First blog post

We got the van on Friday, at an amazing price. $9,400 off MSRP, almost 25% off. We couldn’t turn that one down, so we’re the proud owners of a White (almost all of them are, but that’s what we wanted. More on that later) 2017 Ford Transit 350 Cargo van. It has an enormous amount of interior space and about 6 1/2 feet of headroom. We’re working on designs and doing tons of research on the buildout. It’s a blank slate for now. Here we go! img_2923

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Electrical, Part 1

As we’ve been talking about designing our van conversion to be able to sustain us away from RV Park hookups, a lot of folks have asked us if we’re installing solar. Solar is great, but it has its’ limits. The off-grid enabler for us is a combination of a Lithium Phosphate (LiFePO4) battery and a dedicated alternator to charge the battery. While a 100 watt solar panel can be expected to average about 30 amp hours per day, our alternator can charge at up to 250 amps. At idle, it will charge at about 150-160 amps. This means we could make a run to the grocery store and charge the batteries more than several solar panels could do in an entire day. Now if we’re parked for days on end and don’t want to crank the engine, solar is great but still may not keep up with demand. But if we’re on the move every few days, the alternator/lithium battery combo is going to be an amazing enabler of off grid touring.

The alternator kit for the Ford Transit sold by Nations Starter is a pretty amazing piece of engineering. Someone did a lot of engineering to figure out how to get it into an already tight engine compartment. On looking at the instructions, we decided it was way beyond our ability. We took it to two mechanics, and they wisely declined. Finally, we got in touch with Precision Rescue Vehicles, a local upfitter that specializes in converting vehicles into ambulances, firefighting vehicles and the like. I wasn’t sure they’d take a private job, but they were happy to do it. And we ended up finding out why other mechanics were reticent to take it on. When the tech at Precision re-connected the vehicle electrical cables, there was one that could go back together two ways. We’re used to these things being keyed to connect only one way. But for once, it was not the case and the easy error fried the vehicle’s computer. So off to Ford went the van, and we didn’t get it back for 3 weeks. But the great folks at Rescue took care of everything and it was back to us for the first steps at getting our electrical system set up. First, the BalMar MC-614 voltage regulator located under the hood needed to be programmed for the Elite Power Systems GBS 400 Amp Hour battery. It’s an open hood job with a magnet to manipulate the reed switch buried inside. Tricky, but I got the hang of it. The GBS battery, which is really 4 3.2 V cells, needed balancers to keep the cells at the same level. Easy to install. Then moving the battery into the vehicle. At 120 pounds, not so easy. Conventional batteries with similar capacity would weigh far more, however. Once connected to the lines, welding cable actually, brought inside by PRV, we connected the alternator and the Victron BMV-700 battery monitor to the system. Then, the moment of truth. Battery showing 12.9 V. Start engine! And, OH YEAH! At idle, over 150 amps of charge coming in. Wow.

Stay tuned for more!

Next Step was to connect the Victron MultiPlus Inverter Charger. So far, so good. It powers up just fine.

Head Unit installation

There was a time when you might want to upgrade your car stereo, maybe even with a nifty new 8 Track/Cassette/CD/DVD player, or all of the above if you’re old enough. But nowadays “Car Stereo” doesn’t cut it. These head units provide GPS based navigation, vehicle information, hands free communications, and, oh yeah, have a radio and act as a music player. We were lucky to get a basic Ford radio and pay a minimal price, because when you buy into a car makers AV/Nav tech, you buy into pending obsolescence.

Fortunately, Metra went to the trouble to make an adapter for the Transit that makes a double DIN head unit blend perfectly with the Transit dash. So today’s project: a lobotomy.

One great thing about buying from Crutchfield is their tech support and ability to match up your order with your vehicle. I happily paid for their Transit-specific harness that let me plug my new Alpine ILX-207 head unit. The radio worked instantly on plugging it in.

But I could not run the setup screen. Thanks to a bunch of lawyers, I’m guessing, it’s disabled unless you are parked. And you have to wire up the unit to a fuse block connector that senses the parking break. It looked like an enormous pain to do that, so I McGyvered the sense wire so I could set up the unit. Take that, Lawyers!

