(Much of this page was initially created in mid-February, 2016. Later additions are appended to the bottom, and are dated.)
(If you want to ask about anything here, or just make comments, drop me a line at email@example.com)
We needed to replace one of our cars recently (late 2015), and found that we were totally bored with everything we looked at. So we decided to turn our next vehicle purchase into an adventure.
The result was this 2016 Transit Cargo Van. We took delivery in early January. It’s a tiny thing. :-)
We can’t decide whether to call it “The Spare Room” or “The Cottage”. We’ll probably just call it “the van”.
It’s pretty big: 20’ long, 9‘2” high. It has 6‘9” of standing headroom inside (in the middle – it’s shorter on the sides). It’s a cargo van, so there are no bench seats in back. Behind the driver and passenger seats there’s 11 or 12 feet of empty space, all 6 feet wide. You see why we think of it as the spare room.
The goal is to turn it into a camper van. Think “Do It Yourself” RV. It’ll be simple: no grey or blackwater tanks, no LP gas tanks. It’ll no doubt have some insulation, some power (both 12V and 110V), some cabinets, maybe a sink fed by jerry cans, perhaps a porta potti, and a place to sleep. It might have solar panels someday – we’ll see what our usage pattern is, and whether we feel we need them.
There aren’t many windows yet. Ford won’t sell windows that open, and the aftermarket glass companies don’t have their act together for the Transit yet. So we’re waiting a bit on that front, and will make do with the windows on the slider and rear doors.
We’ve done this before. Back in the 80s we had a Toyota Van that
we traveled cross-country in, and down to Florida and Texas. Oh –
and we took it around Nova Scotia, too. It came with seats that folded down to a double bed. We added curtains, a small table, and used a lot of odd boxes and milk crates for storage.
We also outfitted a Chevy Van in the 90s. We built our own pull-out couch/bed from angle iron and plywood, and again made curtains, and upholstered the couch cushions and bolsters ourselves. Milk crates were still part of the furnishings. Sadly, we no pictures of the interior.
Practically the only thing certain about this next conversion is that there will be milk crates involved.
But back to the current behemoth. Okay, it’s not much, but it satisfied a need, and gave us a project on an otherwise idle sunday afternoon. For some reason, the Ford cargo vans don’t have any handles on the inside of the rear doors. There’s a tiny latch that will let you out (we’ll need to improve on that someday – it’s at ankle height), but worse, there’s nothing to grab to close the door. So in the finest FoxHarp tradition, we crafted a couple of door handles from nothing but scrap materials found around the house.
The door handles were amusing, but the real first order of business is “a place to sleep”.
The plan is to have a bed that hoists to the ceiling when it’s not in use. That’s one of the reasons for such a tall van.
The first steps in doing that were making sure a bed would actually fit up there. We want a bed that’s at least as wide as a queen, though it doesn’t have to be the full 80” long that that implies.
So we built a simple frame as a mockup, and tried it out.
Eventually the real bed frame will rest on countertops along the inside walls, but the mockup just hangs there. The goal is for Paul to not have to duck his head while walking around. Julia will probably not have a problem. Given that, it seems that there’s just enough room for a 4” mattress on top of a frame that’s an inch or two thick.
Hoisting the bed means we need a system of pulleys, and a hoist mechanism, that a) fit in the van without detracting from the headroom, and b) can lift at least 100lbs – better make it 200 to be safe. (The lift never needs to lift us – just the bed.)
Paul has been playing with an online CAD program called OnShape lately, which is kind of fun to use, and hugely helpful when designing things that have dimensional constraints.
Ropes will lead up from the bed to pulleys at the tops of the walls. To maximize lift, these pulleys are built right onto the ceiling ribs.
The rest of the pulleys, and the hoist itself, will be mounted to a pair of wooden slats that run the length of the ceiling. These are mounted using existing holes in the ceiling ribs.
The trick to mounting things to the van ceiling and walls is to use threaded inserts, which are made to install into holes in sheet metal. You push the insert through a hole, then use the tool to cause the long part of the insert to mushroom apart behind the sheet metal, locking the insert in place.
With the pulleys and ropes in place, it was time to do some load testing. The shopping bags each hold 27lbs worth of bricks. The predicted weight of the frame and bedding is around 100lbs. Hand cranking is easy, though it takes a while. Using an electric drill is a lot faster, but the drill does strain a bit. We’re looking into lighter mattress options (the plan until now has been a 28lb 4” foam mattress from Ikea), but it seems we’ll be okay no matter what we choose.
The frame will be made from 8020-style extruded aluminum. It’s not cheap, but it will let us create a very thin, very rigid bed platform. We’ve slept on too many saggy bedframes and mattresses in bad hotels to create one of our very own.
The current plan for curtains is to use fleece (nice because it’s quite opaque, and doesn’t need hemming) which will be cut to fit the windows and held in place either with small magnets or dots of velcro. Julia started in on making the first pattern the other day.
For the windshield, we got an excellent sunshade from Amazon. It completely covers the huge windshield, yet packs up pretty small.
The driver side cabinet will be 12” deep, the passenger side will be just 8 or 8-1/2” deep. That will leave not quite 4 feet between them – room for chairs, sometimes a small table. There will be a couch (of some sort) across the back, in front of the rear doors.
