When I first purchased my van, the salesman assured me the electrics were good to go for “free camping” off-the-grid.
What I wanted was the ability to stay in remote locations for several days at a time with no access to electricity, collect energy from the sun through solar panels, and store it in my batteries for later use – mainly with 12-volt gear, or occasionally drive some 240V stuff through an inverter.
As it turned out, the old (illegal) car battery and u-beaut cheap battery charger they supplied with my van, were nowhere near what I actually needed.
Here’s what I have now… hopefully explained in simple terms 🙂 It’s a good indication of where you might need to START if you want to do some serious off-grid camping.
These collect energy from the SUN during daylight hours and convert it to electricity. I initially purchased a 120 Watt portable solar panel (which is apparently sufficient to charge the battery I purchased – see below)
Solar Charge Controller / Regulator
A regulator is used to control the maximum amount of electricity that can be generated by your panels so you don’t “cook” the batteries you are using to store power. It is also designed to send the right amount of power to your batteries, at the right time, to help charge them properly.
My “portable” panels came with their own regulator, which then plugs into my batteries using an ADDITIONAL external Anderson Plug which was installed under the front of my van. My sparky also provided an alligator clip adapter cable if I ever wanted to connect it directly to the battery terminals.
These STORE the regulated power received from your solar panels for later use when the sun ain’t shining!
With only two 12V lights, a small TV (incl DVD player), and an Apple laptop computer to run on 12 volts, I initially opted for only one 110 Amp-hour deep cycle AGM battery. This is an AGM battery – i.e. NOT a “normal” car battery. These are designed to release their charge slowly over time, unlike a car battery which can deliver the hefty “cranking” voltage needed to start a car.
I’ve since added another battery of the same size, but only because I want to use my laptop a lot at night time. With the second battery, I now don’t have to worry too much about my batteries dropping under 12v (which is NOT a desirable state for AGM batteries).
12 volt Outlets
I had a couple of 12-volt, cigarette lighter outlets installed in the van – one near the TV, and another double one near the battery compartment to drive the laptop and phone chargers.
I also now have a 10″ 12V 3-speed “Cool Breeze” fan, for really hot days. It was around $70 on eBay. A little noisy, and I probably should have got the more expensive Sirocco one ($140 upwards) as it is quieter and uses less power.
12 Volt Lights
Like most caravans, mine also came with 12-volt incandescent bayonet style light bulbs in the two main internal light fittings. They were replaced with LED bulbs, which are much more energy efficient, provide a better, whiter light, but are fairly expensive to buy (around $30 each at the time).
I was greedy here and actually had TWO installed.
One is on the lower front of the van – and it connects the cable from my portable solar panels to my batteries.
The other was installed on the rear of my tug, and supplies current to the van to charge the house batteries and keep the fridge running while driving. It seems the cable that normally might serve this purpose in the usual 7 / 12 pin trailer plugs, is not quite good enough these days 🙂 There’s also a relay installed on this circuit so that I don’t run the car battery flat when the motor isn’t running!
This Anderson Plug connects directly to the van while traveling, to a device new to me, called a …
Apparently, the current generated by your vehicle may NOT be enough to charge your AGM deep cycle batteries properly.
So… the DC-DC Charger boosts the voltage received from the car while you are traveling and provides the right amount of current at the right time to “smartly” charge your deep cycle house batteries properly.
Mine is located in the battery compartment of the van (which is under the front club lounge).
240 Volt “Smart” Charger
Do NOT confuse these with an el-cheapo battery charger! These are quite expensive! But they are very clever at delivering the right charge to your deep cycle battery bank when plugged into power.
Even when in storage, your 240V charger should be connected to provide a continuous “trickle charge” to your batteries so they do NOT drop to critical levels and shorten the life of your batteries.
And that’s about it…
I’ve also tried a couple of other things over the last few years, but no longer use them, including:
I used a small 300W inverter to power a pair of clippers so I can give myself a haircut… and also tried it to charge my laptop from time to time. It decided to go to God and hasn’t been replaced (even though I have another larger 1000W inverter available – just not installed).
I also own a small 1kVA Yamaha generator… a small fortune spent “just in case” I needed it for some unknown reason. It’s only been used a couple of times over the past three years, mainly to help recharge my house batteries when things got a bit tight.
However, all I really needed to do was to plug in the car and run the motor for a little while LOL. Oh well!
So there you have it… a reasonable basic setup with 120W portable panels and 210 Ah of battery available.
The solar panels are now permanently attached to the roof racks on my tug… as I got tired of setting them up, and then packing them up, every day 🙂 I probably need to buy another set of 120W panels since I now have a second battery, but I haven’t yet seen the need for them so far.
Will that setup work for you?
Well, that depends on what and how many devices that you want to power.
In my case, I use GAS for cooking and heating when off-grid.
My fridge is also an older style 3-way which also runs on gas (or 12V while traveling, and 240V while on power).
IF I had one of the newer type 12V compressor fridges instead, I would need an EXTRA battery and EXTRA solar to power that while off-grid.
If you want to play with more precise figures, then make sure you check out this solar power calculator from Solar 4 RV’s! Just change out some of the figures in the calculator there for your devices. There’s also a LOT of other simple info about solar power on that website too 🙂
You really can NOT run appliances that generate a lot of HEAT – i.e. hair dryers, kettles, toasters, ceramic/oil heaters, air conditioners etc – from 12V batteries/inverter combo… at least not for very long – UNLESS you have a LOT of batteries and corresponding solar panels to keep them charged.