I’m documenting the build of our 2017 Promaster 2500 159″ wheelbase van into a self-contained camper to share my experiences and my approach to its design and configuration with the hope that others might find aspects of it informative. It’s going to be in the following sections: 1.) History, purchase and floor plan design process; 2.) A tour of the finished interior; 3.) Some reflections on our experiences with it so far and links to several travelogues documenting a few of our trips. and 4.) Details about the various systems, their design and build, and a tally of the costs.
My build is a bit different than most van conversions, as it is a rear-entry floor plan with a center aisle and with twin beds/sofas/dinette in the front. This has certain advantages over using the large side sliding door for access, at least for how we use it, which includes a lot off cool weather trips and for use as a work van. It also has a hidden bathtub/shower, something I’ve not seen yet before.
Part 1: History, Van Selection, Purchase and Floor Plan/Configuration Design
This is actually my second van build, as I converted this used 1968 Dodge A100 van back in 1975. I cut in two sliding aluminum windows, bought some 1/4″ plywood and a sabre saw and paneled the inside walls, and built a rear platform bed. My then-girlfriend made the curtains. We moved to the San Diego Area with it in 1976, and it got lots of use in the deserts and mountains of California. I was hooked.
But then marriage and three kids intervened.
After the two oldest ones were out of the house, the urge to travel more freely again and camp in secluded places made itself felt. In 2002, I bought this ’77 Dodge Chinook for $1200, spruced up the interior some, and we racked up some 40,000 miles on trips all over the West and Baja (full story here). It finally just wore out, although we still were using it for shorter trips until 2017. I had mentally started toying with a replacement after the Mercedes Sprinter first appeared in the US some ten or so years ago.
We boondock on National Forest or BLM land or remote primitive campgrounds or even urban parking lots whenever possible, avoiding busy campgrounds except when necessary. Our experiences with it informed the decisions on the plans for a new van.
The most significant one was the Chinook’s rear entry door and its key floor plan features, such as twin beds in the front that double as couches and dinette, with a removable center-post table. But I also made some significant changes too, as will be described. Our third kid used to sleep in that little fold-down nook up there, where the bedding is. We called him “bookshelf boy”.
The Chinook had no house or cab air conditioning, and its furnace and hot water heater had both died and I never bothered to fix or replace them. So it was a fairly primitive camper, but that suited us fine.
In 2017 I was ready to buy a new van; the question was which one. I’d been thinking about this since late 2013 when the Ram Promaster and Ford Transit were announced, and I wrote on their various pros and cons here. Already then I favored the Promaster for a few key reasons. Most of all, its FWD allows for a lower cargo area floor, which also means that overall height is lower even with a high roof. And additionally, the Promaster’s body is 4″ wider than the Mercedes Sprinter and Transit. This simply makes the Promaster a better box, in terms of its proportions, height and space utilization.
Another downside of the Transit is that the extra-tall roof is needed to get stand-up interior height. So equipped, the Transit ends up almost a foot taller than the Promaster, and the Sprinter is almost that tall. The lower floor height of the Promaster allows easier entry, and gives it a lower center of gravity. It also makes it easier to get under possible obstacles, such as tree branches in remote areas. The Promaster is also cheaper than the Sprinter. And I’ve been put off by many stories about expensive service and repair costs on the diesel Sprinter.
I also found that the Promaster’s 159″ EB wheelbase body (and cargo area) length was ideal for my plans. It’s a bit longer (and wider) than the Transit’s EB version and the Sprinter’s RB version, but significantly more compact then their longest versions.
If I was intending to tow a lot, especially a heavier trailer, I’d probably avoid the FWD Promaster, as it’s not as well suited for that. But for our purposes the gas 3.6 L V6 and 6 speed automatic appeared to be quite adequate. It has compiled a generally positive track record (of course there are issues to be found on the forums, as with all vehicles), and it’s worked very well for us so far, including several overlanding trips to very remote areas of Eastern Oregon or Saline Valley, CA, (above) on very rough roads normally used only by 4×4 vehicles, much rougher than this section shown here. I’ve only had to back down once, so far.
As it turns out, the Promaster and the Chinook have the exact same 12′ floor length behind the cab for living space. The Chinook has a wider body, but that turned out not to be an issue.
In May of 2017 I bought a new 2017 Promaster 2500 159″ van from Dave Smith Motors in Kellogg, Idaho. I went that far to buy it because their price was the best I could find. I paid $30,495, or 26% off its MSRP of $38,110. That’s the complete drive-away price with registration (no sales tax in Oregon), for a van with some options like trailer tow package, fog lights, cruise control, and U Connect 5.0 along with a few other minor items (full story here).
Once I had the van at home, I started fleshing out the floor plan. This was the initial plan, which is actually quite close to the final one. At that point I was contemplating a flip-up passenger side bed, as I wanted to be able to use the van to haul tools, appliances and other cargo for maintenance on my rental properties. I ended up doing that a bit differently, an easily removable bed, but with the same end result.
Because of other commitments, I didn’t get started on the van build until almost a year later, but I used the van as my work truck in the meantime. And I used blue tape to flesh out the details of the floor plan.
During this time, I researched to find good information as how to actually build this van. There are many blogs and forums and videos, but not many of them were along the general lines of what I wanted to do, meaning a practical, fairly well equipped van but not a showcase or too complicated or expensive. Pragmatic, in other words. But by far the most helpful one was buildagreenrv.com, which is based on the author’s (Gary) detailed design and build of a 138″ Promaster van.
Gary is a former Boeing engineer, and his very objective and rational approach resonated with me, and it gave me the confidence to tackle a project that I was not experienced with and was a bit intimidating. Gary responded to several questions, and I’m most appreciative of what he’s done and continues to do.
I also spent some time at promasterforum.com, and found many useful threads.There are many build threads there, as well as covering the wide range of Promaster issues, tips and insights.
There are many websites and forums and probably hundreds of Youtube videos on van builds, and I surfed some of them, but one can spend an infinite amount of time there, and that ultimately gets in the way of actual building. It can be a challenge sifting through the many competing approaches, theories on insulation, electric systems, etc..
I had a pretty good general idea of what I wanted, meaning a build focused on our travels in the West in generally remote areas and therefor as self sufficient as possible. Fortunately Gary’s van build had many of the same or similar objectives, so that was very helpful, although my build is also somewhat different than his too.
I prioritized functional simplicity, with a nod to the ambiance as well as some creature comforts. Budget obviously plays into the consideration, and although I was not really financially constrained, I didn’t want to spend more than necessary. The total cost of components and materials has been around $7,000, which seems to roughly be the sweet spot between the very low end basic conversions and the high end ones.
Part 1: The Tour
As this shot in Saline Valley (near Death Valley) shows, the main entry is from the right rear door. I installed a window (by Motion) in it.
The single rear door is a lot easier to open and close than the giant side sliding door. I’m considering adding a step to make it easier yet, but it’s not really that high (about 22″). It’s a lot more convenient in parking lots.
Outside shoes store on that shelf. Coats and backpacks hang here. It’s basically our entry/mud room.
Here’s the view with both doors open. A five gallon propane tank and a two-gallon backup are secured below the shelf. On the left is the potty. Above it is the galley counter extension, lowered in this case. It’s normally up except at meal time.
It’s probbaly not exactly the most appealing thing to start with, but there it is by the back door. The potty is essentially a urine-diverting, poop-dehydrating storage device. “Composting toilet” is perhaps a more polite name, although not strictly accurate.