So much time was spent on designing the bed that it was almost an anticlimax when all the parts we’d ordered arrived. But only “almost” – it was actually pretty exciting.
We bought some 1/4” x 1-5/16” lattice strips at the local bigbox, and then iterated on how best to attach them to the frame, and finally came up with this: ripped a set of 3/4” x 1/8” strips, drilled holes in just the right places, and stitched them with 20 feet of 1/8” shock cord.
All the time spent calculating weight distributions, poring over the 8020 spec sheets, and creating multiple designs paid off. The frame is plenty rigid for the two of us. Bonus: the actual final weight is quite a bit less than predicted: the frame, including wooden slats, weighs just 66 lbs. Add a 28 lb mattress from Ikea and we’ll still be under 100 lbs. The ceiling pulleys will be happy about that.
Okay… so let’s install it in the van!
It’s sitting on milk crates now (Remember? We told you there would be milk crates…), but eventually it will sit on the cabinets, which will be about 8” taller.
We then took a break to trim 5” off of our 80” queen-sized Ikea mattress. That gave us a chance to finally see how much room we’d really have when the bed is raised.
Yes!! There’s still about 2 inches above Paul’s head. We were hoping for at least an inch, so this is great. And, of course we had to make an action video!
That’s all the excitement we can take for today. The only other thing we’ve done is come up with a means of firmly tethering the bed to the rear of the van, using climbers’ carabiners and slings. We’d rather it not decapitate us in the event of a sudden stop. ;-)
Hopefully the next update will be about progress on the cabinets.
[ Edit: There’s now another web page which describes the bed assembly and rigging in more detail. ]
With the bed mostly finished, it’s time to build something to set it on when it’s in the lowered position. The design for the left side cabinet is pretty complete, and has been through several iterations, so it’s ready to be built. The passenger side needs a little more work.
So, off to the lumber yard, and started making sawdust in the driveway. They’ll be made from with poplar, in standard dimensional lumber sizes, partly because dealing with sheets of 3/4” plywood is really kind of a pain, and also because we have no idea how one is supposed to finish the edges on things you build from plywood. If only there were someone in Paul’s family we could ask. ;-)
In any case, it was a fine day for working in the driveway. Cell phone cameras just don’t capture sunsets very well. (The operation in progress in the photo is making the countertop, which needs to be wider than the 11-1/4” that you get from a 1x12 board.)
Of course it took quite a bit longer than planned and expected, but we expected that, right? And probably should have planned on it. :-)
Anyway… the “chest-of-Ikea-drawers” on the driver side is built and bolted in. It still needs to be finished (we’ll take it back out for that), but we’re not sure what we’re going to do yet. We like oiling furniture because it’s easy to apply and maintain, but the top at least will probably be poly’ed.
The drawers are from the Ikea “Trofast” line of kids’ storage furniture. They’re not the abolute most efficient use of the space in the cabinet (note how narrow the drawers get toward the bottom), but they made the project attainable, for us. They’re supported by aluminum channel from Lowes that fit the 1/2” rim prefectly.
The drawers are supported by a seemingly endless number of small aluminum channels which all needed to be cut, deburred, drilled, and countersunk. The drawers are held closed by a simple turn button. There’s a small rubber washer squished under there which keeps the lever from moving without a helping hand.
Next up is the “built-in” for the passenger side. This one will be both simpler and more complicated – simpler because there won’t be all those drawers to design around, but more complicated because it needs to be as shallow as possible.
The next cabinet needs to leave at least 48” free across the floor, measured from the driver-side cabinet. We have a 24”x48” folding table we’d like to use in either orientation, and anyway 48 is a nice number. It would feel silly to end up owning a 20’ cargo van that couldn’t hold a sheet of plywood lying flat on the floor. Currently there’s only 49” from the driver-side cabinet to the passenger wheel well, and the new cabinet needs some support in front of that. The wheel well is just 7-1/2” deep, so space is tight – if the whole cabinet takes even 8”, there will only be 48-1/2” of floor left. It should just work.
There won’t really be something sticking out of the countertop – that thing represents part of the van wall, and the countertop will be cut to go around it. The big open space in the middle is currently reserved for our folding chairs, but could also hold shelves in the future. But just in case you think this stuff all happens on a computer using CAD? Here’s a dose of good old-fashioned WAD – whiteboard assisted design:
Time out for projects that don’t involve sawdust. We need curtains, and our Ikea mattress was 5” too long when we bought it. (75” is a common length for RV mattresses, but the only place we could actually lie on and try a 4” mattress was Ikea, where mattresses are standard sizes.) Happily, Ikea the covers on our mattress zips off, and was amenable to minor surgery to shorten it.
The curtains (“window covers” would probably be more accurate) are pretty simple. We had finished cutting the fleece panels to size earlier, and Julia figured out where we needed to put our magnets. The magnets came from a set of refrigerator magnets that look kind of like push-pins – the magnets were little tiny things. We found that using a bit of hot melt glue to hold the magnet in place, and a little more surrounding the magnet to hold another patch of fleece on top of it, worked really well.
The scariest project so far, by far, was installing our ventilation fan in the roof. Ventilation is pretty important, because we have no openable windows as yet, people and dogs exhale a lot of water vapor, and we have a small propane heater – propane gives off a lot of water vapor when it burns. (No, we won’t be sleeping with the heater on.)
