van conversion

Some accessories and ventilation for the van

A bit of time has passed since our last post related to upgrades and converting the van.  We have pored over several forums and builds from other people. Before diving into the van project fully, we wanted to spend time living in it.  We have returned from our climbing trip to Potrero Chico and added a couple accessories and installed a roof fan. We are all smiles, great trip and our decision for van life cemented!

Portrero

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Accessories

We will separate accessories and upgrades. Generally accessories don’t require special tools or alter the van in a significant manner where upgrades may require altering some element of the vehicle. We purchased floor mats and hood deflector before the trip and were only able to install the mats prior to. We were still experiencing the grips of winter and couldn’t get the van clean or warm enough to install the deflector before leaving so it waited until our return and some warmer weather.

Husky Floor Mat

Cost: $109

Level of Difficulty: It doesn’t get much easier

Install time: The amount of time it takes you to open and box and put them in..

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Our van has vinyl flooring in the cockpit but more protection is needed to keep from ripping it up and one of the first purchases was a floor mat. We looked at all the options and decided on the Husky Floor liner that bridges the drivetrain hump.  The vinyl flooring of our van makes it difficult for mats to grip so having one joined in the middle keeps the mats together and limits them slipping around. This model also extends up into the foot well and towards the door to give protection on the foot rest areas on the drivers and passenger sides.

Review:

We installed these before our trip and they really protect the flooring. We exposed these liners to summer and winter use and they caught dirt and melting snow without issue. We do quite a bit outside and get in and out with various forms of footwear soiled with all forms of stuff so these work well for use and meet our needs.  They are not that expensive and fit the bill, not perfect but work.

Pros:

  • Heavy duty material that will hold up over time.
  • Mats are joined which helps keep them in place
  • Cover the foot well with curved sides to hold dirt and water in place

Cons:

  • Mats are joined which makes it difficult to removed one if it soiled, easier to clean in place
  • Mats do slide slightly on our vinyl floor and there isn’t anyway to secure to floor

Ford Hood Deflector

Cost $82

Level of Difficulty: Beginner, be patient to ensure alignment. An extra set of eyes could be beneficial.

Install time: About 30min.

Many of the roads in Colorado are treated with aggregate during the winter which flies up and causes problems.  Just about everyone drives around with several cracks and chips in the windshield of their vehicles.  Even if you don’t get some type of obvious damage to your windshield it will need to be replaced in a few years because it will resemble frosted glass with millions of pock marks, which is more pronounced at night. All this stuff hitting the windshield is also beating up the leading edge of your vehicle and exposing the metal underneath which leads to rusting of the hood. One popular way is with using a film or clear bra on the hood.  We considered using the film but passed because we didn’t like the look of a seam halfway up the hood and it really doesn’t offer a buffer from some of the larger pieces of rock thrown up on the roads.

This deflector is held on with 3M VHB tape attached to the back of the product so you don’t have to drill holes into the hood. Because you are depending on adhesive to secure it the temperature needs to be above 70 deg F and clean.  So wash the van with soap and water, try not to use a “wash n wax” product because the was can impair the adhesion. Once washed and dried use the alcohol preps, or mix of 50:50 isopropyl alcohol and water on a towel, to remove any greasy or waxy residue that may remain.

Washed, cleaned and ready for application

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Installation:

  1. Wash and clean surface
  2. Peel the film back on the corners of the tape, exposing small corners of the tape and then align with the hood
  3. Pull the tabs to expose the rest of the tape and apply pressure (3M recommends 15psi) to promote bonding to all the contact areas to adhere it to the hood.  Bonding strength is as follows, 50% in 20min, 90% after 24 and 100% after 72 hours.

After

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As you can see it fits nice and close to the van and doesn’t vibrate against rubber bumpers like some deflectors do.  We plan on blacking out the chrome.  The little Ford sticker didn’t last long and fell off shortly after installation.

