When you’re ready to start on your campervan conversion, you’ll no doubt want to have electrically powered devices inside your camper van that you’ll want to use when you’re parked up with the engine turned off.
These devices can be low consumption items such as your LED lights, 12V power sockets through to the more power demanding things such as a 12V coolbox/fridge, laptop, inverter or water pump.
If you try to run these devices from your engine battery without it running in the background, you can soon expect to get a flat battery.
That’s certainly not the best start to your epic VanLife Adventure now, is it!
So the standard solution is to fit one of more leisure batteries that are used to power all your devices that are not directly related to starting the engine.
But with installing a leisure battery, you will now need a way of keeping all the batteries charged with that all-important power.
This is where campervan split charging comes in to play.
How does a Split Charge System work in a Campervan?
In simple terms; a campervan split charging system is a way of charging both the starter battery and leisure battery from the same power source.
On your campervan, the power source will almost always be the vehicle alternator. The vehicle alternator is powered by the engine when running.
How does the leisure battery charge?
A typical campervan split charging system has a device that connects the battery used to start the engine to the leisure battery when the engine is running.
Once the engine is running, the power from the alternator can now flow to both your starter battery and leisure battery, charging both batteries simultaneously.
What are other ways to charge your leisure battery in a Campervan?
There are many other ways you can charge up your leisure battery that does not involve your alternator.
These can be;
- Connecting your battery to a battery charger that is plugged into the national grid (shore power).
- Installing a solar panel system and harnessing the power of the sun.
- Using a portable fuel generator.
All these methods described above can be used to charge your leisure battery.
Why do I need to install a split charge system in my campervan?
One reason why you would want to install a split charge system in your campervan is to isolate both the starter and leisure battery.
It will ensure that the use of one battery does not draw current from the other while in a stationary position and not receiving any external power (alternator, mains charger, solar).
However, it is essential that the engine starter battery is isolated to prevent using all the power in both batteries.
If this happens, you will eventually end up with a flat starter battery, and this can leave you stranded.
By installing a campervan split charge system, you can prevent this from happening.
This will also guarantee that the starter battery can always start your engine.
Another reason why you would want to install a split charger system in your campervan is you want to avoid your leisure battery to be accidentally used when starting the engine.
Some dedicated leisure batteries are not designed for the initial high current draw used to turn the vehicle engine over.
Campervan Split Charger Methods/Technologies
Below, we have listed the most common split charge methods used in typical campervan or motorhome.
Also, if you’re about to install your own campervan split charge system, check our page on tools you will require for a campervan conversion.
The simplest way to connect your leisure battery to your power source (alternator) is by installing a cable from your starter battery to the leisure battery.
You would then install a high current switch located in a convenient location (usually on your dashboard) that you manually turn on and off to connect the starter battery and leisure battery together, once the engine is running.
By switching the switch to the on position, this will allow an electrical charge to flow to the leisure battery.
Once you turn the engine off, simply flick the switch back to the off position to now isolate all batteries.
As a result, this will prevent you from flattening the main starter battery when using power from the leisure battery.
Advantages of a Manual Switch Relay in a Campervan
- Cheap and straightforward to install.
- Quick and easy to combine both batteries to start the campervan in case of emergency (e.g. starter battery is flat).
Disadvantages of a Manual Switch Relay in a Campervan
- Installing a switch relies on the driver to always remember to flick the switch ON and OFF.
- Forgetting to turn the switch back to off and leaving your batteries connected could result in a flat battery. Time to get out the jump leads!
Split Charge Relay
Inside a split charge relay, there is a solenoid coil that energises once it receives a +12V signal.
This signal is usually from a charge signal wire that is connected to the alternator and will only turn the charge splitter on once the engine is running.
When energised, the solenoid inside will activate and connect the two internal contacts.
As the internal contacts are now connected, power will begin to flow down a separate cable that is connected from your split charge unit to your leisure battery positive terminal.
Once you turn the engine off, the split charge relay will detect the drop of current and disconnect the internal connections.
It will now isolate both batteries.
As a split charge relay may have to handle a high current coming from the alternator, you may have to install a more heavy-duty device.
Advantages of using a Split Charge Relay in a Campervan
- Simple automatic operation.
- Inexpensive compared to alternate methods.
- Simple electro-mechanical construction.
- Easy to replace.
Disadvantages of using a Split Charge Relay in a Campervan
- You will have to tap into factory wiring as this relay requires you to connect to other parts of the vehicle electrical system.
- Over time, internal moving contacts can wear out, which can lead to increased resistance and voltage drop.
- You will not be able to combine your batteries for emergencies unless you install a bypass switch.
- There is no ‘intelligence’ built into this relay.
