Converting a cargo van into a campervan is no easy feat. Space is a precious commodity, but another important consideration is power. External batteries are essential to connect your solar panels on any campervan. If you’re unsure what to look for, read this guide on how to choose the right solar battery for your van builds.
You’re working with limited space in a campervan, so finding a battery that fits within your limitations is essential. Planning ahead of time saves trouble in configuring your electrical devices. Mainly, think about the appliances you have in the campervan. Any amenities, utilities, or chargers you use will require sufficient energy to function.
Outlets, lights, and fans require their own electrical input. When looking for the right battery size, consider the amp hours needed. Given that batteries degrade over time don’t expect to see the 100%-amp hours each use. The amp hours further depend on the type of battery you use.
Each battery type has a set amount of amp hours and power efficiency. The main types of solar batteries to consider include lead acid or lithium-ion. There are two types of lead acid batteries: flooded lead acid batteries and sealed lead acid batteries.
Flooded Lead Acid Batteries (FLA)
These batteries are the standard and often found in a car or other motorized vehicle. They are the cheapest battery option, but they have a long lifespan. Still, FLA batteries use a liquid electrolyte that moves freely within its encasement. Over time, these electrolytes can leak out of the battery, causing a huge mess.
You must use a sealed container to properly vent your flooded lead acid battery to avoid the hydrogen gas that emits as a resulting offshoot. Another plus is you can store your FLA under your bed or in an equally convenient place to keep it out of your way.
Sealed Lead Acid Batteries (SLA)
Sealed lead acid batteries (SLA) are a bit different. They function similarly to FLAs, but they’re pre-sealed to protect against erosion. Unlike FLAs, SLAs don’t spill, leak, or emit off-gas. One downside is their short lifespan. SLAs typically have a limited number of cycles in the electrolyte, which limit their use. The two most common types of sealed lead acid batteries are AGM and gel batteries.
AGM batteries, or Absorbed Glass Mat batteries, keep the electrolyte encased in fiberglass mats between the lead plates. There is no need for maintenance or ventilation, but you may see a higher upfront cost than FLA batteries. Gel batteries use a thick gel paste to hold the electrolyte instead of fiberglass mats. Still, no additional maintenance or risk of leaks. Another plus for gel batteries is they’re highly durable in extreme climates. Gel batteries are the most expensive on the market, so keep this in mind when configuring your budget.
Lithium-ion batteries power smartphones, tablets, and laptops, in addition to campervans. A major difference between lithium-ion and lead acid batteries is that you receive the full amp hours you expect. If you use a 100aH lithium-ion battery, you’ll receive the full 100aH. You’ll typically only see half the expected amp hours in a lead acid battery.
Keep in mind these batteries are expensive, and you cannot charge them in freezing temperatures. This makes it challenging to travel to colder climates. However, temperature control can mitigate this issue. Lithium-ion batteries have a long lifespan with proper care.
Budgeting is an important consideration when choosing the right solar battery for your van build. Now that you know the different types of batteries in a solar-powered campervan think about the total cost of your conversion. Some people rely on serious power and electrical consumption, so they may require a more costly battery to optimize performance.
Others may take a bareback approach and create a minimal setup. Either way, decide which battery best fits your budget. Remember to include converters, battery isolators, inverters, and other electrical needs. You can always add what you don’t have today at a later date.
Wires and Fuses
You also need the right connections to charge and power your battery and to use it with the appropriate appliances and devices. That’s where wires and fuses come in handy. Many people don’t realize the size of the wire matters. Thin wires may break and pose a safety risk. Thick wires are more costly and may take up needed space inside the campervan.
Choose the wire size based on the amount of electrical current traveling through it. The length of the wire run also helps determine the size you need. Look at your devices’ specifications to see their max current rate, either in watts or amperage (watts divided by voltage). To determine the length of your wire run, measure the distance the wiring will travel and double it—to account for both the positive and negative wire.
Once you have everything set up, it’s time for the installation.
- Step One: mount your solar panels to your roof rack with the respective wiring.
- Step Two: pair all positive wires together and all negative wires together. It can help to wire your panels parallel to your layout and add more solar panels if needed.
- Step Three: mount the charge controller. It’s best to leave a few inches of space around the controller for ventilation.
- Step Four: ground the batteries to the chassis and wire them on opposite sides of the battery bank.
- Step Five: wire the charge controller to the batteries. Always disconnect your solar panels first before undergoing maintenance on the batteries.
- Step Six: run the wires from the batteries to the battery terminals on the charge controller. It helps to add a fuse to your solar panels to prevent a power surge.
- Step Seven: wire the solar panels and load terminals to the charge controller.
- Step Eight: install outlets around your campervan for free electricity use.
Unaka Gear is your main source of solar panel hardware. Our bracket kits are the perfect accompaniment to secure your solar panels on your roof rack for sufficient power supply whenever you need it. Feel free to call us with any questions; we’re happy to find the right electrical equipment for your camper build.