It works great; better than expected, although we actually don’t use it very much except to pee at night if needed. I’m so happy to be rid of a black-water flushing system, with its inevitable odors, water and storage requirements, and other issues. Stephanie has a very sensitive nose, but there’s just no detectable odor from this. And it cost peanuts compared to a $1000 commercial composting toilet. Full details on its construction and operation at the very end of this post – the first shall be last…
The galley cabinet has a stainless steel top with backsplash from a cheap prep table (Amazon, $102 at the time).
The two-burner Suburban propane cook top was installed with a kit that lowers it and includes a tempered glass lid. In retrospect, a single burner unit would have been adequate. I added the flip-down laminate counter extension as the sink and cook top occupy a lot of the counter’s rear estate. It’s very handy for food prep.
But it’s usually stowed in an upright position.
There’s two drawers under the cook top, the top one for silverware and such.
The bottom one for the usual kitchen odds and ends.
The sink is a typical bar-type unit. The second faucet is for the filtered cold water.
There was a gap between the drawers and the under-sink area, so it was put to use for the garbage and recycling, which is in a similar rectangular food storage bucket behind the garbage can. It’s very handy when wiping down the counter top.
It’s secured by a little chain and hooks.
The door under the sink reveals the plumbing and part of the 30 gallon fresh water tank, which sits alongside the rear wheel well.
The details of the plumbing system come later, but here’s the main drain line, which uses a Hepvo trapless drain system. There’s a water filter on the wall, and the main water lines and a 12V Shureflo pump on the base.
Across from the galley is the refrigerator, which is a cheap ($129) 110V 3.5 cubic foot Energy-Star rated Magic Chef. The silver foil tape at the top covers the edge of a sheet of 1″ rigid foam insulation that I also applied to the rear and bottom to super-insulate it.
It has worked very efficiently and held up to lots of very rough roads so far. The details on super-insulating it and its monitored energy consumption is in the build details section.
The four drawers on the left of it are mainly for food storage. The original idea was to have facings on the drawers, to make them all flush and finished, but I’m not sure I’m going to bother. Like much of the rest of the interior, it was made from pre-finished birch plywood, and is not really done, as I envision some proper drawer fronts.
I’m using these door locks to keep them in place. A bit fiddly sometimes, but they work well except with one exception on the terrible washboard road in Saline Valley.
On top sits a 700 W microwave that a tenant left behind. I decided to use it despite its garish color because it’s a manual unit, so it has no electrical draw when not in use. Having a microwave has significantly changed our cooking habits. I’m a big fan of those pre-cooked Indian and other ethnic food that comes in pouches, requiring no refrigeration.
The shelf on top gets various odds and ends tossed up there; magazines, books, hats, laptops, etc..
Underneath is a shallow storage area alongside rear the wheel well, with a crate for slippers, flip-flops, dog food and bowl, and such, and the blue container has a set of plastic wheel levelers.
And next to that, in the full-depth space just ahead of the wheel well is the propane furnace, a 12,000 BTU Atwood.
The two twin bed. Stephanie’s is on the driver’s side, and is about 6″ shorter, as she’s considerably shorter than I am.
Here’s the view from the other direction.
Since we camp a lot in the cooler seasons, and the days are short, we spend a fair amount of time in or on our beds reading. 110V AC, 12V and USB outlets, along with a reading lamp, a touch dimmer for the overhead LED puck lights, and the furnace thermostat. We have never used the furnace at night (yet), even in temperatures down into the high teens, but the first thing I do upon wakening is reach up and turn it on. It can take 15-20 minutes before its toasty enough to extricate ourselves from under the pile of bedding.
Let’s take a quick look at my bed (passenger side). The rear third of it, just behind of where the side door would open, is a sturdy fixed box that houses the electrical system.
Clockwise, starting with the large black panel, which is the AC/DC distribution/breaker/fuse box. The four switches turn off a few key circuits without having to open the breaker box. The white unit is a propane detector. Below it is the Xantrex inverter panel, and on the lower left is the solar charge/controller, a Midnight Kid. The round hole in the previous picture housed the Victron battery monitor panel, which has now been moved to a more convenient remote location.
The lid lifts up for access. The two 6V FLA golf cart batteries (200 AH) are in their own box, with an EPDM rubber liner. The Xantrex 1000W continuous/2000W peak inverter is mounted at the bottom. I’ll go through the whole system in detail later. It’s very much patterned after Gary’s system at buildagreenrv.com, and it’s worked terrifically for us so far, except for having to upgrade two cheap breakers. I wouldn’t change a thing, except maybe route my cables a bit more tidily.
On the roof is a 300W solar panel that is attached to the roof with 3M VHB automotive adhesive tape on the legs. Yes, that’s a proven method.
The other two thirds of my bed is just a lightweight 1/2″ birch plywood top and three leg panels, held in place by some shelf brackets I had. Underneath is just the right amount of room for three storage bins I had.
What’s handy is that these bins, with our clothes and other items, can be loaded from the outside via the side sliding door. It makes packing, loading and unloading a breeze. (the mattress is a temporary old one from the Chinook)
The removable part of the bed is very light, and held in place by two pins that drop into drilled holes on the front end of the electrical box.
With the bed removed, there’s a good sized cargo area, and the tops of the beds can be used for more storage. I own and maintain a dozen rentals, and the van is very handy for use in this way. And the Xantrex inverter is powerful enough to run power tools, another boon.
The 12′ unobstructed center aisle is perfect for hauling long materials, such as this 16′ decking, which can be a bit tricky to haul otherwise. The doors just get tied together against the load.
Let’s take a quick look under Stephanie’s bed, which hides something a bit unusual. By the way, Stephanie made the patchwork quilts, which really perks up the interior.
The first step is to flip the foam mattress forward (I removed the sheet to show it more clearly). I had to cut it almost through in two places to make that work. The foam for both beds was recycled from some twin bed mattresses we had bought some years ago and had been in storage for some time. The foam was still good.
That exposes a hinged lid.
The lid is secured open to reveal…a little bathtub. It’s a 2’x3′ unit I stumbled into at a local RV surplus store, and a light went off.
I found some swing-away curtain rods to re-purpose for the job at hand.
Two cheap shower curtains were cut down and hung from hooks.
The shower wand connects to a diverter on the sink.
And it works like a charm, preferably without clothes. We never used the shower in the Chinook, as its water heater was broken. I either found a stream or lake to swim in, or we made use of showers in a state park or truck stop after a couple of days. Or Stephanie would take a little sponge bath on the floor.
We don’t use this tub/shower every day, since we don’t generally feel the need to bathe daily, and we still use alternatives when they’re handy, but it works just fine, and is very convenient after a hot hike or when there isn’t another alternative at hand. It really suits our needs and preferences, as we’re not fans of the little cramped shower stalls, never mind the complexity and space they take up.
Let’s flip the mattress the other way, and see what’s under there.
Under that piece of rigid insulation is an Isotemp Spa four gallon water heater that gets its heat from the van engine’s heater circuit (coolant lines). We rarely sit in one place for more than a day with driving at least to a trailhead or such. A 15-20 minute drive heats the four gallons in the well-insulated tank via a heat exchanger to some 195 degrees F, which means there’s hot or warm water on tap for 2-3 days, without another drive. I lined its compartment with leftover chunks of rigid insulation and I was still getting warm water on the third day after a trip home.
