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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Re-use

We’ve decided to re-use some of the OEM cargo flooring for our camper build. Here, for garage wall installation. This photo is taken from the rear. with the bed platform support rail in place but disconnected. Automotive Thinsulate insulation goes in first, held in place with 3M 90 adhesive spray.

Then the wall panel, 1/4” Birch is fit and cut (with two PlusNuts installed at rear as attachment points. We decided to cover the plywood with remnants of the OEM Ford flooring, but first I had to clear it of the denim backing. If you’re lucky, a lot of it just pulls off, but a heat gun and scraper helps. The flooring panels are cut to size and attached with Gorilla glue. A backing of Reflectix radiant barrier is stapled onto the back in the areas where the van doesn’t touch metal.

Finally, we slide the panels into place from behind the bed rail and attached. A nice finished look, all done with remnants.

Bedroom Walls

Most conversions that we’ve seen put walls and ceilings panels in pretty early on in the build, and they’ll cover the entire cargo area before moving on to cabinetry. We’re taking a different approach: going modular. Our ceiling consists of three sections: finished plywood 1/4″ birch panels attached to furring strips and a center section that is covered in foam-backed automotive headliner and slightly dropped so that concealed strip lights bathe the birch side panels with a warm, indirect glow. With such a high ceiling in the high-roof Transit, another 1/2″ drop is not a penalty for anyone under about 6’5″. More on the ceiling in another post.

For the berth (bedroom area), our wall challenge was to find a good way to maximize the available width while still providing good insulation. The stock Ford panels, and many van converters, simply attach a wall panel floor to ceiling and leave the dead space in the middle where the vehicle curves out. That was my original idea, too, but Lora correctly insisted that we find a way to use that space. In a tiny home, every inch counts.

Instead of drilling more holes in the van, Lora made some angle attachment brackets that bring the wall attachment points about 3″ closer to the outer wall. Then we added a 2″ wooden. side rail to the bed support rail. This gives us a little room between the mattress and wall and is also handy as a cubbyhole to stuff items at bedtime, like a cellphone.

First, we prepped the wall with automotive 3M Thinsulate insulation, attached with 3M 90 spray adhesive.

Then:

1. Cut a basic template out of cardboard, only for the curved area at the back of the van. The rest was, thankfully, straight.

2. Made a trim ring for our Eurovision (we love these!) windows (available at Ternoverland.com), as the wall stands about 1″ in from the edge of the window.

3. Made the upper brackets and lower rail, and cut the wall panel, WITHOUT the hole for the window. Attached the panel to a couple of brackets and installed to fit for the window cutout by drawing the cutout from the outside of the van.

4. At this point we have a finished panel ready for upholstery.

5. Cut 1/2″ foam and glue with 3M 90 spray adhesive. Cut out window hole. Then lay out and glue vinyl cover.

6. Cut out corners for folding. This can be tricky, so I watched some YouTube videos and found an excellent example from boat upholsterer Alan Dring online. There are some pretty nifty tricks on how to do this, and once you get the hang of it, the look is great. (https://www.pbo.co.uk/expert-advice/making-headlining-panels-26876) We bought an upholstery staple gun (uses 1/2″ staples) from Harbor Freight for a mere $25. And then it’s staple time: LOTS of staples. The pro tip for a good look is to use LOTS and LOTS of staples.

I was worried that the trim ring might be too deep for the vinyl to properly fold around, so I ended up attaching an additional piece of vinyl to get the right look. I cut a strip and lined it up on the inside of the ring, then attached on each side. It’s not a problem as the Eurovision screen/shade frame will cover the attachment point.

7. I stapled Reflectix radiant barrier material to the back of the panel. Reflectix needs an air gap behind it to work properly, and with this design we have it: a couple of inches to the van skin. Hopefully this can help keep the berth area temps more comfy, along with the thinsulate for convective heat.

8. Attach angle brackets and wood bed rail. We had to do this before final installation as the screws are on the outside and not accessible in final position.

9. Position and install panel, screwing in brackets to furring strip and bed rail.

10. Attach Eurovision shade/screen frame. And that’s it! We love it! We’ll add a trim piece later to cover the upper brackets and rear of the van and attach with Beauclips.

Asheville Van Life Rally 2018

We took a break from building and attended the incredible Asheville Van Life Rally. This was the first year it was hosted as an overnight (two nights) event. Dozens of van’s , trucks, tents, and various campers came and made this quite an amazing experience. We really want to send out a big thanks to Micah Pulleyn and the event team for putting on a great, well-organized rally. A big shout out, too, goes to the June Bug Retro Resort. What a lovely, hospitable spot.

