7 Pitfalls of DIY Van Conversions
By Ross Lukeman
Doing a DIY van conversion and hitting the road can be very fulfilling, but sometimes it's hard to get the details right the first time around. After building vans and working with students over the last few years, I've come up with a list of some common pitfalls and things to avoid when doing a DIY conversion.
Hopefully a few of these tips will help you complete your project without the phrase “we’ll get it right on the next van.”
Here are 7 things to watch out for:
Pitfall #1: Not Insulating the Floor Sufficiently
While not necessary in all climates, with a van conversion the plan is to find yourself in unknown places. Even in the summer, camping on a mountainside can get pretty cold. If your floor is uninsulated, it will take on the outside temperature, and even with a heater, it can be hard to get comfortable if your feet are freezing.
Pitfall #2: Not using the Engine Alternator as a Charging Source
While solar is awesome (and it’s great to capture energy while your van is just sitting there parked), engine-charging of the rear system (technically from the alternator) is a less-sexy source that should really be seen as a primary charging method.
Along with other roof items, many standard-length vans can fit about 300 watts of solar on their roofs. However, in winter and overcast conditions, the output can be much less. Solar that puts out 250 watts in the heat of summer may drop to 40 watts on a rainy winter day. Imagine on that same day being able to pull 600 watts or more from the alternator just by starting the engine.
Pitfall #3: A Lack of Dimmers
The LED lights recommended for vans these days give an awesome amount of light for very little power. This can also mean they light up your van like a runway at a major airport.
Using dimmable LED’s, along with 12-volt dimmers, not only means they’ll turn on at their dimmest (great for your eyes in the middle of the night), but you can also stay incognito if you don’t want to draw attention to your van at night.
Pitfall #4: Using Hand-held Heaters while Camping in Cold Climates
I’ve found that following the seasons is a good excuse to try out new places in a van. When it’s cold, go south. When it’s warm, go north. Unfortunately though, van travel is not always this straightforward.
Handheld heaters are $80 and up, which is seductively affordable. They run off of small fuel canisters and put out an impressive amount of heat. These are fine for a cool desert night in a moderately insulated van.
However, their exhaust goes into the air you breathe, and thus they need to be shut off before you go to sleep to prevent carbon monoxide buildup. As someone who has awoken to 20ºF temps inside my van, built-in heaters ($800 and up) can be a godsend and will ensure you get quality sleep. The alternative is turning off a hand-held heater before diving under the covers, and hoping your blankets keep you warm until the morning (which often works in less extreme temperatures).
Part of vanlife is experiencing things as they are, without the perfect temperature settings of our homes and apartments, but being too cold or hot can affect your sleep quality and ultimately your enjoyment of van living.
Pitfall #5: Using Standard Household Cabinets and Drawer Pulls
Many items used in homebuilding are very heavy, which is okay when they’re hauled to the job site once, and that’s it. With vans, the hauling never ends.
I’m not saying to make your cabinets out of super-thin materials (I’m guilty of having made that mistake early on), but you should also consider the weight (and weak materials) of store-bought cabinets as well. Anything with particle board will be weaker and heavier than plywood.
You should also consider that the doors and drawers will fly open when driving around corners (which is somehow not always obvious to us on our first build). One workaround for household cabinets is to add child safety latches to keep them closed, but a better solution is to go with a WhisperLatch or marine latches (the boat industry has the same issue with doors flying open).
If store-bought cabinets do work for your van layout, you might consider swapping out the particle board countertops (very heavy) with 1/2-inch marine plywood (or another thin material) to save on weight.
I would caution you against hanging anything store-bought from the ceiling though, as the weaker/heavier traits of these cabinets could lead to them crashing down, not to mention a higher center of gravity for the vehicle due to the increased weight near the ceiling.
Pitfall #6: Forgetting Dedicated Trash and Dirty Clothes Storage
Speaking of cabinets, it can be easy to underestimate how much storage you will need, and sometimes things such as trash and dirty clothes can be overlooked.
Consider spending the time and money to build dedicated drawers for these items, as you will likely use trash and dirty laundry storage as much as anything else.
Pitfall #7: Overestimating What a Small Solar Panel and Battery System Can Power
I will start by saying that van power systems can be impressively robust, replacing the need for a generator and running energy hogs like air conditioners and induction stoves for hours, all off of batteries, and without plugging in.
When I have designed power systems for vans, my students are often surprised at the number of batteries (and associated costs) needed to power things that we wouldn’t give a second thought to powering in our homes.
Small systems with less expensive lead-acid batteries can power cell phones, LED lights, roof fans, and laptops starting at about $2k, with batteries lasting 3-5 years if properly maintained.
However, if you would like to run induction stoves and air conditioners for hours off-grid, you can quickly add hundreds or thousands of dollars in battery costs to the system (depending on battery type and how long you’d like to run various large items).
A roof vent fan can operate on low at 15 watts, compared to 1500 watts for a rooftop air conditioner. That’s a 100X difference. When operating on batteries, your batteries must provide 100X more capacity to run the air conditioner, and that translates to more or larger batteries.
A few solutions to reduce system cost:
- Use fuels such as propane or diesel for stoves and heaters (instead of battery-powered electric appliances)
- Give your van enough battery capacity to run large appliances for a certain duration off-grid, while agreeing that longer durations will mean you’ll be plugged in somewhere, or will turn on the engine to recharge.
- Traveling with the seasons means you don’t have to “overpower nature” and can be off-grid more, without the need to run large heaters and air conditioners. This means you can head out to the wild blue yonder and don’t need massive batteries to stay off-grid, as you’ll mostly only be running vent fans and other small appliances to stay comfortable.
Lastly, since cutting costs is not the #1 priority for many of my students, if you did want to run large appliances off-grid and not worry about it, you would need to plan on charging off of the alternator (ideally a heavy-duty one, or a second alternator dedicated to charging the rear system) and beefing up your battery bank.
This approach is standard fare for the vans running $120-500k from major van upfitters and manufacturers. They will utilize the engine and larger lithium battery banks to give you more capability to run large appliances off-grid for hours, but they often dedicate $10-20k of their build budget to the power system (the majority of which goes to the cost of large lithium batteries).
I hope that gives a little insight into what multiplies the cost of these van power systems.
That’s it for my 7 pitfalls of DIY van conversions.