It has a built in adjustable tempering valve that mixes the very hot water with cold water to keep from scalding oneself.
There is a 700W 110V heating element in it, which could be run from the inverter in a pinch (I ran an outlet to it), but it would probably stress the batteries to heat the whole thing from cold. It might be ok to get it at least warm or warmed a some. Of course when hooked to shore power, that would be a non-issue, but that’s a rare case for us. We’re very happy with it.
In front of it is a storage compartment and the hoses that run from it to the engine compartment.
I originally planned to install a center-post table like we had in the Chinook. I had mixed feelings about it, as it has a number of downsides: the post and table have to stowed, and the table can be awkward, especially when getting in and out. During the first two trips we made do without, using trays. But then I stumbled into this Lagun marine swing-away table leg, which mounts to Stepahnie’s bed. It’s terrific.
When we’re on the road, the table top, which I made out of some black walnut I had around, flips closed and stows tidily behind my seat.
It swivels and swings to either direction to make getting in and out a breeze. And of course its height can be adjusted.
The unexpected surprise was that when I slide the van cab seats forward as I would normally do at night, the table now just barely slips between the seats and is completely out of our way.
I love this thing; it couldn’t be more perfect for our use.
Above Stephanie’s bed are two deep overhead cabinets, mainly for bedding and such. The two black switches are for the overhead LED puck lights.
These gas struts keep the doors open or closed.
I left an open gap on the overhead cabinet, planning to use it for a remote panel for the inverter, battery monitor, and some switches. But in the end I only used the upper portion for the battery monitor and installed a plastic shower mirror below.
The Victron monitor shows the state of charge of the batteries in real time. Thanks to the solar panels, it’s usually at 100% except for first thing in the morning, when it’s typically around 90% or so, from the refrigerator and the previous night’s microwave use or such.
Three more shallower cabinets are over the galley.
The windows are Euro-style/Seitz-type awning (top hinged) windows from Tern Overland (full details on installation and other info in Part 2).
They can be tilted out to various degrees of openness. The glazing is of two panes of polycarbonate plastic, which means they are insulated and don’t condense on the inside, a very real benefit in cool weather.
There are built in roller shades (from the top) and roller screens (from the bottom), which can be connected together to make any variation of the two. Very slick.
The blind material is a bit fragile, so handle with care.
In retrospect, the visibility out the rear from the driver’s inside rear view mirror would be better if the window was on the other door, or better yet, on both doors, but it’s not really much of an issue with the rear view camera and outside mirrors. It’s a good place to hang towels.
I used 1/4″ pine T&G paneling (with a natural clear resin finish wiped on) for the ceiling and down the passenger side of the van. I like the look, and it’s easier not having to sweat having a templated piece of plywood or paneling fit properly. It’s screwed directly to the cross ribs of the ceiling. Details on the rigid insulation underneath it are in the next section.
1/4″ pre-finished birch plywood was used for the rest of it. Paneling was one of my biggest challenges, as there are several different distances/planes that the side structural ribs extend from the van’s skin. I had not fleshed out these issues properly when I ordered my windows quite early on, so they are for a fairly thin wall. That means I had to improvise around them, especially this one. It’s hardly a very slick result, but it does the job, at least for now.
So that’s the not-so-quick tour.
Part 3: Some reflections on our experiences with the van so far and links to some trip posts:
We’ve taken two bigger trips and several smaller ones so far, and the van has exceeded my expectations in just about every way. The Promaster performs well, although the six speed automatic’s shift patterns are hardly a paragon of machine intelligence. There have been no issues so far in 12,000 miles.
Fuel mileage has been a bit better than expected. Due to the huge frontal area, speed makes a disproportionate difference. I have seen indicated trip averages just over 20 mpg and as low as about 17, where I drove faster on the freeways. But I’m finding that it’s quite easy to average about 19 mpg by keeping freeway speeds to no more than 70. That’s a 75% improvement over the Dodge Chinook’s 11 mpg average.
The Promaster has very comfortable seats, and the tall seating position makes for excellent long-distance comfort. I have spent numerous 12+ hour days behind the wheel, and felt surprisingly good afterwards. The huge windshield is great for enjoying the scenery. The van steers and handles very well, thanks in part to its relatively low center of gravity and long wheelbase.
The ride is quite good, now that it’s added some weight from the conversion. Empty weight is given in the specs as 4883 lbs; 3073 on the front axle and 1810 on the rear. With full tanks of gas and water and me and the dog on board, the van weighed 6500 lbs at a certified truck scales, 3400 front/3100 rear. That means the conversion weight added some 860 lbs, subtracting 170 for me, 90 for the dog, 250 for the water, 150 for the gas and about 100 for the tow hitch and some things that were on board but not part of the conversion. Maximum gross weight is 8900, so we’re less than half way there.
I have reduced the tire pressure from a recommended 80 psi to about 60-65psi, which smoothed out the ride over expansion joints and other small irregularities considerably. The 80 psi recommendation is based on utilizing the full cargo capacity (4,000 lbs) of the van, so the 60 psi is more than enough for our actual weight.
Some Promaster owners have removed the second smaller rear leaf spring to make the ride smoother, but with our current weight and reduced tire pressure, I am quite happy with the way it rides now.
I have already done a lot more rough and off road driving in the van than I expected, but I’m drawn to remote places. In retrospect, a 4×4 van might have been a more appropriate choice, but only the Sprinter comes with AWD, and it’s expensive. I had to back down from a steep soft stretch of back country road in Eastern Oregon due to front wheel slip, and I’ve had a number of close calls in terms of traction, including getting back out of Saline Valley, CA where this picture was taken.
It was a gruelingly rough, rocky, bumpy and wash-boardy seven hours in and out of this remote valley near Death Valley, and getting back on pavement felt like flying in smooth air.
But so far I’ve managed to not yet get stuck, which could be a bit of a problem in the remote no-cell coverage areas we’ve gone to in the off-season. I don’t have any good pictures, but I’ve found myself in some pretty tight spots, literally.
But camping out in the middle of nowhere, as here on dry Lake Alvord, with the stars blazing at night makes it worthwhile. I am considering getting some high traction tires and possibly a 1.5″ front lift kit, which would also level out the van, as it rides a bit tail-high.
Some chains or other traction devices are also on the agenda.
A custom paint job also appeals. This is a Photoshop that one of the readers my website did of my van. White is practical, especially in the sun, but a bit of color in Death Valley is always appreciated.
Closer to home (Eugene, Oregon), there’s woods, mountains, rivers, lakes and creeks to camp in and hike (which we do whenever possible), and being able to load up the van with some food and clothes in about 20-25 minutes makes heading off even for just a couple of days almost effortless.
Settling down for a read in some remote spot after a long day of driving, exploring and hiking is what van life is all about. The poor dog will have to sleep on his pad on the floor though.
Here’s four articles about some trips we’ve made so far:
Part 4: Details of Components and Installation
The first thing to be installed were the windows. It seems that most American windows available for vans have only a T-slider, which gives only a quite modest opening. I did a fair amount of researching, and decided that I wanted Seitz-type canopy windows. These are European style, and used widely there.
They allow the full size of the window to be used for ventilation, and act as a canopy if there is some rain.
And the panes are made with two layers of rugged poly-carbonate plastic, so they’re insulated, which keeps the van more comfortable in hot or cold conditions, and there’s no condensation on the insides on chilly mornings. Since we tend to mainly camp in the fall, winter and spring, that was appealing.
