Monday, October 18, 2021

The Van, A Walk Through

This is a very long post, so I apologize in advance but in these words and pictures I have, I hope, detailed the why's and how's of our version of van life. Let me say right here my wife designed the interior and she worked from YouTube and photos and RV shows and walk throughs and on and on over a period of years. That we found an affordable custom manufacturer ready willing and able to create our retirement home was a stroke of luck and we took full advantage.

I did my job which was figuring out the systems we wanted to incorporate, so even though I'm as handy as a Hemingway cat I too spent time with Custom Coach Creations debating how much power water and "stuff" we wanted in our van. 

We chose a Ram Promaster in the largest size, 21 feet long officially described as  3500 Extended with a high top roof which yields a living space of about 72 square feet (6 wide and 12 long). The Promaster is actually a Fiat Ducato, Europe's most popular commercial delivery van sold under various badges as a Peugeot or Renault or even Alfa Romeo. The US version is assembled in Mexico using Fiat Ducato body parts with a Dodge Pentastar V6, the engine used to power Jeeps as well as an array of minivans I'm old. All the gasoline Promasters built since 2014 use the same engine and transmission excluding the brief production run of diesel engined Promasters which were not spectacularly successful.

The space is small so we've made use of all the spaces and tried to balance that against the need not to junk things up and make our space messy. We saw this design feature on a. commercially built van (a Pleasureway) and adapted it for ourselves. This is my place to sit up at a desk:

We have storage above the seats on two levels. My wife's art supplies, a stool and a few odds and ends...  

...and on the smaller shelf umbrellas, paper maps and two bags that we take off the van to use in hotels or homes when we visit - our portable wash bags designed by Layne.

The passenger seat also swivels when the van is in Park, and Layne gets her own table, a leaf that folds up:

To prevent her feet dangling Custom Coach made a custom step that slides out to rest her feet:

Layne never warmed up to the convection oven but she uses the microwave and when not in use it's good kitchen storage:

We looked at Trek campers before they went out of business thanks to the bosses stealing and they used these slick slide out pantries which Layne decided she wanted in her van conversion. So Custom Coach obliged.
When we were sailing it was important to load up enough supplies and anything you thought you might need for a while as we  tended to avoid marinas and anchor wherever we felt like. We've had to break ourselves of that habit in the van as shops are everywhere so Layne is focusing on carrying things she can use to spice up whatever it is she buys. One thing we noticed among many older sailing wives was that a lifetime of feeding a hungry family left them burnt out on cooking and they liked to anchor near eateries. Layne has always treated cooking as a hobby and relaxation and she still does. I noticed a collapsible waffle maker snuck into a drawer and she never made waffles at home... I expect great things and only hope it's easy for me to wash.

Food storage galore as needed.

The fridge is bigger than it looks and with it mounted at shoulder height it's easy to access, just like the microwave.

Because Layne likes to cook it was important that Layne have the tools of her hobby and space to use them when not stored. We bought the rug at a carpet shop in Istanbul in 2017 and it fit exactly as we had hoped it would. We have been thinking about all this for a while.

One specification Layne required was a drawer tall enough to fit the van sized three quart Instapot. Custom Coach obliged:

Under the sink storage includes Rusty food. In our travels we have found dog food available everywhere and fortunately Rusty isn't a fussy eater so he can handle different brands, in a pinch. The pink bag is our laundry bag. We stuff dirty clothes in and haul it to the laundromat no fussing. We have a similar waterproof bag to store our trash if we are spending time in the wilderness with no disposal facilities. 

After a day lawyering her relaxation was cooking and she enjoys having her tools close to hand.  The van makes that easy.

On a side note we have tested the Verizon Jetpack for internet connectivity and so far it works well combined with a signal booster we have built in to the van. When we get to Mexico the idea is to buy a local SIM card and run our devices through the hotspot.

We have one locker dedicated to devices, fans, chargers and so forth. Modern travel and miniaturization makes everything possible on a small scale these days.

We had the largest  water tank possible built in to the van, 35 gallons (140 liters). I chose not to have a hot water system or a cabin heater as I didn't want to include systems that will fail and that I can't fix. So we have a simple pump that provides pressure water at this one faucet.

And which also works as an outdoor shower when needed. Rusty puts up with it but is not fond of it.

Beyond the sink we have two electric induction cooking plates. I didn't want any propane in this van for two reasons. On the one hand I don't want to waste time looking for propane refills and on the other I certainly don't want to spend time trying to figure out attachments and fittings in the foreign countries we want to visit. I remember doing it with the boat and while it is possible it is a  total pain on the ass. No propane please.

