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possible-van-man

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Newbie with a few questions
« on: August 26, 2017, 04:14:32 AM »
Hi folks, I'm new here having discovered this forum today. I'm considering doing a van conversion and have been reading through the various posts here. I'm really glad I found this forum because much of the advice I'm reading seems more grounded than elsewhere. So many of the videos doing conversions seem to get more and more elaborate and I was getting nervous about how over the top some of the conversions have gotten.

I had been looking at windowless cargo vans, but was concerned about that not being right for some reason. Reading posts I see that my gut sense may have been right about them.

I had also been thinking about a big complex (and expensive) solar setup that I'm now reconsidering in lieu of a generator.

So if I read this correctly, some older vehicles are actually better because they're mechanically simpler and thus more reliable? Here's an example of something I stumbled on today and was wondering if this is the kind of thing that has potential for a simple conversion? https://www.ksl.com/auto/listing/3999381?ad_cid=12#

Thanks.

Camper_Dan

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #1 on: August 27, 2017, 04:35:11 AM »
Greetings & Welcome!

Your gut has good sense.  Unknown cargo vans in the city at night instill fear in the neighbors, invoking thoughts of criminals invading their neighborhoods.  The police are also well aware that the criminals prefer cargo vans, so they're on the lookout too.  Finally the thieves, are hoping that an unknown cargo van might contain something of value for them to steal.

It has been said that the more you try to hide, the more attention you  attract.  When I lived in a cargo van, I was treated like a criminal on the run, and when I upgraded to a window van, I became a tourist, a visiting friend or relative,  or a simple harmless camper.

A lot of us feel that the older vans, the pre-computerized ones, are more reliable, and certainly much easier to fix on the road.  When electronic components die, you can quickly find yourself dead in the water.  With mechanical failures, your chances of simple temporary solutions are much better.

There is also a lot of truth to the fact that if you buy an older, fully depreciated van, you'll never lose any money due to depreciation, like you do on newer vans.

Window vans not only make the best campers, they are also much cheaper to convert into campers.  With pre finished interiors, it is as simple as removing the seats, and moving your camper interior in.  With opening windows, no roof vents are needed, a simple cheap fan will provide even better ventilation, and without the ever present threat of leaks.  Fancy builds may look great in pictures, but in reality, portable (but secured) builds are often better, more comfortable, and more convenient.  All parts of my van, my bed, kitchen, bathroom, lounging area, power & water systems, etc. can all be moved outdoors if I'm boondocking and choose to do it, and all without needless duplication.

For power, the most popular option is to charge your house batteries while driving, via a generator, via shore power, or dead and distant last is solar power.  Solar power is by far the most expensive, the most unreliable, and has a bad habit of killing batteries prematurely.  The idea of parking in the scorching sun during the summer for the sake of having power is also a very dumb idea to most people.  Most people believe that shade in the summer and  sun in the winter is a much better choice. 

Camper vans require almost constant ventilation year round to keep moisture problems in check.  The required ventilation basically nullifies any possible advantages of added insulation.  Much larger heaters than those typically recommended are needed if you plan to spend any time in truly cold areas.  Unvented propane heaters are also a major cause of moisture problems.  Kerosene stoves and heaters are preferred by many who spend time in colder climates.

12v compressor fridge/freezers are another frequently recommended mistake.  They're expensive at $600-$1000+, they are very power hungry, and while new users brag about them, they tend to have very short life spans when being used full time.  3 way propane/AC/DC RV style fridges are a better bang for your buck, and can save you a fortune in the long run.   Many full timers are going back to the tried and proven simple ice chests that require no power at all.  Done right, a block of ice will last a week, and if kept in a separate container, your food never gets wet either.  In today's society there are also many ways to live happy and healthy without the need for refrigeration at all.

In my camper van, I have a futon style sofa/bed using 4" foam camping pads for the cushions, my own toilet & shower, two kerosene cooking burners, an ice chest, dishpans for sinks, and spray bottles for water, a swivel rocker/recliner, and wooden TV trays for my tables.  My kitchen counter is bare, so it can be used as a work surface or as a kitchen.  I also have a big kerosene heater, and a 12v air conditioner.  My $20 junkyard house battery is charged while driving, or optionally via my generator.  My entire camper package cost less than $300.  My interior isn't especially pretty, but it's comfortable and convenient.  Everything is easily and cheaply replaceable almost anywhere.

