Posts in Automotive

Complete Van Life Solar System for Under $1000

So you wanna go off-grid but reading about installing a solar system seems like gibberish? Check out our easy to understand guide for a concise video and detailed explanation with helpful tips and product links. We’ve also included a cost breakdown so you can start saving now!

If you’re working while living on the road, you know that electricity is essential to keep your computer and other devices charged. Even if you’re just enjoying a quiet weekend in the woods, it’s nice to be able to have access to power without having to run a noisy generator. The answer? Solar power. Putting a solar system into play can seem intimidating and costly but at the end of the day, it’s a one-time worthy investment.

Take, for example, our routine when we first started out. Working full days Tuesday-Thursday meant that we had to pay for a campsite or RV Park in order to plug in. Sure, you can camp out at coffee shops and other places with wifi and plugs, but that only really works when you’re around a city. This meant we were paying over $100/week as our “power bill” essentially. This got old real quick and defeated the purpose of us moving out of our apartment to get away from the bills in the first place. So we spent a while researching which components would work best for us and got the wheels turning on our solar system.

FULL DISCLOSURE: We are not electricians by any stretch but had enough research and experience in our holsters to put a system into place that works great and cuts our costs down immensely.    

Generic Van Life - Solar System
Download a larger version of this diagram here

For our system, we are using a 150 watt monocrystalline solar panel from Renogy. In a nutshell, polycrystalline is cheaper but monocrystalline is more efficient. We opted for this one mainly because it’s square so it fits nicely within our roof rack. We’re fairly light power users so 150 watts is sufficient for us, but take some time to pay attention to how much power you actually consume in a day. Take note of the wattage rating on your appliances too – you’d be surprised how much power some small appliances take. Use resources like Renogy’s calculator to help figure this kind of stuff out.  

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - Solar Panel
Our square solar panel fits nicely on the back of the van

The panel is hooked up using two MC4 connectors (wtf are those?! read this) to join the positive and the negative 10 AWG wires that come already attached to the panel to the positive and negative 10 AWG wires that feed inside. Home Depot has a handy guide for understanding wire thickness, or read more in-depth about it here. As mentioned, we already had a roof rack so we just ran two sturdy metal beams across and used z-brackets to secure it on. Depending on what your roof’s shaped like, you can easily mount the z-brackets directly onto the roof as well. We drilled two holes in the corner of the roof and sealed on a little cable hub to feed the wires through while keeping it water-tight. On the positive wire, we’ve used a 15 amp breaker but you can also use a standard fuse. The breakers are a little more expensive upfront but never need to be replaced. 

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - Mounting Brackets
These steel beams helped us mount the panel since it’s a little narrower than our roof rack
Generic Van Life - Solar Power Setup - Entry Gland
So the sealant doesn’t exactly dry white but it does a great job keeping the entry gland water-tight

The positive wire then attaches to our CTEK box, the D250S Dual. This box is an MPPT charge controller that allows the battery to be charged by the solar panel and by the alternator while we’re driving – great on overcast days. CTEK is a Swedish company that makes some badass battery chargers for all kinds of different uses. The negative wire is also attached to the negative terminal on the box. You can definitely opt for a much simpler and cheaper charge controller if you don’t plan to incorporate your alternator. 

Side note: When we bought the van, we already had a 12V lead acid marine battery in the back that had a wire running directly from the alternator that would charge while we were driving. We didn’t want to cut this power source off so that’s when we discovered the CTEK box.  

Next, a thicker 4 AWG positive wire runs from the CTEK box to the positive terminal of the house battery. We’ve added a 20 A breaker in between. A 4 AWG negative wire runs from the negative terminal of the CTEK box to the negative terminal of the house battery. We’re using the single 12V lead acid marine battery we already had but will eventually upgrade to two 12V batteries. When using multiple batteries, understand series and parallel wiring. Your battery will probably be the most expensive component so picking the right battery is essential. The CTEK box is also equipped with a temperature sensor that sits on top of the battery to maintain an optimal charge.