These windows also have a shade and screen built in, one at the top, the other at the bottom. They can be used in any combination. Very clever and handy.
At the time I decided to go with these windows, online research indicated that the only way to buy them was from Europe, with very expensive shipping, or from a Chinese manufacturer that required a minimum order of ten or so. But then I stumbled into Tern Overland, which had just become a distributor for these Chinese-made windows that are well made and used widely in Australian RVs.
I was the first person to order these from them (spring 2018), and there ended up being some major delays due to a shipping error in China. But as my project was majorly delayed, that turned out not to be a problem, and Tern Overland treated me very fairly with a partial refund. Our final cost for the three windows was $852. Their list prices may have since been adjusted down to to reduced shipping costs.
Mounting them involved some challenges. Obviously, the first step was to make a template from cardboard and cut out the window opening with a saber saw. The big challenge was the fact that the Promaster’s sides are slightly curved, and these windows are straight/flat, and do not bend to adjust to the curvature. On the driver’s side large window, there was enough free body steel skin to bend a bit and conform to the straight wood frame I first built and then glued (with polyurethane glue) to the inside of the opening. Yes, I bough some more cheap clamps to augment my collection.
This is the small window over the galley. There was no issue with it in terms of curvature due to its small size.
Here’s the large window being held in place temporarily. the masking tape around it is to protect the paint from the sabre saw.
The driver’s side sliding door was more of a problem, as there was not enough free sheet metal to bend and conform to my straight frame on the inside due to more supporting structure close to the cut out area. I just did the best I could and hoped that the rubber gasket that goes between the frame and body on the outside would have enough give to compensate. It didn’t.
I ended up having to buy a slightly thicker rubber gasket material from the hardware store that did the trick, but not before having to remove all the screws that tighten the inner frame to the outer frame, thus clamping it in place, and replacing them with shorter screws as the longer ones bottomed out. And that happened with the other side too: I didn’t realize that when when my screwdriver suddenly wanted to stop turning it was because the screws had bottomed out, not because they were tight.
I bring this up in case anyone else uses these windows. I fought leaks on these large ones before I figured out the screw issues (with advice from Tern Overland) and replaced the gasket on this side, but they’ve been fine since then. Fortunately this was all before I started the rest of the conversion, so the leaks were not yet a real problem.
I decided I wanted a window on the right rear door, the entry. This is one from Motion Windows, and unlike the side windows, it’s custom designed for the Promaster, with a bit of a kink in the middle to compensate for the slight curvature. It was a straight-forward installation. Price: $195. Since there’s not really enough space around to to make it worth insulating there, it just clamps to the door skin on both sides.
In retrospect, it would have been smarter to install it in the other door, or a second one, as the sight line from the inside rear view mirror makes this one mostly useless. Not that I need to see out the back, given the rear view camera and I’m comfortable with outside mirrors, but it’s kind of nice to see who is behind one on the road, if it’s possible.
Acoustic and Thermal Insulation:
Not surprisingly, the bare van was very loud on the road. My ears are damaged (tinnitus), so noise is a very real concern; I had to wear sound-cancelling headphones (with music) on the drive home when I first picked it up. I bought a box of Noico sound deadening material at Amazon ($74), and installed it on all the flat body surfaces.
A coverage of 25% or so is considered the most cost effective. This material works by dampening the vibration of the flexible steel panels, which is why that amount is considered adequate. Since the van was also insulated, it’s hard to say how much difference this made, but it seems worth the fairly modest cost.
Here it is on the ceiling. I probably exceeded that 25% minimum. The back middle section of roof is where the fan went.
I installed a 12V Maxxair fan/vent ($195), which is a very popular one. It has several speeds and can be reversed. I am beginning to wonder whether it was worth it. We generally camp mostly in fall, winter and spring, and in the generally cool nights in the West the simple vent in the Chinook was quite adequate. And we have large windows. I’ve only turned the fan on a few brief times. In retrospect, I’d have run the wiring up there, but just installed a simple vent. But there it is, should we ever need it.
I installed it on the roof with a custom Promaster mounting adapter from ebay ($48) and used 3M Window-weld adhesive to seal it against the roof as recommended. The fan frame is then screwed on, and the screws covered with a flexible sealant.
Here’s a shot that shows part of its wood frame on the inside, glued to the roof. The wire is for LED lights, not the fan, which has a 14 gauge Romex cable.
The next step was insulation. There’s a number of competing theories as to the best way to insulate a van. First off, I should note that these vans are inherently not ideal in terms of insulation, due to their steel framework that creates lots of difficult channels as well as creates thermal bridging. Our 1977 Chinook was way ahead of the game, as the whole rear body was made from a sandwich of fiberglass outside and inside skin with about 3/4″ or 1″ of foam in between. No empty cavities, no thermal bridging. Of course the Chinook’s huge windows were single pane glass, and would get very cold and be dripping wet with condensation on cold mornings.
I’m not going to repeat the seemingly endless debates about the various insulation schemes. There was no doubt in my mind that many of them are too complicated and expensive, and some have very obvious efficiencies.
Spray foam, which highly adhesive, is applied to the back of the boards, then held in place by thin boards that wedged against the opposite side or ridges on the floor or anyhting else available. In our moist spring air, the foam cures quite quickly.
There’s no question that the most expedient and cost-effective approach is with 1″ polyisocyanurate sheets, which are foil faced and readily available at home improvement centers. Polyiso has an R rating of 6.5 per inch, which is about as good as it gets, and the foil face means that there is no moisture transmission to possibly condense on the inside of the steel walls, from moisture created from breathing and cooking.
I’m familiar with working with it, as I’ve used it quite a bit in house insulation projects. I also had a foam gun, which is essential, and they’re not expensive anymore. I think I used seven 4×8 sheets ($220) for the walls, ceiling and floor. And I used quite a few (15 for a total of $136) tall cans of expanding foam to install it and shoot into as many of the channels, nooks and crannies as I felt was worthwhile.
It’s hard to know when to stop. But I know there’s still some more places I could have kept shooting into. This photo does not show the final result, I shot foam in more of those channels, although I did run some Romex electrical cable and flexible conduit through them first.
I also found that there’s enough room under the factory liner in the small storage nook above the cab to put in a layer of foam. That area can get pretty warm in the sun otherwise.
The next step was to insulate the floor. It’s quite rare to find that in a factory conversion, but it seemed well worth it to me. 1″ boards are foamed to the floor, and weights are placed on them so the foam doesn’t expand.
I cut out channels for two underfloor lines, the far one is for the electric cable from the van battery to where the house batteries will be, to charge them during driving. The near one is for a flex 3/8″ copper tubing to supply the cook top from where the propane tank will be.
I was a bit dubious about Gary’s suggestion to use 1/4″ plywood for the floor, but it’s quite perfect for the job, strong enough and lighter than thicker material. I happened to have a few sheets that I had salvaged from a 1940s house I had remodeled 20 years earlier. It’s from old-growth fir, and is tougher and flatter than the new stuff. I finally found a good use for it. It also got foamed down, on top of the foam panels.
The day I was doing this it was a typical PNW spring day, and the high moisture in the air caused the foam to cure too quickly, which raised parts of my plywood a bit and left me with a slightly uneven floor, which I didn’t notice until later. But since only a relatively small area of the floor is open in the middle, it’s not really an issue and nobody would notice. I did have to shim some of the cabinets a bit.