So. That means we were going to have to cut a square 14” hole in our roof. Ahem.
Okay, it’s not quite just that simple.
You also have to cover practically the whole roof with plastic to keep the hot metal chips from burning the paint, and the whole inside of the van to keep chips out of every nook and cranny. You also have to cover yourself, for similar reasons.
A test cut is a good idea, to get a feel for the saw. We tried an oscillating multitool first, before reverting to the tried and true jig saw. The van roof has channels in it, for rigidity, which make the cutting surface uneven. A small shim taped in place made it level.
Then it’s a matter of drilling holes in order to screw down some adapters (which compensate for the curvature of the roof) and the fan mounting flange,
Writing this, it turns out we’ve never taken a picture of the completed installation, from either inside or outside. Stay tuned.
[ Later … ]
The fan took precedence over carpentry due to a stretch of of beautiful weather last week, but since then there’s finally been time to finish off the passenger side cabinet.
It’s still not quite done – there’s one more shelf to add, and a flip-up countertop that will extend further into the slider door opening, but the whole thing is bolted down, and good enough for photos.
Just a note on these cabinets – if you’re an amateur woodworker, and you don’t own a jig for making pocket screw joints, you need one. Trust us on this. The major maker of jigs is from Kregs – they make excellent jigs, and the screws are annoyingly pricey, but they do the job perfectly – far better than drywall/construction screws. And if you do it right, the joints are mostly hidden. Here’s a shot of a pocket screw joint, in progress – almost every joint on the cabinets looks something like this:
“Couch” seems like too nice a word for something sitting on milk crates. (We said there would be milk crates involved, remember?) “Padded bench” might be a better name for it.
Basically what we built is a hinged top for a set of five milk crates that sit across the rear of the van. The bench top is cut to fit the outlines of the door opening, and of the aft end of the two side cabinets, and a piece of 3” foam was carved (isn’t that why it’s called a carving knife?) to match that shape.
(The backrest of the couch will be the van doors themselves, cushioned by some big pillows.)
The hinge in the bench top lets us get into the milk crates from either the front or rear of the bench. The bench top also serves to keep the contents of the milk crates, and the milk crates themselves, in place. To do this, the top is locked into end panels using four sliding barrel bolt locks, one on each end of each hinged panel.
In addition, a strong rim mounted underneath each hinged half keeps the crates from sliding out from underneath, unless the barrel bolts on that side have been releases, and the benchtop raised. (That rim hasn’t been installed in the second picture here.)
In addition to the major components, mostly covered above, there have been many small projects, some necessary, some just for fun.
When the bed is in the descended position, there’s not much working surface left on our countertops. In particular, there wasn’t really room to make coffee, which one could easily imagine doing before stowing the bed. So we added a flip-up countertop extension just big enough to hold our butane stove for boiling water in the morning. An added advantage of using the stove there in general is that cooking smells will tend to leave the van, rather than be trapped inside.
(By the way – the beautiful countertop covering is temporary, until we can oil the cabinets, and polyurethane the tops.)
We’re bad dog owners, and don’t completely restrain Lucas when traveling. (Yes, we understand the possible consequences.) He’s always had the back seat to himself in our cars, but giving him the entire rear of the van while under way seemed a bit much. For the most part he just lies in his bed and sleeps, but sometimes he sits, and he needed a backrest. We added a rotating barrier to the front end of the driver-side cabinet to help hold him, and his bed, in place. It rotates up for when we’re parked and don’t feel like banging our shins into it for a while.
No campground or parking space is ever completely flat. Beds, on the other hand, want to be level. So you need to level your van. (We have the option of leveling the bed within the van, which we’ll probably try someday, but the first step will still be to try and level the vehicle first.)
Making some blocks to put under the wheels is easy. We cut up some 2x6 lumber that was taking space in the garage and made a pair of simple three-level ramps – we can get 1.5”, 3”, or 4.5” of lift, on any two wheels. But figuring out how much to lift which wheels has been a problem in the past, often involving multiple iterations of driving on and off the ramps, usually at the end of a long day.
The premise is that you make a scale model of your van, and of your leveling blocks, and level that first. You then know exactly how to level the real thing. (We got idea for this gizmo from a post on the sprinter-source forum by Dave Orton.)
We used pennies to represent the 1.5” thickness of the 2x6 layers that comprise my ramps. Pennies are about 1.5mm thick. So my wooden block is about 1/25 the size of the wheelbase and track of the van (because 1” is 25.4mm). We chose pennies because they’re plentiful, and can be easily self-stored in a small block of wood.
[ Edit: If doing it over, We wouldn’t use the level itself as the door which closes the pennies into their hideaway. Sometimes the cover doesn’t get closed properly, and also the screws can loosen up. It would be more accurate if the level were fixed firmly to the block of wood. ]
After parking the van, the spirit level (sitting on a counter inside the van) shows we have some leveling work to do, but putting some pennies under two “wheels” levels it out:
Finally (and this is an addendum – forgot to add it to this section originally), we added a shock cord along the shelf above the front seats, to help keep things we store up there from falling off onto our heads. We ran a single length of 3/16” bungee cord (from the hardware store) from one end to the other, passing right through the plastic in the center section.
