Chapter 2 in a Four Part Series:  The Solar Battery System Components I Chose to Power My Off-Grid Van Life

Chapter 2 in a Four Part Series: The Solar Battery System Components I Chose to Power My Off-Grid Van Life

As I'm writing this post I'm carefully monitoring my battery levels since I am currently enveloped in four days of constant rain...anxiously awaiting the sun to peer out from behind the misty clouds and once again grace my tiny home with it's power giving presence. I'm camped just South of Las Vegas, waiting to meet up with my daughter, her fiance and his family in a few days. Everywhere is getting hammered with winter storms back to back, and I'm caught on the rainy side of it, luckily no snow and blessed with bearable temps.

short rainy winter days are hard on a solar battery system, but i set mine up to handle it, read how on my blog - meganaroon travel blogger artist (3)

The first 2 days my trusty battery never dipped below 100%, using it as I would on any normal day. Day 3 it is still at 100% but the charge is starting to continually drop in volts which means I have to minimize my usage as I still have another day of forecasted rain and clouds before the energy producing sun beams down upon me once again. During the day there was just enough sunlight to charge my battery for modified usage, but as the sun began to disappear behind the mountains, so to did my meager energy source.  So, to reduce power consumption in the evening hours, mostly my laptop, lights and charging my phone, I started using a back up handheld battery for my phone, I always keep several of them charged up just in case. (LINK to the ones I use). I unplugged my fridge as luckily there isn't anything that needs to be kept cold at the moment, and only charging my laptop when it needs it rather than a continuous trickle charge, which requires my inverter to be on and drawing precious juice during these dim, dreary winter days. I've also only been using propane to cook with instead of my regular rice cooker and electric mug to save even more power.

the view out my van window to day four of rain draining my spirit and my battery traveling artist blogger meganaroon

I normally wouldn't stay somewhere there is going to be an extended period of rain like this, but most of the Southwest is getting hit by this winter storm and I'm not about to drive thousands of miles to escape it, only to turn around and come right back. So, I'm sucking it up and making it work, and so far so good! I'm honestly impressed at how well the battery is staying fully charged on these short winter days, compounded with endless days of rain and zero sun to power my off-grid lifestyle.

my van life cat mikee staying warm with our buddy heater and blankets in the winter months blogger travel artist meganaroon (2) copy

My Snowshoe cat Mikee however is not holding up as well - she just wants to burrow herself under the covers, or snuggle up with our Buddy Heater, until the sun comes back out 😄 I never knew cats could get SAD (Seasonal Effective Disorder), but Mikee clearly has! I'm keeping it at bay, knowing I will soon be back on the road, my van life powered by full sun and vitamin D. I will not let this rain drain both the battery and my spirit, it's only temporary!

Bright spot amongst all this doom and gloom - I was able to complete my newest National Park painting as there was certainly not going to be any outdoor activities occurring in these conditions. I will do a blog post soon on the inspiration behind the art. In the meantime here is the original painting.

White Sands National Park painting in vibrant huse of pinks purples and blues by traveling artist blogger meganaroon

Now, let's delve into the electrical components that power my lifestyle as a nomadic artist. My decision to embark on this unconventional way of life led me to meticulously select components that would not just sustain, but elevate my off-grid experience. I chose all of these electrical products based on my calculations of the amount of power I would be consuming on my off-grid journey as a traveling artist/blogger.  Read the first chapter in this story on how I calculated my power needs and how you can do the same in an easy to understand, detailed blog post.

