Disclaimer: This is by no means a how to guide as I am definitely not qualified to offer any of that instruction. Instead I am just offering some ideas and and suggestions for those that are interested in van conversion.
The dream started so long ago. Possibly on my first road across the American west in the early 2000s. I worked seasonally at a number of different jobs and had lots of opportunities to drive my red Suburu Imprezza from one climbing destination to another. We had a nice relationship but it was always a tight fit especially for two. I remember that one day at Joshua Tree National Park when it was cold and windy and nice guy with a van invited me into his van for tea. It may sound creepy but it was definitely harmless and only got me excited about growing old and buying a van to road trip across the US of A.
Fast forward 10 years or so and I have a full-time job, a husband and house but no van. And really my dreams of buying a van slowly dwindled and seemed at most dreams and in no way close to reality. But the dream refused to die and was slowly re-kindled by my husband’s obsession of buying a van and roadtripping around the USA. During a cold trip to the Black Canyon in the spring of 2016, the decision was made to buy a van after one too many tent set-up and take-downs during the frequent snowstorms that plagued that trip.
And so in November of 2016, we purchased a brand new 4×4 Sprinter Van from the Frightliner dealership in Salt Lake City. Basically, it is the nicest vehicle I have ever owned and quite the upgrade from my 2000 Honda Civic, which we eventually sold so that we are just a two car family. So yes, we went big. But we figured if we are going to spend thousands of dollars to convert it, we want to have a reliable vehicle for many years and a new vehicle should more than likely guarantee that.
We went for the 144 inch wheelbase model, which is the shortest model on the market. We chose that size so it would be easier to drive it around town. We also got the tall model so that Jonathon (who is 6’1”) could stand up in it.
So far we are really happy with the vehicle itself and we both think it drives really nice on the highway and off-road. When in 4×4 and low, it definitely rallies and can negotiate snowy roads along with rugged dirt roads. The engine is 6 Cylinder twin turbo diesel and even loaded down, we can smoke other cars while going uphill. Quite the contrast from my 2 Cylinder Honda Civic. It gets anywhere from 16 – 20 miles/gallon depending on driving style and how much weight is in the vehicle. It is quite tall to get in and out of and I have almost wiped out getting out of the van when it is slippery and wet. So we opted to get some running board type steps installed so that it would be easier to get in and out of the van. Along with the running boards, we also had Frightliner install a handle to the panel next to the sliding door and a back-up camera. Both items seemed like essential items for us.
The van was just a shell when we drove it off the lot. So the next step was to get windows and a vented ceiling fan installed. Because we are not very handy and were very scared to cut holes in this very expensive vehicle, we had the folks at New Image Vans in Salt Lake City do that work. They installed two small and very cute windows with screens on both sides of the van. It’s nice that they are small because it gave us more height for our kitchenette. The only issue with the windows is that they are pretty hard to open and close but they do have screens and that is nice! The venting fan helps keep the van cool on hot evenings and helps manage moisture due to condensation. The fan can run in both directions – meaning it can suck air outside or bring air inside. The only downside is that its a little noisy.
We also had them make a custom and totally seat belt legal bench seat. It is 38 inches wide and seats two adults pretty snugly. The seat can be removed by unscrewing bolts from underneath the vehicle but we have really liked having it in the van as a place to hang out and eat. Plus it is really comfortable. I’m still in the market for a seat cover for the bench seat and am hoping to find someone to make one for it in the Salt Lake area. The seat can also be laid flat for a dog or small person. Finally we had them put our two 90 watt Goal Zero solar panels on top of the van.
Speaking of power…..
We got some sweet hook-ups from Goal Zero, an awesome company just down the road from us in Salt Lake City. We opted to go with a Yeti 1250 battery pack and an additional Yeti 1250 battery connected to each other. Fully charged, these batteries can provide 3-4 days of power for all of our electronic items (fridge, water pump for sink, venting fan, and lights). We have them connected to our solar panels so that they are continually charging when we are in the sun. We also have a power cord that plugs into the van’s 12 V outlet and we charge the batteries that way when we are driving long distances. The battery can also The battery pack is a nice option because the inverter is built into it and it includes a screen on the front of the battery pack displaying power being used and power available. There are also several USB outlets, 12V outlets and AC outlets.
We also got a couple low-voltage goal zero lights called the light-a-life 350 led light. We got two and chained them together and they plug into our battery pack via the 12 volt outlet. The lights are super bright but can be adjusted to a high or low setting and can also be further adjusted with its built in shade. They come with a small carabiner and we have hung them from hooks off the ceiling. When we are driving, we just stow them away in our cabinets.
We also added some Christmas lights after checking out this person’s blog. We mounted them under our cabinets and around our bed. They also provide a lot of light with little voltage and add a little ambience!
One other neat thing we installed was this outlet that has two AC and two USB ports on it and is plugged into our battery pack via AC. This was my brother-in-law Joes’s idea. He is electrician and helped us quite a bit with the conversion. This outlet is tucked away on the side of our kitchenette and is a great place to plug in our Christmas lights and phones and other electronics that need charging.
The next part of the conversion involved insulating and sound proofing the van. We ordered several rolls of rattletale tape from amazon and proceeded to cut and stick the tape to the interior surfaces of the van. It was rather tedious work. Then we added a layer of foam insulation to the van. We bought the foam insulation from Home Depot and used glue from an aerosol can to stick it to the interior surface of the van. In the bulky spots, we used the soft, pink insulation also from Home Depot and stuffed it into the little holes and pockets within the frame. We looked for the environmentally friendly insulation but had no luck finding it and so just wore gloves and masks when we handled the pink insulation. Finally, we applied a layer of plastic and stuck it to the frame with gorilla tape. All told, it took the two of us about 4 – 5 eight hour days to complete this job.
Around this same time, we also put in a linoleum floor we purchased from Home Depot. We chose linoleum because it is cheap, easy to install and manages moisture fairly well. We just cut it and glued it to the factory floor.
Production stopped for a couple months when we ran out of free time. So stay tuned for part 2 and the completion of the #SpitzerSprinterVanProject!