A future change might be to have the bungee exit the center section almost as soon as it enters, run across the outside of the top, and then reenter in order to immediately come out the side. This would leave a length of bungee lying flat across most of the top of the center part, giving us one more place to slip small things where they would be held in place.
Time for a test! Lucas and Paul headed west from Boston, for 5 days of driving. Great trip! Things worked pretty well, once some of the initial squeaks and rattles were taken care of.
While we were staying in Santa Fe on a bit of a vacation, Paul had time to oil all of the wood that went into the cabinets. That involved removing them each in turn from the van, removing most of the hardware, sanding it all, and applying several coats of natural Watco Danish Oil. We’ve used this stuff on other projects in the past, always with good results.
Happily, Santa Fe has pretty much perfect weather for doing that kind of work outside!
There’s still some polyurethaning to do, particularly for the countertops, and for some of the surfaces exposed to the doorway, where the cabinet often gets a bit wet if it rains and we don’t close up immediately.
We can finally use the front passenger seat while we’re camped!
We’ve been planning on this for a while, but we were pretty sure it was going to be hard. Turns out it didn’t take more than a half day, being pretty relaxed about it. Turns out that after you’ve cut a hole in the roof of your van, taking a saw to the sides of the seats is pretty easy. Here’s a shot of the end result:
We also have a much more detailed writeup, with more pictures of the installation process. It’s pretty detailed, so it doesn’t seem really appropriate to include it all here.
Mosquitos are the bane of camping. We had no trouble out west, in New Mexico and Utah, but during the trip back east they started rearing their ugly little pointy heads.
So we’ve been busy. As it happens, we had never thrown out the netting we’d devised for our old vans, so sufficient netting material was already on hand.
All of the netting can be left in place while driving the van, which will be convenient when going for short excursions from a multi-day campsite.
The large door panel is held in place by thin rods, contained in the hem of the netting, that tuck behind the rubber trim strip that goes around the door. In a passenger van that trim strip would cover the edge of the door frame, the paneling, and any upholstery, but in the cargo van the inner half of the U-shaped channel is empty, since the walls are bare.
On the forward edge of the door, a 1/4” fiberglass rod tucks nicely between that rubber U-shaped channel and the big steel grab handle. (In the pictures that rod is actually a long strip of wood which didn’t work well. It’s since been replaced by the rod.) Using the sewn-on handle loop, it’s easy to tug the rod and its netting out from the door edge in order to enter or exit. That rod is a little over 5’ long – it came as a 10’ length from Grainger, where it was quite cheap if you’re able to pick it up at one of their locations. There’s a large magnet helping to hold that front upper corner in place, so that opening the netting doesn’t cause the top of the netting to come undone.
On the upper edge of the netting, another 1/4” rod fits into the rubber U-channel from above, and the downward curve of the door frame at the ends keeps it in place. (The top rod is exactly 4’ long – it’s an orange snow plow driveway marker from Home Depot.)
At the rear edge it’s a little more complicated, because of our cabinets, and the S-curve shape of the door edge. Above the curve we used a thin flat piece of wood tucked into the rubber channel. A couple of strong magnets keep it from popping out of place.
Below the S-curve the netting tucks (with the assistance of another thin strip of wood) between the door edge and our cabinet.
On our old toyota van we had netting that attached to the outside of the front doors with magnets. The downsides of that arrangement were that the netting would get all wet if it started raining. That was annoying, but in addition you’d close the window, and then when you opened it again the wet netting would stick to the glass, and the magnets would pull loose, and you’d have to leave the van to fix them. You also couldn’t drive anywhere with the netting in place.
So this time the netting goes on the inside. We were hoping to attach the magnets using the same hot-melt glue technique we’d used on our curtains but it turns out that hot-melt glue doesn’t stick to our mosquito netting – it just pulls right off. That immediately upped the amount of work: every magnet would need to be sewn on. Have you ever sewn something involving a bunch of little magnets? Here’s a hint: sewing machines, scissors, seam rippers, and even pins are all made of steel. Hilarity ensues. :-)
The magnets came from a set of “Magnetic Pushpins” we got at amazon.
The strip of wood that extends part way across the bottom is simply a paint stirring stick (painted green), the kind you get for free when you buy paint. It’s 14” long, about 1-1/4” wide, and 1/8” thick. It fits the narrow channel beside the window perfectly, and doesn’t interfere with the window traveling up and down at all. The magnets all stick to the outer edge of the door’s frame – positioned there, they lie in between the two rubber strips that contact the door when it’s closed.
Inspired by a tip from jonsobi, on the Transit forum, we added an additional pull handle to the trailing edge of the slider. That door can be balky to close sometimes – it closes most of the way, but the rear edge doesn’t turn its corner quickly enough, and it doesn’t latch. Having a handle back there means we won’t have to re-open the door in order to slide it shut again, harder this time, making more and more racket each time we try. Now we can just give this new handle a hard yank in order to latch the rear edge of the door.
A guy who goes by the nickname “Dakota” has a blog called “Traipsing About”. Topics vary, but often focus on his Sprinter RV conversion. Tucked in there somewhere is a little gem where he talks about his intermediate door stop.
The problem with the big sliding door on a van is that it only has two stable positions: closed, and fully open. Mercedes or Ford will sell you an OEM solution for keeping the door just partly open, but those solutions are expensive, bulky, and hard to install. Dakota came up with a much simpler solution, and at the expense of small “buh duh bump” when you open or close the door, you gain an intermediate stopping point. Dakota sells his little widget, and hopefully will sell many more – it’s a clever idea.
