Upgrading My Camper Van Electrical System to Lithium Batteries
I can’t believe I waited so long to replace my camper van’s busted-ass AGM batteries with shiny, powerful lithium ones. That single upgrade greatly improved our van travel experience.
Prior to the upgrade, our old batteries from the initial build in 2013 wheezed like a smoker’s lungs. They tried hard, but couldn’t get the job done.
The batteries had juice to power basic items in the van like laptops, roof fan, heater, fridge. But the overall capacity and voltage output had decreased to borderline unusable for any high-current load like a countertop water boiler. Which meant no quick morning coffee for Chelsea, which meant OMG FIX THIS IMMEDIATELY.
Also, the tiny microwave I installed last summer could only heat up food while we were driving or our inverter threw an error. People, I’m talking about an EXTREME inconvenience. I choose to sleep in a van versus a tent for comfort, dammit! I reserve sleeping on the ground for bikepacking.
(In defense of our old Fullriver batteries, we did use them five years past their typical use date. They were champions in their day.)
Suffice it to say that anyone considering replacing their old AGM (absorbent glass-mat) or FLA (flooded lead acid) batteries will see an incredible improvement in their electrical systems. Here are the details of my upgrade.
Click specific sections to jump directly there!
- Reasons lithium batteries kick butt
- Downsides to lithium batteries
- How I selected my lithium battery company
- Battery installation details
- Electrical wiring diagram
- DC-DC charger selection
- D+ signal wire details
- MPPT controller reprogramming
- The Verdict
- Engineer-dork battery info
Reasons lithium batteries kick butt
- Lithium batteries maintain their voltage output down to 10% of their capacity. Compared to AGM or lead acid, which are almost useless below 50%, you get way more useable power even with the same amp-hour capacity.
- Lithium batteries weigh about half what AGM batteries do. My ~13″x7″x9″ batteries are only 31 pounds each. Especially for big battery banks, that’s a lot less weight.
- Lithium batteries have a faster “absorption phase,” which means they charge faster. (It seems like 3-4x faster than AGM is what most companies claim.) Many people online mention how quickly their system charges while driving or via solar power. What’s not to like?
Downsides to lithium batteries
Ok, fine, there are some downsides to lithium. It’s not all sunshine and peanuts.
Lithium batteries can’t charge in below-freezing temperatures. Since my old AGM batteries were mounted underneath the van, I needed to relocate them inside. (Or build a heated box for the new batteries or buy fancy, mega-expensive batteries. Um, no thanks.)
I solved this by moving our gray water tank underneath the van (and upping the volume by 6x) and putting the batteries behind the driver’s seat in the van. Overall, I think this setup makes more sense anyway.
Yes, lithium batteries are more expensive upfront. You can buy 300 Ah of AGM batteries for about half the cost of lithium. However, if you take the life-cycle cost into account (i.e. pick a time span and compare batteries), lithium eventually ends up being cheaper.
At 3,000 lifetime charge cycles for the Ohmmu batteries, that’s 10 years of use at 300 nights per year, or roughly 3-4x more cycles than you’ll get for AGM batteries. Given the better performance of lithium batteries, I think it’s worth it if you can afford the upfront cost. If you’re only looking to use your batteries for a weekend rig or want to save cash, it’s worth reading through this extensive vanconverts.com post about AGM vs. lithium.
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How I chose my new lithium batteries
For my new lithium batteries, I researched the Internets and ultimately chose a company called Ohmmu. There are many van battery options out there, but Ohmmu delivers more value than its competition.
From what I saw, Ohmmu’s lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries pack more power into a smaller, lighter package. The company uses prismatic cells vs. cylindrical ones in most lithium batteries. That means more active cells = less wasted space = more capacity and longer lifespans. (For engineering dorks like me, I put more details on the tech at the end of this post.)
Batteries are a commodity and the most important factors are cost, capacity and size. If cost and size are the same, then finding the one with the most capacity is what matters.
For example, Battleborn and RELiON batteries are a similar cost, weight and size as Ohmmu, but only provide 100Ah per battery vs. Ohmmu’s 150Ah. At $~900-$1,000 each for lithium batteries, that means it costs 50% more to get the exact same capacity, not to mention needing to find space for another battery. No thanks.
Full disclosure: Ohmmu sent me two batteries for free when I reached out, though I would have bought them anyway since they’re a great value. I don’t make anything if you buy their batteries.
For my install, I went with two 150Ah Ohmmu batteries, a total of 300 Ah of power. That’s 1.5x what we had before, plus we can drain the system to 10% versus the 50% with AGM. Let’s skip the math and call it what it is: MORE BETTER.
