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Electricity is one of the greatest inventions mankind has come up with to date, it has propelled our level of technology forward in a way that would be incomprehensible to our ancestors. To harness the powers of electricity for your van and build your own circuits you’ll want to get a strong understanding of basic electrical theory. On this page you’ll find extensive and in-depth coverage of electrical theory, it is not meant to be read in one sitting nor would I recommend anyone attempt it. If you’ve never had any education on electricity I strongly suggest you go through this entire piece and make sure you have a firm understanding of it.
The consequences of faulty electrical wiring can cause fires and even death by shock.
Take this seriously, failure to do so can be fatal.
So tiny they went unnoticed for millions of years the greek meaning of the word literally being invisible, Atoms are the building blocks of our universe and are comprised of three parts. A nucleus is the center of the atom, a proton the positively charged matter and the negatively charged matter electrons. It is these electrons we manipulate to control the flow of electricity as the protons and neutrons remain at the core of the atom, the electrons orbit around the congealed mass of protons and neutrons while reacting with other atoms and passing electrons between.
Protons and neutrons will remain at the core unless acted on externally, and when done it’s a bit catastrophic. The atomic structure of an element is how we differentiate them from each other, certain configurations of atoms form molecules and those different molecules react with each other based on their unique atomic structures forming everything you see around you in life!
Being the result of atomic action electricity is quite magical in nature, we can’t see it most of the time but we can feel it’s effects if we touch it and we can even harness its power to accomplish amazing feats. To create a flow of electricity we take advantage of the properties of electrons, by creating an excess of electrons in one place and a lack of electrons in another we set up two attracting forces that when connected through some sort of path the most notable of which is copper wire we open the way for the excess to rush over to the deficit and the energy from that movement is what we refer to as electricity.
Sources of Electricity
There are many ways we can create electricity and there are even ways it’s unintentionally generated. The first of which is light, the source of all our energy here on earth beamed by the sun 24/7, many will choose to harness this basic source as the plants do for their vans and for good reason. Solar energy while not efficient enough to cover the electrical needs of nations is more than enough to power some van appliances and can be reliable stored in batteries! The only other sources of energy-relevant to van life are Chemical & Heat in the forms of fuel and alternative energy sources if you are interested in the others or want a more in-depth explanation, feel free to check these links!
Voltage, Amperage & Resistance
The holy trinity of electrical flow is often explained using water as a metaphor for ease of understanding these are the three main factors that will influence every decision you make when building the circuit your van will run off of. There are mathematical formulas that you will need when calculating out your circuit, these can be found on the cheat sheet at the end of this page!
For now, what you need to know is how electrical flow works, think of voltage as electrical pressure it’s the deciding factor in how intense a shock will be whereas amperage is the rate at which the energy is flowing and resistance is the size of the vessel the energy is flowing through. Think of it as a pipe, Voltage is the pressure that pushes the water from one point to another, amperage is how fast that water is traveling and resistance is what the diameter of that pipe is.
Conductors & Insulators
The principles that control the flow of electricity and determine how much something can conduct or how little it does. If you remember back to elementary school, this is the part of science class where your teacher showed you how rubber doesn’t conduct electricity! It’s through this principle of conductivity we take advantage of atomic structures of materials, those materials become things like copper wire, gold computer chips, and rubber work gloves!
The actual movement of electricity itself, it’s important to understand current is the live movement of electricity and it flows from negative to positive. You’ve probably encountered a situation in your life where you had to help someone jump their car and were presented with a black and a red wire, the fact that you are reading this now also proves you made the right choice or were properly insulated when a situation occurred. You’ll want to understand how the electricity will flow throughout your vehicle and then you’ll want to control that flow properly not overheating your wires or feeding to little energy to your components by using too much resistance!
Direct Current & Alternating Currents
The favorite electrical source of Thomas Edison, direct current is an electrical flow that goes only in one direction it can be channeled continuously or pulsed. Alternating currents, on the other hand, are most often associated with Nikola tesla, consisting of a constantly shifting voltage and direction when connected to an oscilloscope AC appears as a sine wave where DC is a flat line. Likely you are going to want some form of energy in your vehicle and both systems have a place in different appliances and functions, you’ll need to determine the needs of your particular devices, gadgets, batteries, solar panels etc. and then build the appropriate systems!
The relationship between the electrical potential current and resistance, Ohm was an incredible man who created the wheel you see below using the principles of Ohm’s law we can calculate exactly how much a component will draw and what resistance we will need to contain the amperage we send to power it! Of course, most of these calculations can be done using calculators found online these are very simple to use and safe as they are simple math!
You will want to take a peek at this tutorial by khan academy they explain the mechanics of Ohm’s Law and how to do the math manually if you are interested in taking a more in-depth look!
Series vs Parallel Circuits
There are two ways to establish circuits, the first known as a series circuit is the flow of electricity along a single path it brings the whole sum of the voltage through each resistor and device along the way with it. In a parallel circuit, the opposite is true of course, there are multiple paths for current to flow through and resistors along the way in each path. Depending on how many appliances and devices you intend to be powering you will need to weigh out the pros and cons of both methods for you to decide which will favor your specified electrical needs. This is where manufacturer data and user feedback is the best likely someone has tried to wire up the same device you want to and encountered the same puzzle you did there is always a solution!
This man laid down the law when it came to circuits, discovering several key principles he built a foundation of principles the very screen you read this operate under. The first of these was called the “Voltage Law”, it refers to series circuits in that the sum of the voltage that is dropped equals out to the voltage applied. While the “Current Law” describes parallel circuits and the principle that at any junction point in a circuit, the current arriving is equal to the current leaving.