After an email asking if his device would work on the Transit didn’t get an answer within 12 hours (the horror!), it seemed we had to make our own. (“Instant-Gratification-Are-Us!”) We used the dimensions on his blog post (3” x 1/4” x .1”) to cut one on the bandsaw from a sheet of 3/8” nylon. So it’s a little wider (3/8”) than his 1/4”, but that dimension doesn’t matter much. The wheel rest notch roughly matches the curvature of the door track’s roller.
Don’t know how well the double-sided tape that was on hand (i.e., “found in the junk drawer”) will hold up, but after 4 days camping in Acadia, including some rain on the way there, it’s seems just fine. If it gets lost, VHB tape will hold the next one, for sure.
(By the way: Dakota did reply to the email within a day, and didn’t disapprove when shown pictures of our version. Again: hope he sells many more.)
There are four ceiling lights in the rear of the van – two in the very rear, and two just inside the slider door. We replaced the bulbs with LED “festoon base” bulbs very early on, to reduce power draw. (We were able to find bulbs that matched the original color almost exactly, and which were just a little bit brighter. Only $5 for all four from amazon!)
The problem is, Ford does a really odd thing with a lot of their trucks and vans – there’s no switch to control those lights. The lights will come on when you open any of the doors, and will go off 30 seconds after you close them both (unless you lock the doors, in which case they go out immediately). If you leave the doors open, the lights will go off about half an hour after they were opened. And then they’ll go on again when you close them. There’s simply no way to keep the lights either completely on, or off. You can imagine that this is kind of a pain when you’re camping.
Should be easy to just add a switch, right? Actually, no, not so easy. The Ford wiring controls both the power to the bulbs, and also the ground connection. So while you can keep the lights off by adding a simple switch to either wire, you can’t keep them on by simply switching the power wire to an always-on 12V source – you need to switch the ground side as well. Here’s the professionally-drawn schematic of our solution: Paul was an electrical engineer in college. Can you tell? ;-) There’s a DPDT switch to switch the lights between “van power/gnd” and “constant power/gnd”, individual SPST switches for the front and rear light pairs, and a dimmer, for good measure, which only operates when the lights are on “constant” power, so as not to do anything surprising to the Ford electronics.
Sure seems like a lot of work to control the lights in a way that Ford should have allowed in the first place.
Our van came with a full vinyl floor covering, which is actually pretty good. It has a thick felt backing that is contoured to match the corrugations in the sheet metal of the van’s metal floor, giving a reasonably flat, durable surface. If this were a work van, it would be more than sufficient.
The trouble is that over the several months we’ve used the van the felt backing has compressed, and the corrugations have started to become apparent. One spends a lot of time barefoot, and on one’s knees, while living in a camper like ours, and even though we have an additional rug on top of it, those ridges in the floor were annoying. (By the way, we also had to evict an errant pea that somehow got under our mattress early on.)
A company called Bedrug makes custom fit liners for pickups and vans that are reputed to solve this problem. The model we got is called the “VanTred”)
So, working in a sunny driveway in the middle of a heat wave (“Doh!”), we spent the day removing most of the contents from the rear of the van, including the cabinets, installing the new floor, and reinstalling the cabinets.
The heat probably helped the new floor flatten out quickly – it looks like it would be stiff if cold. It seems well made, and it fit the floor contours of the van exactly. The new floor consists of foam underneath, to match the corrugations, and a layer of vinyl on top. That vinyl layer is definitely not as heavy duty as the Ford cargo floor we took up – it’s easy to tell that it’s thinner. Since we use a rug on top we’re not too worried about that durability, but we might store the old floor in the attic for a while, in case we want to double up on the top surface. (We’d scrape the felt from the old floor first.)
The only fitment surprise came at the slider doorstep – it seems that the Bedrug folks assume you might not have the “finished” plastic threshold at that door, so their floor comes right to the edge of the step.
So we put the old floor back into the van, on top of the new, and marked where we’d need to do some trimming. The bedrug floor cut easily, and a spade bit worked well for drilling the couple of holes we needed.
After that, the only problem was that the new floor is a little thicker than the old one – perhaps 3/16”? (It’s a little hard to measure.) It was enough that our cabinets couldn’t be reinstalled without elongating the holes that the wall-mount bolts go through.
It’s now all back together. One can still tell where the corrugations are, especially when on one’s knees, but they’re much less pronounced, and it’s all much cushier. Let’s hope it stays that way!
And while out checking on the “knee feel” just now, our neighborhood turkey and her young’un wandered by: (Which has nothing at all to do with the van, but it’s kind of cool to have a neighborhood turkey.)
At some point, RVers adopted nautical terminology for their electrical connections. When you plug your camper or trailer into an electrical outlet to give it power, it somehow magically becomes a boat, and what you’ve done is connect to “shore power”.
Our power needs are modest: when it’s cold we run a small electric heater to take the chill off (and that’s all it does – even 1500 watts doesn’t do all that much for an uninsulated van in sub-40 degree weather), and in the summer we sometimes run a small box fan (far more helpful). In theory we should need the ability to keep our battery topped off while camped, though in practice we use so little battery power (just the lights, the vent fan, the radio, and adjusting of the power windows and seats) that we can last many days without worrying about the engine not being able to start.
