Van life is one of the most popular and exciting ways to explore this vast country and see the sights without investing in a large, expensive motorhome or trailer. But while van lifers may be prepared to sacrifice space and privacy, there’s one comfort of home they can’t do without – power. That’s why solar systems are becoming such a popular solution, offering a free, clean, quiet energy source that can be found just about anywhere your van can take you. Let’s explore what you need to know.
What is a Van Solar Power System?
In the simplest terms, a van solar power system is a collection of components that harness the power of the sun’s rays and transform it into usable energy for your van’s electrical system. It includes obvious items like solar panels and a battery bank, as well as less well-known, but also crucial pieces of technology like a solar charge controller and inverter. These components can be assembled individually to create a custom system perfect for your needs or packaged together in an easy-to-use solar kit.
How Does a Van Solar Power System Work?
It all starts with your solar panels . In many cases, these can be traditional rigid solar panels like you may have seen on the roofs of homes or set up in commercial solar farms. Rigid solar panels are divided into higher-efficiency monocrystalline solar panels or lower-cost polycrystalline ones. Flexible panels are designed with lightweight, thin-film technology can bend in a variety of ways, allowing you to custom fit it to your rig. Unfortunately, this flexibility comes at the cost of lower efficiency and a shorter lifespan. We recommend conventional framed monocrystalline solar panels over flexible panels.
In some cases, your solar array will be permanently mounted on your van’s roof or other surfaces. In others, the panel will be freestanding and set up and stowed at each stop. While mounted solar panels provide convenience, freestanding ones can allow you to position them for optimal sunlight, increasing your energy generation.
When your solar array is exposed to direct sunlight, it converts this energy to direct current (DC) electricity. This energy travels through wiring to the solar charge controller . This device regulates the energy flow to your power system and battery bank, allowing the electricity to pass through when needed, but blocking it otherwise to prevent potential damage from overcharging your batteries.
From the charge controller, the energy then either heads to your van’s batteries for later use or directly to an inverter. Inverters take the DC electricity from your panels and transform it into AC, which is needed for many traditional household appliances and electronics. Once the electricity has been converted into AC, it can be used as usual to power all your rig’s various energy needs.
If the energy isn’t currently needed, it will be stored in a battery or group of batteries (sometimes called your house battery.) In the past, these were generally lead-acid batteries, including improved versions like AGM batteries or a gel battery. Old-school batteries like these are still the most affordable choice and remain common for budget-minded van lifers. However, LiFePO4 batteries are becoming increasingly affordable and popular for their many advantages. For example, they’re generally far smaller and lighter than similar-capacity lead-acid batteries, can operate in more extreme temperatures, and can be fully discharged without damaging themselves, unlike traditional batteries.
Benefits of a Solar Power System
Many van lifers may not have a solar system, thinking they can rely on shore power to charge up when needed. But for many, it’s worth the investment. Here are a few of the most important reasons why.
Once installed, solar panels require next to no maintenance over the following years. Other than an occasional washing (which may be taken care of by rain), you can typically ignore them other than an inspection once or twice a year to ensure there are no significant cracks. You can further decrease maintenance requirements by swapping out your traditional lead-acid battery for a lithium battery. While this will be an extra cost, this newer technology is also “set it and forget it,” compared to lead-acid batteries that often need to be periodically topped off. A lithium battery also offers higher battery capacity to provide the extra power your van may need.
High Quality and Durable
Solar panels may look fragile, but don’t be fooled. Under normal circumstances, rigid panels can last 20 to 30 years – meaning they’ll almost certainly be a one-time investment, barring any damage. Those who opt for flexible panels instead will see a shorter lifespan, which is one of the sacrifices for the panels’ versatility. Still, you’ll enjoy years of use in any case.
Solar electrical systems are designed to stand up to just about any kind of weather outside of the most extreme wind and hail. So, no matter where your van goes, you can rest assured your system should be able to handle it.
Saves Money on Energy Costs
To be sure, solar systems can require a bit of upfront investment. But on an ongoing basis, solar panels are a great way to save money on energy by creating it from the limitless rays of the sun. Those who’ve previously used generators to produce their power will be able to eliminate the cost of gas or diesel from their budget. Even those who charge their van’s batteries at home will be able to cut their electrical bill. Moreover, since solar panels have no costs once installed, heavy users may theoretically even be able to see the panels pay for themselves over time.
Off the Grid Self Sufficiency
Some people love van life because it gives them the ability to leave it all behind and take their life wherever they choose. If this sounds like you, then you’ll love the self-sufficiency that solar energy can provide.
If your goal is complete energy independence, you’ll need to either cut your energy usage, invest in a larger system, or some combination of the two. But in return, you’ll no longer be tethered to shore power or forced to make runs to the gas station to fuel up the generator. With strong enough sun and a large enough system, you’ll never need to tap into the traditional electrical grid again!
Even those with more limited off-grid dreams will benefit from solar. Think about the dramatically expanded number of campsites you may be able to take advantage of if you don’t need typical electrical hookups. This can be key to snagging spots in unique locations other travelers avoid.
Build Your Own Van Power System with AM Solar
By now, it should be clear – mobile solar systems are the perfect addition for van lifers looking for the most efficient, low-maintenance, money-saving, environmentally friendly solution. And there’s no better place to get started on putting together your solar setup than with AM Solar. Whether you’re just starting a van conversion and solar installation or have been on the road for years, reach out today to find the perfect solar kit or component for you.