I hadn’t decided what to use for the finish floor until I was at Costco one day and saw this “coin button” vinyl garage floor material on sale ($177). It was about 50% bigger than I needed, but it looked tough, and it matched the gray used in the van.
I had some foil-faced bubble insulation from a project quite a few years ago, and used it up on the rear wheel wells. I doubt it’s all that effective, but better than nothing.
It’s this stuff. Non slip, and very rugged.
I hadn’t yet trimmed the edges with some aluminum edge trim.
Next up was mounting the 300W Solar World solar panel ($295) that my local Platt Electric had in stock (a more detailed explanation of the complete electrical system follows later). After some research and deliberation, I decided to glue mine onto the roof close to the front of the van, using 3M VHB tape, which has very impressive holding ability and many others have used it in this way. I bought a 4′ length of aluminum channel, cut it into short lengths and screwed two of them onto each side of the panel. I decided the only way I could readily do this myself was by putting on the VHB tape and then just lowering the panel unto the roof. A bit awkward for a solo job. Unfortunately that resulted in less than perfect 100% contact, as one of the angles was not just right.
It was probably good enough, but to assuage any fears, I put two more narrower legs on the front and back. Why not? And they are removable, with some alcohol, a putty knofe and the right technique. And presumably they would fit another standard size panel if I had to replace it. 10,000 miles later including lots of rough roads and some high winds and speeds, I have full confidence in the mounting tape.
The next issue was how to bring the solar panel cables into the van. Since the panel is in the front, there’s not much of a choice other than to come in through a hole on the roof. Well, the fan has a much bigger hole, so it’s not really a big deal. I bought a Blue Sea cable clam ($18) which is a marine item for this purpose. It has a thick rubber disc in the middle with a hole sized for the cable. Tightening up the clam also tightens up the seal around the cable. I decided to use one for both cables, so I drilled a second hole in it.
It seemed to work just fine that way, bit I did cover it with some self-leveling Dicor roof sealant.
This where it comes in through the ceiling.
And this is where they come down to the side wall. The other Romex cable is for the fan. Where they go through the narrow openings in steel channels, there is some protective flexible conduit.
Cabinets and Planking/Paneling
This shows the two main supports for the overhead cabinets. These are 2x2s, attached to the main roof frame rails with Rivnuts. The two telephone cables are for the remote displays of the battery monitor and the inverter.
The overhead cabinets are paneled on the inside with 1/4″ prefinished birch plywood.
The 1/4″ pine planking was screwed directly to the roof frames, although I did first put apply this 2″ x 1/8″ foam rubber adhesive tape, as a small thermal break and to help with any irregularities. This stuff really sticks, and I used it in several other applications. I had decided early on that I was going to have exposed screw heads in the planking as well as generally.
Like with many other things on this project, I didn’t really plan out in advance as to how I was going to deal with certain issues, like the planking where it transitions to the side wall. The body frames/channels on these vans vary, and dealing with the different planes can be pretty challenging.
I just kept making it up as I went along, and attached furring as needed. One of the big advantages of using the planking over sheets for the ceiling and wall paneling is that it allows for a more incremental and improvised approach. That suited me.
I then attached small 1/4 sections of plywood to the wood furring to get the right curvature and angle to make it work.
I glued and screwed together the face frames for the upper cabinets from 1x pine, and cut in a 1/2″ groove near the bottom for the floor to rest on. The faces were just screwed to the 2×2 that was attached to the roof. At the wall, the cabinet floor is screwed into the bottom of another wood ledger that was attached to the wall. That’s a crude mock-up of the galley cabinet that was also my work table for quite a while.
I had zero experience building any cabinets prior to this project and was a bit intimidated by the prospect. But like anyhting else, breaking it down and seeing some others online made it pretty easy and satisfying.
These doors are more of the pine planking glued to a backing if 1/4″ plywood, and stained to bring in a bit of color.
I’ve covered the issues of the pine planking and the plywood panels in the Tour, so there’s not much more to say here. The LED puck lights are on several circuits and most with dimmers, and give more than enough illumination for our aging eyes.
The next step was to mock up the water tank, bath tub and plumbing. Locating the bath had to be done with consideration of where the drain would go, making sure it cleared any underfloor body frame members.
The bed on the other side is also a mock-up. It was helpful for fleshing out the various dimensions and specific locations. The Isotemp tank is also being located.
Note: I am only showing my electrical system to document it. It is not meant to be a comprehensive guide to designing and installing your own system, which is why I have left out issues of determining loads, cable sizing, type of cable/wire used, wire connections, etc. There are many resources that can provide the specific details of the options and methods. Gary’s site has a lot of excellent details as well as links to other resources.
I will get back to the plumbing later, as I’m going to follow my build chronologically, which means the actual electrical system build comes first.
I followed Gary’s electrical system build at buildagreenrv.com very closely, as he’s come up with a very pragmatic and effective plan. I’m going to borrow his system diagram (above) if he doesn’t mind. The heart of it is a pair of Interstate 6 volt golf cart flooded lead acid (“FLA”) batteries, which are cheap ($168 for both at Costco). Their capacity is 220 amp-hour, but one doesn’t want to use too much of that capacity, as that reduces their life.
There are more expensive AGM lead acid batteries, but the difference doesn’t seem worth it. And of course there are a growing number of lithium ion batteries and system available, but they’re still expensive. If one has a very demanding electrical load, as some fancy vans do, with a/c, electric heat, cooking, etc., then a lithium system may be necessary. But for a basic van, this is the most cost effective.
Gary’s electrical pages cover in great detail determining total electrical loads and therefore sizing the electrical system.
As is clear form the diagram, the batteries are charged either from the solar panel via the MPPT charge controller, the van engine’s alternator, via a battery isolator to keep the van battery from being drained down by the house system loads, or from shore power (120V) via an extension cord to the inverter/charger. There’s also a lot of debate about how these three charging systems interact with each other, but they seem to get along just fine unless one chooses to worry about that sort of thing.
I showed it earlier, but here’s the front panel of my electric system box. Clockwise, starting with the large black panel, which is the AC/DC distribution/breaker/fuse box. The four rocker switches turn off a few key circuits without having to open the breaker box. The white unit is a propane detector, mounted close to the floor as propane is heavier than air. Below it is the Xantrex inverter control panel, and on the lower left is the solar charge/controller, a Midnight Kid. The Victron battery monitor panel is up in a remote location, in the overhead compartments.
The electrical box has a base of 3/4″ plywood, attached securely by bolts, one of which screws into one of the cargo retaining rings and the other goes through the floor. The battery box sides are also 3/4″, and the other sides are 1/2″ plywood.
The battery box was made strong to secure them in case of a crash. I bought a chunk of EPDM pond liner which is folded up on the sides, the corners glued with caulk. Disclaimer: I have not yet ventilated the battery compartment from possible hydrogen gas emission, which can occur if the batteries are being overcharged. I consider that risk quite low, but I may add a vent one of these days/years.
I’m not going to go into detail on the various sized wires/cables appropriate for each subsystem, as Gary’s pages have a lot of useful info on sizing. I bought various sized breakers and mounted them on the inside of the electrical box, this one is for the solar charger output.
This is the main 200 amp DC breaker for the battery output to the inverter. I initially had a cheaper 250A breaker there, but it didn’t allow enough current flow when using the 700W (120V) microwave, shutting down the inverter due to it sensing a low battery voltage. I was a bit dismayed by that, but swapping in this better T Tocas unit fixed the problem.
