The choices we made for utilities was focused only on what suited us best as well as our budget and limited time frame for the build. Because we are a family of four, space is certainly very precious and provided some fun challenges to the design.
We have 10 gallons of fresh water. If we are fully hydrated, Jesse and I will consume about 1 1/2 to 2 gallons of water with the boys consuming about half of that per day. That’s if there isn’t any access to water fountains. So we really only need to fill the tank up once every 3 days. We try to fill our water bottles from water fountains at rest areas, etc.... to conserve our on-board water. Water is filled via a standard RV fill port at the rear of the van. You simply fill it with a normal water hose which we store under the passenger seat. There’s also an outdoor sprayer for washing. We have a small sink fed by a marine pump. The pump is honestly pretty loud but it only needs to be turned on for cleaning dishes and filling water bottles. The faucet is a standard faucet operated via a lever and the pump is activated via a switch that is located on the switch panel with the lights.
Even with Jesse’s background in high and low voltage wiring the electrical was definitely the hardest part. Multiple battery setups and solar are new to him/us so it took quite a bit of research to make sure we set everything up in a correct and safe way. We have both 120v and 12v systems in the van with standard electrical outlets and USB ports in various areas. Our entire electrical system is neatly tucked away under/behind the bench seat which easily comes out for maintenance/updates. We thought we would need the 120v outlets more but after a short time living in the van we realized how much more efficient the 12v system is and how parasitic the 12v to 120v inverter is on our batteries. The van came with a 2000 watt 30amp inverter which I wired to a breaker box with two 15 amp circuits. If we absolutely need 120v for things like the laptop, we just use a small inverter plugged into the front factory 12v ports while we drive. This conserves the energy being stored from our solar for things like our lights, fans, fridge, and water pump. We have also ran an extension cord to the main 120v plug from electrical at a camp site (sure power) to provide power to all our 120v outlets. We will eventually install a port under the van (so it’s concealed) to make this easier. The van came with two cheaper flexible solar panels from Amazon, two Windy Nation 100AH AGM batteries and a Windy Nation PWM Solar Controller. After the first week or so in the van we realized the panels weren’t performing as well as we hoped and that paired with the less efficient PWM controller we needed in make some updates. Since so many others were having good results from the Renogy brand we gave them a call and decided the solution was an MPPT controller and two more panels. We also opted for the Bluetooth module that allows us to monitor the system from an app on our phones. We now have four 100 watt flexible panels wired in a series/parallel configuration and rarely does our voltage drop below 12.5v and that’s only if we’ve had rainy or very cloudy weather. We also have a voltage controlled relay (VCR) also known as a “smart” relay that allows the van’s charging system to charge the batteries as well. This has been a life saver on cloudy, rainy, or heavily shaded days.
We knew from the start that storage was very important with four people in this small of a space. We have paired down to the bare essentials and have just enough space for our needs. We used pre-made cabinets and modified them for our upper and kitchen storage, most of which came with the van. We modified the normally wasted toe kick area under the kitchen cabinets for shoe storage. We took a week long trip in the van before it was completely finished and this helped us learn the few final tweaks we needed, especially related to kitchen storage. For example, we realized we didn’t need 4 glasses, 4 plates, and 4 bowls. The boys use their water bottles and we found that a bowl/plate sorta thing worked best. We stopped at iKea on our way home and picked up two small glasses and 4 plate/bowls and built the storage around those (leaving a tad extra room in case one broke and we couldn’t find the exact ones again). We were able to eliminate 6 kitchen items (as well as many other types of items) from the knowledge we gained from that trip. We built custom shelving to house our cups, plates, some food, etc... as well as custom shelving for books and even have storage under the bench seats. There is also custom shelving in both bed areas. We were going to build custom drawers for the cabinets but then found really simple slide out wire drawers on Amazon for $20 each. We paired those with some storage bins from iKea to optimize the space. Another really clever trick is that we have three throw pillows that double as storage. Each one either has a zipper or velcro and house things like towels, jackets, and extra clothes.
One main goal of ours was to make the transition from driving to sleeping as simple as possible. We also kept hearing/reading how van dwellers with convertible furniture after a short time just leave the couch/bed combo in bed mode all the time. We chose to have both beds in a fixed position. Both are full size beds and are uncut and not modified in any way. The upper bunk (mom and dad’s bunk), runs left to right while the boys bunk runs front to back. Jesse is right at 6’ tall and fits comfortably, but just barely. We sacrificed a small amount of insulation to leave the insets on either side so our bed could run side to side. This allowed for more space in the kitchen and for the 3 person bench seat vs. a two person one. We used a 6” thick mattress from Amazon and it’s pretty comfy. We were able to use the 4” thick foam mattress we already owned from the boys bunk beds in the “big” house for the van. To keep from having to modify the mattress, we built the shelving on one side up 4” and also made a small notch in the bottom of the kitchen cabinet. This allows the mattress to slide right in from the back and then be reused later if/when we decide to rent/buy a house again. The top bunk is supported by two removable platforms (oddly resembling gurney’s) and both beds and platforms can be removed in under 5 mins allowing Jesse to use the van for work when needed.
