The van is so many things to us: our home, our transportation, our baby; but mostly it’s our keys to freedom. We bought it at a time in our lives when we were feeling trapped, sucked into a life we weren’t sure that we had really chosen or wanted. As we have leaned into our life on the road, we have found ourselves aiming for more and more remote places. The camper hookups on the side of the van are woefully underused (we have never plugged in once since owning the van!) as we dive deeper and deeper into the wilderness. Off-grid.

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As we push further away from civilization, we have run up against several limiting factors in our ability to survive off-grid: food, water, fuel, and power. The one that has become the most limiting to us this year has been power. Multiple times a day we glance at the battery volt meter to monitor the voltage and make sure we have enough juice left to get us through the night until the sun comes out again or we run the van. Even with 120 AH (Amp-hours) of deep-cycle battery, we have still had to decide on several occasions if we want to charge our phones or run the fridge overnight.

The problem with our system has a few layers. For starters, lead acid, or even gel batteries, are not useable to their full capacity. Anyone who knows about these batteries will tell you that if you discharge a lead acid or gel battery too far, you do irreparable damage and start to reduce the battery’s life. You only have access to about 50% of the battery’s reserve before you start doing this damage. That means that our 120AH of battery is actually closer to 60 AH of useable power.

On top of that, lead acid and gel batteries have a finite number of power cycles (charge and discharge) before they begin to deteriorate. Typically, somewhere between 200-1000 cycles depending on the battery. Since we cycle the battery daily, that means our batteries only have about a year or two of life before they start dying. This has left us with a battery system that is delicate at best and that has deteriorated significantly after only a year of use.

So this year we are making a change and installing the battery system we should have put in in the first place: A lithium iron phosphate battery.

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We get almost double the power out of the Lithium battery on the right than we did out of the two deep cycle batteries on the left!

We get almost double the power out of the Lithium battery on the right than we did out of the two deep cycle batteries on the left!

So why Lithum? Lithium batteries offer a TON of advantages over older battery chemistries. The biggest advantages for a van or bus setup are:

1.       You have access to almost the whole battery reserve. So 100 Ah of a lithium battery is really 100 Ah! For us that means we can get away with a smaller battery, and still get that power we need. The van is small, and space is precious. No need to store unusable battery capacity.

2.       Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) batteries have a much longer life span than lead acid or gel batteries. Not only in years (10+ years vs 2-5 years), but in cycles. The RELiON RB100 battery we ultimately chose will be good for at least 7000 cycles! That means up to 35 times as long of a life for a heavy battery user like us!

3.       No risk of hurting the battery based on usage. The RELiON battery comes with an on-board monitoring and control system that will keep the battery from being over charged or over discharged. That means that it is basically plug-and-play and we can stop worrying about doing damage to it. The result is a power system that is almost invisible to us. No more monitoring and worrying!

4.       Weight reduction. LiFePO4 batteries weigh much less than traditional deep cycle batteries. This is an added bonus for us rather than a primary concern, but for a larger system with more battery reserve it could end up being a huge consideration.

So after struggling with our deep cycle batteries for a year, we are making the jump and installing a lithium battery. In the end we hope to have a more modern system with more available power in a smaller footprint and more peace of mind. And that, for us, means more freedom.

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If you are looking for more information about lithium batteries, check out RELiON’s website for more good info.

Stay tuned for Part 2 detailing the battery build and installation.

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