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Words of wisdom: “We have a lot of people here who get all excited, move into a van, then quit after just a couple months. The fact that they get disillusioned means they were “illusioned” to begin with. So don't be “illusioned”.” – lennyflank1)

Note: this area is for opinion, not objective facts. I may be jaded, grouchy, or cuss a bit. – secessus

Common beginner mistakes

There are many blessings and victories in van life; this article is not about that. It's about the various ways to fail, to skin our knees, to waste money, time, and resources.


For whatever reason, vandwelling attracts an outsized percentage of daydreamers, naifs, and people looking for magical cures for whatever ails them.

Those who have a good chance at successful 'dwelling are typically people that:

  • Have camped or backpacked and liked it
  • Have good DIY skills and fix-it/mechanical abilities
  • Know basic cooking and are okay with simpler foods
  • Are the “outdoorsy type”
  • Are instinctive “savers” (as opposed to spenders)
  • Are very organized and good at planning
  • Are flexible when things don't go according to their plan
  • Are okay with being alone for long periods of time (introverts)

People who are less likely to adapt to the life:

  • The “high maintenance”
  • People who cannot tolerate being physically uncomfortable for extended periods of time.
  • chronic worriers
  • Social media addicts
  • Those who don't like having to understand how things work
  • Stoners, daydreamers, idiots, children
  • Those that need internet access 24/7
  • The easily bored
  • People who need constant excitement, crowds, “action”
  • Picky eaters (or the inverse, people who don't like eating the same thing many days in a row)

Further reading: Do You Have What It Takes to Live in a Vehicle?, in particular the section about it being 90% self and 10% stuff.

Red Flags

  • Worships Christopher McCandless and 'Into The Wild'
  • Wants to run away
  • Thinks that Vanlife will be “simple” or “carefree”


Folks often hit the road without considering how lack of a sticks-and-bricks residence will affect them. Get your DL and passport ahead of time. Sort out mail forwarding ahead of time.

It will take longer than you think to get rid of all your stuff. It takes work and can emotionally taxing. Be ready for this. Do your very best to avoid putting anything in storage.

Here is a suggested timeline/checklist to assist your planning.


It is common in the general population for one partner to want to travel and the other not to. Arguments, breakups, and divorces can all result from that difference in outlook. Be prepared.

Living in a small space will magnify any tensions that already exist in a relationship. It may create new ones.

Can you poop in front of your partner? Have you ever shared a small space before?

What happens if you break up while traveling? What if they contributed funds to the build?


Failure to select a good van is the most expensive mistake beginners make. Note that good means fit for your purpose and affordable on your budget, not

  • The first van you see
  • A “Fixer-Upper”, or “Needs a little TLC”
  • What is depicted on social media
  • What others tell you to buy
  • The cheapest van you can find
  • etc

The seller must have a title in hand, and it must be in their name. The van must receive a pre-sale inspection from an independent mechanic. Breaking these rule typically results in heartbreak.

DO NOT buy a fixer-upper or “Needs a little TLC” van as your first van, unless you have extensive mechanical abilities/tools/aptitude/knowledge. Spend more to get a reliable van, and skimp on the interior build. You're going to have a lot better time inside a spartan build out on a reliable chassis that will go anywhere, than a fancy instagram-worthy build while broken down on the side of the road.

Failure to find vans

Selecting the best van for you out of two examples is unlikely to yield a winner. Selecting the best van out of 200 is more likely to end in happiness. Of course if you already have a van or inherit one then there is little downside to rocking it.

Admittadly, as of 2021/2022 used prices for vans have skyrocketed due to a number of issues. Lower your expectations if you're trying to keep a reasonable budget.

See Finding a Van.

Failure to assess interior space

It is common for people to buy a van then decide there is some deal-breaker about the living space. This will be your home and it needs to suit you. RVers have a saying about this: “try to buy your third RV first”.

The key to eliminating this mistake is to pay close attention to spend time the cargo area. Bring a tape measure. Lay down longwise and sidewise. Stand up, or stoop if necessary. Can you handle the space? Imagine how your build would work in that space. Step into and out of the cargo area. Pass from the cargo area to the cab in both directions.

Failure to assess external dimensions

Does it have enough ground clearance for your plans?

If you are going to stealth does the exterior exceed oversize vehicle laws in your area? Will it fit into a standard parking space?

Will it fit campsite parking or national park maximums?

Is it short enough to drive under things you must drive under?

Does it exceed your state's GVWR for your state, pushing you into commercial vehicle requirements, taxes, and insurance?

Failure to inspect the van

The short answer to the “what do I look for with a used van?FAQ is “a mechanic”. A mechanic will do a pre-sale inspection for relatively cheap. It can be $50-$150, or even free if they want to build a working relationship with you.

