Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Last bits

We are in the final days of preparing for our 10 day initial van trip to Arizona. This past weekend there weren't many van related projects left to do since we decided to have the local conversion guy take care of the seat swivel and the battery install. The primary project this past weekend was figuring out how to attach an Ikea drop table and covering some of the exposed metal with trunk felt.

The drop table went relatively easily. I cut a 1x4 down to the width of the rib on the drivers side mid panel, drilled some hole and used the mounting hardware I am using to fix the wall panel in place. Then I used some 1 1/2" wood screws with fender washers to attach the table to the 1x4 and we were good to go.  After driving the van to the propane filler, I realized I would need to figure out some way to secure the table when its in the drop position so it doesn't rattle while we drive. The solution, a very long bungie cord and a piece of old bicycle tube spray glued to the bottom side of the table top to reduce wood on wood noise. I love simple solutions like this, and any time I get to reuse some of my stockpiled bicycle tube I feel like a good citizen on spaceship earth.

The trunk felt is really easy to work with. I just took some remnants from our panel covering project and cut to fit the exposed metal over the slider, added some spray glue and pushed it into place. If you cut it a little over size, you can tuck it under the weather stripping for a very "pro" looking finish.

This week we are anxiously awaiting delivery of the Ikea bed supports so we can get the bed platform installed. The plan is to re-use the M8 torx 40 bolts that were originally used to attach the tie downs inside the van. I took them all out to replace with longer M8 bolts in some cases, and because in several places it didn't make sense to leave them in. Regardless, they have a nice large head surface and I think will work perfectly to attach the supports to the van ribs... fingers crossed. Once installed, we will use 10 1x4 planks cut to 60" as the bed slats attached with self tapping screws. We ordered a 5" memory foam, sleeper sofa replacement mattress from amazon to top the slats. It was about $150 and had high reviews so hopefully it works out for our needs.

There are still a few unknowns but for the most part we are ready for our inaugural trip. This project has been a lot of fun and a LOT of work. I would definitely do it again, but knowing what I know now, would plan a few more weeks so we could take a midpoint break and have some fun. Spring has arrived and all our friends are out playing but we have been heads down on the van, time for Spring Break fun!

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The final countdown

Almost there!

Our requirements for our initial outing are to have the walls complete, ceiling, flooring and a bed
platform installed. With only two weeks and one full working weekend to get the van ready for our 10 day trip to Arizona, we hustled this week to get the electrical panel, lighting, panel upholstery and flooring in. Unfortunately, the floor covering material may not arrive in time for our inaugural trip, but at least we have the subfloor laid in.

Not sure if we will get bed platform installed, it all depends on when the IKEA beams show up. The closest IKEA is 3 hours away so I had to use their eCommerce site, which doesn't offer expedited shipping. We may have to sleep on the mattress on the floor, but it will be a far cry better than the ground I presume.

In an effort to create some time for prepping our motorcycles and gear, I am going to have our local conversion guy install our house battery and seat swivel, since both require removal of the front seat. He is reliable and has great rates and at this point anything I can do to save myself some time is helpful.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Project Fatigue Leads to Perseverance

This past weekend, the fourth week of the build out, I started suffering project fatigue. This is partially due to the difficulty of hanging the walls panels by myself (Rajo was out of town playing hockey) and partly due to the inclement weather we have been having. We are having a hard winter  in Bend, OR. It started snowing on Dec 8th and hasn't really stopped. Its not uncommon for Bend to have snow in December, but it is very uncommon to have it stick around in town for more than a week. The snow that fell in December just recently melted out, though there are still significant patches in shady areas. I think its the longest I have seen snow on the ground in town in 20 years of living here and it continues to snow.

We have had two snow showery weekends in a row, which has made working on the van more challenging as I find working in the cold extremely tiring. This past weekend I erected my "easy-up" tent as a covered area to cut side panels. I don't like cutting in the garage as the sawdust gets on everything, especially the fine particulate dust created by cutting hardboard.  The weekend prior, Rajo and I made templates out of cardboard for the areas we wanted to cover with hardboard panels. I choose hardboard for a couple of reasons: 1) Its relatively cheap, so screwing up isn't too costly. 2) We plan on glueing trunk felt to the outside of the panels to give them a "softer" feel, and it seemed like using plywood would be overkill. 3) If it doesn't work, we have a nice set of templates ready to go for some other material.