Pros:

  • Ford product and designed to fit the vehicle
  • Fits close to hood and doesn’t vibrate or have a gap that collects pine needles or other debris that rolls down the hood
  • Added layer of protection from objects impacting the leading edge of hood
  • Doesn’t add to wind noise
  • No special tools to install
  • No drilling required

Cons:

  • It is flimsy plastic and can break if not supported during installation, as noted on Amazon review
  • Only one color available

Review

We have only had the deflector on for a short period of time so this would not be considered a long term review but it has remained in place and stood up to the rocks and road debris. The small Ford label on it fell off shortly after installation but you can’t tell it was even there.  We like the way it changes the styling of the van and protection it offers.  Will see how long it holds up but for now it was a worthwhile purchase and will help keep the hood protected and looking good.

Now it is time to move on to some real work, installing the ventilation fan.  But before we install it we had to pick one.  There are several different fans out there to choose from but the two top ones are the Fantastic and MaxxAir fans. We decided on the MaxxAir Maxxfan Deluxe 7500k fan for our van.  Both companies fans move 900+CFM and electric or manual lip opening, ceiling fan mode, remote control, thermostat and rain sensors.  We wanted the ability to operate the fan in the rain but we don’t like the look of a high rain cover poking up from the roof so MaxxAir was the choice for us. We also chose the smoke because it lets in more light than the white model.

Level of Difficulty: Moderate

Time: 4 hrs

Cost: $476 - For the supplies only, if you need some tools then add accordingly. You always need more tools.

Below is a chart for MaxxAir with the features of the various models. If you are active and spend time away from your vehicle, we recommend starting with models that include a rain sensor that will close the fan if you are away from the van.  Spending a few extra dollars for a rain sensor is cheaper than replacing water damaged interior or electronics from a flood of rain.

Fans

Now we picked the fan it was time to get the rest of the needed supplies and equipment. This is our step-by-step installation and products we used.  Walk down the isle at Home Depot or a RV shop and you will see all the different products to seal, glue, caulk or otherwise “waterproof” the holes you will put in your van. The products or methods you use in your installation may differ based on your local weather or views on how it should be done.

Ok, Let’s get our stuff together. It was this point I realized we only had the exterior roof adapter.  Today was the only day I had to get the fan installed before I had to get back to work and the weather changed.

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Not Pictured

  • Drill bits
  • Dremel or rotary tool or a flat file
  • Center punch
  • Hammer
  • Clamps
  • Caulk gun
  • Step Ladder
  • Blanket or something to protect the finish on the roof.

Step 1.. Prepare and homeschooling lessons

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We were able to cover several homeschooling topics during the fan installation.  We used all kinds of visuals to demonstrate fractions but it was using money as the example that brought the “Aha!” moment and fractions were better understood.

  • Reading tape measure
  • Adding and subtracting fractions
  • Converting fractions to decimals
  • Use of hand and power tools
  • Making mistakes and recovering
  • Safety and teamwork

Step 2

Decide where you are going to place your fan.  We are planning on a roof rack and a solar panel being mounted towards the rear so ours is placed forward on the roof.  This is also going to be in our kitchen area and we wanted to ventilate close to the cooking area. Find the centerline (CL) of your roof and measure 7” to either side. The fan requires a 14” opening.  Use the painters tape and sharpie to layout the square you will cut.

Measure 3 time and cut once, especially when you are cutting into a vehicle.  Body repairs can be costly.

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Step 3

Reconfirm your measurements, just one more time.  Place another piece of tape on the CL and use the center punch to put a small indent into the roof (this gives a place for the drill bit to start, if not the bit will wander on the surface and put a hole where do not want it) where you will drill a pilot hole to fit the blade of jig saw through and make a test cut along part of the CL.  OK.. Practice is over, now use the center punch in each corner and drill holes for the jig saw blade.  You want the drill bit to touch both lines of the corner but not extend outside of your lines.

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Step 4

The hole is cut! Remove the painters tape.  The edge will be pretty rough with a rough edge inside and out. You can use a file to take care of the edge but a dremel makes quick work of it. Any metal extending above or below could keep the adapter from fitting flush and getting a good seal. Test fit the fan mount to make sure your hole is properly sized. Then clean inside and out with alcohol to remove wax, grease and tape residue.

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Step 5

The cutting will leave exposed metal that will start to corrode and it needs to be refinished.  We laid some cardboard over the roof and covered to outside with a box to prevent overspray onto the finish off the roof and taped a bag over in interior to prevent overspray into the cabin.  Wait for primer to dry before applying the paint and then the paint to dry before the clear coat.

