12v Van PC – Video

The final part for the Van PC arrived last week so I decided to bench test the whole system, from a 12v battery, in my office before installing it all in the van.

I’ve been asked so many times about this little PC I thought it might be useful to produce a video showing the components and the whole system running. Here it is:

Power Usage:

The entire system (including the monitor and all of the wireless devices) runs on about 40w per hour. If I’m watching TV and using the sound bar this can rise to around 50w per hour.

As far as how this impacts on the leisure batteries the system uses about 3.2a per hour, rising to around 4a with the TV and sound bar on. So if I say have the PC on for 8 hours then watch TV for a further 2 hours the system will draw around 34 amps per day.

This is less power than my laptop uses. It’s also much faster than my laptop and has a 24″ screen which is a bit of a luxury in a motorhome 🙂

Full List of Components

Processor: Intel i3 2100T
Motherboard: MSI H611-E35
Memory: 2 x 2gb Kingston Hyper X Blue
Hard Drive: Samsung 840 250gb SSD
Case: M350
Processor Cooler: Noctua NH-L9i
Front Fan: Noctua NF_A4x10
PSU: Pico M3-ATX and 4 Pin Extension
Operating System: Windows 7 Home 32
TV Stick: Hauppauge WinTV NOVA-T Stick
Monitor: LG 24EN43VS
Monitor 12v-19v Converter: SEE HERE
WiFi Directional Antenna: SEE HERE
WiFi Hotspot USB Stick: SEE HERE
3G USB Stick: HUAWEI E3131 USB
3G External Antenna:Try Motorhome WiFi (Link on Right)
Sound Bar: No Longer for Sale – Try Ebay

Conclusion

Very, very happy with this little system. It’s fast, silent, small and low power – everything I wanted it to be 🙂

I started building this little PC back in January when I first had the idea to build a dedicated PC for the van, so a few of the components have now been superseded. Having said that, it does everything I need it to do so it really doesn’t matter in the slightest. I had a look around to see what was available at this moment and to be honest there isn’t a single component I would change if I were buying now.

If your reading this in a few months time and are looking to build a similar system it would be worth looking at the Intel Haswell i3 4130T or i5 4570T as both (on paper) appear to be low power but more powerful – especially the graphics capabilities.

If you need any advice on choosing components or building a PC for your own van then your more than welcome to get in touch and I’ll try to help.

 

Internet Access From A Motorhome

The Next problem to solve is internet access. this is crucial to me if I’m to work while away in the van.

Actually, internet access from a van wasn’t as difficult a problem to solve as I thought it would be. There are three main ways to get online from a motorhome, all of which are readily available. The first is to access a WiFi signal. The second is to use a mobile phone signal. The third is via a satellite dish. A satellite set-up is expensive to buy and expensive to use so I’ll be concentrating on the first two methods.

Firstly WiFi

I did a little research and it wasn’t long before I came across WiFi booster antennas. This is an external antenna (they can work from inside but work better outside) that simply finds a weak WiFi signal and boosts it. There are two main types, Directional and Omni-Directional.

At first I was looking at the Omni-Directional type. Omni-Directional means it can pick up a signal from all directions. My plan was to attach one of these to the roof of my van permanently. The trouble is they are not as effective as Directional antennas. They are simpler to set up as they don’t need adjusting but I need as reliable a connection as I can get.

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An Omni-Directional antenna

So I started looking at Directional antenna’s. A Directional antenna picks up only the signals coming from the direction it’s pointed. To put in layman’s terms if an Omni-Directional antenna and a Directional antenna both have the same gain, the Omni-Directional would have to spread this gain throughout 360 degrees. The Directional area will focus on a smaller area of say 30 degrees. This is what makes a Directional antenna much more powerful. The downside of using a Directional antenna is, it needs pointing in the right direction so has to be set-up for each use.

As much as I would prefer the simple operation of an Omni-Directional Antenna, a Directional is stronger and gives a better chance of getting a good signal. Directional it is.

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A Directional antenna

So I bought a Directional antenna and I am honestly surprised just how well it works. It’s an amazing bit of kit.