We chose to install the panels to fit into the sections between the main ribs on the sides of the van. One person I talked to suggested that it would be easier if we framed the sides so we could cover the entire wall but I wanted easy access to the wiring and the side ribs and struts for cabinet attachment. I believe he was right about that but I still prefer to have the ribs accessible for future expansion. We will cover the exposed metal with trunk felt once we are fairly happy with the setup.

Installing the panels was more challenging than I had expected. I chose to attach them to the walls with M5 rivnuts instead of self tapping screws. I really like the idea of using the rivnuts as it allows for relatively easy panel removal if/when needed, however getting the holes aligned on the panels was a huge pain. After many bad alignment which caused me to re-drill the holes or slightly expand
the holes I came up with a  slight better method, though still imperfect. I used a very fine drill bit to drill tiny pilot holes and then I could align the panel holes with the center of the rivnuts before making a mess by drilling several holes in a single area. Its very time consuming but it turned out ok. I didn't get all 13 panels installed.  I began getting a little fatigued, frustrated and cold so after getting the 3 panels on the driver's side front of the van, slider and back doors, and center side panels in the rear of the van installed, I decided to switch to electrical for a few hours.

I am pretty confident with my simple electrical setup: 8 LED puck lights, a fan and 3 12v/USB plugs. We aren't going to use solar initially, rather I purchased a Battery Doctor battery isolator. I built a distribution panel out of 3/8" ply, painted and attached with rivnuts to the back side of the drivers seat  mount. I started by completing the circuit to the fan, which I had attached to the wire run a few weeks ago. I had a hiccup with that wire run, I hadn't tested its continuity and when I terminated it and applied power ... nothing. So I cut the butt joints out and did a continuity tests... needless to say, it failed, I had a bad wire pull or I cut it somehow during the installation. Fortunately, before we installed the ceiling I decided at the last minute to pull an additional wire back as an auxiliary. So I tested that run, it was good. Advice for those who follow, test your continuity when you pull the wire, it will save you last minute grief!
My fatigue was relieved a bit by seeing the lights and fan in action.

After sorting out the fan wiring and testing with my 12V bench test power supply hooked up to the distribution panel, I moved on to installing the rear set of LED puck lights. I had decided to wire in parallel so I had to attach one side, then pull a lead through the ceiling to the second light. We pulled some rope into the holes we had drilled in the ceiling last weekend, so pulling the wire was easy as tapping the end to the rope and pulling through. I learned this technique pulling CAT 5 cabling many years ago. I terminated the in wall wire run to the lighting wire and turned on the power ... Oh sweet light!

Recharging with a ride on the Sherpa
We have a goal of having the van ready to camp in for the last week of March, our spring break, for a motorcycle trip. We had hoped to have the insulation, walls, ceiling, floor and electrical done, along with a bed platform. I realized this weekend that its an ambitious goal since I haven't been able to do as much work in the evenings as I thought due to the cold and general exhaustion of an 8 hour work day. I think the pressure of getting everything done has been adding to my burnout so I am scaling back our expectations. One thing we can take of the list is having a completed floor. I will get sub flooring in but the floor covering I ordered from AmericanFloorMats.com won't arrive in time. I didn't see the 4-6 week lead time anywhere on their site, but apparently that is the case. Another thing I can punt on is the bed platform. I have a specific long term concept but was going to make a short term platform spanning the back of the van, suspended on the sides by 2x6 rails attached via rivnuts to the rear side ribs. Rajo agrees that we can throw our mattress on the floor for our trip at the end of the month, so we can focus on finishing the paneling and electrical work without killing our joy of the build. I have to remember this is about having fun!!!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Welcome to #vanlife

Our official Social Media welcome to #vanlife came from part.time.nomad  in response to this photo on Instagram.  https://www.instagram.com/p/BQ_s1vPgNtf/?taken-by=bgnout&hl=en

Whether it was in reference to my anecdote of the task taking twice as long or just the fact that we have a van, either way, we're beginning our own adventure and learning the lessons of the road. 

