Victron 12V 20A Battery Charger

Could there be a duller bit of kit in the van? Possibly so, but this one certainly scores badly on the dullness to price ratio. It simply plugs into mains power – either an extension cable run from the house, or a campsite hookup cable, and then charges the leisure batteries.

This one has a couple of redeeming features:

  • Its a lovely shade of blue
  • It supports bluetooth, and has an accompanying app, so you can monitor the charge state from your phone, if you’re that way inclined.

It’s made by Victron, so it’s pricey, but well-made. It’s also perhaps a little underpowered for our 220Ah battery setup (30A might be generally recommended), but speed of charging is not really a high priority for us, and that’s the only drawback. It’s also very compact compared to the sine inverter.

£154 from 12V Planet.

Mobile Mains Power Cable (Campsite Plug to 3-Pin Sockets)

Our overall philosophy about living in the van is that we want freedom; we want to be able to spend time in wild or remote places; we don’t want to be limited to visiting tourist destinations or places that cater to motorhomes and caravans. So we have big solar panels for electricity, and a large refillable LPG tank for cooking and heating.

That being said, sometimes you need to make use of the facilities – for a hot shower, a tumble dryer, or to top up the batteries with shore power. For those occasions, we bought this campsite hookup cable. It has a large standard weatherproof hookup plug at one end, 20m or thick orange cable, and a circuit breaker and 3 UK power sockets at the other end.

We can plug this into the campsite hookup, run the cable into the van, and then plug AC devices straight into this supply as well as plugging in the battery charger to fill up our batteries.

A more elegant solution would be to fit a hookup socket on the outside of the van, and hardware a 230V AC circuit with breakers and sockets. But that’s a lot of kit to buy and install, and so far this has been a good solution for the few times we resort to staying in campsites.

£35 from Amazon (affiliate link)

1000W Pure Sine Wave AC Power Inverter

Almost everything in the van runs off 12V DC power, or can be plugged into a 5V USB port, which itself is connected to the 12V DC supply. However, some things need mains AC power. Some of those things will for the foreseeable future (a domestic vacuum cleaner, a charger for the cordless drill batteries, etc.). Some are heading towards a low-voltage DC future (small battery chargers, electric toothbrushes, laptops) but the ones we actually have still need 230V AC. For us, the main culprit is my laptop, which is not sufficiently modern to have a USB-C power port.

These inverters take 12V DC, ‘invert’ it to 230V AC, and provide (in this case 2) 3-pin sockets into which you can plug your appliances. In the case of the laptop of course, this has a transformer inside the power supply, which takes the power back to about 20V DC. So the whole chain is inefficient (there is a fan on the inverter to dissipate all the wasted heat, though ours hasn’t got that warm yet) , graceless, and involves trailing wires all over the shop. But it will do the job until the future arrives.

This inverter is of the  ‘pure sine’ variety, which is apparently better for some fussy devices. It’s also overkill for our current power requirements (my laptop charger is rated at 60W), but I figured this would give us some flexibility in case we need it in the future. The only tradeoff, other than price (and they’re pretty cheap really) is that it’s quite big.

£130 from Photonic Universe (via Amazon) (affiliate link)

Vega LED ceiling lights

We’ve got 4 of these mounted along the centreline of the roof, each controlled with its own switch (as well as a master switch for the whole ceiling light circuit).

They’re wired up, but hanging loose at the moment, as we don’t have the roof cladding in, but they look simple enough to fit, just using a silicon or rubber back section to provide a friction fit in the panel. Nice quality.

£13 each from 12V Planet.

2017-08-06: Bench bed and cladding test

We’ve been busy on various jobs since I last wrote, mostly trying to get some basic components built in prototype form for we can take the van on a short trip and test some things out.

Almost every design/build problem in the van is a chicken and egg problem. And we tie ourselves in knots trying to decide which part to commit to, so that we can move on. The interaction of furniture, cladding, and electrical supply is one such problem.

Since we had to start somewhere, we took the passenger side of the van as a low risk first step.

Bench bed

I started by building a simple bed frame. It’s mostly self supporting, with the legs nearest the wall bolted to the van body using rivnuts.

