Ground is the most confusing part of van conversion electrics. Why? Because of how much conflicting information there is on the internet about it! Today we will cut through the noise and learn all about ground for your campervan! We will look at the types of ground, what appliances we should ground, and how we wire up ground in our campervans.
I'm Shane, I've been teaching people to convert campervans for years; I'm the author of Roaming Home; The Comprehensive Guide for Converting Your Van Into a Campervan, writer of The Van Conversion Newsletter, instructor of The Van Conversion Course over at Udemy. And full-time vanlifer for 4 years!
So let's jump in and have a look at ground for van conversions!
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What is ground?
Quite often ground means different things to different people, hence why there is often so much confusion over it (especially in the world of van conversions!). For instance ground to an electrician can mean something different than ground to an electronics engineer.
Proper grounding is a critical safety precaution across the world of electrics. We ground electrical equipment so that internal wiring failures don't raise the voltage to dangerous levels. Essentially ground is an alternate pathway for electricity to go; if there's a fault in your system, electricity can flow to ground to save your wires, appliances, and hopefully stop a fire.
As we know, a circuit must be complete for current to flow (think of a simple DC system)
Well, we can also use ground as the circuit return path
The most obvious example of this is in a vehicle. The vehicle chassis is the common return path for all return current to the battery
In the world of van conversions, ground is simply a connection from the negative terminal of your leisure battery to the chassis of your vehicle.
Types of Ground
While there are many types of ground (GND), we are going to focus on just two: Earth ground and chassis ground.
Earth ground is a direct and physical connection to our beautiful planet earth. It is true 0V.
In our house, the third prong in a plug socket is physically connected to earth ground.
And earth ground looks like this (an earthing electrode - a conductive rod driven into the ground):
Chassis ground is the ground we have in our vehicles. It is a point in the chassis of the vehicle to which we connect the negative terminal of our batteries and any other relative appliances.
Unlike earth ground, chassis ground is not a physical connection to our planet earth, but to the chassis of the vehicle. This makes the van chassis the common return path for all return current to the battery.
AC ground vs DC ground
The main difference between AC and DC ground is that no current should flow into AC ground during normal operation, while all current should flow into DC ground.
DC appliances don't have a "ground" per say, because the negative (which people are calling "ground") is itself at the same potential as the chassis. The negative terminal of your leisure battery is ground for the appliances.
Which appliances should I ground in my van conversion?
Here is what you must ground in a campervan:
Starter battery (should be grounded already)
Negative bus bar - this grounds your leisure battery and the other components in the electrical system
Shore power (EHU) consumer unit [must be grounded per BS 7671:2018 – Section 721 regulations]
Here is what you might need to ground (consult the manufacturer’s guidelines):
Battery chargers & split chargers
Inverter & inverter consumer unit
It is particularly important that you check the manufacturer’s guidelines as it relates to grounding your inverter (and the related consumer unit, if required) as grounding advice frequently changes with the manufacturer and how the inverter is built.
As a general rule of thumb, each component in your electrical system should be grounded, unless the manufacturer’s instructions say otherwise.
It is important that all your grounds are connected together (ie. to a single ground point), this can help avoid ground loops. A ground loop is a closed conductive loop that will slowly but surely drain your batteries.
Note: The DC ground and AC ground should run to separate ground points - with no crossover between the two. Ie. the inverter and shore power consumer unit run to a dedicated AC chassis ground.
How to install ground in a van conversion
All vehicles have a ground point(s) pre-built into the chassis. A quick google for your van's ground point should show you where you can find it.
Per the BS7671 regulations, you should keep the ground point somewhere accessible - ie. not behind cladding / insulation..
Sometimes the ground point might be far away or inaccessible (eg. under the hood / bonnet of the van). If this is the case, you will need to make your own ground point. Here's how:
Sand down the paint on the chassis of the vehicle (on an interior / inward-facing part of the chassis). This gives a clean connection point against the bare metal.
Drill a hole into that point.
Rub some dielectric grease / vaseline on the connection point (prevents corrosion & improves connection).
Pop a large bolt with an external tooth lock washer through the hole - this is our ground bolt. Everything gets grounded to this.
The correct color of for ground wire is green and yellow (not that nasty red shown in the photo above!)
ABYC (American boat and yacht council) states that the chassis ground cable can be no smaller than one size smaller than the largest wire in the system. In other words, you will need to use a cable about as large as your battery cable for the ground connection.
Negative bus bar as common ground
Instead of running appliances individually to the ground point, we typically use the negative bus bar as a common ground for all components that need grounding. All grounds run to the negative bus bar and the negative bus bar runs to the ground point.
Note: Do not run AC (Green/yellow) ground to your negative busbar. If you want to run AC to a bus bar, it should go to a new bus bar termed 'earth bus bar'. The negative bus bar should be wired back to the vehicle manufacturer assigned user negative connection point on the chassis if there is one. The earth bus bar should be wired to a newly created mains earth point somewhere suitable on the chassis.
I hope you found this explanation of van conversion ground electrics useful! You're now better equipped to build out a safer electrical system in your self-build campervan!
Don't forget to subscribe to The Van Conversion Newsletter for everything you need to get started with your own van conversion (I'll send you a free wiring diagram when you join).
If you're looking for some guidance with your van conversion, you might be interested in Roaming Home; The Comprehensive Guide for Converting Your Van Into a Campervan. In the 380-page book (or ebook), you'll learn directly from me how to convert a van into your dream home - no prior experience needed!
Until next time,