This is definitely one of those “dumb” questions. I have zero knowledge in this area and it’s weighing heavily on my mind because it’s preventing me from planning out what I’ll bring into my van.
Option #1: Solar Power - Sounds great but looks intimidating when I see the “control centers” on videos. I hear a lot about having to maintain the batteries, keeping the solar panels clean and not letting the batteries go below 50-60% (which sounds ridiculously inefficient on the battery’s part). Then you have the expense and inadequacy of being able to run an air-conditioner. (Mark my words, I will have a way to keep cool and dry in summer if I have to invent it myself!)
On the flip side, it would only require a small solar setup to fulfill my needs apart from the darned air-conditioning. Also, solar may be expensive upfront but, once you have it (and provided you take care of it) that’s your power needs sorted and no continual money needs to be spent on it.
Option #2: Propane - To my understanding, you can power everything with propane. I’ve only heard this but haven’t looked into it. This isn’t ideal to me for the amount of propane you’d need to keep in the van.
Option #3: Generator - I can see how having one in an emergency would be great and make it worthwhile but, for every day use? Not a chance. Too noisy, not usable everywhere, would draw attention, and you’d need an ongoing supply of gasoline.
Option #4: Portable Power Stations - Products like the Goal Zero, Jackery, Kodiak Inergy, etc., with multiple power plugs of varying types. A lot of van life folks see this as their emergency power source but there’s a guy in Canada that uses it to power everything in his super simple van build. He powers his lights and charges his phone, laptop and rechargeable speakers. (He uses a cooler for a fridge but says his Jackery 440 has enough power to run a fridge, too.)
It’s cheaper than solar and also portable should you need it elsewhere. To me, this sounds ideal since my power needs would be very similar. The downsides are that I’m not sure how the battery gets re-charged. I know you can buy small solar panels to put outside but how effective is a small solar panel to recharge one of these in a reasonable amount of time? I know you can plug it in somewhere but that seems rather rude to go into a coffeeshop for a few hours and use their electricity and take up a table all for a cup of coffee and a muffin. I also believe you can recharge it as you’re driving but I have no clue how that works or if that’s even a best practice. Wouldn’t that mean extra stress and wear-and-tear on your van’s battery, electrical system, or alternator, or whatever is being used to re-charge it?
These are the only ways I know to get power in a van. Where am I wrong in my thinking/understanding? Are there other sources for power? I realize things like AAA battery powered lights are possible but I hate the thought of having to buy them all the time. They’re not cheap and the cheap ones aren’t good. Even in my apartment now it’s a pain in the proverbial.