This new Alpine is a cool unit, and pretty modern. No moving parts. No CD/DVD, but it does seamlessly run Android and Apple Car Play. And finally, after buttoning everything up, it looks pretty OEM. Yay. Still left to do: Wire up cameras. I’m not looking forward to that.

Bed

One of the challenges in designing a small (I think the word these days is “tiny”) living space is the need for multipurpose spaces. Some van-based RVs will use an area for two or even three purposes: social, sleep and dining (ex: removable dining table, fold down sofa into bed). Our friend Gerry (formerly a tiny home manufacturer) advised us about this, and we decided we wanted to avoid tripling up on space functions. One thing we really do like, though, is a bed that you can just crawl into. So our design has a bed that remains a bed while traveling. It’s easily removable for when we’re home, though, and need to used the van as a hauler. When we cruised on Synchronicity, it was always nice to be able to tuck in for a little nap on moment’s notice. A benefit of the design is that we don’t have to convert anything and we can have a bed that’s really a bed, not a lumpy collection of sofa cushions. But it eats up an enormous amount of space. With almost 13 1/2 feet of length in the living area, a bed is going to eat up almost half of it. We chose the aft section of the van for this space for several reasons. By raising the bed on a platform, we gain LOTS of storage area underneath (a garage in RV lingo), on the order of an entire Toyota Highlander’s capacity (with the back seats folded down). That’s definitely a plus! And we gain a precious 7” of useful length for the bed by extending it over the threshold all the way to the rear doors. To build the platform supports, we went to the most excellent Todd Miller of Screaming Hot Iron in Fletcher, NC. Todd and his crew built a support, mounted sturdily to the van.

Then we used 3/4“ Radiata plywood from Chile as the base and had Todd’s gang fabricate simple supports underneath to keep the sag down. We covered them with outdoor carpet, and…

Looking good, so next….. a test. Never mind the toilet. That’s another story.

Next, mattresses are being made to fit by Colton Mattress Factory in Asheville.

Spudgers and van doors

A day doesn’t go by that you don’t use a product where someone used a spudger. “A spudger (or sometimes spludger) is a tool that has a wide flat-head screwdriver-like end that extends as a wedge, used to separate pressure-fit plastic components without causing damage during separation. This is commonly used to replace broken cell phone screens and integrated batteries.” I had a couple of spudgers laying about to work on computers and other electronics, but today it was pressed into service for automotive purposes. The auto industry doesn’t use such a cool name. There, it’s called a ‘pry tool’, or ‘trim removal tool.” I’ll take Spudger. It would be a good pet name, too. “Here, Spudger!”

So, I needed the spudger, or pry tool, to remove the door panels in the cab. Fortunately, I found a video that explained where to pop off various panels, unscrew this and that, shift, pull and rotate in various directions before finally disconnecting things like door locks and power windows. And finally, without a door, I could do my thing with Thinsulate (TM) insulation. And while I’m at it, I may as well upgrade the speaker system, which I did. A speaker adapter from Impact Products in Oregon fit perfectly, and the Rockford Fosgate speakers (with a significantly larger driver) slipped right in. Of course, nothing fit the Ford speaker connectors, so I had to solder the speaker wires. I think my dad probably would have said “it’s not a project until the solder comes out.” About two hours per door, and now after 60 feet of 3M SM600L automotive Thinsulate (TM), we’re almost done and almost out of insulation.

Door, sans panel:

Big difference in speaker driver size!

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Ready for surgery

Solid Floor & Bed platforms

After setting up some attachment points for the plywood subfloor, we screwed it down yesterday and it felt very solid. We were able to get the panel’s (4 to span the almost 14 feet of van cargo area)to line up smoothly in prep for putting in flooring. We opted for two different flooring materials. A very nice Marmoleum for the forward living are and the original Ford material for the ‘garage’ space beneath the bed. I had to use a heat gun to get some of the denim. Insulation off the back of the floor. It was slow and a bit tedious, but fortunately most of it was not glued down and pulled right off.The denim was compresssed where the van metal floor ridges are, so it wouldn’t work to just leave it on. But sans denim it laid down nicely and hopefully will endure gear being tossed in there for years to come.

Then, Lora cut the bed platforms to size (seen above, a test cut). They are Radiata ply from Chile. Very nice plywood for a great price (Home Depot had it). It was actually pretty exciting to see that board plopped into position. Woot!

