The future of electric vanlife: powering e-campers with solar panels

Our fully-electric campervan has three big solar panels on the roof to sustainably power our household. But can solar also power the traction battery of an electric van for off-grid road trips? In this not-too-technical article, we dive into the future of electric vanlife and how viable e-campers powered by solar panels actually are.

Can we charge our electric van with our solar panels

‘How far can you drive with your van?’ is the number one question we get asked (answer: 250km / 155mi on the highway, a bit more on provincial roads), but: ‘Can you charge the van with your solar panels?’ is a very close second. And since the answer is slightly complex, we thought it was about time that we wrote an article on the topic. Our aim is to explain the challenges with van batteries and solar panels in a way that everyone can understand, so we won’t get too technical.

We understand why this topic is so exciting for anyone thinking about electric vanlife: having a van with one battery that can be used for everything — from driving to powering the van’s household appliances — and that is sustainably powered by solar panels on the roof, sounds pretty epic. It’s also very cost-effective, saving you from having to buy an expensive house battery or pay for a charge.

However, the reality right now is not quite so simple. In this article, we’ll explain our own setup, share what others in the electric van space are doing at the moment, and how close the realisation of having one van battery powered by solar energy actually is.

The battery setup in our Fiat E-Ducato

In our Fiat E-Ducato, we’ve got two separate batteries. A 79kW traction battery built-in by Fiat that sits underneath our van and powers the electric motor, and a 906Ah lithium house battery built by Jurrien that powers our household, including the induction hob in the kitchen we use to cook and the convection heater we use to heat the van. For us, there were three main reasons to go with a separate house battery and not use the traction battery for our household.

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The first reason for us choosing to install a separate house battery is that Fiat gave us 10 years of warranty on the traction batteries, which we’ve sadly already had to use once. We didn’t want to tamper with the batteries and risk voiding the warranty. The second reason is that we didn’t want our van’s range to be impacted every time we’d want to cook something or use the heater. And the third reason is that we wanted to fill the roof of our Fiat E-Ducato van with solar panels to charge our household, and we knew we wouldn’t be able to easily hook them up to the traction battery — which we’ll explain in the next section.

Charging the house batteries with solar panels

We decided early on that we wanted to power our household with solar. It’s sustainable and also would allow us to park off-grid on our travels through Europe for days on end. We installed three 325Wp panels to continuously charge our house batteries during the day via an MPPT-controller. And just for running the household, this setup is great. 1.5 years of fulltime vanlife has made us appreciate using solar energy in our daily life so much.

In the summer, having three big panels and one large house battery is a bit overkill, actually, as we never run out of power. In the winter, though, it’s another story, as there’s less sun, so we have to recharge our house battery sometimes. And when it’s so cold that we need continuous heating (which draws a lot of power), we need to be hooked up to shore power, for example at a campground or RV park. Otherwise, when using the heater at full blast in very cold weather, our big house battery would be drained in about four hours.

So, you might think: why not use the much bigger traction battery of our van for heating, and charge it directly with the solar panels on the roof? Firstly, we didn’t want to have our van’s range be impacted by using the heater. And secondly, while the technology for using solar to charge EVs does already exist (for example, as used by Lightyear cars or the solar car Stella Terra built by students), it’s absolutely not mainstream yet and we don’t know of anyone who’s been able to apply it to an electric campervan in practice.

Using solar to power EV batteries, can it be done?

We’re confident powering a campervan battery with solar PV is coming at some point (and if you do know of anyone who’s succeeded in realising it for a campervan, we’d love to know!) but right now, using solar panels to charge a 400v traction battery, is simply put very inefficient. Solar panels weigh a lot and to be able to get enough of a charge to actually power an EV, you’d need dozens of panels to pull it off.

Five battery packs that together make up the traction battery of the electric Fiat E-Ducato

Let’s use our own van and setup as an example. In a perfect world, where the sun would shine at full blast for 24 hours each day — which is, of course, impossible — at the perfect angle for our three, large solar panels, we would be able to get about 70km or 44 mi range per day from the energy generated. But those conditions never happen. In the real world, it’s a lot less. For example, earlier this year in August in the Netherlands, our solar panels generated enough energy to drive about 9km / 5.5 mi. And then you’d have to use all the energy just for driving, you’d have nothing left for running the household.

So, you need more solar energy. And we do know of some pioneers using portable solar fields to charge their EV, like the expedition car 4×4 Electric and expedition truck Peak Evolution. But the fact that they have to carry dozens of portable solar panels to create a field of them to generate enough power to charge their vehicles, illustrates that using solar energy to charge traction batteries is still far from easy.

Electric vans that use one single battery

Okay, so using solar energy to charge traction batteries doesn’t make sense yet — but how about having a traction battery, charged ‘normally’ at EV charging stations, that you can use to power the entire campervan setup? Now, as described above, we didn’t decide to go with this setup ourselves for a number of reasons, but we do have a few examples of companies that have done this successfully.

Campervan builder Tonke Campers in the Netherlands started converting Mercedes EQV vans to compact, pop-top electric campervans, and received permission from Mercedes to use the traction battery to power the household, including an induction hob for some models. Sadly, though, they didn’t get permission to charge the traction battery with solar panels on the roof, so their vans have to be charged at charging stations.

An electric camper conversion of a VW ID Buzz displayed at a fair in the Netherlands

Other builders converting the newer VW ID Buzz to compact e-campers like Outbase and Ventje are taking a similar approach, and self-converters or builders have also got good options for vans using a single battery now the Ford E-Transit has hit the market with its Pro Power Onboard outlet that draws power from the traction battery via an inverter. But: all these examples don’t have a solar setup yet.

How close are we to having one battery setup powered by solar

This is anyone’s guess, but the more electric campervans there are on the road, the closer we’ll be! We’re hoping that once the big RV builders like Hymer and Dethleffs finally catch up and start selling fully-electric RVs, instead of just presenting concept vehicles, they’ll see how cost-effective it could be to have one big battery that’s used for everything.

And the new generation of campervan buyers want solar panels on their roofs, too, so that’ll hopefully help convince the builders to make deals with car makers like Fiat and Mercedes to allow a solar-to-traction-battery connection under warranty. Add to that the fact that both batteries and solar panels (which are currently only converting about 20% of the sunlight into power) are becoming more and more efficient very quickly, and we’re confident it’ll happen in the near future.

We hope this article was useful and that we’ve succeeded in making a complex topic understandable for anyone interested in electric vans — specifically those without a technical background. If you’d like to share your thoughts with us on the topic, leave a comment on our accompanying video on Instagram or contact us via the contact form. We’d love to hear from you!

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