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How-to Charge a Camper Van Electrical System with the Alternator

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How-to Charge a Camper Van Electrical System with the Alternator

In a Camper Van or Motorhome, you’ve already got a generator built-in. It’s called your alternator. The engine spins the alternator which charges your starting battery which powers all of the electrical devices that your vehicle needs on a day to day basis. Spark plugs, ECU, Fuel Pump, Air conditioner blower, radio, and much more. The alternator’s job is to keep that battery full.

Now, you’re converting a van into a camper van and plan on installing ‘house’ batteries to run all of your household stuff like, lights, fans, refrigerator, computers, and such.

For most people, their goal is to power these ‘house’ batteries off of solar, which is great! But when the weather gets cloudy and the charge gets low, it’s nice to be able to charge your batteries on a road trip from point a to point b. This blog post is going to talk about the various ways to charge your house batteries from the Alternator:

Why You SHOULDN’T Use the Alternator to charge your house battery bank:

Something to keep in mind: an alternator is a mechanical device with lots of moving parts. These ‘parts’ will wear out as you use them. The harder you work your alternator, the sooner it will fail. If your alternator stops working; so does your engine until you replace your alternator. This is why, over time, I’ve migrated to a mindset of opting for slower alternator charging (fewer amps) and a way to turn off alternator charging so that the solar panels can do their job, even when driving down the road.

Charging DIY Camper House Batteries with an Isolator

An isolator simply connects your house battery bank to your starting battery. When you turn off your engine, the isolator, “isolates” the two battery banks so that when you use your lights, fans, refrigerator and such, you won’t kill your starting battery, leaving you stranded.

The isolator is simply a pass-through of power and it largely unregulated for the most part in terms of the voltage and amperage that gets sent to the house batteries. The voltage and amperage going to the house batteries is dependent on the voltage regulator and amperage output of your alternator.

How fast will a Battery Isolator Charge a House Battery Bank from the Alternator?

In order to find out how fast our house batteries can charge from the Alternator, we need to know how big of an alternator we have. From there, we can estimate that ABSOLUTE BEST CASE SCENARIO we can anticipate a charging amperage of 70% of the nominal alternator output.

So, if we have a 220 amp alternator… that would mean the most amps we could see coming into our house battery bank is 154 amps. Now… based on real world info gathered from readers of this site, the actual charging rate of a 220 amp alternator is closer to 100 amps.

This means that if we were pushing 100 amps into our house battery bank over the course of an hours drive, we will have refilled 100 amp hours into our house battery bank.

This is also a very rough figure because as the batteries get closer to full, the slower they will charge.

So, to answer the question: “How fast will my house battery bank recharge while I’m driving?” You could VERY roughly calculate 50% of your alternator size in amps times the number of hours you are driving, and this will tell you how many amp hours will be pushed back into your battery bank.

Pros of Charging Camper House Batteries with an Isolator:

  • It can charge at a rapid rate, over 100 amps in certain cases.
  • Isolators are less expensive than battery to battery chargers
  • Isolators have the capability to jump-start a weak starting battery in emergency scenarios.

Cons of Charging Camper Batteries with an Isolator:

  • Higher charging rates can lead to premature alternator wear and potentially alternator overheating.
  • It’s likely that your alternator does not put out high enough voltage to charge Lithium batteries to 100%
    • Lithium Batteries generally need to be charged at 14.4-14.6 volts once they get near 100%
    • Vehicle Alternators generally put out 13.5V to 14.5V depending on their quality, design, and age.
  • Large wire size, potentially up to 2/0 wire, should be used due to minimizing voltage drop (Less than 3%) while accommodating high charging rates.
  • Varying alternator sizes and vehicle setups make predicting charging rates with accuracy, difficult.
  • If the Isolator is not specifically designed for Lithium, it’s connect/disconnect parameters will be too low for use with Lithium batteries and may not disconnect the house and starting battery bank properly when the engine is off.