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Step 6, 7, 8

Clamp the adapter, fan mount, and the interior adaptor.  In our case we used wood and used a small hand plane to match the curve of the roof line, important to do to ensure all the surfaces stay flush and tight to prevent further leaks.  Drill the holes for your screws, remove and apply the butyl tape to the bottom of adaptor and then the underside of the fan mount.  The holes were drilled before drilling to prevent the drill bit from becoming clogged.  The tape will bend and can be applied in one piece, mating the ends together.  Clamp it all back together and fasten it all together.  Use a lug nut method of putting it all together, bring one fastener snug then the opposite side. Repeat all around the mount until securely fastened. The butyl tape is designed to spread out and create a seal between the surfaces. Trim off the excess with a plastic putty knife.

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Step 9

Load the self leveling sealant in your caulk gun and try to stay clean..  I ran a bead of the sealant at the adapter interface and then where the fan mount met the adaptor.  Then coated the screws and ensured coverage of all the surfaces from top to bottom.  This whole process used almost a whole tube of the sealant.  It is designed to flow and self level a bit.  It can get messy.. Yes, my legs are shaved.

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Step 10

Open the fan with the manual handle on the underside and place in opening.  There is a rubber gasket in the base mount that the fan will sit on and it will help if someone pushes down on the fan assembly and get the 4 mounting screws inserted. All mounted up, this is right after mounting and the sealant can take several hours to finish ‘leveling’.  Use a shop vac or air hose to get all the metal shavings out of the roof crevices.

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Step 11

Enjoy your beverage of choice and smile.  You did it!  My helpers lost interest so I am celebrating solo.

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Things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t rush and make sure you will have plenty of time.
  • The butyl tape and self leveling sealant have application temperatures and use in warmer temperatures will help with products performance.
  • The holes for the fan mount line up to the sides of the van.

This is only part of our ventilation plan.  Next will be to remove the inserts underneath the van by the spare tire and open the flooring up for ventilation.  All of this will help air circulation if we are kept inside due to weather and keep the electronics cool.  You will be nerve racked when you drill that first hole in the van roof.  Don’t worry, you can do this.

Winter has returned to Colorado so the spray insulation will have to wait for some warmer weather days.  It would be nice to have a warehouse or garage with heat and big door to work in. Maybe the next upgrade should be build another garage..

And Van Wilder is home plus first upgrade, tires.

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Upgrade: Tires Nokian Hakkapeliitta LT2 265/75 R16

Time: Minimal, tire shop did the work

Cost: $790.48

After weighing all the options out there we settled on a Ford Transit van and searched around the interwebs for a used model with the options we needed. Craigslist searches were fruitless but we found the van we wanted at Uftring Auto Mall in East Peoria, IL. It was a bit different bargaining over the phone with a sales person. Although these vans are in demand and not much bargaining can be had but there was still the back and forth. Thankfully our time wasn’t spent sitting in a showroom while people came and went, it was “Ok, I will call you back” and so on. Needless to say getting it home was a bit more tiring.

Once the deal was finalized we looked at a few of options to get the van to us in Colorado.

  • Have a friend in Indianapolis drive it out and then we would fly him home
  • Delivery company
  • One of us fly out and then drive home.

We really wanted it here ASAP and our friend wasn’t available for a couple of weeks so that option was out. The next option we looked at was the delivery company. The initial prices were coming back fairly reasonable but once they had the measurements of the van the price rose from around $400 to almost $1,500. That price would cut into our conversion budget so onto flying out and doing it ourselves. A one-way flight was only $170 and the drive back would just be a long day, easy...

Luckily I had a 4 day (4 days off in a row) coming up so a ticket was purchased and the date set. Woke at 4am for the alpine start to Colorado Springs airport and set off. We were nervous because the day before our area experienced winds of 100mph and all the flights were canceled and we hoped I would be able to get out this am. Checked the flight status before leaving and all appeared to be on time and the winds were down. Received my pat down at he the security checkpoint and sat down at the gate. That was when the annoucement was made.

“Attention passengers. We were just informed the pilot found a hydraulic problem with the aircraft and he is waiting for a mechanic to check it out."

