My intent was to use as much free, used, low-cost materials as possible. The camper won’t win any beauty contests but it is fully functional; I have lived off-grid in it since 2018.
Since I boondock on public lands in 14d stretches grid power is not an option.
I do have an isolator (see below) but 14d stays mean driving is infrequent and alternator charging will not be a major player.
The large roof area of the Promaster lends itself to ample solar so that is the main source of the power I make and use. As of Nov 2022 I make/use an average of 1.71kWh/day.1
main PV system - 750w
The main solar setup cost $425 (~$900 including 100Ah of lithium, see below). The cost breakdown is viewable here on Google Drive
750w of panel. The excess panel is there for “rainy day” support.
- 3x Trina SS2550P-60 poly panels (used solar farm pulls, back label) seen here layed out at ground level in preparation for the install. 32c/watt. Upgraded from 3x 190w.
EpEver 5415AN 50a MPPT solar charge controller with MT-50 display, battery temperature sensor, external battery voltage sensor, and RS485 to USB adapter for laptop control.The EpEver has been replaced with a used Victron 150|45 charge controller and SmartBatterySense for the reasons given here. This brings the solar cost up to ~$500. The EpEver will be kept for backup, running portables and DIY converter.
- I also carry a simple 40A PWM controller for backup. PWM with nominal 20v panels and 12v bank is not ideal, but it is a cheap backup. It still can make >350w with PWM. Kind of a limp mode until another MPPT comes in.
I have [rarely] seen the panels max the controller at 50A, but 20A is more common since the ample panel starts charging early in the day before solar power is strongest. If battery SoC is low and the sun comes out behind clouds at local solar noon the normal max I see is 38-41A. In retrospect I think 40A of MPPT would be sufficient for my setup.
The lithium is usually charged around 11am if I am camping in the open.
portable PV system - 200w
200w rated; ~150w max in practice due to controller limitations.
For use in forests and other challenging conditions. I also use these panel/controller combinations for experiments.
- 2x 100w grape solar poly panels for use in forests
- 20’+ extension cables. In retrospect 30’ might have been more useful under heavy forest canopies, or maybe I will get another 20’ and daisy chain them. Serial arrangement would help attenuate voltage drop.
- parallel combiners for use with PWM controllers (or with MPPT in partial shade conditions)
alternator charging - ~530w
I include the wattage estimate here to help people understand how much current alternators can deliver compared to typical solar installs.
- WirthCo 20090 Battery Doctor 75 Amp/100 Amp Battery Isolator. Battery Doctor is the isolator of choice on the Promaster forums. I use a High Voltage Disconnect to limit voltage coming in from alternator or solar, and a switch for manual disconnect.
- FHA1580 1 pc 1/0 2 4 AWG ANL Fuse Holder
- high voltage disconnect
I’ve used the same isolator with two different banks. At 50% DoD the 220Ah flooded lead-acid bank pulled ~44A from the alternator (12.1v x 44A = 532.4w). The 100Ah LiFePo4 bank pulls 18A - 32A depending on SoC. (13.3v x 25A = 332.5w)
- Rebel Batteries 100Ah LiFePO4. See the lithium page for details and use.
2x Duracell GC-2 (220Ah flooded).Replaced with LFP after 1,115 cycles.
- Drok coulomb counting battery monitor - 75A shunt.
Plews 75-030 Auto Shut Off battery watererno longer needed with Li.
I set up my shore power to pull a max of 1000w, charging the batteries at 10A DC and having ~850w left over for loads. This would run an electric heater on low (750w), or my mini hotplate (~300w). AC flows through a breaker box with a 12A 120vac breaker.
- NOCO Genius GCP1 Black 13 Amp shore power port
- 100ft outdoor extension cord2
- DIY Converter3
- P3 P4400 Kill A Watt electricity usage monitor
- AIMS Power PWRI30012S 300w pure sine wave inverter for electronics
- Lvyuan 700w modified sine wave inverter for resistance loads like cooking with small electrical appliances (crock pot, lab hotplate).
- I also carry a used 700w PSW Renogy inverter for backup.
wiring and distribution
- Ram-Pro 25’ fish tape to pull wiring
- Install Bay BCC14 1/4-Inch cable clamp
- 10/2 landscape wiring for DC power distribution
- 14/2 residential wiring for AC
- 16/2 landscape wiring for individual DC outlets
- Emerson 120-105711 DC 100A solenoid for switching opportunity loads from the DIY converter
- Leviton 515PV 15 Amp AC plug
- Blue Sea Systems DualBus 100A Common BusBar
- Sierra FS40680 Junction Block
- Square D Lighting Panelboard Ground Bar
- CURT 58340 15A auto reset circuit breaker
- CURT 58370 40A auto reset circuit breaker
- KKmoon DC12V 6 Way Blade Fuse Box
As with many Promasters (due to width) the bed is arranged across the back on a platform. The platform itself is ~34” off the floor with a “bench” in front of it for sitting and easier bed access for humans and dogs.
