Portable solar generators have become a huge and very competitive industry in the last few years. It wasn’t that long ago the only way to get an electrical system built in your camper was to spend days and weeks learning about watts, amps, ohms or hire someone who knows to build it for you. With lithium batteries getting cheaper all the time and more people needing to charge devices and run appliances on the go, this category of products have exploded in popularity.
These new developments now begs some new questions. Are they ready to be used as your van’s primary electrical system? Does it cost more to buy an all-in-one system instead of building it from parts? What are the upsides and downsides of each solution? This post is not going to talk about any of the devices and appliances like lights, fans and fridges that draw power. Rather it is going to focus primarily on the underlying infrastructure needed to support that system. ‘Solar Generator’, ‘Power Station’, ‘Portable Battery’ and ‘Battery Bank’ are terms used interchangeably in this article as many manufacturers have used them to refer to the same category of products. OK, let’s go down to it.
Table of Contents
- DIY Electrical System with Solar
- Cost For A Basic DIY Electrical System
- Portable Solar Generators
- Portable Solar Panels
- Cost For Your Complete Portable System
DIY Electrical System with Solar
Building a simple and reliable electrical system is the cheapest way to get your van off-grid ready. Before we select what parts to use and see how much they cost, we need to first decide on the objective of building this system. In order to make a fair comparison to all-in-one portable solar generators, we want to make sure we are building them with similar capabilities. In this case, we are going to use these parameters for selecting our components.
- Battery: 50Ah-100Ah of usable electricity ($180 to $800)
This is the cheapest way to get 50Ah of usable capacity. You can add a second battery to bring your usable capacity ro 100Ah by connecting them in parallel. Yes even though lithium batteries are better in almost every way, with the exception of low temperature operations, AGM batteries are still around and is still the cheapest way to get up and running in your camper build.
Alternatively, you can go with a more capable lithium battery like this one for about $450 to get 50Ah of capacity. A 100Ah version will cost about $790 (As of Oct. 2020)
- AC Power Inverter: 300 to 1,000 watt of pure sine wave ($50-$500)
It is important to know that not all pure sine wave inverters are the same. Amazon can be a minefield when it comes to quality. Ultimately, you will get what you pay for. brand name inverters do make a difference and often star ratings can lie because of the various ways sellers can game the system today. Do some research and read each review and determine for yourself if they are trustworthy. Certifications like UL listing and CE certification will help you decide which product listings are reliable.
- Solar Panels: 100 to 200 watts of solar generating capacity ($79-$200)
Rigid solar panels have dramatically dropped in price. Their qualities have also improved across the board and have more or less been commoditized at the 100-watt size. For less than a buck per watt is what you can buy them for today. These HQST 100-watt panels can be bought or $79 per panel these days (As of Oct. 2020). For 200 watts of capacity, simply connect 2 of them in parallel or series depending on your application.
- Solar Charge Controller: 10-15 amps of charging capability ($20-$120)
If your budget allows, MPPT is going to be the better option as compared to the cheaper PWM style of charge controllers. But if you are on a budget, you can find a basic PWM controller for as little as $20. But you are probably going to replace it in the future so you might want to decide to bite the bullet and spend the $100 upfront. I like the Victron MPPT units because of their bluetooth capability which allows you to connect to them using your smartphone or network them together to charge from multiple power sources.
- Shorepower Charging: 10-15 amps of charging capability ($100-$180)
I have been a proponent of these portable shorepower chargers for their convenience , reliability and simplicity. They are compatible with AGM and lithium battery types and can charge from 10 amps all the way up to 26 amps depending on the model. For the more ambitious, I do have a post that talks about an even more flexible solution for shorepower here.
Cost For A Basic DIY Electrical System
These are the main components of our system. Using the price of the lowest cost component you are looking at spending about $430 (As of Oct. 2020). This is not including all of the other miscellaneous items you will need such as copper wires, ring terminals, mounting brackets, switch panels, DC outlets, fuses, breakers, etc.. We can safely assume that you will spend at least another $150 in those parts combined. That brings your total to $580.
