Van Electrical Information For Beginners- Part 1

If you’re just getting started in this crazy adventure called #VanLife, and want to do some of the build work yourself, you probably have some important questions regarding how to set up your electrical system.

The biggest one is should you get a deep cycle marine battery or go with a solar battery?

I’ve compiled what I’ve learned into this handy-dandy little guide so you don’t have to spend hours on Youtube watching old men yammer on about their RVs.

They’re cool and all, but they can get boring real quick.

van electrical information for beginners part 1

Disclaimer: I am not an electrician. Or a mechanic. Or even an engineer.

I am just a lady with a curiosity about the way things work. So just like every video from some retiree on Youtube, use this guide at your own risk!

Some considerations

Depending on what you need to power, how long you have to run it for, and your budget, you have several different options available to you. Personally, we tend to stay away from gas-powered generators unless its the dead of winter and we are by ourselves in the woods.

Not because there is anything wrong with gas power, but because it’s super loud.

I hate being that person at the campground that’s running a noisy piece of machinery all day. It gets really tedious. Most campgrounds give you quiet hours of 10 pm to 6 am, but if you consistently need to run it all day then you probably shouldn’t even bother camping.

Should you install a solar set up or use a deep cycle house battery?

goal zero yeti 400
“Por que no los dos?”


Why not both?


In our Ford Econoline, we use both the Goal Zero Solar Generator and a deep cycle house battery. Both of them are super quiet and give us more than enough electricity to power everything we need.

While you could get away with having one OR the other, we find that having both is a great back up plan in case one of them fails. I don’t know how many times I’ve driven the van somewhere expecting the house battery to be all filled up only to discover that a fuse wiggled loose and we have no power.

Trust me, it sucks being 50 miles from the nearest town when you figure out your fridge is dead!

Assess your electrical needs.

First things first, you need to figure out what your personal electrical needs are. If you are living in your van part-time, or only use it for extended adventures, then you might only need a small house battery. Most deep cycle house batteries can be picked up at Walmart for under $100 bucks.

rv electrical needs
You mean you DON’T have a rotating waterbed in your van?

But if you are full time, working from your computer, and want to blow dry your hair once in a while, then you’re gonna need more power.

My suggestion is, that if you’re on the fence about how much power you need, always go with the larger amount if you can afford it. You’ll be saved the hassle of having to upgrade 6 months down the line. Trust me, when wiring is involved, you only want to do the big job once.

The only way to do this right is to keep a little notebook and monitor your energy usage for a few days.  Everything you use that has an electric current should be written down. Make sure to note what the item was, how long it was connected to the outlet (down to the minute), the amps, and the volts.

Once you have this information then you can move on to the fun part. Math!

Here’s an example of some items that might draw power in your van, their watts, and the number of hours you might hypothetically use them for:

  1. Samsung Eco-Friendly Van T.V.  – 24W/ 2hr per day= 48W Total
  2. Computer – 60W/ 1hr per day= 60W Total
  3. LED Light – 10W/ 4hr per day= 40W Total
  4. Bluetooth Speaker – 10W/ 3hr per day= 30W Total


Some things you might only use for a few minutes at a time, like a hair dryer, or a toaster, but for ease of this guide we will stick to whole hours.

If we add all of those together we get a grand total of 178-watt-hours per day. Remember, this is just our fake estimate. Anything you have plugged into the wall, even if you have nothing at the other end, is drawing power.

I’m looking at you “always plugged in” phone charger!

So now that we have an idea as to what we need, let’s take a look at two different power options.



First up is going to be the Goal Zero Yeti. These guys couldn’t make it easier when it comes to finding out how many watts it’ll give you, it’s written right under the name!

solar on a cloudy day
Nice try, clouds!



In our van, we have the Yeti 400, which means we get approximately 400 watts hours of 12-volt power per charge. If our current daily energy needs are 178 amps, this will power us for roughly two days before it will need to be recharged.

But what if you aren’t expecting lots of sun?

We live in the Pacific Northwest and only get usable amounts of sunlight 3 months per year. The Goal Zero is great if we’re traveling in other parts of the country, but when we are working out of our home base, we need a more dependable source of power.

That’s where the house battery comes in. This Renogy Deep Cycle Battery gives you 100 amp hours of useable energy.

But, amp hours aren’t watt hours? What gives?

Most batteries will actually give you an amp hour rating instead of listing watt-hours, but the conversion is super simple.

The Renogy battery is rated for 100 amp hours so the equation would look like this:

Amp Hours (100)x Volts (12)= Watt hours(1200)

light bulb wattage amps
I couldn’t find any sexy battery pictures, so here’s a light bulb instead

At first glance, this battery packs way more punch than the Goal Zero Yeti. But before you go cursing me for even suggesting solar power, know this: It’s not a good practice to discharge your deep cycle batteries all the way.

A good rule of thumb is to never discharge them past 50%. Some models say you can discharge 80%, but I always just stick to the 50% rule to be safe.

So we just cut that 1200 watt-hours of juice down to 600. Still better than the 400 from the Yeti, but it’s certainly not as exciting at the original 1200 you thought you were getting.

Now, you could get crazy and use several batteries to get extra power, but unless you’re planning on boondocking for an extended amount of time or live in a huge bus, it doesn’t really make sense. It’s just going to take longer to charge and they are super heavy which will cut down on your gas mileage.

Not to mention the space they take up!

The number one thing this method has going for it is that all you have to do to charge it is just drive somewhere. Since we mostly stick to the same city, we do a fair amount of driving anyways. Thirty minutes every other day is plenty to charge our house battery.

One last thing

I mentioned it before in my Cheap DIY Van Conversion post, but if you’re low on cash, a regular car starter battery will not work. You have to get a deep cycle one to reap all the benefits. This is because a regular car starter battery is designed to give you a quick intense burst of electricity and doesn’t handle that long slow draw that you’ll see from using your electronics.

Whether it’s solar or deep cycle, get the best battery you can afford. Hopefully, this little guide will give you a head start on the process!


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