Cooking gear has its own page.
- 35gal fresh water tank from a Class C that was being parted out
- 2x 7-gallon Reliance aquatainers
- 15” stainless steel sink from thrift store. Faucet replaced with 6’ dish sprayer attachment so
- I can’t leave the water on
- I can take coldwater showers outside the sliding door
- undersink graywater catchment is another aquatainer
- 12v water pump
- accumulator: reduce hammer effect and ease water pump duty cycle
- 50’ potable water hose
- water bandit
- water sillcock key. It is sometimes easier to get permission if the countercritter doesn’t have to find the key.
- 6’ hose fragment cut from a damaged 25’ potable water hose. This has proven endlessly valuable for filling containers from raised spigots; no holding, no aiming issues.
- Home Depot bucket with Luggable Loo seat and 5 gallon liners for single use, or heavier kitchen-sized bags for use with sawdust media.
- solar shower bag
cordless hair clipper, which allows one to stand outside the van and trim hair without making such a mess :-)- repeatedy dropped and finally broke. Replaced with a Wahl kit.
- breathing mobile washer, a plunger-type washer that works very well. Comes with a small plunger stick but also fits a mop handle, so I use my multi-purpose stick..
- 02 Cool 12v fans found at thrift / garage sales for $2 each :-)
- maxxfan 7000k.
- JR Products50035 Endura range vent mounted on back door for passive ventilation
- shadecloth 10’x16’ for awning
- No-See-Um Netting
- Mr. Heater Buddy propane heater
Coleman black cat 1500btu catalytic heater- died (catalytic membrane tore, replacements not available)
- refill adapter to refill the 1lb propane bottles from walmart, which are replaced as they get finicky with age/use.
- brass caps for the bottles because the plastic ones break over time
- 20# tank
Electric space heating is generally impractical off-grid. Most space heaters run something like 750w on LO and ~1500w on HI. Fine if you’re hooked up to shore power.
I have experimented with a 250w ceramic heater marketed as a “personal” unit. If you have excess power and point it right at you it can take the chill off. It won’t heat the van. The one I bought is no longer available but this is the general type. Quite unsually, the stated power (250w) matched the measured power.
Folks who do want to do some space heating with electricity might as well mine crypto and make it pay a bit.
electric contact heating
Electric contact heating on the other hand (heat source touching you) can work very well and use minimal power.
The wattage numbers below were measured with a kill-a-watt for AC and DC power meter for DC. Add ~10% for the AC loads due to inverter losses.
- contact heating experiments:
- 12v heated seat cover like this (Wagan model I have is no longer available) - laid flat in bed. ~20w LO, ~45w HI
- Giantex heated mattress pad (highly recommended). ~13w LO (1 of 8) to 90w HI (8 of 8) . related blog post
- simplest-possible manual control heating pad. related blog post. Average 12w LO, 22w MED, 43w HI.
- usb handwarmer / powerbrick
- usb vest, measured 5w LO, 7.5W MED, 10w HI
Ivation ERSDM18 Mini Dehumidifier - not used much in the desert, but can make a difference in areas with a monsoon season.
Swamp cooling has its own page.
- Curt 13295 receiver hitch. This appears to be an upgraded replacement for the 13150 which had reported structural problems.
- I carried the bicycle on an Allen bike rack (recommended) which I later accidentally forgot at a site in New Mexico (not recommended).
- I had a receiver hitch motorcycle carrier but opted not to bring my NC700x street bike. I gave the carrier to the bike’s buyer.
- OEM RAM window vents. I originally tried theAuto Ventshade 192083 which was poorly designed and shattered upon installation. Note: the OEM shades also broke while bushwhacking tight forest roads and I have not replaced them.
- Vantech H3 rack, model H3542W, with Promaster roof stud mounts. No drilling required..
- Tri-Lynx stacking leveling blocks
- Glion Dolly folding commuting scooter which I use to explore cities and have also used in both Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo.
- I had a used Trek mountain bike I used in CJ, and subsequently gave away when I went Full Time. See bike rack info below.
- mail forwarding services from iPostal1. Weird name, nice setup. View pics of mail and choose to discard, shred, scan, bundle and send to wherever you are, or pick up in person if you are near the physical office. Pro tip: pick a location you will near from time to time to take advantage of local pickup.
