6 Ways to Generate Power – A DIY Campervan Electrical System

Having a power supply to charge and run electronics is a common concern among the van-dwelling community. Deciding how to set up a DIY campervan electrical system is part of the van conversion process. Most van-dweller’s have an array of electronics including a laptop, phone, camera, fridge, fan and more.

Simple ways to charge or power electronics while on the road include:

  • Charge while driving.
  • Plug in to the grid (campgrounds, friends house, etc).
  • Install a simple solar system (that you can do yourself).
  • Use a portable power source.
  • Use solar chargers.
  • Find public places with outlets.  

In this post I’ll go into more detail about these six options to help you decide which path you want to take for charging and powering your electronics. The goal is to help you set up your campervan electrical system with as few headaches as possible.

My goal is to provide options for most every budget.

Heads Up… this article contains referral links to products I use or recommend. I earn a referral fee from purchases made through these links. The earnings help keep the wheels rollin’!

Your DIY Campervan Electrical System

The first thing you’ll need to determination for your electric system is what you need to power or charge.

Naturally, the more you need to power, the more electricity you’ll need to generate. The good thing is, there are various ways to go about getting the power you need.

Unfortunately, if your power needs outweigh your budget you may need to cut back somewhere – at least temporarily. In this case, you’ll need to decide what’s most important and start there.

To give you a baseline, I’ll share what I power in my own van and what I power it with: 

  • CPAP machine (used 7-8 hours every single night).
  • 12-volt refrigerator (Dometic – always plugged in).
  • Fantastic roof fan (used when needed).
  • Phone (charged everyday).
  • Low Level Laser Therapy device (for pain relief – charged when needed).
  • Notebook/laptop (charged when needed).
  • Rechargable batteries (charged when needed).

When I went full-time (in October 2015), my budget allowed me to get the Goal Zero Yeti 1250. It’s a simple plug-n-play solar system and it’s allowed me to be off-the-grid when I choose to do so.

I could easily add a second battery to store more power but my budget currently doesn’t allow for it. I’m not sure it’s worth the cost because I’ve done very well with just one (100amp) battery.

The only time I’ve had a problem with power were the few days I was in 90 degree, humid weather.

My solar system couldn’t keep up because, in the humidity and heat, the fridge ran a lot more than usual. My remedy was to go without a fridge for a few days while I came up with a plan to get the heck out of the humid weather!

I don’t mind hot but I detest hot-n-humid. I typically chase 70 degrees and primarily live off-the-grid. Other than those few 90 degree days I’ve never had a problem with not having enough power.

Charge Electronics While Driving

An easy way to charge your phone, laptop or other electronics is to do it while driving.

To charge while driving you’ll need an adapter. If you don’t already have one, I would recommend getting an adapter that has multiple charging ports (including USB ports) so you can charge multiple devices while driving.

Amazon has an entire array of devices or you can check your local Walmart. Once you determine what you need to power while driving you can decide which product is best for you.

Plugging In To The Grid

Plugging in to charge or use electronics is another option for your campervan electrical system.

What You’ll Need

Before you can plug in to any type of outlet you’ll need a few things:

Power Cord 

An outdoor power cord (also referred to as an extension cord) is essential if you want to plug in to the grid. Since the power cord will be outside it must be rated for outdoor use.

You’ll also need to determine the best “gauge”. The gauge needed depends on what you want to power.

TheSpruce.com provides a great explanation about how to select the right extension cord for your needs.

Shore Power Port vs The Window

Putting the power cord through the window is an easy way to plug in to the outside outlet. The window will need to remain open because it cannot be closed with the cord passing through.

Adding a shore power port to your van makes it more convenient to plug in and its relatively inexpensive to have someone add the port to your van.

It cost me about $30 to have someone drill a hole in the side of my van and install a power port. I found a local small town RV place to install the port for me. The cost may vary in different parts of the USA.  

