With the ‘architecture’ of the van more or less done (but with a million tiny tasks still to be done), I turned my attention to the plumbing and electrical setup. These were fairly hard to research online, so in this post I’m going to give you a lot of specifics so that you have a better guide to this than I could find when I tried to research it. There are also nice tutorials here and here.
The possibilities for electrical setups are extensive. At the most basic level, you would simply charge your gadgets while your van’s engine is running and the rest of the time use a torch, a container of water, etc. But if you want to be able to run stuff like lights, a fan, a water pump, a fridge, and 12v power (for e.g. charging your laptop), then you need a bit more complexity. As I want to comfortably spend long weekends and extended trips living in/out of my van, I went for something with a few more bells and whistles. Note, though, that my setup, although rather more than the bare bones, is still hardly the Rolls Royce of mobile electrics: modern motorhomes and caravans run ALL MANNER OF SHIT including DVD players, wifi systems, hot water systems, washing machines, air conditioners, microwaves, and full-blown ovens. Much of this necessitates using a generator, and I’ve sometimes strayed into campsites (like this one) that resemble noisy, anodyne suburbia rather than people living in/with mother nature. Each to their own and all but it’s not in the spirit of what I’m trying to do (is the most polite way of putting it).
So, here’s how my not-totally-basic but not-super-wow-either electrical system is set up. Before I write this, though, a caveat: I bought all the bits and pieces for this, and I understand, broadly, how it all works. But as I said before, I don’t mess with things I can’t see. So I didn’t set this up myself; Andrew did.
There are many permutations and options when it comes to the electrical setup of a campervan. You can run a 12v system or you can add an inverter so you can plug in regular appliances. You can connect a solar panel or just charge the battery when the engine’s running.
This most basic electrical setup is this: you run a cable from your engine via a battery isolator to a second battery; this is either called a deep cycle battery or a leisure battery. The isolator ensures that your appliances (lights, phone charger, wireless speakers, etc) use power from the additional battery, i.e. you’re still going to be able to start your van after a few days parked up running electrical things. From this battery you run whatever you want, via cables under the floor if you planned the system out beforehand.
What I’m still not sure about, and what no doubt someone knows or has researched: what is the role, in all this, of an in-vehicle battery charger? Is it that you need this, or does it just make the leisure battery charge more efficiently, or faster, or more completely? Honestly, I don’t know. But someone knowledgeable advised me that I needed a charger as well as an isolator.
Either way, once the basics are in place you start adding to this setup. I want to use solar power, but I’m also getting a poptop roof installed. So rather than faff about with fixed solar panels and trailing cables (why isn’t there wireless power?) and rather than advertise the fact that my van is a camper, I went with a solar blanket (and here’s another one that’s slightly cheaper and slightly lower spec). This means that I can park up somewhere and lay the solar panel out where it’ll get some light (which can even be inside the van if security is an issue), but then I can pack it away and there’s no panel fixed to the roof, so my van still looks just like an innocent tradie van when it’s parked on a city street.
The solar blanket runs through a solar regulator, and I ended up buying this nifty (if rather expensive) device that combines the functionality of the battery isolator, battery charger, and the solar regulator all in one.
To this, is attached a voltmeter and a momentary on switch (this was a new piece of vocabulary that Andrew taught me), so I can monitor how much charge is in the second battery. Then, to run the appliances from the battery, the various circuit cables go via a tiny fuse box and then off to where the power finds the fan, lights, fridge, water pump, and sockets (into which I plug USB speakers and fairy lights 🙂 and a phone/ipad charger, but also my cigarette-lighter-type 12v MacBook charger). Most of this stuff sits neatly in a box at the back of the van, with the Redarc device and the fusebox, along with an Anderson socket for the solar blanket, all neatly attached to the side wall of the storage unit that houses the giant (in name, in nature) battery.
The battery I bought was perhaps overkill; it had to be delivered to the workshop on a pallet, by a forklift truck. It weighs 62.5kg (that’s the weight of an ADULT HUMAN BEING; I couldn’t even lift it into the van, but luckily Dave is a gym guy, and could). It’s a 230AH (translation: amp hours) deep cycle battery, and my thinking was as follows. One day (soon? Please let it be soon) I’ll be able to hike again following my heel injury. When I do, I’ll be parking the campervan up at a trail head and heading out into the wilderness for two or three days. I won’t be there with the van, so although I can lay the solar blanket out over the bed, I can’t really rely on having much battery charge that way. So the battery needs to be able to run my fridge for three days so that a cold beer awaits me when I get back from the wilds. Similarly, I want to be able to park up somewhere and live in/around the van for a up to a week at a time without worrying about how much I’m draining the battery power. If it’s pouring rain or there’s another reason that I don’t want to keep the solar blanket up all the time, it’s great if I can just set and forget with the giant battery. So that’s what I bought.
My AH calculation was based on how many amps my combined electrical setup would draw. Here’s a nice little tutorial on how to do this calculation.
Compared to the electrics, plumbing is much less mindblowingly hard. I like that water 1. cannot kill you (well, OK, you know what I mean), 2. is intuitive in how it needs to be connected up, and 3. when it leaks it makes a mess but it’s obvious where it’s coming from and can then be fixed. The same is not true of gas – on which, more in a future post.
The basic plumbing setup, which I designed and installed myself (with some hired muscle to tighten stuff up, thanks Andrew!) goes as follows:
Part 1: The filler Water comes in thru a hosepipe to the filler hole, which in my van is built into the back of the kitchen benchtop. From here the water goes into a 25mm pipe. To stop it kinking as it bends thru the hole in the shelf, this pipe is covered in a spiral strengthening sleeve. Also running south from here is a breather hose, so that air can escape as the tank fills up. The pipes are attached to the bottom of the filler cap with hose clamps.
