If you’re new to van life, you might be surprised to discover just how many amenities can be brought with you on the road. From interior lights and air conditioners to refrigerators and microwaves, there are plenty of portable electronics to take advantage of – as long as you have a van electrical system.
Just like in traditional homes, you need to wire a full electrical system before you can enjoy any electronics in your van. While this is no simple task, it’s definitely worth the time and effort. Plus, you don’t have to navigate the process blindly. Keep reading for a comprehensive guide on how to get electricity in a van.
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What Does a Van Electrical System Look Like?
The first step to assembling a camper van electrical system is understanding what it looks like. A standard system consists of three parts: a power source, a distributor and your appliances. Below is a simple van life electrical diagram that showcases how these different elements work together:
Power Source → Power Storage & Distribution → Amenities & Appliances
Electricity travels from a power source to a distributor, which stores the power before sending it to your amenities and appliances. Let’s take a closer look at each individual component.
Van Power Sources
The first part of any sprinter van electrical system is the power source. This generates the electricity that will eventually go to your appliances. When selecting a power source, you’ll find three main options: shore power, solar power and alternators.
Although shore power is a commonly used van electric supply today, it was originally reserved for boats (hence the name). It relies on an outdoor electrical grid, which can be found at campsites, RV parks and even residential homes. One end of a wire is connected to the grid, while the other is connected directly to your van electric system. More specifically, it’s connected to the battery, which will charge and power your appliances.
Pros of Shore Power
- Infinite amount of power
- Can meet high electricity demands
- Rarely has electrical problems
Cons of Shore Power
- Requires traveling to a power grid
- Requires setting up a wire for every use
The main benefit of this option is that it supplies an unlimited amount of power, meaning you don’t have to worry about overwhelming your electrical van system with too many appliances. However, you do have to locate a grid, which can be inconvenient (especially if you like to travel in obscure areas).
You’ve probably seen residential homes with solar panels installed across the roof. Now, solar power is becoming an increasingly popular option for van build electrical systems. In this system, natural sunlight is harnessed into electricity via panels – this electricity is then sent to a battery, which in turn powers your appliances.
Pros of Solar Power
- Environmentally friendly
- Low maintenance
- Reduces electricity costs over time
- Travels with you
Cons of Solar Power
- Weather dependent
- Consumes space
- Expensive installation
Unlike with shore power, you don’t have to visit random campsites to gain access to electricity – solar panels are installed directly onto your van roof and are with you at all times. These panels are usually low maintenance and can reduce electricity costs over time. On the downside, the initial installation can be costly. Not to mention, the panels contribute to your van’s weight and require good weather to function properly.
An alternator is a device that converts mechanical energy to electrical energy by using an alternating current. It features two main parts: a stator and a rotor. Using a rotating magnetic field, it creates an alternating current, or AC power, which is used to power most camper van electronics (including refrigerators, lamps and televisions). The AC power can also be transformed into direct current (or DC power), which is used by van batteries.
Pros of Alternators
- High energy output
- Small size/weight
- Low maintenance
Cons of Alternators
- Problems occur if alternator breaks down
- Cannot properly charge drained batteries
Despite their small size, alternators can pack a punch, making them popular choices for van life electrical set-ups. Many experts agree that alternators tend to be more reliable than generators and also require less maintenance. However, if your alternator happens to break down, it can cause issues throughout your system.
Which Power Source Is Best?
When choosing a power source, it’s important to consider your individual needs. If you’re constantly traveling to campsites, shore power might make the most sense. However, if you want to go off the grid, it can be inconvenient to try and track down a power source — thus, solar power or an alternator could be a better option.
Think about which source would be easiest for you to use. It’s also worth mentioning that you don’t need to pick a single source – you could use two or even all three, depending on your conversion van electrical system.
Van Power Storage and Distribution
The van power holder (or distributor) is the middle-man between your power source and appliances. In simple, non-technical terms, it’s anything that stores power and then connects or regulates the power source to the component in need of electricity. While this definition may seem confusing, you’ll probably recognize a few of these common distributors:
- Battery: Most vans use a 12V battery, which provides power for various electrical components (and, in some cases, the van starting engine).
- Fuse box: The fuse box (which is usually part of a camper van electrical distribution panel) lets you cut off electricity for safety purposes.
- Inverter: An inverter converts DC power to AC power, which is necessary for charging most van appliances.
- Charge controller: A charge controller regulates the flow of electricity from your power source to your battery to help prevent the battery from overcharging.
