Basic guide to solar and camper van electrics
For many years now here at 8 Ball Camper Conversions we’ve been fitting solar panels of varying sizes and learnt a lot in the process. Having never having written a blog before, I thought it was about time I gave it a go!
The questions you need ask yourself when thinking about solar are…
- Do I need it?
- What do I gain from fitting it?
This in turn should take you to the next questions:
- How many electrical appliances am I using off my leisure battery?
- How big is my leisure battery?
- How long do I want to camp for off-grid (without plugging in to the mains)
… and yes it is a big can of worms to open I can tell you. So I will try to make it simple.
On most campers, when you are not plugged in to the mains you will be running off your leisure battery to power your lights, charge points, water pump, fridge and possibly a diesel heater. So, you need to make sure you have a good quality leisure battery fitted, of which there are in the main 3 types: LEAD ACID, GEL (AGM) or the more expensive Lithium ion. If you have a lead acid leisure battery it needs to be at least a 110 AH and a recognized good quality make, as the cheaper batteries of this type often don’t hold their charge very long. If you want your leisure battery to hold its charge for longer, the next step up is a GEL (AGM) battery which most converters now fit as standard. This can be rated at a lower 95AH, the reason being an AGM battery can use a greater percentage of its power before going flat. Neither the lead acid or AGM batteries should be allowed to run totally flat, as this will cause them lasting damage. Lastly we have the lithium ion battery. This is the more expensive and the best of the bunch and the reasons are: they have a long life span, you can drain the battery flat without damage and you can use more of its power (about 85%) before it goes flat. It also is about half the weight of either of the other types of battery too.
Before considering solar you should make sure that a good quality leisure battery has been fitted and that it charges from the vehicle whilst the engine is running and also while plugged in to the mains. We recommend before going away that you plug your camper in to the mains at home and give it a good charge the night before. With all things working correctly, the charge on an 8 Ball Camper for instance will last about 2 days without the need to plug it into the mains. For most people this is good enough, because by then you’ll want a shower and probably a pub lunch, so you can book a site for a night or a couple of days with mains hook up before moving on. In general, for the majority of people this is all they need. You’ve probably heard of the nc500 (NORTH COAST 500) in Scotland; many of our customers have done this and said it was amazing that with just a leisure battery and no solar, it was no problem at all even in winter.
As you can see there is a lot to think about and check into before you decide whether you need solar panels i.e. have I got a good enough or big enough battery? And does my vehicle charge my leisure battery correctly? You may think you need solar, but it could just be one of these is at fault. Make sure whoever builds your camper (hopefully us) does this right in the first place. So, the second part of the blog will be about consumption, solar and lithium ion batteries, to go fully off-grid. I hope this has been of some help.