I immediately got in line to see what my options were or if I would miss my connecting flight. I had to fly south to Dallas before I could fly north to Peoria. The gate agent was very forthcoming and recommended I take a flight on another airline from Denver to Chicago and then to Peoria becaue hydraulic issues generally take awhile to sort out. I took him up on the offer and he booked me on a shuttle van from Colorado Springs to Denver. Things are looking good!

It has been a bit since I flew across the country and when the delayed flight annoucement to Chicago came across my memory also came back of many missed flights and delays related to going throught Chicago. Needless to say I missed my connector in Chicago to Peoria and I had to get a hotel room to stay overnight. Needless to say, our sales man John Applen was very understanding and recommended a hotel just up the street and he picked me up in the morning. Great customer service!

After completing the paperwork and John getting me all setup with the van, going over the controls and hooking my phone up to Sync, I was off. There is a thread on FordtransitforumsUSA dedicated to the lack of snow performance of these vans with the stock tires and no weight in the back. Both of which this van had. I looked at the grey clouds and pondered for a moment about getting some sandbags but I looked at my weather app and it showed clear weather all the way home. Weather apps are about as reliable as weather people.

We like our beer and I was told to stop at John's Grocery in Iowa City and Beer Corner USA in Omaha, NE. I quickly looked at the website for Beer Corner but skipped John’s website. On the outside John’s looked like a little neighborhood grocery store with take away food. Once inside I turned a corner at a sign pointing to the beer area and it was like a hallway from “The Shining”, it seemed to extend out against all laws of physics and then there was the beer cooler. So much beer.. Colorado was well represented on the shelves and there were other beers I recognized so I tried to concentrate on beers from the area. Luckily the beer manager, Chris, came up and started showing me the goods. I held back a bit because I was thinking about Beer Corner and what I may find and place with such a hallowed name.

First cargo load for Van Wilder

The temps dropped significantly across the Nebraska but Van Wilder was keeping me warm and comfortable. The seats and cockpit are well laidout and she handles like a dream. The Ecoboost motor will definitely let you know when you are putting your foot on the pedal as your body presses into the back of the seat. The windows and lenght of the hood allows me to see everything around me and even in the strong winds she tracked like a charm. The sun put my fears of weather at bay, but there I still felt something in my gut.

Next stop Omaha and Beer Corner! Exited the van and saw the back of a small strip painted with beer banners and restaurants and the excitement built. See those blue skies? All is good.

I was hurried along to Beertopia by the single digit temps and wind and as I came in the door I was deflated. There was a decent selection of beers and I purchased a few sours and saisons but otherwise nothing super exciting. I was hoping to find some Cantillon but none were found. Deposited a small box of beers into Van Wilder and then had dinner at Crescent moon. Pretty good tap seletion and good food. Beer Corner is definitely worth a stop if you are in the area but I would not go too far out of my way to get there. Now John’s Grocery is another story.

Back on the road. As the miles ticked past and the night came on a few flurries came across the windshield. Oh boy. Well it really started blowing and snowing. Nothing was really building on the road but as I went over a uphill bridge there was a slight buildup of snow and the backend suddenly started to sway. Thank you for the traction control for stopping the wheelspin and keeping us moving forward in a straight line. The snow became a bit heavier and the winds picked up more but I cut my speed significantly and I started making mental calculations about arrival times to home.

I brought a sleeping bag, pad and inflateable pillow with me and I thought about pulling over to sleep and let the weather pass. I gave myself another hour to see how it went and the snow let up and I had clear roads the rest of the way home. I took a deep breath and sighed, thankful I didn’t just wad up our new to us van. Arrival time was about 0130, took me about 15 hours to get home.

We are following a Transit van build from a couple in Canada (FaroutRide) that also mountain bike and ski. They recently went on a ski trip and I reached out for some tire information. They are using BFG AT tires because they are planning on traveling and didn’t want to change tires mid travel but said they would go with a studded tire if they were not traveling. So we called up the tire shop close to our house and made the appointment to have four Nokian Hakkapelliita LT2 studded tires installed. We also upsized to a 265/75, which gave the van a bit higher clearance and more aggresive look.