Simpler models typically don’t require fuse boxes, inverters or charge controllers. Meanwhile, the most effective electric sprinter van conversion systems will use all four of these devices together.
Van Amenities & Appliances
The final part of any vanlife electrical system is, of course, your campervan electronics. These items, commonly referred to as “electrical loads,” consist of anything in your van that consumes power. They may include the following:
- Air conditioning/heating
- Refrigerator/kitchen appliances
- Water pump
Keep in mind that this isn’t a comprehensive list – your appliances will vary depending on what you want to use in your vehicle.
Simple Van Electrical System
Now that you know the central components of an electric conversion van system, you might be wondering — what do I really need in my vehicle? Most systems vary depending on both the size of the van and user demands. For example, a family of four living in a large van will likely have a more complex van dwelling electricity system than a single individual with a small sprinter conversion.
It goes without saying that the stronger your system is, the more appliances you can enjoy. However, if you’re looking for a basic system that will power the essentials and get you through your travels, you’ll just need the following amenities.
1) Power Source
The first step to setting up an easy campervan electrical system is locating your power source. When it comes to simplicity, shore power is generally a good choice. Unlike solar panels and alternator systems, there’s no complex wiring required — just connect a simple wire from the power grid to your van, and you’re done!
2) Power Storage
A portable battery is arguably the easiest way to get electricity in a van. Most of these batteries, such as the Goal Zero, use “plug and play” mechanisms. Simply charge the battery using shore power, then plug your devices directly into the battery — no wiring necessary.
3) Amenities & Appliances
Once you’ve got your portable battery ready, it’s time to charge your appliances. Compared to more complex van electrical set-ups, portable batteries have fairly low capacities. Here are the main appliances they can support:
- Fan: Van fans can be connected to the 12V plug in the portable battery. Most portable batteries, including the Goal Zero, have a 12V input (so you don’t have to splice any wires).
- Household lighting: Simple lighting solutions (such as lamps you’d use at home with AC power plugs) are compatible with portable batteries.
- Portable devices: Depending on the portable battery brand, you may be able to charge your phone or other devices directly through the battery.
More complicated appliances, such as large refrigerators or air conditioning units, will typically need a stronger power distributor.
How to Set Up a Simple Van Electrical System
In exchange for relatively low powering capabilities, this system offers an extremely simple set-up. Once you’ve got the three main components, just follow these steps:
- Connect the power source: Use shore power to charge your portable battery. Most vans can be connected to shore power through a 10-gauge wire.
- Set up your portable battery: The battery will have two ends — one with a plug (which goes directly into your power source), and one with a power station (which has ports for connecting devices).
- Connect the fan: To connect a fan to your battery, you must use a 12V cable.
- Connect lighting: Your lighting cables can be plugged straight into the battery.
- Connect other appliances: Power any other electronics (such as your phone and computer) using the battery outlets.
Considering its relatively low powering capabilities, this simplistic system is not ideal for those who plan to live in their vans full-time. However, if you’re looking for a temporary or short-term solution that won’t break the bank, this will definitely get the job done.
Intermediate Van Electrical System
A simple van electrical system is great for the basics, but what if you want a more permanent solution? Perhaps you’d like to power more complex appliances, but you don’t want to worry about serious wiring and installation. In this case, you might benefit from an intermediate system. This set-up, which uses solar power, provides stronger charging capabilities than portable batteries. Here’s what you’ll need.
1) Power Source
This electrical system for van conversion uses solar power. While there are a few drawbacks to solar power (such as the weather-dependent qualities and weight of the panels), most van lifers agree it’s one of the best power sources out there. Not only is solar power good for the environment, but the panels are low maintenance and have fairly strong powering capabilities.
2) Power Storage & Distribution
For the power distribution element, you’ll need the following materials:
- Charge controller: As mentioned earlier, a charge controller will prevent your battery from overheating. It fits between the solar panels and battery.
- Lithium battery: Lithium batteries are compact, lightweight batteries that can provide up to three times the voltage of regular batteries. They’re considered to be one of the best battery types out there and are more permanent than portable batteries.
- Fuse box: When using 12V amenities, it’s helpful to have a fuse box to help prevent your van electrical system from overloading.
One of the main differences between a simple and intermediate system is that the latter generally uses more complex appliances. Thus, for safety purposes, it’s best to have more protective amenities (like charge controllers and fuse boxes).
3) Amenities & Appliances
This electrical set-up can support more amenities than a simple system can. Here are a few of the appliances you can enjoy:
- Fan: Intermediate systems let you use 12V fans, which can be quite powerful. Any fan should be wired to the battery through the fuse box (which enables you to cut off electricity in emergencies).
