A Short Guide to Our Solar Panel System
Charging Your Devices While on the Road: Solar
If you plan to travel for more than a weekend in your van, we think it’s a good idea if you consider adding a solar panel to the top of your roof. It gives you extra energy for your devices, especially if you stay in the same spots for days.
Devices that Can Be Charged by Solar
Our devices include Armando’s phone, 2 computers, a tablet, our WiFi connector and Mel’s Kindle. That’s not including and of our filming gear or cameras.
We’ll outline the system we have now, but we’re planning on upgrading. Our needs of being properly powered have grown incrementally over the years. Your needs might be much less.
Our Solar Panels: Fixed & Mobile
For now, we have two solar panels that we’ve used for the last 4 years: a fixed one, installed just on the front part of the roof, and a portable one. The portable is stowed in the back on a tray Armando made and when we need it, it unfolds like a petite suitcase.
We added the panel on the roof back in 2012, right after buying the van. We already knew we’d need power in order to work with our computers. But we also wanted to be able to charge batteries and other techy items as we traveled.
You just need to plug your computer and here we go. The good thing about the portable one is…that is portable. You don’t need to be close to the van, you have all the freedom to explore around and be able to get your job done.
How Our System Works, in Detail
We have a framed 80W solar panel on top. The system to place it and make it work is really an easy DIY thing. The panel is glued with a strong silicon (to prevent making holes in the roof) and has been very stable there for the past 4 years.
A cable from the panel goes into the van from the side of the roof. We decided to try making a little hole in the textile to pass it through the corner of the pop-up roof tent.
Then we just took out some of the inside plastic covers to install the cable just behind the driver’s seat. That’s actually where (in our van) we have all of the electrical spots: a 220 plug (when plugged from outside); a cigarette plug (small); and the core fuse panel.
What Else Do You Need?
In order to make the solar panel work, you need a regulator. It’s a machine that allows you to get the power at high voltage and to regulate it to 12V.
Back in 2012, we had a small Chinese-made one, but in 2014 we upgraded into a higher quality one.
It also includes a nifty display that tells you what you need to know about the amount of power produced by the panel and consumption.
Details about the Regulator
Our regulator has 3 slots. In the first one, you attach the cable from the solar panel in. In our van we also use a small cable connected to the cigarette plug mentioned.
It allows us to connect the two leisure batteries we have in the back of the van. In this way, even if you don’t start the engine or drive somewhere, your leisure batteries will charge.
The second plug is an outlet where you can connect an inverter. An inverter is a simple machine that lets you to convert from 12V to 220V power. The inverter works like a normal electrical plug and couples as a USB plug.
You need the inverter when you actually need to create 220V in order to charge: computers, camera, camera batteries, tablet, or phones. You can even use some accessories that need electricity like at home: electric razors, for example.
We started back in 2012 with a 100W inverter, but we soon understood it was too low for our system. We upgraded to a 300W one that easily can charge all we need to charge.
You can find inverters up to 1000W, but if you have a small van we don’t think it’s necessary to have a big beast like since you won’t really need all that power.
How to Charge Devices
In order to charge an item with a regular plug, you need to plug the item into the inverter and to switch on the button. A green light will show you that it’s charging.
For all items that can be charged with a USB connection, you only need to plug it into the inverter and as it is already into the system, it will charge it without switching it on.
Leisure Batteries in the Back
As for the leisure batteries, we recently bought two AGM ones (Absorbent Glass Mat), with slow release. It’s definitely the best option for our van.
They usually are more expensive than normal batteries- we paid around 200 Euros for each. It’s a worthwhile investment for long time traveling like we do, both as full-timers and in the vanlife spirit.
If you do not have leisure batteries in the back, you can build the same system with your engine battery. Just remember that it’s pretty risky if you use it too much, and you don’t want to be stuck in a place because of lack of power.
Not Using the Inverter for Power
So, the best part is still coming. As you know we work as digital nomads, and we pay our travel by working for our client online with our computer. So how do we manage to create all the power we need in order to work? It’s pretty easy.
The last plug in the controller is actually a 12V export plug and we mainly use it for our computers. The computer already uses a transformer in order to work, so you don’t need to use the inverter in order to work on your laptop.
You just need an adjustable voltage transformer. Our solution was pretty easy: we put in two cables leading out, both with a cigarette plug at the end. On that end we can plug our transformer.
Armando’s computer has adjustable voltage, as he needs for his Dell PC to go from 12V to 19,5V. In his case, he doesn’t charge the computer, but the voltage is maintained and the battery level is stable.
Mel has a Mac Pro Book, and we found a good transformer online. Her system is actually able to charge the computer while plugged, without using all of the power resources it would, if it was using the inverter.
As we mentioned, soon we’ll be upgrading the van with new solar panels and a little more advanced technology. We’re thinking about some CIS flat ones, without frames. They seem to have more power and less weight on the roof. We still need to think exactly where to put them, but getting new ones and trying them out are definitely on our to do list.
What about you? Do you use solar power on your vehicles for your devices? Any further recommendations or questions?
Let us know in the comments below! –Westfalia Digital Nomads
“il portale del sole”– They provided us with the portable solar panel, and Armando did a short demo video.
Hello Melony and Armando,
I always follow with great interest, curiosity and a bit of healthy envy.
This post is very interesting and I think it is important to continue with other posts on the same argument because it helps to understand the difficulties of a life to digital nomads and how to overcome them (especially to those who, like me, is thinking of doing the same choice life).
WELL DONE, keep it up !!!
Ciaooooooo da Paolo from Italy!
Hi Paolo, glad you found it interesting. We’re trying to cover all of the challenges of being digital nomads/vanlifers, but please feel free to ask us any questions you might have. And thank you much for your support! Mel & Armando