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - CTEK Box
The CTEK box is the hub of our wiring system. Plus – check out what our floor used to look like…

The house battery feeds a couple different things: first, a separate positive and negative 4 AWG wire runs from the battery to the 1000w pure sine wave inverter, also from Renogy. This is probably the most important area to study before you buy; understanding the amount of power your household items use when they first start up versus when they’ve been on for a few minutes is key. Take some time to understand surge power and sine waves to figure out how hefty of an inverter you’ll need. With a 150A breaker on the positive wire, the inverter converts the DC power coming off the battery into the AC power required for household appliances. You can plug stuff in directly to the inverter or run an extension cord, like we did. When shopping for inverters, read lots of customer reviews because the fan in many cheaper inverters can be incredibly noisy. It’s not an area you want to cheap out on.

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - Inverter
The inverter mounts nicely under the bed

Next, a 10 AWG positive wire with a 30 A breaker runs to our fuse box, where the fuses for all of our DC-powered appliances live. For us, that’s the fridge, lights and furnace. Again, this was part of our existing rudimentary system when the alternator was hooked up directly to the house battery so that’s why the fuses are the old school glass ones.

Also, there’s a negative 10 AWG wire running from the negative terminal of the house battery to an earthing point to ground the circuit.

On the final mount of the CTEK box, a positive 10 AWG wire runs all the way to the alternator and starting battery in the front. Here, we’ve put a killswitch in between if we ever want to cut the power from the alternator and rely solely on the solar panel. And of course, there is the existing negative 10 AWG wire grounding the starting battery as well.

Finally, the battery also has thin 22 AWG positive and negative wires running to a battery monitor that allow us to see the charge percentage and how many volts it’s getting.

Generic Van Life - Solar Panel Setup - Voltage Meter
The sun doin’ its thang

SO HOW MUCH DID IT ALL COST ANYWAY?

Renogy 150W Monocrystalline Solar Panel – $200
Renogy 1000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter – $180 BUT we bought ours refurbished directly from Renogy. A new one will set you back $270
CTEK D250S Dual (charge controller) – $283
Battery – “free” because we already had one but expect to pay $300-500. This is the one we’re lusting over.
Wiring – $70 (we bought the linked product from Amazon and got the rest bulk at Home Depot)
Breakers – 4 @ $13 each = $52. Using regular fuses would definitely cost less but always have a few extra on hand.
Killswitch – $14
Metal beams for mounting + hardware – $32 (you’ll have to go to the hardware store for these)
Mounting Z-Brackets – $10
Rooftop Double Cable Entry Gland with Sealant – $20
Battery Monitor – $15
Cable Organization (wall mounts to keep the wiring tidy) – $7

Grand total: $883
*Note that this pricing is all in US dollars because we purchased everything in the US of A. 

FINAL THOUGHTS

We broke even in 6 weeks not having to pay for RV Parks. We now have so much more freedom to work from wherever we want to and not have to worry about reservations and fees. Taking the time to thoroughly research which components fit your needs and budget is well worth it. Hopefully this helps anyone looking to add a solar system to your van or RV…it’s not as scary as it may seem!

Download our visual guide here.

Feel free to shoot us a message or leave a comment below if you have any further questions or need clarification on anything. This post is jam-packed with helpful links so click away!!

Like the graphics in this video and post? Keep the Internet Busy can help you build cool stuff for your website too! http://www.keeptheinternetbusy.com/

Breaking Bad and Breaking Down

Taking The Mother Road to Albuquerque to indulge in some Breaking Bad fandom before climbing around El Morro National Monument and standin’ on a corner in Winslow, AZ.

Running alongside many stretches of the I-40, Route 66 has become a deserted road that can still take you across the country – if you’re willing to go 55 mph and drive in a single lane the whole time. Taking it on smaller stretches makes for a much more interesting and historic drive and also feels pretty cool following in the footsteps (or tire tracks) of so many folks in the past that had driven on it to get from LA to Chicago. The 66 took us through Tucumcari for a look at a really rad mural commemorating the road and a chrome statue commissioned in 1997 that kind of reminded me of The Bean in Chicago. We try to at least get gas in some of these towns because despite having an attempted artistic revival, they’re mostly abandoned and very run down with the decline of Route 66 tourism. One strip of the eastbound road in Tijeras is called “The Musical Highway” with a rumble strip within the lane that when driven on at 45 mph, sounds like America the Beautiful is playing. Definitely worth the u-turn if you’re en route to Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Tucumcari
Mural in Tucumcari featuring some badass 66 motifs