The mechanic knows what to look for. Finding things that need repair is not necessarily a deal-breaker; it is evidence the price needs to be discounted so you can get it repaired. Or the mechanic might find something horrible that saves you from a massive mistake.

Money well spent, either way.

Failures to inspect the roof of tall vans

The roof is where rain will enter if there are leaks. If you cannot see the roof from the ground bring a ladder 2). If you don't have a ladder a selfie stick held overhead to video the roof is better than nothing.

The very tall vans (High roof Transits, Sprinters, Promasters, etc) are so tall that they won't fit through under many common obstructions. Inspect the entire roofline for evidence of repairs from impacts with a particularly low-hanging branch or McDonalds drive through awning.

Electrical Power

Thinking like an apartment-dweller

A van is not an apartment, so stop thinking that way. A productive approach is to start from nothing then decide what you need to make your vanlife workable. Prefer non-electric approaches to electric ones. This goes hand-in-hand with the math below. Wanting all the amenities you had in a house or apartment will cause disappointment, great expense, or both.

Power in the camper is misunderstood by most and hand-waved away by optimists. It's mainly math with some extra reading required, so I get why it's not a fun topic.

Reality check:

  1. the average US home consumes 29,000Wh of power per day.
  2. A 100w solar panel on an MPPT controller will harvest an average of:
    • Chicago - 308Wh/day
    • Salt Lake City - 376Wh/day
    • Seattle - 292Wh/day
    • Phoenix - 447Wh/day
  3. all of those harvests are conspicuously less than 29,000Wh.

Heating and Cooling

The biggest mistake beginners make with power is thinking they will heat (or cool) things with power they generate off-grid. The wattage requirements for this greatly outstrips the amount of power most people will produce in the boonies. Read the label on the product you want to run, then compare that to the amount of power you can reliably produce in the field. Wishing and hoping won't cut it.

The usual suspects are:

  • electric water kettles
  • electric space heaters
  • electric coffee makers
  • electric hair irons
  • electric hair dryers (!)
  • instant pots
  • rice cookers
  • electric water heaters
  • electric stovetops
  • microwaves

Yes, it is possible to do these things. But the people who are doing them successfully off-grid

  1. know what they are doing
  2. have typically invested thousands of dollars in battery banks and solar, or run a generator

Electric heating is such a massive power draw that it's often used as a way to dump excess power on demand.


Failure to consider all loads

Posts that include “my needs are simple, all I need are lights and a fan” often develop, after questioning, into “Yeah, forgot the gaming laptop. And phone. And tablet. And toaster. And coffee maker.” It's like the scene from that Steve Martin movie where all he needs is an ashtray, then collects more and more stuff as he walks away.

Actual examples:

  • “All I need is something to charge my phone, laptop, run my light and two small fans” (and an electric kettle)
  • “I don't use any of my appliances for long” (except “my small hot plate for about 2-3 hours”)
  • “What are the most basic features that are required to travel/live in a van in the US? I'm thinking something like a bed, an airfryer, and some food/ gear storage.”

Living in a van mockup, for example, forces one to assess what one really needs.

Do the math, and be honest. Starting from nothing, load-wise, will make your power requirement calculations easier and realistic. And those calculations will dictate your battery bank and charging configuration.

There are dreams and fantasies, then there is what will actually work on the road. The lights won't magically come back on in the middle of the night somewhere in Kansas just because you want them to. There is no wishing a dead battery back to life when you need it. Being honest with the math will help you avoid such issues.

failure to think realistically about charging

Using power is the fun/easy part; making power is the grind that will determine how often and how long you get to do the fun part, and how often and long you will sit in the dark with dead batteries. Think of how easy it is to spend money vs earn money.

Choosing a charging power mix for your particular situation.

Underbuilding the power system

Most people will lowball how much power they will use, and overestimate how much power they can make from solar or alternator. Read on.

Overbuilding the power system

If you are disciplined you can save money by building a less powerful system. This requires:

Wanting to charging from EV charging stations

While most things are technically possible, recharging deep-cycle batteries from EV stations is impractical. Our batteries are not set up to take the extreme charge rates, and they are at radically different voltages.

Further reading:


Solar power is not a cure-all and not even mandatory. There's a gentle introduction to solar on this wiki if you want to get a hold on what it can and cannot do. This section is about solar mistakes.

No solar

Having no solar at all is generally an unforced error for vandwellers. Even adding small amounts of panel (100w) can make a big difference, and can be added to an alternator-charged system for as little as $100.3)

believing 100w of panel will make 100w all day long

The 100w panel will make 100w in a lab in test conditions. Your van is not in a lab in test conditions.