Stock

Nokian

We have had a bit more snow and these tires changed the snow and ice handling of the van. There are also six 60lb bags of sand in the back for more weight and traction. I thought it was just the wind but when the tires were installed the alignment was checked and it was a bit off so that added to our install cost. Anyone want some stock tires with 14k miles on them? We will make you a good deal.

Van wilder is home and we are smiling. My hands and nerves are back to normal, after sampling some of the booty I brought home!

Also took Van Wilder to Alpine Mechanisms for some planning so stay tuned. Great things are coming.

Picking a new Vehicle

Posted by Greg

We are selling the Gordita, our 2000 Tacoma TRD with a Flipac camper and a few other upgrades. She has taken me many places and is still a capable rig but since Paige and the kids have come into my life we need more room and after using this type of setup for over 13 years we had a idea of what we were looking for and this is what we looked at and our final decision.

We (kids included) looked at all the options:

Earth Cruiser

Pros:

  • Self-contained
  • Able to get to camper without going outside
  • Already set up
  • Access to refreshments and bathroom while driving
  • 4x4
  • Campsite only needs to be size of vehicle

Cons:

  • Expense.. Maybe someday.. Where is that damn Powerball ticket!?
  • Not practical as a daily driver around town.
  • Everyone wants to visit you in the campground. We experienced this with the Flipac also.
  • Difficult to park in a city

Considered another pickup, Chevy Colorado diesel (Toyota needs to get off their butt and bring the diesel they sell is around the world to the US!!), with a crew cab and then add on of the following:

AT Habitat

Tepui Roof Tent


Cricket Trailer


All of the above share the similar pros and cons, with the exception of the Cricket trailer. We did look at a overlanding or adventure trailer option with a roof top tent but the cost of one of those trailers start at $15-$20k and when you start adding options the price skyrockets. And that price is on top of a new vehicle to tow it. Anyone looking at 4x4 vehicles has come to the realization of how expensive used ones are with low mileage so you are better off getting a new one. We keep our vehicles until they fall apart or no longer meet our needs and spending 30k on used truck with over 100k miles didn’t seem wise to us.

Back to pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Vehicle is a daily driver
  • 4x4
  • Easily maneuvered and parked in a city
  • Campsite only needs to be the size of vehicle
  • Able to set up and leave it (trailer option)
  • Vehicle is serviceable at dealership

Cons:

  • Difficult to park and maneuver in city (trailer option)
  • Limited access to refreshments
  • Exposed to elements while setting up (not as much with Cricket)
  • No access to toilet while moving
  • Special parts to repair tent or habitat, may be difficult to source when traveling abroad.
  • Vehicle has to be packed and repacked if moving to daily objective.
  • No real ventilation or climate control inside (except the Cricket option and after years of using the Gordita and spending days in the rain you don’t want everything smelling like bacon or whatever you are cooking inside).

Of course there is the van conversion option via a upfitter, with name Sportsmobile being the most recognized. This option shares similar pros and cons as the Earth Cruiser above but is a bit cheaper and within reach but we felt we didn’t really get the value for our money spent on the vehicle. It is nice to go down a list of options and watch the money fly out of your wallet and then in a few months go pick up you vehicle but you pay for it.

As homeschoolers (specifically unschoolers - yeah we are those people), we are always looking for educational experiences and converting our own van offers several areas of learning and working together - hopefully not fighting. We wedged the three kids into the extended cab of the Gordita and headed over to Alpine Mechanisms, a local upfitter to look at some options and discuss what we were looking for in the next adventure vehicle for us. Their bumpers and roofracks are clean looking and stout, without looking too bulky like the Aluminess.

 

What was number one on the kids list?

Wifi, to stream YouTube, Vampire Diaries, Netflix, etc. We explained how that is possible but only when we had cell service.

Next on their list.

Space to move. Not sure why this was next but looking at them sitting behind us with their knees around their ears it was readily apparent why.

Our reasons for going the do-it-yourself van route:

  • Self-contained.
  • Room for kids to move around.
  • Easy set-up and take down in weather.
  • Serviceable at dealership.
  • Can be a daily driver.
  • Adaptable to different configurations.
  • Family learning project.
  • Access to refreshments while moving.
  • Ablility to prepare meals without exposure to the elements.
  • Ventilation and climate control.
  • Educational opportunity
  • Customized with our layout with the materials we want to use and for our use.