I first tried it in the back office in my house. This room has 2ft thick granite walls and I’ve never gotten a WiFi signal in their, even from my home router. As soon as I plugged the new antenna into a PC about 20 WiFi networks appeared on screen, including 4 different hot-spots that I could connect to.

It’s worth knowing if you’re a BT broadband customer you can connect to the BT FON network at no extra cost per month. This is the largest WiFi network in the UK so very useful. Non BT customers can pay a subscription.

Now Mobile Phone Internet Access

Whereas I’m very confident in my WiFi antenna I wanted a back-up as well. This is going to be using the 3g part of a mobile phone signal. Again, for this to work well, I need an external antenna and after doing a lot of research I went with the model pictured below.

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I bought this from Ebay and it works very well. In fact, even in areas where I cant get a signal on my mobile phone I seem to get a good signal using this antenna. This is connected to a HUAWEI E3131 USB Mobile Broadband Dongle with a PAYG sim card installed.

Connecting to other devices in the van?

Both of the above antennas are connected directly to the PC in my van and both work great.

But what if I want to access the internet from my mobile phone? What if the missus wants to use her laptop?

What I decided to do was to make my PC into a mobile hotspot by adding a WiFi dongle. In my case I went with a TP Link Wireless USB Dongle. Windows 7 has a feature built in that allows you to create a network and share an internet connection. How my system now works is my PC gets a signal from either the WiFi antenna or the 3g antenna. The PC then distributes this signal via WiFi to other devices (with the password) within about 10 metres of my van.

A simpler way for anyone who doesn’t have a PC in their van would be to have the antenna’s connected to a WiFi router like in a home. If your interested in a system that is built for this purpose check out the iBoost system from MotorhomeWiFi.

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The system I’ve installed in my van works brilliantly. I have had a good reliable internet connection everywhere I’ve used it.  I can now work from the beach exactly the same as from my office.

Guess which one I’ll work from more? 🙂

 

I should point out that I didn’t buy the antennas shown in the top few pictures,  although my directional antenna is very similar. The pictures above are from a website called MotorhomeWiFi.com. Now I didn’t buy from MotorhomeWiFi and have no affiliation with them, but I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have and all of them have great things to say. From what I gather they are Motorhomers themselves who sell these products because that’s what they use themselves. They are also reported to be very helpful. If I had known about them when I was looking to buy my kit I would have bought from them. They sell a great range of mobile internet products and if your looking for a mobile internet solution this is who I recommend talking to.

New 12v Electrics – Total Charging Solution

I’ve been struggling with 12v electrics right from the start of planning my camper conversion. This is the final system that’s being installed.

The problem was my knowledge of 12v electrics was close to nothing. I would say after a few months research and learning, I now have a good understanding of the subject.

12v electrics are probably the single most important part of my van. As I’ve mentioned before I work online. If I can get a PC working reliably in the van with a good internet connection I can work from the beach instead of my office. This means instead of using the van for maybe a weekend a month I can use it for say three days a week. I won’t be on EHU (electric hook up) so my sole source of power is the 12v system.

The first thing to decide on was the batteries. After working out how many amp hours I will need (See Here) the next thing is the best way to charge them and keep them in good condition. The three ways I will be able to charge my leisure batteries are:

1. From the van alternator whilst driving

2. Via a battery charger when at home or on a site with EHU

3. Solar Panels

I’ll start with the solar panels.

From the start I was advised I would need solar panels along with a MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) controller to supply the charge from the solar panels to my leisure batteries.

After a lot of research I decided on two 100w Monocrystalline panels with the option of fitting a third at a later date if I found I needed it. I went with Monocrystalline as they supply more power than Polycrystalline in lower light which is important with UK weather.

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Photo shows my two solar panels fitted with space at the front for a third if needed.

For the MPPT I bought a 25a model from China that was recommended to me. It was quite cheap and can take 300w of solar panels. There is a good video review of this unit here:

So that was the solar set-up completed, time to look at charging from the van alternator.

There seems to be two main ways of charging from the van alternator. The cheaper way using a VSR and the more expensive way, using a Smart Charger.

