Electrical Demands (What's Best?)

Howdy folks!

I plan to purchase a barely used high rook extended Ford Transit 350 very soon and will be immediately getting into setting up my electrical needs first thing before setting up my frame and then insulation.

I’m aiming for either a 1000 or 1500 watt solar panels with 2 battery cells. Which cells work best with what inverter? Thanks!

Greetings & Welcome!

Odds are you’re not going to have anywhere enough room on your roof for that many solar panels.

A better question is “Why solar?”. It is the most expensive, and least reliable option available. Very few people who have gone that route, including me, would ever make that mistake again. Even people with off grid cabins and 10x that amount of solar hate it, and still wind up using better means of generating power.

In a vehicle, charging while driving, and being a power miser, tends to be the direction most of us wind up going, combined with cheap batteries, a cheap generator, and a cheap battery charger. With 2x under $20 cheap junkyard deep cycle batteries, one for my house battery, and one as my starting/2nd house battery, I can go a full 2 weeks between driving, without using my generator, and with no solar. One week off each 100ah battery. Low cost, more efficient, and a whole lot less headaches than solar.

Being power frugal, doesn’t mean that I don’t have every amenity I want, it just means doing things smarter, which also usually translates into cheaper. My rig is fully self contained, and I’ll run out of food long before anything else. I only carry ~30 days worth of food, but a full year+ of heating, cooling, cooking, and unlimited power.

Since you’re just starting out, I would actually recommend a cheap, older, factory camper to begin with. Unlike self builds, they hold their value much better, and they’re leaps and bounds more usable and more comfortable than most self builds. People pushing DIY builds are not your friends, the same with people pushing solar, they’re well paid sales people, not your friends.

The time to consider a DIY build comes only after you have a LOT of experience with this lifestyle, not when you’re a beginner. Only real life experience can teach you what you want or need, what’s possible or not, what’s practical or not, etc. Boobtube & Instascam are not good reflections of the reality of #vanlife. Very few who follow their lead are successful, and most lose a ton of money in the process. Nobody should gamble more than can comfortably afford to lose.

What about income? This life is far from free, and it is wise to have a sizable emergency fund and multiple back up plans. The better you plan, and the less money you have invested, the better your chances for success. Spending $30k+ to supposedly save $5k simply doesn’t make good sense. An investment ratio of under about 30% of what it will save in housing related expenses in the coming year seems to be the sweet spot for most of us. Less is always better of course, because you can lose your entire investment in the blink of an eye due to theft, collisions, natural disasters, etc; and you can’t count on insurance to make you whole again. My insurance policy is a large enough emergency fund to replace everything, including my camper, plus living expenses for at least 6 months.


"Happiness only comes before money in the dictionary." ~ Smilin Sam

Good thing is that basically every moving vehicle on the road comes with a built-in generator, usually diesel or gasoline powered. Just wire from the alternator to mppt charge controller.

I wouldn’t bother with huge amounts of panels, unless you are installing them on a house roof.

If you want solar, one or two good ones should be more than enough depending on their specs so you can have simple stuff like few led lights, cellphone/ipad chargers and 12v fans or fridge with them. Leave fancy things such as induction cooktop, electric water heater, microwave and other high draw items for the actual battery bank and charge it with the engine or separate generator when necessary.


I wouldn’t complicate things by adding the solar controller into the mix. Many alternators will blow one out by putting too much juice to them. Starting battery -> isolator/relay/solenoid -> house battery or cigarette lighter -> house battery are my preferred choices.


"Happiness only comes before money in the dictionary." ~ Smilin Sam

Solar Power is a God Send. Not sure why someone would recommend NOT using it. It can literally make life on the road barely different that Life at home. I guess if you were into “Camping” you’d consider going solar free…but, it’s 2020 and tech has come a LONG way. It’s the future. It comes down to how much you’re willing to spend, obviously, but compared to what a solar system cost 10 years ago… Its pretty darn affordable. But, I know of a guy who sailed around the world in a sailboat with no NAV nor Electricity …It suited him. That doesn’t suite me.

I use two power storing inverters. Stanley fatmax.

They charge from the DC plug, so I can charge them with my van alternator.

I have enough to run fans, charge my electronics and even my drill. I can run a small TV and my lap top.

I have a few solar powered banks. I find that those work great at first but eventually stop holding a charge.

My life and experience, I am not wanting to recreate a home on wheels.

Plus, both of the inverters will HOLD power, for when I’m off grid.

They both will jump my van if I need help when. Boondocking and my roadside assistance can’t reach me easily.

