When we built out the Ford, we wanted it to be
- Workable and Livable
- AC and DC powered, i.e. fully self-contained–able to go for 3-4 days without plugging in
A critical part of living small is having only what you need for your life, planning how and when it will be used, and where it will go when it isn’t being used. Everything comes down to function. If it’s not functional, it’s a luxury–which is okay–but you have to sacrifice functional space for non-functional space. After being in the van for a few months, we realized that if we saw something we wanted to buy, the first thing we had to decide was where would it go. Things had to be van-sized.
The van had to be easy to drive, easy to maintain, easy to live in for months at a time. Everything had to have a place and there needed to be a place for everything. That meant careful planning on what we would take and where it would go in the van, for both while we were driving and while we were parked. Things we would want while driving had to be close to the seats. So, we had to think about every aspect of each day of living, working, and playing. All storage had to be planned, and we left no cubic inch unused.
Vanlife is not camping. Eight months or more camping would get old very quickly. Vanlife is living small–smaller than those folks who live tiny in homes built on 8×12 foot trailers. In a van, you’re living in 6×12 feet, if you convert a 19-passenger van. Those are about 19 feet long, and the other 7 feet are consumed by cockpit and engine space. So, you can’t be claustrophobic if you’re going to enjoy vanlife. (You do gain a little living space if you put a swivel under the passenger seat. Research what you can and cannot with these, though, in your state.)
Beds need to be comfortable.
With our work, we wanted to be able to have both a bed and a place to sit and work with a table for our laptops, so we opted for twin beds that could serve as couches, too. The van had about six feet across in the living space. We divided it into 24-inch wide platforms for the beds and 24 inches of foot space. To maximize the space overall and still give us room to stretch our legs in bed, we made the platforms 74 inches long. 24×74 is not a standard size, so we had to have the mattresses made. We chose six-inch thick futons for mattresses and had them made at Cotton Cloud Futons in Portland, Oregon.
Clothing and personal items need to be accessible. We built the bed platforms so they could accommodate drawers or crates underneath to store our clothing and personal things. Wake up, lean over and pull out the clothing for the day.
We wanted to keep the van as warm and cool as possible. The van is blue. But we were surprised at how hot the inside of the rig got just from heat radiating through the walls. So, after stripping the inside of the van, we stuffed glass insulation in the bulkheads along both sides of the van. Wherever there was space, we stuffed the pink stuff to try to keep the cold and hot away from the inside. We pulled down the headliner to give us more headroom (we opted not to install a high or pop top) and glued 3/4 inch Styrofoam panels on the ceiling. We coated the exterior roof with pickup bed liner. That stuff is amazing. On a hot sunny day, you could not hold your hand against the side of the van, it was so hot. The roof was barely warm.
Workable and Livable
With the couch/bed thing figured out, a table was the next consideration. We chose the shortest collapsing plastic table we could find. It didn’t work well, but it would suffice. We could just as easily sit with our laptops on our laps. With 24-inch wide couches though, we had to come up with back support, so we rolled up unused blankets as bolsters and put them behind our backs.
We needed electricity to charge laptops and phones, run a printer, fans, wi-fi, etc. We needed cooking space, running water, storage for cold food and boxed/canned food, utensils, plates, a way to cook. The whole nine yards.
We built a galley with work space and a sink. Nothing else on top. We’d only use a stove for an hour a day, so it needed to be stowable. Why waste valuable space for an appliance that gets used so little during the day?
We started with an MSR Pocket Rocket backpacking stove: small, easily stowable, and ran for a couple weeks on a large can of fuel. But we soon found it was not sturdy enough to safely support a sauce pan filled with chicken, rice, and beans or vegetables, so we purchased a single-burner propane stove, too.
The sink was large enough to wash most things, but not larger items, so we brought along a small wash tub that could easily travel out of the way. For the sink, we bought a 12-inch mixing bowl, cut a hole in the bottom to fit a bathroom drain, and screwed and epoxied it in. A flexible drain hose runs between the sink drain and a plastic container that fits between the fresh water jugs. The whole thing cost maybe $15; the bowl was the most expensive part.
Before vanlife, we lived for five years in a 40-foot 5th-wheel trailer (we permanently left our fixed home in 2006). It got to be too much to haul around, find parking for it, do all the hooking up and draining, and everything that goes along with living in a big RV. There are so many places we wanted to see that would not accommodate a big rig, especially off the beaten path. We wanted to be nimble–park just about anywhere inconspicuously and spend the night. That meant small–van-small.
We also didn’t want to have to hook up for water and electricity or find a place to drain tanks. So, the galley was designed with running water provided by a DC RV water pump. We used two six-gallon water jugs that can be filled anywhere, and pumped water from one until it was empty, then switch places. 12 gallons of water will last us several days. And there’s always a Wal-Mart nearby where we can fill the containers with filtered water for less than 40 cents a gallon.
