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If you’ve just bought a van and want to convert it into a campervan, installing electrics is going to be on your do-to list.

The electrical system is a major part of any campervan build and the decisions you make at the design stage will have a lasting impact on your van’s life. 

Even if someone is converting the van for you, it’s good to understand the basics so you get the most out of your campervan.


Campervan electrics – then and now

There was a time when campervans didn’t need much in the way of electrics.

Cookers were lit with a match, fridges turned on with piezo igniters and lights ran off the vehicle’s battery. Back then, van life was a much simpler affair.

These days, campervans are full of cutting-edge electronics. As well as all the usual electrical appliances you might expect in a van, there’s also an increasing amount of smart technology.

Just as our homes can be controlled from our phones, so too can our campervans. Apps that let you control and view the status of on-board systems are making campervans smarter – and electrics even more vital.

A campervan set up with a table outside surrounded by tall plants

How do campervan electrics work?

Most vehicles use a combination of a 230v mains (the same found in a bricks-and-mortar home) and a 12v DC (leisure battery).

Plenty of campervans also make use of solar, wind and generators to power electrical items.

Both the mains and the battery have jobs to do, but they also work together.

The mains powers bigger appliances such as heaters and fridges, while the battery powers the systems that control them.

Most campervans today are fitted with 12vs and mains sockets throughout.

When thinking about the electrics in your campervan, it’s worth remembering the voltage delivered in a home is far greater than that delivered in a campervan.

For example, 230v of AC current boils a kettle at home in a couple of minutes.

But in a campervan, a 12v DC kettle can take up to 20 mins to boil and can massively drain battery life in the process.


Understanding your campervan’s electrics

Your choice of campervan electrical system depends on a number of factors.

These include cost, types of appliances being fitted, the size of vehicle, and the ability to travel without the need for electrical hook-up.

Every campervan and campervan conversion is different. But some things apply to all.

Here are some of the key things to consider when dealing with campervan electrics.


1 Disconnecting the battery

For most campervan conversion jobs, the first job is to disconnect the battery.

Not only does this mean you won’t electrocute yourself (always handy!), it can also help minimise potential damage caused during the work.

Disconnecting the battery is a fairly simple task: remove the cover, undo the negative terminal, and ensure the earth lead can’t touch the positive terminal.

To reconnect, you simply reverse the process.

A car battery in an engine bay

2 Leisure batteries

A leisure battery is what powers the living area in a campervan and prevents a flat battery.

It means you can spend evenings with the lights on, music playing, heater whirring, with no need to read your book using a head torch after using too much electricity during the day.

The leisure battery also allows electrical items to function when the van is away from a hook-up.

So even after a long weekend at the beach, you’ll always be able to start the engine and get from A to B.


3 Charging a leisure battery

Of course, for a leisure battery to do its job, it needs to be charged. One way to charge your leisure battery is by hooking it up to a 230v mains supply.

When using a hook-up facility, you’ll want a battery charger that can convert the 240v AC mains supply to the 12v DC needed to charge the battery.

This allows you to trickle charge your leisure batteries.

But you and your van are not always going to be near a hook-up.

Luckily, a campervan’s alternator charges both batteries while the vehicle is moving.

Only your leisure battery is drawn on when the campervan is parked and, equally as important, only the starter battery is drawn on when the engine is started.

Leisure batteries are designed for gradual release of energy and are separate from the main battery so a flat engine battery is never a concern.


How to manage campervan electrics

A motorhome with the interior lights on and a starry nights sky above

There’s a lot to think about when it comes to planning your campervan’s electrical system.

Here are 10 ways you can make campervan electrics easy:

  1. Keep energy demand to a minimum by choosing efficient appliances. When buying items, always compare the difference in Ah (amp hours) or watts ratings. Divide by 12 to convert watts to Ah.
  2. When possible, always go for 12v appliances rather than 240v, as they will be more efficient.
  3. If you’re using 240v appliances, you’ll also need an inverter (which also uses energy).
  4. Some cheaper inverters create a square wave rather than a sine wave. You may find that some TVs don’t work as well on square waves, so invest in the right products early on in the conversion process.
  5. Make smart choices when picking electrical appliances for your campervan. For example, more cold air is lost when opening an upright fridge compared to a box fridge (because cold air sinks).
  6. Invest in a good power management system so you can control and monitor your campervan electrics.
  7. Use quality marine grade components as they are built to withstand tough environments.
  8. Get the maximum electrical efficiency, practicality and safety with the appropriate wire gauge.
  9. Isolate each component using fuses or isolating switches to protect the battery from voltage and current spikes.


Protect your home on wheels with campervan insurance

There’s so much more to campervans than a bunch of electrics and a bed in the back of the van.

A campervan is a home on wheels which requires lots of love and attention (which includes a good campervan insurance policy).

At Motorhome Protect, we give campervan owners the protection they need for a more carefree life on the road.

Wherever your campervan travels take you, make sure you have the right campervan insurance.

Get a quote today.