2nd Beginnings

In May, we realized the Ford just isn’t as well configured as it could be for photography, as we acquire more gear. It’s getting crowded and difficult to access what we need when we stop. Enough of the Ford was customized to accommodate our plans and the gear we had at the time that instead of changing it, it was better to just build out a different van.

June 8, 2011

We like the longer wheelbase of the GMC full-size vans. It makes for a wider turning radius, but we are so used to the Ford’s enormous turning circle with 4WD that we figure we won’t notice it. The longer wheelbase should make for a more comfortable ride, and with less weight hanging out behind the wheels, it should eliminate the side-sway we experience in the Ford because of the 300 lbs. of battery weight behind the wheels in the Ford. We chose a white rig instead of blue to keep the heat build up down to a minimum.

June 15th.

We found our rig. Suffice it to say that it is a well used GMC Savanna 15-passenger van (just like the Ford) with 179,000 miles, but it was a Washington government vehicle, so it was maintained regularly. A couple days crawling around under it, reading the van’s computer data, and driving it, and it became ours. We’ve already stripped the interior (the dealer kept the seats), the carpet was dump bait, along with all the plastic trim and headliner.

The fantastic fan is in.

The real pain is how to remove the seat rails from the floor. We discovered from a van conversion company that GMCs are the worst. The rails are bolted into the floor before the body is mounted on the frame and then covered on the right side with heat shielding, because the exhaust system travels down that side.

We found the mechanics at the Valvoline service bay in Delta Park could remove three of the rails, but the one that sat on top of the exhaust would take tools they didn’t have–namely a cutting torch. Fortunately, one of the mechanic’s dad had a shop in Southeast that could help. And he did. He had to cut holes in the heat shielding to find the mounting bolts, but by the end of the day, the last rail was out. We could finally start our build out.

June 23rd.

The Ford was set up so we could easily sit on the beds to work–a bed/couch design. That gave us two twin beds on the outer bulkheads with an aisle down the middle. We’d seen several commercial designs like this. It seemed practical. Storage was underneath, accessed from the middle.

The solar components and batteries mounted in the very back under our heads. The batteries are AGMs, so venting wasn’t a big concern. The solar panel very rarely put out enough voltage to overcharge the batteries. The only risk was if the shore-powered charger failed and dumped over 30 volts into the batteries. Then they would vent. The bigger issues with the batteries in the Ford was that they rode at the very back of the rig, way behind the rear wheels. This promoted side-sway because 300 lbs of batteries swung out there behind the wheels whenever we cornered. While the GMC has longer wheelbase, we decided to move the batteries on top of the rear axle.

We also didn’t like the sink in the galley so close to the beds. So, the new plan called for the sink to be behind the driver’s seat. That puts a work space in front of the bed for a laptop.

So, the rear half of the living space is bed in the middle with the space on either side for storage: clothes, personal items, books, whatever. The space under the bed is divided into six compartments: split down the middle lengthwise to provide center support for the mattress, and in thirds for storage; batteries in the middle, galley storage in front, and gear storage in back. All the electronics and batteries fit nicely in the center section. Weight distribution is much better, the batteries aren’t in an enclosed space, and access is so much easier for everything.

The galley is built like the Ford: same water containers, gray water tank, and drawers.

We moved the solar system from the Ford to the GMC, so it’s still 24V.

We added a 12/24V Norcold fridge about the size of an ice chest, which we power off the 24V solar batteries.

Overall, it’s the same concept, but different bed and galley layout.

July 13th

The GMC is done and we are on our way to drop off the Ford into storage before leaving for the Mississippi headwaters.

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