And a 60A breaker for the line from the van engine alternator (it’s also protected at the battery by a fuse). I initially had a 50A breaker here, but it kept popping right after I started the engine in the morning, so apparently the demand from the house batteries exceeded that amount initially, or it was a bad breaker (these are all cheap imports). I replaced it with a 60A breaker, which solved the problem and does not exceed the safe limits of that cable.
These two minor breaker issues were the only ones I encountered, very early on. Otherwise the system has been utterly problem-free.
Since I was going to be using a 120V fridge, and wanted enough power for 120V power tools, I bought a more powerful inverter than I would have needed otherwise. The Xantrex 807-2055 ($800 then; cheaper now) is a high quality pure sine wave inverter, which means electronic equipment can be used. it’s rated at 1000W continuous/2000W peak power. My only very minor complaint is that whenever the fridge initially kicks on, the momentary compressor load is enough to start the inverter’s fan for about one second as it anticipates (wrongly) a heavy load. As the electrical system is under my head under the bed, it bothered me some the first night out, but I’ve long tuned it out.
The inverter is securely bolted to the 3/4″ floor of the electrical box. I’m not proud of the organization of my electric wires and cables, but since I was making this up as I went along, it’s just the way it is. I used 14 gauge Romex cable for all the AC runs as well as a number of 12V DC runs, with the bare copper ground not used in that case.
Understanding how these combined AC/DC systems work in terms of chassis ground and its relationship to possible shore power ground is important.
The Inverter/Charger control panel displays the current battery voltage, among other things. Yes, with a full charge and resting, 12V batteries actually have as much as the 13.7 volts as displayed here (I set my charge voltages according to specs from Interstate). But that drops almost instantly as soon as there is a load, and high loads drop that down into the 11 volt range.
I decided to add a Victron BMV-700 battery monitor ($143), to be able to keep a close tabs on the SOC (state of charge) of my batteries. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice to know they’re not getting drawn down to far and that everything is working. The only way I found out that the breaker from the van alternator was popping upon start-up was that my SOC was not going up after a drive in the mornings.
It measures the flow through the negative (ground) flow, so requires this shunt. All negative cables need to be connected to one side, and the battery to the other.
This is the PD 5000 ($86) AC (left) and DC (right) breaker/fuse box. In retrospect, I might have gone slightly overboard on the AC outlets, but the cost of a bit more cable and a few more outlets was minor.
I had a problem with the AC breakers not seating properly on the hot bus bars, causing them to arc or not work at all. I had to take some pliers and bend the bars to the left to fix that.
This is the MidNite Kid Solar MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) solar charge controller ($290). It can handle more than the single panel I currently have. In fact, a single full-size panel is about the minimum it can utilize. Note: this system does not use the quite common smaller 12V RV/portable type panels, which do not require this type of charge controller. The residential/commercial large panels put out some 30-38 volts, more or less.
Given that we tend to not spend a lot of time in any one place, having a 300W solar system is somewhat questionable. Our modest loads on the batteries would be ok for 2-3 days. But I decided to incorporate solar from the get-go, and I suspect it will come in handy in the future at some point. If nothing else, if we survive the inevitable The Really Big Earthquake in the northwest, our van will be handy as a self-contained living pod with solar power.
The PAC-200 battery isolator disconnects the van battery from the house system, so as not to drain it. As soon as the ignition is turned on, the relay inside closes the circuit so that the charge form the alternator can now charge the battery. It requires an ignition-controlled 12V source, which fortunately was not far away in a 12V van power outlet in the passenger side rear corner.
The yellow cable is an extension cord that runs from the inverter to the shore power receptacle.
I routed the cord out the passenger side rear corner through an existing body opening, and then inside the rear bumper frame to an outlet on the driver’s side of the bumper. That avoided one more hole in the van body. To date, I’ve never used shore power, but perhaps one of these days.
I gave a lot of thought about what to use for a fridge. Initially, I gave a propane/electric fridge some consideration, as that’s what we had in the Chinook. But they’re very inefficient, and throw off a lot of heat which requires a large duct through the side or roof. Due to improved technology of very efficient compressors, there have been a number of very efficient RV/truck/portable 12 volt fridges on the market. But they are quite pricey, in the $700-$1,000 range, although there some cheaper Chinese portable units coming on the market.
I read on a forum about someone taking a $99 Energy-Star rated dorm fridge and he added additional insulation to make it very efficient, as much or more so than these expensive 12V fridges. I decided to go that route, and bought a 3.5 cubic foot Magic Chef ($129), also Energy Star rated at a very low 221 kWh/year.
I added some leftover 1″ insulation wherever possible, including the bottom.
The rear, but not the sides, as the condensers are on the surface of the sides, where they throw off the heat.
And I insulated the area at the bottom behind and above the compressor. I thought about insulating the door, but the small difference is probably not worth the hassle.
I really need to do some longer-term consumption tests this coming summer, but on a few tests with a Kill-a-Watt meter in mild early summer weather (around 75 degrees daytime) I measured three multi-day stretches with daily consumption of 350, 335, and 278 watt hours. These are very low numbers, corresponding to about a 110 kWh/year, or half its rated consumption. Undoubtedly that’s in part to the extra insulation, but the weather/heat load was lower, due to the cooler nights. In any case, I’m very satisfied with its performance.
I’m not going to spend much time on my cabinet builds, as they were cobbled together using several different techniques. I did buy a Kreg K5 pocket hole jig and screw assortment, and they are visible in some areas out of necessity. I also don’t really care, as I’m just not so concerned about details like that, and I am good with exposed fasteners.
I built the base box for the fridge cabinet first, out of 3/4″ plywood, and then attached the upper part out of 1/2″ plywood.
The fridge is very securely bolted to the base using its existing leg bases and adding some bolts to threaded holes in the rear part of the base. The lower opening at the front of that base cabinet is for the furnace.
Installing the furnace (Atwood 12,000 BTU, $595) was pretty challenging. Right off the bat, it’s essential to match up its exhaust outlet through the wall to a place on the exterior of the van that will work, meaning no structural ribs and a free space on the outside.
It’s one thing to draw up a plan where things will go, it’s another for them to actually work there. In the case of the furnace, I had to elevate it some,as the outlet otherwise was going to be in conflict with the plastic lower body and fender trim. As it is,I had to snip away a corner of the outlet plate to fit. Getting its exhaust tube to match up to the outlet was not easy.
The other challenge was the propane connection. The furnace connection was on the wrong side, in terms of my furnace tubing routing. And I had to connect it to the inside of the furnace before I slipped the furnace back into place. So I had to use two pieces of tubing, one coming from the furnace on the left, and the other one coming from the propane tank on the right.
And they had to connect with a union in front and just below the furnace, as barely seen on the bottom of this shot. I had to buy a cheap tubing bender to make all that happen. I made things more difficult for myself by having bought a 25′ coil of 3/8″ thin wall tubing, instead of a thicker walled kind. turns out the thin wall tubing is more difficult to flare with a tool, as the thin wall easily folds back on itself during the flaring process. I finally figured out a process which involves reaming out the tubing after it’s cut to reduce the chances of that happening. Next time, it will not be thin wall tubing.
The shore power cable and the wire for the battery isolator ran back there, so I wrapped them in some vinyl flooring to protect them from the sharp edges.
