Lift Off

The Yeti has rolled away from Jeff’s shop, RV Interiors and Custom Woodworks, and we’re living full time in the van.  It’s been a rough week learning the van and moving in, hence the lack of recent updates.  Overall, everything is going well.  I’ll have more details, photos, and comments over the coming weeks.  Until then, please enjoy the pictures.

Counting down …

The van is scheduled to roll out of Jeff’s shop in about a week.  Here are week old pictures showing the progress.

  • Solar panels are installed but not yet secured.  The frame that Aluminess built isn’t wide enough to bolt the panels directly to the rack.  Jeff is going to fabricate clamps, four per panel, to hold the panels in place.
  • Cabinets are finished and bolted into the van.  The door faces are done, too, but won’t be installed until later.
  • The water tank (20 gallons), exterior water fill, water pump, and water filter are installed.
  • The slide out desk is partly built.  The last half of the desk surface is hinged and isn’t installed yet.
  • The toilet is mounted and will vent underneath the van to avoid cutting another hole in the side of the van.
  • The shower pan area is cut out but not installed yet.
  • The sink and cooktop have been test fit.  Unfortunately, the hoped for double sink won’t fit.  The counter is a few inches too shallow to fit a faucet with a double sink.  If we had known earlier, we would have made the cabinet a few inches deeper.
  • Exterior work lights and awning are installed.
  • The gray water tank is installed but not quite finished.
  • The propane is plumbed to the interior of the van.  RVI did a nice job mounting the regulator and the black iron gas line out of harm’s way.
  • The thermostat and battery monitor are mounted.
  • The bed foundation is built. Next, Jeff will weld the bed frame and hooks for the Metolius ladder.

Floors, cabinets, and more photos

Here are more photos of the build.  Work is moving along quickly now, and we’ll be driving off into the snowy sunset soon.

First up, we have the battery box housing four SunXTender Group 4D AGMs.  Jeff’s team designed and custom built this box, and I’m very happy with the result.  The box is bolted to the frame and won’t have any effect on departure angle.  Also, there’s enough room above and next to the box to access battery terminals without lowering the box.  The P-trap for the shower will drop down into the small empty space in the corner.

Inside, we have the cabinet face frames nearly complete, the flooring installed, and a box for the shower pan finished.  Also, the counter top material arrived.


Build Photos by Brent Haywood Photography

Here are some recent photos of the van build by photographer Brent Haywood. These pictures show the window cut outs (before the windows are installed), decor wall panels, fabric headliner, ceiling fan, LED ceiling lights, water heater, and subflooring. Thanks for the photos, Brent!


Furring and Wiring Complete

The “guts” of our walls are complete, and Jeff at RVI is ready to seal them up behind fabric and panelling.

Here are some photos of what the inside of van walls looked like as the furring and wiring were being built. The photos are of wiring and wood, prior to placement of insulation. In the pictures, the upstairs is mostly complete and the downstairs is being built. Insulation then gets layered on top, and then the whole thing gets sealed behind wood or fabric.

Build Update

We visited RVI today to check out the progress on the build.

Van outside RVI

The carpet is gone and the driving cabin is sealed off with plastic to keep out debris. The upstairs furring is complete and has just finished drying.  To avoid rattling and allow the vehicle to flex, Jeff screws the furring together, glues it to the fiberglass, and then glasses the furring to the top.

Jeff marked up the van interior with the locations for wiring. We reviewed these and added a few modifications. We also checked the parts that had arrived and labelled all the electrical components. We upgraded the wiring to 00 to allow for the capacity of the high-output alternator. Higher capacity wiring makes the electrical system more efficient. This is often used in solar systems, since bigger wire is cheaper than adding another solar panel.

We chose fabrics and accent lighting. We also narrowed the hallway to 24″ to allow for more water storage capacity in the galley. Over the next few days, Jeff will add the downstairs furring, subfloor, insulation, and electrical wiring. Next time we see the van, it will look very different.


Roof Rack Fitting

We headed back to Aluminess today to get the roof rack fitted. The rack gets held up with pulleys and is then lowered onto the fiberglass top. Alan then checked the measurements and adjusted the mounting supports. We also planned brackets for lights and the back up camera.






