Building a Headliner

The is the heavy piece of wood in my van. It’s a 1 x 6 x 10 so it won’t affect gas mileage.

I used drop ceiling wire to get the strange shape of my van’s ceiling. Ceiling wire is flexible enough to bend with the hands and stiff enough to hold its shape.

Mounting

I mounted the drivers side of the headliner to the spice rack.

I used a tent pole (temporarily) for holding the curtain.
The passenger side of the headliner has a 1 x 2 mounted to the 3/4 inch plywood floor.
The passenger side of the headliner has a 1 x 2 mounted to the 3/4 inch plywood floor.

The finished work of the 1 x 2 includes a 3 way switch to control the kitchen light, decorated with my lovely Walmart adhesive carpet tile (works wonders with Velcro).

Now we add a shelf.

The bottom of the shelf will be 5 inches.
This is the passenger side post. Notice the switch. From the bedroom view (of the tiny office).
Headliner from the bedroom/tiny office
Kitchen light switch 1 or 2.
This is one of two switches that control the lighting above the kitchen sink/stove
The switch next to the digital display is the other switch.

Having a switch at the back and front of the van works really well, especially when I wake up in the middle of the night and need to make a snack run. I can turn the light on in the bedroom or tiny office, then turn the light off as I leave the van.

The kitchen lights

I’m really proud of this kitchen., especially the lighting.

Why I hate inverters

Most electrical systems in builds are build with a house in front of mind.

The light fixtures, refrigeration, stove, all of the outlets are Alternating Current (110 AC).

A van is native to 12 volts DC (Direct Current) which is different from household current which is either rated at 110/120 AC (Alternating Current) and for your stove or hot water heater 220/240 volt AC.

  • The batteries are 12 volt DC
  • The solar panels are 12 volt DC
  • Your van is 12 volt DC

You cannot run household appliances in a van without a method to convert 110/120 AC to 12 DC.

In need of an interpreter

If a household refrigerator plug could talk, it would probably yell to your van, does anyone speak AC? That’s when your inverter answers, I do.

The inverter is a translator. Because the van speaks a different language the inverter serves as a mediator or interpreter between your household appliances and your van.

The translation process takes lots of energy as it translates from one voltage to another. More power is lost when the device is turned on, and less as it is running; but there was power loss during the conversion. Your battery was drained quickly and then slowed. That lowered your available power for the rest of your van.

One for the wise

Your van is native to 12 volts so why not use, buy or whatever 12 volt devices. You may already have 12 volt devices sitting around your house you didn’t know could work in your van.

For example. If you have a computer monitor with a power brick (you know the square thing you drag around with you laptop while it charges). For that reason in the information tech field we call it a brick – drag this brick… anyway! On that brick you will find writing or specifications about the voltage, amps and etc.

The writing tells you how much voltage the brick outputs. If that brick says output 12 volt DC or something like that, then the brick is converting 110 volts AC to 12 volt DC. Great! That computer monitor will work in your van. Cut the part that plugs into the monitor and run the cut end into your van’s 12 volt circuit and now you have a computer monitor.

You will find lots of things in your home that will run off your van — if you look hard enough. TV’s, game consoles, and etc.

Supersonic SC-2211 22-Inch 1080p LED Widescreen HDTV with HDMI Input (AC/DC Compatible)

This blender has it’s own battery. I own one and my wife owns another. I was able to go 5 days blending up to 25 times.

LaHuko Portable Blender Personal Size

This blanket is a life saver if you don’t need to heat the entire van while you sleep. It uses 55 Watts. You can run it off a Jackery Portable Power Station – Explorer 240 all night.

Roadpro 12 volt Polar Fleec Heated Travel Blanket

Why I built my van in modules

If you’ve seen my original photos and compared them to my current van photos you can see my van has undergone lots of remodels.

The first two builds attempted to leave the original van seats and build around it. That was a disaster.

This was my first attempt to build my bed. I would lay the cushion foam down and it would extend onto the middle factor seats.

So I went to Pinterest for ideas.

Spent more money and built this disaster.

What both of these had in common is that they will not work well over time.

The first one was too heavy and wasn’t easy to disassemble. The second was too tall (followed a blueprint off Pinterest) and for my van size (width & height) made it difficult to open.

So I had two problems to solve.

Software development to the rescue

I’m a software engineer by occupation and I deal with lots of projects of many types. There is a process called iterative development and continuous improvement.

You build and deliver functional software in small increments, adding new features and improving functionality over time. Software is developed using isolated modules or containers. A modules share functionality or features with other modules. They are independent of the software and can be removed or replaced without breaking the program.

Building the van in modules

I had a problem in need to solve. I was spending and wasting money on lumber and needed to find a less expensive alternative.

