Okay, so this might just be one of the most technical blog posts we have ever put together. But it’s also the most important.
Creating a reliable and efficient caravan solar set up and making our van self-sufficient was by far the best thing we have done for our life on the road.
It has given us the freedom to camp in remote locations for long periods of time, to save money in caravan parks by camping on unpowered sites, to power all of our electronics whenever we need them and to let us travel wherever we want.
On the first leg of our lap around Australia we spent more than three weeks without plugging our van into a power point. And when we did, it was just because we had chosen to stay at a caravan park that only had powered sites, not because we actually needed to. For us, the ONLY difference between our solar set up and being plugged in at a caravan park is that we are able to use the air-conditioner in the van. Apart from that, we generally can’t even tell the difference.
In this post we are going to try our very best to explain everything we did to set up our van to be completely self-sufficient. If we miss anything that you might want to know for your renovation just leave us a comment or send us a DM on Instagram.
Let’s get into it.
Caravan solar power
For us the answer was simple, solar panels were going to be by far the best way to power our caravan. We were planning to spend a whole year in sunny warm weather, and were hoping there wouldn’t be many days at all where we didn’t see the sunshine, so why not make the most of all the solar power!
We placed four of the RedArc 150W Monocrystalline Slim Line Solar Panels on our roof – two at the front, and two near the back, to be able to pick up the sunshine from different angles. You can see how we placed them in the image above. All together our solar panels can bring in 600W of power if they’re all in the sun at the same time.
The good thing about these solar panels is that they have a strong aluminium frame, and have been made to withstand harsh road conditions and extreme weather conditions. Exactly what we needed for some of the places we were planning to take our van (looking at you, Oodnadatta Track).
From the solar panels on the roof, the solar energy then runs into our battery management system (BMS) – the RedArc Manager30. The BMS is designed to take in any power that is coming into the caravan and use it to charge the vans batteries. As well as solar power, the BMS also charges the batteries with power from the car when we are driving (12V), or the power point if we plug our van in at a caravan park (240V).
To try and explain this a little easier, we’ve put together the below diagram, to illustrate how the whole system works.
A flow chart of how power travels through our battery and solar system.
One of our favourite features of the BMS is the display screen that you hook up to it to let you know everything that’s going on with your power in the caravan. We put ours inside my wardrobe cupboard (the one with the rattan door), so it’s easily accessible whenever we need to check anything.
From the display screen we can keep an eye on the battery percentages, how many amps we’re using each day as well as how many amps are coming in each hour from the solar panels, 12V or 240V, depending on what we’re using, as well as how many hours we have until the batteries are full or empty. There are heaps and heaps of things you can control from this display screen, to give yourself a completely customisation set up and make it work best for the way you need it to.
The BMS then recharges our two 120amp lithium batteries that are use to power the whole caravan.
Our BMS display screen, showing everything you might want to know about the status and life of your batteries. We have ours conveniently located in my wardrobe!
12V & 24V Power
The lithium batteries then directly act as the power source for any of the 12V sockets we have around the van which are mainly used for powering our phones and our TV. We put a few USB ports around the van that are 12V which makes powering our phones so easy, and then we just grabbed this cheap 24 inch TV from Kogan that comes with a 12V compatibility cord. If you already have a TV that you want to use, you can also buy the 12V Power Adaptor on it’s own.
For anything that requires 240V, power runs from the batteries through our RedArc 2000W Pure Sine Wave Inverter. This little red box is the real hero, because it allows us to use all the appliances we would normally use at home with just the flick of a switch. It sits under our bench seat, right near the door, so it’s easily accessible all the time. You can actually even buy a remote switch for it, if you want to place a switch somewhere else in the van for even easier access.
Once we turn the inverter on we can charge the laptop, all our camera batteries, use the toaster or the toastie maker, even use a hair straightener or hair dryer, no matter where we are in Australia. And the best part is, you can do it ALL AT THE SAME TIME!
Before we set off I was so nervous about this – particularly about charging all the electronics that need to be re-charged each day to ensure we have enough batteries for photos and to work on the blog each day. Most nights I will have my laptop, two cameras and our drone all charging at the same time and this system is absolutely flawless.
All of our power products are kept under our bench seat in the van. The far left square has our two lithium batteries, the BMS is that black box in the middle, and the red box on the right hand side is the inverter.
We installed all of these different bits and pieces – the two batteries, BMS and inverter under our bench seats in the kitchen area, as well as all our fuse boxes and different power points. We don’t keep anything else under there as they can all often get a bit warm and they need their own space for maximum performance. Not trying to have anything overheat over here.
The only thing we can’t use when we’re off the grid is our air-conditioner. The air-con takes up WAY too much power and would probably smash through our battery storage in a very short space of time. If we know we’re coming into a heatwave of a few days of 40°C+ we will normally check into a caravan park, so we can plug into the 240V power and keep the air-con running without worrying about anything.
However, if we’re in a remote location and really need the air-con on for a couple of hours, we have a Honda EU22i generator that runs on petrol. We only used it a couple of times during the first leg of our lap, in places like Algebuckina on the Oodnadatta Track – when it was just super hot and sticky, but there was no one around so the noise wasn’t annoying any other campers.
Those solar panels – keeping us powered wherever we go.
On any given day we hardly use more than 50% of our battery supply, with most days not dipping under about 70%. From 50% it takes about 4 hours in the sunshine to fully re-charge both batteries to their full capacity, or about 10 hours if they are completely dead. Even a little bit of sun will help to charge the batteries though, so if you’re partially under a leafy tree and your solar panels are only getting a fraction of the sun they normally would, it will still charge as much as it can.
Overall this system has been working amazingly well for us. We literally run every single appliance we need in the van, as well keeping all our electronics fully charged, all at the same time, so we never have to pick and choose what to use at one time. It’s so simple and easy to use and has given our van the ability to do everything we need it to!
A huge thank-you to REDARC who came on board to help out with the solar and power system for our caravan as one of the major partners of our trip.