Intro to the Family with Camping in its DNA

Recently, AM Solar had the pleasure of meeting up with Beth Mowll and her husband for their 4th van build. The Mowlls recently purchased another Sprinter to convert to a camper. Besides the one the Mowlls use themselves, they wanted to gift these other three converted vans to their children. This way, the Mowlls and their adult children can adventure to the same places they’ve always enjoyed as a family. Getting off-grid to the middle of nowhere is in their nature.

Beth and her family started camping together from the beginning. The Mowll family roots go back to backpacking and getting out away from campgrounds and resorts. When I asked how they got into the van lifestyle she started with the story of their 33’ Class A motor home. It had all of the bells and whistles that they thought they needed, and it even towed a Prius. They were able to enjoy it for a while but soon realized that they didn’t enjoy the big RV experience. These large RV resorts were the only places they could park.

Mowlls visiting Canada in their vanlife adventure.

The Call to VanLife

The Mowlls decided to sell their Class A, even at a financial loss on paper. With the hope of boondocking and additional freedom, they turned their sights to an empty van they could convert. Right on the cusp of the Mercedes Sprinter trend, the Mowlls bought their first van in 2014. The Mowlls completed this DIY van and were hooked immediately.

As with all empty vans, this needed carpentry and electrical (among many other things), to make it livable. The Mowlls did their research and hired people to help make their vision a reality. While the carpentry work passed the test, the electrical system did not. After a disappointing electrical system was installed, the Mowlls found AM Solar who helped them install a system that would work (and work well) for the lifestyle the Mowlls had in mind.

Meet Jelly Bean

The van builds started off with (and end with) the rig that they still use to this day. Jelly Bean is the name of the first of the four that Beth Mowll has designed and had built from the empty shell Mercedes Sprinter vans.

  • Jelly Bean: 2015 Mercedes Sprinter van, 144” wheel base, high roof, all windows

Jelly Bean had cutting edge technology at the time Beth Mowll designed it. With 420W of Zamp Solar panels, 300Ah of Lithium batteries, a Magnum 2000VA inverter, and alternator charging. The alternator charger was a secondary dedicated 270A charger with a Balmar charge controller. For the first three or four years the Mowlls didn’t have the solar but parking for days in the back country made it necessary. They also didn’t like to have to drive to charge the batteries. They primarily rely on the solar now and rarely camp where there is shore power.

‘No Name’ van’s new AM Solar-installed system.

Power Needs

The Mowlls found their power needs are relatively minimal. They use a power strip for coffee, an Instant Pot, electric tooth brushes, computer, microwave and a TV that they never use. The DC loads power cell phone chargers, lights, a water pump, fans and an AC/DC refrigerator that only runs on the DC. For heat there is a fuel pump that takes diesel direct from the van’s tank.

When asked about the future power needs Mowll said everything is just perfect the way that it is. The Mowlls have since upgraded the lithium batteries and there is a bit of maintenance that’s in the works for the alternator charging system.

Eclipse-viewing made easy with vanlife at the Grand Tetons.
Eclipse-viewing made easy with vanlife at the Grand Tetons.

Meet the Van Family

  • Jolene (above): 2008 Mercedes Sprinter van, 177” wheel base, high roof

Beth Mowll built this van out similar to the first but now had the experience of designing and building the first. She first plans the construction of the power system, plumbing and heating and then has a carpenter build out the inside structures.

  • Black Pearl: 2014 Mercedes Sprinter van, 144” wheel base, all windows

Black Pearl was an upgrade and replacement for Jolene.

  • No Name Yet” (left): 2021 Mercedes Sprinter van, 144” wheel base, high top, all windows

Freshly-installed and ready to go
Freshly-installed and ready to go

Van Build Process

This van is a gem and the latest builds that Beth Mowll has designed. Mowll starts the process with designing the electrical kits on the website. Then with some expert advice, a plan and estimate are drawn up and the job is scheduled for a week-long installation. AM Solar started this system with solar, inverter/charger, batteries, alternator charging and AC/DC distribution all installed at its headquarters in Springfield, Oregon.

