Are you stressing trying to figure out your RV or van conversion solar system? We spent countless hours trying to make sense of our electrical needs in our Sprinter van before consulting a pro. Here’s our experience consulting with AM Solar and how they saved us incredible amounts of time and stress.
Oh man. Solar. Two years ago the mere thought of figuring out our van conversion solar system sent me into a near mental breakdown. Not going to lie, many a tear has been shed trying to understand watts, amps, volts, etc. If you’re like me and have next to no experience with electricity then you need to hear this: you can wire a van solar system. I promise. I’m not promising it’ll be easy, but it is 100% possible and you’ll feel incredibly empowered and proud when the task is completed.
"canvasClassName":"cnvs-block-core-heading-1596117455003"} -->Looking for something specific? Skip ahead!
- Learning the basics of electricity
- Volts, watts, and amps
- Positive and negative
- AC vs. DC
- Let's talk about your solar needs
- Choosing your electrical components
- Environmental factors to consider
- So who are the "pros" of RV and van conversion solar?
- Does AM Solar work with all budgets?
- What are the perks of purchasing through a company like AM Solar?
- Is AM Solar paying you for this?
- What's in our solar/electric system
- Final thoughts
Learning the basics of electricity
Before you start clicking and ordering thousands of dollars worth of solar components online, do your research. And when I say do your research, I don’t just mean watch a bunch of videos about solar by other van lifers or rv lifers like us. While there are some really solid videos out there, I’d highly recommend learning a little bit about electricity before you start taking notes of what other people are using in their solar systems.
Like I've said before, I'm not a super techy person so my explanations for all things electric will be pretty basic and will only deal with what you need to know in regards to van life. Obviously the more you know the better off you'll be, but for the sake of not wanting to lead you astray or confuse you further, here's what you need to know about electricity as it pertains to your van conversion.
Volts, watts, and amps
If nothing else, being able to understand the terminology is very important when talking about your own solar system. I’d highly recommend reading this article using water as an analogy for watts, amps, and volts. If you're more of the video watching type, checkout the video “Volts, Amps, and Watts Explained.”
If learning the bare minimum is more your thing, at least make note of these three words and learn the difference between the terms watt, amp, and volt. I’m guilty of mixing these up from time to time, but being able to differentiate between each will really help you understand your RV or van conversion solar set up.
Watts = Amps x Volts
Volt = Watts / Amps
Amps = Watts / Volts
Positive and negative
Understanding positive (+) and negative (-) charge is important when it comes to wiring your electrical system. Your batteries will be labeled with a positive and negative terminal which is where you'll connect the corresponding wires.
When wiring your system, use the red wire for the positive charge and the black wire for the negative charge. Occasionally you'll deal with three strand wires where the third wire is either white or gray and is reserved as the neutral (or ground) connection.
AC vs. DC
Alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) are actually pretty simple to understand. In short, DC only flows in one direction while AC power alternates flowing in both directions.
Why is this important for you to know when building out a van conversion? Know this: DC power will be what's hardwired into your van and is going to be the most efficient way to power components. For example, our Isotherm fridge has an AC (12v plug in) and DC option, but we'll be using the DC option because it will conserve electricity.
Let’s talk about your solar needs
Choosing your electrical components
You can’t properly figure out how many batteries or solar panels you need without first making a detailed list of every electrical component you hope to be running in your van. Here’s an example of everything we knew we wanted to run in our van:
- Induction cooktop stove
- Dometic Penguin ii AC unit
- LED lights
- Water pump
- Electric water heater
- Plus charging our laptops, phones, and camera gear
Finding energy efficient electrical components is essential when living with limited electricity and always working to conserve power. To find information regarding exactly how much power your specific components will pull, look in the product information for info about wattage, voltage, and amperage.
Above is a screenshot from the “product information” section for our exact water heater on Amazon. You can see the wattage and voltage listed in the table. Not pictured is the amperage which Bosch included at the top of the page. So for our exact water heater we’ll pull up to 1440 watts, it’s a 120 volt heater, and 12 amps.
Gather all of this information for every component in your van so you and a professional can analyze your exact needs more closely.
Environmental factors to consider
How and where you plan to travel in your van or RV will greatly affect your system needs. Are you planning on traveling in hotter or colder climates? Sunnier or rainier? Are you planning to drive a lot or stay off grid for days at a time? Will you strictly boondock or are you planning on staying at campgrounds? All of these factors play a huge role in deciding what your specific van conversion solar needs will be.
Everyone does van life differently which is why we cannot emphasize enough to talk to a professional when it comes to van conversion solar. Hands down, solar is the most expensive part of a van or RV conversion, so why risk spending too much money or spending money on bad components? If we can offer you one piece of advice today it’s this: get help.
So who are the “pros” of RV and van conversion solar?
There are a few companies out there that specialize in the electrical needs of RVs and van conversions, all of which have a large emphasis on solar power. When we were researching for our first van we actually called a few different companies before settling on AM Solar. While some of the other companies out there had decent reviews, we didn’t have a great experience on the customer service side of things early on and decided not to pursue help from them. AM Solar on the other hand was incredibly quick with responses, they were thorough, and they even provided a free consultation (something none of the other companies were willing to do). Personally, if I’m going to drop thousands of dollars on a system, I don’t want to have to pay to even talk to a rep about my specific needs.
I’ll admit, I went into a free consultation with AM Solar a bit hesitant. I was sure they were going to try to sell me on stuff I didn’t need and/or make me feel like I didn’t know what I was talking about but that wasn’t the case at all! I went in like a total newb on the call and rather than making me feel dumb or inexperienced, the electrical engineer I talked to was incredibly helpful and took the time to answer the questions I brought to the conversation.