The propane bottles are mounted in the back corner by the entry door. I decided that the common European practice of having propane bottles inside the camper is good enough for me, despite the American phobia of doing that. I’ve tested all my connections and I have a propane alarm.
The “20 lb” bottle is the primary, and the little 5 lb bottle, which I had laying around, fit in the corner just right, to have along as a backup.
The big bottle is securely strapped tightly into the corner. The gauge I had laying around works pretty well. But the flexible hose will just swing around and hook up to the little bottle if needed.
And I just drilled a hole in the cabinet base to line up with a hole in the small bottle top to secure it.
There’s a shut-off valve for the line to the furnace. Between a bit of cooking and some heat on chilly mornings, propane consumption is almost negligible.
I’ve already covered the upper storage cabinet, screwed (and glued) together with Kreg fasteners. The drawers are very utilitarian, at least at this stage.
On to the plumbing. I chose a somewhat large 30 gallon freshwater tank, as we boondock a lot, and I just didn’t want to have to think too much about getting good fresh water often. It’s bigger than we really need, given that we don’t have a flush toilet anymore. But it means I can fill up with Eugene’s excellent drinking water and go almost a week. And it only cost $90 from Keith’s RV surplus, as it’s a standard RV size apparently. I mounted it next to the rear wheel well, and very securely, as completely full, it weighs 250 lbs.
The two big straps are heavy duty steel strapping used in residential construction, not just “plumber’s tape”. They are bolted through the floor with bolts and washers. and to help resist any forward movement, I slipped in a piece of angle iron under the rear edge of that 3/4″ plywood, which is also secured to the floor. I’m pretty confident it’s not going anywhere.
The drain line for the sink is in place. Its precise location was also determined by underfloor framing.
The fresh water fill hose location was also worked out to not conflict with the sink. It connects to a typical fill outlet mounted on the outside. The little hose is a vent for the water tank, to release air as it’s being filled up with water as well as to work in reverse.
The Sureflo 12V pump mounts on the same base just behind the tank.
Before I hooked up the under-sink plumbing, I mounted the Isotemp Spa 4 water heater ($479). The choice to use this came after some deliberation as to the options: no water heater, something we were used to from the Chinook; whose unit had died, a typical propane RV heater, or the Isotemp. These units heat the water via a heat exchanger that circulates 195 degree hot coolant from the engine. They were originally designed for marine use, but have been showing up in more vans and RVs.
Given our history to not stay in one place very long, this made lots of sense. Even if we are camped at a national park or such, we typically drive to trailheads or such. It’s not cheap, but there’s no fuel cost, and it’s a well-made stainless steel unit. I picked a four gallon Spa 4, as the water is so hot that it can make double or more that amount of normal temperature hot water through its built in mixing valve, which keeps the scalding hot water from reaching the outlet.
I mounted it on a pedestal of 3/4″ plywood, and the bolts go through the floor.
I was a bit intimidated by the need to run hoses out of the van, under the cab and into the engine compartment, but it was pretty easy as it turned out. Two holes take the 3/8″ heater hoses, here wrapped in pipe insulation, underfloor, where it was easy to cable-tie them to suitable anchors.
I built this section of Stephanie’s bed structure around it, and packed it with leftover rigid insulation. The water stays warm for some three days.
The hoses connect to tees in the heater hoses just outside the heater core in the engine compartment. I used 3/8″ hoses, which is apparently what the optional Promaster rear compartment heater uses. I second-guessed that choice, worried about whether the Isotemp would heat up quickly enough. I could have used 5/8 or 3/4″ hose. It’s turned out to be just fine. Two valves allow maintenance without disturbing the van heater lines.
I avoided almost all coolant loss when cutting into the lines by clamping them. I did have to add more coolant and bled the system via the bleed valve at the heater core.
As noted in the tour, the galley top is from a cheap stainless steel prep table, 48″ x 24″. I built up the cabinet not as a unit, but by mounting the two ends to the wall with rivnuts and elbows, to enclose the already installed water tank and drain line. The sink is a bar-type unit.
I used blue and red 1/2″ Pex water lines that I already had on hand from a home building project. The two lines along the bath tub go to the water heater.
Here’s the big picture of what’s going on under the sink. The drain line form the sink includes a 1½” Hepvo waterless trap, that uses a self sealing soft plastic inner membrane to allow water to flow down but not allow gases to come up. It saves space by eliminating the need for a vent, and avoids the risk of a regular trap going dry over time.
I mounted and hooked up a basic water filter and separate faucet which allows us to enjoy the tank water for drinking and cooking.
I had a bit of a challenge figuring out the fresh water intake, as it was pointed in an inconvenient direction. There wasn’t enough hose (I bought a short chunk) or room to bend a longer hose properly, so I had to cobble up a 90 degree turn. I bought a short threaded brass nipple that was just right to cut its own threads into the polyethylene tank inlet, although it took a big wrench to get it in that far. On the end I threaded on a PVC adapter to glue onto the PVC 90 degree turn. Fortunately, the hose fit the outside of the coupling snugly, and its held tight with a hose clamp.
The threaded nipple did leak a few drops when the tank was full and water sloshed forward during braking. I applied a bit of Lexel caulk around it (after this shot was taken), and it’s now perfectly dry.
Although the drain didn’t need a vent, after I installed the gray water tank under floor (details coming shortly), I realized that it needed a vent, to allow the air to escape when being filled, and as well for air to replace the water when being drained. So I added a 1½”x 1½”x ½” PVC fitting below the trap, to which I adapted some ½” polyethylene pipe.
I cut a tee into the same size pipe for the existing water tank vent, and connected the gray water vent to that. That saved me having to run a separate vent pipe up and and out of the van. These are the kinds of challenges that commonly arise and it’s very satisfying to find an easy solution like this.
The Shurflo pump sits tucked in behind the tank. I did have some initial leaks from the threaded Pex to flex line adapters, which explains the darkened plywood base.
The cold water line coming out of the tank tees to a drain valve and line that goes down through a hole in the floor. The other side adapts to a flex line that had to loop in order to connect to the sediment filter and water pump inlet.
The system has been trouble/leak-free once I redid some of those threaded connectors.
I already showed you how the bat/shower opens and is used. Draining it was the biggest challenge, as I had no idea how i was going to adapt it to the underfloor Hepva trap. The strainer basket it came with was very shallow, and I struggled to figure out a way to extend it. But then I stumbled into a bar sink deep strainer basket at my home supply store, and bough it as a long shot. When I set the tub on the floor, the deep threaded basket went down through the hole a ways. Far enough?
The Hepvo also comes with a screw-on 90 degree adapter, and when I tried screwing it on, it was absolutely perfect. It snugged right up without losing any critical clearance, which I would need to get enough flow to the gray water tank.
Further back is the glue-on fitting for the sink drain line, and the blue pipe is the water tank drain line. The water heater also has a drain line for the emergency expansion valve (not shown). I packed some pliable but removable butyl rubber tape around all of these underfloor perforations after this picture was taken.
I had a 76″ long piece of 6″ PVC Schedule 40 sewer pipe in my shed from a project 20 years ago. Here was my reason I had saved it so long: to turn it into a gray water tank. If I could make it work. I propped it up under the van on the passenger side, and it was literally the perfect size! I calculated that it would hold about 9.5 gallons, which is a couple of days worth of gray (wash) water.