My battery installation
Other than the pain of scrambling around beneath the van getting chunks of dirt in my eyes, rewiring my new batteries wasn’t difficult. The only complicating factor was that my new Ohmmu lithium batteries are 12V and my Fullriver AGM’s were 6V.
Since our van is designed around a 12V system, I rewired things in parallel vs. the old setup with two 6V batteries in series. If you’re thinking, “What the hell does that mean,” please consider paying someone to install your new batteries.
My hand-drawn diagram, super sick wiring diagram is below. FYI, I used 4AWG wire for the charger and 1AWG for battery connections, but yours will vary based on your system’s needs. FarOutRide’s fantastic electrical system writeup is excellent and can walk you through details if you aren’t confident about electrical calcs. (I adopted their idea of extra fuses on the batteries, thanks y’all.)
Selecting a DC-DC Charger
One other significant difference with lithium batteries is that charging them with excess vehicle alternator current isn’t as simple. Rather than a battery separator, lithium needs a DC-DC charger to keep the battery in good shape. I think it’s possible to run a battery separator between the alternator and the DC charger, but I didn’t see any benefit to it and removed mine.
After reading about various options, I picked up a Renogy 60 amp DC-DC charger (disclosure: also comped for free). There are more expensive, fancier options on the market, but in my mind, Renogy provides a solid product that does exactly what I need it to: put current into my batteries with no fuss. Many camper vans successfully run their chargers, so I expect mine to work well.
The 60 amp rating means that when I drive for an hour, my batteries receive 60 Amp-hours, 1/5th of my 300 Ah capacity. Beyond 60A, an upgraded, separate alternator is needed (no thanks).
Even with batteries inside, you may want to pick up a temperature sensor (here is Renogy’s) and connect it to your DC-DC charger to make sure you aren’t putting too much current into your batteries. Jump to low temp charging below for the settings I’m using.
Note: for the DIP switch settings, I used the following: 1-OFF, 2-ON, 3-ON, 4-ON, 5-OFF. This forum post was useful for sorting this out, but it will depend on your specific batteries.
Dealing with the D+ signal wire
One thing that initially seemed complicated with Renogy was the “D+ signal wire,” which simply tells the charger to turn on only when the vehicle is running. Luckily, underneath the driver’s seat of the Sprinter is a wiring bank with a D+ terminal on it.
Rather than needing to tear apart the dashboard, I simply ran 16AWG wire between that terminal and Renogy’s DC-DC charger and WOOT, everything worked. (Is there anything better than a solution that’s easier than expected versus, you know, the usual?)
Overall, wiring the install proved quite easy with pre-cut wires like these. Sure, you can buy crimpers and make your own, but why bother for such a small project?
Just one thing left to do: reprogram my MPPT controller so my solar panels don’t turn my new lithium batteries into a nuclear bomb. (Don’t worry, that’s not what happens if you screw up.)
Reprogramming the MPPT controller
Lithium batteries have a major difference from other batteries: they don’t use an “equalization phase.” I won’t go into details here about why, but make sure to disable equalization on your MPPT controller.
My MPPT controller from 2013, a Blue Sky 2512i(X), isn’t fancy. I can’t control it with my phone and it doesn’t wash my dishes, but it does what it needs to. Luckily, by reading through the manual (how fun), I figured out how to set things to what Ohmmu specifies for their batteries.
Disabling equalization was simply a flip of a DIP switch on my MPPT, whereas the other settings were easily changed from a settings menu. Your MPPT manual has the answers.
Here are the settings I used for my Ohmmu batteries. Make sure to check your specific battery charger requirements!
- Absorption 14.4V
- Float 13.5V
- No Equalization
Charging Your Batteries in Low Temperatures
When charging with solar, it depends on your system’s output. For 0-32F, Ohmmu batteries can handle 20A. Since our 200 watts of solar generates a max of 200W/12V=16.7A in ideal conditions, there’s no way the current will exceed 20A. (Deep-dive into why here if you’re interested.)
Even at -20F, the batteries can handle 10A, which is still likely more than our solar panel output given the low angle of the sun in coldest part of the day (i.e. the morning). I’m testing this out to see if I need a temperature sensor like this one for my Blue Sky MPPT controller.
That left the most heart-wrenching part of any project: turning on the power. Picture the scene from Ocean’s 11 when the guy turns and covers his junk before he kills the power in Vegas.
The verdict: Lithium batteries kicks ass
No melted wires or explosions, folks! The system worked first go.
The results: our 750W microwave works perfectly, our 1000W water boiler cranks out coffee water, and the batteries charge far faster than our AGM batteries did. Unless we park the van in a cave for a week of spelunking, I think I’ve solved our power issues.
We couldn’t be happier with the decision to upgrade from AGM batteries to lithium. With the extra juice, we’ve added a small Instant Pot and microwave to our van to bring some comforts of home with us on the road. As any van lifer will tell you, it’s the small things when you’re traveling.
