Complete Van Life Solar System for Under $1000

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So you wanna go off-grid but reading about installing a van life 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 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 campervan solar system into play can seem intimidating and costly but at the end of the day, it’s a worthy one-time investment.

Take, for example, our routine when we first started out. Working long 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, but that only really works when you’re around a city. This meant that we were essentially paying over $100/week as our “power bill.” 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 van life solar system.

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

Generic Van Life - Van Life Solar System
Download the hi-res version here.

Solar Panels

For our system, we are using a 150 watt monocrystalline solar panel from Renogy (**we added a second one later on so the wiring diagram shows the two solar panels. See updates below). 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. Also, rigid solar panels are generally more durable than flexible solar panels. We’d advise to only use flexible solar panels if you absolutely need to. Learn more about the differences here.

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). These 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, called an entry gland, 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

Charge Controller

The positive wire then attaches to our charge controller, which is a CTEK D250S Dual. This box is an MPPT charge controller that allows the battery to be charged by the solar panels 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 charge controller. You could also install a DC to DC charger

Batteries

Next, a thicker 4 AWG positive wire runs from the CTEK charge controller to the positive terminal of the house battery. We’ve added a 20A breaker in between. A 4 AWG negative wire runs from the negative terminal of the CTEK charge controller 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 6V batteries. When using multiple batteries, understand series and parallel wiring. Your battery will probably be the most expensive component of your camper van solar setup 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 charge controller is the hub of our wiring system. Plus – check out what our floor used to look like…

Inverter

The house battery feeds a couple of 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 that 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

Fuses

Next, a 10 AWG positive wire with a 30A 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.

Grounding

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. In our van, this is a big metal bolt that goes into the van’s body. Be sure to choose an unpainted area for grounding.

Alternator Tie-In

On the final mount of the CTEK charge controller, 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 panels. And of course, there is the existing negative 10 AWG wire grounding the starting battery as well.

Battery Monitor

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 DOES A VAN SOLAR SYSTEM COST?

Renogy 150W Monocrystalline Solar Panel* – we paid $200 *Boo, Renogy no longer makes this panel but this is basically the same one
Renogy 1000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter – we paid $180 BUT we bought ours refurbished directly from Renogy. A new one will set you back $270
CTEK D250S Dual (MPPT charge controller) – we paid $283
Battery – “free” because we already had one but expect to pay $300-500. This is the one we’re lusting over. **New battery update below
Wiring – we paid $70 (we bought the linked product from Amazon and got the rest bulk at Home Depot)
Breakers – we paid for 4 @ $13 each = $52. Using regular fuses would definitely cost less but always have a few extra on hand.
Killswitch – we paid $14
Metal beams for mounting + hardware – we paid $32 (you’ll have to go to the hardware store for these)
Mounting Z-Brackets – we paid $10
Rooftop Double Cable Entry Gland with Sealant – we paid $20
Battery Monitor – we paid $15
Cable Organization (wall mounts to keep the wiring tidy) – we paid $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 camper van or RV…it’s not as scary as it may seem!

Download our visual van solar system guide for a single solar panel here. Download the full-size version with two solar panels 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!!

*DECEMBER 2018 UPDATE: NEW BATTERIES!

We finally bit the bullet and upgraded our battery bank! I wish we could say the whole thing still cost under $1000 but sadly, that is not true. Batteries ain’t cheap but they’re arguably the most important components to your solar setup (other than the solar panels, of course). After careful consideration, we opted for two 6V Trojan T-105 AGM batteries. Trojan batteries are the crème-de-la-crème and are a worthy investment if you depend on your battery bank as much as we do since we boondock 100% of the time. So why these particular ones?

Delaying our battery purchase allowed us plenty of time for research. We found that 6V batteries are said to discharge slightly slower than 12Vs. By having two 6V batteries connected in series, we’d have the correct voltage we need for our system (12V) while still maintaining the same capacity (217 AH).

Alternatively, we could have kept our existing set-up by opting for one single 12V battery or upgrading to two 12V batteries connected in parallel to double our capacity (i.e. 100 AH + 100 AH = 200 AH) while still maintaining the correct voltage. Trojan’s Reliant line of AGM batteries are sealed and maintenance-free, meaning that we’re safe to keep them on their side without risking spillage as you would in a regular flooded battery. Finally, these AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) batteries perform well in colder temperatures, unlike gel batteries which were our other option.

Here is a diagram of how our new battery bank is hooked up:

So far, we’re noticing a huge difference in battery life. With it being winter, this has been incredibly helpful in allowing us to run the furnace longer and use the lights since it sadly gets dark before 5PM. If all this battery jargon is still a bit confusing, check out Trojan’s guide on where to get started when choosing the best battery for your needs. We bought our batteries at a battery store in Vancouver because we didn’t have an address to ship them to but they are available on Amazon as well.

So what’s our grand total at now?

