Basic Solar Parts Needed for a DIY Camper Van or RV Solar Install


– Hey everybody, it’s
Nate from explorist.life and today I’m going to be teaching you about all of the different components that are necessary to assemble
a DIY camper solar setup. First things first. I have a list of links in
this video’s description that you’re gong to find very handy. This particular video is
going to be a very basic parts identification type of video where we’re gonna go over
in a 101 level fashion what all of the individual
solar components are. Where I’m gonna spend
no more than two minutes on any one component. For some of the components,
you’re really gonna need some more clarification for the topics, like, “How do I size my solar controller “for my solar panels?” Or, “How do I size the
wires in my solar setup?” These are gonna get their own videos and related blog posts to dive deeper into the more detailed tutorial on that particular component. So, let’s get going. Solar Panels are the
most obvious component in a solar system. Their job is to gather
solar energy from the sun, send it down the wires
to the solar controller. There are two main types of solar panels. They are monocrystalline
and polycrystalline. The main difference between
the two is their efficiency. Take these two solar panels from the same company, for example. The one on top is a polycrystalline and the one on the bottom
is a monocrystalline. The polycrystalline is rated at 160 watts and has dimensions of 58 by 26. The monocrystalline is rated at 175 watts and has dimensions of 57 by 26. So, the two are within
about an inch of each other in physical size, but
the monocrystalline panel is capable of producing
15 more watts per panel, which means that you could
potentially be gaining an extra five to 10
amps per day, per panel, if you opt for monocrystalline
over polycrystalline. Another thing, I’ve
seen articles and videos talking about how these
two technologies of panel function in terms of
shading or cloudy days. Now, there have been a lot
of opinions given on this, and I have yet to see anything
really, really conclusive one way or the other,
which leads me to believe that perhaps neither
one does a very good job in the shade, and
perhaps you need sunlight for solar panels to work. My recommendation, since roof space on camper vans is incredibly limited, go with the monocrystalline solar panels. You’ll get more power
out of the same space leaving more room for vent fans and rooftop dance parties. The polycrystalline will also be fine if you’re really trying to pinch pennies, but maybe the solar panel
isn’t the place to skimp as it’s going to likely be
one of the more difficult components to replace on down the road. Do it right, do it once. The charge controller
takes the solar power from the solar panels and then converts it into a form of more
organized and useful power. The power is coming from the solar panels at varying voltages,
anywhere from 16 volts to potentially in the hundreds of volts, depending on the setup. The charge controller
regulates that voltage down to the 12 to 15 volt ballpark if you’re on a 12 volt battery bank, to properly charge said battery bank. Now, there are two main
types of charge controllers on the market, MPPT and PWM. Those stand for maximum
power point tracking and pulse width modulation. Let’s just stick with MPPT and PWM. PWM is an older technology. Your solar panels must be
within a fairly narrow set of parameters to even be
compatible with a PWM controller. They’re less efficient,
as they are, pretty much, just a regulator, I guess. The only pro to a PWM controller is that they’re less expensive. MPPT controllers are a newer, much more sophisticated technology and have more processing
power behind them. Which lets them do more calculations depending on the input voltage to optimize the output voltage to the maximum amount of
amps possible to be stored in the batteries for use. (exhales sharply) Basically, comparing an MPPT controller to a PWM controller is like comparing Netflix to Blockbuster. The buy-in fee is a little higher, but the satisfaction of being
able to pick out a movie while not wearing pants
just can’t be beat. The buy-in is a little a higher, but the added flexibility and performance will give you more bang for
your buck in the long run. My recommendation, get
the MPPT controller. Unless you’re strapped
for cash, then save up, and then get the MPPT controller. There’s a lot more to
say about how to size your charge controller,
but it’s not gonna fit into this two minute spiel. So check the description to learn how to properly size your charge controller. Batteries are simply
storage tanks for power. They store the power that the solar panels and charge controller have made
until it’s ready to be used to run computers, charge
phones, brew coffee, whatever. There are three main types
of batteries on the market. Lead Acid, AGM, and Lithium. These require maintenance and they vent corrosive hydrogen gas. They were the standard for a while, but then technology caught up. Although they can work in
some setups, in my opinion, they’re generally more hassle
than they’re worth, one star. Absorbent Glass Mat batteries. Actually, let’s talk about
Lithium at the same time. AGM & Lithium are the two
more commonly used types of batteries in campers, currently. Lithium batteries are significantly
more expensive up front, but they’re cheaper over the long run. We’ve already explained
this in a prior video in much more detail, along
with many of the pros and cons of the two batteries. That video can be found
in the description. My recommendation, go with lithium. It’s lighter, it’s more powerful, you get bigger bang for
your buck in the long run. I get it, you can’t afford Lithium and you need to get on
the road, like, yesterday and just need a working
electronics system. Sure, go with the AGM, but, but, get the size of AGM
battery that you can switch out to Lithium in the future if
you happen to change your mind. So, to clarify, a Battle Born battery is about 12 ¾ by 7 by 9 inches. This Renogy AGM battery
is 13 by 7 by 9 inches. So, if you’re living for the
moment and need to go with AGM batteries now, you can buy, say, three of the AGM batteries. And then, once they wear out
and you need more capacity, you can swap in three lithium batteries directly in their place, bolt them up, change a few parameters
on your charge controller, and be good to go. Which would effectively
triple your capacity with the exact same battery footprint. So plan for the upgrade now,
and it’ll make the upgrade less expensive and easier when it’s time. Now, I really like
inverter/charger combo units. It’s pretty much just that, an inverter and a charger all wrapped up into one box. Your battery stores power at 12 volts. If you have something, say, a coffee maker or an instant pot, you’ll
need 110 volts aka, a normal household plug. The inverter takes the 12 volt
power stored in the batteries and converts it into 110
volt power so you can power those household appliances. Inverters come in a few different types. There’s square wave,
there’s modified sine wave, and there’s pure sine wave. We aren’t going to talk
about the first two. Essentially, the power they
make isn’t a clean power and can damage certain electronics. I don’t recommend those because
I don’t like recommending products that have an inherent risk of damaging other equipment. You’re gonna be looking for
a pure sine wave inverter. This inverter actually does
the best job of mimicking the power that is actually
coming through a standard plug that you can find in any on-the-grid wall. These pure sine inverters
come in sizes from small, portable, 300 watt models all
the way up to, (whistles). But to get by with modest usage
like running a coffee pot, Instant pot, or induction
stove, the most common size that I’ve seen and the size
we have in our camper van, is a 2000 watt inverter. But if you want to learn in more detail, how to accurately size an
inverter for your setup, you’ll be looking for the link that you can conveniently
find in the description, as it’s time to move on to the, this is how you can charge
the batteries via shore power. Which is a campground