Of the older vans, the Dodge's are my personal favorite.  Very reliable, great driving, low maintenance, and very durable.

Hope this was helpful, best wishes, and keep us posted!

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possible-van-man

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #2 on: August 27, 2017, 07:09:31 AM »
Thanks so much for your reply. I had actually been down to a solar company a day or so ago and they were trying to sell me a near $2500 solar setup and something just didn't feel right. I will need more than just a basic power need as I have two computers, but still what they recommended seemed extreme to me.

I had no idea about the propane heaters so I'm especially grateful for that bit of advice. I looked over on Amazon.com for kerosene heaters. One person complained about the smell from them, is this something you've experienced? How much do they burn? Are there smaller units appropriate for van sized spaces?

Thanks!

Camper_Dan

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #3 on: August 27, 2017, 06:39:58 PM »
We can figure out your power needs, solar is basically only a battery charger anyway, it's the batteries that power everything, so we'll figure out what you need, and the best way to charge them.

I always buy my kerosene heaters used, generally around $20...  There isn't much to go wrong with them, generally no more than a wick replacement, which is both cheap and easy.  Sometimes there is a slight odor when you first start them, and then when you turn them off it's about like if you blow out a candle.  The smell doesn't really linger.  While they are actually running there is no smoke or odor unless they are improperly adjusted.

I carry 2x 7 gallons jugs of kerosene, and unless I'm somewhere with an extremely cold winter, that will last me for at least a year, and that's for cooking,  heating, and lighting.  I do have other forms of lighting too, but there's just something about the warm glow of my kerosene lantern that I love on a cold winter night.  Even during the coldest winters, my two 7 gallon jugs of kerosene will last at least 3 months, and that's running it almost constantly, but at -40f outside, it's Hawaii in my van. :)

In my case since I am frequently working where the temps are bad in the winter, I have a big 23k BTU kerosene heater, then my cooking burners which are also kerosene are 12k BTU's each.  My heater is one of the large round  ones.  Some of my friends use the rectangular ones which are 8.5-10k BTU's, and some just use one of the cooking burners.

Basically it's very similar to any car.  You need a lot of heat on high to quickly raise the temperature, then once it's comfortable, it requires very little heat to keep it that way.

I'll try to post some pictures for you later today.

Cheers!
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possible-van-man

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #4 on: August 27, 2017, 09:10:24 PM »
Awesome, thanks again. I'm encouraged about the kerosene heat option. I live in Utah where things do get quite cold during the winter, but am planning on going down to somewhat warmer winter locations in Arizona and New Mexico.

I've been doing a lot of research into the solar thing, and yes I now understand that the batteries are the central part of all of this. My goal is to create at least 400 amp hours of batteries and I'm not opposed to buying new high quality AGM's. The idea of charging them via a connection to the engine is something I have heard of before and I'm going to do more research into it. In fact about 3 weeks ago I went and looked at a used RV (from the late 80s) that has been kept in immaculate condition by an older fellow who is an electrician by trade. He spent almost 2 hours with me going over every system in it, but in particular showed me the solar setup (380 watts solar) that he tied into 4 house batteries and also to the 2 engine batteries (so they acted as a single bank if I remember correctly). So while he drove the engine would charge all 6 batteries, in addition to the solar. So he basically never would run out of power between the two charging sources. He also had the generator tied in as a backup.

Anyway, I appreciate your feedback, no doubt I'll have more questions.

Camper_Dan

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #5 on: August 28, 2017, 02:23:02 AM »
Depending on your plans, a used RV can sometimes be a better choice than actually converting a van.  An RV can give you more ammenities, and a larger living space.  When I'm traveling, I tend to stealth camp for free in cities, and for that, a camper van is easier to find legal parking for than a larger RV.

What most people, including RV's use to charge their batteries while driving is called an isolator.  A search for "battery isolator" should turn up some good results.