Continuing along, we headed toward Albuquerque while I frantically googled which Breaking Bad spots along our route were actually worth stopping for. As I mentioned last time we were in New Mexico, the owners of Walt and Skyler’s house have put up a fence and seem to spend their days sitting in front of the garage warding off and yelling at tourists. Understandable? Sure. Comical? Very. I guess when that many pizzas have been thrown on your roof, you gotta do what you gotta do. Why they don’t just move is beyond me but we decided it probably wasn’t worth the stop. Los Pollos Hermanos, as most people will point out, is actually just a fast food chain called Twisters that still has the mural inside but just didn’t feel the same. In any case, my two priorities were getting some blue meth candy at The Candy Lady in Old Town and seeing Walter White’s headstone in the random strip mall that it dwells in. The Candy Lady’s “crystal meth” is the actual blue candy that they used on the show in the first two seasons made by the local Albuquerque candy shop. Stopping in just for “meth,” I ended up leaving with some delicious red chili chocolate and a vanity plate for the front of the van since New Mexico has the coolest license plates.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque License Plate
Those colours!

The drive through Albuquerque from the eastern side of town was definitely not the nicest but the Old Town had similar charm to La Mesilla of Las Cruces before opening up to the more countryside looking neighbourhoods of the north. Finding Walter White’s headstone gave some strange directions but eventually made sense after reading that it was originally in a cemetery but the relatives of the actual dead people found it offensive so had it moved to the plaza where most of the funding came from. Once you find its discreet location, you see that it’s a legitimate headstone. If you didn’t know better, you’d think someone was actually buried beneath the walkway of this random strip mall. Justin never watched the show so I paid my respects and we headed on.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Walter White Headstone
R.I.P.

Usually camping within a National Park or Monument is for a fee and requires a reservation but thanks to some friends we made in Mexico, we learned that at El Morro, it’s free! In fact, in 2013, they made entrance to the campground and the monument itself completely free to encourage people to visit, I’d assume. We arrived in the evening and camped the night before exploring the actual park the next day. We opted for the 3km hike to the summit and back down to see the relics of the pueblos that archaeologists uncovered in more recent years. Passing through Inscription Rock, there are etchings and carvings left by all the people that passed through here in the 16 and 1800s. This was a hotspot for nomads wanting to reach California or the Colorado River because there is an oasis of clean drinking water that flows year round in the middle of the desert. Some of the inscriptions were absolutely insane – as design nerds, we couldn’t believe how precise and elegant much of the signatures were considering they had to be chipped away with rocks or other tools. Over the years, people essentially wrote “[insert Spanish conqueror’s name] was here” all along this rock until the Parks service decided to close it off in 1905 to preserve the historic inscriptions and petroglyphs and prevent modern day trolls from leaving their mark.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro Inscription
These people clearly didn’t mess around when it came to penmanship

Reaching the top made for some stunning panoramic views of the area and the canyon within it. One of the coolest parts was seeing the pueblo where the Zuni people lived in over 800 different rooms atop El Morro in the interest of protecting their resources. Archaeologists have uncovered about 30 different rooms but decided to leave the rest uncovered in order to not subject the materials to further weathering. To think that thousands of people used to live in these tiny stone rooms was pretty crazy but also very impressive considering what kind of tools and materials they had to work with. After parting ways with El Morro, we drove through the town of Zuni where the modern generations of the people that once lived there now reside.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro View
View from the summit overlooking the canyon at El Morro
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro Pueblo
Zuni Pueblos – those bedrooms are van sized!

And just like that, we were back in Arizona. Arizona’s been one of our favourite states so we were stoked to be back. The fist order of business was stopping in Winslow so Justin could fulfill his Standin’ on the Corner dream. He was clearly not the only one on this pilgrimage as there’s a statue, mural and a bunch of Eagles-themed shops and merch all around. There were many other people there to have their picture taken and relish in all the musical glory. Luckily, there is a park just south of Winslow that you can camp at with a view of a river and the surrounding farmland. Unluckily, it got uncomfortably cold at night so we kept on truckin’ in search of the warmer temperatures that Southern Arizona has gifted us with before.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Winslow
No caption required…