In any case, so far we’ve been running an extension cord out the door of the van for the heater and fan. That works, but the extension cord gets pinched in the door, and it’s kind of messy and in the way. Taking a lead from some folks on the Ford forum, we made it all much neater. There are some pre-existing holes at the base of the B-pillar on the driver side which are ideal for this. We cut off about 6’ from the male end of a 12 gauge extension cord, added some grommets to the holes (one of which had to be enlarged a bit), and fished the cut end into the van. After figuring out where the outlet would be mounted, we cut the cord to length and attached the outlet.
There needed to be a bracket of some sort to keep the extension pigtail from dangling on the ground. Happily there was Yet Another pre-drilled hole (we’ve probably only drilled one or two “new” holes in the van since we started this project!) just under the edge of the frame that we could use. We installed a rivnut, and found a 1/4”-20 eye bolt. We pried it open (i.e., effectively turning the eye-bolt into a hook) just enough to accept the extension cord. The cord can now be unhooked and reattached by feel – no need to crawl under the van.
The surface mount outlet box (which we painted to match the color of the van) mounts nicely on the sloped area at the bottom of the pillar. We mounted it with 3M Dual-lock, which is kind of like velcro, but much stronger. The advantage over using screws is that the position can be adjusted a bit, and if we ever need more room, perhaps while working on the seat, it will be easy to get the outlet out of the way. There’s a plastic shroud that covers much of the area where it’s mounted – that had to have a large notch cut out to accomodate the outlet. (It was very convenient to be able to move the outlet a bit when the notch we’d cut didn’t quite end up where it should have.)
We said above that we don’t need a battery charger. But lacking any other way to keep the batteries topped off (a solar powered charger will someday be a much better solution), we got one for peace of mind, and installed a second outlet on our (usually hidden) electrical panel to power it. The charger is always connected to both the battery and the outlet – a call to customer support assured us that this setup is safe for both the battery and charger. The van may be parked in the driveway for many weeks at a time, and now we’ll be able to easily plug the van in to make sure the battery doesn’t drain. (By the way, this charger, a “Battery Tender Power Plus 3”, is bargain-priced at Costco. They have an exclusive deal with Deltran, and sell it for just $40. Similar chargers are usually about twice as much.)
It seems we never posted about the electrical panel itself. It’s simply a piece of 3/4” board that we had, mounted on flanges in order to set it back as far as possible (about 3”) from the surface of the interior wall.
Before commiting to that, we looked up examples of several of the prospective occupants of the panel (battery charger, solar controller, fusebox, etc), and they all seemed to take less than 3” of depth. As it turns out, a thin surface mount outlet box, plus an electrical plug along with its cord’s strain relief, is a bit more than 3”, but it’ll do.
The first thing mounted to the panel was a Blue Sea six position fusebox, visible a couple of images above. The fusebox is fed from one of the Customer Connection Point terminals on the driver seat pedestal. Those terminals are fused for 60A each, so the wire to the fusebox is 10 gauge. The ground wire goes to the customer ground point on the floor between the two front seats. There are currently three circuits served by the fusebox: the MaxxFan ventilation fan (5A max draw), the cargo lights (.35A max draw), and the Batter Tender Power Plus 3A charger (3A max load).
It finally happened. Happily, the dent is a small one, and it’s on the inside of the van. Unhappily, the other side of the dent – the bulge – is on the outside of the van.
To keep our electric heater from bouncing and rattling in a most annoying way while driving, we bungie it to its shelf. The bungie cords are a pair of those ball-end bungie loops that are really intended for helping support a tarp, but which are very useful for all sorts of things.
A few weeks ago, while fastening things down, the bungies slipped apart. We didn’t notice it at the time, but the resounding THWACK! we heard was one of the plastic balls hitting the outside wall of the van. You can barely see the small dent it made in the outside wall, above and behind the heater in the picture above.
Ironically, it wasn’t noticed at all until Paul got the notion to actually wash the van. All of a sudden it stands out like a sore thumb. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
And looking back, it turns out there are no pictures of the bed in the “down” position. When the bed is down we’re usually going to bed, sleeping, or getting up, and taking pictures just isn’t at the top of our list. So here goes: Looks pretty comfy, eh?
At some point we promised more details on how we constructed the bed, and its mechanisms. That’s now available in a separate “Raised Bed Design Details” web page.
We’ve been thinking that there should be a way to make better use of the space taken up by the center console between the two front seats. The top is divided into awkward compartments, the front panel has a coin holder we’ll never use and some switches that we’ll probably never use either. And there’s a lot of wasted space inside. We might just remove the coin holder and the switches and make a cubby hole in which to stick things – the usual paraphernalia of road trips, like candy bars, gas receipts, sunglass cases for sunglasses you lost long ago. That sort of thing.
We considered installing a second shelf above the overhead shelf that’s already present above the driver and passenger seats, but in the end decided that just a cargo net would probably serve to hold the very light things we might put up there. We’re thinking sweaters, hats, gloves, and other things like that.
So we got a cargo net from Amazon, and went to work.
