Baby Steps: How to Have Electricity in Your Car or Van For Very Little Money
This is another in my series on how to move into a car or van for very little money. Or, if you are still a few years away from becoming fully mobile, this is a step you can take to get your car or van ready to travel in by taking trips right now.
Question: I’m being forced to live in my car but I need some electricity. Eventually I want to get a suitcase style portable solar panel, but can’t afford it now. How can I have electricity for $100 or less?
If you can afford it, the first thing to buy is a battery. You can use it right now and then later when you get the panel you can charge it off the solar. Your best bet is a cheap Marine battery if you can scrape together the money. I recommend the largest Marine battery you can afford from Wal-Mart. They have a good warranty at a good price and will cost less than $90. Just set in on the floor boards of the passenger seat. Marine batteries are sized by “group.” If possible buy a Group 29 because it is larger.
To use it now all you need to do is get cheap jumper cables from Wal-Mart or a thrift store and then you can charge it while the engine is idling. But, it’s much better to charge it while you are driving, to do that you are going to have to drill a hole through the floor or find a way to get the cables from under the hood and into the passenger seat floorboards.
200 amp 10 gauge No Tangle Battery Jumper Cables, Extra long 12ft
I had a friend who was forced into living in her car and didn’t have the knowledge to hook up a solenoid or battery isolator–or the money to pay someone else to do it. But she was creative and figured out a way to do it herself for very little money with cheap jumper cambles:
- She clamped the jumper cables to the starting battery.
- Next, she rolled down the passenger window and ran the cables to the marine battery on the floorboard and clamped them on, then shut the door.
- Finally, she let the hood slam on the cables and drove away. The whole time she drove the Marine battery was being charged by the starting battery.
- When she was done driving, she un-clamped the jumper cables from the two batteries so she wouldn’t run her starting battery down.
I was impressed with her ingenuity! It cost her very little money and yet because her electrical needs were so simple it worked very well. She knew it was a short-term solution until she could save money to do it right. If you do the same thing, you should be very careful to watch the cable where the hood slams on it. With some cars it won’t damage them at all, but with some it will start to wear through the rubber and that can cause a fire.
If you have some money, its better to take it to a mechanic, have him cut off one of the ends of the jumper cables and crimp on ring connectors. Then have him drill a hole through the floor and thread the end through it, under the frame, and up to the starting battery.
To charge the battery all you do is connect red to positive and black to negative and you are charging. Leave it connected while you are driving, and when you stop unclamp them from the battery on the floorboards. Because the other ends is permanently connected to the starting battery, you don’t want them loose when not clamped onto the battery—if they touch each other or other metal they will spark. Get a bicycle inner tube and clamp them to it and wrap them so they are insulated. You can buy a bike tube cheap at Walmart.
This should cost you very little money and let you start having some electricity right now! Later, when you save some money, you can install a continuous duty solenoid and do the job right. But this will work for now.
Question: How do I get power out of the battery once I’ve bought it and I’m charging it from the starting battery?
There are two kinds of appliances you may want to use in your car or van: 12 Volt or 110 volt. I’ll tell you how to get both from your new marine battery. First, here are some things that you can use:
12 Volt Appliances You May Find Useful
- 12 volt fan
- 12 volt sleeping pad
- LED light
- Roadpro Oven
- 12 volt Compressor Fridge
All these products are available from Amazon.com at these links:
110 Volt Appliances You May Have:
- Cell Phone Charger
- Battery Chargers
- Compact Florescent Lights
How to Connect 12 Volt items to your Marine battery.
You can buy a very simple and cheap little device that has red and black wires with alligator clips that you clamp onto your battery positive and negative posts. On the other end is a cigarette lighter plug you can plug. Wal-Mart sells them back in automotive and most auto parts store should have them. Or you can get them at Amazon.com at this link:
Roadpro 12V Battery Clip-On and Cigarette Lighter Adapter
If you need the cigarette lighter plug further from the battery, you can buy an extension cord here:
RoadPro 12′ Extension Cord with Cigarette Lighter Plug
How to Connect 110 Volt items to your Marine battery.
For this you need an inverter. This is a simple device that either plugs directly into a cigarette lighter plug or connects to your battery posts directly. I recommend a Cobra 400 inverter. Once connected it gives you two regular 110 volt plug-ins just like on the wall outlet at home. It also gives you one USB port that you can charge anything that uses a USB charger. I’ve owned lots of inverters in the last 11 years, and this one is my favorite and also one of the cheapest. Highly recommended.
Cobra 400-Watt 12-Volt DC to 120-Volt AC Power Inverter with 5-Volt USB Output