  1. the panel will rarely make anywhere close to 100w4)
  2. the max power it does make will be around local solar noon. Before and after that power will be less.

Example: Albuquerque, NM on May 15, 2022.5)

Time Watts
6:02a 0w
7:02a 0w6)
8:02A 32.8w
9:02A 48.7w
10:02A 62.3w
11:02A 72.8w
12:02A 79.39w
1:02p - local solar noon 81.7w
2:02 79.5w
3:02p 72.9w
4:02p 62.5w
5:02p 48.9w
6:02p 33.1w
7:02p 0w7)
8:02p 0w

See the not enough panel section below.

believing 100w of panel will make 100w all year

Solar harvest is greatly affected by the position of the sun in the sky (see above) and how many hours of that sun are available. A crude generalization is that winter harvest will be about half of summer harvest.

believing 100w of panel will make 100w in all conditions

100w of panel makes 100w under lab (ie, perfect) conditions. Actual harvest will be much lower on average.

believing solar makes zero watts in rain, overcast, etc

Solar rarely makes zero watts. I find that at local solar noon at lower latitudes my flat-mounted panels make:

  • 5%-10% of rated power in thunderstorms and dark overcast
  • 20%-30% of rated power in normal full overcast
  • 33%-50% of rated power in bright overcast
  • 70%-90% of rated power under full sun

mounting or deploying panels where they will be shaded

It is soul-destroying to watch someone spend money and expend effort to mount solar, then put the panels where they will be shaded. It's like buying a sports car then driving around with the parking brake on all the time. Own goal. Unforced error.

Rule of thumb: nothing on the vehicle should be taller than the surface of the solar panels

mounting or deploying tilted panels facing the wrong direction

Rules of thumb:

  • if panels are tilted and won't be repositioned they should face south in the northern hemisphere, and north in the southern hemisphere.
  • if they *will* be repositioned then you have to keep up with the moves or harvest can be worse than just facing south.

believing they will set out portable panels

Mounted panels make power whenever sunlight is available. Portable panels make power only when they have been set out by their owners. It is a common mistake to underestimate how much of a PITA portables can be and overestimate one's dedication to setting them out.

Be realistic: if you are a person whose phone battery and gas tank is perpetually below 1/4 you probably won't set the panels out often enough or for long enough to derive much benefit. This is not a moral judgement – it just means you need to focus on mounted panel or increasing yield from the alternator.


Shade will wreck solar harvest. Beginners often don't pay attention to shade conditions, including shade thrown by objects on the van roof or the rack itself.

Unforced errors include mounting the panels

  • on a rack that has ladder retention uprights
  • on a rack that has raised sides
  • on the bottom of a roof basket
  • below a roof basket (!!!)
  • near taller objects like vent hoods, antennas, cargo boxes, awning mounts, etc

worrying about solar

Yes, your solar is probably working.

No, framed panels are not easy to damage.8)

buying the wrong panel

Panels that won't fit

Beginners sometimes buy panels before measuring the available roofspace. Either the panels don't fit at all, or they don't fit the way intended. Measure first, then buy panels to fit your particular game of “roof tetris”.

Toy panels

In general, very small panels (less than 100w) are a terrible return on money. They often cost more than much larger normal panels. Unless you are buying them to put on a backpack or something they probably will be more toy than tool.

On the other end of the extreme, larger(200w+), higher voltage(20v, 24v, etc) panels are cheapest by the watt. Medium sized9) 12v panels are in the middle, pricewise. 2019 prices for 100w 12v is around $1/watt.

panel type

After size, the most common mistakes are in choosing the wrong panel type.

First things first: unless you are mounting them on a curved surface10) or carrying them in your hands almost no one needs a flexible panel. So don't pay 2x the price for a damage-prone panel. If you must get a flexible panel because you think it's cool, at least get an amorphous/thin-film panel the way doG intended.

Mono/Poly “flex” panels are spectacularly unsuited for pretty much every campervan use:

  • extremely brittle because they are made of silicon wafers11)
  • cost even more than amorphous
  • are ~twice as vulnerable as amorphous to heat-related power derating

Don't get me started on people flat-mounting poly/mono flex panels to the roof of their van. Maximum cost, maximum power loss due to temp derating, and with the bonus of blasting re-radiated heat right through the van roof. It's a crap trifecta.

Panel types and controllers

It's also possible to combine the wrong panel type for the controller. Mainly due to the voltage where they typically make max power12) , some panels are better a better fit for different controllers.

Poly pairs well with PWM and shunt controllers at all livable temperatures. This setup works best when battery banks are more lightly cycled than when deeply cycled to 50%+ depth of discharge. Poly + PWM is the least expensive option.13) Poly pairs less effectively with MPPT controllers in ambient temps over 90F or so. Exception: poly panels in series work fine with MPPT.