In the end it seemed worthwhile to make that frame a permanent part of the installation – it will help ensure that the headliner doesn’t deform due to the new stresses pulling on it. By slipping the X-shaped frame into the gap between the headliner and the roof, and screwing through the headliner and into the wood (the holes were all pre-drilled), the net is very well supported, and the headliner reinforced.
We added some small clips in the middle of the cargo net’s upper and lower shock cords to help support it. Sadly, there’s a sounder/beeper of some sort glued to the top surface of the headliner, right in the middle, which was in the way. As a result, our extra clips had to be installed off-center so that we didn’t screw right into the beeper.
By the way – if you’re planning on doing this – the 3 orange pegs that hold the headliner up along its rear edge will pop out with a good pry. Having a set of automotive trim tools, like you can get from Harbor Freight, helps a lot with this sort of thing.
Most RVs have separate batteries for a) starting the vehicle, and b) running all of the “camping” stuff. That guarantees that even if you overuse the lights and the stereo and the TV and the microwave and the hair dryer and the espresso machine that you’ll still be able to start the engine and drive home for some much needed relaxation. ;-)
But our van’s not like that. It came with a factory option for dual batteries, which are connected in parallel and are used for the usual car-starting duty. While we could have added a second battery, or battery bank, for the “camper” stuff, we decided not to. We don’t use, or even have, most of the appliances listed above – our electrical needs are small. We use the LED lighting at night, sometimes we listen to music for a while. And we charge our cell phones. So far that’s been about it.
But as the weather cools down, we’re thinking of getting a couple of 12V electric blankets or mattress pads, both for our bed and for Lucas. Plugging in heating elements means we need to have a much better idea of how much juice we’ve got in our batteries, and how long it will last.
We got a Victron BMV-702 battery monitor to help us do that. Like most battery monitors, the Victron unit keeps track of your battery’s state of charge (SoC) by keeping track of how much current flows both in and out of the battery. To do this, one inserts a big fat low resistance shunt into the ground return path to the battery. Our shunt has a resistance of just .0001 ohms, and a current capacity of 500 amps. (It’s that big in order to handle the load of the starter motor, and we know it’s big enough because the whole electrical system is protected by a 470A fuse.) The monitor continuously samples the voltage across the shunt, and translates those readings into total amp-hours into and out of the batteries.
The existing negative wire to the battery needs to be connected to one end of the shunt. The other end of the shunt is attached to the negative battery terminal with a new cable. To size the cable, we made a couple of prototypes, first using rope, and then using plastic tubing to better mimic the stiffness of the eventual heavy-duty cable. The nice guy at the local Interstate Batteries dealer was able to copy our prototype exactly, using 2/0 welding cable. He even got the relative angles of the end lugs right.
The one catch is that the stud that the Ford cable normally attaches to is only 6mm, and the shunt bolts are 10mm. Since we didn’t want to cut off and replace the end of the Ford cable (in case we remove the shunt someday), we needed an adapter. By asking around at some electical supply companies, we found a place that could sell us a short length of copper/brass “bus bar” that would do the trick. In fact, they let us have it for free. We donated to the shop coffee fund in thanks. Just a short chunk was needed, along with a new hole to accomodate the bolt on the shunt.
That worked nicely, and we installed the shunt on the back of the driver seat pedestal. The additional red/black wires go to a temperature sensor which does double duty by attaching to the positive battery terminal – it both measures the battery temperature (important, since battery capacity decreases with lower temperature), and picks up 12V power to keep the meter running. The shunt connects trivially to the little round meter (which contains all the smarts) with an ethernet-like plug-in wire.
The meter needs a 2” diameter hole, easily cut into the cargo liner panels with a hole saw. Plugged it in, configured the capacity of our battery bank (140Ah, for the record), told it how low we’re willing to run our batteries (down to 60% full), and we were done.
It turns out that we’ve never talked about our little rain awning, which we made sometime back in June. It still feels like a prototype that should be replaced soon, but the fact is that it mostly works, so we’ll probably live with it for some time. (As an aunt and uncle of Paul’s used to say: “If a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing well. If it’s really worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly!”)
The sides of the van have a slope to them. This means that when the slider door is open, rain can fall directly into the door opening, getting the countertop, among other things, all wet. In addition, there’s a fair amount of van wall above the doorframe – any rain that hits that area will also run down and drip into the door – there’s no lip or gutter to divert it.
A shipping fiasco with Grainger had left us with a spare 10 foot length of 1/4” fiberglass rod left over from the mosquito netting project. Armed with that, the rain fly from a long-unused tent, and some strong magnets, we went to work. The fiberglass rod feeds through small sewn “tunnels” in the rain fly, and the ends are held captive at the edges of the fly with reinforced pockets sewn from nylon webbing.
The “excess” material formed by this bow is held to the wall of the van with fairly strong magnets we got at Home Depot. The whole awning hangs from those magnets. The hooks on the magnets aren’t strictly necessary, but they do provide a handle, which is pretty important when trying to detach them.
The hem on the “wall” edge of the rain fly has a piece of rope threaded through it. This creates a barrier that keeps the slippery nylon from slipping out from under the magnets if tugged at by a gust of wind, and also helps one set the magnets right at the edge of the fly when putting it up. The outer dangling corners of the awning can be staked out for a little more covered area if need be, and also to help control the awning in wind gusts.
