Vanlife – Intro

Last year I finally pulled the trigger on what was a dream of mine for many years. Following a festival that left me questioning how I should spend my free time and energy on, I decided to embark on the adventure of buying a large cargo van and converting it into a vehicle I can take to festivals and occasionally (and maybe at some point full time) live in.

After much research I have decided that I would like to get a 158” Dodge Sprinter, either 2005 or 2006. The reason for this was that this was pretty much the only vehicle within my budget that I can stand in. It’s possible I could’ve afforded a newer Sprinter, but they are considered very unreliable and that scared me. Once I knew what I was looking for, I spent about two weeks refreshing Craigslist any moment I was awake, until I landed on an ad from a guy named Tim who owns a business called Sprinter Pit Stop in San Diego. He had a 2005 Sprinter with 257,000 miles for a bit less than $10,000. After a bunch of email exchanges (he was super helpful, answered all my questions, sent pictures, etc.) I decided it’s time to go see it in person and booked a flight. I met him the next day with a friend of mine who knows a thing or fifty about vehicles, and we took it for a drive. My friend did the mechanical inspection and nothing major came up. After sleeping on it for a night (especially because it does not have an AC which was hard to swallow) I decided to go for it. Some price negotiation took place, and I was the proud owner of this ex-FedEx delivery vehicle which I then drove to San Francisco. And so it began.

 

On the way to San Francisco the CEL (Check Engine Light) turned on – not fun. I immediately ordered a cheap Bluetooth OBD2 scanner which gave me an error code indicating an issue with the Camshaft Sensor. It’s a sensor that is only used when starting the engine, and so far I haven’t bothered replacing it even though I’ve had the replacement part from the first week of owning the vehicle. I’ll get to it at some point… Other than this annoyance I also had at some point an oil leak from the line feeding oil to the turbocharger, as well as some knocking sound I couldn’t identify and turned out to be worn out bushings on a stabilizing bar. Knock on wood, this beast drives pretty well for a vehicle with almost 260,000 miles!

Now that I had a vehicle, it was time to decide what I wanted to do with it. Since this post summarizes about six months of work, I am going to be very brief about each section and maybe elaborate in the future about parts I particularly care about or find especially interesting.

Preparations

Before I could start working on the fun stuff, a bunch of annoying tasks had to happen:

  • Remove the heavy shelves that came with it. No use for that.
  • Clean twelve years of dirt (fun!).
  • Deal with a bunch of minor issues (some rust, dead windshield washer pump, add 12V cigarette light socket in the front, add some lights in the front).

 

Insulation/temperature management

A van without insulation is just a huge sheet metal box that gets disgustingly hot or cold, depending on the outside weather. The internet has discussions going for great lengths on which materials to use, in which order, and how much of them to use. So far I have been happy with my choices, which were optimized to the Bay Area rather convinient weather.

  • Sound dampening – I installed about 70 sqft of Noico 80 mil sound dampening material. The difference was very noticeable, which was nice given that it was a pretty labor intensive task! The van sounds ten years younger when driving after this stuff has been installed – much quieter!
  • Insulation – this was the first major project. I decided to go with a mix of Rmax Thermasheath-3 1”and 3M Thinsulate SM600L. Van insulation is a topic that is debated to no end on the internet, and everyone has an opinion. I chose these materials because they are very popular, non-toxic, relatively easy to work with, moisture resistant and available. Lots of advantages, but they’re not cheap. I think I spent close to $1,000 on this stuff. Wherever I had room I used both – RMax sheet attached to the wall using Great Stuff foam spray insulation, on top of which I glued the Thinsulate using 3M 90 adhesive spray. It works pretty well! I have since used the van in at Pagan Bunny Burn where the temperature neared freezing, and while it was cold (as I have no heat source yet), it was still tolerable. On “hot” SF days the van is warm, but at no point did it get unbearably hot. I also installed a 1” XPS sheet under the factory floor, which I decided to keep. I don’t know what Mercedes used for it, but for it’s thickness (it’s pretty thin, ~5/8”) it is extremely durable and great for mounting stuff to.
  • Roof vent – Like every good vehicle dweller, I installed a fan. I chose the Maxxair Maxxfan Deluxe 7500K. I went with the smoke top since apparently it lets some amount of light in, unlike the white top. Since the van has no windows in the rear, I figured some light would be nice.
  • At some point I would like to install a Diesel heater such as the Airtronic D2. It’s a complicated project involving dropping the fuel tank and I haven’t gotten to it yet.

 

Electricity

Having a good amount of renewable, stored energy allows for all sorts of fun stuff like running a fridge, having lights and running the roof fan, so that was important for me to get right, and at an early stage of the project.

  • Solar panels – I currently have four Renogy 100W panels on my roof. I attached them using a roof rack I made out of Unistrut channel and some L-brackets. On a few very sunny days I managed to actually generate 400W, which was exciting.
  • Battery – I found 8 almost brand new CALB 100Ah LiFePo4 cells for a good price on Criagslist, and jumped on the opportunity. I have them configured as one pack in series. I opted for a 24V setup instead of the standard 12V for a few reasons:
    • I liked the idea of cutting down currents by half, especially for the heavy consumers (fridge, inverter).
    • The solar charger/BMS I want to use (ElectroDacus SBMS40) does not have a DC/DC converter and requires the pack voltage to match the solar panels configuration. If I were to go with a 12V pack, I would have to connect all solar panels in parallel, which would require thicker cables.
    • Not connecting cells in parallel would let me monitor each cell independently.
  • Solar charge controller/BMS – It turns out no-one makes one that is suitable for a custom LiFePo4 except the ElectroDacus, which at the time of writing this has not shipped yet. Currently I am using the EPSolar MPPT 30A controller with a custom and conservative profile. It’s still quiet dangerous, and I can’t wait to have a proper BMS. I am also awaiting shipment of a 12S Battery Monitoring Board which should provide a good solution in the meanwhile.
  • Fridge – I like having fridge space, so I went with a relatively large one. The TruckFridge TF130 has served me well so far. It’s pretty quiet, and has a ton of space for my needs.
  • Internet – I have a Nexus6 phone I USB-tether to GL.iNet GL-AR750 Travel AC Router. This cute little router allows me to bridge WiFi networks I frequently park close to, and when those are not in range to auto-switch to the tethered USB connection.
  • Entertainment – I use a Raspberry Pi running shairport-sync and Mopidy to play music into a temporary cheap class D amplifier I got off Ebay.
  • Two zones of recessed LED lights controlled by my custom Dual zone wireless LED dimmer.

 

Furniture/structures

 

 

Whats next?

  • Get an inverter so I could run a microwave
  • Finish building the walls
  • Install header
  • Design/build an awning

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