Are you a total beginner when it comes to campervan electrics? Are you seeking some guidance on your camper van electrics set-up and what you need to buy? Well, you’ll be pleased to know that you’re in the right place.
After almost a year of blood, sweat, and tears, we’ve recently finished our Ford Transit campervan conversion.
We had little to no experience in DIY, joining, electrics, or any of the other skills that go into campervan builds. So to say it was a tough feat is an understatement.
One of the most daunting aspects of the entire build was the electrics. When I first started looking into it, I felt like I was reading another language.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to outsource it all to a professional. But the trouble is, it can be wildly expensive to outsource, which isn’t ideal if you’re converting a van on a budget.
I know what you’re thinking. You can’t put a price on safety. But we figured we would do the work and have it checked over by a professional once complete.
So ultimately, that’s what we did. After hundreds of hours on YouTube, suddenly, it all started to make sense. Believe it or not, it’s pretty straightforward once you get your head around it.
We were able to successfully install both a 12v (DC) and a 240v (AC) system as well as a solar power system that allows us to be totally off-grid.
Most surprising of all, however, is that our system got the thumbs up from a qualified electrician. Which is nothing short of a miracle considering our experience (or lack of).
So what I’m trying to say is, if we can do it, you can do it too. And in this guide, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to get you started.
So let’s get to it. Here’s a beginners step by step guide to campervan electrics.
Campervan Electrics – A Step by Step Guide for Beginners
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Disclosure: I am not a qualified auto-electrician, and my advice shouldn’t be taken as such. I wrote this article based on my own experience, but it shouldn’t replace the guidance of a licensed professional.
Step 1: Understanding Campervan Electrics
Before attempting your campervan electrics, it’s crucial that you have some understanding of how everything works.
It’s one thing knowing what to do, but you also need to understand the theory behind it. Especially when it comes to something as risky as electrics.
It was important to me that I not only knew HOW to do it but WHY I was doing it. So I spent a lot of time doing my research before getting started with any wiring or electrical stuff.
By reading this guide in its entirety, you should have sufficient knowledge in both areas to help get you started on your journey.
Step 2: Terminology Explained
One of the peeves I had when researching campervan electrics was that many tutorials use terms and lingo that only someone with experience would know.
With that in mind, you might benefit from this overview of terminology I will use throughout the article.
AC Power: Alternating current (AC) power is the standard electricity that comes out of power outlets such as plug sockets in the home.
240v: 240v or volts is essentially mains household power. Typical household appliances such as TVs and fridges require 240v to run. Depending on the country, you may encounter different mains voltage, such as 110, 120 or 130.
DC Power: Direct current (DC) power can come from multiple sources, including leisure batteries like the ones you’ll have in your van.
12v: 12v or volts is the power you get when running appliances off a 12v battery. Most camper van electrical systems use 12v batteries, so that’s what I will refer to throughout the article.
Off-Grid: Off-grid refers to a system that doesn’t rely on any electrical hook up from mains power.
Hook-Up: Hook-Up refers to a system that allows you to power your electrics using mains power.
Watts/Amps: The main units used for measuring the power of a device or appliance.
Watt-hours (Wh)/Amp-hours (Ah): The units used to measure electric charge used over time.
Step 3: Figure Out Your Electrical Requirements
The thing with motorhome electrical systems or camper builds, in general, is that there is no one size fits all.
Your electrical requirements may be completely different to ours. So while I will mention what we have in our van, I’ll also help you understand your own needs.
So, first of all, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself.
Do you want your van to be set up for off-grid living? If yes, you will likely need some kind of solar power system.
Do you want to have the option of powering your electrics by hook-up? If so, you will need to install an AC Power system.
How much time will you spend in your van? Naturally, somebody who lives full-time in their van will need a bigger system than someone who only uses their van on weekends.
What devices and appliances will you be powering? This will determine how much battery power you need and consequently how powerful your system needs to be.
