Oy. The two biggest, hardest, most intimidating jobs are up first. The fan installation and the side window. The solar panels are next; in both difficulty/intimidation factor and order of operations.
Why? Because all cuts into the van’s sheet metal will create metal shards, and these get everywhere. Those tiny metal flakes have a very high surface area compared to their size (their size is almost all surface area) and so they rust incredibly easily. When in contact with any other metal, they are a catalyst for rust on the other metal, like the wall of my van.
So if a tiny, barely macroscopic metal shard gets behind a wall or under a floorboard, it could get wet later on as the seasons and humidity change or as the flukes and weirdness of life happen, and develop rust, creating a big problem that I might not even find out about for months or even years.
So it is important to minimize those metal shards as much as possible and then get out as many more as possible.
This means that all projects that will cut into the van need to happen first, when there are no walls or floors or insulation to get stuck in or behind. These projects will be carefully controlled with plastic sheeting to block the flying shards from going everywhere, and then the entire van thoroughly vacuumed to get the renegades, and then mopped and scrubbed by hand and vacuumed again.
As stated before, this is not going to be a guide for how to install the fan and window—there are plenty of good ones already—but more of an order-theory guide or things-to-consider guide.
On to the fan:
Some kind of vent or fan in the small, enclosed, metal van was a given, and the two clear leaders in the industry are Maxxair and Fan-Tastic. While there are only minor differences between them in terms of features, and van dwellers on both sides of the camp love them both, what made the difference for me was that the Maxxair MaxxFan came with a built-in rain hood. You can read my review of it here.
The other thing to consider with the fan, was where to put it. The two most common, and logical places, are either over the bed or over the cook stove. Since I won’t be having an indoor stove that needs venting, my fan is going in the rear of the van over the bed.
Cutting the fan hole with the jigsaw.
Filing the edges of the hole so they aren’t so razor sharp.
Planning where the window will be cut. I tried a few placements, even on the opposite side, but decided that I would feel more comfortable with it on the door that opens so that I could see out before opening the door and know what situation I am walking into.
I got the window for a very good price from a guy on Craigslist an hour away. He was actually selling four, and I bought them all so I could pick which one was the best and have spare parts down the road if a window ever breaks.
All of my pictures of installing the window got lost when the phone they were on developed “issues.” Sad.
But I got to use a jigsaw and cut a big hole in my newly purchased van. Happy.
It wasn’t actually all that difficult, but I kept hearing people around me say things like “you’re really going to do that?” and “I could never do that” and “isn’t that dangerous?” and “but you’re not a mechanic/expert/auto body worker/whatever-they-feel-is-the-competent-career-er” etc. I am still getting these comments, just in the past tense.
Maybe being autistic helped me a little in differentiating between when something is actually a skills-and-experience-required task, and when it is just intimidating. Sure, it took guts to cut a hole in my van, but it wasn’t all that hard.
I did practice cutting a straight line and around curves before cutting the final hole, and I highly recommend doing that. Since I didn’t have any spare sheet metal or vans lying around, I cut a smaller version of the hole I wanted inside the window space, since it wouldn’t matter there anyway, and that was very useful experience. But it doesn’t take years of auto body work to do that.
You can do it, too. Just be smart and think through the whole task before starting, measure carefully and then do it again, and don’t let impatience or frustration make you do something in haste that will take a long time to fix.
And just about anything can be fixed. A small hole can be made bigger and a too big hole can be welded back to be smaller, and though it would be better not to have to do that, it isn’t the end of the world.
These two tasks, the fan and window, took just over one full day each, and involved a couple trips to the hardware store to get things I didn’t know I needed or ran out of, and there were a lot of frustration moments, but also a lot of accomplishment moments.
Having finished this, I felt empowered. It was intimidating but I didn’t let fear or discomfort stop me, and I did it. Now that I’ve done the hardest things, I can definitely do the rest.