At the heart of my mobile abode lies a robust 200Ah LifeP04 battery, a silent powerhouse charged by the relentless sun
  • At the heart of my mobile abode lies a robust 200Ah LifeP04 battery, a silent powerhouse charged by the relentless sun.
    • I chose to go with a Lithium ion LifeP04 battery for it's safety, longevity and ability to withstand a full discharge without rendering the battery useless. The LifeP04 battery is more expensive over a lead acid battery, but when you factor in the advantages as outlined below, the LifeP04 is the best option for life on the road.
    1. Energy Density: LiFePO4 batteries have a higher energy density compared to lead-acid batteries. This means they can store more energy in a smaller and lighter package, making them more suitable for applications where space and weight are critical factors, which is a crucial element in building out any van.
    2. Longer Cycle Life: LiFePO4 batteries typically have a longer cycle life than lead-acid batteries. They can endure a greater number of charge and discharge cycles before experiencing a significant decrease in performance. This makes them more durable and cost-effective over the long term. Typically a LifeP04 battery can withstand anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 charges over it's lifetime, vs up to only 3,000 for a lead acid battery.
    3. Lighter Weight: LiFePO4 batteries are lighter than lead-acid batteries, which is obviously beneficial for any van build out.  I know this was a huge factor at all stages of my self converted build, and the battery choice was no exception.
    4. Faster Charging: LiFePO4 batteries generally have a faster charging capability compared to lead-acid batteries. 
    5. Maintenance-Free: LiFePO4 batteries are virtually maintenance-free. Unlike lead-acid batteries, they do not require regular water top-ups or specific maintenance procedures. After 2 years on the road with my LifeP04 battery I have had zero issues, and no maintenance required.
    6. Stable Chemistry: LiFePO4 batteries have a stable and non-toxic chemistry, reducing the risk of thermal runaway or other safety issues. Lead-acid batteries, on the other hand, can release hazardous gases and require careful handling.
    7. Wider Temperature Range: LiFePO4 batteries operate well in a wider temperature range compared to lead-acid batteries. They can perform efficiently in both high and low-temperature environments.  I have had my battery in temps in the teens numerous times without any adverse effects on the battery.
    8. Environmental Impact: LiFePO4 batteries are considered more environmentally friendly as they do not contain toxic heavy metals like lead. Additionally, they can be recycled more easily than lead-acid batteries.
    9. Ability to Discharge Below 50%: I don't recommend ever fully discharging your LifeP04 battery, but it does happen, and I myself have accidentally discharged all the way to zero and the battery still functions the same as the day I hooked it up.  If this had happened with a lead acid battery, that are not supposed to go below even a 50% charge, it would have rendered it completely useless and I would need a new battery.  
420 watts of Newpowa solar panels, wired in series, harness the energy of every sunbeam, transforming my van into a mobile energy haven.
  • Above, 420 watts of Newpowa solar panels, wired in series, harness the energy of every sunbeam, transforming my van into a mobile energy haven. This isn't just a power source; it's the lifeblood that fuels my daily life as a solo female adventurer.
    • I chose these solar panels after determining how many watts I would be using to charge my off-grid lifestyle, see previous blog post on calculating energy needs.  When I purchased this particular model they were 410 watts, and now offered at 420, which is great for new buyers!  After endless research, and reading hours and hours of reviews on Amazon, I ended up with the Newpowa solar panels.  The positive reviews, price, lightweight, easy install directly onto my van roof and the reliability of the brand were all factors in purchasing these panels, and I haven't regretted it once.  Two years on and they work just as well as the day I installed them.  I also only clean them once a year, as I don't really have access to a ladder until I'm at my family's place in WA, and it doesn't seem to effect the charging ability at all.  They are never really all that dirty, but I would recommend a good cleaning at least once a year, more if you can swing it, but so far, my once a year is sufficient.
Guiding this symphony of energy is a Victron Energy SmartSolar MPPT Charge Controller ~ 100V 50 Amp—a wise conductor orchestrating the flow of power with precision.
  1. System Size: A 50 amp charge controller is suitable for larger solar power systems with higher capacity. If you have a substantial number of solar panels or a high wattage solar array, a 50 amp controller allows for efficient management of the power generated.
  2. Voltage and Amperage Handling: MPPT charge controllers are designed to handle both voltage and amperage efficiently. A 50 amp MPPT controller can manage higher currents, making it suitable for systems with larger loads or multiple devices.
  3. Flexibility: MPPT controllers are known for their ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions and extract maximum power from the solar panels. A 50 amp MPPT controller provides flexibility in handling variations in sunlight intensity and panel voltage.
  4. Future Expansion: If you plan to expand your solar power system in the future by adding more solar panels, having a higher capacity charge controller, such as a 50 amp one, ensures that the controller can handle the increased power output.
  5. Efficiency: MPPT controllers generally offer higher efficiency compared to PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) controllers. The MPPT technology allows the controller to operate at the maximum power point of the solar panels, optimizing energy harvest.
  6. Compatibility: Some solar inverters and systems are designed to work optimally with 50 amp MPPT charge controllers. Choosing a controller that is compatible with your specific system components is essential for seamless integration.
    • MPPT charge controllers play a crucial role in maximizing the efficiency of solar power systems by optimizing the power output from solar panels and ensuring efficient charging of batteries. It's vital to consider your specific power requirements, the size of your solar array, and any future expansion plans when selecting a charge controller. Additionally, always follow the manufacturer's recommendations and specifications for your solar components to ensure compatibility and optimal performance. A 50amp was more than enough for my needs and system, but gives me the option to add on to my solar system at a later date if needed.
At the helm sits a 2,000 watt pure sine wave inverter, transforming sunlight into a symphony that powers my AC essentials.
  • At the helm sits a 2,000 watt Novopal pure sine wave inverter, transforming sunlight into a symphony that powers my AC essentials. AC power is what you normally have in a home through a regular outlet, vs DC power which is what you use for all your 12v applications.
    • A 2,000 watt pure sine wave inverter has several benefits, especially in applications where high-quality power is essential. Here are some advantages:
  1. Clean and Stable Power Output: Pure sine wave inverters produce a clean and stable AC power output that closely resembles the electricity from the grid. This makes them suitable for powering sensitive electronics and appliances.
  2. Increased Efficiency: Pure sine wave inverters typically have high efficiency levels, ensuring that a greater percentage of the DC power from the battery is converted into usable AC power.
  3. Improved Performance of Motors: Appliances and tools with electric motors, such as refrigerators and power tools, often perform better and run more efficiently when powered by a pure sine wave inverter.
  4. Support for Inductive Loads: Pure sine wave inverters are better suited for powering inductive loads like motors and compressors, which may not function optimally with modified sine wave or square wave inverters.
  5. Wide Range of Applications: Due to their clean power output, pure sine wave inverters are versatile and can be used in a wide range of applications, including off-grid solar power systems, backup power for homes, and emergency power supply.
      • It's important to note that while pure sine wave inverters offer numerous benefits, they are often more expensive compared to modified sine wave or square wave inverters. The choice between inverter types depends on the specific requirements of the devices you intend to power.

