2017-10-12: Insulation woes

Fortunately, the fine particulates in this insulation board are all organic and GM-free

The last time I wrote about fitting insulation was back in May, and it feels like the job has been dragging on since then. When you look at the YouTube videos, you see time-lapses of people fitting insulation over the course of a weekend. Maybe we could have achieved that if we’d known exactly what we were doing before we started, but we didn’t, so … tough luck, I guess.

To be fair, we haven’t spent all the intervening time fitting insulation, but every weekend, pretty much, we’ve been doing part of the job, just enough to progress some other part of the job: fitting the bench bed, or the shelf above the cab.

But the main source of frustration has been the endless trips to Screwfix to buy more materials – and in particular, expanding foam. This van eats the stuff.  A quick check of my van expenditure spreadsheet reveals we have bought this many cans of expanding foam:

That’s 14 cans.

They’re 750ml each, and the packaging states the contents will expand to 35 times the original capacity. So – ignoring wastage, of which there has been a fair amount – I calculate we’ve sprayed over 26 litres of foam into the cracks and crevices of this van.

Anyway, we’re almost done.

Insulation is one of the most controversial topics on the van conversion forums, with many a certainty bandied around. Our original plan was to use rigid board for the bulk of the insulation, with expanding foam to fill the gaps. I still think that was a pretty solid plan, but I wish I’d known at the time we’d by spraying this much of the stuff.

One week in the Brecon Beacons

We’re almost 6 months into our conversion, and the van is still looking very van-like. However, we have some basic utilities in, and it seems like a good time to test them out. So we’ve headed to Wales, to the Brecon Beacons, looror a week-long holiday and alpha-test. A quick recap – what’s in:
  • Plywood floor
  • Roughly made  bench base and panels to convert to a double bed
  • Solar panels and charge controller wired up to 12V distribution
  • Window in the sliding door
  • Roof fan
  • Roof light
  • Fridge
  • Ceiling lights
  • Half the USB sockets
  • Half the task lights
  • About 1/3 of the insulation
  • A very roughly made kitchen unit with MDF work surface and sink
  • A water pump and waste pipe to and from the sink, connected to two 5 litre water bottles from the supermarket
In practical terms, what does this mean? On our last trip we slept on the floor and cooked on a barbecue outside, whereas on this trip we have a proper bed, and can prepare food and wash up while standing up. We can read books in the evening with electric light, and charge our phones from the USB sockets. We can keep food cold and we have some control over the ventilation.
In other respects, we’re still living in a metal box:
  • We have no gas hob, so we’re cooking on a trangia meths stove.
  • We’ve bought a gas heater, but we haven’t fitted it yet, so we can’t warm the van in these cool British evenings
  • We have almost no built in storage, so everything is piled up in boxes on the floor and secured in transit with bungee cords
  • Bar one finished section, there is no cladding and little insulation on the walls so it’s chilly and looks a mess, with electrical conduit and bare metal everywhere.
So this is the scope of our experiment, and we have some results

A place for everything and everything in its place

The problem is exacerbated by the lack of furniture in the van, but nonetheless it’s annoying to be always looking for a place to stuff things, and hunting around when you want to find them again. No different to camping, but there’s a lot more packing and unpacking when you’re driving around as well.
There are some particular situations worth noting:
  • When you’re lying in bed and want to charge your phone or check it for a weather forecast, or pick up a book, eye mask or bottle of water
  • When you want to brush your teeth (which for now means going outside) and need access to toothbrush, toothpaste and water by the side door
  • When you’re preparing food or clearing up on the limited counter space and need to move things out of the way so you can work on the task at hand

Shoes-off rule

It makes sense to keep the inside of the van clean, especially when you’re hopping in and out of bed, but it’s tricky to enforce a shoes off rule when you also jumping in and out of the van so frequently. Maybe easier in hot climates when going outside means putting on a pair of flip flops, but not so easy here when you’re wearing thick socks and slippers inside, and walking boots outside.
A door mat is also a big help.
Van slippers

Making the bed

This is the core compromise all van designs take a position on. We’ve opted for a convertible bed that also functions as a bench during the day, with the removable panels doubling up as tables. Currently the removable panels don’t have any fittings to take a table leg, so we just slide them on top of the fixed part of the bed when converting to a bench. But either way, they’re heavy, and awkward to move. We haven’t figured this one out yet. A fixed bed is easier in so many ways but it leaves very few options for sitting at a table and makes half the van unusable for anything else.
The current situation is made no easier by the fact that our bench is a little too high, and very deep. The latter can be solved, I hope, by folding over the mattress to form a double thickness for the seat back, but the height is another issue.

Take a seat

Our current seating options are limited. The bench/bed is designed to be the primary seat, but it’s currently not working as it should.
We can also sit on the step at the side door, which is a good bridge between inside and outside worlds. There’s a similar spot at the back doors, but with the bed down, there’s no direct route between the kitchen area and the back to carry cups of tea or plates of food.

