What are all the options available for power?

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.


For me, solar is not a viable option. I have tried it several times, and it just doesn’t measure up to more reliable choices. In the winter, I can go for a week or more without seeing any sunshine, one winter in Seattle I didn’t see any sun in over a month. In the summer, parking in the sun is cruel and unusual punishment.

That being said, I do have some individual solar powered items that I like, that only seem to require daylight to charge. Among them are a head lamp, a couple of lanterns, a radio, a bug zapper, an AA/AAA/C/D/9v battery charger, and more. They seem to charge just fine sitting in a window.

99% of the time, simply charging my house battery while driving seems to handle all my needs, and it really doesn’t take that much driving. Once I’m in a town, I really don’t do that much driving. My ~$20 junkyard batteries tend to last 5-7 years, and I have a deep cycle battery as a starting battery too, so I can use it for house power if I want to. On each battery, I have low voltage cut off’s to prevent them from ever getting to deeply discharged, and even after it cuts off, my starting battery still has plenty of power to start my van.

For a backup, I have a cheapie inverter generator with an add on $17 whisper quiet muffler. Then I have a regular home style battery charger that I can either plug into the generator, or plug into shore power if it’s available. My generator is extremely quiet, and not really annoying at all. I rarely need it for myself, but it gets used to help others pretty regularly.

Personally, I think keeping our power needs minimal is a better choice than creating more power. People lived comfortably without electricity for millennia, and people choosing alternative lifestyles should explore their methods. While I enjoy my power, I also want the knowledge to live comfortably without it.

Yes, everything can be powered by fuel. Gas, diesel, kerosene, and others. While there is cost involved, and availability can be questionable, under normal circumstances, I believe it is the best choice value wise.

I like my generator, no… I LOVE my generator. If I’ve got gas, I’ve got power, and it can be dark, cloudy, or rainy. I don’t have to deal with a bunch of unruly wiring, or complex mumbo jumbo, and it’s not only more versatile, it is also portable.

Portable power packs are just expensive versions of what you can make yourself, and are usually pathetically under powered. While I think some might have practical purposes, they seem to be designed for people in houses who can plug them in over night. Most of the ones I’ve investigated want 6-8 hours of charging time at 12 volts. While that might work for a truck driver, it doesn’t fit well into my lifestyle. By having a bigger house battery, and discharging it less, it takes less effort to recharge it.

I don’t hang out in coffee shops, libraries, etc. and to be honest I would be very self conscious about doing so. If I’m using free WIFI, I’m doing it from the comfort of my van, and supplying my own power. It’s probably just me, but I don’t feel comfortable about using other people’s resources without compensating them fairly. I choose to be self sufficient and pay my own way.

For me, charging a cheap junkyard house battery while driving, along with a cheap backup inverter generator and battery charger have been the winning combination.


"Cheap comfort beats expensive inconveniences any day." ~ Meandering Mary

The power source(s) I choose is definitely going to take more time to research. If I can avoid solar, that’s fantastic. But, I want to make sure I have enough power with room to grow into if needed. The key is going to be figuring out what I’ll have that needs power and what I may want in the future.


When I had a homeless lady and her teenage daughter living with me for a while, I had a class C motorhome. It had a generator, but I rarely used it. Well, unlike myself that runs everything on 12v, they wanted to be able to use te microwave, hair driers, etc. So I just had a mobile RV tech hook it up so if AC power was needed, it would just automatically kick the generator on. A cheap and simple fix to automatically provide all the power needed for anything.

Automatic or not, generators are a good solution for any time you need more power than your batteries can easily provide, and they also allow you to keep your battery bank size minimal.


"Be the reason someone smiles today!" ~ Van_Dweller

Let me add my two cents. But first a small explanation.
We too tried solar, but for me it’s too unpredictable - especially in winter. Also in our case we have to run AC most of times since we have a pet travelling with us. I believe it might work in case you don’t need too much power.

Any of the inverter generators will give you clean power and very reasonable noise levels.
For instance, our last generator was a Honda 3000 Watt unit, but it was just way too heavy for one person to move. When we replaced our generator this year, we went with two Champion 2000 watt units and a parallel kit. Our setup is very quiet and with the eco mode active will throttle down based on demand for low loads without AC. With AC on, it is operated in normal mode which will be louder, but it is still quiet as compared to most out there.
For a backup it’s a dream.

Not only Honda’s (which are pricey): Yamaha, Champion, Generac… - all make good and quiet units (UPD: here are some nice options as well, also heard good things about Westinghouse as well). So I believe you might give them a chance.

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Usally having more than one option is ideal. Furthermore. Build your own battery bank ( even a walmart deep cycle will last a while ) and install it as part of your 12v automotive system. Add a power inverter of decenct capacity, and bam. Dank electric system for less then $200. Super easy to do and can deff run a fan and electric cooler ( can be modded for swamp cooler ) inbetween stops. I eventually evolved to solar ( alot of solar is cheap while lasting) and wanted to invest into the fist rounds of solar. We live in florida and always have a decent amount of sun power to avoid using our gen. Silent generators are the best option. I know even the harbor freight ones are decent if you buy max amount of warranty. When traveling buying your deep cycles and/gen units from places that are everywhere ( aka walmart / harbor frieght/sears) so they can be easly replaced during traveling. Youtube can make you a make shift master of any subject !