A VSR is a Voltage Sensing Relay. It works by connecting the starter battery to a high amperage relay, and then to the Leisure battery(‘s) with a heavy duty battery cable (size of cable depends on how long the cable is and how many amps are going through it). A VSR is then connected to the high amperage relay. The VSR senses when the vehicle is running and opens the connection on the high amperage relay to allow the leisure battery(‘s) to be charged. When the engine is switched off the VSR senses the voltage drop and switches the high amperage relay off. This stops the engine battery from being flattened by the leisure batteries. This is known as a Split Charge System.

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High amperage relay on left with VSR on right

Some VSR’s can also be connected to the 12v input of a 3 way fridge so that the fridge is on whilst the engine is running but switches off when the engine switches off, again to stop the starter battery from being flattened. This is what I originally bought.

The more expensive way is to use a Smart Charger. A Smart Charger is connected between the starter battery and leisure battery(‘s) the same way as the high amperage relay above. I’ll come back to this later in the article.

The third way I will have to charge my leisure batteries is via a battery charger on EHU

For this I just need to decide what the best charger for my set-up will be. After doing a lot of research and getting advise from others I decided the CTEK MXS 25 would be the best choice for me. It is a Smart Charger that charges the batteries in multiple stages that enable the battery to be FULLY charged.

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The CTEK MXS 25 is a 25a charger and is suitable for battery banks from 40ah – 500ah.

I bought all of the above and was ready to install them. The thing is, I wasn’t happy with my choices

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, a few months ago my knowledge of 12v electrics was bad and I had started to buy the above items without  understanding what I really needed. After learning all I could I now have a very good understanding of 12v electrics. I understand how batteries work, their characteristics  and how they like to be charged. It was time to rethink my system.

The first problem was with the Split Charge System. Whereas a system like I had bought will charge my leisure batteries it wont charge them fully. A Split Charge System will only charge the leisure batteries to about 85% due to the way it works.

The solution was to buy a Smart Charger. A Smart Charger charges the battery(‘s) in different stages that enable a battery to be fully charged.  Now I had to choose which Smart Charger to buy.

Initially I was looking at a Sterling B2B charger that looked great. It charges at a rate of up to 50a per hour and came well recommended by most.

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I say most because a few people who have the unit have had trouble with it conflicting with their MPPT.

I did more research and found that CTEK make a unit called the D250S Dual.

The CTEK D250S Dual is a combined Smart Charger and MPPT. This means it will not only charge the leisure batteries from the alternator when the vehicle is running but also charge them from the solar panels whenever there is light.  This unit charges at a maximum rate of 20a per hour which would be fine for a single 100a battery, but not very effective on my 400ah of batteries.  I found CTEK also make another unit called a SmartPass. The SmartPass is a separate product that can combine with the D250S Dual and boosts its charging all the way up to a maximum output of 100a per hour.

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I was very interested in these two units so started to find out more about them. I found that as well as keeping my leisure batteries in tiptop condition they would also charge my vehicle starter battery from my solar panels whilst the vehicle was parked up. As I’ve had problems with the starter battery discharging this is a big plus point. It seems to be a common problem with motorhomes as they can be sat without running for long periods of time and just an alarm system can drain the battery. This video shows how the units work together:

This left charging the battery whilst on EHU, either at a camp-site or at home.

I had already decided to use a smart charger (CTEK MXS 25) to charge the leisure batteries when 240v was available. This was still the best option. The difference was now I could combine it with the D250S Dual and Smartpass so my 240v charger will also charge the vehicle starter battery.

These items together will keep all of the batteries in my vehicle, leisure and starter, in optimal condition. They will charge the leisure batteries fast whilst driving, they will keep all the batteries topped up if the van is not in use for a while and they will optimise solar power. Best of all, once these are fitted I can forget about them as they all work automatically with nothing to switch on or off if I say, switch to EHU.

this was the answer. the most efficient charging system that i can find commercially available.

The CTEK D250S Dual with Smartpass and a CTEK MXS 25 giving a total charging solution. A system that I am, at last, very happy with.

I have all of these units here now ready to fit along with a Nasa BM1 to monitor 12v batteries.

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I hope to get it all fitted at the end of this week (I’m still waiting for a few cables and fuses).