It works fairly well. It requires no poles, and prevents light rain from entering the doorway. We still get drips into the doorway once the awning material is saturated, but most water is deflected. The first time we used the awning we didn’t have enough magnets (we now use 8 of them), and we didn’t have the rope inserted into the hem as described above. The awning blew off in some strong gusts – about half the magnets stayed behind on the van, the others were scattered. The next thing to do is make little “socks” for the magnets. It’s likely that eventually they’ll be dropped in some iron-rich dirt, and that dirt, which will be impossible to remove completely, will scratch anything it comes in contact with. The little socks would hopefully keep them clean.
Just found several old pictures of things we intended to share, so here goes:
We’ve talked about our curtains previously, but sometime later (when we realized we were going to a bluegrass festival in the van, and were going to need more privacy) we made a new pair for the front windows. After mocking up what we needed to get the shape right, we ended up with a pretty simple design. In the middle, support comes from a small S-hook that hangs from the visor hinge. The front corner is held down on the dash by a 4” length of iron bar that nestles across a natural pocket in the formed plastic dashboard. At the rear, we have magnets that hold the rear edge against the B-pillar. (Our sunshade takes care of the rest of the windshield.)
We have about six of the oval-shaped flashlights – they’re good for area lighting on our countertops (using the side array of LEDs, while stuck to the top of the window frames), and when you’re heading outside at night it’s easy to grab one to use as a regular flashlight (using it in a different mode: there are a couple of LEDs on the end as well). Those are available in lots of places.
The flexible lights are the stars of the show, though. They’re great for reading, or for aiming at a pot while you’re cooking.
You can never have too much storage space. A co-conspirator on the Transit forum pointed out these neat cargo nets that stick to the carpet-covered seat backs using velcro. Very handy, and at $3.50 each on ebay, hard to pass up!
This voltmeter from Amazon isn’t so necessary now that we’ve installed our over-featured Victron battery monitor, but it was essential before that, and still handy to have. It’s very accurate, as confirmed by both the Victron and a “real” multimeter.
Some coworkers of Paul’s used to joke that no project was complete until it could send mail. That was usually the indication (back in the day) that all the other useful features had been implemented, and that the team was just starting to play.
The van can’t send mail yet, but at least the software part of the project has begun. Finally!! ;-)
The Victron battery monitor we installed has a serial interface (like an old COM port on a PC, but more primitive) over which it can do logging and reporting of the data it collects. Victron sells a USB adapter for that serial port, which is nicely opto-isolated (so you hopefully won’t fry either your van or your laptop by accident). With one of those interfaces, and a modicum of programming skills, we can now generate nifty graphs of power consumption, voltage levels, battery temperature, power in use, and that sort of thing. Here’s a simple plot from yesterday of battery current and voltage. The van sat all day, doing nothing:
You can see that no current was drawn, and the voltage was constant, except when the door was opened just before 6:30AM. (Yes, we were up!) There’s a big negative current spike as the van comes awake, then it levels off at about 1/2 Amp (the dashboard is “alive” during that time, the 12V outlets are operational, etc.). About half an hour later the van’s “battery saver” features kicks in and shuts everything off again. The voltage drops during that half hour, but comes back afterward.
So, that’s not very interesting, but as we start adding more power consumers (like electric blankets, and maybe someday a fridge) it’ll be good data to have.
Paul’s software for reading the battery monitor is open source, of course.
There are three power outlets in the van as it came from Ford – two on the dash console, and one in the very rear of the van. Two problems: they’re not well positioned for where we usually want 12V power while parked, and they’re controlled by the van’s brain, which shuts them off after 30 minutes. That not real convenient for charging your phone.
So we got some 12V receptacles from ebay, and mounted them in little poplar boxes to match the cabinets. We actually started the project back in October – just took a while to write it up.
Making the outlet boxes was fun. (Pulling the Shopsmith into the driveway to make sawdust on a good day always is.) We didn’t have the correct hole saw for the receptacles, and that provided a nice excuse to get out the jigsaw, which rarely gets used. The disk sander was also vital, to get the angles right so the boxes would mount vertically on the sloped and tapered C pillars.
Snaking the wire through the walls, encased in split-loom “conduit”, took a lot of fiddling. The goal was to come out the little hole right under the “window” opening, and it turns out that’s kind of hard to do. We were successful in the end, but if you do this, be careful! Those sheet metal edges are sharp!!
A word about 3M Dual Lock – it’s fantastic stuff. If you have a turnpike toll transponder in your car, it’s probably held to your windshield with some small pieces of Dual Lock. Think of it as industrial strength velcro – it has a powerful hold, but can still be separated when you need it. And if you need to peel it off the wall or the thing that it’s holding up, the adhesive gives way nicely. When mounting wood pieces, a couple of coats of quick-dry polyurethane fills in the pores of the grain so the Dual Lock will stick properly.
The only annoyance is that even if you buy black Dual Lock, the squishy adhesive layer is white. Happily, a black Sharpie applied to the edge of the adhesive before mounting it fixes that problem, as you can see in this “before and after” shot:
Also – be sure and leave clearance for the stuff. It’s probably 1/4” thick when all is said and done. You can see the white adhesive layers, as well as the thickness, where the cover for the battery monitor shunt mounts on the driver’s seat base. (I hadn’t yet learned the Sharpie trick, and it doesn’t work so well after the Dual Lock is in place.)
The End (for now)