Mono pairs well with MPPT at all temperatures, although this is the most expensive option. MPPT controllers cost ~3x as much as PWM, and mono costs somewhat more than poly. Mono pairs less well with PWM and shunt controllers because the higher voltage puts even more power out of PWM/shunt's reach. They just can't make use of it.

Amorphous panels work best with PWM/shunt controllers due to the panels' low voltage.14) Amorphous panels are the worst fit for MPPT due to their low voltage; there is little or no excess voltage for MPPT to turn into additional current. Exception: amorphous panels in series work fine with MPPT.

Panel efficiency

It is also possible to buy panels that are too expensive by chasing high efficiency. There are premium brands, of course, but the main reason some panels are much more expensive per watt is that they are more efficient.15)

Understand that efficiency is a relationship between rated output and physical panel size: a high-efficiency 100w panel will not make more power than a low-efficiency 100w panel. It will be smaller. This means if you have limited space you will get more power out of of the same space using higher-efficiency panels. That's it. A 100w panel is a 100w panel, no matter how efficient. Only the real estate needed to generate that 100w is different. Efficiency doesn't mean you'll get more or less power from a 100w panel. So don't spend the extra $$$ on high-efficiency panels unless you need it to get max power out of limited roofspace.

Mismatched panels

Mismatched panels (different voltage or current spec)16) on the same controller will hamstring one another. It's an unforced error which you can avoid by:

  • running identical17) panels on the same controller; or
  • run different-spec panels on their own controller

If you are committed to running mismatched panels on the same controller see this series of videos by Alt-E on the subject.

on MPPT controllers

The math for mismatched series max power on MPPT18) is

  (Vmp panel 1 + Vmp panel 2) x lowest Imp of either panel

In parallel,

  (Imp panel 1 + Imp panel 2) x lowest Vmp of either panel

on PWM controllers

Because PWM runs panels at ~Vbatt, the math mismatched series max power on PWM is

  battery voltage x lowest Isc of either panel

In parallel, mismatched voltages won't make much difference unless one is lower than bank voltage.

  (Isc panel 1 + Isc panel 2) x battery voltage

Not enough panel

Let's address two issues: zero panel, and some panel but not enough.

Yes, there are situations where zero solar is part of a workable power plan but they are rare.19) Generally speaking, having zero solar power on a van is an unforced error. It doesn't take much; 200w is the most common amount of solar on vans.

For various reasons, solar panels will typically make less (or much less) power than they are rated at. It's not a scam; the panels really will make that power under certain conditions. Those conditions rarely occur in reality.

The majority of 'dwellers who use lead-chemistry banks require enough solar power to fully charge the banks every day. Under good solar conditions, this is usually stated as the 1:1 rule of thumb; one watt of panel per Ah of battery capacity. Challenging conditions (higher latitude, chronic fog or rain) will require even more, 2:1 or 3:1 or more. If you drive regularly, making trips into town or something, adding alternator charging to solar can reduce panel requirements.

Failure to charge lead batteries fully and regularly will have negative effects, as we will see below. One of the most frequent causes of early battery death is charging with alternator only.

Too much panel

j/k. While it is theoretically possible to have too much panel, in practice few vandwellers ever wished they had less wattage.

There are a few reasons for this:

  1. panels are a one-time expense; they will cost nothing after you buy them. Hard-framed panels degrade so slowly you might be using them the rest of your life.
  2. panels don't require maintenance in the usual sense
  3. having more panel than you need in normal conditions (“overpaneling”) will allow you to make sufficient power even in crummy conditions. About the only issue overpaneling doesn't help is snow covering the panels entirely.
  4. overpaneled systems don't overcharge batteries – they start earlier when sunlight is weaker and are already tapering off by the time the sun gets high enough for max output.
  5. having lots of panel means you can run a lot of daytime loads off those panels
  6. roof mounted panels are out of the way and not underfoot. They are always deployed and ready for business.
  7. having more panel can mean you don't need heroic measures like panel tilting or rearrangement.

Buying “more panel than you need” usually costs extra money directly (panel cost * quantity) and indirectly (may need a bigger controller). Exception: you may be able to get 400w of high voltage panels for the same price as 200w of 12v panels due to the former's superior watt/$ ratio.

Having said all that, you can have too much panel voltage20) for the controller's input and too much current for a PWM's input. Read specs on panels and controller before purchasing anything, and before running panels in series.

