How to Have Electricity When You Live in a Van

This is the first thing that new van dwellers always ask. Why? What could you possibly have that’s going to use a bunch of electricity? Unless it’s medical equipment, you’ll probably find that you don’t really need it once you’re living in the van.

Van’s require electricity to go, and at the same time there is electricity coming out of your cigarette lighter (12 volt plug) when you are driving, and even when you’re not, depending on your van. I mean, it doesn’t just come out, you have to plug something into it to store it. My only electrical things are my laptop, my cell phone, and my 12 volt pan. I just keep the laptop and phone plugged in when driving and they’re almost always charged. When not driving, it’s fine to plug the laptop in for half an hour or so – if your battery’s healthy it won’t deplete it. 12 volt cooking stuff uses a lot of electricity, so if I’m cooking I turn the van on for ten minutes or so to charge the battery as I’m pulling from it.

If you know all that, and you think you still need electricity (maybe you don’t drive enough to make that much) don’t worry! It is super easy to set up. Much easier than following a sewing pattern. I’ll break it down for you, tho.

So, you have two main sources of electricity: the sun and your alternator. Some people use wind, too, but I haven’t heard much good about that on a vehicle.

You’ll need to store the electricity. The best way to do this is in a deep cycle (often called marine) battery. It is made to charge slowly and discharge all the way down, whereas your vehicle battery is made to charge quickly and never or rarely be fully discharged. It’ll be better for your deep cycle batteries if you don’t run them down past halfway.

So now you’ve got a deep cycle battery. You could get two and wire them together, but you really probably don’t need to do that. Put your battery in a box that’s made for batteries in case they explode, and secure it really well somewhere – under your van or on the floor or wherever. Preferably not next to your gas tank, but then I’m paranoid like that.

Now, just run a (thick, like 16 g? The guy at the store can tell you what you need when you go to buy it.) wire from your alternator to your battery. It will charge. The problem is that your other battery is also connected to the alternator, so the batteries will pull from each other. This really sucks. Trust me, I’ve done it. The easy fix is a battery isolator. You’ll run one wire from the alternator to the battery isolator, and then separate wires from the isolator to each battery.

Battery isolators go bad a lot. The better thing to do is use solenoids, which are crazily complicated. You can check out the diagrams at Bobs site or pay someone who knows that stuff a few bucks to do it because it will seriously take them like ten minutes.

Cool, now whenever you’re driving around your battery will be charging. If that’s not enough power, add solar panels. Try to find a kit that attatches the solar panels to a roof rack on your van. They’re out there. If not, just wire the things down to the roof rack really damn good. Run a wire from your panels, through a charge controller, to your battery. Now you’re charging whenever the suns out, and the charge controller should have a little light to let you know when it’s charging.

A note about the complexness of this. You just run all these wires to the battery posts. When I was trying to figure this out I was really confused, cause I didn’t think all these wires should be touching each other and stuff. It turns out it doesn’t matter at all. Just get the little ends for the wires and slap them all on there.

Now you’ve got a battery full of electricity. There are two ways to use it, and you may want to do both:

The first, and most simple way, is to just attatch a twelve volt plug or two to the battery. Then you can plug in anything that can be plugged into your cigarette lighter, including a little 100 or 200 watt inverter which is all you need to charge your laptop or most things.

If you want to run things that use more 110 volt power, you need a bigger inverter that you wire directly to the battery. First check out what you’re trying to run – if it says 300 watts, that means it runs at 200 watts but probably needs 600 to start. So you need an inverter that says 300/600 on it, which means that it runs comfortably at 300 and peaks at 600. Keep in mind that the bigger the inverter, the more power it pulls just to run itself. Getting a huge 2000/4000 watt inverter isn’t a great idea, because it will pull a lot of power to run a little thing. Yeah, that’s a mistake I made too.

Viola! You have electricity!

Also check out the electrical advice at Cheap RV Living.


  1. One of my earlier incarnations was engineer for a local TV station and we had problems with power for the live van. The cameras ran on battery and the microwave shot ran on 12V from the van but we still needed power for an off air monitor for the reporters. We also needed power to charge camera batteries and cell phones so we ran an inverter and just left the freaking thing running all the time. It drove me crazy, but I had other problems and never managed to sell them on the 2 battery setup. It would have been identical to yours, but I would have upgraded the alternator, as well.

    All that to get to the bigger alternator. There should be a higher output alternator available for most vans as they share parts with trucks.

    If you really think you need the juice, you can run a bigger inverter with two deep cycle batteries. Wire them plus to plus and minus to minus, not plus-minus plus-minus as this will give you the 24v. You will surely need a bigger alternator (or solar, but you may need a lot of cells). Now you have these two lead-acid batteries somewhere in you vehicle and you have to run your vehicle often but you can watch TV and make margaritas.

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