Here's the top five things we've learned: 
1) Keep it Simple:
If given a choice of doing a task the hard way or the easy way,  pick the easy one.  There's no reason to make a task more difficult or frustrating. Yes, you will come across your own unique challenges, but keep it simple and you'll keep the project a hobby instead creating work. We learned this lesson while making templates for the walls. It was such a simple task and we made it the most difficult. Here's a nugget of wisdom on converting a van, ANY VAN: If you're making templates for the walls, use cardboard. Sounds simple, right? Yes, keep your build simple, especially if this is your first van build or building isn't you're full-time job. Heed our advice: Cardboard for templates, not paper.  You will thank me later.

2) Take Tea Breaks:
While living abroad, I learned that tea is more than just a drink. The Chinese taught me the ceremony of the leaf. The English taught me that work breaks always included a cup of tea, a biscuit and a chat with a colleague. For van builds, tea breaks are not about ceremonies or communion, it's about taking a break, relaxing and putting your tasks into perspective. Building a tiny house on wheels is hard work, mentally and physically. So drink tea, rest, and rejuvenate.  We took tea breaks along the way. Usually when we were making something easy really difficult.  We made a cup of tea, thought about the problem, and watched Youtube videos about van builds. Youtube has been our virtual Bible.  There are a ton experienced people on the Internet. Seek their advice with a cup of tea in hand.

3) Be Humble:
Everything takes longer than anticipated. If you think the job will be easy, well that's usually the task that is the biggest challenge.  Be humble.  Mistakes will happen. It won't be perfect. Enjoy the process. Learn as you build.  Aristotle said, "Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work."   Remember you're making and designing your OWN adventure mobile. How cool!

4) Have a Plan:
A van build out is just like any other life project. We approached this build like we do most task in life. First, it starts with a dream. Then we create a google spreadsheet.  Yes, we are nerds, we communicate a lot by spreadsheets. While we are two novice van builders, we take comfort in plans and To-Do Lists. A  plan puts any daunting task into perspective.  Next, we put the tasks on the calendar, so each day we know where to start instead of looking at the empty shell and asking, "Where do we begin?"  When making a plan include a goal for completion.  We bought the van because of our next scheduled trip, six weeks from the purchase date, we are driving to Arizona to ride motorcycles through the Joshua Tree Desert.  The van won't be completed, but it will be usable.  We're highly motivated. To recap: Make a plan. Make it happen.

5) Create a Mantra:
All you need is a few simple words to keep you motivated. Remember Dory? The fish? She has one, "Just keep swimming." Repeating something positive in your head will keep you swimming through the build. Our Manta:  Get it done. This has been our mantra in our marriage, and it serves us during the build too. We love project managing, so when we get the opportunity to tackle any new task, we "Get It Done."

When approaching your van build, approach it like your life, but better because it is #vanlife. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Beginning the finishing

View of back side of fan with 2x2 and 1x2 firing
Our weekend was a busy one. We were ready to do some visible finish work after last weekend's prep work for the ceiling installation. After talking with Ian the Van Guy,  I decided to abandon the hardboard ceiling panel around the vent and installed a couple of nailer strips on the fore and aft of the fan. I cut two lengths of 2x2 and used the 3M Window Weld Adhesive to secure them to the ceiling (rather than making more holes in the ceiling). A word of advice to anyone endeavoring to
Front of fan with 2x2 firing strip
install a fan, trim it out when you do the install, it will make your life easier in the long run!

Unfortunately I didn't take any photos of the result. The adhesive had 4 days to set before I began stapling into the nailers. I was really worried about this approach but a you can see from these photos, it really turned out ok.

You can see the nailers in these photos. I did have to add a second strip of 1x2 to the rear nailer to take up some additional space and give me a place to attache the four short strips of paneling between the back of the van and the back of the fan.

Finished ceiling with strips of leftover panelling ripped down to  be used to cover staples
We pulled several sections of rope through 1 7/8" holes drilled in the ceiling panels which we will run wires out of for the lighting. We pulled the rope sections through once we had several rows of panelling installed beyond the row where the lights will be installed to give the ceiling enough strength
1 7/8" holes I drilled to pull wire through for surface mount LED puck lighting
to drill through. The tongue and groove pine is very light and flexible, which is great for the van because it can flex as the chassis moves around, but its not great for drilling into. 