I asked Custom Coach to pack as much battery power as possible and we got 600 lithium amps (7200 watts in the new measurement). We have a 3000 watt inverter which is on most of the time. The inverter supplies the appliances and outlets with 12 or 120 volts of electricity so we live in the van as you do in the house. We charge our electronics, we have lights and can plug in fans or an electric heater at will.

Layne specified a cutting board to extend her kitchen surfaces but we also use it to put a fan on to cool us in bed or to use as a TV stand when we stream on our laptop. Its a pretty expansive kitchen.

We have two appliance drawers, those places where you stuff useful things:

We have a couple of slide out pantry shelves where Layne stores her staples and sauces but our idea is to shop as we go, buy local foods and explore local cultures through their cuisines. We don't want to stuff our kitchen with cans of foods we will never want to eat. that said we have some emergency supplies so if we get stuck somewhere lonely we will be able to live without going too hungry until help arrives!

And below them is Layne's favorite appliance: the toaster oven.

The queen sized bed is a feature of the Promaster van as it is the only model, unlike the Sprinter and the Ford Transit, that is wide enough for a sideways queen sized bed which saves a lot of space. Ours is built with an electric motor that opens it up into two couches with room for a table inbetween them. We figured on rainy days, or for times when we are staying in an air BnB we can use the van as a day use camper and sit up in the back.

The 13,500 BTU air conditioner in the roof is the big consumer of electricity at about 100 amps per hour of use. With careful measurement we can make it run all night and keep the interior of the van cool enough to sleep on the warmest of nights. The trouble is the batteries are flat by morning and we have to go for a drive for three hours to recharge everything. We have two alternators which produce 250 amps per hour when driving. We don't have a generator as I have no desire to maintain a second motor. Besides I like having a spare wheel under the van where the generator would go. 

Some people like to complain about the noise of an air conditioner but I sleep just fine.I have a shelf with a dedicated outlet for my CPAP (thank you Custom Coach!) and we have plenty of power to run that. 

Layne os fond of the extractor fan over the kitchen but I think it uses way too much electricity, 1 to 5 amps each hour depending on the speed, and doesn't make much of a difference. We agree to disagree but it's there as everyone loves them (except me).

You will see some vans built without any rear windows in an effort to look like commercial vans to make street parking less obvious. We do stealth park from time to time but we aren't in the habit of staying more than one night in a spot and we leave no trace after parking late and leaving early. The narrow rear windows allow a cross breeze and they are surprisingly effective at keep the bed area cool on non-Florida nights.

I used to travel with VW vans as a youngster and I ended up hating having lots of windows. I know commercial campers boast the number of windows they have but I prefer less. When at home - you need some privacy, at least I do and I don't enjoy living on the street in a fishbowl so I'm glad Layne listened to me and we kept the windows to a minimum, plus we kept them very dark tinted.  We can see out butits hard to see in, in daylight hours.

My clothes lockers are smaller than Layne's as I need more headroom on our raised couches. The van came with a. sound system that works but isn't easy to operate for me. We used to have a TV but I convinced Layne we'd do better using our laptops as screening screens! She sold the wretched TV and the interior space expanded. I am happy without it.

It used to cover this wall and we stuck a painting by a friend over the marks.

Layne's cupboards are the original size and she says that's fair as she has more clothes to carry.

The toilet space on our van is particular and unusual. It took some explaining to convince Custom Coach of our idea and in their pictures of our van they left out the toilet compartment altogether. Link Here. Our idea was to have a waterproof toilet space that we would use primarily as a toilet and storage space but also occasionally as a shower space. The fact is showering in a van isn't much fun as there isn't much room, there isn't much water and you can get moisture absolutely everywhere. The same goes for a boat and happily Layne learned to love a solar shower taken on deck on the boat. With that in her history she was fine with relying on solar showers in the van.

It's a tight space but we make the best of it as a storage space too. The toilet is a Camco portapotty (Amazon Link) which I love as it is easy to use, easy to empty and easy to replace if it breaks. There are no systems to go wrong. We put toilet paper in a designated trashcan and all I have to pour away is a liquid we treat with bio enzymes which work surprisingly well. With our plan to travel Latin America where campgrounds and dump stations are rare a portapotty is easy to deal with, no dump stations needed. I can empty it in any toilet or even in a discreet hole in the ground as we travel. My theme is simplicity and I have never been bothered by the business of emptying a toilet. The fashion now is for composting toilets but they are expensive, massive and not entirely effective in my opinion. Do your own research. I trust the couple at the FitRV on YouTube. Link Here. They travel part time and use a cassette toilet, a fixed household type bowl with large removable tank.

