Electric seems to be a thing that people go absolutely nuts with. While I am really impressed with DIYers building out extraordinarily complicated systems, there are a few things I find concerning about this:
- Batteries, even on the scale of a phone, are actually very very dangerous. There are many ways to mess up a battery, and with the size of the batteries being used in a van, the risk goes way up.
- The electoral systems being installed in the vans typically include AC inverters. This is a fairly significant piece of hardware that in most settings, would not be touched by the average non-electrician.
- The sheer number of people inquiring about what AWG to use is scary. Not knowing what wire to use is clear indicator that one is not ready to put together a fairly complex and powerful electric system.
While I do have some electronics experience, I have enough experience to know that this sort of DIY install was out of my league. I thoroughly believe that a custom electric setup should be done by an electrician. So not wanting to do that, I would go with a drop-in system.
Looking at a few options, I looked at offerings from GoalZero, Jackery, and a newer player on the block, Bluetti. Bluetti seemed to be the most competitive in this category, and made a number of drop-in offerings that would work very well for a van. I ended up choosing one of their smaller capacity but feature rich featured offerings, the AC200P.
Battery System: Bluetti AC200P review
The Bluetti AC200P ticked a lot of boxes for me on paper, and the price point and reviews were positive enough to draw me away from the brands I was more familiar with, GoalZero and Jackery. The AC200P is ultra-simple to drop in compared to a piecing together cells and components. It is also removable, which is a great feature if you want to use it somewhere outside of your van at some point.
The 40Ah capacity is “tight”, just enough to power the refrigerator and other small accessories for 3.5 days. However, it can be expanded to 160Ah with two Bluetti B300 expansion units. This is not a low cost option, but it is super super easy, contained, and safe. 160Ah is still not enough for folks trying to run legitimate appliances, but it will keep the lights on and the food cold for a good amount of time.
The only downside I knew I would have to deal with was that I would not be able to fully hide away the battery in a wheel well storage box if I wanted to maintain easy access to the control panel. The AC200MAX allows for bluetooth control, but that doesn’t replace having a nice control panel on the wall.
- LiFePO4 cell, which means it’s got a ton of cycles and doesn’t need much babying
- Built in 12V/25A DC outlet with overcurrent protection
- Built in AC 2000W inverter with overcurrent protection
- MPPT solar charge controller built in
- DC charging built in for easy charing off the alternator and AC charging unit for shore power
- Portable (I can easily pull it out and charge it)
- Relatively small capacity of 40Ah. (Scaleable up to 160Ah with 2x B300 expansion units.)
- Power button and screen need to be fairly readily accessible.
Wiring: Powerwerx (mostly)
Wiring in the van was a serious breeze, and I can attribute a lot of that to the Bluetti power system mentioned above. The overcurrent protection negated the necessity of a fusebox, so I used very user friendly power distribution blocks instead. I used the Anderson Powerpole connecters throughout the entire DC system, making everything very modular. This turned out to be an extraordinarily low cost job, and was a relatively easy installation of just a few hours.
Powerwerx carries a great supply of Anderson Powerpole supplies. My biggest suggestion here is to get a crimp tool that is specifically made for Anderson Powerpole connecters. I bought quite a few cheaper ones on Amazon that were not specifically made for Anderson Powerpole connectors and they all did not crimp the contacts in a shape that allowed them to robustly clip into their housings.
Powerwerx also sells custom length cables for anybody who is not comfortable to do their own cable work.
- Anderson Powerpole crimp tools, housings, and contacts
- Bulk wire
- Anderson Powerpole protective sleeves
- Anderson Powerpole distribution block (I used 3 total)
- Anderson Powerpole to 12v cigarette lighter adapter (for Domestic cooler)
Primary switch panel
The switch panel took a little while for me to determine what would work best. I went for simplicity, especially because I wanted to have something that I was going to drill directly into the countertop. I also wanted to be able to charge a few USB devices on the counter after a day out.
- 5 gang 12V DC switch panel
- USB port (compatible with switch panel above)
- Anderson Powerpole to USB converter
Rear pillar switch panels
I wanted to have easily accessible was a nightlight switch and USB charging port on each side of the bed. I used the (very difficult to originally locate) OEM face plates for the rear pillars, and mounted a switch and USB port onto them. This made for a very clean look, and didn’t require any complicated cable routing.
Solar: Cascade 4×4 VSS SYSTEM review
This is a niche product that I am happy somebody out there is making. 90 watts is in line with what a lot of lower power consumptions vans are putting on their roof racks. While a roof mounted solar panel has the benefit of increased sun exposure, roof racks tend to reduce fuel efficiency. The greatest benefit of this product, though, is that it does not add any additional height to the vehicle. This was particularly important for as we are squeezing our van into our Downtown Seattle parking garage. Installation and routing of this product was more complicated that I wanted to tackle, so I had Outside Van in Portland, OR install this system.
- Adds zero height clearance requirement to the vehicle
- Does not require drilling through any body panels
- Looks cool (in my opinion)
- Complicated to route cables from the engine bay than straight down through the ceiling
Exterior Lighting: Outside Van
After using the van for a season, one of the few things that Mercedes left to be desired is the lighting, even with our 2022 model OEM LED lighting and fog lamp upgrades. Navigating through pitch black forest roads in the North Cascades or the unlit curvy highway pass through Mount Hood were downright scary in many instances.
I did a bit of research and tried to narrow my choice down to a single manufacturer. Sadly, the uber-cool overhead light bars were out of the question with our desire to maintain the van’s stock height as well. There were a few front mount kits that looked very nice (RB Components being my runner up), but I didn’t quite believe that just additional fog lights would do the trick. The Outside Van ditch lights looked like they were top notch quality, and they would go with their bumper light kit very well.
I had Outside Van in Portland, OR install these, along with my solar panels, as I was not super motivated to start messing around with the electrical of the car. They are an extremely impressive operation that is way larger than I expected. If I had to do it over again, I’d be very very tempted to just buy a van from them directly.
Outside Van Dual 6″ Light & Bracket Kit review
- Fits seamlessly into the front bumper, very robust build
- Solid choice for those without OEM fog lamps
- Fairly narrow light spread
Outside Van Ditch Light & Bracket Kit review
- Very robust build quality
- Easily adjustable angle
- I think they look cool
- My wife thinks they look silly
To people who want their van the easy way. To the people who don’t want a project.