Voltage-Sensitive Relay (VSR) / Intelligent Split Charge Relay
A voltage-sensitive split charge relay, or VSR, intelligently detects the incoming voltage coming from the engine at a preset level and automatically connects the contacts inside. The preset level is generally around 13.3V (make sure to check over the manufacturer’s specs as some models differ).
How does a VSR work to charge my campervan leisure batteries?
When you start the van engine, the alternator will now begin to produce an electrical current that is usually around 14V (assuming the battery is charged to its maximum).
The voltage sensing relay will use its internal sensors to detect that the voltage has increased and will now automatically connect its internal contacts.
As the internal contacts are now connected, power will begin to flow down a separate cable that is connected from your VSR unit to your leisure battery positive terminal.
This will now charge your leisure battery.
When you turn off the vehicle engine, the VSR will detect the drop in voltage and the relay will now disconnect the internal contacts.
Most voltage-sensing relays will disconnect their internal contacts at 12.8V.
This will now isolate the battery.
Advantages of using a Voltage-Sensitive Relay (VSR) in a Campervan
- Intelligent and fully automatic operation.
- Relatively low-priced.
- Simple to install (you don’t need to modify the factory-fitted electrical system – so no warranty issues).
- VSR’s are usually dual-sensing. It means that when the leisure batteries are charging by solar panels or an AC battery charger, and it is above 13.2V, the VSR will automatically engage, which will enable the starter battery to start charging.
- Some models have a smart manual override switch. It is used to engage and connect the start and leisure batteries manually. What’s brilliant about this feature is that it can use it when they start battery is low on charge, and the leisure batteries are full.
Disadvantages of using a Voltage-Sensitive Relay (VSR) in a Campervan
- Over time, internal moving contacts can wear out which can lead to increased resistance and voltage drop
Battery Isolator / Charge Splitter (Diode)
A simple yet reliable way of splitting the charge in your campervan is with the use of a charge splitter/battery isolator.
Inside a charge splitter, you will usually find two separate diodes (a diode allows an electric current to pass in one direction while stopping it going in the opposite direction. Or in even simpler terms, a one way valve)
Once the engine is running, the power will make its way from the alternator to the split charge unit by a connected cable via a common stud.
From here, the power is then equally split internally and diverted down each of the internal diodes (hence the name charge ‘splitter’).
Once the power has finally passed through each of the internal diodes, it will eventually come to the end of the unit where you will find two separate ring terminals.
Each of these terminals will now have an independent positive power supply.
You connect a cable to one of the ring terminals that you then run back to your starter battery positive (+) terminal.
And on the other ring terminal, you connect another cable that will run along the inside of your vehicle all the way to your leisure battery positive (+) terminal.
Once all connected; When you turn the engine on, and the power begins to flow from the alternator – the split charge device will now efficiently supply both the starter battery and leisure battery with an equal amount of power.
Once you turn the engine off, as both the batteries are connected through individual diodes, the power cannot flow back on its self preventing you using any power from the starter battery.
The only issue with using a charge splitter in a campervan is they can have a significant voltage drop. In some charge splitters, this can be as much as 1V.
When fitted in a 12V electrical system, this can be quite a significant drop.
It means that the leisure battery will never get the total voltage coming from the charge source (alternator).
Therefore this can prevent the leisure battery from becoming charged to its maximum.
Advantages of using a Battery Splitter in a Campervan
- Automatic operation.
- No internal moving parts so contacts won’t wear out.
- Easy to install.
- Battery splitters often have multiple outputs for numerous batteries.
Disadvantages of using a Battery Splitter in a Campervan
- They can suffer from voltage drop so may not charge batteries to 100%.
- You might have to install an after-market alternator regulator to increase the voltage.
- It can become quite hot under operation.
- You will not be able to combine your batteries for emergencies unless you install a bypass switch.
- One of the more higher-cost options.
What is the best Split Charge System for my Campervan?PLEASE NOTE
Every self-build installation will differ, so please use the points listed below as a guide only.
Here are a few points to consider when designing your campervan split charge system;
Simple Split Charge Relay System
If your electrical system consists of a single leisure battery with a few electrical devices such as some LED lights, fridge, water pump and a few 12V power sockets, then a VSR is probably your best option.
Complex Split Charge Relay System
If your electrical system consists of a multi-battery setup with several electrical sub-systems and many electric devices, then one or more battery isolators is probably the best option, although a VSR is still very practical.
EURO 5 + 6 Compliant Systems
IMPORTANT Many new vehicles come with a ‘smart’ alternator. A smart alternator allows the vehicle to control the output voltage from the alternator intelligently.
Generally, you will find smart alternators in vehicles fitted with Euro 5 or 6 compliant engines.