Space and budget played a huge part here. We didn’t have the space to permanently mount a stove top nor have a huge propane bottle stored. We opted for a small single burner butane/propane stove (the one that pretty much everyone uses from Amazon). It has worked really well although we’ve eliminated any dish that requires boiling water since it takes so much time and eats about half a bottle of butane. We are making it about a week to week and a half on one bottle although we have made it two weeks on one bottle. We keep 4 bottles with us and they can be found at Wal-Mart and other camping stores along the way.
The fridge is probably the most important appliance in the van. We took a chance on a Costway/Stakol model chest fridge from Amazon. It arrived and I was immediately impressed by the build quality. When I plugged it up for the first time I heard a slight rattle and got nervous and contacted the supplier. They promptly offered to refund the money and us return it but also offered a partial refund and to keep it. I contacted them on the weekend so it was Monday before I got a response. In the meantime I ordered a fridge from the more well known company which cost about 3 times more. When I got the response from Stakol I cancelled the order for the other more expensive one or at least tried to. Long sorry short I experienced some of the worst customer support I’ve ever had and saw the true face of this well known company in that they are more concerned with their monetary self preservation than taking care of their customers. As of writing this we have had the fridge running about a month and a half non stop and have had zero issues. At a third of the price of the other brand I say save the money and go with the Costway/Staykol, especially considering the support side of the expensive model (at least for us) has proven to be poor. We went with the 44 quart model for both size and budget and it has been plenty for our family of four. It will hold enough for about 3-4 days sometimes even 5.
We have two RV fans, the Fantastic Fan was already installed toward the rear and we added a slim MaxAir Fan towards the front. In terms of air flow both do very well. The MaxAir Fan has had issues though. After only a couple uses the motor started to squeak and then a week later the control board started locking up. MaxAir sent me new parts for both pieces but I’ve yet to replace them (to busy seeing all the beautiful sites on the road). The Fantastic fan has been great but at times even it’s motor squeaks a bit, although it is about a 1 or so old. I guess this is just par for the course with these fans. As long as the temp is at or below the 70’s at night we are pretty comfortable. We also picked up two usb fans from Amazon (one for each bed) to help have some more direct air flow on us and they have made a big difference. I originally thought we would run one fan pushing air in while the other pulls air out but after some testing we’ve found that just having the rear one open and the front one on produces the best breeze. The two fans seem to fight each other no matter what combo of speed you have each set on. The front fan will also pull the breeze from the small USB fans forward, further increasing the flow. The only time we run both is if we are sleeping with the rear doors open and then we set both to pull air out and both at max speed. You need a bit of a vacuum for the fans to work properly so with that much of an open space it takes both to move the air. Another thing to note about roof vents/fans is that they are noisy driving down the road and are a point of heat/cold because they are just a thin piece of plastic. We bought some 2” thick foam and had them covered in fabric and used four cleats for each fan to hold the foam inserts in while driving. This has helped insulte and reduce the noise considerably.
Our personal opinion is that people are going way to crazy on Insulation in vans. From what we’ve read/heard it doesn’t matter if you have spray foam or no insulation at all, if you are in 100 degree weather your van will be HOT! We believe that the van needs to breathe. Vehicles are sealed very well and manufacturers build in hidden vents to allow them to breathe. We personally feel that sealing them up with spray foam and loads of moisture barrier creates more issues than helps. We used Reflectix and Rockwool insulation throughout the van as well as some spray foam in a can for places where the other two wouldn’t fit. Again, we feel this allows the van to breathe and if moisture were to build up, air can flow through and dry it out vs it being trapped. One thing to note is that we do not plan to travel in extreme cold climates. I can see some benefit to more extensive insulation if that is a big part of your travel plans.
To save weight and space we used as little framing as possible but made more strategic (creative) decisions on how to support things. Given the 148” wheel base and medium roof every fraction of an inch counts. Every single piece of wood is both screwed/nailed and glued. In most cases glue/adhesive is stronger than the fastener anyway. In addition when wood touches metal (painted or not) it is likely to squeak. The construction adhesive provides a buffer between the two as well as a super strong bond. There are some bolts in key places. For example, instead of a 2x4 or metal support frame I used 1/2” plywood bolted and glued to the existing internal metal bracing as a structural member for the upper bunk. Since the bed extends into the insets most of the support comes from the wood sitting atop the existing metal anyway. This saves several inches and allowed for a full size bed on the bottom bunk as well as tons of custom built storage and our entire water system below. To save ceiling height we used 1/4” tongue and groove vs 3/4” but did use 3/4” on the walls, mainly because it came with the van but also because we knew we would be screwing things to it like storage, hooks, etc...
Jesse has a background in smart home technology and wiring and has learned the importance of planning for the future. We ran extra wires to places in case we wanted to add more lights, outlets, or whatever down the road.
One key thing we would like to mention is something we didn’t find when researching but should have. This is a vehicle, NOT a house. It has panels, connectors, systems, etc... that need to be accessed for repairs and maintenance. Covering these up without leaving access can/will create huge issues later.
We would also like to mention that the metal in these vans can be sharp. The factory wiring has wrapping and clamps to keep it in place and connected. Make sure you pay special attention when installing your wiring to not slice/scrape the jacket. Also if possible run the wire in conduit or at the very least add protection where wires wrap around sharp corners etc... and also fasten wires in place. Again it’s a vehicle not a house. It constantly moves and shifts which means the wires will move and shift and could potentially rub a hole in them causing serious issues like shorts or even a fire.