The basic components of installing a shore power port are:

  • A small hole is drilled in the van (where you want them to place the port).
  • On the outside of the hole, a single, 3-prong outlet is installed.
  • On the inside of the hole, a normal electrical outlet is installed (with 2 or 4 plugins).

You don’t need to have the van “wired” (unless you choose to do so).

A simple, easy way to wire your van is to use power strips.

For example, I had my shore power outlet installed towards the front of my van (behind the driver’s seat). The electrical outlet inside the van has 2 receptacles so my electrical “wiring” consists of 2 heavy-duty power strips:

  • One power strip is short. I attached it to my table for use in the front of the van.
  • The other strip is 20 feet long. It’s plugged in to the outlet and runs along the floor (behind the table so I’m not tripping over it), under my bed and around so that that I can use it in back of the van.

In a small place I really don’t need more “wiring” than that!

30 Amp Adapter (optional)

30 amp adapter is handy to have on hand if you plan to spend time at campgrounds.

Many campground have 30 or 50 amp outlets and may or may not have 20 amp outlets (your power cord plugs in to a 20 amp outlet).

I use the Camco Power Defender Circuit Analyzer With Integrated Surge Protection, 30 Amp Male to 30 Amp Female.

I chose the Defender because it tests the campground outlet to make sure it’s wired correctly and also provides some surge protection.

Where To Plug In

  • Campgrounds.
  • Family or friend’s house.
  • Anywhere there’s an outlet that you have permission to use.

A Simple Solar Setup For Your Campervan Electrical System

The easiest way to have power while living in a van is a plug-n-play system.

A plug-n-play system is one that comes ready to use with little or no assembly required.

Plug-n-play solar systems can be more expensive than the traditional solar system but, for those who desire simplicity, a plug-n-play system is the way to go.

A traditional system is where you buy the charge controller, inverter, batteries, wiring and other components separately and put the entire system together yourself.

Goal Zero Portable Power Packs and Generators

The Goal Zero company has several options for a simple plug-n-play portable power systems. Their portable power systems can be charged while driving, while plugged in to shore power or by solar panels.

On the Goal Zero website you’ll find a wealth of information for each product. On each product information page you’ll find details about how long the charged battery lasts, the time it takes to charge and what types of items can be powered by that particular product.

What To Look For With Goal Zero Products

A few tips to help you decide which Goal Zero is best for you:

  • Determine your budget (budget may or may not be the deciding factor).
  • On the Goal Zero website, click the more link shown after each product to read the details.
  • Goal Zero provides all the accessories needed but you can also get them other places or use other compatible brands.
  • If you’re watching expenses you may want to shop around.
  • If you have any questions or concerns contact Goal Zero! I’ve always found them helpful.

Goal Zero Customer Support

Goal Zero can be contacted via phone, email or live chat.

When I have a question I contact Goal Zero Customer Support via email and have always been happy with their service.

It can take a few days for them to respond via email, though, but email is my preference.

Charging The Goal Zero

There are 3 ways to charge a Goal Zero power pack:

Charge While Driving

As I mentioned earlier, you can charge the Goal Zero while driving using a car adapter from Goal Zero or Amazon.

Van Life Advice: I tried using the car adapter but couldn’t get a charge. After talking with Goal Zero I found that some newer vehicles have a safety mechanism that doesn’t allow enough of a charge to come through. Goal Zero and Amazon both have 30 day return policies so be sure to test it out before the 30 days is up.

Charge By Plugging In To The Grid

A second way to charge the power pack is plugging in to the grid (at someone’s house, a campground or anywhere you have permission to use an outlet).

When I got my Yeti 1250 I didn’t have solar panels for the first 8 months. I charged the Yeti by plugging in at campgrounds.

My battery lasted 2 to 3 days before I had to charge it again.

Charge Using Solar Panels

There are 2 options when it comes to solar panels (there are pros and cons to each):

  • Portable solar panels.
  • Permanently attached solar panels.
Portable Solar Panels

The Renogy company makes a solar panel that comes as a portable folding suitcase.

This solar panel is not permanently attached. It simply folds up and is stored inside the van.