Back in the 1980’s I had a wood working shop. I made custom furniture. My garage was filled with templates I made from drawings. When a customer order something from my catalogue I pulled out my templates and traced them onto wood, then cut them.

The solution

I purchased black foam poster board from the Dollar Store. I measured, cut and taped together my kitchen, then the bed until I got the measurements right.

Every piece added to my build including the side wall can be removed or replaced without needing to remove other things.

Here is an example of the Kitchen build.

Here the foam board becomes my template.
A photo of the bed concept.
I used the foam board to cut and build this.
Added my solar controller.

Its kinda like software testing

As I mentioned before I’m a software engineer, so I thought, why don’t I integrate testing and continuous improvement.

So I went on bi-weekly camping trips for 3 months. Each time testing to see if doing anything feels natural or does it feel confusion, lost or create frustration.

Each change or alteration in my van was designed to solve a problem. The office answered a problem where my laptop kept getting stepped on because there was no place for it.

The relocation of my solar batteries answered the problem about a permanent spot for the batteries where they are out of the way.

The answer to wasting watts used by my 1500 watt inverter was to purchase all electronics as 12 volt DC devices.

Example of my first kitchen design

My first complete sink. But it got an upgrade.

Although this kitchen setup was nice at first and it was usable. I didn’t like how much light and air flow the cabinet blocked.

I removed it and rebuilt the cabinet.

Note the kitchen is removed in this photo. Nothing else was affected by its removal. This is the start of the bedroom wall design. See the foam board against the side wall.
Removed the wall paper and adding adhesive carpeting.
There is also a folding table just below the propane burner. You can see the piano hinge
Any part can be removed and upgraded.
This is the bottom of my bed. There are 3 “L” brackets to hold the bed in place. Remove them and the bed folds and slides out easily.

Privacy & blocking cold or heat

My first design attempted to block out the sun and provide some privacy. There wasn’t much to my van in the beginning. Although I had foam board on the windows to black them out, I didn’t create one for the front.

My privacy, heat retention and sun protection curtains, As of December 2019

Anyone looking through the windshield from the streets could look in my van, so I used a sun screen cover.

Example of the foam board on my front drivers side window.
Velcro hold the material to the back window
The PVC pipe wraps the entire living space.
Side door entry. Unpainted PVC rod, and the custom curtain.

Bathroom

The evolution of the bathroom.

My bathroom has shifted around many times. In this photo it sits between the kitchen sink and the storage shelf.

Deciding if the toilet will fit as I add a wall for the office.

The black adhesive carpet everywhere works really well to stop things from moving.

This is open space and the best place for my toilet.

Without Velcro image the accidents that can happen.

Removed the kitchen so that i can redesign it.

Plumbing

I use foam poster board from the Dollar Store to build prototypes so that I know how much space I have available.

The above photo is the bed and kitchen prototypes. Helps me plan, after wasting lots of wood… I use these as templates to cut wood, plywood and etc.

A snapshot of the plumbing system as of December 31, 2019

Original design

Do not use a standard water hose for drinking. Filters will not remove the water hose taste out of the water.

Materials

Amazon
Amazon link
Amazon
RV Drinking water hose. Amazon
https://amzn.to/38KeeNs

Tiny Office

Naturally may van has gone through tones of build iterations. Here are some photos showing my office.

My first attempt at an office. Folding table and Ottoman

More upgrades coming June 2020

Trying things out

My first try out was at Waddell Middle Creek Campground.

Waddell Creek

Things that needed correcting.

There were a few things that needed correction.

  • Cooking (hard to cook with the ottoman and my neck bent)
  • Washing dishes (no place to dry them)
  • Wash towels (no place to hang them)
  • Washing hands (soap was on the top shelf behind stuff)
  • Hygene (no place for toothbrush, wash cloth, etc)
  • Garbage (in the way, switching between it and the ottoman)
  • Toilet (not level – I couldn’t flush it because the water collected up in the front of the unit)
  • Access to storage (difficult without folding the bed)
  • Neck was sore from constantly bending to sit.
  • Dirt from the camp into the van (need a vac)
  • Left my movies (no entertainment)

Things that worked out well.

  • Sleeping was comfortable
  • Blackout windows were perfect for privacy
  • Front windows perfect keeping the sun out
  • Cooking was fast
  • Refrigerator was very cold
  • Using the bathroom was perfect
  • Kitchen fan distributed the heat very well
  • Bed fan kept me cool and the ambient noise was perfect
  • Lighting was excellent
  • Charging from solar continued under 2 days of clouds
Ottoman from Walmart

This ottoman got in the way. I was juggling this between the trash can. Gotta replace it.