I’ll write an update to this post once it’s all fitted on how I fitted it all and why I did it the way I did. For now I’ll finish with a diagram of the whole 12v system that’s being installed. Thanks for reading and if you have any questions just post in the comments below.

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Click drawing to view full size.

The Jump Start System

I had a lot of problems when I bought the van with the battery going flat overnight and wanted an emergency jump start system.

When I first bought the van it had a lot of electrical problems and the battery would go flat intermittently from time to time. Although the problem is very rare now since the van has had a new battery and new alternator it does still happen rarely and I thought it might be a good idea to be able to jump start the van from the leisure batteries.

The starter battery of my van has a cranking rating (CCA) of 850 amps. The leisure batteries in my van are Numax LV26MF and have a CCA of 740amps. My batteries are in banks of two under each of the front seats so it struck me that a single bank of two would give me 1480 amps on tap to start the vehicle if needed. I just needed a system in place to join them.

Here is the existing wiring.

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What I wanted was to be able to connect the leisure battery bank under the passenger seat to the starter battery. I was advised to use a heavy duty isolator switch (300a) to make the connection by a member on the SBMCC forum and to use at least 25mm cable. What did cross my mind though was the existing cables in the above drawing are fused at 50a and the current used by the starter motor could easily blow these.

I decided to use another isolator to isolate just the passenger seat battery bank. Then to replace the 16mm cable joining these two batteries together with 25mm. I would then run another 25mm cable from this battery bank to the starter battery with the 300a isolator and a higher rated fuse (probably around 300a) added to it.

Here is what I came up with.

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Now if I do have a flat starter battery I can switch the isolator between the leisure battery banks off then switch the 300a isolator that connects directly to the starter battery on and start the vehicle. Both of the isolators will be sat together and be accessible by opening the passenger door.

Update – september 2013

When I originally designed the jump start system I was going to use a different battery set-up and charging system. This has now been revised and the way I’m now wiring my batteries (more efficient) means I needed a different jump start solution as well. This is what has now been installed:

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It may look complicated but all it really is, is a switch that bypasses the new charger. To make this work all I have to do is turn the isolator switch which lets the current from the leisure batteries flow into and rapidly charge the starter battery. I then leave the van for 10 minutes, turn the switch off again and start the van.

It’s important not to try and start the van with the switch on as this could blow the fuses in the system. It’s just a rapid charging system. But it works 🙂

Batteries

Because of running a PC in my van I need a fair amount of battery power. After quite a bit of thought I decided to go for four 100ah batteries.

My calculations for working out how much power I would need were based on being able to be completely self sufficient for 3 days without any charging. These figures allow for when the weather is terrible and there is no charge to speak of from the solar panels.

Here is what I need to power and the amount of watts that will be used:

Van PC – 17w per hour – 15 hours per day = 255w

Monitor – 18w per hour – 15 hours per day = 270w

Car Radio – 18w per hour – 5 hours per day – 90w

Water Pump – I’ll allow for 50w per day

Lighting – All LED so I’ll allow for 50w per day

Everything Else – I’ll allow 100w per day

That’s a total of 815w per day. To work out how many amps I’m going to use, I divide the watts (815) by the volts (12.5 roughly in a camper van) and get 65 amps. This means over 3 days I will consume 195 amps. Leisure batteries should only be discharged to 50% so I need 390ah of batteries. In reality I probably wont use this much power but better safe than sorry, so 4 x 100ah batteries it is.

The next problem was where to put them. After a little research I found that quite a few people had fitted two batteries under the drivers seat of a Ducato/Relay/Boxer. As my passenger seat is the same it stood to reason another two batteries would fit under that seat. I did some measuring and ordered 4 x Numax 100ah batteries which should fit perfectly.

The next problem was how to wire them up. I wanted them all to discharge and charge at the same rate so they all get the same amount of wear. This was not as easy as it sounds but eventually I was directed to an excellent article here http://www.smartgauge.co.uk/batt_con.html which explains how best to achieve this. This is how I wired the batteries:

Battery_400A_Setup_New

The Numax leisure batteries are very good value and I couldn’t find any specific moans about them from people who had them. I would have loved to go all out and buy something like Trojan batteries but the cost was just to much with everything else I need to buy. I figure if the Numax only last a few years I’ll buy some better ones then.