For the gray water, we started with a collapsible plastic jug (shown above) and ran the sink drain into it. After our first leak due to a crack from the repeated crinkling of the plastic, we switched to 1.25 gallon, hard plastic water carriers (we bought at–where else–Wal Mart) that fit nicely between the fresh water jugs. We carry two of them: when one gets full, we switch, and stow the full one until we can dump it. For dumping, we find some acceptable place to dump it. And it never contains the kinds of leftovers we used to dump down the drain when we lived in a house. We wipe all dirty dishes and cookware with a paper towel before washing.
One thing about these hard plastic containers is that they come with a spigot. That has to go, or there will be leaks and spills. Kirsti came up with a great solution. She cut off the sigot from the plug and filled it with silicone. We tested the result. It has been a successful fix.
We need to comfortably and easily work on the road. We need all the utilities of a small office, but without the space they typically use in an office.
We bought a mobile color ink-jet printer that could run on AC or battery and be either wired through USB or unwired using Bluetooth. We only bring laptops, tablets, and our smartphones.
Internet is our work’s life blood. We are both self-employed, and our main contact with clients is Internet, followed by the phone. For Internet access, we went through a couple systems over the five years before getting into a van. In the early days, we couldn’t depend on an RV park for Wi-Fi, assuming we would be in an RV park. And we didn’t want to have to search for an Internet cafe, assuming we would be in a town with one. We ended up with satellite Internet, using a dish we set up when we stopped. It worked well enough for the kinds of content we accessed back then. But after a few years, it became unreliable, slow, and expensive. By 2009, 2G cell-phone data was ubiquitous. You could go just about anywhere on the Verizon Wireless network, and if there was cell service, there was data, too, that was as fast as satellite or faster. So, we dumped the dish and got a cell modem, then a Wi-Fi hot spot and modem together. We’ve run on the Verizon Wireless network this way for six years now, enjoying the increase in speeds.
We rarely are without access. In 2012, we took the Ford to Alaska, where Internet is only in the Canadian communities and town to town communication is via microwave; there are no buried cables between the hundreds of miles distance from town to town. We had access in every town we stopped at. We’ve experimented with Wilson cell signal amplifiers. We’ve been able to shoot as far as 30 miles with a highly directional antenna stuck 12 feet in the air and a Wilson amplifier.
AC and DC Powered
We needed solar power, battery storage, and the ability to hook up to shore power when necessary and available. We calculated we could easily live on 1000 watts of power when not plugged into shore power. We didn’t need a lot of shore power, though. We limited our luxuries to a hair dryer and heater for when we plugged in.
It’s an incredibly interesting process figuring out how big of a solar system you need. The folks at Arizona Wind and Sun were a big help. They have all the parts, advice, and information anyone needs. And competitive pricing. Another site with lots of information on solar, focusing on big RVs, but still applicable reading, is Jack Mayer’s site. There are many folks who have written about their solar conversion experiences on the web. So, we won’t say much. One thing is that the key item needed is a Kill-a-Watt meter to measure the power demand of what will be used in the van, add up the power you need, and design your system based on your daily demand.
Of course, you will check everything out in the house out of curiosity (assuming you’re still in a house). It’s a real eye opener when you do a survey of what you use in the house and see just how much power you think you need to enjoy a home lifestyle. You free yourself from all that when you move into a van and downsize, or rather minimize, your power needs.
In the end, we designed our solar system around four 12V AGM batteries that we had available. We wired the batteries in series-parallel to give us 24 volts with about 200 amps. Using 24V, we drew less current for the power we needed, which gave us more time from the batteries. Below is a sketch of our solar wiring setup. In addition to solar charging power for the batteries, we also installed an AC powered 24 volt charger that was energized only when we plugged into shore power. We went so far as to isolate the two charging systems, by adding a Shore/Solar switch (haha, Short (misspelled below). I later found out the switch is really unnecessary. The systems can be wired in parallel, according to the solar guys and the charger manufacturer. In our next van, the GMC, we eliminated the switch.
Our set up might work for you, but do your homework on all aspect of solar design, especially the batteries. Your needs and design might vary, and I’m not responsible for anything you put in your van.
The most expensive part about the Ford build out was the solar system. The price of panels has dropped significantly, so it’s only gotten cheaper. We did all the work ourselves. Bought the materials from the big warehouse stores. Bought solar equipment from Arizona Wind and Sun and a few harder to find things through Amazon. We used plastic drawers and crates wherever possible to cut down on weight. All told, we spent less than $1500 to convert the Ford to our living, working, and playing space. And we did it all in Arizona in a month.
Where is the Ford Now?
In 2014, we sold the Ford to a former pro basketball player living in Alaska.