Relying on tilt

Tilt is good; perpendicular rays hitting the panel provide more power than those hitting the panel at an angle. Adding tilt to your otherwise-sufficient install is good. Having said that, relying on tilt advantage to meet your power goals can cause issues:

  • tilt advantage is reduced or nonexistent in poor weather conditions.
  • tilt only makes a difference when the sun is relatively low in the sky (in winter, and/or at higher latitudes).
  • tilt advantage is greatest when the amount of power available is least, as at sundown
  • if you feel bad, lazy, hungover or otherwise unwilling to get out and tilt your panels every time you will not meet your basic needs
  • tilting is usually set up in one direction, dictating the parking orientation of your camper
  • tilted panels take time to deploy, store, and interfere with your ability to leave a given location for safety or other reasons

Failure to add alternator charging

Adding an isolator can be very cheap and can supercharge solar installs;21) if run at the right time it can double or triple the effectiveness of solar, meaning one can

  1. run more loads; and/or
  2. reduce the amount of panel; and/or
  3. use the excess capacity to extend autonomy


Dear lord, those poor batteries. New folks kill lead batteries without even knowing it. It's usually due to chronic undercharging but people will claim they were ripped off, got old batteries, whatever soothes their soul at night.

Not enough charging

It is a costly mistake to believe reaching 12.7v means lead batteries are fully charged; they certainly are not. Or to believe that “topping off” is good enough.

Deep-cycled lead batteries typically take hours at Absorption voltage (usually in the 14s) for full charging. From beginning to end this takes about 5.25 to 6 hours for a battery in good health, and much longer for batteries in poor health.

unwarranted faith in Float stage

Being in Float does not mean the bank is fully charged. It means the controller transitioned to float. Yes, it would be nice if the controller only transitioned to Float after Absorption was complete, but most controllers use a timer and that timer is too short for deeply-cycled lead banks.

50% DoD cutoff

Belief that 50% is a magic number below which damage occurs, and above which it does not occur. DoD and cycles have an inverse relationship; the deeper the discharge the fewer the cycles. Of course, you are getting more Ah out of each cycle.

Very broad generalization follows:

  • 20% DoD - longest battery life measured in cycles, but carrying a lot of “dead” (unused) lead.
  • 30% DoD - lowest overall cost in terms of $/kAh
  • 50% DoD - common compromise between weight and cycles
  • 80% DoD - most power from the least amount of lead. kAh is about 6% more expensive at 80% DoD than at 60%, and batteries will have to be replaced more frequently.

Rant: Someone who discharges to 75% DoD but charges properly will probably get the similar cycles the typical battery-murdering vandweller here that draws down to 50% but doesn't know/care about correct charging.

Too much battery

Yes, you can have too much battery.

Most people use lead-chemistry batteries and carrying around unneeded lead is both heavy and expensive. More importantly, having more battery than you can charge fully and regularly results in battery murder. This is especially true for AGM batteries which can have a minimum charging current requirement of C/5 (ie, 20A for 100Ah, 40A for 200Ah). It is a rare vandweller who actually charges their AGM to manufacturer specs and gets a full life from them.

Exotics like lithium and carbon-foam aren't bothered by partial state of charge, but they are so expensive that buying too much is a self-limiting behavior.

Not enough battery

It's possible to have too little battery capacity, but unless the battery is comically undersized for your needs you can reduce power consumption or use power smarter to make it work.

At least you're more likely to get keep it happy and fully charged.

Wrong kind of battery

It seems that vanfolk are making their battery choices based on the ramblings of social media influencers. This is no bueno.

First off, very few vandwellers actually need AGM batteries.22) AGM cost 2x as much as flooded batteries, generally have lower capacity, and require charging regimens vandwellers usually can't or won't provide. I blame the fad on social media and people thinking that “more expensive == better”. But for the love of doG if you need AGM to make your Insta pop, at least get real deep cycles (see below).

Secondly, there are very few actual 12v lead chemistry deep cycle batteries. Those that do exist are on the high end (Rolls, Odyssey, Lifeline, Trojan), are very heavy and very $$$. Deep cycle batteries have seriously thick lead plates which are too heavy for humans to carry in 12v configurations.23) For this reason, most real deep cycle lead batteries are 6v and run in serial for 12v.

Third, you are unlikely to find a real deep cycle battery at a walmart or auto parts store.

Required maintenance

All battery banks need to be inspected regularly for damage, loose connections, and corrosion.

In addition, flooded batteries require watering. This is a feature, not a bug. Their ability to replenish electrolyte is their superpower; they can take abuse that would permanently damage other battery types. (cough AGM cough)

AGM myths

I blame this stuff on one crappy B.U. article.