Do you want to power AC devices in your van? Then you’ll probably need an inverter.
Don’t worry; I elaborate on all of this as we go along. But these are the kind of things you need to be thinking about.
Step 4: Calculate how much power you will need
I’m afraid that this step is as tedious as it sounds. But it’s a necessary one if you want a reliable system that meets your requirements.
Here’s a step by step guide on how to go about it:
- Make a list of all the electrical devices and appliances you’ll want to power in your van. This is best done in a spreadsheet so you can make calculations.
- Work out the amp power each appliance uses. Some appliances may tell you in watts instead of amps, so use an online calculator like this one to convert it.
- Estimate how many hours you’ll need to power the appliance each day.
- Multiply amps (step 2) by hours (step 3) to calculate how many amp-hours (Ah) the appliance will use each day.
- Repeat steps 2 to 4 for each appliance.
- Add together the result for each appliance to get the total amp-hours required.
- Add an extra 20% to allow for any fluctuations, and you’ll have a rough idea of the power you will use in your van each day.
Step 5: What battery do I need?
Now you’ve calculated how much power you will need; this next step shouldn’t be too difficult.
All you need to understand is the different types of batteries on the market and how much power you will get from them.
To power appliances and gadgets in a campervan, we use what we call 12v leisure batteries. You might also hear them called deep cycle batteries.
Let me break down the most common types of campervan leisure batteries and what you can expect from them.
Lithium-ion – The highest performing leisure battery currently on the market. Smaller and lighter than other models and deliver the highest capacity of power. As a result, the upfront costs are high.
Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) – Probably the most common type of leisure battery used in campervans due to being maintenance-free, safe, and relatively cheap.
Flooded Lead Acid (FLA) – The oldest type of battery on this list and one I would avoid. Largely because they require a lot of maintenance and are potentially dangerous when overcharged.
See this guide to campervan batteries for a comprehensive list complete with pros and cons.
Once you’ve decided on the type of battery you want, all that’s left is to finalise the amount of power you need.
Leisure batteries are measured in amp-hours (Ah). However, unless you’re buying a lithium-ion battery, they should only be discharged by 50% to retain their efficiency.
If you run them down by more than 50%, you risk shortening the overall lifespan of your batteries.
So if you’re buying an AGM battery or anything that’s not lithium-ion, you will need to double the power you require to work out the battery size you need.
For example, if you require 100 amp-hours (Ah) to power your devices and appliances (as calculated in step 4), your batteries should total at least 200 Ah.
It’s always better to play it safe and buy bigger batteries than you anticipate you’ll need. However, they aren’t exactly cheap, so it depends on your budget.
You can buy one large battery that supplies the power you need. Or purchase several smaller batteries and wire them in parallel to meet your requirements that way.
Our set-up consists of 2 of these 110Ah Xtreme AGM Batteries wired in parallel to total 220Ah. Don’t sweat the wiring for now; that comes later.
But of course, we don’t run the batteries down more than 50%, so actually, two fully charged batteries allow us 110Ah of power before we need to recharge.
Step 6: Charging the batteries
Naturally, when you’re using your batteries, you need to have an accessible way to recharge them. You can do this in a number of ways.
Solar Panel System
Having a solar panel system in place is the easiest and most efficient way of charging your camper vans leisure batteries.
So long as you have a sufficient solar panel system and a fair amount of daylight, you should be able to replenish what you use.
We love having a solar-generated system as it allows us to be entirely off-grid for days or weeks at a time.
Of course, various factors can affect your daily charge, such as the weather and the time of year. A summer’s day in Italy will generate a lot more power than a winter’s day in Scotland.
So, without overcomplicating things, you need to understand your requirements and the capabilities of your system.
I’m no expert, but there’s a simple calculation you can use to work out approximately how much solar you will need to charge your system.
- Take your daily amp-hour usage, say in this case, 100 Ah.
- Convert into watt-hours (Whr) = 1200 watt-hours.