But the most mind blowing thing about my conversation with the AM Solar was this: they were actually going to save us money! I kid you not. I (like you) spent a lot of time watching a lot of other van lifers and RV lifers out there on Youtube try and tell me exactly what I needed when in reality either they 1) weren’t pros and hadn’t consulted the pros and didn’t know what they were doing, or, 2) had very different needs than my own.
Because I was trying to learn from others experiences rather than breaking down my own needs I was convinced I was going to need about 3 times the amount of solar and batteries than AM Solar suggested I needed for my system.
Prior to my call with AM Solar I was going to purchase ~800ah of lithium batteries + 800 watts of solar panels for our van but instead we ended up with 320ah of lithium batteries + 200 watts of solar and guess what-- it worked perfectly for our needs!
When I talked with AM Solar I was very open in saying we were on a budget and they worked with me to help me get a high quality system that was on the smaller size with the option to expand our system with additional solar panels and batteries if need be. While extra batteries and solar panels would have been a luxury, we never felt that our system was too small. It fit our lifestyle and needs so well that we told all of our friends about AM Solar (and no, we weren’t paid by AM Solar to promote them).
Does AM Solar work with all budgets?
Yes! Budget was a huge (okay, the main) consideration when planning our first solar system. AM Solar sells a variety of components from AGM to lithium batteries and fancy monitors and solar panels to more basic options depending on your wants and needs.
Here’s what I recommend: Do a bit of research on components on your own prior to talking to AM Solar on the phone. Learn a bit about brands, pricing, and types of components on the market. Listen to other voices online but do your own research. The problem with listening to amateurs online is that there are so. many. opinions. but that doesn't mean you can’t learn and construct educated questions to ask the pros!
For example, when I was on the phone with AM Solar during my consultation I had my list of components by specific brands I was most interested in purchasing. If I had a question about why they recommended one product or brand over another I just asked.
If you want to check out their prices online before talking with them you can do so on their website. They have all of their components and pieces available with prices on their website (something not all the competitors do). You can talk to them and price match online if you really want to, but I can honestly say that their prices were very competitive with other solar component vendors across the country.
NOTE: The most valuable piece you’ll purchase from AM Solar isn’t even a component at all: it’s the diagrams! When you purchase through AM Solar you receive diagrams of how to wire your entire system that will save you so much time and stress. I can’t recommend purchasing through them enough for these diagrams alone!
What are the perks of purchasing through a company like AM Solar?
I can’t vouch for other companies (as I mentioned earlier), but the main perk of buying from AM Solar is that you can purchase a complete package. Sure, if you’re looking to purchase just one random component you’re welcome to do that off the website, but if you’re looking to start a whole new system you get everything you need to install you’re new system in your RV or van. From wires and lugs to batteries and solar panels, every piece will come labeled and organized with coordinating diagrams to help you assemble the system with ease.
Huge perk: purchasing an entire system will save you so many trips to the hardware store. I don’t know about you, but we live 30 minutes (each way) from a hardware store, not to mention our local shop doesn’t even carry all of the pieces necessary for this sort of system. Purchasing an entire system in a box (or 12 boxes) is one of the best ways to streamline the van conversion process.
Is AM Solar paying you for this?
No, AM Solar is NOT paying us. In fact, after we posted our first van tour we were bombarded with questions about our solar system. People were incredibly curious as to how we were able to power all of that with just 200 watts of solar on the roof (side note: solar is incredibly useful and awesome but it’s not all that some van lifers crack it up to be). Rather than posting a video where we answered the questions about our system, we called up AM Solar again and asked if we could stop by their shop while in Oregon last summer and have them answer some questions for you. If you haven’t seen that video yet and would like to, you can watch it HERE.
From that video and through the whole process of building out our first van, we grew a really strong friendship with the guys at AM Solar. Before we had Youtube or Instagram we sang their praise to a lot of friends and fellow van lifers without any incentive because we truly believe in the products and service they provide. On our new van they were happy to partner with us because of the amount of business we sent them from answering questions about our first van.
Yes, we are partnering with them but it was more of a thank you from them to us. If you go back and watch our early van life Youtube videos you’ll hear us talk about AM Solar a lot and that was truly organic and honest endorsement with no incentive. We’ll continue to promote AM Solar because we know how much they helped us figure out our system as well as the number of headaches they saved us with their installation charts and quality components we purchased from them.
We want to say a huge thank you to AM Solar, Victron, Zamp, Battle Born, and MicroAir for partnering with us on our new van and entrusting us with trying out some seriously cool new components. If you want to read more about our new solar system, you can do so HERE.
For more information regarding affiliates and brand partnership standards, you can read more about that HERE. We always strive for 100% honest transparency with our audience which is why we go above and beyond to let you know when something is sponsored or when there is some sort of incentive behind a post.
What's in our solar/electric system
We saved this part of this blogpost for last because we actually have an entire other blog post about our new van's solar/electric setup where we talk in detail about the components and brands we're using this time around as well as comparing our new system to our first van's system. If you're interested in reading more about that you can do HERE.
Know this though: our new van is fully electric with the exception our diesel heater. This time around we'll be going with products like an induction cooktop stove, AC unit, and more which will require a lot of battery power! Truthfully, we thought running this much electrical stuff in a van was impossible but it's not and we're talking all about how it's possible in "Our Van Conversion Solar and Electrical Components."
Your van conversions electrical system is going to be expensive if you do it right. We write these words about our friends at AM Solar with enthusiasm and honesty because we know how much they helped us when we were feeling pretty lost and incredibly frustrated. If you have any questions about our system or about AM Solar, please don't hesitate to reach out in the comments below.