Growing up the daughter of an all-around handyman had its advantages. My father could do anything! For much of my youth, he was an auto mechanic, built or rebuilt our home several times over, and became an electrician after years in the factory. So when I was young, I could not get enough of spending time with him and learning as much of the 'boy' stuff as possible.
To many of you younger folks today, it may sound odd to phrase it that way, but when I went to school, girls took home economics, boys took wood or auto shop. By best definition, at the time, I was a 'Tom Boy.' I learned as much about cars, drywall, paint & electrical as I could. Admittedly once I discovered boys, my focus changed for a while, but there is not a day that I don't use the lessons my dad taught me.
My electrical was mostly 110V & 220V with some automotive experience but designing and connecting a 12V solar setup to a battery bank with a 110V inverter was VERY new to me. The thing I love about electricity is if done wrong, it simply doesn't work, or so I thought.
We started with one 100 ah marine AGM battery and 100 Watts solar with a 40A controller. We had the battery behind the passenger seat to monitor it, and it was easy to work on if we needed or wanted to add something.
This setup was great for powering our lights since there was little draw from them and the input from the sun during the day was more significant than the draw at night. We did run a 12V cooler, but the draw was too great to leave it running all night, so it became an ice chest until we could get a 12V refrigerator.
We had a portable battery bank charger/pure sine inverter to charge our phones and laptops. Unfortunately, it was stolen somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd builds.
We mainly cooked on a propane camp stove outside of the van, and as long as the weather cooperated, it was enough. However, since we didn't want to cook in the van with propane, we had to eat out when it rained with no prospects of cooking in the winter.
We invested in a second 100 ah marine battery, realizing that we only got 1/2 of the rated hours before it was considered deep drained and needed charging. So we placed it behind the driver's seat and ran the wires across the seat opening under the mat.
This additional power allowed us to run a small 1500 watt modified sign inverter. As a result, we could use a small 12V electric skillet for cooking and had enough charge at the end of even a rainy day to run our new 12V refrigerator.
At this point, I spoke with Tom about his Xbox sitting in the living room at home. We had not gone full-time van life at this time. He insisted he didn't need a tv and Xbox in the van, but I watched him struggle to find things to do all day and after dark (during Xbox time with friends online). I let him ponder my thoughts into the winter, knowing if we were going to make this work, we needed to have the things we loved.
After our first winter, Tom realized the wisdom of my suggestion for entertainment in the van. He was still resistant to Xbox, and our data plan didn't afford watching movies through a hotspot, so we agreed to purchase a small 24" DVD/TV combo TV. We revamped in the fall, moved the battery bank to under the shelving unit behind the driver's seat, and connected it to the starter battery to assist in charging during the winter.
This additional draw was a bit much, and I upgraded our battery bank to four 100 ah Marine AGM batteries. I added a 200 Watt solar panel to our van, increasing our setup to 300
Watts. I experimented with space conservation and had the great idea of moving the batteries between the front seats. This change was a bad idea. Not only did they shift when we stopped hard, but they also didn't like the heat from the sun through the windshield. I had them in a custom-made battery box, but the heat in the cab of the van was an issue, and after about six weeks moved them back to under the shelving unit.
During this spring, we added a small 12V refrigerator to the system. Despite the digital thermostat reading about 15 deg F colder, it kept things out.
We returned from our first trip in the van (see link by the same name), and Tom was still looking at van life as tent-free camping. At this time, we were van living 90% of the time. So far, we have only spent a night or 2 in the van during the winter months.
I found and installed a diesel heater in the back of the van and ran the vent up towards the side doors just past the bed. I needed to make sure that we could winter in the van before we retired, as Tom was not as open to the idea as hoped.
Before our next trip, I moved the Xbox to the van and upgraded our kitchen appliances to make it easier and cheaper to LIVE in the van. The adventure is a story for a different page but let me say that Tom loved hiking and kayaking during the day and logging on to Xbox at night with the guys. Our power issues seemed to be a thing of the past until... poof.
The inverter must have run too hot and burned out while cooking dinner one night. I am unsure if it was the high draw, not enough ventilation, or something wholly unseen. Hot electrical is not a smell you want to notice 8 hours from home in the middle of the woods. So we had to disconnect the inverter and all 12v wires except the fridge and lights.
Time to get back to the basics. Having never wired something like this and admittedly taking a few shortcuts, I went back to YouTube and watched more videos on setting up the electrical correctly. Unfortunately, my father passed away from a complication to Cancer just before we purchased the van, and every time I completed something, I picked up the phone to call him, and every time I got stuck, I found I did the same thing.
I pulled almost everything electrical out of the van except the lights and started from scratch. This time I installed a fuse box for anything, not 110V, and increased the size of my wires coming from the starter battery (running that through a marine switch) and to my inverters to 2 gauge.
We added a water pump for the 15-gallon freshwater tank we salvaged from a 1979 class B at the local junkyard. We can use our tankless propane water heater for showers thanks to a water supply. We altogether scrapped any cooking on the camp stove. Instead, we purchased an induction cooktop, slow cooker, kettle and leaped 95% electrical cooking. I can't give up the BBQ in the summer. There is no better way to cook steak!!
We received a 32 inch smart TV as a gift from our kids, and after calling to switch cell providers, we were offered 100 Gig for $100, so we stayed, and now Tom can Xbox, and we can stream movies anytime.
The final electrical addition we made was a small gas generator. It fits behind the bed in the garage area, and once a month, we run it with a battery charger connected to top up our bank and de-sulfur them to ensure they are adequately maintained. Then, when the weather is terrible, or we want to stay curled up watching Tv or gaming, we connect the generator directly and bypass the battery bank. The generator is an excellent alternative to driving to top up the batteries, especially with the price of gas these days.
Thanks to the generator, we have been in the van full time for one year now and have not had any major power issues. As a result, we did not need to increase our battery bank or the solar array. Tom likes to tease me for the number of times I have moved the battery bank, but I think he secretly enjoyed building me the new boxes each time.
I feel good about the setup. However, I wonder if the batteries would fit under the bed and give us more storage in the closet area? Also, it would give me an excuse to upgrade the wire gauge I used everywhere for 12V.
"Tom..... could you make me a battery box again?"