Silly headings perhaps, especially to put first on the menu, but this is meant to be helpful and for many readers it going to be things to save them time and money.
This super popular these days but when we got our first panel it was pretty new for camping. Our first panel cost (with in-built controller) £400 and was 50W.
This was for a caravan, and when we built the van, we carried the panel forward using it in the same way, plugging in from outside when parked up and packing it away when moving. Working like this worked for a year, but a hot summer in Germany saw the fridge running a lot and 50W wasn't going to keep up without driving everyday.
The solution was to fit the panel to the roof and to add an additional panel. This was an improvement, but not enough to really keep up. Then we found out that the controller we had bought was really a fake, claimed to be MPPT but did nothing special and might actually be damaging the batteries.
The controller was duly upgraded to an ePever Tracer BN controller which immediately gave an improvement and we were happy again....until a summer in the south of France. New league. Again, the fridge would turn on during the day and stay on.
The solution for this was to pull off the two old panels and replace with three bigger ones, back to being in control but it took a while.
Being realistic, we realised we had built a life support system for a fridge. More on the fridge later but it has easily been our biggest electricity user and mostly dependent upon the temperature of the locality. Solar is fine for 'free' power but we came to one conclusion for anyone fitting solar power to a van...
"Fit as much solar panel wattage as you have space and money to afford on the top of your van, made up up of identical panels in one go. Connect these to your batteries with a good quality MPPT controller and make sure it comes with a battery and load monitor"
Yes, we know that there are calculators for how much solar panel you should fit dependent on your expected usage, but the future will include varying temperatures, varying weather, different times of year, different latitudes, different utilities and ultimately different places to park. If you've gone to the max you can, then you've done all you can, and you'll have to live within your means, but you can't say I wish I'd added one more. If you have more than you need, then you'll be comfortable, and if you're nice, maybe you can share with a neighbour?
We've had caravans previously so had a good idea of bed usage. Our first caravan had two bed/sitting areas, but we still ended up putting the bed away each day even though we didn't need to. Our second caravan had fixed beds, so they could be left all day to be used at night, but also it had a great area to lounge around in (it was big). We got used to that, good weather you would be outside, but on chilly days or heavy rain, it was nice to lounge about and look out the windows. It was this aspect that we wanted in the van, so the rear of the van has full windows on the sides and rear, the rear doors can of course be opened to let air in and look out, and the seats arranged to lie back and enjoy.
The bed was made by pulling out the seat from one side across the corridor, the full length of the bed, rest it on the other side, and then rearrange the cushions to make up the flat bed. It was a pain pulling out such a long length (6 feet, 182cm), and the bed at once, and after a while it was obviously starting to break, pulling on one end is a long lever.
Simple, and obvious solution was to break the length into two parts that were easy to reach over and pull across from the middle. We also cut one of the cushions in two as well, the result is that half a bed can be put together for lounging around in a different way, across the van, if required, and this has proved very popular, both for us and visitors.
This was the biggest single expense in building the van after the van itself, but has worked flawlessly. It daily produced hot water and in winter generates loads of heat for a van our size. We bought the gas only version but thinking back would have preferred to have the gas and electric version but we've survived without it. Have only the basic controls for using it, but now beginning to wonder if worth investing in the new 'electronic' controller with timer for heating up the van on those cold winter mornings before we roll out of bed!
While not the best documentation in the world, it wasn't that bad and for a small van was a great electric system to install. If the van is going to be mainly used on campsites with frequent EHU then this system is probably all you need. Where it does fall down is running off grid with lots of solar power and a big battery bank (more than 110Ah battery). It's still in use, has been completely reliable, but I'm planning on replacing it this year with a system of my own design, just because EHU is now a rarity and I like the idea of playing! I've looked at the newer CBE control panels and they seem to be all back-lit, which the 200 isn't, so you have to live with a glow all the time, the 200's back light only comes on when you use the panel. The backbone of all their systems is the DS300 remote controlled fusebox and relay unit which is cramped and the wiring definitely needs to be planned beforehand if it's not going to turn into a mare's nest, it is designed for professional wiring harnesses which CBE specialises in.
As a fridge which keeps things cold, and has a 'freezer' box then this has worked ok. It is temperamental though, easily using lots of 12V power when the temperature rises. The 'freezer' box is ok for keeping frozen things frozen but not to actually freeze anything (well quickly), and access via the flip up door is a pain, the fridge door has to be fully opened. There's a lot of temperature gradient in the fridge, the top being much colder than bottom. Two years ago the thermostat failed and the replacement doesn't work properly, so I had to make my own as I wasn't going to keep spending money on expensive 'try this one' parts. These fridges are expensive, and while it has worked well at keeping things cold, it hasn't been good value for money and I'm sure there are better options available.
Just to add to this, we have never had the 'wiring' voltage drop problem, it's been located within 1 meter of the batteries and the motor has started every time its been asked to without errors and the compressor has been flawless.