Charging DIY Camper Batteries with an Li-BIM

The Li-BIM (Lithium Ion Battery Isolation Manager) is a popular isolator designed specifically for use with Lithium Batteries. It has higher voltage open/close parameters that allow the isolator to open and close at more appropriate times depending on if the alternator is charging the house battery bank or shore/solar is able to charge the starting battery.

The most unique thing about this isolator is it attempts to combat alternator overheating by providing time based ‘cycling’. This means that when the engine is running and the isolator is allowing the house battery bank to charge, the Li-BIM will allow charge for 15 minutes, disconnect charge for 20 minutes to allow the alternator to cool, reconnect for 15 minutes, disconnect for 20 minutes, and this cycle will continue the entire time the engine is running. This takes some stress off of the Alternator.

How fast will the Li-BIM charge my house battery bank from the Alternator?

Since the Li-Bim allows charging for 15 minues and then disconnects for 20 minutes, this means that it is only charging for 42% of the time.

Now, Using the same specs from earlier. If we have a 220 amp alternator that is charging our house battery bank at, say, 100 amps; this means that it would be pushing 100 amps into our battery bank, 42% of every hour we are driving. This would give us 42 amp hours into our battery bank for every hour we are driving.

Pros of Charging Camper House Batteries with the Li-BIM Isolator

  • It can charge at a rapid rate, potentially over 100 amps depending on the vehicle.
  • It is an isolator with voltage connection/disconnection set-points specific for Lithium Batteries.
  • The Li-BIM has the capability to jump-start a weak starting battery in emergency scenarios.
  • The time-based charging ‘breaks’ allow the alternator to cool between high amperage charging rounds.

Cons of Charging Camper Batteries with an Li-BIM Isolator:

  • Higher charging rates can lead to premature alternator wear.
  • It’s likely that your alternator does not put out high enough voltage to charge Lithium batteries to 100%
    • Lithium Batteries generally need to be charged at 14.4-14.6 volts once they get near 100%
    • Vehicle Alternators generally put out 13.5V to 14.5V depending on their quality, design, and age.
    • Although the Li-BIM is designed specifically for lithium, it cannot and does not boost voltage in any way.
  • Large wire size, potentially up to 2/0 wire, should be used due to minimizing voltage drop (Less than 3%) while accommodating high charging rates.
  • Varying alternator sizes and vehicle setups make predicting charging rates with accuracy, difficult.

Charging DIY Camper Batteries with a B2B (Battery to Battery) Charger

A battery to battery charger takes the voltage and amperage that is being put out by the vehicle alternator and regulates the amperage down to a modest pre-set level and boosts the voltage as necessary to fully charge any batteries.

This decrease in amperage lowers the strain of your alternator greatly and also gives us a solid number from which to work with when being able to accurately determine how many amps the charger will operate at.

The boost in voltage is INCREDIBLY important for being able to charge higher voltage lithium batteries from alternator that can’t quite put out that much voltage. If the power from the alternator is hitting the DC-DC Charger at 13.8V and the Batteries need to be charged at 14.6V, the DC-DC Charger will boost the 13.8V from the alternator to the 14.6V the batteries require. On DC-DC Chargers, this voltage is also programmable so it will work for Lithium, AGM, Carbon Foam, Salt Water, or whatever other battery type you throw at it.

How fast will a DC-DC Charger charge my house batteries from the Alternator?

Each DC-DC Charger has it’s own charging rates. For example, the Victron Orion 12|12 – 30 will charge your house battery bank at 30 amps. This means, that if you drive for an hour, you will push 30 amp hours back into your battery bank.

Pros of Charging Camper House Batteries with a B2B (Battery to Battery Charger.

  • Can regulate amperage making system planning easier and decreases wear and tear on the alternator.
  • Can deliver a specific programmable ‘charging profile’ to the batteries.
  • Can boost sub-optimal voltage to a level needed to charge batteries to 100%
  • Some models of DC-DC Chargers can be run in parallel, providing more amps if necessary.

