VanLife Update: tech-filled camper van build is nearly complete

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Picture of Erin Lawrence

Erin Lawrence

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After falling in love with a camper van on a chilly weekend in May, 2018, we decided to buy a used vehicle and build our own. It’s been a longer road than we thought, getting from metal shell to comfy home on wheels, but we’re finally there.

How we built a camper van

You can read about the beginnings of our van build adventure here. We purchased a 2007 Dodge Sprinter van with high roof and extended wheelbase to provide us with the most space we could get, while still being able to operate a somewhat normal sized vehicle. We found it on Kijiji, and had it inspected. This former carpet-layer’s van seemed like a great choice for our first foray into van building; it wasn’t brand new so the stakes weren’t high, but it still has enough life left in it that it should last us a long time. Price: $9,500CAD.

No windows. Not for lack of trying

camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technology

The van has no windows in it. One of our first orders of business was to add at least one, but due to shockingly bad customer service at a few places, and a serious lack of replacement windows available, that meant we couldn’t find proper windows, let alone get them installed. We tried new manufacturers, junkyards and van builders, but after weeks of phone tag, email messages and frustration, we decided this van would have to be windowless. We call it stealth.

If I do another van again, we’ll definitely try to find one with windows in the rear doors or side sliding door at the very least since being inside a buttoned up van can be stuffy (but that’s why we have the MaxxFan, see below).

If we end up on a road trip in the USA, I might also opt for an installation down south. But with this van, the only view comes with the doors thrown open. We’re also thinking about getting screens…

To screen off the drivers area from the main living area and provide privacy, we hung some simple Ikea tab curtains that I had left over from a previous room makeover at home.camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technology

No bathroom: on purpose

When we designed our van we opted not to put in a bathroom. Why? From everything we read online, it seems a bathroom is something everyone thinks they want, but when it comes down to it, no one wants to deal with cleaning it, pumping out the tanks, or otherwise dealing with human waste disposal. So many camper van bathrooms sit idle; people find cam ground bathrooms or roadside rest stops instead. We decided we too didn’t want to deal with having to find dump stations or needing to manage a composting toilet either. Plus, we are often camping where there’s at the very least an outhouse, and quite often a real bathroom, so a bathroom in the van seemed unnecessary. So far, we haven’t regretted this decision.

Flooring choices; first vinyl planks, then vinyl roll

The first order of business was a floor. We put in 3” thick pink hard board insulation and a sub floor. Our first choice for flooring was something the ‘expert’ at Home Depot said was made to be a ‘flexible’ floating floor; vinyl planks. In attempting to install them, the click lock edges shattered, so it was back to the store for a better solution. In the end we laid inexpensive wood-look vinyl sheet flooring and have been happy with it. We chose a roll-end from a discount flooring supplier and it cost us about $250.

camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technologyWe tried to be economical and only add flooring to the spaces where we’d be walking, and not, for example, under the bed area or under the cabinets. That was a mistake (and one we’d soon make again with wall board) since once we got a little further into the installation, we realized that needing to reconfigure a few things would leave us with exposed sub floor. Next time, we will just put flooring over the entire living area surface and not try to save a few bucks.

Installing walls & ceiling

Walls and the ceiling went in next. We opted to use flexible 1/4” wood paneling in plain white, and to panel only the living area, and again, not to extend it behind cabinets or under the bed. This also turned out to be a mistake we won’t make again, since minor re-configurations meant we had to be careful of not exposing the insulation or edges of the paneling. The paneling is also really hard to trim nicely where the seams are hidden. In hindsight, we might do shiplap next time.

camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technology

With the shell of the van ready we built a platform bed of the height that would allow us to sit up in bed, but still provide lots of storage space underneath for camping gear or bikes. The bed uses slats and a futon mattress and it’s quite comfy! We also left an area at the side of the bed (double size mattress) for storing bags, or where our dogs can sleep. This area was actually going to be used for a built in dresser, but the time the project was taking meant custom-building a dresser wall was a luxury we just didn’t have time for if we ever wanted to use our van! Dog bed, it is!

With the bed frame in, we built a beautiful storage cabinet that faces out into the main living area, and ripped it out a few months later when we got a second dog. Roger replaced the ‘cubby and basket’ storage system with a built-in dual dog kennel that gives us a place for Rainie and Kica to travel safely. There’s still a bit of storage in the cabin side, but not a lot.

Good thing, then, we added lots of kitchen cabinets.

Kitchen configuration

camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technology

We got nice white, high gloss cabinets from Ikea (total of about $1000 on cabinetry) and have been very happy with them. We had to create a custom space for the TruckFridge (about $800US), but we’re also happy we opted to add the larger fridge since as foodies we often like to bring lots of fresh ingredients. And beer.

The sink cabinet sits across from the main kitchen counter and it’s got an Amazon bar sink with drain rack and cutting board cover (about $200) and marine pump, along with two water jugs; one for fresh and the other for grey water. They’re held in place by a ratchet and strap system that’s anchored to the frame by sturdy eye bolts.

We initially purchased other Ikea cabinets for overhead use in the kitchen, but these cabinets proved too big for the space (and a head injury hazard!) so those went back and Roger was able to create a custom built-in with a lip. It currently holds baskets for additional food storage. A custom cut herringbone pattern counter top capped off the kitchen, just a simple DIY counter we found at Home Depot for about $200.