I did some Googling and found someone who had done something similar albeit smaller on a VW Westfalia. He managed to thread in a brass fitting into a hole in the pipe. I tried that but could not get it to work. I was a bit distraught. Then almost by accident, I found that I had a hole saw bit that was just about exactly the same size as the outside diameter of 1½” PVC pipe. The pipe would go into the hole very snugly. I figured out the angles I needed, and glued the angles with their pipes into the holes. The glued surface area would not be enough to work in a pressurized situation, but these were just the inlets, and they’ve worked just fine.
Here’s the whole setup mounted and connected to the two drain lines. The amount of space between the top of the tank that was securely mounted to the body frame rails was just barely enough to accommodate the 90 degree angles and the slope required to drain them into the tank. As it was, I had to mount the inlets on the tank a bit off the very top with hard to find 60 degree angles in order to make it work. I connected the two ends of the pipes with a rubber Fernco fitting so as to accommodate some movement and make it easy to take apart.
On the far (rear) end of the pipe I glued on a clean out adapter and screw-in plug just in case, but in retrospect that was surely unnecessary. In the front I glued on a cap, but not before gluing in an angle just as I had done for the inlets. I couldn’t think of another way, and it’s worked fine too.
A Valterra blade valve was used, as the large PVC ball valves can be very hard to turn. The blade valve slides very easily, and is a standard RV unit.
I bought some flexible plastic pipe and glued on an a crew-on adapter to the end.
I’ve actually never used the hose yet, as I’ve always just found a ditch or somewhere to drain the tank (when no one was looking). Why?
There’s an interesting legality about gray water: historically, campers/trailers/RVs didn’t have gray water tanks (only black water tanks), and their sinks and showers just drained directly down to the ground, as it was quite clean. VW Westfalias don’t have gray water tanks, as is the case with older Airstreams and many others. Technically, that’s still legal on all federal lands and many other jurisdictions, but curiously it’s not legal to “drain or empty any holding tank of any recreational vehicle”, even if its essentially clear wash water from the gray water tank. Classic Catch 22, and one to be aware of.
I got a warning for staying overnight on a pull-off in the Coronado National Memorial in Arizona (I thought we were on National Forest land), and the ranger said he did that instead of giving us a ticket in part because we hadn’t drained our gray water tank, and explained that technicality.
I’ve saved the best for last: the potty. Not having a black water tank and a flush toilet has been one of the biggest improvements over the Chinook. I had issues with a leak in its tank, and even after I fixed that by replacing it, it invariably began to make its presence known after a couple of days. Stephanie is a super-sniffer, and it impinged somewhat on the enjoyment of being in the outdoors.
There are of course many options to black water tanks, including various portable units, but they all have to be emptied, which is not exactly fun and does require a proper toilet or outhouse to dump into. Since we tend to be off in the boonies a lot, that wasn’t very appealing.
My musings on the subject lead me to composting toilets, such as this one by Nature’s Head. The key thing to know is that modern composting toilets work well precisely because they separate the pee from the poo, via a urine diverter that directs the pee into a separate storage vessel that is easily emptied, and safely/legally so in many places. The poo is kept in an air tight container where it’s mixed with a drying material such as peat moss or coir (coconut husk fiber) and uses a small fan to constantly create a flow of air to enhance the drying.
The key thing is the drying, as poo is some 90% water and the bacterial action (smell) continues as long as there is sufficient moisture. Once it’s dry, there’s essentially zero smell.
I was all set to buy a Nature’s Head, which costs close to $1000 with shipping, but then I read about Gary’s home-built “composting” potty at his buildagreenrv site. Frankly, it’s more accurate to call it (and my version) “a urine-diverting poo-desiccating storage device” as realistically that’s what it is. One can in theory compost the poo by putting it into the ground at home after a trip, and leaving it for a year or more to make it usable as compost in vegetable gardens, but it hardly seems worth the effort. It’s just a lot more pragmatic to legally dispose of the plastic bag in the garbage.
So I decided to build my own too, and see if it would pass muster with Stephanie. It’s going to be easier to comprehend if I show it in reverse order, starting with lifting the lid, which has a rubber gasket to make an air-tight seal when it’s closed. The white plastic thing in the front is the urine diverter, which I had to buy from a little outfit in Great Britain ($45). Obviously it requires sitting only, which is not a bad idea in a small van or RV anyway.
Lifting the hinged top of the box reveals that the urine diverter directs the pee into a standard one-gallon bottle (preferably with a flip lid so as to not lose it) via a small funnel. The funnel was initially just a temporary solution, but it works fine and is there to stay. The second bottle next to it is of course there to swap out if needed. I underestimated our pee output on one of our first trips and found an inch of pee on the bottom of the box. Since I glued it with urethane and gave it several coats of clear polyurethane, there was no leakage.
Another option I’m still considering is to have a flexible hose from the diverter to the sink drain and into the gray water tank. This is actually ok, as urine is aseptic unless one has a bladder infection, and can be safely/legally disposed of in the woods, just like taking a very long pee. But the bottles are probbaly here to stay and work fine.
The 5 gallon bucket has a standard kitchen garbage bag, and gets primed with a few scoops of coir, which works even better than peat moss. After making a deposit, a scoop or so of additional coir is added from the container that rides right next to the potty. It’s really kind of like a litter box, but works better and is air tight.
Here’s the box without the containers. I routed out recesses for the bucket and bottles, and glued pieces of pink insulation so as to firmly hold them in place. At the upper right side of the back, there is an inlet vent, juts a hole with a fine screen on it. On the lower far corner there is an outlet vent, a PVC pipe with a tiny PC fan on it.
The 40 mm miniature fan is essentially noiseless, and draws a very small amount of current when it’s turned on by the switch, at the time of first use. The pipe it sits on goes out the bottom of the box and through a hole in the van, where there’s also a fine screen to keep bugs out.
Somewhat ironically, we’ve hardly ever used it (for poo), as Stephanie has joined me in using alternatives such as outhouses, campgrounds, etc. and even the woods, where appropriate, with a trowel to dig a hole and cover it up. She used to really insist on a toilet, but now that’s changed. So I’m even more glad I didn’t buy an expensive toilet system.
But we did use it on one of our first trips, and it worked better than expected. Absolutely no smell, and it was so much nicer to just tie up the bag and toss it in the garbage than to have to drive the Chinook out to our sewage treatment facility to dump and rinse out the tank after coming home from a trip.
The gray water drain hose is stored behind the potty.
And the fresh water hose has a nook between the potty and the galley cabinet. The wood toilet seat was glued and screwed to the top of the box lid.
Conversion costs spreadsheet:
I tallied up my parts and materials costs on a spreadsheet. I might have missed something, so I added a contingency. I did buy a few tools, such as the Kreg jig and a Rivnut set, but I’m quite likely to use them again in the future. These items were all bought in 2018, the majority on Amazon, so the prices may have changed since then.
In retrospect, I might have been able to save a few bucks here and there, but in the balance, I have almost no regrets. There are some minor things that I would have done differently, besides of course a lot of head scratching and researching. I purposely did not track my hours spent on the conversion, as undoubtedly they are more than I would like to admit. But it’s been a very fun and satisfying project, and the new challenges were something I was looking for. Yes, I could probably do a second one in half the time, but that’s not the point.
I’ve already had a couple of folks ask me if I would build a similar van for them. Sorry; but I’d rather be out in the desert in my van.
Here’s links to some to our van and trips so far: