Solar Powered Camper Is A Magic Bus Indeed

There’s no doubt that Volkswagen’s offerings in the 1960s and early 1970s were the hippie cars of choice, with the most desirable models being from the Type 2 line, better known as the Microbus. And what could be even hippier than
converting a 1973 VW Microbus into a solar-electric camper?

For [Brett Belan] and his wife [Kira], their electric vehicle is about quality time with the family. And they’ll have plenty of time, given that it doesn’t exactly ooze performance like a Tesla. Then again, a Tesla would have a hard time toting the enormous 1.2 kW PV panel on its roof like this camper can, and would look even sillier with the panel jacked up to maximize its solar aspect. [Brett] uses the space created by the angled array to create extra sleeping space like the Westfalia, a pop-top VW camper. The PV array charges a bank of twelve lead-acid golf cart batteries which power an AC motor through a 500-amp controller. Interior amenities include a kitchenette, dining table, and seating that cost as much as the van before conversion. There’s no word on interior heat, but honestly, that never was VW’s strong suit — we speak from bitter, frostbitten experience here.

As for being practical transportation, that just depends on your definition of practical. Everything about this build says “labor of love,” and it’s hard to fault that. It’s also hard to fault [Brett]’s choice of platform; after all, vintage VWs are the most hackable of cars.

36 thoughts on “Solar Powered Camper Is A Magic Bus Indeed

  1. “There’s no word on interior heat, but honestly, that never was VW’s strong suit — we speak from bitter, frostbitten experience here.”

    I think you’re suppose to rip up the upholstery and burn that for warmth?

        1. “The Sporty Corvair-The One-Car Accident” was the title of Chapter One of Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile”. I guess you could add “heater” to the list of unsafe design choices.

          1. My brother and I built him a working corvair from two parts cars years ago. They were powered by an air cooled flat six. The heat normally came off an air plenum that was fed by hot air off the air cooled cylinders. This would be exhaust gas free. However, the 12 push rod tubes between the block and the heads each had an o-ring seal – that’s 24 seals. They carried oil back from the heads to the oil pan. Odds were a few of them were going to seep oil. So generally the “heat” had a hot oil smell to it.

            The gasoline auxilliary heater was an extra option. We never saw one in person, but I bet if you had asked my brother in February he would’ve gladly accepted the risk for some extra heat!

      1. Electric cars in Norway come with an eberspächer/webasto fuel powered heater, because using the batteries for heat would halve the range.

        The other irony is that Norwegians can afford electric cars because of oil. Every new Tesla Model S imported to Norway is bought by approximately 2000 barrels of oil exported out of the country. That quantity of oil would drive a regular car about 5 million kilometers.

          1. Significantly less – maybe a quarter the amount – since they don’t cost so friggin much, and a regular car goes twice the miles because the lithium battery breaks down in less than a decade while normal cars are expected to run for about 20 years.

            But that’s besides the point. The irony is that the Norwegians can afford to play green because of the fossil fuels they sell. Otherwise it would be an economic impossibility to drive electric cars in the country.

  2. Tesla would simply cover the entire vehicle in thin-film CdTe panels (government subsidized production) and spray an increcibly costly transparent coating on top to protect it from the elements – then call it their next product about to be launched – the watch stupid people rush to throw money at the company before anyone’s even hoped to think to plan to pour the foundation of the factory that would make them.

  3. Looks like a simpler design than the one used by the Szalinskis in Honey I Blew Up the Kid. Probably better off for it too, more surface area for the panels and fewer moving parts.

  4. Looks like great fun, but unfortunately the range is poor. 20 miles in the city, or 40 on the highway, or 80 if you move at walking pace on a downhill slope with a tailwind.

    For me, that wouldn’t be enough to get to the camp site (let alone home again). Great build though, and it seems like a huge success for their long slow road trip style of travel.

  5. I always felt that a plug in hybrid with solar panel assistance was a great set up for a camper van. No need for propane with all the camping cooking and heating etc being electric. An induction cooktop would be very efficient. Electric rear motors could provide all wheel drive and eliminate the need for a driveshaft that encroaches the camping space. You could plug it in at a camp site, charge it up while driving on the road, use the motor if necessary to charge the batteries when stationary and have solar panel assistance. If you are camping in one place for several days in summer, the solar panel could probably cover all your needs with something left over for driving. It would be great if there was a hybrid minivan available it the USA which could be converted.

  6. Been a VW Kombi owner and a lover of technology I have often thought of converting one of my vans to Electric power – I only drive 6km each way to work – hell I could ride my push bike but Im too lazy.

    I was quiet interested to see how they went about this build, they got me a little worried when they started talking about Apparent Energy

    Some way to use quatum energy and bidirectional current flow to charge any device from your solar panel!

    1. 1.2kwp will easily generate more than 4kwh on a decent day, especially in the southern states. My 10kwp system in canada has done 70kwh in a day and its still only may. Still not a huge amount of power but enough to be useful for sure.

      1. On a good day you might get a 7X on your peak power. So 10KW for 7H equivalent is 70 KWH. If we used your ratio, it’s 8.4 KWH in decent day and maybe 10 KWH on an ideal day further south. Even at 10 KWH, you’re lucky to get 15 miles on a vehicle like this.

  7. I like the build – I think most of the problems can be overcome – heat with propane, go to LiFePo batteries, create a mind bogglingly complex solar array that can unfold at the push of a button, etc.

    I’m mostly worried about the little electric vacuum pump that drives the brake boost. That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. Can we get a backup?

  8. 1.2 kw x 6 sun hours a day (6 sun hours is the standard number used to calculate solar)
    = 7.2 kwh

    A Tesla Model S goes 3 miles per kWh. according to this Blog

    So I guess this VW can only drive less than 2.4 miles per day

    Of course the Tesla has heat and AC that runs off the battery, which is very power hungry

    My guess is that they use charging stations to drive this around

    1. This project is neat, but if you read his blog I doubt you will find it practical
      I read this on his Blog. “Parked by my house in Oregon I get about 25 amp hours in a day…15-20 miles of city driving.” I assume this is in the summer, But I see he is also draining his Golf Cart Batteries down to 20%. personally I never take my golf cart batteries down to less than 50% as I want to get 5 or 6 years life out of them. But I guess he is planning on spending big money on new batteries. Again from his blog…. “216, Calb Lithium Iron phosphate, 72 amp-hour cells….@$100 each for $21,600
      2. $5,000 for Battery management system.”

  9. There are some attention-grabbing time limits in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them center to heart. There may be some validity but I will take hold opinion until I look into it further.

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