Energy Sources and Components for Camper Vans: Expert Advice from Rod Thiesen

By: Get-Away RV   |   26 Jun 2019

Before you choose equipment, or accessories for your van, you must ask yourself truthfully, how will I be using this vehicle? and, what type of camping will I be doing? Or will I be camping at all?

The popularity of vans is partially due to their versatility. What other camper RV allows you to camp one day, then be used as a daily commuter the next? It's because of this "flex factor" that you need to think long and hard about how you intend this vehicle to be used.

Do not be tricked or dazzled by all the equipment available. There is no merit in cluttering the interior with unused items.

With my 30 plus years of custom building, I've had many "seasoned van people" ask me to build a second or third camper. These folks know what they do and do not need. The following is a list of typical requests from experienced van owners:

  • I don't require a flush toilet or a shower, we use the facilities provided in most campsites.
  • I don't need a full camper, I just need a bed and space to haul my bikes.
  • Can you omit the water system? Our last van had a water system, we never used it.
  • I just want the van insulated and lined with a bed. That's really all I need.
  • Please remove the pop-up top. It fills with campfire smoke
  • I want a Galley with the appliances I will take care of the rest myself
  • I want an outside shower, I don't want to steam up my van interior.
  • I only use the van for day trips, so I just need a sink and a small fridge.
  • In our last van, I never did use the furnace.
  • I'm in sales, so I use the van for the occasional night that I can't find a Hotel, so I just need a bed and a furnace.
  • I want a full camper, but I want to use the van to haul lumber or w.h.y. as well.
  • Can you keep the van stealth looking? I don't want it to look like a camper from the outside.

Many of our customers have previously owned Get-Away vans or Westfalia vans and already know what they need. These folks are not interested in typical factory built vans that are loaded with bells and whistles. Keeping unnecessary products out of the floorplan will not only save you money, it will allow the limited space to be used more effectively. When you are designing your camper van, there are several kinds of energy sources and components available to you. In the next pages, I will provide the information that you need to know about the most popular energy sources and components before designing and building your camper van. There are definitions for the words in bold font below.

Energy Sources

12 Volt Battery Energy

If you would like to operate components like lights, refrigerators, and heaters without a connection to shore power, then you will need at least one auxiliary battery. An auxiliary battery is a battery that provides 12-volt power to your components and is usually separate from the van's main starter battery. Lights, electric fridges, water pumps, and water heaters all run on 12-volt power. Furthermore, furnaces and other appliances, whose primary source of power is not 12-volt electricity, still require a 12 volt electrical supply in order to operate because their circuit boards or fans use 12-volt power.

Unfortunately, auxiliary batteries can be depleted quickly when they are not connected to shore power. If you would like to go dry camping, then you should consider a way to maintain and recharge your auxiliary battery system. Every option for maintaining and recharging your auxiliary battery system has its advantages and disadvantages, and your choice will depend on what other equipment you decide to install in your van.

Additional Batteries

One well-tested way to improve the longevity of your 12-volt battery system is to add two 6 volt golf cart batteries to it. These two 6 volt batteries will behave like an additional 12-volt battery. This is a good option as long as you have enough space for the extra batteries. AGM batteries can also be an excellent choice and are very low maintenance.

Solar Power

Solar panels are an excellent way to recharge batteries without connecting to shore power. A solar panel will replenish your auxiliary battery's power as this power is depleted by using components and appliances. Replenishing a battery with solar power not only increases the length of time that your van's components are able to function without shore power, but also maintains the health of your battery over an extended period of time. Always keeping a charge in your battery means that it will not have to be replaced as soon as would otherwise be required.

Alternator

When your van is running, its alternator can charge your auxiliary battery. However, a van's alternator may receive its signal to charge from the power level of the main starter battery. So, if the starter battery is already fully charged, then the auxiliary battery will recharge only at a very slow rate. As a result, you may end up driving for hours and but actually not have a fully charged auxiliary battery.

Power Converter

A power converter is a device similar in some ways to the service panel in your home. However, in addition, it converts 110-volt shore power into 12-volt power. A power converter may be used to run RV components directly. Or, if you are connected to shore power, then you can charge your auxiliary battery using the small charger built into every power converter.

Generator

A generator may be used to charge your auxiliary batteries if you are unable to connect to shore power. However, generators have several downsides. Among these downsides are their bulk and weight, their noise-level, and their use of gasoline or other non-renewable fuels.

Inverter: An inverter is a device that converts the 12-volt power produced by an auxiliary battery system into 110-volt power. This 110-volt power can then be used to run appliances like furnaces and microwaves. Some higher-end inverters are also equipped with heavy duty charge modules. These inverters allow you to charge your batteries quickly when your van is connected to shore power.