Driving through the Coconino National Forest is so glorious and diverse with the severe elevation changes that make it go from desert to boreal forest real fast. With the mountain driving, Clementine started making that pinging sound again and didn’t seem to be too happy with all the steep grades. We knew the octane booster was just a temporary solution and we’d need to revisit the situation again soon but knowing something was up was definitely stressing us out. We needed somewhere to crash for the night so we headed toward New River and set up shop at a super cool BLM surrounded by wild burros and Saguaro cactuses.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Cactuses
This view never gets old

After working the day away, we closed in on Phoenix and got ourselves some overdue showers and stocked back up on groceries. We settled at a Walmart just outside of the city in Buckeye and got down to business troubleshooting what could be wrong with the van. My only idea was that the EGR valve needed to be replaced, which would be pretty straightforward and would set us back a mere 25 bucks. Long story short, we popped into an O’Reilly and had a chat with the admirably knowledgeable and friendly staff to conclude that the EGR was fine we were at the beginning of having some carburetor problems. The manager/our new best friend said he was confident that we could rebuild it ourselves since it’s meticulous but not overly difficult. Within the hour, we had a carburetor rebuild kit on order and were shitting our pants a little. We slept at the store and spent the next day carefully labeling and cleaning every piece while photographing our every move. All in all, it had its challenges but it really wasn’t all that scary. My obsessive-compulsive tendencies majorly came in handy in staying organized and keeping foolproof notes of the disassembly in order to zoom through the rebuild.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Dirty Carburetor
What was once a dirty scary carb…
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Cleaning Carburetor
…got all deconstructed and scrubbed…
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Clean Carburetor
…and is now a clean happy carb!

While we were getting down and dirty into the mechanical grease, we upgraded a few other parts and prepared ourselves for the carb tuning process. I personally find this the most challenging part because it can be so finicky but it’s all part of getting Clementine driving back to the way she should be. Doing this all ourselves kept our costs down immensely (the carb rebuild kit was $43 while a new carburetor is $400+) so we treated ourselves to a mini projector! We had contemplated getting a small TV to not have to hold a hot laptop while watching a bedtime movie but it just seemed like it’d be awkward and bulky in our small space. We ended up finding this teeny-weeny pico projector at Walmart for 100 bucks and grabbed a pull-down blind from Lowe’s for a whopping $7 and just like that, had a sweet little theatre setup! This is a pretty no frills projector but we didn’t need all that built-in Smart TV stuff since we’re rarely on wifi. It suits our needs way better than a TV would and we can even take it outside to project movies onto the side of the van. For any vanners looking to upgrade their screen situation, we 100% recommend a pico projector (no, we don’t have shares in the company…).

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Projector
The van is now a theatre!

It’s finally California time and we’re stoked for this milestone of our journey. We will now have officially hit the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (and can’t forget about that Third Coast) and are on our voyage back to the Great White North. We’ve only scratched the surface on all the places we could explore in America but we’re totally on board to spend next winter out of the cold again. For now, we’re stocking up on gas, propane and pretty much everything else in Quartzsite before enduring the Canada-like prices that California is so known for.

Westbound and Down

Boring drives made exciting by persisting engine troubles through Arkansas, Oklahoma and our return to Texas.

As soon as we crossed the bridge into Arkansas, things immediately got pretty flat and farmy. This wasn’t all that shocking since all I knew of Arkansas was from Netflix’s Ozarks and of course, The Simple Life. Because everything on TV is undoubtedly 100% real, dairy farms and Sonic locations paved the way to our camping spot for the week in Hazen, less than an hour outside of Little Rock, AR. Now that we have electricity taken care of by the sun, we just need to make sure that we have cell reception to be able to work. Oddly enough, this lovely WMA had better AT&T service than most cities. At one point, we moved to the site across the street to get more unobstructed sunlight on the solar panel and discovered that there was even a fire ring and a water tap on that side – we were plebs to have chosen that first site! The water pressure on the tap was so intense that I got soaked multiple times just trying to fill up our tank. Barely anyone else passed through with the exception of another van that took our original site as we were leaving…suckas.