We paid $884 CAD (including core charge + 12% BC tax) which is about $660 USD. This brings our grand total to $1543 USD. If you’re in America and can buy them on Amazon, it’ll set you back $476 for two, amounting to $1359 USD total.

*JUNE 2019 UPDATE: ADDING A SECOND SOLAR PANEL

After a very grey winter on Vancouver Island, we decided to add an additional 150w solar panel to the roof to maximize every bit of sun we get on overcast days. The wiring is super simple: the panels are connected in parallel, which gives us more amperage at the same voltage.

Once you have a second panel, all you need is a pair of MC4 branch connectors and some more 10 AWG solar wire with an MC4 connector on each end. You simply connect the positive wires from each panel into the female side of the positive branch connector and the negative wires from each panel into the male side of the negative branch connector. Run the positive branch connector’s wire to the positive terminal of the battery and the negative branch connector’s wire to the negative terminal of the battery. That’s it!

Check out the wiring diagram below:

Unfortunately, Renogy doesn’t make their 150w panel anymore so we bought this Dokio panel from Amazon that ended up being virtually the same. We paid $144. The MC4 branch connectors were a whopping $7 and 10ft of MC4-clad solar wire set us back 20 bucks. With an additional set of mounting brackets at $9, this second panel addition cost us $180 USD. This brings our grand total to $1,723 USD but it would only be $1,539 if we could have purchased the batteries in the States.

Like the graphics in this video and post? Keep The Internet Busy can help you build cool stuff for your website too!

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24 comments
  1. I’ll be looking forward to a report in a year or two. I switched back to a generator on the rare occasions that just normal driving doesn’t keep me topped off. Parking in the shade during hot weather is also a huge added benefit.

    Any generator can be extremely quiet with a good muffler. $99 inverter generator, $17 muffler, $29 AC powered battery charger, $20 relay, and under $20 junkyard batteries for me these days.

    1. Interesting! The extreme heat isn’t a huge issue for us in Canada so we’re hoping the solar will work out well for now.

      Do you top the batteries off with distilled water?

  2. Does the CTEK (40-186) D250SA work as an isolator or do you need to have a kill switch when parked to not drain the start battery?

    1. Hey Dusty,
      That’s actually the beauty of the CTEK box – once your coach battery is fully charged (from solar), it will then charge your starting battery so in theory, you’ll never have a dead starting battery. It will draw minimal voltage from your starting battery for the coach but says that it automatically regulates so as not to drain it. We’ve never had a problem but do still use a kill switch to be safe when we’re parked for a few days. It ties in the alternator really nicely and draws from whichever source is stronger (alternator vs solar). We’re super happy with ours and would definitely recommend it ?

    1. Hi. Can you recommend a book or course that I could read or take for a basic understanding of converting solar energy before I follow your directions? I have no experience with anything electrical or solar and I have ten months to learn all I can before buying my van. Thanks!

  3. Thank you so much for this share! I’ve researched a lot but found minimal information on a dual charge system. You managed to answer most of my questions in a 10 min read time than the past week of research!

  4. Travelling with a great innovative car is a must these days. Convenient and very practical, good choice in making a suitable travel transport with solar.

  5. Hi. Congratulations on the project and sharing with us. On the solar panel, if I put two 150w panels instead of one, what would I have to change? I need more cargo! Thank you in advance.

    1. Thanks Pedro! We actually just added a second 150w panel to our system last week. We’ll update this post with the full details but it’s super simple – the panels need to be hooked up in parallel so all of the interior wiring will remain the same and the only difference is that you’ll need a set of MC4 Branch Connectors and some extra solar wire with MC4 connections on each side. The positive wire from each panel will go into the positive branch connector and the negatives will go into the other. The wires that you hook into the single side of the branch connector will go into your entry gland and inside of your van to hook into your charge controller.

      Hope that helps! Let us know if you have any other questions 🙂

  6. Hi,
    Great blog! thanks so much for taking the time.
    I live in Vancouver and I’m considering getting a van to do more surf trips for me and my little guy and love the idea of having solar.
    For heater, lights, computer charge etc.
    I won’t be living in it, just taking occasional weekend trips.
    How does this effect the power levels/battery life etc.
    Any thoughts?
    Thanks very much 🙂
    Scott

    1. Hey Scott, that sounds like an awesome idea! Only using your solar system occasionally shouldn’t change much – assuming that you’ll still be parked outdoors when you’re not using the van. As long as you have a battery monitor hooked up, you can make sure to not discharge your batteries below 50% when you’re using them and whatever minor draw your system might use when parked (if you left your fridge running for example), your panels will replenish on their own. If you get to a point where you find you’re not using your van at all then you should unhook your batteries and keep them in storage but with semi-regular use, you should be good to run like a normal setup.

      Happy travels! We are currently in Calgary and definitely missing those Vancouver temperatures right now…

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