Why I hate inverters

Most electrical systems in builds are build with a house in front of mind.

The light fixtures, refrigeration, stove, all of the outlets are Alternating Current (110 AC).

A van is native to 12 volts DC (Direct Current) which is different from household current which is either rated at 110/120 AC (Alternating Current) and for your stove or hot water heater 220/240 volt AC.

  • The batteries are 12 volt DC
  • The solar panels are 12 volt DC
  • Your van is 12 volt DC

You cannot run household appliances in a van without a method to convert 110/120 AC to 12 DC.

In need of an interpreter

If a household refrigerator plug could talk, it would probably yell to your van, does anyone speak AC? That’s when your inverter answers, I do.

The inverter is a translator. Because the van speaks a different language the inverter serves as a mediator or interpreter between your household appliances and your van.

The translation process takes lots of energy as it translates from one voltage to another. More power is lost when the device is turned on, and less as it is running; but there was power loss during the conversion. Your battery was drained quickly and then slowed. That lowered your available power for the rest of your van.

One for the wise

Your van is native to 12 volts so why not use, buy or whatever 12 volt devices. You may already have 12 volt devices sitting around your house you didn’t know could work in your van.

For example. If you have a computer monitor with a power brick (you know the square thing you drag around with you laptop while it charges). For that reason in the information tech field we call it a brick – drag this brick… anyway! On that brick you will find writing or specifications about the voltage, amps and etc.

The writing tells you how much voltage the brick outputs. If that brick says output 12 volt DC or something like that, then the brick is converting 110 volts AC to 12 volt DC. Great! That computer monitor will work in your van. Cut the part that plugs into the monitor and run the cut end into your van’s 12 volt circuit and now you have a computer monitor.

You will find lots of things in your home that will run off your van — if you look hard enough. TV’s, game consoles, and etc.

Supersonic SC-2211 22-Inch 1080p LED Widescreen HDTV with HDMI Input (AC/DC Compatible)

This blender has it’s own battery. I own one and my wife owns another. I was able to go 5 days blending up to 25 times.

LaHuko Portable Blender Personal Size

This blanket is a life saver if you don’t need to heat the entire van while you sleep. It uses 55 Watts. You can run it off a Jackery Portable Power Station – Explorer 240 all night.

Roadpro 12 volt Polar Fleec Heated Travel Blanket

Why I built my van in modules

If you’ve seen my original photos and compared them to my current van photos you can see my van has undergone lots of remodels.

The first two builds attempted to leave the original van seats and build around it. That was a disaster.

This was my first attempt to build my bed. I would lay the cushion foam down and it would extend onto the middle factor seats.

So I went to Pinterest for ideas.

Spent more money and built this disaster.

What both of these had in common is that they will not work well over time.

The first one was too heavy and wasn’t easy to disassemble. The second was too tall (followed a blueprint off Pinterest) and for my van size (width & height) made it difficult to open.

So I had two problems to solve.

Software development to the rescue

I’m a software engineer by occupation and I deal with lots of projects of many types. There is a process called iterative development and continuous improvement.

You build and deliver functional software in small increments, adding new features and improving functionality over time. Software is developed using isolated modules or containers. A modules share functionality or features with other modules. They are independent of the software and can be removed or replaced without breaking the program.

Building the van in modules

I had a problem in need to solve. I was spending and wasting money on lumber and needed to find a less expensive alternative.

Back in the 1980’s I had a wood working shop. I made custom furniture. My garage was filled with templates I made from drawings. When a customer order something from my catalogue I pulled out my templates and traced them onto wood, then cut them.

The solution

I purchased black foam poster board from the Dollar Store. I measured, cut and taped together my kitchen, then the bed until I got the measurements right.

Every piece added to my build including the side wall can be removed or replaced without needing to remove other things.

Here is an example of the Kitchen build.

Here the foam board becomes my template.
A photo of the bed concept.
I used the foam board to cut and build this.
Added my solar controller.

Its kinda like software testing

As I mentioned before I’m a software engineer, so I thought, why don’t I integrate testing and continuous improvement.

So I went on bi-weekly camping trips for 3 months. Each time testing to see if doing anything feels natural or does it feel confusion, lost or create frustration.

Each change or alteration in my van was designed to solve a problem. The office answered a problem where my laptop kept getting stepped on because there was no place for it.

The relocation of my solar batteries answered the problem about a permanent spot for the batteries where they are out of the way.

The answer to wasting watts used by my 1500 watt inverter was to purchase all electronics as 12 volt DC devices.

Example of my first kitchen design

My first complete sink. But it got an upgrade.

Although this kitchen setup was nice at first and it was usable. I didn’t like how much light and air flow the cabinet blocked.

I removed it and rebuilt the cabinet.

