Van Life Without Solar: How to Make It Work


Despite obvious benefits, solar is expensive to install. This leaves us asking, do you need solar panels to power your van life, anyway? There are plenty of cost-effective alternatives to solar panels for powering your electronic equipment, such as generators, power banks, and inverters.

You can make your van life work by using portable devices like power banks to keep your mobile powered on the go. Consider purchasing portable power stations, deep cycle lithium-ion batteries, or generators to supply power to charge devices such as fridges or laptops.

This article looks at the capabilities and advantages of:

  • Shoreline Power (Hook Up)
  • Deep Cycle Batteries
  • Inverters
  • Generators
  • Power Banks

Before we dive into solutions for charging the electrical devices in your van, let’s address two factors that will affect your choice and needs.

Calculate Your Power Usage

Since every device is going to cost you something, start by understanding your travel habits and needs.

Which type of van lifer are you?

Are you a self-sufficient unit who’s dedicated to boondocking in Mother Nature for long periods of time? Or do you limit yourself to a few nights’ stay in one place before you hit the road again?

The more time your engine is running and wheels turning, the more you can make use of the electricity that’s generated by your van’s engine. This means you may want to consider power banks. However, if you’re prone to parking up and switching off the engine, your requirements will vary. You may want to think about an additional battery.

Finally, do you ever hook-up at RV sites that offer mains electricity? Regular access to mains power will also influence which device is best for your needs.

What Electrical Devices Are You Powering?

Most van lifers have a selection of electrical equipment they need to power. Some devices need AC (alternating current) power sources to charge from. Then you need to think about the amount of wattage your devices need. Power-hungry fridges or heaters require a consistent high-wattage source.

To get a ballpark figure of the wattage, you need your power source to supply, add up the power of your electrical devices. Once you’ve calculated the wattage you require to sustain your electrical needs, you’re ready to look at sources of electricity. 

Choose power sources capable of delivering more than the amount required by the electrical devices you have in your van that will be drawing electricity at the same time.

Solar Power Alternatives

As brilliant as solar is for delivering clean power to your van, it has its downsides. As you’re about to discover, you also don’t need solar to power your van life. 

Here are ways to manage your van life without solar: 

Hook Up to Shore Power

For van lifers who like to roll into a campground with facilities, hooking up to mains electrics is a straightforward way to get electricity. You’ll need a power cord that plugs into the power outlets. This will deliver 110-volts of AC, which will top-up your batteries. This is the perfect way to charge up a second deep cycle battery and all of your devices, too: just plug-in and recharge.

While you’re at the campground, you can also make the most of emptying your cassette toilet or filling up your water tank. Although shore power isn’t a green alternative, it can prove cost-effective with the right low-cost campground.

If you’re more into wild-camping and self-sufficiency, read on to find out about alternative power sources you can keep onboard.

Deep Cycle Battery

Equipping your van with a deep cycle battery is a sure-fire way to have access to power when you’re off-grid. There are two choices of battery. There’s the traditional lead-acid battery, or there are lithium-ion batteries, like the Expion 360 Viper Single LifePo4 120AH.  

A benefit from choosing a lithium-ion battery is they deliver six-times the discharge power than a lead-acid battery. They have long life cycles and will ensure you remain off-grid for long periods. The downside is that you will need to think about charging up your batteries. Without solar panels as an option, lithium-ion batteries will require you to charge them up by hooking up to mains electricity or driving your van.

If you have the budget and you’re spending serious amounts of time off-grid, adding a deep cycle battery to your van is the way to go.

Inverters

For switching your 12-volt DC into alternating current that will charge items like laptops, you’ll need to have an inverter. They are an essential tool for van life. In basic terms, inverters take the 12-volt DC and switch it into a more powerful alternating current supply. What they don’t do is make power.

Inverters range from an output of 1,000 watts to 5,000 watts. A good option that will satisfy most people’s requirements is an inverter that offers 3,000 watts. In combination with the right batteries, an inverter can even power a hairdryer or conduction cooker.

Portable Power Stations

Portable power stations, like the Jackery Portable Power Station, are a great option as well. Simply put, they are battery packs that deliver AC or DC power. They also feature USB ports so you can charge your phone, camera, laptop, or plug them into your van and get it to power LED lighting for up to forty-five hours. 

A machine like the Jackery Explorer 500 delivers enough power to run a 60-watt television for six hours. Similar to inverter generators, power stations are a clean, cost-effective means of supplying your van with electricity. With plug-in ports on the front, they’re simple to use. You just plug the device you want to power straight into the power station.

More cost-effective and with less upfront cost than a Lithium-ion battery, a power station is a great option if you’re regularly on the move. The power station will charge up from your engine as your van’s being driven. Alternatively, they have a short recharge time and can be plugged into mains electricity to top them up.

Generators

Generators are a staple part of many van lifer’s equipment lists. Capable of powering apartments, generators deliver huge amounts of wattage over an extended period of time. An example is Champion’s 4000-Watt Ready Inverter, which will run for up to 17 hours.

Multi-fuel generators come with different setting options. If you plan to run yours through the night and to keep your presence low-key, your machine will generate electricity yet be as quiet as a refrigerator humming in the background.

Unlike power stations, generators run from fuel. This delivers an advantage since you can stock up on fuel and fill up the generator when it runs low. There’s no need to recharge a battery, so generators offer added independence for life off-grid.

Battery Packs

If your electrical power requirements are minimal, needing to charge nothing more than a cell phone or tablet via a USB connection, battery packs are a worthwhile addition. Look at the Anker PowerCore 26800 with its multiple USB ports. The battery pack can deliver up to one hundred hours of additional power to your cell phone or e-reader.

Final Thoughts

With affordable options for alternative power supplies that deliver ample power, your van life needn’t suffer from a lack of solar power. In fact, van life without solar can be straightforward and cost-effective. The best way to decide which option is best for you is to look at your requirements and van life habits.

Once you’ve worked out your needs and preferences, factor in the budget, and choose the best option for you. Putting this data will help you arrive at a solar free solution that will fit your budget and van life.

Martin

As an independent traveler, I try to share my positive and negative observations about van life as well as tips and tricks to make your life on the road easier. I travel and work in my old RV and would greatly appreciate a coffee from you if you find my content useful.

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