Hidden eating area

We had big plans for a built in eating/working space. But nothing we designed seemed to feel right. We initially planned two Ikea cabinets with pull-out drawers as bench-style seats, but the addition of the dog kennel meant we couldn’t do that or the doors would never open. So we opted for one seat and a stool (and hence the problem with exposed sub floor under the stool, which was going to have a built in there). The stool is a cool tree trunk-look foam stool (perfect for our rolling space) and also doubles as a table between the captains chairs when we want. I found my stool at Simons, but this one at London Drugs is almost identical.

You can also Google ‘tree stump foam stool’ and you’ll get more options. My cost: about $60CAD.

Roger also engineered a cool hidden table under the bed platform. A small semi-hidden door opens (thank you piano hinge) in the face of the under-bed cabinet and a table slides out and locks in place thanks to super strong 100lb capacity drawer slides from Lee Valley.

Roger fabricated the table out of an old cast-off piece of birch.

Spanish tile backsplash

camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technology

Capping off the kitchen area, I added a tile-look backsplash that consists of faux tile stickers I found on Wayfair. They’re pretty easy to put up, since you can peel them and re-stick if you missfire, and so far they seem like they’re staying in place. Total cost for the backsplash area, about $60.

Technology in the van

Making this van energy efficient and comfortable was part of the plan from the beginning. We also wanted it to be a van we could use to work in on the road when we travel.

Battery

We installed a 12 volt system with 100Ah battery (about $500). It charges off the main van battery while we drive, and will last us between 12 and 24 hours, depending on what we’re running. Connected to the battery are a MaxxFan, TruckFridge, LED lights, a small marine water pump and USB plugs for phone charging.

The battery charges while driving, and is connected to the main vehicle battery in a one-way connection, meaning it will charge up the auxilliary battery, but the aux won’t suck power from the vehicle battery, so it’s impossible to end up with a dead vehicle.

AC Inverter

We also opted for an AC inverter so we could use regular powered appliances and gadgets in the van. We connected an AC and USB power bar to it that we flush-mounted into the kitchen counter.

We haven’t had good luck with this, however. When we try to plug in things like a kettle, we can’t get power and we’re getting a strange alarm from the inverter. More investigation is needed…

Ventilation via MaxxFan

camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technology

There’s a MaxxFan installed in the roof of the van to provide both passive ventilation and active ventilation. We can crack the lid to keep air circulating and prevent condensation, or turn it on to either suck air out of the van (when cooking) or to bring air in for cooling. The MaxxFan comes with a remote control, but mysteriously it doesn’t work and we can’t seem to figure out how to pair it. A call to MaxxFan suggested we check the infrared sensor. Again, more investigation is needed, but the controls on the fan work just fine.

camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technology

Lighting: colour-changing LED light strips

Wanting reliable but low voltage lighting, we ordered some no-name brand LED light strips from Amazon. Roger soldered and wired everything up and connected it to the battery. It has a remote control too, and the whole system works great.

The lights are divided into two sides or zones and we can have each one on/off and can even change the colours too! It really makes the van fun. Plus, if we change the lights to a colour, it keeps the bugs from being attracted to the inside.

Adding Solar Panels from Renogy

Since we’re finding that we need more power than the single battery can supply, we’re now getting solar panels from Renogy to help keep the battery full.

We’ve done the math on our power needs, both current and future, and opted for two Renogy 100W 12V mono panels (about $150/ea). They just arrived so we’ll be installing those soon, and posting a full video about it and reviewing the panels.

By the way, I’ve signed up for the Renogy affiliate program, so if you want 5% off your solar panel order, (or off anything but batteries, really) there’s a coupon code (Renogy Promo Code: TechGadgetsCanada) and affiliate link and I’d appreciate it if you’d consider using it. It costs you nothing but may give me a small commission on your purchase. That will help fund future camper vans.

We’ve also got a new device called the Renogy Phoenix PHX100 ($159US). It’s a small soda can sized AC power bank that can recharge our phones 6-9 times, or a laptop 1-2 times on a single charge. This is our ‘just in case’ backup. We’re also contemplating a Renogy Lycan AC generator…

Stereo components & backup camera

camper, van, build, sprinter, tech, technologyWe installed a JVC Backup camera and a KW-V940BW head unit to view the camera and provide radio, and smartphone integration. We added the optional Sirius Satellite antenna so we could get still get radio in remote locations.

Lastly, because we want to work on our soon-to-be epic road trips, we recently added cellular boosting technology from a company called SureCall.

The Fusion2Go 3 is a built in system with a fixed antenna that lives in the van. We also had a chance to review the N-Range portable cell booster which is easy to swap from car to car. Both definitely increased out signal strength. Read more about the SureCall cell boosters devices here.

We have a bit of finishing work to do, like putting trim on and clipping wires into place, and solving a couple of power issues but the van has been out and about getting use already. It’s chic, comfortable, has plenty of storage and we’re quite happy with it.

1 Comment

  1. Jim Collison on August 7, 2019 at 8:26 pm

    Looking forward to chatting about this on Home Gadget Geeks tomorrow night Erin!

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