The electrical system is made up of one LifeBlue low temp 300Ah. The alternator charging has two Victron Orion Tr Smart Non-isolated 12/12-30 that power the house battery while driving. They are wired in parallel to deliver a total of 60A. These also have the added bonus of multi-stage charging. This keeps the batteries in the best state of charge possible.

Jelly Bean day 1
Jelly Bean day 1

Solar Specs

Beth Mowll was able to give some valuable insight as to the size and the position of the solar because they have a custom rack on the roof. There will be issues with shading when the racks are loaded with boats, but they will get full solar abilities when the racks are empty. Mowll wanted to maximize the solar and ended up being able to fit 530W total. These were one Zamp Solar ZS190 solar panel and two Zamp Solar Z170 panels that fit her custom rack perfectly.

The solar roof racking is worth noting on this project (shown below). The ZS190DJ solar panel kit usually comes with AM Solar’s “Rocker Mounts” (Rocker Mounts are surface mounted direct to the roof). The mounting needed to be on the top of the raised bars of the rack to maximize space for the ventilation fan and minimize shading on the panels. We chose the “Z Bigfoot Mount Set” because of the specialized channels of the Zamp Solar and Omni-rail panels. AM Solar technicians were able to come up with a clever solution to allow for the solar panels, ventilation and kayaks all in the same space.

Another quite special thing about this Zamp Solar ZS190DJ solar panel is the ability to wire it in either series or parallel. The panel is split down the middle to allow for the two different options. AM Solar had these custom made by Zamp Solar for this purpose. The benefits are that you can avoid some power loss due to shading if you wire it in series. It will also save some wiring labor depending on how it’s wired up.

Roof rack designed for Mercedes Sprinter vans with new Zamp Solar panels
Roof rack designed for Mercedes Sprinter vans with new Zamp Solar panels

Inverter/Charger Specs

For their inverter/charger she chose a top-of-the-line Victron 30A, 2000VA, 80A. This is common kit that we sell that includes the inverter, a shore power plug and extension chord, AC breaker box, class-T fuse and all of the cable and communications lines needed to build the system. For the small needs of this van they were able to minimize the size by removing some of the unwanted monitors and outlets that usually come with the whole kit. One of the major benefits to this inverter/charger it’s ability to charge the battery while providing power to the van. Also, in the case that there is more power needed than shore power has to offer, it can boost the power by using some of the batteries energy at the same time.

Arial look at Zamp Solar panels
Arial look at Zamp Solar panels

DC Distribution Specs

The last small kit that was purchased is the DC distribution system for drop-in Lithium Batteries. This complete kit allows you to power multiple DC loads and have a Victron battery protect device that prevents overdischarging the batteries in the case of undetected constant DC loads.

This yet to be named van rolled out today and will be the latest in the family fleet. It will be finished by Beth’s carpenter who will build out the rest of the interior to her design specs. AM Solar is looking forward to their next visit to build another dream van and off-grid power system.

Traveling with VanLife

Beth Mowll shared a story about one of their longest trips to date. The Mowlls spent 8 months on the road and traveled cross-country and up into Canada. Beth’s favorite part of this was the Canadian Rockies somewhere between Jasper and Banff. When asked about how often and where they travel, Beth said they travel often and sometimes have to decide to go North or South once they hit road. The Mowll’s love of wild places and nature guide their choices as they adventure on.

Beautiful views off-the-beaten path thanks to flexible vanlife boondocking
Beautiful views off-the-beaten path thanks to flexible vanlife boondocking

Thank you Beth! Our passion is helping get customers out on the road safely and confidently to explore. If you have any questions about a custom quote for your rig, we’re always excited to help get people off on their dream mobile lifestyle.

Looking for some brief takeaways? We got you!

  1. If you love camping and want a rig to explore with, consider what type of lifestyle you’re after. While a Class A motorhome might work well for some, the vanlife option might work better for others.

  2. Don’t be afraid to design your own rig to fit your needs. There are experts to help with every stage of the process – like AM Solar for your electrical systems.

  3. Explore! Get out there with your friends, family, or by yourself and take lots of pictures.

  4. Trust AM Solar with your mobile power needs. Check out our Van page and then submit a Quote Request when you’re ready for a custom quote.