A quick note on my van conversion section of this blog:
This is not going to be a how-to guide—there are plenty of good ones already—but more of an order-theory guide or things-to-consider guide. Hope it helps.
On to the planning:
Before starting the conversion, I spent months watching Youtube videos and reading the Reddit van dwellers forum and other van dwellers’ blogs and websites, learning from others who have done their own conversions. This taught me a lot about what to do and not to do and things that seemed to be a good idea but turned out not to be. From their successes and mistakes, I learned:
Weight is important:
Every item in the van must be a multi use item. Things that serve only one function must be incredibly important in order to justify taking them along, for both space and weight considerations.
What contributes more weight more than anything will be the fixed installations: walls, partitions, bed frame, cabinetry, etc. For example, I love the look of wood, but chose not to go with wood walls because they are very heavy and take up a fair amount of internal space relative to their use.
That order of operations is important:
This is the order I did everything in the van conversion.
- Plan, plan, plan, first! Read and learn all you can from several different sources, and take the best aspects of each. Your plans will change, sometimes dramatically, as you work on the conversion, but you need to have a solid plan to start with.
- The picture above is one of my early van layouts, and almost everything on it ended up different, but working through the several versions helped me to understand how certain things influenced others and what the trade-offs would be.
- All metal cuts into the van will create metal shards, and these get everywhere. Those tiny metal flakes act as catalysts for rust later on, so it is important to minimize them as much as possible and then get out as much as possible.
- This means that all metal cuts into the van happened first, controlled with plastic sheeting, vacuumed well and then everything is cleaned, mopped and degreased while everything is still accessible (i.e. nothing else is in the van for metal shards to hide in or behind.
- That means that three of the hardest jobs, the fan, window, and solar panel installation, happened first.
- The placement of ribbing in the van roof determines fan placement, and fan placement determines solar panel placement.
- Solar panel placement will determine where electrical cords are on the roof, which will somewhat determine where the cord needs to go down through the roof and into the van, which can make a difference as to where the battery system in the van will be.
- Solar panels also create heat, which transfers to the van metal and can heat up the inside of the van unpleasantly on hot summer days, especially if I want to park out of shade to use the solar panels. So before installing them I painted the entire roof in three coats of a heat refracting paint.
- Even with precautions against metal shards, rust and mildew are an important consideration. I have seen too many van dwellers and RVers report peeling back walls or floors after a few years and finding nasty mildew or rust underneath.
- So after the metal shards were cleaned out and the entire van degreased, I slathered the entire inside of the van in a triple coat of metal protectant.
- The metal protectant also served as an acoustic dampener at no extra charge.
- Getting to all the metal areas in the van also involved removing the cab headliner. Cab insulation was installed too, and then the headliner replaced.
- Next was the partition to separate the cab from the cargo area. This is somewhat for privacy but mostly to protect the driver’s head from projectile objects coming loose in an accident and hurling themselves at 60mph into the back of her head and causing massive injuries or worse. Also the privacy thing.
- The partitions were installed at this point because they will be easiest to maneuver without anything in the way.
- I also built the right hand pantry shelf at this point and installed it, since it was by the door and so wouldn’t get in the way of access to the walls.
- Insulation was next. Loose fill insulation got stuffed in all the holes and crevices in the walls and roof ribbing, with cork underlayment lining the walls. The floor will be done later.
- Then came the walls. The wall framework was installed and covered for a nicer look.
- The ceiling insulation and framework were put up together, with the framework largely holding the Thinsulate insulation in place. This will get covered much later.
- With all the metal and most of the woodwork finally done, with no more shards of materials or hard tools to fall on the floor and damage or dirty it, I finally put in the flooring.
- This included the metal protectant, additions to the floor between the ribbing to level it out, another layer of metal coating to seal it all, insulation, and then the carpet, cut to fit.
- The bed frame came next, along with the attached bookshelf and nightstand unit.
- Where the bed will be determines in large part where other fixed items will go, so this was decided well in advance. Non fixed items got rearranged many times while living in the van before finding the best orientation.
- With the wall up and the floor down, I finally built and installed the left hand pantry shelf, which was attached to the left partition and could finally finish installing that.
- The only major thing left was a sink or water system. I jerry rigged a bucket sink for now as I was out of time and needed to move in.
- This finished the major installations and I moved all my stuff in and rearranged over and over like mad.
- The ceiling eventually got covered, but not for a few months.
- There are still a few minor projects left to do, but they are primarily aesthetic.
Solving problems creatively is important:
Living intentionally in a van is a relatively uncommon enough thing that there isn’t yet a best practices guide to it. Sure, plenty of van dwellers have made their own how-I-did-mine tutorials (like this one), but each of them were inventing and creating and solving problems as resourcefully as they could without a whole lot of guidance.
So while there are certain challenges that are common to most, and some solutions that many have chosen, people are still trying all sorts of options to find what works best for their circumstances.
And I have done the same. I have learned a lot from other van conversions, sometimes how to do something well, like installing the fan and window, and sometimes what I have learned is what I don’t want to do. So I have had to be creative, and sometimes came up with very different solutions than what I have seen out there on the internet, for example in how I did the insulation, walls, ceiling, and sink.
I have no idea yet if my solutions will turn out to be the biggest disaster ever or a brilliant leap forward—probably somewhere in between. Anyway, I don’t have to live with any of these choices forever, and realizing that has been helpful in letting myself try something new.
Non-toxic is important:
Indoor air pollution is a growing threat to health in first world nations as more and more chemicals are used in manufacturing products without consideration of their long-term health risks to the users.
For example, most sheets sold nowadays have been soaked in formaldehyde because that dramatically reduces wrinkles, but the chemical also has been proven to cause insomnia. Sleeping problems are becoming an epidemic in this country, and while this certainly isn’t the only cause, rubbing your face on, and breathing in, sheets and pillowcases coated with an insomnia-inducing substance all night, certainly isn’t helping the problem. Call me picky, but no-iron sheets simply aren’t worth it.
Especially in the small, confined space of a van, the chemicals in the building materials and products I choose to live with will be concentrated, and I will be breathing that in all night at a minimum, and potentially for days on end in bad weather.
So for me, using only non-toxic materials was non-negotiable. I got really good at finding and reading Material Safety Data Sheets, and had to sadly reject many products I was excited about when I found these reports (and believe me, finding them wasn’t always easy).
Almost as important was that the products and materials I used were environmentally safe and, where possible, sustainably sourced or reclaimed materials. As much as possible, I used things that I already had or could get used from local sources cheaply. Keeping costs low was important to me, but in the end that was my third, not first priority.