 The paneling was relatively easy to install once we worked around the fan. We had to cut notches for the panels that would adjoin the fan shroud. We choose to use a pneumatic staple gun to attache the panels to rib nailers, which turned out great. The stapler was more than adequate and the staples were easy to remove when we screwed up, which happened a few times. To make sure the panels stuck to the ribs, we applied a layer of liquid nails to the ribs as we attached the panels.

Once all the panels were installed, I ripped the tongue and groove edges off a few leftover pieces to use as a finishing board to cover the staples in the rib sections, here are a few photos:
End of rib finishing.

Front passenger corner

Front drivers side corner
All in all we are very happy with the result. I has a slightly rustic cabin feel which suits our aesthetic just fine.
Finished view looking towards the back of the van

View of the ropes we pulled through so we can pull wire for lighting.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The first challenges

The day started out with a trip out to HD & Lowe's in the newly insulated van. It was noticeably quieter but still getting some road noise. Could be from the doors, which we still need to insulate. I am picking up some more insulation tomorrow to finish off the door panels and add some to the side channels.

Aft nailer in place
Today was mostly prep work for installing the ceiling. I hung 1x4 nailers on the 3 main ribs, a 2x2 on the aft end and a 1x2 on the front. The front and aft nailers did give me some headache. Neither could be secured upwards into a rib, as there isn't one in the rear and up front the obvious rib to use is where the factory headliner for the over cab storage is secured. I asked for some guidance on promasterforum.com and Gary, who's website is a really great tool, suggested I look at his installation photos. It doesn't quite go all the way across but I think it will do... fingers crossed. I drilled through the 2x2 into the back channel that runs above the doors. I had to make a notch for the rear door cargo light but my cheapo  harbor  freight jigsaw did the trick.

The front nailer took a little more thought and several attempts. Initially I thought I would have to bevel the edge to match the edge of the rib, but I don't have a saw for that, at least I didn't think I would be able to pull it off. So I cut a 1x2 to length and went about attempting to hang it. Initially I tried screwing the ends in to the ends of the rib, which sorta worked but the mid section was hanging freely and I wasn't happy with how insecure it felt. So I cut the length in two, which made fitting the bend in the ceiling much easier and I  was able to secure it fairly squarely to the rib by drilling through the width of the board into the predrilled holes in the rib. Its not super pretty but it will do the trick of securing the ends of the ceiling boards.
Front three nailers in place

Rear section hardboard panel
The next challenge was how to secure anything between the back of the fan and the back of the van. Now I understand why several people suggested framing around the fan opening... live and learn. I thought through several scenarios, including removing the fan and building a frame but settled on cutting a piece of hardboard to fit between the last rib and the aft nailer. I'll fix it in place then panel over the top, and just glue the few pieces of paneling between the rear of the fan and the aft nailer. Its not perfect but it will work. The paneling is very flexible, at 3/16", which should make installation easier.

Rajo prepping the panels

I picked up a pneumatic stapler and a variety of staples. I am hoping it will be sufficient for securing the panels along with some adhesive. Rajo spent
the day prepping the paneling with a water based Poly coat. I didn't want to use oil based due to the off gassing and the water based stuff dries pretty quickly sans odor.  If all goes well, tomorrow I'll finish insulating, hang the rear panel around the fan, and start thinking about the installation of the ceiling panels.

Snug as a Bug in a Rug

View from the back

View from the slider
Insulation, its a religion. I found during my research that there are 50 ways to insulate a van and if you read 50 threads, every project does it differently. I had originally settled on using polyiso foam insulation board, based on a lot of posts and a few blog entries I read. Everything I read about the fold backed bubble wrap stuff said it was useless, especially since it requires air space to be effective, though it is a very common option. I also considered DIY spray foam, but the cost and the mess left me feeling like it may be an option for the future, but not on my first go around. Then I talked to my local van conversion guy, Ian. He spent nearly an hour going over what he does and the options he would suggest for me. I liked the idea of the wool batting but the lead time was too far out. He talked me right out of the polyiso based on his experience with it and the relative difficulty of installation.