power pedestal or even, simply a plug in at somebody’s house. Yeah, shore power is, basically,
just an external plugin somewhere on the grid. There’s not too much to say about these. You can get these in a separate unit, sometimes called a converter. But typically, it’s
easier and it’s cheaper to just get the all-in-one
inverter/charger combo package. They charge your
batteries at a rapid rate. Anywhere from 40-70 amps. My recommendation? For anybody looking for
the comforts of home, an inverter is a must. If your rig is just for
random weekend outings, perhaps run a 12 volt
refrigerator and charge cameras, drones, and such, maybe
you can go without. You really just have to ask yourself, “What do I plan on powering and how much “like home do I want this to feel?” This is the device that lets
you charge your solar battery bank with the engine alternator. It lets power pass when
the engine is running and it closes when the engine is off, so you don’t drain your starting battery as you use your solar batteries. That’s basically how it works. A battery to battery
charger would be lumped into the same category, as well. But there is a few other considerations that need to be talked about in more depth than I want to in this video,
so be sure to check out the link in the description
for more info on that one. That’s actually all of
the major components in a camper solar setup. But we have a lot more very small items that you’ll need to complete the build. Wires, lugs, fuses, switches, breakers, and bus bars just to name a few. These will go by pretty quickly and we won’t spend more than
about a minute on each one. Rather than continuing
to tell you to check the description for more
details, I’m actually gonna make a little popup to let you know if more detail is available, since this is more of a,
“What are these parts?” and, “Point me in the right
direction”, kind of video. The bus bar is an extension
of your battery terminals. When we’ve got a dozen
different wires and components that need to be connected
to the battery directly, the top of the battery
terminal can turn into a giant bird’s nest of wires in a hurry. These just give you a
little more room to work with your wiring and make
it easier to see exactly what you’ve got going on and
what wires are going where. The battery monitor tells you
the status of your batteries. Like, their capacity, their voltage, and how much power is actively
being generated or lost. The monitor is able to
tell us this information by the information provided by the, If the battery monitor is the
brain, the shunt is the body. The shunt is physically
responsible of counting the amps that are either coming or going in either direction and reporting that to the battery monitor. The shunt sits in line of
the negative battery terminal and the bus bar. All loads should be on side of the shunt that is away from the battery. This is how you’re gonna
run all of your wires to your different accessories
like lights, fans, 12 volt outlets, 12 volt
refrigerator, USB ports, whatever uses 12 volt power. The fuse block is the easiest
way to make fused connections to these low amperage devices
and keep everything safe, tidy, organized, and safe. So, now I guess we should talk about, fuses are what protect your
wires in case of an over-current situation, aka, a malfunction. If there are too many amps
flowing through too small of a wire, or something is malfunctioning, the wire can melt and
possibly start a fire. Quick note, fuses and
breakers are kind of, sort of, the same thing. If a fuse blows, you can’t reuse it. If a breaker, trips,
you can just reset it. And I kind of use those
two terms interchangeably, depending on the situation. Don’t let that confuse you, since they kind of do the same thing. So, the fuse is designed to
blow or trip at a current lower than the melting point of the wire. Which will cut the flow of power, effectively shutting off the hazard. There are three types of DC
fuses that I find myself using. Spade fuses, resettable
breakers, and ANL fuses. The type and size of fuse
that I pick varies depending on how it’s being used, the
current going through the wire as well as the size of
the wire it’s attached to. Wires keep all of your solar
components tethered together so that they don’t float away. Wires transport power from
one component to the next. The wires come in various sizes. Small wire for use on lights
and fans would be somewhere in the 12 to 18 gauge realm. Now, gauge is the
measurement unit for wires. There’s a more technical
way to explain it, but we don’t need to. It’s just like inches, or centimeters, or miles, or whatever. It’s a fairly relative term. Just know that a 12 to 18
gauge wire is pretty small. Oh, and the higher the number
goes, the smaller the wire is. But, once you get into big
wire for carrying big currents, like required by the
inverter, it gets tricky. ‘Cause as the wire gets bigger, the gauges go from eight,
to six, to two, to zero, to 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, 4/0. Sizing wires for different solar setups is, honestly, a pain in the. Ask me any questions you’ve got so far in the comments below. That’s a bit of a side note, but, you know, in case you forgot there was a comment section. Wire lugs are the ends of the wires. They let you make nice clean connections to the bus bars or distribution blocks. And they’re sized according
to two measurements. They will have a gauge,
which is the size of wire that the lug will fit on to, and it also has a stud size diameter. Like quarter inch or
3/8 or the number eight which is the size of the bolt that the lug is designed to fit around. Depending on the inverter/charger you get, it may or may not have come
with an AC breaker installed. If not, and you’re wanting
to hard wire 110 volt plugs throughout your camper, you’re going to need to add an AC breaker. Note, I’m referencing AC power, aka, alternating current power
not AC as in air compressor. We’re talking your normal
household plugs, here. You will need the breaker
box, as well as a breaker to protect the wiring of
your 110 volt circuits. 110 volt plug and box. There’s not much more to say about this. It’s the normal, standard
household 110 volt plug and the box you’re going
to install it into. You can add an exterior
power port into your camper so that you can plug in directly
into the side of the van. It looks a little less sketchy than just slamming the extension cord between the door and the door jam. I’d recommend a 30 amp plug
if you are planning running an air conditioner, at any point in time, or you just never want to have to question anything regarding
shore power capacity. These break the power going
to lights, fans, outlets, or whatever you’re trying to control. If you get a really big
switch, you can kill power to the entire system,
right after the batteries. Which is a nice feature to have. This is where you can
plug in USB adapters, computer chargers, or LED
12 volt Christmas lights for some sweet #vanlife
Instagram pictures. But something to consider. On Amazon, a lot of these outlets may come with a USB plug pre-installed. And I don’t like that. USB technology changes every single year. There is always some new USB technology that’s going to make it faster to charge our devices. My recommendation, don’t
install hard wired USB outlets. Install 12 volt outlets and have flush mount USB adapters on hand. This is infinitely more
versatile if you are trying to future proof your build. Now, that’s pretty much all
of the parts involved in a, really well-built solar
setup for a camper. Sure, there’s more technical
parts that you can add, and then there’s some parts, that we talked about
that could be omitted. But if you know what these
parts are and what they do, you’re well on your way to being able to design a high-end
camper van solar setup. Now that we’re finishing up, it’d be a great time to hit
up that video description I’ve been talking about. and start on your next
camper solar lesson. Alternatively, I recommend
clicking down here to check out the blog post for a recap of this video and more information. Or, if you want to jump
right into the next video, you can click right up here. Leave me a comment if
you have any questions or you just want to say hi. I’ll see you next time!