  • belief that AGM are lighter than flooded (they are not, as an apples-to-apples comparison of their weights shows.)
  • belief that AGM have higher capacities (they actually have slightly less capacity for a given size)
  • belief that AGM can be discharged to 80% instead of 50% like flooded (they both can be discharged to any given DoD and cycles will degrade in the same way)

Solar generators

There are real use cases for these things, but in general they are comically underpowered24) and tragically overpriced. When you buy one you are buying convenience, not performance or value.

And how are you going to charge it after you drain it? Charging from a wall socket typically takes over night. Charging from ciggy lighter only works when the van is running and takes even longer. Charging from solar panel can take several days. These numbers assume zero loads while charging; running anything during charging would make charging take even longer.

As with inverters, many new folks seem to think solar generators are endless sources of power that can run huge appliances in perpetuity and do not need to be recharged.

Battery Isolators (alternator charging)

The big mistake here is believing that an isolator by itself will keep a deep cycle lead chemistry battery charged and in good health. It can't do that in most situations and for most people.

Getting the battery to 12.7v and calling it fully charged is wrong and a recipe for battery murder. Let's review the stages of lead battery charging:

  1. Bulk: maximum current until Absorption voltage (Vabs) is reached25)
  2. Absorption: hold Vabs for a given duration and/or until the batteries don't want any more26)
  3. Float: reduce Vabs to a lower maintenance voltage (Vfloat) and hold it indefinitely.

An isolator doesn't even get all the way through the first stage;27) absorption requires higher voltages and more hours than casual driving can provide.

Another mistake is planning to idle the van's engine to run the alternator. This is bad for the alternator28) and the engine29). Additionally, direct injected engines like the popular EcoBoost series carbon foul the intake valves when idled excessively. It affects the engine and is several hundred dollars to fix.

So why charge from the alternator at all? Because isolators are fantastic at delivering massive amounts of current to the battery bank in Bulk when the bank wants it30), and it does it for cheap. A $25 constant duty solenoid can provide more current to a deeply-discharged bank than $1000 of solar. And it does it automagically when you drive; no sun needed.

There is no particular benefit to upgrading the alternator (or adding another one) beforehand. Run the OEM alternator sanely31) and replace it with a higher-output one when/if the OEM fails. You'll be paying for labor then anyhow and the upgrade to an HD alternator will be nominal.


“Inverters power fantasies better than they power appliances”. - secessus

Common mistakes, from most serious to least serious:

Belief that an inverter is mandatory. It's not. Inverter loads use about 10% more power than native DC loads like laptops. And it seduces people into wanting to run household gear in the van. Remember: you are the power company, you are the one making every watt.

“It is cheaper and easier to use less power than it is to make more power.” – highdesertranger32)

Belief that an inverter is an endless source of power unto itself. It's not. It sucks power from your battery and any charging sources.

Belief that x-thousands of watts in inverter capacity means you have x-thousands of watts to pump into it. It's not true; the inverter could pull x-thousands of watts but that doesn't mean your battery can provide it, or provide it for long. And you still have to stuff those x-thousands of watts back into the battery before sundown.33)

Running loads off inverter that don't need it (or can be damaged by it):

  • “I ran a 12v fan off my little inverter the other night…” Why?
  • “I plugged my maxxfan into the inverter and it burn up…” what???

Wasting money and power on an inverter that is larger than your forseeable needs. Big inverters cost much more, and tend to squander more power just in running themselves with no load. The proper size for an inverter (if one is needed at all) is one big enough to handle all the inverter loads you plan to run at one time.34)


12v compressor fridges cost a lot of money, a few hundred to a thousand dollars. If you see a new “fridge” for $100 it's almost certainly a power-sucking, underperforming Peltier (thermoelectric) cooler. It's rarely what you want.

Staying in one place

A common mistake is the belief (or wish) to stay in one place for free. You can't stay in one place on public land for very long (14 days is common) and staying in one places while stealth camping is a recipe for police interaction.

Even if one has a friend who is willing to let you “live in the driveway” the neighbors and/or municipality will typically object.


The common mistakes with stealth are at the extremes:

  • believing one can be 100% stealth and not be noticed; and
  • believing the opposite, that one cannot tilt the balance in one's favor of not being kicked out of a spot
  • staying in one spot for days/weeks/months then being shocked at being kicked out



Ahem. FFS, please stop asking “what jobs do y'all do on the road????”. It's been asked and answered ad nauseum. Show some effort.

After asking the same repetitive questions, there are plenty of other mistakes to be made.

It's easy to run out of money during the build, either by going crazy with what you want or by underestimating what it will cost. Remember the build needs to please you and no one else.


Living in a vehicle can be cheap or very expensive, depending on the 'dwellers choices.