Humble Pie and a few steps forward

Nate, of the tropical storm kind, blew through and taught us a thing or two. Three inches of rain in 24 hours showed us that two of the three holes we’ve put in the van were not watertight. Window #2, a CR Laurence all-glass-look beauty that fits the OEM style was not a surprise because we didn’t like the way it mounted. Instead of the garden hose test we figured we’d wait and see. We saw…..water.

We realized that we had probably overtightened in places and caused other areas not to be able to be pulled in enough to cause the gasket to properly seal. Once we understood what was up, re-installing the window was easy and we made it through another weather system with a dry van.

The other problem was the ceiling fan. After adding the aluminum bars to reinforce it we neglected to seal the space between the bars and the fan flange. Our oversight was ridiculously stupid in retrospect, especially after assaulting the outer edges with an entire tube of DICOR sealant. Now it’s caulked. And dry.

And now we turn back to the floor and getting that finished. Until now we’ve had the layers of closed cell foam (XLPE) with 1/2” plywood as a subfloor, but we wanted to get it fixed. Drilling into the van to secure the floor is a non-starter. We’d thought about using the designated Ford tie-down locations to fashion some kind of way to hold the floor down, and we figured the cabinetry and equipment we’re going to install would do the rest. But we need to get the Marmoleum flooring down on a flat surface first. Finally, I stumbled across a marketing video by Pleasureway, a Canadian maker of van-based (Class B) RVs. They glue just a few strips of plywood to the van floor and screw the subfloor boards into the strips. Sounds good to us, so that’s next, when the SikaFlex 221 adhesive arrives. Some of the stuff we need we just can’t find locally.

And finally, the back windows. The aft section of the van will be for equipment, storage, and sleeping. Todd Miller of Screaming Hot Iron fabricated a bed platform for us. It sits 30” high. Lora will make two platforms and two custom made 76”X33” mattresses will top it off. Colton Mattress Factory is making the mattresses. Our design has the bedroom area essentially being an insulated area within an insulated van, so we wanted the windows to have insulation qualities. After being unable to get Euro style Dometic windows in the US, we found a similar window called Eurovision sold by Tern Overland in Arizona. They came in yesterday and they look great, complete with integrated blind and screens, and awning style tilt-out. Installation begins. The windows require a minimum 1” wall, so we’re having to fabricate an adapter for the thin van body.

Cutting bracing off in prep to install the window.

Insulation

I was surprised to learn that many RV manufactures put close to zero insulation in their products. But it seemed like a no brainer to us. The hard part, and some say it’s the hardest thing to decide upon, is to figure out which method to use. After many hours of study, we decided to go with 3M Thinsulate SM600L. It’s sold as an automotive acoustic treatment, but has a pretty good R value too. It’s basically polyester with a fabric scrim that makes it pretty easy to handle. It doesn’t have the hazards and health risks of fiberglass and isn’t messy like spray foam. We also looked into Polyisocyanurate panels, which have a great R value.

Thinsulate isn’t cheap, but it is easy to apply, is safe and seems to be effective. We’re not trying to prepare for Nordic winters, so it seemed to be more than adequate for our needs.

Window

Our design calls for 4 more windows to be installed in the van. Up front, in the sliding door and opposite behind the driver, we went with CR Laurence all-glass-look single pane glass. They look almost like the stock Ford windows, but have small windows that tilt out (and have a screen) for ventilation. In the sleeping area aft, we’ll have smaller acrylic double pane windows. They also tilt out and feature both a blind and a screen.

Part 1, the CRL windows. We got them from Campervan-hq (good response and communications with Greg there, too), and they were shipped from their warehouse near Charlotte. Since the van isn’t built out yet, we can still use it as a cargo hauler, and we did just that to get the windows from the shipment receiver in Asheville.

Then today, window 1. First, cut a template. Easy enough.

Then <DEEP BREATH>, cut the van.

And, finally:

We did have a problem. The jigsaw marred and scratched some paint inside the door. It shouldn’t be an issue, as we plan to cover this area, but if you’re doing this take precautions.

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Getting Schooled

We’re taking a break from the van work while we have guests in town. But windows and insulation are on the way. A bonus was getting a tour and pointers from Tay Hoyle and Vicki Genfan’s conversion of a 2005 Sprinter. So many things to learn!