When I was building out my camper, by far the most daunting part was figuring out the van electrical system. Every time I looked it up, it felt like my brain shut off as soon as it saw boring words like “inverter,” “lithium,” “deep cycle….”
While I (mostly) figured out all the vocab, as someone with less than zero experience messing with wires, I needed something easier. If you have an electrician friend, I’m jealous. But if you don’t and you’re afraid that you might burn your van down, this guide is for you! This easy camper van electrical system guide should tell you everything you need to know – one thing I found frustrating when reading other people’s guides was the lack of detail – how do you connect wires? How do you mount solar panels? What size fuses do I need?
an idiot a beginner like me, I gotchu. This guide is going to talk about all of it – wiring a Maxxair fan to the Goal Zero Yeti, wiring 12v lights to the battery, connecting solar panels, and all the basic campervan electric stuff that will help you figure out the mess of wires, fuses, and plugs.
Some of the links in this blog post are affiliate links – which means I get a small commission if you buy any of these items. Which is great because I was going to share anyway, and this doesn’t add any cost to you, and allows me to keep making free guides!
I’ll start from the top of the van electrical system. The solar panels go on the roof of the van – this is where all the magic happens. And by magic I mean the power of the sun gets collected and sent to the battery. Which is kind of like magic, I like to think.
These are the solar panels I used. The Renogy 100 Watt solar panels are lightweight, flexible, and easy to mount. The other popular solar panel I’ve seen (and actually used for my first van) are these panels from Goal Zero, but they’re a lot more expensive, heavier, and a little bit harder to install.
If you choose a different solar panel, watch out for the voltage. Check how much the battery you use can handle. The Goal Zero Yeti (which is the battery I chose, more about that later) can’t handle more than 22 volts. This solar panel is 12, so it’s well within the range!
Voltage is the power of the electric force – so if it’s too high, it can ruin your battery. The watts are a measurement of how much power the solar panel can collect. A few paragraphs down I’ll also talk about how voltage works when you have more than one solar panel!
These are 100 watt solar panels – so 100 watts is the maximum amount of power it can collect. But, it doesn’t actually reach 100 – the actual wattage depends on how much sunlight there is.
I have two solar panels on my roof (200 watts), but I want to add a third sometime. I power my fridge 24/7, charge my phone and laptop, and use the lights pretty often. Most people have a similar power consumption, so unless you’re operating power tools or maybe a TV, 200 watts works okay, but I do sometimes have trouble keeping the battery charged in the winter time when days are shorter, so I’d recommend at least 300 watts.
These solar panels have 6 holes around the edges to make mounting it easy. Just drill pilot holes, then insert self tapping screws. Make sure to put sealant under and over each screw – you definitely don’t want leaks! The 3m sealant is popular with van lifers, and as far as I can tell, it works perfectly.
Combing solar panels does not increase voltage – if you connect them correctly. Both of my solar panels are 12 volt, so when they’re connected the voltage is still at 12. Here’s a diagram of how to connect your solar panels!
This is called a parallel connection. The two solar panels are not connected to each other – instead you use branch connectors to join them.
One of the wires on the Renogy solar panels is really short for some reason (probably to sell more cables… I see you, Renogy), so you may need one short extension cable to ensure that both solar panels can reach the branch connector. This small extension cord needs to be spliced together – I used a butt connector and this crimper. I then put some waterproof flex tape over the connection to keep rain from getting in.
Then, the branch connectors connect to another extension cable (you’ll need two of these), which goes through your roof! You can either use a hole saw to drill a large hole that the ends of the extension cable will fit through, or cut the wires, drill a small hole, and splice them together inside the van.
I went with the big hole option, so when I put sealant over it, I had to put some tape over the hole from inside the van – so that the sealant didn’t just fall through.
Goal Zero Battery
Now that the solar panels are mounted, you’ll need a way to actually store that power. The battery is the powerhouse of every van electrical system – it’s the middleman between solar power and electricity. I have a Goal Zero Yeti 1400 – which they don’t sell anymore, because they’ve upgraded the design. The equivalent of what I have is now the Goal Zero Yeti 1500X, but there are some smaller and cheaper options if you don’t need quite as much power (and bigger ones if you need more).
I won’t lie to ya – it’s expensive. But, having electricity in the van allows me to work from anywhere, so I just tell myself it balances out that way.
This thing is incredible because it’s everything in one – you don’t need to get an inverter or figure out which battery you need, the Yeti has all of it. It tells you how many watts you’re getting and how many you’re using, how much charge you have left, and how long it will last. You can plug everything you need right into it (though I keep this under my bench, and added an outlet to my wall – more about that later).
To connect your solar panels to the Yeti, you’ll need this cable. Connect your panels to the battery, and you have power!
My solar panels charge the battery, but you can also plug it into a wall outlet – it comes with a cable that allows you to do that. You can also plug it into your car’s 12v outlet – but do not do this with the wall plug and an adapter! It can overload your battery, and you need a specific Goal Zero cable to safely plug it in. How many cables are they gonna make us buy, right?
I have the car adapter, so my battery also charges while I drive. It’s also possible to connect it to your alternator to charge that way, but I personally am a little afraid to mess with my van’s mechanics.
Camper Van Outlets
You can totally plug everything right into the Yeti, but because I’m storing mine under my bench, it’s not that easy to access. Plus, I thought wall outlets would be cuter for my van.