15 Replies to “Basic Solar Parts Needed for a DIY Camper Van or RV Solar Install

  1. IF YOU HAVE A 500 AMP HOUR 24 VOLT SYSTEM BATTERY BANK HOW MANY AMP HOURS WOULD IT BE ON A 12 VOLT SYSTEM? OR IS IT THE SAME?

  2. How would this work if you want to add it to an electric vehicle and have pover charging the vehicle battery as well as the pleasure battery

  3. any idea on voltage input and out put for a Toyota Prius Gen 1. lith battery ? i've got 24 volt panels ? Mppt controller, prius batteries , into 12 volt inverters . Trying to figure out how to hook it together.

  4. It appears the batteries can be fed multiple charging inputs in parallel through the solar charge controller and shore power inverter/charger. Is this not an issue? Seems like it could defeat the charging modes.

  5. Great video! Thank you, for sharing it! But, I am somewhat pedantic about certain things, and one of those things is the distinction between "plugs" and "outlets." Plugs are male and outlets are female. Plugs are inputs and outlets are outputs. Plugs should NEVER have measurable voltage across them when not inserted into an outlet. This distinction is important, for safety reasons, and should be considered when designing any electrical system. But, in the grand scheme of things in the context of this video, I would give you a 99 out of 100! You otherwise covered the material very well!

  6. I want to be able to run a 32 inch LED-LCD TV and a Playstation 4 (or similar) for a reasonable amount of time in my van, for rainy day type situations. How many BB batteries should I plan to have? Edit – reasonable time like eight hours.

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