VANLIFE POWERLeave a Comment
Brody Leven focuses on simplicity as both an art and a science in his van build.
Whether building for full-time van life or the occasional road trip, folks designing their own campervan customization often become overwhelmed by the elements and details. Regardless of whether they’re building it themselves or having a professional upfitter, it’s common for them to take a confusing, piecemeal approach of various manufacturers, tolerances, sizes, mounting situations, and proprietary components to their electrical system specifically. Some people enjoy this process of engineering and then troubleshooting the inevitable problems that seem to come with most homemade electrical builds. Others, like me, prefer simple, elegant solutions that are designed for the way I’ll be using them. For everything from my ski mountaineering to my van, I am obsessed with using the right tool for the job. In the long term, and in this case even in the short term, it also tends to be more cost effective.
Through my various van builds and iterations of each, as well as other places in my life, I’ve focused on simplicity as both an art and a science. Engineering open space into my van and house (which are, fortunately, for the time being, two separate things) is very important to me. This open space creates a feeling of spaciousness and comfort, but it also allows me to actually use my van, instead of just standing in it and brushing up against showers, kicking extra seats, and hitting my head on poorly-located overhead cabinets. While some vans are designed with every single feature anyone could ever want in a van, that doesn’t leave space to live, to operate, to move. It doesn’t leave space to just toss a duffel bag into the van without it being in your way. It doesn’t leave space to carry a sheet of plywood, to share dinner with some friends after a day of climbing, or to quickly bring your bike in when it starts raining outside. My van has space that is functional and practical, and it’s something that I emphasize in design. Leaving space for the unexpected is more important than having some of the luxuries that are easy—and I daresay good—to learn to live without.
Incorporating Goal Zero power systems into my vans is a solution that is not only practical and affordable, but simply more appropriate than many of its alternatives for the task at hand.
My current van is pretty power hungry. In lieu of old school fuel sources (propane, kerosene, etc.), everything is electric. This increases safety, decreases smell, and maximizes simplicity. Each electronic part of my van is either 12v or 110v, and it’s all powered by a single, integrated Goal Zero system. It features a rooftop fan, various interior fans, USB and 110v outlets for charging and powering whatever is chosen to bring along, a dual burner induction cooktop, water pump, extensive interior and exterior lighting, a refrigerator/freezer, and even a central vacuum unit. There’s also an air compressor under the hood for inflating bike and van tires. I wanted to have power to spare, meaning I could cook a complete off-grid dinner without rushing and go to sleep with the fan running all night, and still wake up with plenty of battery power—before the sun rises and begins charging the system via solar—to make tea and cook a real breakfast. If my girlfriend needs to work on her laptop for five hours from camp, we don’t need to think twice about her power source. A friend needs to charge a headlamp, inReach, phone, and DSLR? No problem. For my power system, simplicity of function and appearance were important, as was limiting the amount of failure points. But mostly, I wanted a system we could actually use instead of just fearing, the way many van-dwellers live in constant fear of using too much power, with an eye always on the battery monitor.
My ~400 amp-hour system charges via four Goal Zero Boulder 100 solar panels mounted on the roof of the van (which fit side-by-side absolutely perfectly, without an inch to spare, on a Sprinter van). Whenever the sun is above the horizon, my Yeti is being topped off by solar. With this 400 watts of solar, I can stay off-grid indefinitely without fear of ever running out of power, because even during the cloudiest summer days and shortest winter days, these efficient solar panels keep the batteries sufficiently charged, largely because I chose to put four Goal Zero Boulder 100 panels on the roof when, during sunny conditions, two would have been plenty. But again, I didn’t want to even have to think about running out of power. These solar panels charge a Goal Zero Yeti 3000X battery
What I love most about Yeti batteries (of any size) is that they incorporate all of the features that other van-builders incorporate into their systems, but pre-packaged in a single unit with components engineered to work together. Additionally, if the power in my house fails, or I need to run a heat gun far back on my property to soften an irrigation hose that needs repaired (trust me here), or I am going to an off-grid event, I simply unplug two cables to easily pull the Yeti out of the van and boom, I have a fully-functioning generator. The Yeti 3000X also charges via a shore power plug drilled into the side of my van (which I’ve never even connected because the solar panels provide all the charging I need) and from the two Goal Zero Tanks that are in my system.
Between battery storage, solar, shore power, Tanks, and the van’s alternator, I have virtually endless power for any practical use during road trips. Connecting my van’s power system was simple. An organized and well-engineered DIY system offering this same amount of power and options typically takes a giant custom wheel-well box worth of space in a Sprinter, Transit, or Promaster van. With the Goal Zero system I use, there is only a Yeti, two Tanks, and a few cables. That’s it. Solar charge controller, battery monitor, MPPT, distributor, inverter, DC-DC charger, main switch, and the other components used by DIY systems are contained in a single, reliable, lightweight unit that is completely pre-wired (and, importantly, all of those wires are out of sight). This system weighs just over 200 pounds and can easily fit around a single wheel-well. If I require extra storage space or less power, I can remove the tanks by disconnecting a single cable. The modularity, simplicity, and speed with which this system can be incorporated into even the most power-hungry van builds is staggering. And as someone who is only somewhat electronically-inclined, it’s nice to not open the rear of my van to see an intimidating mess of wires and batteries, and to not fear using my electrical system.
As a professional adventurer, my time spent on trails is valuable in many ways. Simplifying and minimizing wherever possible allows me to maximize time outdoors. Because for me, the van isn’t an end in itself, but a means by which I can explore.
NOTE: Brody’s van build is unique and was designed and installed by a qualified professional engineer. Goal Zero has not tested this use case and does not recommend it. All users are cautioned to follow the instructions and warnings contained with Goal Zero’s products. The Yeti Link Vehicle integration kit Requires installation by a qualified professional.