A voltage drop refers to the amount of voltage needed to push current through a load, a load, of course, being anything that is powered by the circuit itself i.e. a light a pneumatic or any other device that requires power. It’s essential that you match the voltage to your device's specs.
Coming out of the industrial era we of course still had horses on the mind thus we’ve stuck with the term horsepower in the representation of power. 1 Horsepower is equivalent to 746 watts. Power is the way in which we measure the output of a device, you’ve definitely heard car commercials bragging about the ferocity of their X000’s horsepower engine they really aren’t lying modern engines field power our ancestors would have thought only gods possessed.
Circuit Components & Symbols
We’re going to cover a few of the basic terms & symbols you’ll come across in circuitry so when you inevitably google when things go wrong, you'll have a better understanding of the explanations and terminology you come across in your electrical journeys. There is an absolute ton of information on the chart below so don’t feel like you need to memorize it merely having the chart as a reference when drawing out your circuit and analyzing the circuits of other devices will be more than enough to help you along the way.
Magnetic rocks were thought of as magical objects that were capable of having an effect on other metallic substances. What wonder it must have been to have your piece of metal magnetized by a roaming wizard, today however we know that magnetism is simply a force that we are able to manipulate. Below is an incredible gif explaining how magnets work!
The next step in magnetism is the act of harnessing magnetic energy and creating fields that can be manipulated to our will. Electromagnetism is how we operate several of our mainstay devices, every time you use the microwave you are taking advantage of its principles. It’s an important concept to understand in regards to the function of motors & generators! When a current passes through a conductor a magnetic field is established, thus all the wire in your vehicle will have an EMF (Electro-Magnetic Field) you can coil wire to increase the intensity of the EMF field and wrapping iron with a coil further magnifies the field.
Motors & Generators
I remember my first day of motors in college, our teacher built one of these in front of us and my mind was completely blown, until seeing this we had spoken of motors and generators so much and learned the physics behind how they function and I was still lost. This single demonstration cleared up any confusion I had on the subject and thus I include it here to hopefully give you the same experience. A motor is how we utilize the stored energy in batteries it’s a complicated concept but it’s truly essential you understand this when dealing with electricity on a larger scale as it’s the physics behind the device powering everything in your home! A generator is simply an electric motor with the function reversed instead of a moving magnet it’s a stationary magnet.
Thus we’ve come to the point in the tutorial you’ve been waiting for, it could have taken you a day to get through all that or a week but you’ve made it here and hopefully didn’t skip all that or you will be really confused I promise! Below you’ll find a university circuit building program, it doesn’t have every device but you don’t need them as you can simply substitute a lightbulb with an equivalent draw into the program when needed! This will also allow you to test the circuit without even buying any components to see if you built it correctly, as an added bonus if you are having trouble and you post on one of the many Reddit electronics & circuitry subreddits you can usually get a plethora of help from happy tinkerers that love to teach new people the craft!
Below you’ll find the example I’ll be referring to here, I’ve built a basic circuit to demonstrate how you can use the program as well as how to build a simple circuit. While the numbers you will use will vary wildly this example works to show off a few principles, first and foremost the use of a Fuse box, it is 1000x easier to change a broken fuse then to rebuild an entire circuit that got overloaded. If you build the same circuit you can see it animated and will understand these concepts a bit better when you play with the numbers yourself.
Our sample is a parallel circuit drawing from a battery to three separate loads.
Our first load is active as we have a switch in the closed position and the resistor is on the wrong side so is not slowing the flow of electricity hence the brighter light!
Our second light is active has no switch and is functioning just fine, it also has the resistor on the correct side so it’s light is slightly less bright than the top lights.
Our third load is inactive as it has blown it’s fuse, if you notice the ammeter reads out 4.85, as our fuses are only rated to 4A we overload the circuit and the fuse trips which opens the circuit preventing damage!
So what did we learn from our sample?
The purpose of that sample was to demonstrate a few key concepts in electricity, one being the importance of a fuse. In the event that something does happen as this is your home it’s critical you have a failsafe and that’s what a fuse is, inside of a fuse is a thin wire rated to a certain amperage. If that amperage rating is reached the wire will ignite instantly opening the connection stopping the flow of electricity and in many circumstances stopping a fire! It’s thus incredibly key you include a fuse box, it’s not necessary but if you are reading this guide you probably don’t have a lot of experience with electrical and it’s simply a safer bet to build one.
Next up is the importance and function of resistors, if you put too much power into something without using a resistor to “slow it down” before it hits the load you can overload it and fry it! To avoid that you calculate the required resistance needed to safely connect the device to your power source and make sure that the resistor is placed in between the power source and load. This will ensure the resistor does its job and protects your electronics from overloading.
Finally, the value of a switch, in a van, leaving something connected in a circuit will drain the battery when not needed you can install a switch before loads to allow you to turn them on or off. In a house where power is usually unlimited and provided by the city/government at a cost in your van when you are literally counting the minutes of power available a switch can save you loads of energy. Let’s say you have a fridge hooked up, you know you don’t have enough battery power to last an entire week of powering a fridge but you can power it up every 6 hours for 60 minutes to regulate the temperature in the fridge so your food doesn’t spoil. You can even go as far as automating the process so you don’t have to remember to flick a switch, with timing circuits you can build a self-managing temperature control system right in your van!
Wrapping it all up
That’s about as far as you’ll need to go in van life, we could get into digital theory but then this would get even longer and the vast majority of people will not dabble in it so I’ve not included it. Below however you will find a gratuitous amount of sources related to electricity, I’ve done my best to simplify the information into a package that is easily understood however there will always be a time in which you just need more information or details! I hope you’ve enjoyed this detailed look at electrical work, check back as this page will be updated over time. Good luck!
Justvanlife is not responsible for the results of your build, please stay safe!