Bug Screen

Bug screen. This was one of the most complicated sub-projects on our build, behind only 1. Electrical 2. Heat 3. Galley Cabinetry. We bought small bug screen material at Lowes and ordered zippers and all weather fabric at sailrite.com. Neodymium Magnets were available at Amazon. We used the Rolef design as inspiration (as seen on Fit RV, Far Out Ride, etc.) The roughly 10-12 bar magnets are sewn in with rigid fiberglass rod spacers in between. On the vehicle side, a 6’ steel threaded rod (cut to size) is sewn in to complete the magnetic closure.

Complicating the design, and we wouldn’t do this for 2.0, is a design that allows the screen to be closed but the table/water access port to be accessible with the screens closed. Next time, we’d just go with a single roll-up panel.

Tools needed: standard sewing machine, upholstery/leather needles, medium duty nylon thread, plastic drop cloth for template, stick-on and sew-in hook and loop tape, self attaching hook and loop tape (hook on one side/loop on other). Total cost: just under $100, but many hours of work.

Weight Watchers

We’re just over one week from heading out on our Really Awesome Tour of the Great American West (RATGAW), so we’ve got as much build done as we’re going to do, weight wise. For now. So off to the CAT scales we went today, to see how we’re doing and how much of our crap we can stuff in there. We bought a 350 Transit, so with a 9500 lb Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), I was hoping for good news. We had about 10 gallons of fresh water in the tank and a few items, so subtracted out that would put us at about 7600, with a OCCC (Occupant and Cargo Carrying Capacity) of 1,900 lbs. I’m happy with that. Yay!

The Big Scary Project

We bought a fancy German diesel powered heater made by WEBASTO. It works! Now to finish the installation. Here’s an update with under-the-van photos.

1. The unit is mounted underneath the van just behind the axle. There is plenty of space for installation.

2. There are advantages and drawbacks to outside and inside installation. For outside, 3 large holes have to be cut in the van. One is 100mm for air return (includes the water lines going through the air intake) and the other two are about 90mm (3 1/2”) and are for heated air coming into the vehicle.

3. We have installed a small fuel tank under the van with a quick disconnect from the mount so we can just reach under to fill it up. This is not the permanent solution but it’s going to be the plan for our upcoming BIG TRIP TO THE GREAT AMERICAN WEST that’s about 2 weeks away.

4. The ductwork is a combination of 3” semi rigid metal ducting and a 1m piece of Webasto 80mm ducting going to two registers in the cabin. The holes through the van were sealed with red high temp silicon. It’s near the exhaust, as you can see, so I’m a little nervous about CO seepage. I’m going to check the seals carefully and probably install a second CO monitor down in the duct space.

Another thing we had to do was reduce our water pressure because the Webasto limit is 2.5 bar (27PSI). We bought a pressure meter and were able to adjust a screw on our Shurflo 4008.

We’ve tested the unit and it works, and this project is finally drawing to a close. It’s pretty complicated and there are almost zero examples on the net of other van builders doing this DIY. The install manuals are available in multiple languages at Butler Technik. The quality of the kit and parts included is very high. It seems to have worked out for us, but I have to admit I was pretty nervous. Not for the faint of heart for DIY.

Escape

Our cargo Transit has a very low rear cargo Door
Opener, and with our platform bed we can’t reach it. I think it’s important to be able to have a rear emergency exit, so I fabricated an extension.
I pulled off the lower door panel, carefully removed the water barrier enough to put a bolt through the latch. I then bolted on a block with steel rod attached. The rod was bent to conform to vehicle curves. An eye bolt is attached with a piece of pen pipe to act as a guide for the steel rod. Then capped it with a golf ball as a release knob. Now it hides behind the mattress, invisible but quickly accessible. Note: this doesn’t work unless the vehicle is unlocked. I suppose we will keep a spare key back there.

Cellular Booster

In thinking about communications enhancements for our off-the-grid (but connected) needs, we thought about cell phone boosters, wifi extenders, and HF radio. For what we plan to do, we think extending our cell phone range is #1. The Wilson WeBoost systems get great reviews, but are pricey, at about $500. So I found a used system for for about 40% off that was essentially new but missing the coax cable the connects the antenna to the main unit. For $11 we fixed that problem. Then to the installation.

The system consists of an outside antenna that goes on top of the van, a main unit that requires a power supply, and an indoor antenna that your cell actually connects through.

The antenna comes with a bracket and a couple of U Bolts. We had a convenient mounting place on the awning brackets, so the U bolts were unnecessary. Modifying the holes in the brackets and it mounted nicely.

Next, the coax went through an existing van through hole and we used the supplied cap as an entry point and secured the coax on the roof and the entry point with silicone outdoor sealant and RV repair tape.

The antenna requires a ground plane, and since the roof is metal it is sufficient. However, since the bracket was not connected electrically to the ground chassis through the awning (tested with a multimeter) I added a ground wire (red wire) to help protect the system from damage through surges, static discharge, etc.

Inside, the main unit went into the equipment cabinet under the bench.

The unit draws about 12W when running, so I connected it to the small switch panel under the bench so we can switch it off when we don’t need it.

It’s hard to get a measurement of improvement, unfortunately, since my cell phone does not display signal level. But I get no signal here without it, and when it’s on I at least can make calls, but no data.

UPDATE: September 2020- I was able to measure the signal strength using my iPhone and instructions MacWorld Posted here. Finally, I’m able to verify that the booster indeed works, boosting the signal at our current location from RSP0 level -109 to -83.

Booster mounted on awning. Not exactly stealth, but it’s not terribly massive, either.

Test Camp

With an abundance of great campsites very close to home we headed up to Mt. Pisgah Campground, a mere 20 mile drive from home. We should have checked. Opens May 17. Altitude does make a difference, I guess. So we settled for the even close Lake Powhatan Campground, which is even closer to home.

A stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway

This campground gets very busy but since it’s early in the season and a weekday we were able to secure a campsite and get a nice spot for only $11, thanks to our Golden Pass. I used the TRUMA app on my phone to gauge leveling needs. Backing onto our leveling blocks, we were all set to chill within minutes.

This was a first test with some of the new systems we installed last fall, mainly the galley! We’re very happy with some of our design decisions. The induction cooktop works great!

The table does get in the way if people are getting in and out of the van and we’ve ordered a 2nd table mount to allow us to easily position it behind the bench. That will be installed soon.

Arwen was happy with the camping, but not happy with the ride. We need a way to secure her and keep her happy and safe.

Plenty of battery juice left to rustle up a hot breakfast.

After running the fridge, the fan all night, lights and the cooktop for two meals, we had run the battery down to 65%. But after the 20 minute drive home the dedicated Nations Starter alternator had charged it back to 76%. We’re very happy with our electrical system and I think it will be great for our plan of extended off-the-grid touring.

The dedicated alternator brought us from 65% to 76% charge in only 20 minutes of driving
Powhatan campground now offers glamping tents!

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.

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.

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.