This outlet has two AC ports and two USB ports, and is basically just an extension cord. The Yeti has two AC ports, so I plugged my fridge into one, and this outlet into the other. I used a jigsaw to cut a hole in my shiplap paneling (before I put it up), and ran the wire from the outlet to the Yeti. Easy peasy!
The fridge I have is a Dometic electric powered cooler. I chose this over a regular mini fridge because it is way more energy efficient, as it only turns on when it needs to cool down, as opposed to being on all the time. This helps conserve a ton of power, so I think it’s worth the extra cost over a regular mini fridge to ensure that I’m not left with a dead battery and rotting veggies. The downside is that there’s only one compartment, so you can have either a fridge or a freezer, but not both at the same time. I’ve learned to live without ice cream, but Dometic does make some bigger models that have two different compartments!
Wiring the Maxxair Fan to Goal Zero Yeti
A fan is essential for your van electrical system. It helps keep the van ventilated and keeps moisture from building up – mold is a vanlifer’s nightmare, so having good ventilation is key.
I think the Maxxair fan is the best – you can find cheaper ones, but this one has a rain shield, and my favorite thing about it is that it can stay open while you drive (essential for me – there’s no way me and my pea brain would remember to close it every time).
After you do the scary thing and cut the hole in your roof (a Jigsaw is best for this), you’ll have a fan with two wires hanging out – one white, and one black. I used 14 ga wire for this. What’s a little weird about this is that the fan’s black wire connects to the red 14 ga wire, and the fan’s white wire connects to the black 14 ga wire. I connected them with butt connectors and a crimper.
The other end of the wires should be next to where you’re going to place your battery. It still needs to be connected to the fuse box, but I’ll explain that in the next section.
Wiring 12vLights to Goal Zero Yeti
This was probably the most confusing part of doing my camper van electrical system. So many wires….
If you’ve spent any time on the #vanlife side of the internet, you’re probably familiar with these ceiling lights. Everyone and their dog uses them to light their vans and RVs, but that’s because they’re kind of the best!
They’re cute, bright, and don’t draw a lot of power! To install them, I used a 2.25 inch hole saw to cut 4 holes in the shiplap panel. Make sure to run your wires before you put up any paneling on your walls – unless you want your wires to be on the outside for some reason. I used 20 ga wire and taped it to the ceiling, with one end being close to the battery, and the other in the approximate location of the lights. Make sure to do a red and a black wire for each light!
I put up my ceiling panels after this, because I wanted to be able to install the lights right away to make sure they worked – but I left the walls alone for now, because I still had to figure out where my light switch and fuse box would go.
After I had nailed the shiplap panel with my 4 holes in it into place, I pulled the wires through the holes and connected them to my lights. Here, red wires connect to red, black wires to black. I connected them with butt connectors (smaller ones than I used for the thicker wires).
The lights have little clips, so after the wires are connected, you just insert them into the hole, and they snap into place!
We’re almost done! Now it’s time to connect the light switch – I recommend doing some of your wall panels now (I started from the top and went about halfway down the wall) – so that you can cut a hole for your switch and your outlet, and put the wires through there.
To connect your lights to your light switch, you’ll need to grab all four red wires from your lights. Use a wire stripper to strip a little bit off the ends of the wires, then twist them together.
Next, you’ll need a wiring spade. Put the four red wires into the spade (the rounded wide). Crimp tightly.
Now, connect the spade to your light switch by putting all your red wires through the hole in your wall, and then just inserting one of the prongs on the switch into your spade.
The light switch has two prongs – the second one will connect to the fuse box, so grab another wiring spade, crimp one 14 ga red wire into it, then connect that to the second prong. Make sure the rest of the wire is long enough to reach the fuse box.
Now, it’s time to connect everything to your fuse box. I recommend getting this fuse block – it has a negative bus bar along with the positive, so you only need to buy one contraption.
You’ll need some ring terminals to connect to it. I drilled a hole in one of my wall panels to put all the wires through, and screwed the fuse block into the wall. This all sits under my bench!
Starting with the fan. Grab the black wire from the fan and crimp it into a ring terminal. Then, choose any one of the negative terminals – which means the first three rows at the top. Unscrew the screw, pop the ring terminal over it, and screw it back in.
Then, crimp your red wire to a positive terminal – any one that isn’t in the first three rows at the top. There’s a + on the bottom of the fuse block and a – on the top. Red wires are positive, black are negative. That’s all for now.
To connect the lights, grab your red wire that’s coming from the light switch, and connect it to a positive terminal.
Grab the four black wires that connect to each light, and twist them together. Connect that to a negative terminal.
Next to each positive terminal is a spot for a fuse block. Your system won’t work without one, so insert a fuse into each slot where a wire is connected. A 10 amp fuse is best for the fan, and 5 amps is enough for the lights.
We’re almost done!! Just one more step to get everything working. You need to connect the Goal Zero Yeti to your fuse block. This is easy to do! You’ll need this cable, which plugs into the 12v powerpole port on the Yeti. The red wire connects to the positive terminal at the bottom of your fuse block, and the black connects to the negative one at the top! The cable was a little short for me, so I cut both of them and added a few inches of wire to each one, connecting them with butt connectors.
That’s everything I did in my van electrical system to make things work! Solar power and wiring isn’t the easiest to figure out, but it’s so worth it when you can be in the middle of the woods and have a fridge to keep things cold and lights to read by. If you have questions, don’t be afraid to shoot me a DM on Instagram and ask away!
Summary of Materials Used for Van Electrical System
Here’s a list of everything I mentioned in this post!