The rack design is sleek and simple. To make more room for the solar panels, the rack has squared corners instead of rounded ones. We chose a single loop design to avoid shading the panels. Check out this video regarding the effect of even partial shade on solar system efficiency.

We also met up with several Sportsmobile owners. Aluminess owner Dave brought his red van with a penthouse top. Dave had some great stories about camping and windsurfing in Baja.  Photographer Brent Haywood stopped by to discuss van conversion design ideas with us. Brent had some smart ideas for the shower and windows. We also liked his propane tank set up. It’s fun to talk gear with someone who thinks about the details as much as we do. Here’s a picture of Brent’s rig.

We also spied a nice Sportsmobile with a surf board rack parked on the street but didn’t meet the owner.

The rack goes to the powder coaters on Monday and should be ready to install next week.


O Power, Where Art Thou?

Power, of the electrical sort, seems so easy.  Just find an outlet and plug things in.  But, when living off-grid, whether in a remote cabin or a motorhome, you cannot take power for granted.

I need power in my van for typical motorhome appliances:

  • lights
  • fans
  • water pump

Since I’m living and working in my van full-time, I also want power for a few other items:

  • computers
  • cell phones
  • wireless Internet
  • network attached storage (for storing and backing up data needed for my work)
  • two way radio (for entertainment and emergency communication)
So, where does power to run all of this come from?  Many motorhomes throw a generator and RV park hookups at the problem.  This works but doesn’t match my desired lifestyle.  Generators are noisy and take up valuable space.  And, I don’t like RV parks.  I’d much rather call a nice meadow home for a week or more at a time.  After much reading, thinking, and wondering “how the heck is this gonna work”, here’s the process I’m following to address my power requirements:
  1. Estimate power requirements – Make a list of everything that requires power.  Don’t forget the little things like lights, water pumps, and furnace blowers.  Ideally, measure the power requirements with a multimeter or a device like the Kill A Watt.  In my case, I don’t yet own many of the devices I plan on adding.  For these, I check the manual or data sheet from the manufacturer and look for the power requirements.  The manufacturers usually specify the maximum power requirements.  Typical or average power requirements will be lower than the maximum, but there isn’t, unfortunately, a way to figure this out without measuring the device yourself.  Multiply the power draw for each device by the time you expect to use it each day.  Add it all up to get your energy requirements for the day.  This is a rough estimate, but it’s a useful place to start.  I recommend entering your estimates in a spreadsheet so you may adjust as you learn more.
  2. Use less power – This is a critical and difficult step.  After finishing your estimate, you’ll notice that small devices suck up a lot of energy.  For example, a 60 Watt light operating for 12 hours drains 720 Watt-hours.  That’s over 60 Amp-hours from a typical 12 VDC battery bank.  Ditch the items you don’t really need.  Do you really need a microwave, drip coffee pot, a blender, and a wide-screen television?  Maybe a propane cooktop is enough for warming food.  Make your coffee with a press pot instead (tastes better this way, too).  Consider leaving the blended margaritas at home and switch to beer.  Find lower power alternatives to the items you do need.  Get small, lower-power LED lights that just illuminate the area you’re working in.  Look for a more energy efficient refrigerator.  Switch computer parts out for more power efficient ones. Buy a nice down comforter and run the heat less.  Question everything.
  3. Get more power –  Alternators, solar panels, generators, grid hookups (“shore power”), fuel cells, wind generators, Mr. Fusion … it’s all a compromise between time, cost, and space.  Space is a huge constraint on my van, and I returned to steps 1 and 2 several times trimming ever more from my requirements.
That’s the high-level overview.  I’ll write about the details and share my decisions later, especially if you ask questions.

Aluminess Factory Visit

Docked at Aluminess

Have you ever checked out the body armour on off road trucks and vans? Maybe wondered what, um, deficits the driver was compensating for? Me too!

I always thought of those heavy duty bumpers and roof racks as expensive and unnecessary toys. However, then I thought about where to carry our tools, tire chains, vehicle rescue equipment, trash, and bicycles. And I talked to folks who’d run into deer or moose on the highway. And I learned about the options for mounting solar equipment on a curved roof. These racks can be really useful.