- Lighting: Those with intermediate systems don’t have to settle for AC-powered household lamps as their lighting solution. Instead, they can install more powerful 12V lighting.
- Refrigerator: Most van refrigerators use 12V power and can be supported through an intermediate system.
- Water pump: Like refrigerators, water pumps need 12V electrical systems. They don’t consume much power, but are helpful if you want a van plumbing system.
While an intermediate system won’t support every van conversion electronic, it will cover more than the bare essentials, giving you an added level of comfort on the road.
How to Set Up an Intermediate Van Electrical System
There are two parts to setting up an intermediate van system: the power source and the 12V electrical system. Here’s a closer look at both processes.
Solar Power Set-Up
Many solar panels come with a van conversion electrical kit that offers all the necessary materials. Once you have your supplies, proceed to the set-up:
- Install the solar panels: You can secure solar panels to your van roof using Z-brackets, VHB tape and a drill. Make sure the solar panels are securely attached before moving on to the next steps.
- Mount the charge controller: The charge controller should be mounted in a well-ventilated area near the battery bank.
- Install the battery: The van battery is typically installed towards the front of the vehicle (near the engine).
- Ground the battery: Next, you must connect the battery to the chassis (or the vehicle’s frame). Your battery will have both a positive and negative post — in most vehicles, the negative post is connected to the chassis.
- Connect the panels to the charge controller: Run cables through the van roof, then connect them to the charge controller. For this part, it’s helpful to consult a van electrical diagram.
- Connect the charge controller to the battery: The final step is wiring the charge controller to your van battery. On the charge controller are output ports — one supports a black wire, while the other supports a red wire.
You can view a more comprehensive guide on installing solar panels here.
12V Electrical System Set-Up
To enjoy 12V appliances, you’ll need to set up the following:
- Wire appliances to a switchboard: Your switchboard, which supplies electricity to different circuits, should be mounted on the wall near the battery. String wires from your appliances (like the water pump, refrigerator, lighting and fan) to the board.
- Connect wires to the fuse box: Continue stringing the wires from the switchboard to your fuse box.
- Wire the fuse box to the battery: Finish the project by wiring the fuse box directly to the battery. Once this is done, you can use your switchboard to cut off power to any appliances (if necessary).
Double-check that the system works by turning the switch on. If all goes well, electricity should flow to your devices!
Advanced Van Electrical System
If simple and intermediate set-ups don’t sound appealing, an advanced van electrical system might be what you’re looking for. Designed for people who want luxurious amenities (such as heating and air conditioning), it uses a high amount of power and typically requires more than one battery. You may benefit from this system if you meet the following conditions:
- You live in your van full-time and frequently use appliances
- You have multiple people in your van
- You work from home and need an electrical work van set-up
Let’s go over the different components required.
1) Power Sources
For the most effective system, you should use all three power sources:
- Solar panels: Solar panels can power many items, including lights, fans and refrigerators. However, they carry the risk of overloading circuits.
- Alternator: Having both an alternator and solar panels will help power complicated van electrical systems with lots of loads.
- Shore power: Thanks to the infinite power supply, shore power provides a great way to quickly charge your battery system while you’re home or at a campground.
Ultimately, each power source has its own special benefits — the best way to take advantage of them is by utilizing all three.
2) Power Storage & Distribution
The power distributor components in an advanced van electrical system are similar to those found in intermediate systems (minus a couple of extra additions). You will need to gather the following:
- Solar charge controller: Every solar panel system requires a charge controller.
- DC charge controller: Along with a solar charge controller, you should have a DC charge controller that regulates the flow of electricity from the alternator.
- Lithium batteries: Due to their strong performance, lithium batteries are ideal for advanced systems. Depending on how much power you intend to use, you may need more than one battery.
- Fuse box: All 12V appliances should be wired through a fuse box.
- Inverter: If you want to charge your electronics, you should have an inverter that can convert DC power to AC power.
Be sure not to neglect any of these components, as each one plays a vital role in an advanced system. If you’re having trouble tracking down every item individually (or just don’t want to go through the trouble), try purchasing a ready-made, full camper van electrical wiring conversion kit with an inverter.
3) Amenities & Appliances
Setting up an advanced electrical system is considerably harder than setting up a simple or intermediate one. On the bright side, you get to enjoy more powerful amenities, such as the following:
- Roof AC: With an advanced system, you can power up a roof air conditioner (which is definitely stronger than your standard fan). Keep in mind that this will guzzle up some electricity.
