Last week Jay and Mary Lou shared why they chose a camper van for their RV lifestyle. Today they explain what they did and how they did most of the work themselves.
Modifications to Honu
Fortunately, we bought a house with an RV garage, even though at the time had no intention of getting any size RV. Instead, we used the big garage as ½ a pickleball court on which we practice regularly with a Tutor pickleball machine or just doing live drills against each other.
Having recommissioned a large blue water motorsailer, we believe in knowing every system, keep all systems simple, and (most importantly) being able to repair just about any part of the conversion that will, at some point, fail. Since we have a pretty fully equipped shop in a building attached to the pickleball court/RV garage, working on the van year round is easy peasy.
What did we purchase?
We purchased a 2015 Ford van off the lot in 2016 for just under $30K. We expect our total expense for vehicle and conversion will be well under $37,000. None of the vehicles we looked at costing significantly more than that (and much older) would have given us what we wanted with the reliability that we were looking for in an RV. We also wanted a vehicle we could park in a regular parking space.
Honu started out as a bare interior passenger van. She came with the driver’s seat, front passenger seat and ‘cockpit’ installed. Behind the front seats she had only 4 cargo lights installed….nothing but bare walls and windows all around.
Camper Van Conversion
We’re doing all of the work that we can do ourselves. To date, we have completed the following items, shown in chronological order:
- We got the windows tinted to the max allowable in Colorado to cut down on solar gain and provide some privacy.
- Disconnected the interior lights so I could leave/open the doors and not have them turn on and run down the battery or expose the interior.
- Installed the bed by bolting a 2×6 along each side wall in the back, 2×4 cross members between the 2×6’s and 7/16 OSB as a bed platform. The platform is high enough off the floor so that storage bins and the head fit underneath.
- Modified an existing composting toilet to fit under the bed out-of-the-way, but accessible.
- Made insulated panels that fit in all of the rear windows for privacy and insulation from heat and cold. The two aft ones stay in place but the two forward side panels and back door panels are removed for driving. The windshield, driver’s and passengers’ windows are covered for insulation and privacy with a commercial external cover.
- Purchased and installed a swivel for the front passenger seat and for the driver’s seat. The emergency brake handle is next to the driver’s seat so this install required moving the emergency brake down about 2” so the seat on its swivel can turn over the top of the brake handle…scary.
- Installed a Maxx fan (w/ remote control) over the bed which required cutting a 14″x14″ hole in the roof of a brand new van. It took me more than a month to get the nerve to make the first cut and then about a day to install and wire the fan. This fan may be the ‘don’t leave home without it’ piece of equipment so far.
- Installed another seat on a swivel for a second passenger and for another seat at the table.
- Designed, built and installed a table between the 3rd seat and the driver’s seat. The table will fold to accommodate 4 people (one using a folding chair that we carry for pickleball anyway) for meals or games, etc.
- Purchased (at a Restore) and installed a 3 drawer cabinet for the galley. Installed a spare microwave we had in storage.
- Sourced, purchased and installed a second fuel door (used for diesel additive on models with diesel engines) below the gas fill door for a hidden ‘shore power’ cord.
- Designed bug screens for the back doors, side door, driver and passenger windows. This is still a work in progress for the side door as we think we’d like a sliding door that we have yet to find commercially.
- Wired the interior with four 120v AC outlets connected to the shore power outlet.
- Wired the van for 12v DC through a distribution panel. Added a second battery charged by the alternator when the engine is running, but separated from the start battery by an isolator. Installed a 2000W DC to AC inverter. Also added a battery charger for the second battery that operates when we are plugged into shore power.
- Purchased and installed soft insulation in all side walls and columns and “polyiso board” insulation between all roof ribs.
- Purchased and installed a Coleman Heat Pump 13,500 BTU air conditioner, which required another 14″x14″ hole in the roof. Only took me a week to get the guts to cut the second hole. Progress!
- Sourced and purchased a 2.6 cubic ft refrigerator from Home Depot and mounted it on the galley cabinet under the microwave. The fridge runs on shore power when we’re plugged in, off the inverter when the engine is running, and off the inverter powered by the ‘house’ (2nd battery) when we’re not plugged in or not using the engine.