So, we went to Aluminess in Santee, CA to get measured for a roof rack, front bumper, and rear bumper.

The roof rack will hold and protect our solar panel system, which is the core of our electrical system. Since we want to spend our nights out in the woods rather than plugged in at an RV park, the solar is essential. Solar will also power the technomad electronics so that we can work on the road.  The top of the van isn’t flat, and a roof rack is the best way to mount the solar panels.

The front bumper will hold the winch, which is really useful for rescuing a stuck 10,000 pound vehicle. It’s sort of like carrying your own tow truck. The rear bumper rack has storage for our tools, toys, trash and recycling, and bicycles.

Bumpers Being Made

There are companies that build these racks out of steel or powder coated aluminum. The main advantages are aluminum are weight and rust resistance. Steel is stronger than aluminum, though the aluminum can be shaped to be nearly as strong as steel. A steel bumper can weigh 10 times as much as aluminum. Since the bumper is attached at a distance from the suspension, the weight and vibration from a steel bumper can cause suspension defects over time. Aluminess’ founder Dave got involved when Quigley contacted him about Ford warranty issues due to suspension failures. In analyzing the failures, Dave discovered the damage that steel bumpers were causing, and he started Aluminess to build a lighter weight alternative.

When we arrived at the factory, craftsman Kenny Gorham gave us a tour of the areas where the bumpers and roof racks are fabricated on site. The racks are then powdercoated off site, and then returned to Aluminess for installation.

Roof Rack -- Assembled , Before Powdercoat

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that our rear bumper was ready for immediate installation. We pulled our van into the factory bay. The craftsmen then removed our stock rear chrome bumper and bolted on the Aluminess bumper with storage box and bicycle rack.

Bumper Install -- Removing Chrome Bumper

It will look more complete when we get the spare tire mounted. Aluminess didn’t have the right lug nuts to attach the spare tire to the swing arm, so we had to carry the spare tire separately. Sportsmobile has generously offered to ship us the needed lug nuts. Repositioning the spare tire frees up under-vehicle space to install solar batteries for the house electrical system.

Alan Measures for the Roof Rack

The installation took about 1.5 hours. During that time, Alan and Kenny measured the roof for planning of the roof rack and solar panel installation.

We left Aluminess with the rear bumper installed. There’s still lots of work to do in planning the solar system. Next, we’ll go to RVI to plan the interior build.

Rear Bumper -- Installed. Tire Not Bolted On Yet.

Becoming a Home

How does a van become a home?  What makes our van different than the one your plumber or favorite creepy guy drives?

  1. Start with a Ford E-350 Extended Body van.  A van is small; many of us have closets larger than the van interior.  But, the van is a sturdy foundation.  A larger, more conventional motor home is too large, flimsy, and close to the ground to visit the off-road destinations we covet.
  2. Bolt on four wheel drive. Depending on where you’re going, consider structural upgrades such as a full floating axle, air lockers, and stronger tires.
  3. Add a fiberglass top to give over 6 feet of standing room and space for a loft bed. Most Class B (small) motorhomes have a rear sofa that converts to a temporary bed. This saves space, but involves remaking the bed every night. For full time winter living, a permanent bed is highly desirable.
  4. Add exterior storage and strength. Aluminum bumpers and racks provide storage and protection for the solar power system, vehicle rescue equipment, and tools. These items are optional, but very useful. While the bumpers can be added later on, the roof rack needs to be installed before the interior build. The roof rack bolts permanently onto the fiberglass, and then is reinforced from the inside. It is preferable to install all attachments to the fiberglass prior to installing the wall panels and headliner.
  5. Build the interior into a house. Electric wiring, insulation, and wood furring are installed first. Then, add decorative wall panels, flooring, and the fabric headliner. Next, install cabinetry, appliances, and lighting. Basic residential RV features includes spaces for sleeping, cooking, eating, hygiene, and work. Small RVs often have multipurpose or convertible furnishings to make the most of a small space. Check out this classic Disney clip for Katherine’s early childhood inspiration in compact living, and see grown up versions here and here.