In a past life I spent a fair amount of time in a Westy and I am well aware of the negative and benefit of going the van route. My experience with the Westy ruled it out for us based on reliability and the ability to get a repair beyond our capabilities. Let alone the cost of one in good condition. If you own a Westy you know what I am talking about.

The next decision was which van? For us there were only three options:

Mercedes


First is The Mercedes or “Sprinter”, the most widely recognized van out there. This is also the most expensive van in this category and if you add the AWD option the price really goes up. I used AWD and not 4wd because the 4wd drivetrain is not super stout and is not in the same class as a true 4wd rig, our opinion so feel free to disagree. This is the one I drooled over when it came out and would always look at them wistfully when I would spot one in our travels. But like many dreams there can be a ugly reality and talking to friends with them the ugly came out.

We have several friends who owned them, with the operative words being owned them. All said "never again!” when asked if they would buy a Sprinter for a conversion now. Horror stories of random alarms that wouldn’t shut off without a dealer visint, going into limp mode for no reason, cost of repairs and the requirement of finding a Sprinter Mercedes dealer for service all sealed it that this would not be the van for us. Sadly, I was deflated and a dream crushed.
Mercedes

Dodge Promaster

Dodge was the original seller of a rebadged Sprinter back in the day but then Mercedes decided to pull the model and sell them under the Mercedes name when the new diesel motor came out. The Promaster is the design and vehicle Dodge came up with. It is a capable platform for conversion but the styling, handling and layout were less than the other options.
Dodge

Ford Transit

My past experience with Ford products did not go well so the Transit wasn’t high on my initial list of choices. Ford did some homework when developing this van because several reviews from magazines place it over all the others, even the Sprinter. I am not a big fan of the cockpit styling of Ford but it is fairly well laid out and everything is in reach and works. All the vans have different sizes and low, med, high, extended, long and extra long all varying with different manufacturers. The medium height and long wheel base (148) struck a perfect balance for us with space, styling and the ability for some light off road exploration. Needless to say this is the one we picked. There isn’t a 4x4 option but there are several companies doing them now and we will entertain that option if the LSP differential doesn’t perform like we would like.

Next decision was new or used? Our view is to not go the new route if possible. The immediate loss in value when you drive off the lot is a bitter pill to swallow and takes money out of the coversion budget. So we set out see what is out there in the used market and if it was possible to find the options we wanted. It is easy to find used ones white, stripped down and low roof but because we live in Colorado, converting to a camper and towing adventure motorcycles from time to time there were a few must have options for us:

  • T250/350 - rating of drivetrain and suspension
  • Ecoboost motor - torque and mileage (if I can keep my foot off the accelerator)
  • Heavy duty alternator
  • Limited Slip Rear Dif - snow and offroad traction with 3.31 gearing preferred
  • Cruise Control
  • Upgraded interior - you spend time there getting places and surrounded by vinyl from top to bottom is not the way to go.
  • Low Mileage
  • Hopefully not white
  • Medium Roof
  • Long Wheel Base (LWB 148) but not xtra long

When we started the search it was like looking for a mythical unicorn and expanded out to a nationwide search. The largest stumbling blocks were the Ecoboost motor and LSP rear differential and we started to think about what we could possibly give a bit on. The one option you can add later is the LSP rear with either a electric or air locker but that conversion costs over $1k. As luck would have it we found a ’15 demo at a dealership in Peoria, IL with all the above and red and several other options that were on the nice to have list (it is pictured above)! Not sure if having to fly to Peoria is lucky though..

The Toyota was known as the Gordita and we are tossing names arond for the van.. Van Wylder is the front runner at this time. Stay tuned for updates on how the build goes.

Next step is flying to Peoria next week and driving across back to Colorado across Nebraska or Kansas. Sadly it will be a solo trip so I can’t medicate with alcohol to make the drive across those visually stunted states. We do like our beverages so stopping at Beer City USA in Nebraska and John’s Grocery for some hard to get beers will make it worthwhile, I hope.

You can follow our conversion on the blog here or over at Fordtransitusaforum.

Found this pic of red Transit in our color with some some of the exterior upgrades applied, not sure on a front bumper yet.. Looks a bit different than the dealer pic above. HELL YES!