Power and control

Our 12V distribution box is on the floor behind the drivers seat, which is also where the dog bed goes. So every time we want to switch off a circuit, we have to get down on our knees and shift the dog out of the way. Given our current cable runs, we don’t have much flexibility here, but we do need to figure out a more accessible place to put these switches.

Mod cons

We have wooden battens bolted up on the roof which will eventually form the mounting frame for the roof cladding. But right now, they’re a useful place to hang towels dog leads and other stuff. We need to find a way to replicate this functionality once the cladding is up and the battens no longer available. Maybe shock cord strung between eye hooks …
We have a plastic tub which just about fits in the sink, and we can use as a washing up bowl. It’s remarkably useful! We should definitely find a bowl that we can use like this on a more permanent basis.
We also have a small water pump (8l per minute, which was the smallest pump we could find). But this is way too powerful for the small amount of water we want to use. So I think we might switch to a hand pump.
It’s nice to sit in the van in the evening with the doors open to let a breeze flow through. But it can also be a bit midgey. I’ve seen van conversions where people have sewn midge nets around the rear and side doors, and I think we need to build these in, especially for any trips we may take to Scotland.

Dog logistics

The dog (about 30kg of Belgian Shepherd) is big, and takes up a lot of space. When driving, he likes to look out of a window, and ideally sniff the breeze. So at the moment, he sits on the front passenger bench with us, which works OK for short journeys, but it’s not very comfortable for anyone, and can make it difficult to see the passenger side mirrors when he decides to sit up.
In our plans, there is just about space behind the drivers seat for a raised platform that the dog could lie on while we’re driving. I’m not sure how happy he’d be there, so this is something we need to test out on another journey.
Note the dog on the bed

Plastic water

We have a very temporary water arrangement right now, with two 5 litre plastic water containers under the sink, one for fresh water, one for grey. We’ve noticed a distinct plastic taste in the water, and bitterness in our tea, which we suspect comes from chlorine in the tap water breaking down the plastics in the water containers. These aren’t Jerry cans, they’re just reused mineral water bottles; not intended to have a lifespan beyond their original use, so that could be the root of the problem. However, we’ve also noticed a similar taste in water supplies in other caravans and motorhomes, so it may not be that simple.

Draining the fridge

Our  fridge (a Dometic CRX50) is working fine, but there’s a lot of condensation which we can either wipe up on a regular basis, or drain off. We don’t have the housekeeping skills to keep wiping it up, so that means I need to build in a drain to the kitchen unit where we’ll house the fridge.

In the cab

The cab is one of the nicest places to be in the van. You’ve got a panoramic view through the huge windscreen, comfy seats that you can adjust at will, and plenty of places to store books, glasses of wine and snacks.
However, bizarrely for a van on sale in 2012, long after the death of physical music media, it’s fitted with a radio and CD player. No bluetooth connection beyond phone calls, and no line-in for an arbitrary music device. Apparently a line-in can be hacked, so that’s what we’ll have to do, in order to live in the 21st century.

Slopes

No surprise for experienced caravanists, but it’s amazing how much difference 5 degrees makes. We need to invest in some parking ramps.

Power

Our 350W solar panels and 110Ah battery have served us well with power for lighting, the fridge, and charging devices. It is summer, but we’re also in Wales, where it’s often overcast. So a tentative, “so far, so good” on that front.

2017-08-06: Bench bed and cladding test

We’ve been busy on various jobs since I last wrote, mostly trying to get some basic components built in prototype form for we can take the van on a short trip and test some things out.

Almost every design/build problem in the van is a chicken and egg problem. And we tie ourselves in knots trying to decide which part to commit to, so that we can move on. The interaction of furniture, cladding, and electrical supply is one such problem.

Since we had to start somewhere, we took the passenger side of the van as a low risk first step.

Bench bed

I started by building a simple bed frame. It’s mostly self supporting, with the legs nearest the wall bolted to the van body using rivnuts.

Bench/bed frame

I set the frontmost legs back from he edge of the bench so that, when seated, you can swing your legs back. The front and sides will be panelled with ply, as will the top. For now, we have a piece of MDF on top to use as a test. The front edge of the bench has a 2cm lip which will form the middle (longitudinal) support for the bed. The other half of the bed will be removable, with one edgeand resting on this lip, and the far side resting on a lip on cabinets (still to be built) on the other side of the van.

Structure of the bench largely complete

Cladding

Once the bench was complete, we spent many hours figuring out how the cladding could work. The van walls are curved, and flexible plywood could conform to the curve, but there are very few places where it could be pinned back to the walls, risking it flapping around, unsupported, or ‘drumming’ when on the move. So we decided to build a flat frame for the middle section of the wall, onto which one large sheet of flat ply can be fastened.

To clad that section, we re-used some of the 5mm plywood that was in the van when we bought it , cutting out holes for the task lights and USB sockets. It feels pretty solid, so we’ll see how it works on our trip in a couple of weeks.

One wall section insulated, with electrical supply, and framing up ready for cladding