- gym membership: I did get the Planet Fitness “black card” membership because it allows use at any location. Update: the showers mostly closed during 2021 covid so I cancelled. I rejoined in Sept 2021 as I will be stealthing on my Great Loop 2021-2022
- I run as much of my expenses as possible through an Amazon Prime credit card issued by Chase. 2-5% cash back. You can use the cash back on Amazon but that accrues no more points. If you have it credited back to your card account you’ll get another 2-5% cash back when you spend it. :-) Minimum payout is something like $20.
- I also maintain a Capital One credit card (they were the ones that handled the van loan).
- Interest-bearing checking and savings from Ally, an online-only bank. No ATM fees and they credit back ATM ffees charged by others. Highly recommended.
- linux virtuals (VMS) from Flaunt7. I had years of good service from Frantech but they phased out my plan and there was no available virtuals available of the type I wanted. I combined all three of my Frantech services into one larger one at Flaunt7 at the same pricepoint.
- paypal - I have been on paypal since it was X.com. Late 90s, maybe?
- Nulaxy Wireless In-Car Bluetooth FM Transmitter Radio Adapter Car Kit because my bare-bones van didn’t have bluetooth.
- Raspberry Pi-based MythTV OTA (free over-thje-air broadcast) PVR. I already owned the components so I DIYed.
- Mediasonic Homeworx HW130STB I found at a thrift for $7.
- transparent boosted flat window antenna
- power-passing splitter with broadcast-frequency bypass. Needed splitter because the HDHR has two inputs
- 12v 10” monitor
- HD Homerun dual tuner, the original one. SiliconDust still supports the thing, still updates firmware.
- $100 refurb Samsung Chromebook that’s become my “daily driver”. Portable, simple, and consumes 16w max when running full bore and charging at the same time. :-)
- old business-class Dell Latitude laptop running Debian linux. Sucks power so I only use it for special purposes like running virtuals (has 16GB RAM), minecraft, etc.
- kindle paperwhite. I prefer e-ink and the battery lasts forever…
- backup used e-ink readers; an old Kindle K3 and a B&N Nook I got for $10 at a pawn shop. I use these for loaners or when I think the main kindle might get roughed up.
phone and data
- Xiomi Redmi 9 for carry. Astounding for a sub-$150 phone. I put a 256GB Samsung microSD in it and also use it to hold backups, documents and podcasts. When somewhere with fast wifi I d/l stuff to the card and distribute it to the other devices in the camper upon my return..
Motorola G Fast as dedicated Verizon hotspot when required. Backup phone.
- mobile data: Visible wireless, a Verizon MNVO. $25/mo on party plan.
mobile data: US Mobile Wireless, an MNVO. They resell both Verizon (“Super LTE”) and TMO (“GSM LTE”). The TMO is slightly less expensive but I imagine nomads will pick the Super LTE option to get Big V’s coverage. USM has a fun/clever website, massively customizable plans, and discount prices compared to dealing with V directly.
Before I had an LTE router (see below) I had problems destroying phone batteries when using them as hotspots. Not a problem when batteries were replaceable but most are glued in now. I work around this by using the Automate android app to warn me when the battery is charged to 95% so I can disconnect it. In the beginning I used Tasker for this, but the per-phone license was a bummer and transferring a pain. I switched to Llama, which morphed into Automate.
- Cudy LT450 AC1200 LTE/Wifi router.
GL-AR300M travel router, repeats both nearby wifi and in-van hotspot (RVwiki article on repeating wifi)replaced by Cudy external antsreplaced by Cudy ant extenstion cable so I could hang one ant behind the rearview mirror. Full view of the area ahead! This is great for sitting in parking lots and hitting open wifi across the way…replaced by Cudy EasyTether Pro for androidno longer needed
- Pi2, Pi3
- Samsung Chromebook 3, running GalliumOS
- Dell 7280, dual-booting windows and Linux Mint Debian Edition
- Baofeng UV5r 2m/440cm handheld - kb5rca. Fancy? No. Pretty? No. Good enough? Yes. I feed it with the excellent free/open Chirp
- Grecom 500 digital scanner
- Retekess AM/FM/shortwave rechargeable receiver. Great sound and functionality from a radio the size of a pack of cigarettes. SW reception will benefit from some kind of clip-on external ant.
- Ryobi P1832 18V One Plus Drill/Driver and Impact Driver
- Neiko 01924A Self-Adjusting 3-in-1 Automatic Wire Stripper
Custom LeatherCraft 1173 32-Pocket Socket Tool Roll Pouch- hated it
- $10 used pick mattock from flea market in Quartzsite - exceptional for digging catholes.
- Fumoto F-106N oil drain valve. Oil changes have nevr been so easy.