When you want to use the panel you need to set it up.

Setup of the Renogy suitcase involves opening the “suitcase” to expose the panels, placing it in the sun and plugging it in to the power pack (or battery).

The upside of this method is it’s simple and you don’t have to permanently attach anything to the outside of the van. It also allows you to park in the shade while placing the solar panel in the sun.

The downside is you have to be parked somewhere in order to use it. This may or may not be an issue for some people. It simply depends on how you live and travel in your van.

Permanently Attached Solar Panels 

All Powers makes a bendable or flexible solar panel. These panels need to be permanently attached to the roof of the van (or however you can creatively attach it).

When attached to the roof the bendable solar panels are virtually unseen.

Renogy is another popular brand for solar panels but their panels aren’t flexible. When attached to the roof they are noticeable.

Other’s can tell that something is on the roof but who knows if they know what it is or if they even care.

What Do I Use?

I started out using the Renogy Portable Folding Suitcase but found that it wasn’t for me.

The way I traveled, I was never stopped long enough to use it (I traveled a LOT when I first started out).

Eventually, I bought two AllPowers 100 w bendable solar panels and paid someone to attach them to my roof.

I found a place that does custom car projects and they were willing to attach the panels for me at a very reasonable cost (I also had them tint my windows).

I love my All Powers bendable panels! My Goal Zero is charged while I drive and also when I’m parked where there’s a reasonable amount of sun.

Surprisingly, I’ve also gotten a small charge during foggy weather (while on the Oregon coast).

Another plus with the bendable panels is that no one knows they’re up there. People are amazed when I tell them I have 2 solar panels on the roof!

Admittedly, when I finally got my solar panels it was liberating!

Portable Power Source

The Schumacher Portable Power Source is a cheaper option if your power needs are light AND you have the ability to plug in to the grid when it needs to be recharged.

The initial charge time is 36 hours but, after that, the power pack charges more quickly.

These little machines have several benefits:

  • Jump starter with cables
  • Air compressor
  • Emergency light
  • USB charging port
  • 120v outlets
  • 12 volt outlets
  • Built-in Inflator/Deflator

I would not recommend this product for your campervan electrical system if your power needs are greater than charging a few electronic devices and/or you don’t have the ability to plug in to recharge it.

On the other hand, the Schumacher Portable Power Source comes with a lot of beneficial uses and it may be a handy item to have on hand.

Solar Chargers

There are smaller, portable solar chargers that can be used to charge cell phones, laptops and small devices.

Using a solar charger is as simple as placing it on the dashboard or outside in the sunlight (providing it’s not in a place where it can “walk away”).

Solar chargers are an all-in-one type of product. There’s no need to attach a separate solar panel anywhere because the panel is included in the product.

This is a good option when the budget doesn’t allow for other means or if you have low power needs.

There’s a wide variety to choose from based on your need and budget.

Charging Phones and Laptops In Public Places

The last option I’d like to discuss is finding public places to charge your primary electronic devices (cell phone, laptop, tablet, etc).

If none of the other options for a campervan electrical system work for you there still may be an option for getting your essential electronic devices charged.

IMPORTANT: Just because an electrical outlet is in a public place doesn’t mean you have a right to use it. You’ll need to do your own due diligence to determine if where you’re plugging in is legal and allowed. 

Here are a few ideas on where you might be able to charge your phone or laptop: 

  • City parks
  • Malls
  • Starbucks or other coffee establishments
  • Libraries or bookstores
  • Rest Areas
  • McDonald’s
  • Denny’s

More and more public places are implementing charging stations or areas to charge your electronics. You simply need to be on the lookout for them.

Some of these places also offer free wifi.


I’ve given you several options for powering your electronics and creating your own DIY campervan electrical system.

Van life can take us to many places so it’s always good to have more than one option available.

If you’re able, I recommend setting your van up with multiple options.

If you’re not able, don’t sweat it. Simply do what you can with what you can afford!

Easy van life electrical System

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