work. The only problem with this set up in a van or an RV is that you have to get out of your van and set them up.
With this, you run the risk of someone coming by and stealing them while you are in your van. It’s probably unlikely but something to think about if you decide to use this type of panel.
It isn’t as convenient as having them mounted on your roof permanently because when they are mounted in this way, they are always on the job. No one is going to climb on your roof and try to steal your mounted solar panels.
The foldable solar panels from Goal Zero are great for van life because they allow you to use them when needed and then easily store the panels away when you are not using them. These take up a minimal amount of space and anyone who lives in a van knows that space comes at a premium.
How Many Solar Panels Do I Need For A Van?
How many solar panels you need depends upon how much energy you will be consuming as well as other factors. If you will be installing solar panels, space is limited on a van roof so you will have to work with the small area that you have.
I have 200 watts of solar panels on my roof. I have two 100 watt panels mounted side by side and still have enough room to add a third one if I see fit. I haven’t found that I need it yet though. The 200 watts I have keeps my solar generator charged just fine and allows me to live comfortably in my van without feeling like I am having to save energy.
Some of the portable solar generators only allow a certain amount of incoming wattage so you’ll have to take note of that amount if you are using one.
For example, the Goal Zero Yeti 1400 only allows 360 watts to be connected. The Inergy Apex allows 500 watts to be connected and the Jackery 1000 only allows 200 watts.
In most cases, you shouldn’t need more than 200 – 300 watts of solar panels on your van roof or in a portable configuration. Many people have more than this, sometimes in the thousands of watts.
However, this is overkill in most cases and is usually only for those who consume a lot or use high energy items such as an induction cooktop, microwave, water heaters and other items that have a high power draw.
No doubt installing a solar system in your van can be a costly undertaking. Depending on the size and complexity of the system you choose, the price can vary but will likely be one of the largest costs of your van build.
I’m a big proponent of the portable solar generators only because they can easily be used in situations other than your van. A permanently installed solar system is cheaper and is what most people choose to go with. Solar companies have made it easier than ever for anyone to install a system even though electrical considerations can be a complex subject.
Some people don’t consider the cost of solar to be worth it. For me, I wouldn’t want to be without it because it’s how I get most of my power. Whether you decide on solar or not, it’s a great way to power your life while on the road in a van.
Even if you only use a small portable unit, it will give you a little peace of mind knowing that you always have a backup power supply, as long as the sun is shining enough to keep it charged.