What is the most important part of a van build? Is it having a comfortable bed? Would it be having ample storage? Maybe stealth is what is most important to you? Well, all these things are important, but having power to run your gadgets, lights and fans is a real luxury in DYI camper build. My shore power, batteries and power center have worked flawlessly for a number of months and I’m now happy to share with you how we built this system.
** Important – I am not an electrician. I had A LOT of help on this part of the build from my Dad (retired electrical engineer), so please get assistance from someone who knows what they are doing. Dealing with power like this can get you electrocuted and bad wiring could cause a fire. **
Update: Build 6 Video Added:
When building your van interior, you should always be thinking a few steps ahead of your current build phase. For instance, when we were installing the ceiling and wall insulation, we were thinking about where to run the wires for the future power center. We had an idea of where we would need power, so we pre-ran wiring from the lights to the proposed location of the power center.
Power Center Mock Up and Batteries
My van (1998 Astro van) has a very small interior space. This means we have to try to use every square inch of the van wisely. After sitting in the van for a while, my Dad and I finally came up with a plan to utilize the space around the wheel well as our main power location. The plan was to run all the wiring to this one location and to fit all of the electronics into this small space.
Before spending money on any of the parts involved, we wanted to build a mock set up with the power center and batteries to make sure it would work out the way we expected it to. Check out our cardboard mock up:
A couple weeks later, our supplies arrived for the electrical build and we were ready to tackle this important part of the project. First we positioned the batteries in the back passenger corner of the van. Incidentally, we had to relocated the jack and had to pry the jack mount from the van floor in order to have a flat surface for the batteries to fit. And what a perfect fit they were:
I bought 2 – 6 Volt AGM batteries with 210 amp hrs from MetroPlex Battery Inc. in Dallas, Texas. They have trucks running on delivery routes to Austin & Houston. We chose to have the batteries delivered to my Dad’s house. We ordered them and they were delivered, free shipping, two days later. Well, when you spend $500 on batteries, you should get free shipping. 😉
You can go to US Battery’s website to find a distributor near you : US Battery
Power Center Build
The idea of our power center was to build a rectangular box which extends out a bit around the wheel well. We used the space around the wheel well and extended the box outward to add more room to house all of our electrical build components. With the batteries on hand, we built a base power center structure and measured the interior area, so we could verify that all of our electrical components would fit inside.
Here are a few pictures of the interior of the box, so you get an idea of the room inside and how the box was constructed:
Once the box was fitted to the wall and wheel well, we pulled the box out and began installing components for the electrical system. Let me correct myself. I went back to Houston and my Dad installed the electrical components in the power center over the next two weeks during his spare time. Thanks Dad!!
Here are some pictures my Dad took during construction:
My Dad’s original sketch of the electrical design:
The electrical layout changed slightly during the build, but this drawing gives you an idea of where it all started.
The front of the power center was fitted with a sheet of aluminum which acts as an access door. Take a look at these next couple of pictures as he adds components to the power center.
Here is a look from the inside with the access door closed:
With part of the box and electrical complete, we decided to move it all in the van and make sure it all fits well.
We finished the build of the power center but were lacking a black outlet plate, so we settled on a white one until we could track down a black one. Now that the power center was complete, it was time to move on to setting up shore power.
Shore Power Setup
This van will eventually have shore power (plug into a standard outlet to charge batteries), solar power (panels on the roof to charge batteries) and a battery isolator (alternator charges battery while driving). For now, I knew shore power would be the best way to charge the batteries while I wrap up business in Houston. Later this summer, I hope to install the solar panels and battery isolator.
For the shore power hookup, we needed to cut a hole in the side of the van to install the shore power inlet. We used a Marinco 15 amp on-board charger inlet which comes in black or white. This inlet allows you to plug a regular 15 amp extension cord into the wall, then the other end into the inlet to allow power to be drawn from the wall outlet.
We followed the instructions and traced out a hole in the side of the van, then proceeded to cut a hole in a perfectly good van. 😉
Next, my Dad began cutting away at the van. This is always the scary part, but it all worked out well.
Now that we have a hole, it’s time to feed the inlet through the hole and secure it in place. Here is what the shore power inlet looks like opposite the plug side.
How does it all Work?
Now that you have seen the basic construction of the power center, shore power and the batteries I chose, let me show you how this system works. ** Reminder – I’m not an electrician, but I will do my best to explain. **
First off, let’s take a look at the final power build and then I’ll go over how it works.
First, let me list some of the components used in this power center build, so you will have an idea of the cost and complexity of the build. I will not go into how to connect each one of the components because I think it isn’t suited for a novice to even attempt, and it’s hard for a novice like me to explain. 🙂
Main Power Center Build Components
- Heavy Duty outdoor 12-16 gauge extension cord (wall to shore power inlet)
- Marinco 15 amp Shore Power Inlet
- US Battery AGM2000
- Vmaxtanks 15 amp 7 Stage Heavy Duty Smart Battery Charger
- Whistler XP200i – 200 Watt Power Inverter
- WindyNation P30L Solar Panel Charge Controller
The components above are part of what we used in this build. There were also plenty of wires, breakers, fuses, busbars and circuit breakers as well.
Steps for Using this System
- Plug the extension cord into a wall outlet
- Plug the other end into the Shore Power inlet on the outside of the van
- Flip the power switch on the Power Center
- Flip the charging switch on the Power – Starts charging the batteries
While charging, I can plug my laptop or other gadgets into the outlet on the power center to use the electricity coming in from the shore power. When charging is complete, I can use the lights or the 12 volt cigarette lighter plug on the power center to power items. I can also flip on the 200 watt inverter to power low watt devices with either the outlet or USB ports.
Pros and Cons of Building a Wheel Well Power Center
When I took my first trip in the van to Big Bend NP, I was amazed at how nice the pine wall and ceiling paneling looked, but I soon realized that the Power Center was my new favorite part of the van. My Dad did an excellent job putting it together, but still there were issues.
- Everything is neatly in one location
- Short wire runs to the battery means less power loss
- The access door will allow repairs to be made even if storage is built on top
- Takes up very little room in the van
- The Power Center is on the floor which means bending over to access it
- The WindyNation P30L Solar Charge Controller doesn’t have a backlight – hard to see
- Hard to read displays from a distance
I plan to replace the WindyNation P30L Charge Controller when we add the solar panels. I want something with a backlight that I can see while laying in bed. This model was very inexpensive compared to others and was a good starter model, but I look forward to upgrading down the road.
Well, I think that about wraps it up. Thank you for visiting my blog. Please leave comments below. I really appreciate your feedback.