Power Converter with Shore Power Energy

A power converter should not be confused with an inverter. A power converter takes 110 volt AC shore power and converts it into 12 volt DC power. An inverter takes the 12 volt DC power stored in an auxiliary battery system and converts it into 110 volt AC power. A power converter with a charging unit is essential for those campers who will often be connected to shore power. If you plan on dry camping regularly, a power converter is still recommended. A camper van without a power converter would be like a house without a service panel. Like a service panel, a good power converter is equipped with a series of fuses or breakers for both the 12 volt and 110-volt circuits in a camper van.

When connected to shore power, a power converter allows you to run both 12-volt equipment, like lights and fans, and 110-volt equipment, like air conditioners, microwaves and anything plugged into a receptacle. Another advantage of having a power converter is that, whenever you are connected to shore power at home or at a camping spot, you will be charging your batteries for your next trip. You can also cool your fridge before departing on a trip, thus saving battery power or propane as you drive.

Propane Energy

Propane is an effective and inexpensive energy source for some of the most popular campervan appliances. Propane is an efficient fuel source for stovetops, ovens, furnaces, water heaters and fridges. For example, a large propane-fueled fridge can be cooled by a flame no larger than that produced by three matches.

Propane energy has some limitations that should be kept in mind. First, there are limits to where propane-fueled appliances can be situated in a floor plan because their exhaust fumes must be vented. Second, it must be remembered that operating propane-fueled appliances like furnaces still requires 12-volt power.

Every liquid propane (LP) appliance must also comply with specific safety regulations. For this reason, they should always be installed by a certified technician.

Nevertheless, propane energy is often the best option for a fully equipped camper van.

Solar Energy

A common misconception about solar panels is that they are used to run appliances directly. In reality, what solar panels do is charge your auxiliary battery system, which in turn supplies power to the appliances in your camper van.

How much energy is directed into your battery by a solar panel depends on the amount of sunlight outside and the size of the solar panel? Consider the following example. You are dry camping and it is overcast. You have a 125-watt solar panel and have four lights turned on for a duration of five hours. Each light in your van draws approximately one amp of electrical power. Therefore, you are drawing twenty amp hours from your auxiliary battery system. A 125-watt solar panel is rated to charge about eight amps per hour in perfect sunshine. However, because it is overcast, your solar panel is charging your battery at a rate of four amps per hour over the five hours period. In this circumstance, your solar panel is replacing the energy stored in your battery as quickly as it is used up. While the lights are drawing twenty amp hours from your battery, the solar panel is replenishing twenty amp hours to it. In this situation, you would be at par for energy use.

This example demonstrates the importance of considering both the power input and output of your auxiliary battery system when choosing a solar panel. If you decide to install a large solar panel on your camper van, then you must have a large enough battery to save all the energy that it produces. A 125-watt solar panel with two 6 volt golf-cart batteries is a typical and effective combination.

An additional feature of solar energy is its ability to maintain the health of your auxiliary batteries over time, especially when your vehicle is in storage. Solar energy not only increases the life of your batteries by keeping them replenished; unlike other power systems, it will never overcharge your batteries. Furthermore, this is all accomplished by a system which requires little to no maintenance.

Diesel Energy

Diesel energy systems for camper vans evolved from the marine and heavy truck industries. A diesel system may be installed in camper vans with diesel engines and can operate a variety of diesel-powered components, such as diesel air heaters and water heaters. The main advantage of a diesel energy system is that it uses a single fuel source to run all the diesel-powered components in a van.

Another advantage of using diesel fuel is that no exterior side vents are required for furnaces or water heaters because the diesel-powered versions of these appliances vent through the floor. This may allow you to have more freedom with your floor plan and makes for a sleek-looking exterior.

However, there are several reasons why I would advise choosing propane over diesel energy, even if your van has a diesel fuel tank. Firstly, there are currently no diesel stove tops on the market because no one is interested in a smelly diesel stove top. Having to use propane for your stovetop means that you are no longer using a single fuel source to run all your components. Secondly, diesel air and water heaters are expensive and complicated, requiring additional hoses, fans and other components. These will all take up space that will be missed in a small or standard size camper van. Finally, diesel exhaust fumes may be an annoyance or even hazard, which should count against opting for a diesel energy system for your camper van. In cases where only a heater is needed in a van, then a diesel air heater may be a good choice.

Generators

Generators are not ideal for a compact camper van because of their bulk and weight. However, you may have plans which include a generator. Frequent air conditioner or microwave use while dry camping may lead you to consider a generator.

