For our van build out, we wanted to include all of the basic amenities that you would find in a house using the simplest possible means – virtually all DIY. This meant fitting a bed, refrigerator, pantry, sink, TV, secondary AC, battery bank/secondary electrical system, water storage/plumbing system, counter, and storage space within a roughly 70 square foot space.
Originally, we were going to use one of Kyle’s older work vans (a 1995 Chevy G20) as our travel vehicle for the sake of remaining “stealth” on the road. The idea was that an older, some what beat up van would avoid attention when parked in cities. Once we decided on a departure date (roughly 6 months away) and started going through that van mechanically, we realized that there wasn’t enough time to address all of it’s issues and complete the build out.
Luckily, our good friends Justin and Natalie had an 88’ Ford Econoline van that they were getting ready to sell. It fit the bill as far as being an older van that we could potentially stealth camp in in urban areas, but only had 65,000 miles on it and seemed to be in great condition. When we came from Florida to pick it up, it exceeded all expectations. The van was mint. While this conflicted somewhat with our “beat up van” idea, it was perfect. It even came with a name (Morty).
Since we both work from our computers, the first task at hand after putting down flooring was the electrical system. We started with 4 12 volt deep cell batteries wired in parallel with 2 inverters (an Erayak 1000W Inverter dedicated to the refrigerator and a KRIËGER 2000W Inverter for everything else [Krieger 1500W linked here]). To keep the batteries charged, we started with 2 Renogy Monocrystalline 100 Watt Solar Panels and Wanderer Charge Controller. We also added a Smart Battery 140A Isolator to charge the batteries off the alternator when the engine’s running. The positive lead to the stereo was rerouted to the battery bank so we can listen to music without draining the starting battery. To keep our DC system organized, we used a Blue Sea Systems ST Blade Fuse Block.
*A note on power inverters: the ones we’ve mentioned in this post are modified sine wave inverters. We’ve since upgraded to a single 2,000 watt Power TechON pure sine wave inverter. The demands of running a small refrigerator/other appliances along with charging devices pretty much around the clock ended up being too much for both of the inverters mentioned above combined. We discussed our experience here. Our new pure sine inverter has been doing the job by itself for the last couple weeks and seems to be way more capable to this point. So if you’re putting together a system for similar purposes, we highly recommend going with a pure sine unit instead of modified sine. A comparison of the two can be found here: Inverters: Modified sine wave vs. Pure sine wave.
*A note about our ladder racks: the ones linked here are not the exact racks we used. We actually found the ones we needed on ebay (still Vantech) for less. For our 80’s model E-van, Vantech’s mounting technique is very on point. Just make sure you seat them properly in the drip channel (Kyle used a 3 lb sledge with a folded towel over the racks’ finish to get them seated as securely as possible).
The first piece of furniture we built was our bed. For the sake of conserving floor space, we originally wanted a bed that fit horizontally across the back of the cabin but quickly realized Kyle wouldn’t be able to sleep comfortably that way. So we decided on a sliding interlocking slat design with storage underneath that doubles as a couch during the day. This gave us space for our battery bank/electrical system and a place to mount electrical devices. We used 1” thick pine common board for the majority of the project because it’s strong and relatively light weight.
Next, we built our pantry which also houses our refrigerator. The structure itself is made out of pine common board. Once we started on the cabinet doors, we decided to start using pallet wood instead of pine common board due primarily to cost (although we like the look of pallet wood, but because it’s harder to work with we originally avoided it). We ran leads from our inverter to an outlet of the side of the pantry, which daisy chains into an outlet on the sink cabinet.
The sink cabinet was framed with 2”x2” pine and cladded entirely with pallet board. The sink itself is a 13×10 inch stainless steel bathroom sink, plumbed with PVC through the wheel well to eliminate the need for a grey water tank (we use biodegradable soap to minimize impact on the environment).
The counter extends over a pair of drawers via a folding partition. This gives us a place to stand when sliding the bed in and out and space for our trash bin. We also built a fold out table/storage space and attached it to one of the side barn doors. This can be used as an end table when the door is closed and bed is in couch mode. We’ve also used it as a cooking surface when the side doors are open.
Once we got to this point, we realized that we needed additional storage. We turned to an additional set of van Vantech ladder racks
and a military surplus case from Sky Craft in Orlando. No it’s not very aerodynamic, but neither is the van itself. Between the added weight and decrease in aerodynamics, we’ve noticed about -2 mpg.
Next came the water storage system, which is made out of 6” PVC. Every 1 foot section of 6” PVC stores 1.5 gallons of water. Ours, with the down spout, is roughly 11 feet long. The PVC itself weighs around 50 lbs. When full, the water itself weighs roughly 135 lbs. We were originally going to add a tire valve to pressurize the system, but read about some of the dangers of pressurized PVC (which are exacerbated when applied to a vehicle), so we went with a gravity fed system that works very well.
The necessity for a generator to run our window unit AC brought us to a Reese cargo carrier. We were originally against having a cargo platform on the back of the van because A) they make backing out of narrow spaces with a long wheel base even more difficult and B) they’re a dead give away that people are traveling/perhaps sleeping in a vehicle. But we conceded, and its actually been great so far. The only snag was that our Reese hitch is mounted pretty low, so we had to get a 6” “rise” adaptor to compensate. Kyle also shimmed the cargo carrier to level it since the back end of the van squats a bit with the weight we’ve added.
*Note about the cargo carrier: We’ve since replaced the original carrier we bought. Kyle accidentally ran over one of our loose tow straps and damaged it pretty bad. It failed completely after we hit some rail road tracks a little too hard in Valdosta, GA. Had to reconfigure things in Atlanta. So the setup pictured here is a bit different than described (note additional rise adapter.. We also left off the folding hinge and inserted the male end of the cargo carrier directly into the receiver, which brought the platform closer to the rear bumper and made it sturdier).
**Additional note about the cargo carrier: Get one with welded supports instead of bolt on. Our first carrier was almost entirely bolted together and was much flimsier than the one we have now.
Kyle built a vented box to house our generator (a Honda EU2000I inverter generator, the quietest and most reliable on the market), which also makes room for extension cords, our water hose, and other odds and ends. The other side of the platform makes room for all of our tools. The vented box has a weatherproof gang box on the outside that a heavy duty surge protector plugs into. The cord from that surge protector doubles as our “shore power” in that it can be plugged into a normal 110v AC outlet with an extension cord to power the entire secondary electrical system. We also have a battery charger that charges the battery bank when the generator’s running or when plugged into a wall socket. So basically, we’ve put a lot of redundancies in place for the electrical system so, in lieu of any nearby coffee shops, we can still work from the van.
Couldn’t end the post without mentioning our sweet remote control LED lights, which kind of look like they belong in a limo (and maybe they do). They were super inexpensive and have been very reliable so far. They also turn a bunch of different colors and have like 10 disco modes, so we’re pretty happy with them.