Our step-by-step guide from start to end of how we installed the electrics in our van, including all of the trials and errors in between. We’ve included the cost of all materials used to give an idea of what to expect when considering converting your own van.
Making a plan:
The first step to creating our electrical system was to decide exactly what we would need in it and how much power we would need to run our appliances and charge our phones.
- Everything in our van except the engine itself would be powered by two 12V 120ah leisure batteries, enclosed in a small box in the service area of our van.
-These would be drip charged by a 100W solar panel fixed to the van roof, but their main source of power would come from the alternator when the van is running.
-To do this we would be connecting the van battery and the leisure batteries via an isolator switch; this would enable us to charge any or all of the batteries or start the van from any of the batteries. So while we would be able to charge the leisure batteries from the running van via a length of butyl cable, we would reduce the risk of draining all of the batteries at once so that we couldn’t start the van by isolating the van battery from the leisure batteries.
-The power from the 12V batteries would be converted into 240V with a 3000W inverter that we could use to power our mains electrical equipment in the van. We would have two sets of power sockets running along the right side of the van- one around the bed area for laptops and phones, and one around the kitchen area for the microwave and the mini oven (later removed).
-These batteries would also power two sets of LED strip lights hung underneath our overhead cupboards either side of the bed and along the kitchen. These were remote-controlled, so we could have any colour mood lighting we liked (and multicolour for parties!). Unfortunately they later snapped and were replaced by 12V ultra bright LED ceiling lights.
-The 1800W sound system would be powered by the van battery only, which can run for at least 6 hours (yes, we’ve tested this many times). This would include a set of 1200W Vibe 6x9 Black Death speakers and a 600W Fusion sub woofer behind the driver’s seat for maximum bass potential.
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Choosing our equipment:
Most of the equipment we bought came from either eBay or a local hardware shop. We needed some heavy duty stuff to make sure the system was safe to use and wouldn’t risk blowing up.
- 2 12V 120ah deep cycle leisure batteries for £110 from eBay - a real bargain, as most others we’d seen were £200+
- A 3000W 12V to AC 240V Spannungswandler power inverter from eBay for £136, shipped from Germany. This was originally to be able to power our laptops, microwave and, yes, mini oven, without overloading, as it had a 6000W peak. We later realised this was a huge demand on the batteries and that our inverter was way over powered for what we needed, and decided to scrap the microwave and oven in favour of a gas oven. We’d been trying to run a van like a house and it was just not possible.
- A 100W solar panel for £80 from eBay, originally taken from our donor caravan (and previous place of living), to be mounted to the roof, and a solar charger controller for £6.99 from eBay to regulate the power, prevent overcharging and prevent the power generated from flowing back into the solar panel.
- A heavy duty Durite 310A battery isolator switch for £43 from a local electro diesel shop, the kind used on ships. It had to be heavy duty with wiping contacts to prevent static charge from building up, which can often be the cause of electrical fires.
- A 30m roll of 2mm flat twin Durite auto cable (0-953-00 if anyone’s interested) which set us back £26.50 for general wiring, and 10m of double insulated butyl cable, which is usually used on boats, for running underneath the van from the alternator to the leisure batteries.
- A mega fuse holder and a 200amp mega fuse for in a worst case scenario and something were to cause the DC circuit to blow, then the fuse would blow up instead of the leisure batteries.
- A 2 way consumer unit with a 16amp MCB fuse for the main circuit, covered by a 3 milliamp RCD fuse, which will trip in case of a problem with the 240V main circuit rather than blowing up the whole thing, similar to the mega fuse.
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Installing the service area:
Once we had all the wires and bits we needed, installing them all into the service area was simple. These were installed at the same time as the plumbing and heating systems which are all interconnected.
The inverter, fuse holder, consumer unit, isolator switch and solar charger unit were all screwed onto a sheet of hardboard beneath the right hand side of the bed, which itself is screwed into the metal strut of the van to keep everything solid. Everything was earthed using the original bolts and holes in the floor for the minibus seat mounts, and would all be connected to the batteries later on.
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Wiring the split charger:
Running a length of butyl cable from the alternator at the front of the van was the hardest part. It had to run from the isolator switch at the back of the van, along the length of the van and to the alternator at the front. We started by feeding the cable behind the kitchen units, then drilled a small hole for it in the floor by the driver’s door, and used self-drilling bolt screws and P-clips to support the cable on its way underneath the van to the engine. We then had to connect it to the positive terminal on the van battery, which meant we could make the system live and have a way of recharging the leisure batteries after use.
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Installing the solar panel:
Running out of time before our first trip, we asked a friend to fit our solar panel for us. He attached it to the roof using mounting brackets and Sika-flex, pop riveting it in one corner for extra support. He drilled a small hole in the roof for the main wire to the solar charge controller wire and the batteries (much to our anxiety, having only just fixed all the holes in the roof). We drove away happy with our new free energy source above us. However we didn’t anticipate the violent Cornish winds the following year which took the solar panel off completely. Fortunately we fixed it back on with two pop rivets in each corner.
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Installing the sound system:
We like, no - love a good party, and what’s a road trip without music? We decided to splash out on a decent sound system, because we would be covering a lot of miles and music is essential for driving. We ordered a pair of Vibe Black Death 6x9’s from eBay at a whopping £89.50 - the speakers Lucy had been drooling over for the last few years and never thought she’d own. They took a few hours to build as well, as we’d had to assemble the speakers from parts and wire the tweeters and amp in ourselves, as well as also building custom mounts for them to sit on the cab shelf using two upright blocks of wood with grooves cut out so the speakers could sit comfortably. We originally bought a Vibe subwoofer and amp for £20 each secondhand, but the amp was crackly and distorted and clearly broken, so Lucy sacrificed the Fusion subwoofer from her car. Obviously having such a powerful sound system is detrimental to the van battery life, but all we can say is once you’ve had a sub woofer in your car you’ll never be able to listen to music without one, and we regularly use it for 6 hours at a time without draining the battery fully.
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Total cost & materials used:
2 12V 120ah deep cycle leisure batteries from eBay - £110
3000W 12V to AC 240V Spannungswandler power inverter from eBay - £136
A 100W solar panel from eBay - £80
Solar charger controller from eBay - £6.99
Heavy duty Durite 310A battery isolator switch from a local electro diesel shop- £43
30m roll of 2mm flat twin Durite auto cable from a local electrical wholesaler - £26.50
10m of double insulated butyl cable from a local electrical wholesaler - £34.90
Mega fuse holder & 200amp fuse from a local electro diesel shop- £17.40
2 way consumer unit with 16amp MCB fuse from a local hardware shop- £26
Sound system not included in total cost.
Total cost: £480.79
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