Note the kitchen is removed in this photo. Nothing else was affected by its removal. This is the start of the bedroom wall design. See the foam board against the side wall.
Removed the wall paper and adding adhesive carpeting.
There is also a folding table just below the propane burner. You can see the piano hinge
Any part can be removed and upgraded.
This is the bottom of my bed. There are 3 “L” brackets to hold the bed in place. Remove them and the bed folds and slides out easily.

Privacy & blocking cold or heat

My first design attempted to block out the sun and provide some privacy. There wasn’t much to my van in the beginning. Although I had foam board on the windows to black them out, I didn’t create one for the front.

My privacy, heat retention and sun protection curtains, As of December 2019

Anyone looking through the windshield from the streets could look in my van, so I used a sun screen cover.

Example of the foam board on my front drivers side window.
Velcro hold the material to the back window
The PVC pipe wraps the entire living space.
Side door entry. Unpainted PVC rod, and the custom curtain.

Bathroom

The evolution of the bathroom.

My bathroom has shifted around many times. In this photo it sits between the kitchen sink and the storage shelf.

Deciding if the toilet will fit as I add a wall for the office.

The black adhesive carpet everywhere works really well to stop things from moving.

This is open space and the best place for my toilet.

Without Velcro image the accidents that can happen.

Removed the kitchen so that i can redesign it.

Plumbing

I use foam poster board from the Dollar Store to build prototypes so that I know how much space I have available.

The above photo is the bed and kitchen prototypes. Helps me plan, after wasting lots of wood… I use these as templates to cut wood, plywood and etc.

A snapshot of the plumbing system as of December 31, 2019

Original design

Do not use a standard water hose for drinking. Filters will not remove the water hose taste out of the water.

Materials

Amazon
Amazon link
Amazon
RV Drinking water hose. Amazon
https://amzn.to/38KeeNs

Power For Your Van

Getting Ideas:

There are various resources and sites you can visit to get great ideas for building your vans off grid power. Below are sites I used:

  • Facebook groups
  • Pinterest
  • Youtube
  • Google images

When the question about solar comes up in most FB groups there aren’t enough people knowledgeable of the process to help, or those who know how usually explains how in language difficult to understand. So I wrote this article to make it simple.

The story begins with batteries

Say you have two 35Ah (amp hour) batteries.

35 amp hour deep cycle batter

2 x 35 = 70

That’s 70 total amp hours.

Your batteries are 12 volt batteries. Multiply the amp hours by 12.

12 x 70 = 840

You have a total of 840 watts of available power to power all of your devices.

Then there’s using the batteries

You want charge your iPad. A iPad Air 2014 uses about 45 watts.

45 watt iPad charger

To calculate how long you can keep the iPad plugged into your battery, divide 45 from the 840 available watts.

840 / 45 = estimates 19 hours

You can left your iPad plugged into your 12 volt system you will drain your battery.

But that’s a very simple explanation because usually your running more than one device, like a refrigerator, TV, game console, and etc.

Wait there’s more to know

The idea behind off grid power is to plug in and use more than one device. Let’s look at how you calculate that.

iphone 15 watt charger
  • iPad = 44 watts
  • 12 volt TV 62 watts
  • iPhone 12 watts

44 + 62 + 12 = 118 watts

Now divide 118 (watts used) by the 840 (battery) watts.

840 / 122 = estimates 6 hours

You can run all these devices together for 6 hour before the battery is dead.

Recharging your batteries

Your batteries need a charging source. I will list 4 of them.

solar kit

You can use the following methods to recharge your system batteries.

  • Van alternator
  • Shore power with a battery charger
  • Solar panels
  • Gas generator

Inverters are bad

By default your van runs off 12 volt DC (Direct Current).

Household appliances run on 110 volt AC (Alternating Current).

In order to use 110 volt appliances in your van you need a inverter.

inverter

If you plan to use sensitive devices in your van, like computers, gaming consoles, things that could damaged easily if a surge happens or a loss of power. You need a sine wave inverter. It’s more expensive but it offers protection for your devices should there not be enough power.

Why I don’t like inverters

A inverter needs to convert 12 DC to 110 AC. The conversion uses your batteries wattage to do that work. Which means your available watts drop. The loss is about 20%.

My advice is to buy devices that contain their own batteries. Simply plug it into your solar system and unplug it when charged.

power inverter

Chinese Diesel Heater Planning

https://amzn.to/2uCFq1v

Because your van is your home everything you own and would like to own has to fit in that space. Each item you add changes how you navigate around your van. My articles specialize in tiny spaces. My builds are about solving problems.

What am I trying to overcome

  • Humidity
  • Mold
  • The cold

During the winter, if you live in Washington State you get lots of rain. If you have a toilet in your van and no heat, going to the bathroom is a challenge. It’s COLD! So I thought, I’m gonna have to change how often I took in fluids so I limit how often I have to go.

My van has a kitchen, with running water and a propane stove. I love the idea that I can cook right in my van. But there is one problem. Humidity!