- 12V lighting: Instead of using lamps or one set of interior lights, you can brighten up your vehicle with multiple strips of parallel lights. However, they’ll need to be wired separately.
- Refrigerator: Most advanced electrical set-ups include a 12V refrigerator.
- Water pump: Just like with intermediate set-ups, water pumps don’t consume too much power and are helpful for plumbing.
- Heater: In addition to air conditioning, you can wire a heater with your advanced system. This is especially useful during cold weather, and it takes up less power than an air conditioner.
- In-Van outlets: 120V AC power outlets (including USB ports and plugs) are highly convenient for charging appliances like phones, laptops, microwaves and coffee makers. However, for outlets to be functional, they must be routed through an inverter.
As you can see, an advanced van electrical system has much more to offer than simpler versions. Of course, before you can take advantage of any amenities, you need to actually set up the system.
How to Set Up an Advanced Van Electrical System
If you don’t have electrical experience, setting up an advanced system can be a challenge. To make things easier, we’ve broken down the different steps into individual sections.
Solar Power Set-Up
Start by installing your solar power system (which includes the panels, charge controller and battery). You can review these steps under the “intermediate van electrical system” section.
To use alternator power, your vehicle battery must be wired to the lithium battery (also called a house battery). This wire should include a switch that you can toggle when the lithium battery is being charged (which will prevent the battery from overpowering).
12V DC Electrical System Set-Up
Wiring a 12V DC electrical system for an advanced set-up is very similar to wiring one for an intermediate system — simply follow the instructions under that section. The only difference is that an advanced system will typically include more amenities, such as a heater, air conditioner and multiple strips of parallel wires.
120V AC Electrical System Set-Up
The final step is putting together your 120V AC electrical system, which will enable you to charge smaller appliances. After you’ve gathered your supplies, complete these steps:
- Connect the battery and inverter: Start by wiring your lithium-ion battery to your inverter, which will convert the electrical current to AC power.
- Connect the inverter to the outlets: Next, wire the inverter to the power outlets. There should be a port in the inverter where you can plug in wires.
- Install the outlets: Use a drill to install power outlets in the desired locations (such as the van kitchen, bedroom and/or bathroom).
Test the set-up by plugging in your phone or another appliance. If it charges, congratulations — you now have functioning outlets in your van! Keep in mind this is a simplified guide. You can find more details on wiring a campervan here.
Before You Get Started: A Few Tips
If setting up a van electrical system sounds complicated, you’re not alone. Even the simplest systems require some work. Of course, once you get electricity on the road, it will be well worth the effort. Before you get started, check out these key tips.
1) Do Your Research
Wiring an electrical system isn’t something you should go into blindly. You don’t want to go through the trouble of installing solar panels, only to realize shore power would have worked better for you. Start by conducting research to find the best possible set-up for you. This involves the following:
- Reading articles: Rely on guidance from experienced van lifers by reading online articles or blogs. They can give you advice on which power source to use, what amenities to wire and whether you need a simple, intermediate or advanced set-up.
- Watching videos: There’s nothing quite like a visual to demonstrate what you’re getting into. Before you attempt to wire anything yourself, watch a video online and make sure you mimic those steps.
- Check your van requirements: Every van is different, so don’t forget to check if your van has any specific requirements. For example, it might have a weight requirement (which would influence how many solar panels you can install). Your conversion van should come with a manual that provides guidance.
The more knowledge you gain, the easier it will be to set up a working electrical system.
2) Draw It Out
Don’t underestimate the power of visual aides. In addition to watching step-by-step video guides on wiring vans, it’s helpful to draw out your own camper van electrical system diagram. Try to be as detailed as possible — for example, instead of just drawing a wire from your power source to your power distributor, illustrate where exactly these items will go in your van.
If you’re worried about getting the details right, there are online diagrams that can be printed out. However, before you go down this route, make sure the chosen diagram can be applied to your precise electrical system. Otherwise, you’ll end up wiring the wrong appliances.
3) Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Chances are, you’re going to get stuck at some point in the process (especially if you’re trying to wire an intermediate or advanced system). If you reach a point where you simply don’t know the next step, just ask for help. It’s better to get professional guidance than risk damaging your battery, van or appliances.
So, who can you turn to for help? If the problem seems serious, you might want to call a professional handyman. However, if you just have a quick question, try posting on a van life forum. There are tons of people who have been in your shoes and would be more than happy to help — including us! Feel free to reach out with any questions today.