It's Electric. Boogie, woogie, woogie.

I don’t know anything about electricity.  As far as I know the lights in our house are illuminated by black magic revealed to Thomas Edison in exchange for his soul.  In other words, everything I know about electricity I learned on the internet in a couple weeks.   That’s totally safe, right?

We started by researching and discussing all the possible things we could electrify.  We agreed immediately luxuries like TV and air conditioning were out.  This is an adventure van, not a retirement home.  Eventually we narrowed it down to lights, an exhaust fan, a small fridge, and a heater.  The fridge and heater will come in future upgrades to the van but we wanted to size the system to accommodate them both.  In addition, we’ll need to charge devices like iPhones, laptops and cameras occasionally too.

Camper and RV electrical systems can get complicated fast.  There are a million different components to consider including batteries, inverters, voltage regulators, circuit breakers, distribution panels, battery isolators, and on and on.  Luckily our power needs are minimal so we simplified our system a ton by using a Goal Zero Yeti Solar Generator as the centerpiece.  The Yeti combines many electrical components into a single unit and provides charger inputs and electrical outlets of every shape and size.

QUICK LOOK

Materials Cost: $3,000 (approx.)

Products Used: 
    * Blue Sea Systems 6 Circuit Blade Fuse Box
    * Ancor Marine Grade duplex wire (16 and 14 gauge)
    * Goal Zero Yeti 1250
    * Goal Zero Boulder 90 solar panels
    * Goal Zero Hinge Base solar panel mounting brackets
    * Rhino Rack Legs - Part number RLTP 
    * Rhino Rack Cross Bars – Heavy Duty Bars, 71” / 1800mm
    * Blue Sea Systems Cable Clam
    * 3” Radiance Overhead LED Light, Screw Mount
    * Sikaflex 221

Special Tools: 
    * Hole Saw
    * Vice Grip Pliers

Frustration Factor: Low

To charge the Yeti we went with all three common options for maximum flexibility: solar, the van’s engine/alternator, and shore power.  Solar charging comes from two Goal Zero Boulder 90 panels mounted on the roof (more on those later).  Charging from the alternator is simple because the van already had a 12 volt cigarette lighter-style outlet in the cargo area.  We rerouted the outlet’s cable from the rear corner of the van to the middle where the Yeti sits and plugged it in using a standard adapter.  Finally, for shore power we paid a local van upfitter to install a shore power jack on the outside of the van that connects to a single 110volt outlet inside, which we can then plug into the Yeti.

The Yeti’s Anderson Power Pole output provides the most power so we used that to run all of our hard-wired electrical components.  We connected the Power Pole outlet to a small fuse panel made by Blue Sea Systems.  From the fuse panel we ran a dedicated line up to the exhaust fan on the ceiling.  We set up all our LED lights on another fuse and used a junction/bus bar to create three sub-circuits with their own wall switch for the front, middle and rear ceiling lights.  We used 16 gauge wire for all the lights and 14 gauge for the fan, all from West Marine.  Those gauges are probably more than we needed, but I’d rather go with bigger wire to be on the safe side.  I found the best explanation of wire gauges and recommended lengths here.

 A rough wiring diagram.

A rough wiring diagram.

One very important wiring lesson I learned from the internet is what the color coded wires mean.  Turns out black can mean both positive and negative depending on which standard is used (black/white or black/red).  Luckily, I read about it here before making a huge mistake.  The fan and lights both used the black/white standard but the Yeti and fuse box use black/red.

Setting up the solar panels was a bit complicated.  We want to minimize the number of holes we cut and drill into the van’s shell.  Every one of them is an opportunity for a huge error or future leak.  Luckily, the Promaster has 8 mounting pins on top to attach roof racks without making any holes in the roof.  There are only a few companies making compatible racks, but Rhino Rack provides several options.  We installed the rack’s legs and cross bars quick and easy.  Then attached 4 pieces of 80/20 aluminum extrusions perpendicular across the rack’s bars using Rhino Rack’s U-bolts.  The aluminum provides a spot to anchor the solar panels’ mounting brackets.  

Connecting the solar panels from their rooftop perch to the Yeti inside the van worried me most.  This was the only time we cut a hole in the van ourselves.  I was nervous about making an uncorrectable error with the hole, as well as the possibility of it leaking later in a rainstorm.  After a bit of research we found the Cable Clam by Blue Sea Systems.  It’s intended to run wires from outside to inside on boats, so it’s waterproof.  It is basically a custom-sized rubber gasket, but made with a clever design allowing large plugs like the ones on the end of our solar panel cable to fit through.  It was difficult to get the perfect hole size in the Cable Clam so we ended up using a bit of Sikaflex sealer/adhesive inside the clam’s rubber gasket too.  Scroll through the pictures below to see the cable clam and roof rack attachments.

I must add a special note about electrical connector thing-a-ma-bobs.  I never realized how many specialized connectors existed for electrical work.  All I’d ever seen before are the simple plastic twist connectors that look like party hats.  For our van install I found tons of additional connectors, mostly at West Marine.  The best were ones that crimp on to wire ends and provide a circular connector for mounting with screws. We used these to connect to the circuit breaker and junction box.  In addition to crimping onto the wire, these also have heat-shrink plastic covers that make a tight seal around the wire.  We also used a lot of “butt” connectors to crimp two wires together.  These were great for connecting the fan and lights to the main wiring.  In addition, we needed to connect three wires together so we could run the lights in parallel off the same switch.  For these I found In-Sure 3 port push-in wire connectors that look like a small wedge with 3 holes in one end.  Once you slide the wire into the hole it gets locked solidly in place.  This felt way more secure than the old twist style connectors.  Each of these specialized connectors made a big impact on simplifying our electrical work.

 All my favorite thing-a-ma-bobs

All my favorite thing-a-ma-bobs

Since setting all this up we’ve taken a few short test trip in the van.  A few lessons learned:
1)    The LED lights are super bright.  We have 5 of them in the ceiling and plan to add one more under a cabinet later.  We probably could have used fewer lights, but I’m glad to have too much rather than too little.
2)    The van’s cargo area 12-volt outlet isn’t very strong.  It appears the Yeti pulls very little wattage from this outlet.  Perhaps the van’s factory wiring is inadequate?
3)    As you’ve probably heard, solar panels only put out a fraction of their advertised wattage in the real world.  Goal Zero has an article explaining why the real world is so different here.  So far we’ve seen our panels generate between 50 and 100 watts versus their claimed total of 180.  However, our power consumption is so low, the Yeti is often not even trying to draw much.