Part 2: The freshwater tank There are three holes in the tank: at the very top is a small hole for the breather hose. Then about 3cm from the top is a large hole which is where the water goes into the tank. Then in the very bottom corner is the outlet, where the water comes out. The 25mm pipe coming from the filler goes into the top tank at the big hole (my tanks are stacked: freshwater on top, grey water underneath). It does this via a right-angle screw-in fitting, also called a barb, which is covered in thread seal tape to prevent leaks. The hose itself attaches to this fitting with, you guess it, another hose clamp. The breather hose then goes into the very top hole in the tank via a straight plastic barb. Finally, the water comes out of the tank via another fitting/barb, this time a smaller one. The hose used for this is wire-strengthened (the wire runs in a spiral all the way thru the hose, but built into the hose itself), so that it doesn’t kink or get compressed together as the water pump pulls on it. I’m not sure if this is needed or not, but the nice guy at Enzed seemed to know what he was talking about, and sometimes I’m a good listener.
Part 3: The pump to the sink The water then continues its journey up to the water filter and then to the water pump. The pump has a master off/on switch so that I can turn it off if the water is sloshing around as I drive and it’s trying to pump and generally being a pain, but if the switch is on, the pump turns itself on automatically as the tap is lifted AS IF BY MAGIC. The water as it leaves the pump is now under a bit more pressure, so the next piece of hose is a higher-spec hose. This has push-in fittings from the pump to the hose and then from the hose to the tap.
Part 4: The sink to the greywater tank The water finally re-emerges from the tap (hello, water!) into the sink and into e.g. me* or my pasta pot, or wherever it is destined to go. Then it disappears back down the sink again, and this connects to another 25mm hose to the top, biggest hole in the lower of the two tanks. Again, there’s a breather hose from the top hole of this tank and, without anywhere better for it to go, I’ve got it running up and over the edge of the sink. This means that if it does start spitting greywater, it goes straight back down the plughole. (And if you’re looking for a metaphor about futility, there’s one right there. That greywater tank can have as much of a hissy fit as it likes, and anything it spits up will just go straight back down where it came from. Ha!) Again, there are hose clamps on the bottom of the plughole (i.e. 25mm hose attaches via clamp there) and where both these hoses meet the tank, again via clamps and barbs/fittings.
Part 5: The greywater tank to the world The reason for having a greywater tank at all is so that the van is self contained, water-wise. This is because campsites and national parks increasingly insist on this, but also because I really don’t want to be the person who turns a nice, dry campsite into the Somme. So once the water’s in the greywater tank, it sits there until I can get somewhere to drain it out properly. When I do, the outlet runs from the bottom hole of the bottom tank –again, connected to the tank via a barb and a clamp- – and a piece of hose with a ball valve blocking it (connected via two barbs and clamps). This seals the hose when I want the water to stay put and lets me easily open the tap (=ball valve) when I come to emptying the grey water. To do this, I either just hang the hose out of the side door (if I’m over a drain) or I attach the end of the hose to a garden hose, to get it to wherever it needs to go (like a drain that’s just over there). This way it doesn’t make a mess.
Writing about all of this now it all sounds fairly straightforward, which it kind of is with the 20/20 vision of hindsight. But at the time of researching it all online, and talking it through with Andrew, I felt like I was standing precipitously close to the very edge of my knowledge almost all of the time. When you’re spending many hundreds of dollars, this is a scary thing.
Paying someone (in this case, Andrew) to do the electrics was always my plan. But the plumbing sounded fairly do-able from the start. So when I first set things up and tested it … and it pissed water from so many of the connections (OK, well maybe three or four), I felt despondent. Like FFS, I was getting GOOD AT THIS STUFF! But OK. I emptied it all out, Andrew came by with a spanner and a screwdriver, much more leak-proof tape, and his perennial good cheer, and after a bit of grunting it was all OK. The grunting came from him reaching all the way in to the sender arm from the back of the van (so that I didn’t have to take apart the bulkhead and remove the tanks, which would have necessitated re-doing ALL THE PLUMBING, noooo!) He also tightened the connections more generally. OK, he made a bit of an effort, physically, but it also turns out: I’m a wuss.
It’s funny, when I started the whole van project, with so many of the tasks still ahead, I felt a real momentum and plenty of can-do attitude. I was learning stuff all the time and making fast progress, and although the finish line was still a ways off, I felt very capable and in charge. But as the end drew closer, and also the deadline (I’m heading up the coast in the van this Friday, wheeeee!) I’ve been feeling much more stressed about it. Like, come ON, this should be DONE by now! And it is, it kind of is. I can say I’m “finished”, I’m just tinkering now. And I KNOW (intellectually, if not emotionally) that this first trip is a shakedown, and that there WILL be things still needing fixing, or needing attention (I already packed my tools for exactly this reason), or things that need rethinking. I KNOW THIS. But I just want, now, for it to be finished, and also for it to be perfect. Somehow, it’s like I’ve been holding my breath, pretending to be this competent DIYer when actually I don’t know my ball valve from my momentary on switch, EVEN THOUGH I DO!
I think the truth of the thing is that I’m exhausted. I only bought the van seven weeks ago. For the past nine weeks I’ve been living, breathing, dreaming van purchases and then van conversions. During that time, I’ve also had my parents visiting, done a ton of work-work (paid employment, I mean), and also, by the way, done an entire campervan conversion, starting with a fairly low knowledge base, so needing a LOT of research and learning. I don’t have a sender arm on me, but if I did it would register that I am empty. I am out of energy. I’m done. This process has been marvelous, but now it’s time to stop faffing around with DIY and get out and start doing the van thing. It’s time for a trip!
*water that goes into me doesn’t go back down the sink. It goes here!