Cons of Charging Camper House Batteries with a B2B (Battery to Battery Charger.

Final Thoughts: Isolator vs DC-DC Charger

Since the introduction of the Victron Orion 12|12-30 DC-DC Charger, I have been all aboard the DC-DC charger train. The biggest selling point for me is the voltage boost. Having a device that will boost the voltage of an underperforming alternator to the 14.4-14.6V it takes to charge lithium batteries like our Battle Born batteries, is the main selling point for me. As much as I would like 100+ amps coming to my batteries, sometimes it’s risk vs reward and getting towed to the shop or performing a parking lot alternator change due to an overworked/overheated alternator, just plain sucks, IMO; but please use your own judgement when making this decision for your own camper.

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Matt

Wednesday 25th of November 2020

Question, it seams like in your wiring diagrams that the only thing that you have on the line side of the disconnect switch is the battery bank. Is there a compelling reason that you also don’t have the alternator, shoreline and the solar not on the line side of the mains power switch as well?

Nate Yarbrough

Friday 27th of November 2020

The way I have it designed in my diagrams makes it so that we can use fewer parts/pieces and keeps the physical footprint smaller. If you wanted some things on one side of the switch and some on the other, it just starts to really add up in the additional parts required.

Jason

Friday 30th of October 2020

Gday Nate like your blogs and youtub posts. Have you cheaked out the Safiery comany in Australia , we love ower camping down here . They got this new Scotty 3kw Bi Deretional DctoDc 12 to 24 ,36 ,48 carger and you can fit a 250amp temperature control alterator , this suff super charges yea batteries. Getting this in my Rig (Rv) . 48 v the the go in rvs , What you think mate . The man down under ......

Ian

Friday 23rd of October 2020

Hi Nate, After using the alternator calculator, it was recommended that I use a 60A b2b charger. This sounds like a dumb question in my head, but is there a risk in using a b2b that is rated for less amperage, like the Victron 12/12-30? Thanks!

Nate Yarbrough

Monday 26th of October 2020

Nope. Completely fine. That would actually be BETTER for your alternator health.

Mark Reed

Wednesday 21st of October 2020

Hi, Nate,

What are your thoughts on using the Sterling Power Battery to Battery 60 amp DC to DC Converter in your system rather than the Victron Orion 30 amp model that you spec. I understand that Sterling makes quality components, and this seems like it would double the charging input power to the house battery bank, but not sure if it would work well with your system or if there are other considerations that I am missing.

Thanks.

Nate Yarbrough

Thursday 22nd of October 2020

If you are using Victron components (Multiplus Inverter Charger & Smartsolar MPPT), I highly recommend the Victron unit over the Sterling so that all of the components can ‘talk’ to each other for temperatures, voltages and such. Also… Victron is working on a firmware update so that solar and alternator can synchronize charging and charge from both sources at the same time. You will NEVER have that capability with the Sterlilng unit.

Mathew Angel

Wednesday 21st of October 2020

Nate, I bought your 400-600ah wiring diagram and I'm thinking I should probably have two Victron Orion TR-Smart 12|12-30 so I can parallel them to get a total of 60amps. I'm going with 600ah batteries so I'm thinking I need more recharging juice during our excursions. Could you please let me know how to achieve the parallel connection with any recommended parts? I was initially thinking to have a separate bus bar for the line coming from the starter battery and to split off onto the inputs of the two Orions'. From there, the outputs of the Orions would land onto one pole in the Lynx Distributor with a 90 or 100 amp fuse. Have a great week!

Nate Yarbrough

Thursday 22nd of October 2020

There are a few ways to accomplish that and without diving into a whole new diagram or something, the most straightforward way is to get a 2nd Victron Lynx so you have 4 additional spaces for devices and effectively 'copy paste' the orion charging leg of the system over one space.

You can do as you proposed, but the fusing gets more tricky that what I can explain in a comment here.