Before I started charging my house batteries while driving, both before and after my miserable experiences with solar, I was using a generator.  About  once a week, I'd fire up my generator and charge my batteries.  A 5 gallon jerry can of gas would last me about a year for running my generator, and even when gas prices were up near $5.00 a gallon, that meant I was spending about $25 a year for all the power I needed.  This was totally acceptable to me.  Now that I'm charging while driving, my generator gets very little use, but it is very comforting to know I have it if I ever need  it.

Once I ditched solar, and those power hungry 12v fridges, it became obvious that I needed much less power than I thought.  I actually run very little off my house battery these days, and a single 100ah battery lasts me about a week.  Basically I charge my computer & other electronics, run one or two fans, or my 12v A/C, a 12v electric blanket in the winter, and 12v heating/cooling seat cushions.  I do have many self contained solar powered items that I use, such as lanterns, headlamps, a bug zapper, a radio etc.  I also have many battery powered items I use, like more lights, my razor, and others.  For them I have a stand alone solar battery charger that charges AA/AAA/C/D/9v batteries.  I just sit this stuff in a window occassionally to keep everything charged.  Optionally I can get 8 packs of AA or AAA batteries at the dollar stores.  I enjoy having lots of options and choices for powering things, especially when it comes to lights.

I'm now buying my batteries at junkyards.  They frequently get RV's in with high dollar deep cycle batteries in them, and I don't think I've ever spent more than $20 for one from a junkyard.  My current $20 junkyard house battery is on year six now, and my $18 junkyard starting battery is on year seven.  My entire camper van build cost less than some of those expensive batteries.  I like to go cheap when I can, as long as it has no negative effects on my life.

For the record, it's not about being cheap.  Comfort comes first for me, and the fact that it can be done so cheaply is just an added bonus.  I have money, and I'm always open to anything that will legitimately improve my life.  I'm just opposed to spending big money on 3rd or 4th rate choices, when there are better methods that are cheaper too.

Cheers!
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possible-van-man

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #6 on: August 28, 2017, 03:00:55 AM »
I just got back from looking at an extended length 96 Dodge van. It was a commuter van so it had windows. The downside was that it had a strong smell of hot plastics off-gassing because it was sitting in the sun. I'm guessing getting rid of the seats in it would help, and removing the old carpet would also help, but it's not the first van I've looked at with strong chemical smells. I just don't know how I would deal with that.

My plan is to do stealth parking in the city and for sure that's harder with an RV, but I know where I live people do do it (mostly class C's from what I can see). So I'm also looking for a smaller used RV. I'm going to look at a late 70s Chevy that someone has heavily remodeled.

I watched a video a couple of hours ago about a battery isolator setup and I'll have to watch a few more, but this seems like a very logical thing. I still might opt to go with a single solar panel to help if I'm not driving, but I'm not at that phase yet. I've also been looking at generator options, I know the Honda 2000 is very popular, but expensive and there seem to be some viable and cheaper alternatives to small inverter generators.

I'll have to look at the junk yard angle for used batteries.

Again, thank you for taking time to answer with good advice.

Camper_Dan

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #7 on: August 28, 2017, 05:05:14 PM »
You might want to go into the 80's on the Dodges, they don't seem to have that plastic smell.  I've noticed bad smells of one sort or another in almost everything from the 90's and newer.  I think they all started going with cheaper plastic or something.
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possible-van-man

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #8 on: August 29, 2017, 04:34:05 AM »
I went and looked at a 1990 Chevy G20 SportVan tonight that popped up on our local paper classified section. It was in pretty good shape and you're right, it didn't have near the level of the plastic smell. It was basically a mini-motorhome and only had two owners over its life. Both seemed to have taken care of it pretty well, but I realized that all its amenities (shower, water tanks, etc..) actually took space away that I might be able to use in a more creative way. Being able to stand up inside was really nice and its something I'm seeing as an increasingly valuable thing to look for.

So my search goes on.


Camper_Dan

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #9 on: August 29, 2017, 07:28:26 AM »
A lot of the factory camper vans seem too feel a bit crowded to me too...

Many of the old church and shuttle vans have tops.
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Goobergrape

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Re: Newbie with a few questions
« Reply #10 on: February 21, 2018, 06:28:15 AM »
Thanks for all the great advice Camper_Dan  :)