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
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 a high percentage of daydreamers, naifs, and people looking for magical cures for whatever ails them.
People who have a good chance at successful 'dwelling are:
People who are probably doomed to failure are:
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 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.
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.
See Finding a Van.
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.
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?
The 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.
The biggest mistake beginners make with power is thinking they will heat (or cool) things with power they generate off-grid. The usual suspects are:
Yes, it is possible to do these things. But the people who are doing them successfully off-grid
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 some 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.
Posts that include “my needs are simple, all I need are lights and a fan” develop, after questioning, into “Yeah, forgot the laptop. And phone. And tablet. And toaster. And coffee maker.”
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.
If you are disciplined you can save money by building a less powerful system. This requires:
Having no solar at all is generally an unforced error for vandwellers. Even adding small amounts of panel (100w) can make a solar, and can be added to an alternator-charged system for as little as $100.2)
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”.
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 sized4) 12v panels are in the middle, pricewise. 2019 prices for 100w 12v is around $1/watt.
After size, the most common mistakes are in choosing the wrong panel type. First things first: unless you are mounting them on a curved surface5) 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:
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.
It's also possible to combine the wrong panel type for the controller. Mainly due to the voltage where they typically make max power7) , 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.8) 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.9) 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.
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 expensive is that they are more efficient.10) Understand that efficiency is a relationship between rated output and physical panel size.
This means if you have limited space you will get more power out of 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.
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.11) 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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
Dear lord, those poor batteries. New folks kill 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.
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.
At least you're more likely to get keep it happy and fully charged.
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.13) 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), are very heavy and very $$$. Deep cycle batteries have seriously thick lead plates which are too heavy for humans to carry in 12v configurations.14) 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.
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)
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.
The big mistake here is believing that an isolator will keep a lead chemistry battery charged and in good health. It can't do that in most situations and for most people.
An isolator doesn't even get all the way through the first stage;18) 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 alternator19) and the engine20). 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 it21), 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 sanely22) 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.
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. 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.” – highdesertranger23)
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.24)
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.25)
The common mistakes with stealth are at the extremes:
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.
It's even easier to run out of money on the road:
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”).
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.
The first step in getting good advice is to ask good questions. It's harder than it sounds, and it is a learnable skill.
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
When advice comes in, consider the source:
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.
There are folks who come up with foolish ideas then want others to give them support and encouragement. They receive instruction 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:
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 the issues. It's less charming in adults and wastes everyone's time.