View of ceiling
His cheapest and most commonly used option is recycle foam batting. It looks like carpet padding but is hydrophobic, unlike carpet padding. He gets it from the local HVAC contractors who use it for insulating ducting. It came in a 75' x 6' roll, which was promised to be enough to do three layers on the walls, two on the ceiling and fill all the nooks and crannies. The nice thing about this stuff is that you just cut it to size, spray on the adhesive and stick up. Another great thing about the foam batting is a claimed R16 with three layers on the walls, which is about and inch deep. That compared to R6 of polyiso and the fact that the foam batting also works as a sound dampener, and my decision was clear.

Great Stuff in ribs

Nailer & Sound dampening
We fell a little short on the nooks and crannies and doors so I am going to go back and see if I can get a little bit more to finish everything off. If not, I'll use Great Stuff to do the door panels and other nooks.

First Panel
With Rajo cutting while I glued stuff up, we got it 97% complete in about 4 hours. I spent a couple hours during the morning prepping the ribs with Great Stuff Gap and Crack spray foam, and attaching some 2x4 anchors to the center supports on the side panels.  I also applied some butyl sound dampening material to the wheel wells, to reduce road noise. While Ian the van guy didn't think it necessary, I've been driving around in that van for a couple of weeks now and its really loud. I can't wait to go to Lowes tomorrow just to see how it sounds on the inside.
Sound dampening on wheel well


Friday, February 17, 2017

A room with a view

We knew we wanted a window in either the slider or behind the driver but I wasn't sure which until I drove it around our hometown in what passes from traffic. It was then I realized the vastness of the blind spot on the passenger side. I decided after a faith filled lane merge that we were getting a window in the slider for safety.

I looked at the two most common options, CR Laurence and Motion Windows. I actually like the look of the Motion windows but the 6-8 week lead time turned me off.  I called my local van conversion guy to see what he had to offer. Turns out he is a CR Lawrence dealer and quoted me a better price than what I was seeing online and he could have it on site within a week so I went with that option. After thinking about it and reading a few blogs and forums on the installation, I decided that it was worth the $200 he would charge me to install the window. The window install being the only job that I really didn't feel confident doing, the risks of screwing up were just too high.

All tolled, the install was $750 and I am quite happy as I was expecting upwards of $900 installed. Plus the installer was happy to answer some additional questions about insulation and wiring and gave me a great tip on flooring. He suggested using garage roll out flooring instead of what I had planned, linoleum. A quick google search revealed that there are many options out there. American Floor Mats has several options and may cut to length. I also searched eBay for roll flooring and found many options but only in 4ft widths, which would mean a seam that I am trying to avoid.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

First Cut

A week after purchase, Cujo decides where to place the fan. Honestly, I was a little worried about cutting a hole in the roof of the van.  Luckily, Cujo did his research and knows how to follow the lines.   

Measuring and drawing the lines to cut.
In order to keep the inside of the van cool and dry we chose to install a Fantastic brand vent fan, Model 2250. Installation is relatively simple with the Impact3D roof adapter, just trace the inside of the adapter onto the roof with a sharpie, mask off the edges and cut with a jig saw.

Cujo is making the cut!
Success! Bugger has a hole in the roof. 

 Next step, is to install the fan into the whole and test:
  1. Adhere the Impact3D roof adapter to the roof of the van with 3M Window Weld and let cure for 12 hours
  2. Set the fan body into the hole and drill pilot holes through the adapter and roof for the screws 
  3. Add a layer of butyl tape around the perimeter of the fan body
  4. Screw the body into the adapter and roof. 
  5. Cover the adapter and lip of fan body with Dicor Self Leveling Sealant. 
    Dicor Self Leveling Sealant applied
  6. Test the van!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Introducing BGN OUT Van - From Packy to Bugger

"Packy" the 2008 Honda Element
It all started two years ago on Valentine's Day. My wife, Rajo, and I were on our first camping trip to our favorite hot springs. Since it was February, we decided to sleep in our 2008 Honda Element,nicknamed "Packy", with our 101 pound Yellow Labrador, Frida. The element is just long enough for two adults to stretch out with the front seats in their full forward position, and wide enough for a single width memory foam mattress. It is cozy and we slept ok but in the morning the thermometer read 17F and we did not want to get up until the sun was well above the horizon.