The batteries have now arrived and here they are fitted in place.

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The picture above is taken from the back of the seat. They are an almost perfect fit pushing up against the metal bracket at the bottom of the picture and also against a bar at the front. Width wise they sit between two raised bars in the floor design of the Boxer.

To make sure they can’t move around when going over bumps etc I’ve added a cargo strap over each battery. I tried moving them by kicking them from all sides. They don’t move at all.

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The above picture is taken from the front of the seat and shows how much clearance there is between the battery terminals and the underside of the seat. Obviously it’s important that the terminals can not come into contact with any metal under the seat so I’m using proper rubber battery terminal covers.

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I’ve used 25mm cable with lugs soldered to the ends and then heat shrunk.

I’ll go into more detail on the electrical set up in a future post, this was just about the batteries.

Control Panel

I looked around to see what was available in the way of control panels but couldn’t find anything that I liked. Time to make my own.

What I wanted was a central point that I could switch on or off almost everything in my van. I wanted it out of site, as I hate LED’s at night, but easily accessible. I also wanted to be able to see water/gas/battery levels from the same point.

I’ve had panels laser cut before for PC’s and other projects and decided this would be the best approach here. Here is what I came up with.

MH_Control_Panel_2_Front

This will fit at the top of my wardrobe and measures 500mm wide by 100mm high. The round holes are to take 20mm switches with the rectangle on the right taking a triple CBE fascia.

I decided to order the design in 2mm thick black acrylic with a second 2mm clear sheet cut to be bonded to the back without the lettering. I can then add a strip of LED’s behind the panel so the lettering lights up. The lights will be attached to a door switch so when the wardrobe door is open the panel lights up.

The cut acrylic arrived this morning.

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These two pictures were taken after I bonded the black and clear panels together with a little clear Stixall.

Here’s a picture with the switches fitted.

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And one more showing where the CBE fittings will be.

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The CBE fascia has a basic battery monitor on the right, waste and fresh water gauge on the left and will have a gas level gauge in the middle. The gas gauge I have isn’t made for CBE fittings but is small enough to fit in the gap. I’ve ordered a CBE blank which I will cut the gas gauge into.

TO BE CONTINUED.

The Van PC

As I mentioned in an earlier post my plan is to build a camper van that I can also work from. I work online so to be able to work from the beach I need a PC and a good internet connection.

This throws up a lot of problems. My first thought was to work from a laptop. The thing is I hate working from a laptop. I started to do a lot of research and soon came across  websites that sell PC’s for cars. I spent hours trawling through forums and looking at parts and decided to build a dedicated PC for the van.

The PC needed to be fast, reliable and small. As it would be running from the leisure batteries it also needed a regulated power supply so as not to damage the PC and needed to be low power.

I started with the power supply,  a Pico M3-ATX

LinITX.com product M3-ATX-HV 6V-34V 95W Intelligent Car PSU main image.

This little power supply fits straight into the 24 pin connector on a motherboard and can run a PC safely at any voltage between 6 – 24v. It delivers 125w of power which would be ample for my needs.

Next was a processor. Intel make a range of low power processor’s that are ideal for my plans. I decided to buy an i3 2100T which consumes a maximum of 35w. It also has  built in graphics capabilities so I wont need a separate graphics card.

Next was the motherboard. I wanted something simple, small and an HDMi port to connect to a monitor. I settled on a MSI H61I-E35.

MSI H61

The H61I-E35 is an ITX motherboard (small form factor) with all of the features I need and very few that I don’t.

The next thing to choose was ram. For this I went with 2 x 2gb sticks of Kingston Hyper X Blue. As I will be using a 32 version of Windows 7 on this machine there is no point adding more ram. This version of windows cant see more.

The next component to choose is a hard drive. I decided to use a SSD hard drive for two reasons. 1. mechanical hard drives don’t like being bounced about when they are on, and I would like to be able have the PC on whilst driving. 2. SSD’s are very fast.

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I decided to go with a Samsung 840 250GB SSD. I will also have an external larger mechanical hard drive for larger files that I can connect if needed.

Now I needed a case. Whilst looking around forums regarding a car PC one case that was always being mentioned was the M350.