I’m looking forward to many years of hot coffee for Chelsea in the morning and quick hot meals for me after a mountain bike ride!
Post-script: All the obsessive details about Ohmmu batteries
I was curious about why Ohmmu’s lithium batteries have 1.5x more capacity than the competition, so I emailed the company. Below is the response from Sean, their founder:
Caveat: this section is for someone looking for all the battery details. If you simply want batteries that work, just order some and be happy. Otherwise, dig in.
Our biggest points of emphasis are capacity (Ah) and our use of prismatic cells (rather than cylindrical).
The reason these are critical:
- Capacity is the single most relevant and important characteristic of any battery. The greater capacity of the battery indicates a larger surface area for chemical reactions to occur inside of the battery.
With the larger surface area of prismatic cells, the stressors at any given point are decreased and the “work” the battery is performing is distributed across a larger area. The result of this is not only a longer run-time per charge, but more critically, it relieves the stress of use over time and leads to much longer lifespans.
- The other great thing about having the most capacity possible is that you can better manage your energy storage. You don’t need to fully charge or fully deplete the battery, but can charge to just 80-90% and discharge to 10-20%, providing additional stress relief for your battery.
The biggest stressors on a battery occur when it is fully charged or fully discharged since the chemical reactions that occur become overly-saturated or overly-desaturated and result in small but permanent capacity losses over time.
Getting deep in the technical weeds, this is why prismatic is better than cylindrical:
- Our batteries are a sealed system. There is no coolant or air flow occurring through the battery pack inside of the plastic case. This means we rely exclusively on conduction to evenly distribute and dissipate the heat that builds up inside of the cells.
Our prismatic cell packaging allows for superior conduction of heat across the battery pack since (unlike cylinders), we can package our cells so the majority of the cell surface area is in direct contact with its neighboring cells.
Additionally, we can package more active material inside of our batteries because less space is wasted (less air) and of course this additional active material leads to more capacity and longer lifespans.
Great article! It’s especially heartening to see that someone else’s electrical schematics look a lot like mine! One question – how do you plan to manage the ‘don’t charge lithium batteries when below freezing’ issue? I live in Reno, which has a pretty moderate winter climate compared to a lot of places, but there will be days when the sun is out and the temps will not rise above freezing, so my solar charging system will be attempting to charge the batteries which will be below freezing. The Sprinter is not garaged and currently my single, giant AGM battery is mounted underneath the floor. I could find a way to install batteries in the interior, but there will still be times when the interior will be below freezing while the solar panels are trying to charge the batteries. Is there a temperature-sensing charge controller out there that solves this problem? What does the DC-DC battery charger do differently from an automatic charging relay?
Hey Pete, good questions! Why didn’t I mention this? Updating my post, thanks.
RE: solar, it depends on your system’s output. For 0-32F, the batteries can handle 20A no problem. Since our 200 watts of solar generates a max of 16.7A (200W/12V=16.7A) in ideal conditions, there’s no way it’ll exceed that. Even at -20F, the batteries can handle 10A, which is more likely for our input. Simply pick up a temp sensor for your MPPT controller. Here’s the one for my Blue Sky.
Different story for Renogy’s DC-DC charger. You’ll definitely want one of these temperature sensors.
DC-DC chargers are better able to charge in varying conditions and with varying alternators. Everything I read seemed to say that lithium will not fully charge with just a relay of some kind. If you find some other info, please let me know.
AS per usual great write up. & the timing may unfortunately be timely, as our batteries were kinda weak this morning & I had to run the rig for 5 minutes to finish the coffee!
What you actually did was convince me to go with what I have, again (or something pretty close):
2X DC224-6 from FullRiver!
Between the 2K$ & the DC to DC charger, yeah no.
On a side subject: How long did it take for your emission recall to be done? Any noticable effects & do you know what they replace?
On the road & getting mixed info.
Hopefully we can get together this year!
What up, Pat! Haha, fair enough – AGMs still have a place for sure, especially for a rig that isn’t full-time.
I’m getting my emissions fix next week, so no feedback yet. It’s apparently a 3ish hour job with the replacement parts varying depending on the year of the vehicle. It ranges from simple hardware to a full catalytic converter replacement (mine) and so on. By my calculations, even a 20% reduction in mileage would still be worth it over 100k miles of driving given the $3,600 in cash. Not to mention the renewed warranties on emissions stuff.
Drop a line next time you drive through Bend!
Got any pics of how/where you installed the microwave? thanks!
Can I just pay you to install lithium batteries in my rig? Do you accept kombucha as payment? Or perhaps BoochCoin?