- Divide that by the daily average of sunlight, say 4 hours (you may need to adjust as per the factors I mentioned earlier) = 300 watts.
- Allow 20% for any system losses = 360 watts.
Based on these calculations, you will need around 360 watts of solar to keep your batteries sufficiently charged, which is easily doable on most medium to large-sized vans.
We have 2 160-watt solar panels on our roof, and so far, they’ve worked like a charm.
There are a few other things to consider when installing a solar power system, so be sure to check out this comprehensive guide.
Charging while Driving
Here’s another option for charging your leisure batteries without needing an electric hook up.
The majority of vehicles are fitted with a 12v starter battery to power their electric components like the ignition, lights, and so on.
When the engine is running, the charging system automatically recharges the batteries, so they are continuously topped up.
You can integrate your leisure batteries into this system by installing a split charge relay or a battery to battery charger.
Once your starter battery is sufficiently charged, your leisure batteries will get a nice steady charge as you drive. As such, these systems are most effective when driving for an hour or more.
A split charge relay and a battery to battery charger are very similar; however, a split charge relay is typically used on smaller systems (up to around 220Ah).
Anything higher than a 220Ah system generally requires a battery to battery charger for efficiency.
Shore Power Hook Up
The last option for charging your leisure batteries is through a shore power hook up.
To do this, you will need to install a mains power inlet into the side of your van, which will allow you to plug in at campsites or anywhere with mains power.
To charge your batteries, you will need to install a battery charger like the Victron Energy Blue Smart.
If you plan on spending a lot of time on campsites, you might want to install a few plug sockets around your van.
That way, any time you hook up to shore power, you can use the sockets to power AC devices such as a microwave or hairdryer.
If you plan on spending most of your time off-grid, I still recommend having a shore power hook up. Should there ever be a fault with your solar panels, it’s wise to have a backup.
Again, there’s lots to consider in this process, such as safety, wiring, equipment etc. When you’re ready, I recommend reading this guide installing a mains power hook-up in your van.
Step 7: Other ways of powering AC devices
You might be wondering if you can power AC appliances without needing a shore hook-up. You can, and you have a couple of options.
The most common way is to use an inverter. An inverter connects to your leisure batteries and converts the 12v DC current to 240v AC current.
We have a 2000 watt inverter installed in our van, which allows us to power things like our hairdryer, blender, laptops, and camera charger.
Not all at the same time though. The inverter size (2000 watts) indicates how much power it can generate before it trips.
Our hairdryer is 1600 watts; therefore, we probably wouldn’t risk powering anything else at the same time.
Although, we can easily charge both our laptops and our camera simultaneously without the inverter tripping.
Again, you can work out the size of the inverter you need by checking the wattage of your appliances. But always buy an inverter a few hundred watts bigger than your most powerful appliance.
I wouldn’t usually recommend generators, as your typical generators aren’t exactly appealing.
They are clumpy and space-consuming, they require fuel to run, and they are pretty damn noisy. Not to mention they create pollutive emissions.
Perhaps you have power-hungry AC appliances like air-con units and power tools. In which case, you might need a generator.
But for the typical van lifer, with a robust campervan electrics system, a generator should not be required.
Other exceptions where you might want to consider a generator is if you are a digital nomad or have lots of electrical devices like cameras, drones, laptops etc.
Since this is the case for us, we use the Jackery Explorer 500 Portable Power Station.
With the accompanying Jackery SolarSaga 100 Solar Panel, we get a reliable and clean power source that allows us to charge our gear without draining our leisure batteries.
Step 8: So, what 12v devices can I use in the van?
Your 12 volt (DC) appliances will run directly off your leisure batteries.
They don’t need an inverter or anything like that, but you might want to install a fuse board for safety—more on that in this guide on camper van wiring.
Many appliances are available in 12v, and you should utilise as many as possible if you want to be energy efficient.
Some examples of 12v appliances in a campervan include roof fans, lights, water pumps and fridges.