Bench/bed frame

I set the frontmost legs back from he edge of the bench so that, when seated, you can swing your legs back. The front and sides will be panelled with ply, as will the top. For now, we have a piece of MDF on top to use as a test. The front edge of the bench has a 2cm lip which will form the middle (longitudinal) support for the bed. The other half of the bed will be removable, with one edgeand resting on this lip, and the far side resting on a lip on cabinets (still to be built) on the other side of the van.

Structure of the bench largely complete

Cladding

Once the bench was complete, we spent many hours figuring out how the cladding could work. The van walls are curved, and flexible plywood could conform to the curve, but there are very few places where it could be pinned back to the walls, risking it flapping around, unsupported, or ‘drumming’ when on the move. So we decided to build a flat frame for the middle section of the wall, onto which one large sheet of flat ply can be fastened.

To clad that section, we re-used some of the 5mm plywood that was in the van when we bought it , cutting out holes for the task lights and USB sockets. It feels pretty solid, so we’ll see how it works on our trip in a couple of weeks.

One wall section insulated, with electrical supply, and framing up ready for cladding

Crimping tool

These are used to crimp terminals onto wires for the 12V electrical system. The top tool with the yellow handles is the cheap version we bought first. It can be used to cut wire, strip insulation, and crimp terminals – but it does a bad job of all these tasks. So after struggling with this tool, I splashed out and got a proper ratcheted crimping tool, which makes a reliable crimp, without damaging the terminal insulation. “Buy cheap, buy twice”, as they say…

£29 from 12 Volt Planet

2017-07-02: Starting the electrical install

This weekend, we started running cables and mounting components so we can get the electrical systems hooked up. We already have the solar panels on the roof, and the battery fitted under the passenger seat. We also have a fair amount of conduit routed through the side panels of the van so we can run cable from front to back (e.g. from the fusebox to the ceiling lights or rearmost USB sockets).

Green lights are always a good sign. We are now successfully charging our battery from our solar panels. Very exciting.

Nothing at this stage is fixed, but we need to commit to some decisions so we can continue the build. So it’s a delicate balancing act of deciding where things should go, while leaving options for us to change our minds. In practical terms, that means:

  • Making prototype mounting boards and boxes for components roughly out of MDF to test out placement and design before rebuilding them properly in nicer plywood.
  • Making some educated guesses about where we want wires to emerge, and cutting cables to length.
  • Wherever possible running wires – cut to a generous length – through conduit so we have some flexibility in exactly how we place the end components (lights, sockets, appliances, etc.).

Our electrical system starts in the area immediately behind the cab. It’s something of a no-mans land that in many conversions would just be wasted space. We’re hoping this will be a space-efficient placement. The main elements are:

  • Leisure battery in the passenger bench seat base (with space for a second battery in the other half of this seat base if we need to expand)
  • Solar controller on a board mounted to back of passenger seat base (with space for some other components we might add later, such as a battery-to-battery changer, inverter, or mains power charger)
  • 12V fusebox and distribution mounted to back of driver’s seat base.

By separating the ‘power in’  (solar, alternator, shore/hookup power) and ‘power out’ (12V circuits) into 2 areas, we have more space to mount components without intruding into the main living space of the van.


Meanwhile, the insulation installation continues, as we desperately try to clear our house of bulky building materials.

We’re getting through cans of expanding foam at an alarming rate.

2017-06-21: Shopping

This shouldn’t warrant an entry in the build diary, but we’ve spent so long researching equipment to fit out the van that I need to get it off my chest.

Spending money like there’s no tomorrow

We’ve been focusing on the electrical systems, so we can get all these installed before we do any more insulation, or start on cladding or furniture.

So in our front room, we currently have:

  • 2 Solar panels
  • Solar charge controller and monitor
  • Leisure battery (now fitted)
  • Maxxair Maxxfan
  • Dometic Mini rooflight

… as well as rolls of conduit, insulation panels and the original plywood cladding we removed from the van.

I’ve just sent off an order to 12 Volt Planet, who, so far, have been super-helpful, and have a really good website for speccing out electrical components. So in the next few days we can expect poly bags full of fuses, crimp terminals, stranded wire, lugs, switches, USB sockets, LED lights and more.

It’s been an interesting process figuring all this out. But literally days of work just to figure out a shopping list. Working out all those details (What will be the voltage drop if we want to run lights all the way to the back of the van? What kind of terminals can we use on each component? How many USB sockets do we need? etc.) is a complex task, and every answer opens up more questions.

So let’s hope I bought the right stuff!