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It’s very small and well made so this is what I went with.

This left cooling. I’m a little OCD about PC cooling and my PC’s at home are water cooled (heat kills PC’s). The i3 processor I bought for this PC runs very cool but I also hate noise. I decided to buy a Noctua NH-L9iCPU cooler and Noctua NF-A4x10 40mm fan (front exhaust).

Next was a keyboard and mouse, I went for the Logitech K360 & M325 with Unifying Receiver. I have the same set-up on my media PC at home and really like it.

Finally I added a Hauppauge WinTV NOVA-T Stick, turning this little PC into a media centre. This will give me smart TV in the van which is a nice bonus.

Here it is all put together.

IMG_0593At the front of the PC is the TV card and wireless receiver for the keyboard and mouse.

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The TV card is wired through the PC and has an aerial socket at the back.

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And here are a couple of pictures showing the size of this PC compared to a DVD.

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I’ve had this PC wired to a leisure battery and a watt meter while testing it. It runs on around 17w average whilst working on it. That’s about 1.5a per hour. This is without the monitor which should run on around the same. Talking of the monitor I went with a LG 24EN43VS. It’s a 24″ LED monitor with HDMi and an external power supply. It needs 19v to work so I’ve ordered a 12v – 19v converter.

This means if I have the PC and monitor on for 10 hours in a day I shouldn’t use more than around 30a of battery power. To put this in layman’s terms, a 60w light bulb running from a 12v battery would use nearer 50a of power over the same period.

I’m really pleased with how this has turned out. It’s surprisingly fast, fast enough that we can even access most games from our Steam account and run them okay turning the system into a make-shift games centre. This is great if family are around with a bored teenager.  We have a smart TV, can record TV and can watch films either online or from the external hard drive. It’s great to work from and consumes very little power. Not bad for in a motorhome really 🙂

The next problem is internet access. I’ll cover this here: http://myselfbuildcamper.co.uk/internet-access-motorhome/

Fitting Reversing Cameras

Once the van was all cleaned up I decided my first job would be fitting reversing cameras.

After doing some research I settled on a kit from Ebay that had 2 cameras and a 7″ LCD screen for about £50. I wont link to the seller from here but there are loads of people selling the same item on Ebay.

reversingcamera

I decided on having two cameras so I could have them at different angles. One facing straight down directly behind the van and one angled to be able to use more as a rear view mirror.

I also decided not to wire to the reversing lights (a lot of people do this so when you put the van in reverse the screen automatically shows the camera view) but instead to wire them directly to  the live from a 12v cigarette point.

The reason I did it this way is then as soon as I switch the vehicle on the screen shows the view from camera one. If I want to see directly behind the van I press a button on the monitor and it shows camera two. This way I can view either camera when reversing with ease.

Fitting the cameras

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Firstly I started with the cameras, deciding where I wanted them fitted.

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Deciding on either side of the top brake light I marked exactly the point I wanted them

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Then drilled out the holes for fitting. I decided to use a rubber grommet to run the cables through so used a hole saw the right size for the grommet (20mm from memory) then drilled three 4mm holes to bolt the camera to the van.

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Once the holes were drilled I painted the cut edges with Red Oxide paint to stop the exposed metal corroding over time.

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I then added a little Stixall glue (Toolstation sell this) to the back of the bracket to ensure it was water tight to the van and bolted it on.

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I then fitted the cables through the grommet and pushed it into place.

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After screwing the camera back to its bracket I added more Stixall to the back of the grommet to again make sure it was water tight.

Then it was time to route the cables.

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I used 20mm cable routing threaded through the pillars of the van to make sure the wires would never become chaffed on the metal work. This was a pain to thread the wires through and in future I will use straight tubing not corrugated.

Fitting The LCD Screen

The Peugeot Boxer has a shelf above the sun blinds that was an ideal place to fit the screen as the sun couldn’t shine on it. It’s also fairly out of site from the outside so less likely to attract scum bags.

The screen comes with a sticky pad on its base, but its next to useless. I used a little Stixall to stick it in place.

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While I was wiring the screen in I thought it would be a good idea to add recharge points for my phone and hands-free.

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And finally a picture from the back with the cameras finished.

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