You can even install USB ports for charging gadgets that also run off DC power.
The idea is to minimise your use of energy-sucking AC appliances and replace them with less demanding DC alternatives.
Step 9: Can I install my campervans electrical system myself?
If the thought of installing your electrics system has you in fits of nervous sweats, you are not alone.
I thought my head was going to explode at first. It even became the centre point of my nightmares, leaving me tempted to throw in the towel before I’d even started.
The trouble is, the internet is like a rabbit hole. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the multitude of (often conflicting) information.
I stuck at it, though, partly out of curiosity but mostly out of pure stubbornness. And like I say, bit by bit, it all started to fall into place.
A huge benefit of installing the electrics yourself is that should something go wrong on the road, you’ll have an idea of how to fix it.
And if you’re willing to put in the hours to learn about this stuff, I can confidently say that you are capable of anything you put your mind to.
Just keep in mind that electrics are not to be taken lightly. Make a mistake, and it can mess up your entire system. Or worse, cause a fire and put you in a potentially dangerous situation.
As I say, we made sure we had our entire system checked over by a qualified electrician. If you decide to do the installation yourself, I strongly recommend that you do the same.
If you don’t want the headache and have room in your budget, there are plenty of companies that you can outsource the work to.
I’ve heard quotes starting from £500, anywhere up to £2k+. So be sure to shop around and source all of the major components yourself to avoid getting ripped off.
Another option is to use companies like Tiny Build Electrics, who offer services such as wiring diagrams and online consultations.
Step 10: What do I need to buy to start my campervan electrics?
Hopefully, by now, you have some idea of the electrics set up you’ll need in your camper.
At this stage, you can start buying the core components of your system—things like your batteries, solar panels, and appliances.
If you’re doing the installation yourself, this is a good place to start. You’ll need to learn about campervan wiring before you think about buying wires, connectors, fuses and all that jazz.
My advice is to allow yourself a few weeks to gather everything you need for the installation. As you go, you’ll identify the different tools and components you’ll need to get the job done.
If you’re outsourcing the work, I would still recommend sourcing the core components yourself. However, I expect the company you use will cover the wiring side of things.
Here’s a list of the core components you might need in your van with links to where you can buy. Everything that we have in our van I’ve marked with a *.
Shore Power Components
Solar Panel Components
- 110AH Xtreme AGM Batteries*
- 200AH Poweroad Base Lithium Battery
- 12 Way Fuse Block*
- Switch Panel*
- 2000w Inverter*
- Split Relay
Step 11: Installing a campervan electrical system
The time has come to start installing your electrical system in your camper.
To cover this in one article would be overwhelming. So I’m breaking it down into steps here with links to the corresponding articles or videos.
- Understand Campervan Wiring
- Create a Campervan Wiring Schematic
- Installing a Shore Power Hook Up
- Installing a Solar Power System
- Wiring a 12v System in a Campervan
Closing Thoughts on Campervan Electrics
So there you have it—a step by step guide of everything you need to consider when it comes to camper van electrics.
This is the kind of guide I wish I’d had at the start of my journey. The aim was to break things down into simple stages and make them easily digestible.
I hope that by reading it, you feel less overwhelmed than when you started. And armed with these insights, it’s given you the confidence to take the next steps.
But if it doesn’t all make sense now, don’t worry. I promise that it will eventually. Just take it one step at a time until you understand each and every step.
Take as much time as you need as this is the last thing you want to rush. And if you’re really stuck, please call in the help of a professional.
If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to reach out to us in the comments. Or drop us a message – we are always happy to help.
For more help with your campervan conversion, be sure to check out our van build series.
Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, where we share more travel advice and van life inspiration.
Charlotte & Natalie x
Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. That means that if you purchase through these links, we will earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you. And we can continue bringing you free travel tips and advice. If you use our affiliates, you are awesome, and we thank you!
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Last Updated on March 31, 2022 by Our Taste For Life