A portable generator is ideal for most camper vans. A smaller suitcase generator has the advantage of being easily stored and transported. However, running large appliances, like air conditioners, requires a more powerful generator. At the minimum, you would need a high quality 2400 watt unit. You may have to eliminate your spare tire and lose some ground clearance in order to install these a generator of this size.

Major Appliances and Components

The type of equipment included in a camper van must be determined before its floor plan can be confirmed. Consult the list of Energy Sources to determine what type of equipment fits with the way that you are building your van. What follows is a description of the most popular campervan appliances, beginning with those appliances which have the most influence on your van's floor plan.

Two Way and Three Way Refrigerators

It is difficult to compete with the efficiency of a propane fridge. A propane fridge will run virtually forever while using very little propane. Propane fridges are usually also equipped with 110-volt elements so that the fridge will run on electricity when your van is connected to shore power (this is known as a "two-way fridge"). Some small propane fridges also operate on 12-volt power (this is known as a "three-way fridge"). However, the 12-volt function on these fridges draws a considerable amount of energy and will drain your battery quickly.

The only major disadvantage of propane fridges is that most of them require large vents on the sides or the roof of the vans in which they are installed. Because of the complexity of installing a propane fridge, its position inside a camper van should be the first part of your floor plan to be determined. This may be done by consulting a certified LP technician, who can help you decide on a location that meets all the safety requirements.

Electric Compressor Refrigerators

Unlike the 12 volt option on three-way refrigerators, which use a high-draw heat element to cool, electric compressor fridges cool using a low-draw compressor. This means that a high-quality electric compressor fridge will draw far less 12-volt power than a three-way fridge when operating. Because of this, an electric compressor fridge will last longer than a three-way fridge running on 12-volt power. In regards to efficiency, electric compressor fridges are surpassed only by two way or three-way refrigerators running on propane.

One advantage of electric compressor refrigerators is that they require no exterior vents on a van's sidewall. For this reason, their position in a van's floor plan is not restricted in the same way as the position of a propane refrigerator.

If you decide on an electric compressor fridge, a good battery system is essential and solar power is recommended.

Some people have asked me why they cannot just install a bar fridge from Wal-Mart in their vans and run it through an inverter. The reason is that most 110-volt bar fridges use about twice the amount of watts that they state on the manufacturer label. This means that you will need a very large inverter to operate the fridge, and these inverters use energy themselves. The result is an inefficient fridge which will drain your battery quickly as soon as you disconnect from shore power.

Propane Furnaces

A propane (LP) furnace is the ideal way to heat a camper van in terms of efficiency and the speed at which heat is delivered. The fuel consumption of your furnace will largely depend on the ambient temperature. The colder the ambient temperature, the faster your furnace will run out of fuel. In addition to propane, an LP furnace requires 12-volt power for ignition and to run its fan. Depending on the model, these fans draw approximately five amps, and so require a good battery system for long periods of cold weather camping. While dry camping, the relative sizes of your propane tank and auxiliary battery system will determine whether you run out of propane before your fan dies or vice-versa.

Propane Water Heaters

Propane water heaters are reliable and clean. A standardly sized water heater has about a six-gallon capacity and an efficient recovery rate. If you would like a water heater in your van, there are three main options: 1) a pilot model which must be lit manually, 2) a Direct Spark Ignition (DSI) model with an automatic spark ignition requiring 12 volt power, or 3) a DSI model that has the option of drawing on 110 volt power. Another possibility is an instant water heater. These require about the same about of space as a conventional heater.

Diesel Heaters

Diesel air heaters are a good choice especially are not using any other propane equipment, or if you really do not want an additional vent on the side of your van.

12 Volt Lights

12-volt lights are the norm in the RV world. In the early 1970s, manufacturers would put both a 110 volt and a 12-volt lighting system in an RV. Now 12-volt lights are used exclusively. This is because we can make use of power converters, which convert 110-volt shore power into 12-volt power that may be used to run 12-volt lighting.

A standard interior RV light bulb draws an amp of power. LED lights are more efficient, drawing about 1/3 of an amp of power each.

110 Volt Outlets

It is possible to install 110-volt receptacles in a camper van. How much power they draw will depend on the appliances that they are supplying power to. They will not work unless your van is connected to shore power or you have a power inverter. We are able to hardwire power inverters into power receptacles using an automatic switch over.

Microwaves

The only microwaves available for camper vans operate on 110 volts, and so require shore power or a power inverter to run.

Definitions

Dry Camping

camping with no connection to shore power.
 

Shore power

power from an electrical power grid via a 110-volt outlet. For example, the power from a receptacle at your house or a campsite with power.

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