We had Custom Coach put a ring in the corner of the shower compartment. We can hang. solar shower there is we absolutely need to and take a shower in the van if we have to. The compartment is waterproof and drains to the gray tank that collects sink water. 

For showering we try to take advantage of truck stops, hopefully after Covid gym memberships will work again, and from time to time we stay at hotels free on points. While boondocking we open the back doors of the van, hang a sheet between them and deploy the solar shower. If necessary we heat up some water in the electric kettle to get the temperature right. Outside showers are the best but only in decent weather. We carry lots of anti bacterial wipes too.

There are nooks and crannies everywhere in the van. Our fire extinguishers ride on the front doors accessible from inside or outside. Hope we never have to use them. We have a hidden safe for documents and the like. Custom Coach called it a gun safe which is how we refer to it ironically but we don't carry guns not least because they are a bureaucratic nightmare especially if you use them with intent but also because they are illegal in the rest of the world. There are lots of ways to defend yourself and personally I recommend a dog. People with evil intentions are quite scared of dogs I find.

We aren't done yet. Notice there are no bicycles surfboards or kayaks draped off our home. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves and we want to keep our stuff locked out of sight and if we come across a place where a toy could be used I'll bet they will have boats or bicycles for rent. The. we hand them back and take rough roads where we want with nothing dangling off the back. Makes for easier parking too when your van is already 21 feet long. We do fit in car spaces with a little care and overhang.

They made it:

The fusebox, very exciting isn't it? But it is clearly labeled so even I can handle a busted fuse...

The heart of the van is that famous 3,000 watt inverter which uses electricity and creates heat so it has a vent with a little muffin fan:

The back of the van is all Layne's design. Fixed beds create what is called a garage space underneath to store lots of stuff. We don't have that luxury as the bed turning into a couch opens to a high floor. Under the floor we have three storage areas, behind the Pico chairs and the insulated window covers.

It's not a lot of room to live in is it? We cope but as Layne says the secret to van living is to do everything slowly and take your deliberate time to get things done. You will see open interiors but those are the vans that prefer not to include a shower compartment. It was obvious to us right from the start that we need a separate space for the shitter. Imagine being at home and opening a cupboard and pulling out your toilet and sitting on it in the middle of your living room. It doesn't work for me but you may feel okay with it. Many people are and they have more room inside than we do.

One of our three rear compartments on a slider with a locking handle:

In the slider we carry our camping stuff like a table, a Moonshade awning, a tire compressor, the table for the space between the couches. That sort of stuff.

In the middle compartment we store the heavy duty gear, the recovery stuff like Go Treads, a shovel, straps and even set of snow chains required in some countries. The blue bag has our water system with portable filters and a collapsible bucket so we can hand fill our tank from streams and other water sources.

The small compartment has our exercise gear and the water tank switch. One way it fills by hand and the other way it fills under pressure from a hose. Thank you Custom Coach as they insisted on the dual system. Very smart.

The hand fill for the tank is from a deck fitting for a boat. Back systems are important for us as we want to travel away from campgrounds and RV parks.

We do have all modern conveniences though, electrical hookup, water and cable TV, just like regular RVs. The electrical hookup is useful if we want to park and run the a/c as the only way to keep up with constant heavy demand is by plugging in. We carry a 15 amp household cable which is enough for us. 

The gray water tank empties here just like a sewer outlet on a regular RV but we have no black water tank. From the outside our camper looks very normal which I like.

Rusty monitors our loading and preparations for the van from the top of the steps. He has his bed and he has got quite used to the van after all these months of testing and practicing.

We have solar panels, four 100 watt panels fixed on the roof. I have watched scientifically minded RVers test the theory that panels yield more power when cleaned but that does not seem to be true so I decided not to carry a ladder which is one less thing...In full sunshine the four panels together yield up to 20 amps in real life. Anything over ten amps in an hour looks good to me. In sunny weather not obstructed by shade the panels will keep our batteries charged against daily fridge, light and computer use. An hour of running the engine at idle will give us more than 120 amps of power if we got desperate.

I hope this tour of the van has if not exhausted you at least enlightened you. There are many compromises in this vehicle when used as a living space. It is easy to drive and quite enjoyable. At a steady 65mph we get around 17-18mpg. the faster you go the lower the mileage gets so if we have to get on the freeway we are in the slow lane chugging along at 18 miles per gallon listening to the radio through our phones on bluetooth enjoying our modern technology.

In the course of our travels I will mix in stories of where we are and why we are and some history of places we pass through just like I always have, but also how our life in the van unfolds day by day. But this is where it starts and next Monday we should be on he road, houseless but not homeless.