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Campervan Electrics Explained

In the 1800's electricity was as enigmatic as dark matter is today; it was primarily used by magicians to stun an audience. But in 1879 everything changed when Thomas Edison popularised the lightbulb - within a few decades every house and street corner was lit. Unfortunately, to most people electricity remains enigmatic.


Let’s sort that out. Here is a crash course in electrics as it relates to van conversions.


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 some campervan electrics explained!


Index

 

Note: Before we hop in, you might want to grab yourself a wiring diagram which you can get for free by signing up to The Van Conversion Newsletter (suggested, but not mandatory 🙂 - wiring diagram gets sent to you straight away).


This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click a product link and buy anything from the merchant (Amazon, eBay, etc.) we will receive a commission fee. The price you pay remains the same, affiliate link or not. By using these links, you are helping me to continue writing free educational content!

 
campervan electrics guide

How electricity flows

Let's start with the basics.


Electricity is the flow of electrons. When electrons are "lost" from an atom, the free movement of these electrons constitutes an electric current.


Electricity travels through wires - a metal conductor (copper is most popular) that is sheathed by an insulator (rubber). The rubber insulator blocks electrical force from passing through it.

Van conversion wire insulator

We can think of electricity flowing through a wire like water running through a hose. Water can flow in the middle, but it can't escape.

Water hose -= electricity

Alternating current (AC) vs. Direct current (DC)

There are two kinds of electric current: direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). Electrons move in one direction with direct current (batteries produce direct current). Whereas in alternating current, electrons flow in both directions.


Direct current

Direct current flows in one direction: from the Positive (+) side of the battery, to the appliance, and back to the Negative (-) side of the battery. In a DC system, positive wire is typically coloured red, negative wire is typically coloured black. Car batteries are DC, typically 12V (12 Volt).


We can think of this movement of electricity like a river; it only flows in one direction.


Many van conversion electrical appliances will be 12V DC, such as the fan, heater, or lights.


How electricity flows out of a battery

Alternating current

With alternating current, the electrical force vibrates rather than flows. This is known as oscillation. In an AC system there is no positive or negative, current is instead transmitted through these vibrations. We can think of this like waves across an ocean: force moves, but the water does not.


AC electricity does not just flow in one direction, indeed it periodically reverses direction.


Mains electricity is AC, ie. the electricity you use in your house. In North America 110V is typically used for AC, whereas in Europe 230V is used.


An AC household appliance (eg. a kettle) will have 3 wires running to it: Live (brown), Neutral (blue), and Ground (green & yellow).


When converting a van, you may want plug sockets (so you can charge your laptop to watch netflix). These plug sockets are AC.



AC vs DC graph van conversion

Converting AC into DC

We can convert DC into AC using an inverter - most people will want to install one of these.


We can convert AC into DC using a converter (battery charger) - if you want to set up shore power for your van (ie. plug into mains at a campsite), you will also want one of these.



Measuring electricity: Volts, Amps, and Watts

Next up in this campervan electrics guide, let's look at three very important terms. We measure electricity using three terms: volts, amps, and watts.


Volts and Amps

Voltage is the pressure of the electricity flowing through the wire; it is the force ready to be used (energy potential). We can think of this like the pressure of water in a hose (even if the tap is turned off, there is pressure there ready to be used).


Voltage tells you all about compatibility - what appliance you can hook up to the source; a 110V appliance can hook up to a 110V source.


Amperage is how much electricity is flowing through the wire. We can think of this as how much water is flowing through the hose.


The thickness (diameter) of the hose is very important, it determines how much water you can transport. Similarly the thickness of the wire is very important. If the wire is not thick enough, it will generate heat (energy has to go somewhere and so heat is generated - conservation of energy principle).


Changing voltage: A DC-to-DC converter is used to convert the voltage of a DC supply to a higher (step up) or lower (step down) voltage. One place we find this in a campervan is the solar charge controller, a device which converts high voltage coming from the solar panels to 12V power that we can use to feed our appliances or charge our leisure batteries.


Watts

Watts is what we get when we multiply volts and amps; it is the total energy running through the system.


Let's say we have two hoses: the first is narrow with high pressure, the second is fat with low pressure. If we could still fill a bucket in the same amount of time with these two hoses, we would say they have the same wattage. If for instance we have two solar panels, the first produces 10V and 1A, and the second produces 1V and 10A, we would say they have the same wattage.


Wattage describes how much power overall the system is using.


How to calculate Volts, Amps, and Watts

Calculating volts, amps, and watts is very simple.

  • Watts = Volts × Amps

  • Volts = Watts ÷ Amps

  • Amps = Watts ÷ Volts

So if we have an appliance that doesn't say one of these values, we can very easily figure it out.


Storing electricity: Batteries

Battery capacity (Wh and Ah)

A battery is a device that stores chemical energy, and converts it to electricity on demand. This is known as electrochemistry. To put it more simply: electricity is stored in batteries. In campervans we use leisure batteries, which are designed specifically for our use-case.


Watt hours (Wh) are used to describe the capacity of a battery - ie. how much electricity they can hold. Watt(W) × hour(h) = Watt hour (Wh). You might be familiar with kWh (kilowatt hour) from your home electricity bill (where 1000W = 1 kW).


Amp hours (Ah) are also used to describe batteries, but are less descriptive. A 100 Ah battery can produce 100A for 1 hour. Or to go back to our analogy, the hose can give 100A of pressure for 1 hour.