We snuggled in with our buds and van conversion inspiration friends Tay and Vicki in their 2005 Sprinter that Tay converted. It even has a recording studio built inside.

We got settled fairly early but the place started to fill up. Everyone was great and eager to share experiences and ideas. Lora and I were particularly eager to see what we could learn from others and from a more extended off-the-grid camping experience. After all the work on the electrical system, I was really curious about how well our Lithium-based system would perform. So here’s the report:

We camped off the grid for 48 hours, running the fridge/freezer, lights, and occasional use of the water pump and 120V one time for cooking eggs in the Instapot. When we left today, we had 35% reserves. We drove 35 miles and the dedicated alternator brought us back to 55%. Then I plugged into an outdoor outlet with a 15A limit on charging current from the house. After 2 hours, we’re at 80%.

Some observations:

I’m VERY pleased at how quickly the alternator charges. If we were on an extended trip, we’d likely be able to camp off grid without solar or starting the engine to charge for about 2 days. But a short 35 mile trip boosts us up 20%. Impressive.

A couple of hundred watts of solar would gives us a bit of extra staying power on stays 2 nights or longer. We’re wired for solar, and have a controller already installed, so all we need to do is buy the panels. I’m leaning towards two rigid 100W panels that will not be attached to the van so we can move them into sunny spots while parking in the shade.

Our 100ft outdoor extension cord is specified to operate at 15A. It’s slightly warm but not hot. I left part of it coiled up and it’s predictably pretty warm. Probably ok, but I uncoiled it. It appears to be quite adequate for the load.

Plus, did I mention?…..Lots and lots of fun was had?

And with that, I’ll end the post with a pic of one of the many amazing people we met: Victoria, who has been living for the last three months in her Sprinter she beautifully converted herself.

Ceiling panels

We thought it would be a nice look to have a slightly dropped ceiling in the center of the van, lowered just enough to sneak in a LED strip that would give a nice ambient glow to the side ceiling panels. We chose a dark blue fabric that works well with the Ford stock gray interior in the cab and the blue upholstery we chose for the bench. In order to give a clean look and let us access the roof later without a lot of fuss, we bought some nifty panel clips (beauclips from sailrite.com) developed for the marine market that let you snap the panel on and off without difficulty.

We found some great little LED puck lights on Amazon from Obeaming and decided to place them 15″ apart. We added an extra furring strip to provide the desired drop.

We positioned the panel, then drilled 1/2″ holes for each Beauclip pair, fully through the panel and about 1/2″ into the furring strip. Since we had room for error, we used a piece of tape for depth reference instead of a stop collar.

We then add another 1/4 to the depth because our 1/2″ beauclip screws were just barely penetrating through the 3/8″ plywood, and we didn’t mind the extra depth. We were a little nervous about dropping down to 1/4″ screws, too.

Next was to add the headliner material (foam-backed purchased from the local Foam & Fabric store), pop in the lights, and wire them up. We added a 12V dimmer compatible with switching drivers.

And finally, pop it in, wire it to the battery bank, and we have overhead ceiling lights! We’ll do a separately wired panels for the berth area. When we get to the side panels, we’ll pull this panel off, and screw them into the furring strips. The attachments will be hidden when we snap the center panel back in place and it should provide a very clean, attractive look.

First test camping trip

First test camp in the van. No galley yet, so Lora made Bison stew in the InstantPot. Yes, it consumes a lot of electricity. It took our charge down from 100% to 87%. After running the fan (a little bit in the afternoon( lights, and the fridge over night, we were down to 78%. But, with the amazing 2nd alternator that can charge Lithium (LiFePO4) batteries at a high rate, we were back to 95% after the 23 mile ride home. We’re feeling very good about the investment in the electrical system. Most of the other RVs in the campground were running generators a lot, which can be pretty noxious and obnoxious. Another benefit of our electrical design. No generator! Well, technically our generator is the 2nd alternator, and it’s doing a great job.

Saloon comforts

The social area of a boat is called the saloon, pronounced “salon” and often spelled that way. I’m not sure what you’d call it in a van conversion, but since we lived on a sailboat I’ll call it the saloon. On the boat it was the place we would eat, read, watch a movie, do our internet stuff, plan our journeys, and take shelter when the weather sucked.