    Funny little story about my inverter ~ mostly because I simply didn't know enough about an off-grid system to pay attention to some of the smaller, less conspicuous details. I saw this particular model recommended online somewhere and found it on amazon.  The reviews were great and it would fit my needs perfectly, so I bought it.  When I received it I took it out of the box and gave it a good once over and then stored it away for months whilst I worked on the rest of the van, prepping it for the time when I would wire the electrical system to it's finality. Well, when it came time to hook it up, here I was thinking the AC outlet that I had prewired would need to be hardwired into the inverter.  When in actuality this particular model doesn't require that at all!  Which in retrospect I'm glad I ended up with this inverter, "happy little accident" as Bob Ross would say.  This particular unit of inverter actually has regular plug outlets that I can just plug whatever I want into, without the need for hardwiring anything.  So, I found a power outlet with an attached extension cord ran it through the hole in the wall where I was initially going to have a regular AC outlet, and ran the cord directly to the inverter and plugged it in, easy peasy!  Here is a link to the power strip/cord outlet.  The power strip I have has three AC outlets and two USB charger outlets, and I use it for my daily AC needs.  It's the only AC outlet I have in the van and runs off the inverter.  Two years and haven't had a single issue with this setup.  If I ever need more than 3 outlets being used at once, which on occasion I do if using my desktop computer and monitor, I have additional, similar, power strip outlets that I can plug directly into the inverter and works like a champ.  such an easy inverter to work with, and highly recommend if you don't want to deal with hardwiring numerous AC outlets in your van. The inverter even has USB outlets, which came in handy for directly connecting my manual battery monitor, that also turns the inverter on and off from inside the van. I have a bluetooth monitor as well, for more detailed information, is mentioned below. 