At this time, installs of batteries are not part of our offerings. However, the principals of Traipsing About are interested in your BoochCoin ICO. Please keep us posted.
I had one question regarding shore power. Do you have a Li charger? Seems a charger designed for LA would maintain at the incorrect voltage. Maybe move shore power positive to vehicle end? Though your dc/dc charger wouldn’t be on if the vehicle is off.
Hey Matt, good question! I didn’t upgrade to a Li-compatible charger because we so rarely used ours with AGM and I don’t foresee needing it with lithium. If I do, I will simply get an upgrade dongle for my shore power charger rather than replacing it entirely. I forgot to mention that in my post, whoops.
One approach is to route the output from the inverter/charger through your charge controller, so that any battery charging happens according to the parameters set for the batteries. This is how our system is set up – the Bogart Engineering controller manages all…
I ended up doing just that. I wired both the shore power and tow vehicle power on the input. I have a great wiring diagram if others are interested.
I’d be interested in seeing your wiring diagram. Always helpful to see how other people have thought through the circuitry.
note: This is a Travel trailer setup, not much difference. The blue dots are switches/relays. You’ll want a switch on PV+ at the very least (I don’t see PV+ switch on Dakota’s wiring diagram). you’ll want that between solar panels and solar charge controller as most charge controllers require that you be connected to the battery BEFORE the solar panel is connected. This bring up the second switch, the battery disconnect (switch off your PV first, then Bat. disconnect)
Thanks again, Matt. I also have a disconnect between the PV+ and the MPPT. Forgot to add that to the diagram since the switch is behind a panel next to the MPPT and I wasn’t messing with that system. You two have convinced me to recreate (improve) my wiring diagram!
This is timely, as our AGM batteries are showing reduced charged capacity. I had to start the Sprinter engine several times to get sufficient voltage to keep the inverter happy while it pushed the kettle to coffee-making temperature. So Lithiums it is. Our installation may be a bit more interesting than yours because our battery bay (inside) is back toward the middle of the van, and already full of wires, fuse blocks, AC circuit breaker panel, etc. Thanks to Ohmmu we’ll have one less battery in there, so room for a DC-DC charger.
I looked at your parts photo, and I think I understand the purpose for all of them – except one: the red knob sitting to the left of the charger itself. What is that? Also, did you wire the current limit (LC) terminal? If so, why? I don’t understand the point of that.
Anyway, thanks for the impetus to do this. I’m looking forward to the flexibility of LIFePO4 batteries for our next trip.
Red knob is battery disconnect. You’ll want to disconnect for two purposes, 1. Storage, 2. Before you go playing around to avoid shorting your system. LC is mostly to save on your alternator draw if it isn’t sized large enough. I have LC and D+ on independent switches from shore/tow vehicle power terminal.
Thanks. I can see where a disconnect would be useful.
Ah, good to know LC=limit current. Since my alternator provided 60A and that’s what my DC charger is specced for, I didn’t even consider the LC possibility. Never heard of that one. Glad readers out there know this kind of stuff – thanks, Matt!
I’m looking over your excellent wiring diagram, and I have a question. Two questions actually.
1. What is the box labeled “Batt Main” that appears on a detour around the DC-DC charger?
2. It appears you have only a +wire run coming from the starter battery to the DC-DC charger, and then from the DC-DC charger to the “house” battery bank. You really do have – return wiring between those, yeah?
Thanks for an inspiring post. I’m looking forward to all the bits showing up at the house, so I can get the new batteries installed.
Glad you’re going lithium! I’ve been very happy with our system. We’re even using an induction hot plate now!
Answers to your questions:
1. The red knob is the main disconnect between the house batteries and the rest of the system. It’s labeled “ON/OFF” near the center of the diagram.
2. Thanks for the answer on the limit current, Matt!
3. Batt. main. = battery maintainer. It’s a cool little device that feeds current back to the starter battery when the house batteries have sufficient charge.
4. Yes, negative wires run back to the starter battery. I went with a single-line diagram for simplicity, but assume that there is a negative paired with all the positives.
Good luck installing the new system!
Is my leisure battery supposed to be grounded to the vehicle.?
I’ve have voltage drop using heater 80ah sld I go to check it’s ground to the vehicle it’s loose, I go to remove it, but the circuits still going? Shouldn’t that have cut power to the 6 way fuse box?
I do NOT have my first box going into the controller, will that solve voltage drop problem?
20a renogy charger, 2kw heater,… I have NOT installed my shunt! Dose that matter?
Yes to grounding. RE: the rest of the questions, I can’t help you with those. Sounds like a question for a an electrical forum or electrician! Good luck.
I’m not sure about your wiring. If you are trying to run a 2kw Heater off an 80ah battery, with a 20a charger, that will cause a voltage drop. It’s trying to pull >150 amps.