Another thing to consider is that you will need to learn how to properly and safely install these components yourself. That means learning everything you can about wiring, electrical components, safety protocols, etc.. If you are not comfortable with doing the work yourself, you should definitely consider hiring a licensed electrician that knows how to work in RV systems to help you. That can be at least another $200 or more depending on the level of help you need. There have been many instances where faulty installation of electrical components have led to shorts that can cause fires and even deaths. This is a serious and important matter not to be taken lightly.
This means we are now looking at anywhere between $580 or $780 to install a simple but high quality electrical system with solar in your camper van. If you decide to use higher end and more capacity to this basic system, you can expect to add another $1200 with most of it going towards a bigger lithium battery.
Total Estimated Cost for a Basic DIY Electrical System with Solar Panels
Low End: $580
High End: $1980
Portable Solar Generators
Portable solar generators is a generic name for these all-in-one battery-powered systems that you can use to run electrical appliances. Generally speaking, they are lithium-ion based having both DC and AC outputs. They can also be recharged in a variety of ways. From a wall AC outlet, through your car’s 12-volt lighter socket, or using solar panels. We are going to talk about a range of these portable power stations based on your budget and power requirements. They will vary in power storage capacity, output capacity and charging speed capacity. We will start with what I would consider the minimum needed to run a small camper.
For Beginners or Weekend Warriors (500Wh)
This is a level for someone who just needs to be able to keep the lights on and will not be running anything too power hungry like a laptop computer. Lights, phones, cameras and small compressor refrigerators are going to be fine with this system. It is what I would consider the bare minimum if you are wanting to use it as a primary power source.
This is a MAXOAK 500Wh Power Station. It has all of the features mentioned above plus a couple of extra ones like wireless phone charging and a 45-watt USB-C PD port for charging laptops that are compatible with that technology.
This is probably about as small of a system as you would want to consider as a primary system to be used in your van. With 500Wh of power, it can run some lights, power a small compressor fridge and charge your devices for a day or 2. Here are some important specs:
- Capacity: 500Wh of Lithium-Ion
- Life Expectancy: 500 cycles life before reducing to 80% capacity
- AC Power: 300-watt pure sine wave power inverter for AC power
- Recharging: 90-watt AC charger to recharge in 6-7 hours from wall outlet
- Solar Compatibility: MPPT charge controller to allow solar panel (not included) input up to 120 watts
Here are 2 other popular portable power banks in this capacity and price range ($400-$700):
For Extended Trips and Long Duration Travelers (1,000-1,500Wh)
These models are going to give you at least double the capacity as the previous category. You are still not going to be running anything like an induction stove top, hair dryers or electric pressure cookers but you will be able to stay out much longer and charge up faster with these bigger but more expensive options.
Honestly I don’t know why these companies have decided ‘safety orange’ was the color they all should use for their products. Perhaps they expect people to use these on the side of roads during a breakdown? Anyways, this one is from a company who has been very popular and likely because they have been pushing very hard with marketing via social influencers. If you follow any of the popular van life YouTubers you certainly would have seen these. That is probably why they cost about 20% more than a comparable MaxOak product.
This one has double the capacity than the MaxOak AC500. It is going to give you more capabilities in every way. More than double the inverter power, double the charging speed and double the price. This is probably a more appropriately sized portable power bank to be used as an all-in-one system. Here are some important specs to know about the Jackery Explorer 1000:
- Capacity: 1000Wh of Lithium-Ion
- Life Expectancy: 500 cycles life before reducing to 80% capacity
- AC Power: 1000-watt pure sine wave power inverter for AC power
- Recharging: 200-watt AC charger to recharge in 6-7 hours from wall outlet
- Solar Compatibility: MPPT charge controller to allow solar panel (not included) input up to 200 watts
Here are 2 other popular portable power banks in this capacity and price range ($900-$2000):
Portable Solar Panels
With these all-in-one solutions they generally have the option to be used with their portable solar panels. Each company will have their own brand of panels but for the most part, they are all the same. Solar panels are more or less commodities today and as long as you choose a high quality manufacturer, you will have a product that should last many years. You will find that portable panels are generally going to cost you more than fixed mounted panels. For the same reason that these all-in-one power bank solutions will cost more than a DIY electrical system. They are portable. They are ready to go out of the box. They don’t require any installation which can mean less labor cost on your end if you are not someone who is ready to get your hands dirty or have the know-how to do the install.