And they have air compressors. When my tire is low on a back road- which has come in help so much. I keep one in the front and the smaller one with the USB charging ports in the back by the bed to charge my devices while I sleep.

The question is what is best.
I have no idea.
This is what I came up with that works for me.

Good luck and happy travels!!!

We still haven’t had a need for more than 2 100ah batteries and an isolater. If they were lithium we probably would not need solar at all due to the higher discharge capability. We do have a little yamaha efi2000 that we run once in a blue moon if we haven’t driven anywhere for a while.

You can do it without solar entirely if you are driving a lot. (Parking and sitting is chill, but we prefer adventure and views) If not I would definitely consider solar and it is something we will be adding but is 100% last on our list. My research says you really need them on a roof rack as to not bake the interior of you ride. They are something like ~70ºF hotter than it is outside and having them directly on the roof transfers the heat. Having the gap I think is a must. So if you look at that cost plus the roof rack, there are other things higher on our priority list. The $70 isolator is a cheaper option to start with for sure.


Yep, it’s 2020 and there’s more worthless crap for sale out there than ever before.

I wrote a couple pretty lengthy responses to you, totally explaining my position and why, with references and all that jazz, but I decided an ELI5 explanation might be easier to understand, and much shorter reading…

I’ve lived in my current van for 11 years now, and have spent under $200 for unlimited power, in that whole 11 years, without any solar.

In 44 years of non-solar, with many different vehicles, I’ve spent under $600 for more power than I ever needed. In 3 years fighting solar, I spent $10k+, and never had enough power. Different panels, different controllers, different expensive batteries, same miserable results. Go to a rally, and poll the people, and you’ll hear 100’s of stories just like mine.

So show me a better way if it exists. How much actual hands on experience do you have with it. I’ve spent the time and money to become a certified solar tech, how about you?


"Happiness only comes before money in the dictionary." ~ Smilin Sam


Even on a roof rack with several inches clearance didn’t work well for me. I use a swamp cooler for cooling, and normally even in direct sunlight, and without my windows being covered, it can keep up just fine. Of course I also seek shade whenever possible…

Parking in the sun with the solar panels, and with my swamp cooler on high (I normally run it on low), it was 30°f hotter inside my van. I believe I’d go without power before I ever added solar in it’s present form again. Then to top that off, it killed my gas mileage, all that weight on the roof had a very negative effect on handling too. 3 different rigs, and all of them felt top heavy after adding solar.

Luckily my isolator provides me with 99%+ of all the power I need, even just driving around town when necessary. No extra trips or worry. For a backup I have a cheap generator & battery charger, that gets most of it’s usage helping others, or powering a group camp.

In all fairness, I do have a couple of solar powered items I use regularly and like. A solar flashlight battery charger, a solar lantern that also has a USB port on it to charge an additional light I use, and a solar bug zapper. I have a tray on my counter top, just inside a window, where they reside, and they’re always ready when I want them. I use the bug zapper almost daily because bugs get in while I’m entering or exiting, and my screens don’t help with that. It gets me bug free in short order, and I LOVE it!


"Happiness only comes before money in the dictionary." ~ Smilin Sam

Well crap… This is the first time I’m hearing of this, but it totally makes sense. Sigh, I hadn’t really considered heat transference, especially with aluminum frames…

So for those of you with practical on the road experience…

My plan is to follow the weather, head to Canada in the Summer and Mexico in the Winter, or anywhere in between.

How bad is that heat transference if I just avoid high temperature areas? If I avoid hot climates at hot times of the year, would that make any difference? Would it “balance it out”, or does it still just turn the interior into an oven?


In my experience it’s pretty much impossible to avoid unfriendly weather all together. I’ve seen month long heat waves that there was no escape from, and surprise winters when suddenly all the roads to escape were closed.

When working, I didn’t have a choice in the weather, which was frequently uncomfortable. My solution was two fold, since I was also frequently working outdoors in inclement weather. First was to make my vehicle a comfortable oasis inside, regardless of the weather. With experience, this step became pretty easy. Basically you just need enough heating & cooling power to keep you comfortable.

Outdoors was much harder, but doable. Eventually thermo-electric coveralls became available, and were thermostat controlled. With the adjustment of a thumb wheel, you could laugh at any temperature. Some people just use these indoors & outdoors, and don’t worry about any other form of climate control. In my jumpsuit, I can be shivering on a 120°f day if I set it too low.

So I guess the best answer is to prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.


"Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly." ~ Unknown

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