This little (computer) fan blew out some really cold air. The ambient sound was also great. Drowned out talking from folks walking around the campground.
Campground C-9

Takes up too much room. Gotta replace this.

Waddell Creek Middle Campground photos

Waddel Creek
ATV and hiking trail
ATV, dirt bike and hiking trail bridge over Waddell Creek

Kitchen

The van’s kitchen has been completely redesigned from its original.

Original design
A more recent design as of 10/2019

Cooking

Notice the baking sheet and the bolts and screws.

I drilled holes in the top and put 1/8 screw and bolts to raise the burner off the wood cabinet.

Between the wood and the burner is a baking sheet to act as a heat sink and preventing the wood from heating up and catching fire.

The fan distributes the heat so that it does not build.

I also layered foil underneath the carpet. I use Velcro to hold stuff in place.

Food Storage

Food is stored in two places. Under the bed and in these storage bins. The kitchen also includes it’s own light.

Some food storage.
Carbon Monoxide detector
Oops, gotta clean the paint spots.
The original idea was to have a way to cook and to have running water.

Items you can get on Amazon

Amazon
Ozark Trail Single Burner Propane Stove
Ozark Trail Single Burner Propane Stove
Amazon
Amazon
Amazon
Amazon

Solar

Washington State isn’t known for mostly sunny weather so I needed to figure out a way to power my devices using the sun, a generator or upgrade my inverters.

At first I thought of buying Goal Zero’s Yeti, but with all the things I carry with me that would still limit me to a few days and still relying on the campgrounds power.

The Jackery Explorer

The Jackery is lightweight. I can get lots of recharges on my electronic device including my Mac.

My first choice was a lightweight Goal Zero Yeti alternative so I choose the Explorer 240 watt inverter.

  1. I get more charges for my MacBook Air than the Yeti.
  2. It was cheaper than the Goal Zero Yeti.
  3. The battery in the Explorer was lithium and not acid as in the Yeti which means it will last longer.
  4. It was lighter than the Yeti.

For long camping trips during the winter months I purchased this generator from Harbor Freight. I can connect this to my batteries and charge them using a battery charger and run my appliances.

After 3 months of research I came across a video on YouTube about the Harbor Freight 100 watt solar panel kit.

In this video during overcast skies, the author while unpacking of the solar panels connected a volt meter the the panels controller. The panels were sending a charge to the meter.

The next day I drove to Harbor Freight. In celebration of Father’s day they had a parking lot sale. The solar panels, regular priced at 189.00, was on sale for $148.00.

I also purchased the Harbor Freight 35 amp hour solar batteries at $69.00 each. I grabbed two of them.

Harbor Freight Thunderbolt Magnum Solar 12v 35AH Battery
Harbor Freight Thunderbolt Magnum Solar 12v 35AH Battery

I built an aluminum frame around the solar panels and mounted them on top of the van.

I didn’t discuss the bed or the kitchen setup. So I better do that next before I talk about my camping experience and the changes that came from that.

Power relocation

A camper van is not complete until you’ve taken it out camping and tried things out. But one thing I can do before going camping is to sit in the van and act as if I was at camp. Which will solve some, but not all problems.

Old location for the batteries and inverter. I needed the storage space and relocated them to the back. Works out for the solar panel wires.

I laid in the van thinking and imaging myself doing the following

  • Cooking
  • Using the bathroom
  • Sleeping
  • Getting equipment out of the storage compartments
  • Using power

For the bed to extend my feet I purchased a nice ottoman from Walmart. It had storage inside and could be used as a desk or chair. So I sat on it for cooking and a foot stool for extending the bed.

The only problem is the height. My neck would be sore after a week of camping. I have to find a different solution. For now, I will take it camping for 1 or 2 days to try it out.

The toilet worked out very well. I was able to sit down just fine. Dumping will have to be investigated once at the camp site. One problem I’m going to encounter is the piece of wood used to prevent it from sliding. The wood could hurt my foot or knees.

I solved the problem by adding industrial strength Velcro underneath. Since I’m using fabric carpet tiles the Velcro works perfect. No sliding and relocating is easy.

How easy was it to get to stuff in the storage areas, very difficult. I’m going to have to relocate the electrical under the seat so that the space can be used for things used often. I will relocate the electrical to the back storage area and run the wire under the paneling (include fuses)

  • When the bed was folded and there’s electronics plugged into the outlet I couldn’t get into the rear storage area. I need to relocate permanent devices that use 120 volt AC to the rear of the kitchen cabinet.
  • The water tastes like water hose. I need to replace the hose with RV drinking water hoses.
Power relocated.
I also use this for storage of the tent, tools, cleaning supplies, hiking gear.

Time to go camping. In my next blog I will talk about how I connected the solar panels, then my camping experience and the changes that came from that experience.