These mistakes can make vehicle-dwelling more expensive:

  • failure to have savings for emergencies
  • failure to budget for maintenance expenses
  • eating out too often instead of cooking for yourself
  • driving around like an unhinged werewolf, racing from place to place across the country. Gas isn't cheap, and vans don't get great MPG. Plan ahead. Stay longer at places.
  • paying for campsites. What is it that you are getting from the campsite that you can't handle yourself? Toilets? Power? Take that campsite money and use it to make your camper more off-grid capable.
  • overpaying for “unlimited” data plans when you could use less bandwidth, use an MVNO instead of a major carrier, etc. If you “need unlimited for work” then why aren't you writing off that expense already?


Generally speaking, any question a beginner asks has already been asked/answered a kerbillion times before. It's exhausting, and reveals that OP hasn't put forth even minimal effort. This is so common that fatigued respondents write up Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) articles in the vain hope that beginners will read them. And not ask the same questions over and over. And over. It also makes a place experience folk can link to instead of typing out the same damn answers every time.

So the first step to getting a grip on any new topic is to look for existing FAQ articles. If you want to know about solar for vans do a search on solar vans FAQ. Easy, right?

If you are on a forum look for “stickies”, which are informative articles stuck/pinned to the top of the post listing. If you are on reddit look for “sidebars”, columns on the sides of the pages that contain useful links.

Here are some tips on improving your search abilities (“google-fu”).

buying random stuff

OP: {buys random gear without understanding needs, specs, how it works, or anything else really}
OP: why does my system not work? It'S jUnk!!!!
Onlookers: because you bought random stuff and threw it together

Read and understand specs before buying stuff. This will save you grief and expense, and will save us from having to read your manual to you when the product fails to do what you wish/hope/imagine it will do.

Actual examples:

I bought a Ecoflow Delta to… to fire up a Chinese diesel heater… However, the heater draws too much juice from the 12v car port to run.


I recently got a portable kettle that’s collapsable, it’s perfect for being on the road, but my power bank can’t run it


I have [a Renogy DCC50S with a 25v input limit], 6x 100w panels, currently wired as 3x 2 panel series in parallel, [and destroyed the controller]. I already replaced it once for the same issue and I can’t figure out what’s going on…


Good advice can save time, money, and heartbreak. But getting good advice is not simple or even natural. We have to slow down and force ourselves to think about the issues, our questions, the existing body of knowledge, the answers we receive. The most important thing is no matter what advice you get or take, it's your life and you have final responsibility for it. Your decisions are your own. Make them wisely.

making helpers guess

If you are asking for help don't make the helpers guess what you are trying to accomplish, what gear you have, whether or not it has ever worked, etc. People across the internet cannot see what's in front of you – all we have to go on is what you tell us.

You may want to start a text document that lists all the installed gear and significant settings so

  1. you have a clearer understanding; and
  2. can paste it into a post when you need help


Thrashing is getting whipped into a frenzy of questions, non-comprehension, and failure to learn. Thrashing often presents as asking the same thread in many forums/subreddits, bailing on existing threads to make new ones similar or identical, etc. It is like watching a drowning person nearly drown a lifeguard.

Slow down. Listen to what people are telling you. Think about what you want to accomplish. Express your thoughts clearly.

The best thing is to slow down and actually understand what's going on, then decide where you eventually want to take the system and move deliberately in that direction. It's not a “one weird trick” situation – gertzerlla35))

wanting personal attention from an internet-famous person

No, Bob Wells and or Will Prowse will not answer your plea in person. There are thousands of you and one of them. If you want personal help pay a consultant or buy a pizza for a geeky friend.

wanting premium support

{note: this section uses Renogy as an example}

Renogy operates in the value end of the spectrum and must rely on (rather good) web and product manual documention for mass support. But since the price point is low the brand attracts a lot of first-timers and other “low information” customers who want/need individual support.

Folks who want/need individual support might ultimately be happier paying 2x-3x for a higher-end product that has enough margin to provide individual support (Victron, Morningstar, etc).

Wanting easy answers

Easy answers are rarely correct or useful answers. In real life “one weird trick!” solutions are exceedingly rare.

Q. What is the best [fill in the blank?
A. Best for what?

Q. How much battery/solar do I need?
A. Only you and the math know the answer to that.

Q. Is [fill in the blank] miles too many?
A. It depends.

Failure to ask good questions

The first step in getting good advice is to ask good questions. It's harder than it sounds, but it is a learnable skill.