In the portable solar panel world, there are a couple different types. There are the traditional metal framed rigid panels and fold up into a suitcase shape. And then there are thin fabric-backed panels. Generally speaking, the thinner panels will cost a little bit more due to its convenience. The rigid panels are bigger but will be more durable and cheaper.
Rigid Solar Panel Suitcase ($100-$200 for 100-120 watts)
For a littler or a dollar a watt, the rigid suitcase panels are the best bang for the buck. You can go even cheaper if you build your own with standalone panels, hinges and handles from the hardware store and a little ingenuity.
- Less expensive
- Longer life span
- More difficult to store
Soft-Backed Folding Solar Panels ($150-$300 for 100-120 watts)
These types of panels are very convenient and can be stored in less than an inch of space behind a cabinet or even under a mattress. But the convenience does come at a cost and potentially a little less durability.
- Lightweight and compact
- More expensive
- Less durable and prone to abrasion
Cost For Your Complete Portable System
In order to have a complete portable electrical system with solar panels, you can expect to pay anywhere from $600 to well over $2000 depending on the parts you choose from above. It is definitely not cheap by any means but for someone who doesn’t know how to, or wants to build a complete system from electrical components, it is a very good option. With a 200-watt portable solar suitcase ($350 as of Oct. 2020) paired with a Goal Zero Yeti 1500x ($2,000 as of Oct. 2020), you can have an electrical system with lithium batteries comparable in capabilities to many custom-built vans.
Even if you started with a basic system using a $400 (As of Oct. 2020) MaxOak AC500 and a rigid 120-watt solar suitcase ($140 as of Oct. 2020), you will get off to a great start with a fairly capable lithium system. Even if you decide to upgrade later to an integrated custom electrical system, having a portable power bank is still really beneficial in many circumstances. Imagine being able to grab your power bank to take to a park and spend an afternoon working at a picnic table in the shade. That is something you can not do with an integrated electrical system.
Total Estimated Cost for a Solar Power Generator with Solar Panels
Low End: $540
High End: $2,350
As you can see that there isn’t really that big of a difference between going with a high quality DIY electrical solution versus buying a ready to go solar portable generator. It comes down to how you plan on using these systems. If you are unsure of which one is best for you, let me pose some questions for you to answer to further help you understand which category you might fall under
- Are you currently or plan to be full time traveling in your RV?
- Do you prefer to charge your battery up daily if possible?
- Are you installing custom wiring for lights, appliances and switches around your camper?
- Do you foresee yourself needing more battery capacity in the future?
- Do you have the proper electrical skills or are willing to pay someone who does?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might want to go with the DIY route. It will allow much more room for future expansion and customization. And if you said no to all of these, the standalone solar generator might be for you. Keep in mind that even though manufacturers say lithium batteries can be drained completely down to 0%, they will last far longer if you keep them above 50% a majority of the time. Depending on the actual chemistry of the cells, you can get anywhere from 500 full cycles (Lithium-Ion cells) to upwards of 5,000 full cycles (Lithium Iron Phosphate or LiFePO4 cells) before any noticeable degradation. Even if you decided to go with a portable power station, you might still consider having panels mounted on the roof to keep your lithium cells working for many years to come.
As someone with a DIY custom electrical system, I still find these portable power stations quite useful as an alternative power source. We have been using one for more than a year and I am constantly finding great new uses for them in our many years of life on the road.
I hope this is helpful to you in your process of building your off-grid capable camper van. This post is not designed to be a one-stop shop for all of the knowledge you will need to make your final decision but should help point you in the right direction.