Fin. After six weeks, the build is finished, finally. Our last update covered construction through the cabinetry, leaving the electrical system, plumbing, and finishes to wrap everything up. Most of what we highlight here actually happened gradually over the past few weeks, but the final pieces didn’t come together until the end of the project.
Right from the start, we knew we wanted to equip our van with a self-sufficient power system. This meant hours of research, design, and product sourcing to ensure we understood what we were building and to procure the correct items for the build. In a stroke of great fortune, Joe (Emily’s dad) happens to be well versed in electrical engineering and was gracious enough to accept our offer to be our electrical consultant. We paid well (in good-nature ribbing and eye rolls) so how could he say no to us? In all seriousness, this build would have taken twice as long if we didn’t have his help. More about that later.
After completing the aforementioned research and design, we landed on a 12-volt electrical system that included the following equipment:
- (2) 200ah (amp-hour) 12v back-of-house batteries (400ah total capacity)
- (4) 100w solar panels to be mounted on the roof
- (1) solar charger
- (1) battery-to-battery charger (to charger our back-of-house batteries using the van’s alternator)
- (1) 30A shore-power charger
- (1) 2000W inverter
The major electrical components listed above come together to give us the power we need to run our smaller equipment while also keeping our battery bank as close to full capacity as possible. This configuration should allow us to remain “off-grid” for several days without having to plug in to shore-power (a conventional household power outlet) to recharge. Longer with consistent sunny weather or a lot of driving.
As far as installation of these components (batteries, chargers, etc.) we couldn’t have done it without Joe. He helped us fine-tune our design to fill gaps and adjust anything that didn’t quite come together cleanly. He also made the majority of the major connections in the electrical system and even went as far as to custom fabricate various components to fit our space and design.
The back of house system is in place to run the front-of-house system, or the items visible within the finished van. The front end of the system is made up of the following:
- (2) MaxxAir ceiling fans
- (6) LED ceiling puck lights
- (2) LED under-cabinet puck lights
- (2) LED back-of-house puck lights
- (1) LED exterior flood light
- (2) dual USB charge ports
- (1) 44 quart 12v refrigerator
- (1) water pump
- (1) gas/CO detector
- (1) 110V duplex GFCI receptacle
- wiring for (1) diesel heater (a future upgrade)
The wiring for these items went in prior to the cedar wall/ceiling cladding, leaving the final connections to happen once cabinetry was finished. The connections for the 12v components were relatively simple after a tutorial from our consultant.
Besides the electrical system, the other major “system” is our plumbing. While we did not elect to go with a full fledged bathroom (shower, toilet, etc.) we knew we wanted running water and a sink. Our plumbing system is made up of just a few pieces:
- (1) 30 gallon fresh water tank
- (1) 10 gallon gray water tank (sink drains to this tank)
- (1) water pump
- (1) accumulator
- (1) faucet
That’s it. Simple. Our fresh water tank is positioned under the second bed and the gray water tank is below the sink under the adjacent bench. The pump and accumulator are both mounted in the cabinet below the sink. Each water tank includes a vent and a valved drain that can extend to the exterior of the van to drain as needed. To fill the fresh water tank we’ll use a gravity fill system (non pressurized) which can be filled via any water tap or hose. The hardest part of assembling our relatively simple plumbing system was finding all the right size and type of connections to tie everything together.
We set aside a Friday to install everything and started that morning knowing pretty much nothing besides that we needed to get water from point A to point B. After THREE frustrating trips to Home Depot and/or Lowe’s, and a few more Amazon orders, by Saturday afternoon we officially had running water.
With the major technical portions of the build behind us, it was on to the fun stuff. In the first few weeks we clad the walls and ceiling in cedar plank. We selected dark wood-look vinyl flooring to provide some contrast to the cedar, and went with a light colored birch butcher block for the countertops. We painted the upper and lower cabinets white, added black drawer pulls and hinges, and used burlap in the upper cabinets to keep things light and allow some air flow. We had a few nice pieces of pine from Mike’s dad that we used to frame out our bed and the front edge of our slide out table.
We had some extra fabric left over from the cushions, so we enlisted both of our moms for help (thanks moms!). We added a thick curtain between the cab and the back of the van using two layers of fabric that will hopefully keep us warmer over the winter.
Lastly; the bed. We were able to fit a full size mattress without taking up too much livable space in the van by positioning the bed side-to-side, bumping the walls out on each side, and thinning out the insulation here. With a 6″ thick memory foam mattress, a 0-degree-rated sleeping bag, some fluffy pillows and a quilt, it’s incredibly cozy and feels just like home. It’s high enough off the floor to leave room for the guest bed and storage below, yet still low enough that we can sit up in bed without knocking our heads on the ceiling.
Well, we did it. Six weeks ago we contemplated our next move as we watched forest fire smoke roll through Wyoming and Utah. Pivoting, yet again, on our year off, we changed course and bought a used cargo van in New Mexico. We couldn’t be happier with how she turned out. A massive thank you to Joe and Vickie for providing a fully functional workshop and also for housing, feeding, and just dealing with us during the build. Our next move given the rising number of Covid-19 cases is to keep to ourselves as we head south and west in search of some warm weather and good food and drink before we circle back east for the end of the year holidays.
- Mike & Emily