In the summer, no problem. To cut down heat building up in my van from cooking I decided to use camping pots and pans. camping pots are thinner so they substantially lower cooking time. So the shorter cooking times lowers the amount of humidity but its enough to be concerned about mold build up.

Running the engine gets costly and opening the windows means dropping the temperature in the van.

What I tried

The Buddy Heater

https://amzn.to/30WTlvq

I owned several versions of the buddy heaters. I settled for the single canister because the dual canister’s lowest temperature was too hot. I had additional concerns and will list them below.

  • I didn’t feel comfortable leaving the heater on while I slept.
  • The longer I kept the heater running the more difficult it was breathing.
  • The longer I kept the heater running condensation began to build.
  • The heaters size made it difficult to find a permanent or temporary spot while using it. There just wasn’t a lot of open space.

250 Watt 110 Volt Desk Heater

https://amzn.to/30WTlvq

I thought getting a small heater would work. I must confess I was fairly new to how much heat was needed to heat that amount of space.

  • Barely puts out heat.
  • Solar batteries are completely drained in 5 hours, just on the heater alone.
  • Not enough sun to restore solar batteries fast enough.

Electric blanket

https://amzn.to/30VgJth

This is a great investment. Although it took a long time to heat and uses small amounts of electricity it could not heat the air.

Chinese Diesel Heater

I purchased my Chinese Diesel Heater from Amazon.com for $116 plus tax.

This is my 5000 watt Chinese Diesel Heater – https://amzn.to/2uCFq1v

What size should you get?

I reviewed the 2000, 5000 and the 8000 watt versions. The 8000 was over kill and the 5000 was a little too much for my little space. Based on the size of my van I needed the 2000 watt version.

If your in a small caravan, a 2000 watt is still too much, but works perfectly. Just control the temperature or turn it off.

Why I got the 5000 watt version?

When I compared the price between the 5000 & 2000. Amazon recommended the 5000 watt at $116. The 2000 watt was $169 and up. I was also thinking about the future. I eventually wanting a bigger van. So that’s why I end up with the 5000 watt heater.

Installing The Heater

Unboxing – Chinese Diesel Heater unboxing

On the table is everything that came with my kit. There were parts that came in the kit that I didn’t use. For example the metal fuel tank line, I choose the shorter of the two installation option.

Why plan first

The diesel heater is a permanent install. Planning where to install it is important. I’m gonna walk you through how I was thinking about my install.

My biggest challenge was the gas tank.

Preparing to cut the paneling that the tank mounts too
  • The tank is 4 inches higher than the floor.
  • Can become a tripping hazard
  • The width makes it difficult to get items around it.

I noticed the fuel line was extremely long. So I sat my concerns aside and started work on installing the heater. We will come back to the tank later.

Locating a spot for the heater

I had two choices.

  1. The back stowaway area
  2. The front stowaway area under the sink

I settled for the rear stowaway because it made sense.

  • The exhaust for the van is located in the rear.
  • If I install the vent under the bed, it will heat the wood frame of the bed, which storing heat long after the unit is turned off.
  • Easier to access and do maintenance.

Modular Build

As you know my van is built in modules. Each piece is a module that can be removed or upgraded without disturbing the other parts of the van.

Removing the bed

Preparing to remove the bed. Screws are removed.

Setting Setup For The Install

Cut the carpet ready to trace and cut
I drew on the metal plate to prevent confusion when I trace and cut.
Started by drilling several holes so that I can use metal shears to cut away the metal.
Here’s the hole for the fuel, exhaust and air inlet

Preparing The Heater

Assembled the metal plate. Notice my writing.
Assembled the fuel line, exhaust and air inlet pipes.

Preparing The Fuel Tank

Fuel Tank To The Fuel Pump

Heat (Floor) Vent

Installing The Controller

Tiny Office

Naturally may van has gone through tones of build iterations. Here are some photos showing my office.

My first attempt at an office. Folding table and Ottoman

More upgrades coming June 2020

The bed design

Like all things Destiny (my van’s name), she is constantly going through changes. Here is my attempt at making a bed.

In the original design I purchased a ottoman from Walmart. It was great until I sat on it and my head bumped into the top of the van roof. My bed was originally 12 inches high. With the mattress I sat 16 inches hitting my head on the van’s entertainment console (middle of the roof). So I lowered the bed so that the overall height is 11 inches.

My first bed design was a total failure.
Turned my middle seats around.

My first two bed designs were total failures.

I used a online blueprint and the thing was a disaster. Because I wasted so much lumber, I had to come up with a way to build and save money.

I went to the Dollar Store and purchased a bunch of foam poster boards and some packing tape.

The idea here was to build a bed that could separate, maybe into a seat.

Velcro was used to prevent the boards from sliding when attached. Nothing stopped the mattress from sliding; so I need to solve that later.
Piano hinge

Things changed when I first went camping. My mattress kept sliding on the particle board. Also the more I used the bed, the weaker the velcro became. I needed a different solution.

The piano hinge.