- Added a 600 W DC to AC inverter at the front passenger seat for charging cell phones, cameras, computers, etc. while we are underway. They can be charged using shore power when we are plugged into shore power.
- Purchased and installed a GPS. We’d been using our cell phone in the car and wanted a better situation.
- Designed and made three sets of ‘soft’ cabinets (two over the bed and one over the table) for storage of light items, clothes, etc. The soft cabinets are convenient and weigh much less than hard cabinets made of wood or metal.
- Installed a rug on the cabin floor so it looks like home and the dog has a nice place to lie down.
We have a few more projects planned. We want to upgrade our interior lighting. We’ll use LED for low power draw and some soft, colored lighting for when one of us is sleeping and the other is up looking for a snack. We also want to install some sort of electronic entertainment. We’re not convinced we need a TV, though we have the provision for one, but want to install satellite radio with a remote control and some good speakers.
We continue to tinker with the bug nets for the back doors since we keep those doors open most of the time. We intend to also make a ‘cover’ that fits over the top of the back doors when they are open. (This would protect us (in bed) and the stuff stored under the bed in a light rain and from sun heating up that part of the van.) We enjoy finding camp sites where we can back up to a nice water view, open the back door and enjoy the view from the bed through the open doors..just like sleeping on the porch at the lakeside cabin! We also want to design and have made a screen panel with a sliding door for the large side opening.
The Transit came equipped with a donut spare. Since we would like to have a full-size spare, we will install a swing away 2×2 trailer hitch mounted spare tire carrier. In addition, we are looking at ways to attach the 10’x10′ EZup freestanding awning we carry with us to the van. Since the EZup has bug screens, this would more than double our living area.
We want to add 2 more 120v AC duplex outlets inside the van and one duplex outside the van for convenience. We also intend to design and build a “tower of power” to replace the galley cabinet, house the fridge and microwave, and inverter. The current cabinet with refrigerator and microwave stacked on it was intended to be a mock-up to determine what we really wanted. Now we know so we’ll build it. The drawers may be replaced by slide-out bins that are capable of holding much more ‘stuff’.
Once we are certain the wiring is done, we will finish the interior ceiling. The ceiling will be removable but not easily so we want to do this once, right.
As one would expect, you learn how things can be improved only after you have lived with something for a bit.
- We intend to redesign the privacy curtains on the two middle side windows so they can store in place by rolling up and attaching to the top of the side wall. Moving them around each day drives one of us nuts. We want to reduce to the absolute minimum that which has to be done to convert from sleeping accommodation to transportation machine.
- While we have good mirrors and can see out the back windows, we think we’d like a backup camera.
- We are beginning to believe we should upgrade to a 50 amp service connection to get the max performance from our heat pump/AC. We still aren’t certain about this one.
- We may replace the second (regular auto start battery) battery with 4 – 6v golf cart batteries to double our time available off the grid and lengthen battery life. Two of them will fit under the driver’s seat with the start battery and two will fit under the front passenger seat.
- We also need to do something about ventilation, and perhaps heat, for the 3rd seat at it does not benefit from the dashboard-mounted outlets.
- And a bunch of small stuff.
Camper Van Conversion, Always Learning
Under the heading of who’d have thunk it: It seems that having an inverter to take the 12v DC generated by the engine and turn it into 120v AC to power a battery charger used to charge 12v DC batteries is more efficient/effective than the van’s internal 12v DC to 12DC charging system. Go figure! But, in any case, we’re planning to install a small inverter and convert 12v DC to 120v AC so our battery charger can charge our 12v DC batteries when the engine is running.
We don’t have a trip planned until next spring, so we are in no rush to get these things done. We plan to just chip away at them over the winter. If you have any questions about why we chose to purchase a van or the camper van conversion process we described above, please forward them to RVPicklers or comment below. We’d be happy to answer your questions.
Jay Readinger and Mary Lou Gallup
USAPA District Ambassadors for N. Colorado and Ft Collins, CO