Carving out a multi-use social space with the very limited space in a van is a bigger challenge. One of the first things we did was install a swivel for the passenger seat. That gives us one comfortable seat with 2 functions. Next was to build a bench behind the driver’s seat. A really nifty bonus is that the driver’s seat back can be tilted forward and the bench essentially becomes a chaise lounge. We did not plan this, but it was like a big gift plopped in our laps when it dawned on us that we had lucked out. It’s wonderfully comfy.

Next was the table. Most RV and boat manufacturers put a post mount in the floor and a table on top. I was loathe to put a post in the floor right in a heavy traffic area, and desperately trying to sort out an alternative. Then we found the Lagun table support. It bolts on to the side of the bench and has a lockable swing arm. It is removable, too, so we can store it when we don’t need a table. And it keeps a trip hazard out of the main footpath.

The Lagun table solves lots of problems. Very nice quality.

A wise friend, Gerry Brown, who builds tiny homes, gave us some great design advice. In small dwelling spaces, multiple functions are often necessary. Designing in dual functions often works when done right. Triple or more functions can be problematic. We’re trying to follow that advice.

With comfortable eating and relaxing space done, we thought about lighting. For the reclined positions, an over the shoulder reading light would be perfect. The van dome light assembly in the cab has a flat space at the back, just in the right position.

The trick was in how to remove the dome light assembly to install them. The key is to pop out the dome light itself and then you can reach in and disconnect the shroud. I’m so impressed with these little reading/task lights. Very bright, warm spot that perfectly illuminates the area you’d want for reading. \

And they only draw 1/4 amp at 12V. With our 400 amp hour battery system, that’s not enough to worry about. $20 ea from Obeaming.

Electrical – Shore Power and System Monitor

The brain of our electrical system is the Victron Multiplus 3000 Inverter/Charger. It will properly charge the battery with the appropriate profile for the Lithium Ferro Phosphate type battery, do some pretty nifty tricks external power (called Shore Power in RV language) such as combining the external power coming in with battery power and using the remaining power to charge the battery. And it will invert DC into AC so have typical household power when you are off the grid. Hooking up the shore power, with the benefit of having the MultiPlus, was easy. We’re veterans at cutting holes in the van by now, so no problem! Once the receptacle was in, it was simply a matter of connecting wire (through a fuse) to the MultiPlus.

Dimunitive Shore Power Plug – 20amps and can use a regular extension cord.

Most RVs will have either a 30 or 50 amp circuit for shore power, which requires a special service. You can’t get that much power from a household outlet. 20 amps is max, and most are 15. Since we don’t plan to go to RV parks if we can help it, we decided to just add a 20 amp service. The Multiplus can easily handle much more, but we’re going to start simple. We don’t need special expensive cables, and we can simply use a regular extension cord and plug into an outlet if we’re visiting friends or a place that will let us plug in. A very cool feature of the MultiPlus is that you can dial how much power you take from shore power. This is very handy in case you end up tripping a breaker by drawing more than the provider can handle. Just dial it back.

And how do we know what our system is doing and control it? Through the very cool Victron battery and system monitor and control system. We can see how much power is coming in from shore power, what the charger is doing, AC and DC loads, battery status, and more. I wish we had this in the house. To test, I hooked up a heater to put an AC load on the system, and ran our DC MaxxFan, and we were charging the batteries. The Victron color display tells you the story in one graphic. Did I say I wish we had this in the house?

Victron Color Control GX tells the story of what we need to know about power in the van

Electrical – Power Center

“Boondocking” – that was a new term for us. It means parking the van where there are no electrical or sewage hookups. In other words away from RV parks. When we lived on the boat we called it “on the hook.” That was our favorite. Out in nature, away from the marinas.

Boondocking comfortably requires special capabilities. You need water and power to last for days without plugging in. This is why we went with the high tech lithium 400 amp hour battery along with the expensive but amazing large alternator to charge it, a 12V refrigerator, etc. And finally, after a long break, we’re getting it installed and working. Just behind the driver’s seat we’re building a bench, framed with 8020 extruded aluminum, that will contain the power center. To the right the GBS 400AH LiFePO4 battery. To its’ left, a Victron MultiPlus charger/inverter, and installed in the bench panel, an electrical distribution panel, with breakers for the 120V AC systems (primarily air conditioner, induction cooktop, dry toilet flush (more on the Wrappon dry toilet in another post), and microwave as well as a few outlets for kitchen appliances, charging laptops, etc. The WFCO panel also has a dozen DC fuse slots for the MaxxFan 7000K, lights, the refrigerator, the Webasto Dual Top water and air heater, water pump, USB charging stations, and more.

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.