    • Here is a photo of the power strip I use. The look has slightly changed since I purchased, but it is basically the same unit, and plugs directly into my inverter. Link to plug HERE
      the power strip outlet i use for AC power in my self converted van by travel blogger artist meganaroon


      ANCEL BM300 12V Battery Monitor - Bluetooth 4.0 Automotive Voltmeter with Charging, Cranking System Test & Alarm - Compatible for Solar Power Systems, RVs, Motorcycles, Boats, Cars, and Trucks

      This battery monitor is hardwired directly to the battery and sits right on top of it. This is what I use to closely keep an eye on what percentage of battery power I have left and how many volts it is charging at. Honestly, I rarely ever let it get below 100% charge, mostly because I'm always chasing the sun, haha!  Here is a screenshot of where the monitoring levels were at on day 3 of this rainy weather I suffered through.

      my battery monitor system for my battery charged by solar in my tiny home aka a van blogger travel artist meganaroon

      I like to keep my charging voltage above 13v at all times, once it dips down to around 12.6v the solar panels can't keep up with maintaining a 100% charge.

      In Conclusion: I chose these components after endless hours of online research as outlined in my previous blog post. I made sure that every appliance and battery sucking component of my build could easily be powered by my system. Two years into my nomadic journey, my off grid power still purrs along, working just as smoothly as the first day I powered it up.

      Two years on the road have taught me that freedom isn't just a destination; it's a lifestyle powered by choices. My solar-powered haven isn't just a van; it's the manifestation of my autonomy—a cocoon of comfort amidst the vast canvas of the open road. And as the sun sets on another day of exploration, my van stands as a testament to the resilience of both nature and the human spirit. 

      We made it through these last few rainy winter days with ample power due to the thought out research and implementation of my solar powered off-grid system, and were graced with the most incredible sunset ~ 

      beautiful sunset in the nevada desert after four days of steady rainy gloominess by traveling artist blogger meganaroon

      The sun was beginning it's descent and the rain had finally ceased. After being cooped up in my tiny home for four days with the inclement weather, I needed to BE outside. As I wandered along the dirt road in solitude, the sun began to warm the mountains with a glow of vibrant hues - first in yellows, pinks and then into a fierce, fiery red. I felt as though I was being summoned to the very depths of Mordor, where this sunset was forever etched into the very heart of my soul.

      It was in this moment of quiet reflection, surrounded by nature gracing me with a show of unrivaled beauty, that I felt the utmost deep appreciation for this life I live. If I had never embarked on my journey as a nomadic artist, I would never have seen this sunset, or the ones before it, and the ones yet to come. My gratitude is all encompassing.

      Here are links to the main components I used for my solar powered off-grid battery system that I've had for two years and never encountered a single issue. 

      220 Watt Solar Panels (they were 210 watts when I purchased)

      LifeP04 200ah Lithium battery

      50 Amp MPPT Charge Controller

      2000 Watt Pure Sine Wave Inverter

      Ancel Bluetooth Battery Monitor

      Power Strip Outlets

      *This blog is a participant in Amazon's Associate's Program" ~ Visit my storefront here 

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