Generic Van Life - Arkansas Hazen
Can’t beat relaxing in the trees in Hazen, AR

Heading west, we found another spot along the Arkansas River that used to be an established campground run by the Corps of Engineers but seems to have been recently let go from being maintained. I say this because there are remnants of where trash bins and other facilities used to be and the days of the small bathroom being cleaned were long gone. There were so many dead leaves on the floor that it was a challenge just to get to the vault toilet. But the worst part was that the walls were entirely covered in termite nests and bugs flew up at me from the toilet bowl, which made me think there were more nests below the seat, which then made me think that I’d rather just do my business outside. That being said, the fact that there still is a vault toilet present is a huge bonus for any free campsite. Aside from the less than ideal bathroom, there are designated campsites with level concrete pads, fire grills and picnic tables surrounded by towering trees overlooking the river. This seems to be a popular spot among locals to come down for the day and fish with a few scattered campers staying the night.

Generic Van Life - Arkansas Cedar Creek
The Arkansas River is just behind this – great if you want to grill up some catfish for dinner

As we were ready to take off, Clementine had other ideas and didn’t want to start. After replacing the starter, this felt very different from the starting issues we were having before. The only thing we could think of was clogged fuel lines so we blew out all the lines and gave the seemingly clean fuel filter a good shake and it eventually started. As great as the whole “just shake it til it works” method can be with vending machines and…well, not much else…we knew we’d only fixed the problem temporarily by moving the dirt around within the filter. At least we assumed it must be the filter since the fuel pump was working fine. For the astronomical price of $6.50, we bought a new one and carried on to the very unsuspectingly cute town of Fort Smith. One very important tip to note if you’re travelling through Arkansas is that there are many dry counties. This means that you might have to drive across the river or to a neighbouring county to find beer at a gas station or supermarket – and don’t expect to be able to buy alcohol on a Sunday. We learned these things the hard way.

Generic Van Life - Arkansas Hood Up
Clementine’s a little exposed but we had to get down to business

Topping the charts as the windiest drive in history, our ride through Oklahoma was not a very pleasant one. If you’re in the market for a van and opt for a high top, be prepared for some interesting wind driving. Of course some are worse than others, but Clementine is like a sailboat and it can be a battle to not sway into the other lanes, especially in places like this where all the roads are surrounded by open farmland – nearly the whole way was like driving through a Windows XP background (you know the one). This means driving slower and making more stops to take breaks because it can get pretty intense. Aside from the wind, Oklahoma was all around confusing. It goes from Native American names to Spanish names then all of a sudden it becomes…Canada? We crossed the Canadian River multiple times while venturing into Canadian County and ultimately arriving in a city called Yukon. To make things even more confusing, this Yukon is really into Garth Brooks. Ok, maybe he grew up there but it’s still funny for us to see how different Yukon, OK is from Yukon Territory – and I mean that mostly in terms of landscape, not Garth Brooks fandom. Our wild drive landed us in Elk City, where we camped at another shockingly free campsite that even had water and power hookups. Right on Elk City Lake are five paved sites, a kids playground and a bathroom that wasn’t a termite festering ground AND even had toilet paper. Not the most private or secluded but for a quick overnight after a long day, the sun setting over the lake was just what we needed.

Generic Van Life - Arkansas Elk City Lake
Waking up to a nice view never gets old

Following the I-40, we were back in our old friend, Texas. Being away from it for a couple months, we must have forgotten how boring it is to drive across. We love Texas, but outside of the cities, it’s farmland galore and looks strikingly like its Canadian counterpart, Saskatchewan (all Canadians immediately know what I’m talking about). Time seems to crawl when there’s not much to look at but after all, we were only on our way to Amarillo to do laundry so we definitely weren’t in any hurry. With chores done, we took a look at the engine again and tried to figure out what was going on because we were also hearing a rattling noise at high RPMs and while going uphill that we knew couldn’t be good. Once we hit New Mexico again, there’s a lot of mountain driving on that side of the country so we wanted to get this sorted. With extensive googling and reading our Haynes book as bedtime literature, I’ve come to believe that this sound is called “pinging” and can usually be taken care of by an octane booster or premium gas. The fix seemed too easy but worked nonetheless. We settled into our campsite in San Jon, a forgotten Route 66 town not far past the state line of New Mexico and got some rest before continuing the journey and the automotive saga that is owning an older vehicle. We’re not mechanics but we’re learning a ton and as they say, it’s a labour of love.