Close quarters
There are several complications with sleeping in a Honda Element. 1) It's a small space, and when you have a large Labrador who likes to stretch out while she sleeps, it gets very, very small. 2) It's difficult to get in and out of the vehicle in "camper" mode. When the front seats are fully forward, the door handles become difficult to reach, making mid-night potty breaks a challenge. 3) All your camping gear must be left outside overnight and loaded back into the car in the morning. This isn't a huge problem if you are staying in one spot for multiple nights, but when you are on a road trip, camping a single night and moving on, THIS becomes tedious. It's fine for summer camping. However, if you're taller than 6ft, than it isn't quite what any middle aged back needs.

We are ready for adventure

For all of its challenges we made "Packy" work. That was until we got our puppy. She's a smallish, Springer spaniel mix so she doesn't take up a lot of room, just enough that with her, the 12 pound mini-dauschund and the big yellow Labrador, the human's didn't have much space to sleep on the last outing to Lassen National Park in Northern California. That's right, you can fit two adults and 3 dogs into the back of a Honda Element camper, it's just not very comfortable :(. All along we had been talking about options for the future. I was pretty set on a pickup truck with a slide in camper, my wife, a traditional RV. We looked at both over the course of last summer and realized by the end that neither was what we really wanted.

Our requirements weren't fancy:
  • a comfortable, preferably queen size bed.
  • a place to store our gear inside.
  • a place for our pups to stay for a couple of hours during mtn bike rides.
  • a ready to go stove top for boiling water in the morning (especially when its 17F).
  • a table top to sit at, eat on when the weather is inclement.
  • capable of towing a small trailer with motorcycles or bicycles or both.
We looked at trailers and conversion vans, but they all seemed to complex with their showers and potties and all manner of utility that we didn't want and ultimately decided that in order to get what we wanted and nothing more we were going to have to build it our selves or find someone who could build it for us.  Being a DIY'r and project guy, I decided after many hours of online researching that I could do 95% of the build, and hire out the 5% I didn't feel comfortable taking on.

From a 2 slice to a 4 slice bagel toaster
So the search began. We initially looked at used Sprinter vans, as they seem very popular of this use
case but quickly figured out they were cost prohibitive, so we looked at Ford, Nissan and Dodge offerings and ultimately settled on the RAM ProMaster. The ProMaster is similar in look to a Sprinter, but 6" wider across the back, making it wide enough to support a queen size mattress cross ways, which was a huge factor. It has front wheel drive, making it much safer to drive in our snowy climate in the winter. The ProMaster is a rebranded Fiat Ducato, which has been in production for quite a while but only introduced to the North American market in 2014. We tried to find a lower milage used vehicle, but being such a newly introduced model, all we found were 100,000+ mile, low top models. We really wanted the high top, it measures 7ft from floor to ceiling, so standing up is no problem. The ProMaster is reasonably affordable, priced between the Ford Transit and the Nissan NV models. It comes in two lengths, high or traditional low top and gas or diesel and is ready to build out if you can find one that hasn't had racks or a bulkhead installed at the factory.

Bugger the 2017 Ram Promaster 1500 High Top
We used our credit union's buyer service to locate the van and we got the call two weeks ago that he had one ready to pick up. We did have to drive up to Portland, OR to take possession, but we already had a trip planned to see a hockey game, so kismet! I love using a buyer service!!! I am not a fan of dealerships and the whole bargaining game. The last time I went to a dealer, I spent 8 hours buying the vehicle, and that was without much in the way of bargaining. I like my free time and spending it with someone who's interest in selling you a bunch of add ons you don't need doesn't sit well with me. The buyer service negotiates a fair price, probably not the lowest price you could get if you want to dicker, but fair, takes delivery and preps all the paperwork. All we had to do was give them our requirements and show up at the service's offices to sign papers. Had I not spent 15 minutes on the phone with our insurance company, the whole transaction would have been complete in 20 minutes!

So here we are, a giant empty metal box and 6 weeks until our next vacation. Let's get busy!