If you do have a vehicle fitted with a smart alternator, the tips outlined above will not be suitable for these types of alternators. You will have to install a Battery to Battery charger instead.
Sizing your Connecting Cables
When a battery becomes deeply discharged, it will now have low resistance. When attached to a charging source, the battery will draw significant current.
For this reason, it is imperative to install the correct cables size when installing your split charging system. All cables should be rated to handle the maximum current the alternator is capable of supplying.
Failure to fit correctly rated cable sizes can result in permanent damage to your batteries, split charge unit and other electrical devices.
In the worst-case scenario, it can cause an electrical fire which can have disastrous consequences.
What size cable should I use for my split charge relay?
When installing the cable in your split charge relay system, use a cable of at least 16mm2 cross-section (110A) and upwards. It should be sufficient for most vehicle alternators.
Please Note: This is dependant on many factors including the alternator output, the application and length of cable.
The same practise should be used for the split charging device itself. Cables should be rated to handle high current draw from the alternator at under regular load as well as if the batteries are discharged to a low level.
You should also note that the starter battery is also a charging source. It will try to equalise the voltage when connected to the leisure battery.
If your leisure battery becomes severely drained, the combined current from both the starter battery and power source (alternator) can exceed what the alternator produces on its own.
It is why you should always try to prevent a leisure battery becoming severely drained (dropping below 50% of its total capacity).
To prevent this from happening, you can either install a battery warning alarm or connect a battery guard.
Sizing your Split Charge Relay Unit
When selecting your split charge unit, it is essential to purchase one that can handle the maximum output of the alternator of your vehicle.
We advise that you should research your vehicles technical specifications as many of these kits are not rated high enough for the maximum output for the alternator of your vehicle.
If you do end up buying a kit that is not the correct rating, providing that your electrical system is adequately fused, this should not be a problem as you will blow fuses.
Always carry out the correct research for your vehicle.
Multiple-battery split charge system
If you want your campervan electric system to be able to run multiple electronic devices, or you are building a campervan that will be going ‘off-grid’ for long periods, then you may require more than one leisure battery setup in a parallel circuit.
It will allow you to increase the total capacity of energy available in the campervan. This is a battery bank.
If you choose this option, it is essential that all batteries have an equal charge.
Practical tips when installing a multiple-battery split charge system:
- When running multiple cables from the split charging device to each of the batteries, try and use a cable of the same gauge and length and try to keep the cables as short as you can.
- Furthermore, the negative (ground) cables running from each battery should be of the same gauge and length and try to keep the cables as short as you can.
- When installing a battery bank, the cables that go from battery to battery should also be as short as possible.
- Try and use batteries that are the same brand.
- All batteries must have the same amp-hour rating.
- Likewise, the batteries should be of the same age as batteries lose charge holding ability with age.
- Batteries should be discharged evenly so that they ‘age’ at the same pace.
We know that these tips here may not be practical in real-world scenarios. If you use the tips above when installing your leisure batteries, this should extend the entire life of the batteries.
For more advanced battery health solution
Installing an intelligent battery monitor that can optimise the charging for each battery can make the above guide less critical.
Combining batteries in an emergency
You jump in the driver’s seat after a nights camping. You put the key in the ignition and turn the key…
`click, click, click!’ – Uh-oh…you have a flat battery!
Looking around, you notice you forgot to turn the exterior lights off and unfortunately left the lights on overnight while camping, resulting in the flat battery.
What do you do now?
Thankfully, you have a leisure battery on board and depending on how much power is available in the battery from the night before; you should be able to transfer the power successfully to start your vehicle engine…
Split Charge Device: Manual Switch
Switch the manual switch to the on position to let the power flow back from the leisure battery to the starter battery.
Give it around 10 minutes to build up enough charge in your starter battery and close the terminal.
Turn the key, and now the engine should turn over – successfully starting the engine.
Split Charge Device: Split Charge Relay / VSR / Charge Splitter
Some split charge devices come with a feature that allows you to close the internal contacts momentarily.
To engage this feature on the device, this is usually with a button installed on the device itself. Some models feature an external remote switch that is wired directly into the cab department for ease of use.
The split charge device will now allow power to flow back from the leisure battery to the starter battery for a specified period. (Check out manufactures specifications on the amount of time)
The split charge device should have allowed the leisure battery to have charged your starter battery up to the point where you can now start your engine successfully.
What if I have no type of emergency switch?
If your split charge device lacks such a device, you might want to consider adding a manual switch to the circuit to by-pass the split charge device.
Important: Always take care when using this feature. Currents used by the starter motor to start the engine can be extremely high. It is vital the switch that you install has a sufficient rating.
Failure to do so can result in blown fuses, your switch welding together making it useless or in worst-case scenarios, cause an electrical fire.
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