For example, Tesla have two types of powerwall batteries:

24V battery with 250 Ah capacity

12V battery with 500 Ah capacity


Though the Ah of both batteries look very different, the Wh is actually the same (and the most descriptive of actual capacity):

24V × 250 Ah = 6000 Wh

12V × 500 Ah = 6000 Wh


So, using Wh is the best way to compare batteries. In fact, we should always use Wh!

tesla powerwall
Tesla Powerwall batteries


Given our battery size, how long can we run our appliances for?

Finding out how long we can run our appliances for given the battery we have can be a very useful piece of information.


For example, let's say that we have a 100W load in total - the sum total of all our van appliances we expect to run at a given time (fan, fridge, heater, etc.). Let's also say we have a 1500 Wh battery. Taking these two parameters: 1500 Wh ÷ 100W = 15 hours. We can expect to run our appliances for roughly 15 hours before running out of electricity.


In a nutshell: use volts and amps to figure out watts. Then use watts with time to figure out watt hours, then you can use this to figure out battery size, how long it takes to recharge, and how long you can use this battery to charge your appliances.

Renogy electrics

Electrical Circuits: Parallel vs. Series

van conversion series vs. parallel

If we have multiple appliances (eg. lights), we can choose to wire them in series or parallel on the same circuit. Depending on how we choose to wire them, the voltage or amperage will change.


In a parallel circuit, we connect all the positives together and all the negatives together. If instead we "daisy chain" them, that is a series circuit.


Parallel circuit: Voltage stays the same, but the amperage does not.


Eg. If we wire up four solar panels in parallel that are each 10V and 10A. Our voltage output will remain the same, but our amperage output will increase to 40A (4 × 10A).

Wiring solar panels in parallel

In the Roaming Home 2023 study, we found that of those vans with solar panels, 54% were wired in parallel.

solar panels series vs. parallel

Series circuit: Amperage stays the same, but the voltage does not.


eg. If we wire up four solar panels in series that are 10V and 10A. Our amperage output will remain the same, but our voltage output will increase to 40V (4 × 10V).


Wiring solar panels in series

We go into much more detail on parallel and series wiring setups in this dedicated article.

Campervan electrics explained: Sizing a sample solar system

Battery capacity

Let's say that we have two 130 Ah 12V sealed lead acid leisure batteries in our van. We wire them in parallel, giving us a total of 260 Ah capacity. This equates to 3120 Wh in total (12V × 260Ah).

batteries wired in parallel

However, because these are lead acid batteries, we can (should) only discharge them by 50%, meaning we can only use 1560 Wh of power from our batteries.


Note: If we discharge sealed lead acid batteries more than 50% frequently enough, we will greatly reduce the number of charging cycles we get from the batteries. In contrast, Lithium batteries can be emptied to about 80% without much problem.


Solar panels

Let's say we purchase 4 × 100W solar panels online. We look at their data sheet, and see that each panel is 17.2V and 5.82A under ideal circumstances. We are buying four, for a total of ~400W. We wire our solar panels in series, bringing our voltage up to 68.8V (17.2V × 4).


Given our 400W of solar power flowing to our 12V batteries, we now need to size our solar charge controller. A solar charge controller keeps the battery from overcharging by regulating the voltage and current moving from the solar panels to the battery. A solar system in a van conversion contains a solar panel(s), a solar charge controller, and a leisure battery.


First, we must figure out how many amps at 12V our 17.2V solar panel set will actually produce. From this information, we can see that our solar charge controller must be able to handle 400W ÷ 12V = 33.7A. So we should buy a solar charge controller that is slightly bigger, for example a 40A solar charge controller.


Note: A 40A PWM would be required in this system, or a 25-30A MPPT; the latter requires overpaneling for optimal sizing.


How long will it take the solar panels to charge our leisure batteries?

Given the above information in this campervan electrics guide, we know we have to fill up 1560 Wh of battery using 400W of solar power. So: 1560 Wh / 400 watts = 3.9 hours

Not bad obama

However, solar panels typically only output 70% of the rated wattage. This is primarily due to the angle of the sun, though there are several factors at play. So: 1560 Wh ÷ (400W × 0.7) = 5.5 hours


Fuse and wire sizing

Fuse sizing

A fuse is a small wire that heats up at a certain amp rating. If too many amps go through, it will disconnect. It is a self-destructive switch that protects both the appliances and the wire.


It is important that we size the fuse correctly to prevent a fire; the fuse should be smaller than the wire - it should blow before the wire does.

blade fuse

To calculate the fuse size, we should calculate the total amp rating of the appliance and add on a ~25% buffer.


For example, let's say we have eight 12V puck lights which are 3W each. The amp of each light would be 3W ÷ 12V = 0.25A. We have eight of them so: 0.25A × 8 = 2A. We want to give ourselves a 25% buffer, so we will choose a 2.5A fuse for this system.


Fuses vs. Breakers

Both fuses and breakers protect a circuit. A fuse is single use (self-destructive), whereas a breaker is more like a switch: when it is tripped it can be reset.

Bluesea inlin

Remember: A wire that is too small will give off more heat and not be as efficient (energy converts to heat). Better to size up your wires.

A Battleborn and Victron electrical system
A Battleborn and Victron electrical system

Conclusion

I truly hope you found this Campervan Electrics Explained article useful! Boy did we cover a lot! Volts, Amps, Watts, Fuses, Wire sizes, AC/DC, Solar, and batteries. You are now well equipped to build out a kickass campervan electrical system in your own self-build!

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!

van conversion book

Until next time,

Shane ✌️

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