  • get a handle on what it is you really want
  • do your homework: read, browse, watch youtube videos, google, use the ding-dang search function of the forum, subreddit, etc.
  • when you hit a wall then ask for help. No one likes leeches, princesses, helpless snowflakes, or the lazy who expect others to do the work for them.
  • express your request as clearly and simply as possible, including what you intend to accomplish
  • shouldn't have to say this, but here we are: list the make/model of any components you are using and how they are connected
  • indicate what you do know, what you have already read or tried
  • write a concise and specific title. “Configuring a Morningstar TS-45 MPPT” is good. “don't understand solar!!!!!!!!” is not so good. “Can anyone answer this??!?” is annoying and manipulative. Also, any title that includes the word “anyone” indicates a low-effort question that could likely be answered by a 10-second search. Why should we care if you don't?
  • write the post in normal, human-readable style. Avoid run-on sentences, “wall of text” word vomit with no organization, punctuation, or paragraph breaks. We aren't writing masters thesis here but write it so the post wouldn't give your 8th grade English teacher a stroke.
I am always surprised to see some people demanding the time of others and meeting a most obliging response. Both sides have in view the reason for which the time is asked and neither regards the time itself — as if nothing there is being asked for and nothing given. - Seneca

Failure to judge advice

When advice comes in, consider the source:

  • did the responder read and address your questions?
  • does the responder actually live in a vehicle? If so, have they made it through at least one summer/winter cycle?
  • how does the responder react to other points of view?
  • is the responder a salescritter or consultant with a vested interest?
  • does the responder spread Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt?
  • is the responder willing to go for “the best!” with your money but not with their own?
  • is the responder a partisan of some kind: anti-Renogy, pro-Renogy, etc
  • is the responder an idiot, a druggie, a zero-experience dreamer, a poorly-informed blowhard, a black/white thinker?
  • is the advice upvoted/downvoted/liked by onlookers?
  • is the advice commented on favorably by onlookers whose opinion you value?
  • does the responder have experience and/or training in the area?
  • does the responder expect you to believe him/her as gospel?
  • does the responder use absolute language like “you should”, “what you need is”, “junk”, “nothing but problems”, “crap”, etc?
  • does the responder seem irrationally emotional or invested in your decision?
  • does the responder claim to know “what you want”? Tip: people who tell you what you want don't know what you want, and don't care what you want
  • Does the advice pass a sanity test? Does it seem possible and worth of follow-up research or questions?

None of these preclude the advice from being correct, but do take these factors into consideration.

Failure to take good advice

There are folks who come up with foolish ideas then want others to give them support and encouragement. They receive input on why it doesn't work, why it historically hasn't worked, and why OP is unlikely to make it work. These interactions follow a pattern:

  1. OP sets down the bong just long enough to post a harebrained idea with the unhelpful title of “will this work??????????” or “HELP!” or “A question”.
  2. experienced 'dwellers point out the many errors in thinking
  3. OP gets mad – they'll make it work and everyone will be sorry they ever doubted!
  4. 'dwellers get popcorn and say “let us know how it works out”
  5. OP retreats back to his hazy dreamworld and is never heard from again

This behavior is expected from 7th grade boys who have fantasies of building the best, fastest, most epic fast/furious streetracer with 100% premium components. All without money, experience, or understanding of how things work. It's less charming in adults and wastes everyone's time.

If you want closure on the issue, set a reminder and check back on the thread later to see how OP Surely Delivered. It's sad/hilarious, depending on your view of humanity.

and padding so you don't mar the paint
100w poly panel on sale for $90, 10A shunt controller for $10.
under normal conditions
assuming clear skies, no shade, MPPT, total system efficiency 85%
6) , 7)
panel voltage too low
“flex panels” are a different story, see below
boat, teardrop trailer
amorphous is basically spray-painted and so is actually flexible to some degree
thus driving Imax at any given output rating
Poly + shunt is even cheaper, but relatively uncommon
and therefore higher amperage
there are exotic panels like double-sided or experimental cell chemistries, but those are not common in the vandweller univers.
or partial shade or different location/orientation
not close, not same maker, not same wattage, not kinda look the same, IDENTICAL
alternator charging lithium banks is one scenario that doesn't require solar. Long-haul drivers with B2B chargers is another.
or string voltage if in series
this effect is strongest on systems with PWM controllers
yes, there are exceptions
the thick places are the reason they can tolerate deep cycling
see comments above
ie, “constant current”
“constant voltage”
DC-DC isolators can reach Vabs, though we still have the same duration problem
wear and tear
lithium chemistries always want it
ie, not idling
plus charging inefficiencies
remember to account for start-up draws, not just running draws
The best thing is to slow down and actually understand what's going on, then decide where you eventually want to take the system and move deliberately in that direction. It's not a “one weird trick” situation – gertzerlla76
opinion/frater_secessus/beginner_mistakes.txt · Last modified: 2024/07/05 12:03 by frater_secessus