The Van Project, Part 1

In Personal, Travel

When I decided to buy my friend’s van a few weeks ago, I thought to myself: Great! This van’s already outfitted for vanlife. There’s already power. There seems to be enough water. And, if I don’t leave the interstates, I might not even have to worry about cell signal. For anyone who asked, I basically said: I’m not building anything; it’s all there already!

Now that it’s been exactly 8 days, and one 500-ish mile round-trip drive into the Sierras, I now have second thoughts. Lots of second thoughts.

That’s not a bad thing, of course. In fact, my experience in upgrading the van so far has been surprisingly positive. I’ve never thought I’d be so interested in this “stuff,” but here I am — spending hours every night learning about how electrical systems work and how off-grid plumbing (including food trucks, haha) work.

I’m writing now because I have lofty goals, and I feel excited. But I’m still only planning; implementation has yet to begin (though parts are already being shipped). I only have at most 4 weeks now to get everything done. At the end of the next 4 weeks, I hope to revisit this and marvel at how far this project’s come along (or feel disappointed that I couldn’t deliver lol).

First, some context! The main reason why I have second thoughts now is because I’ve realized that my use case for the van is materially different from my friend’s. Whereas he stuck to civilization, I want to spend more time outside cities and maybe outside major highways.

While he did spend time checking places out, I want to continue running and hiking… even in places where I won’t have readily available gyms (or even truck stops) for showers.

And finally, I’ll also be driving a lot less than he and his friend did. This is significant because the only source of power in the van right now is the alternator. There’s no solar, and there’s currently no adapter for shore power (e.g. from electrical hookups at campsites).

All of this means that I need more days of autonomy outside of urban areas, which translates to greater power, water, and cooking needs.

So in order of priority, the projects I’m currently working on include

  1. Upgrading battery capacity. The van currently has a 100Ah AGM battery of unknown age and condition. Because it’s only been fed by the alternator via an isolator (as opposed to a smart DC-DC charger), I suspect that it might not have much life left. In any case, a fresh 100Ah lead-acid battery of any type will provide about 50Ah of usable power, when fully charged. But, after an energy consumption exercise, it turns out that I’ll need up to 140Ah of power a day, in case of a long workday. My plan now is to add a 200Ah lithium battery, for 160Ah of additional usable power.
  2. Installing solar. Because I won’t drive enough to fully charge both batteries, I have to install solar. My current plan is to add 300W of solar. Wiring this up, especially in conjunction with the alternator, and possibly with the two batteries connected in parallel, will be rather complex. I’ll provide updates on my final setup here in a future post.
  3. Installing a smart battery monitor (and charger?). I can currently tell how much power is left in the battery by measuring its voltage (incidentally with a DC fridge). While I can still do this with a dual battery and dual charging setup, I feel that having an actual battery monitor will give me more peace of mind. Along the same vein, I may need to install a dedicated smart charging device as well, to correctly charge each battery with appropriate charging profiles (e.g. AGM prefers 100% charge, lithium prefers 50-70% charge). These should also extend the lifetime of the batteries.
  4. Installing a cell phone signal booster. Since I’ll be working literally remotely, possibly on random rural roads, this is a must.
  5. Getting an unlimited 4G and/or 5G data plan. To be honest, I’m less concerned with data caps and more concerned with (1) getting a connection at all and (2) bandwidth. I’m told that cell coverage should be fairly reliable near highways. But at the same time, I would prefer not to spend workdays at highway rest stops. In 2021, though, I may still need to do that. (That said, I met a woman in her 60’s this past weekend who traveled across the country in a van in her 20’s. When I asked how she got Internet, her reply? “Internet? There was no Internet!” Oops.)

    Anyway, the timing for T-Mobile works out for me: I’m supposed to have unlimited 5G now (starting a few days ago on 4/18). I’m testing that now.

    For redundancy, I’m also getting an unlimited data plan from Visible, a Verizon MVNO, along with a Pixel 4a 5G (I wasn’t expecting to buy a new phone this year… but here I am, lol).

    Ultimately, if I can get 5G, great, but with its high-frequency bands (meaning short geographic reach), I’ll be pleasantly surprised if I get it. For the most part, I’m praying that I’ll be able to balance a good enough internet (at least 5-10Mbps down and at least 2-5Mbps up) and scenery. If anything, lack of bandwidth (or the need to move big data files around) will likely be the main reason I’ll have to take “cheat days,” i.e. hotel or AirBnB days.
  6. Installing a hot shower. Aside from upgrading the power system, installing a water system is my other big project. For better or for worse, I’m starting from scratch. Now that I’ve done more research, it seems that my friend really relied on urban water sources. And I mean, really. In the van, there’s currently no water tanks at all. And without tanks, there’s no plumbing.

    If I were to stick to cities, I think I’d be able to get by without a water system too. This would involve getting just enough water at grocery stores, showering at gyms, and generally peeing and pooping in public restrooms. But since I would prefer not to do too much of that (though I’m sure I will), I’ll have to carry more water in the van.

    Now, water systems can also get real messy, so to speak. But I won’t be throwing in a kitchen sink, also so to speak. Currently, I only want one water tank, for freshwater, and I only want to use it for showering. Without a faucet and sink, I won’t need a greywater tank, though it’ll be less convenient to wash dishes. (And without a connected toilet, I won’t need a blackwater/sewage tank!)

    Why install a shower? I think the reasons are obvious, but I think it’ll be even more important for me if I want to run, not rely too much on wet wipes, and keep clean while off-grid.

    On this note, one question I’ve gotten this week has been “how many showers can you take?” Currently, I expect to install the tank under my van’s backseat (which will double as my mattress). As it turns out, the space under the seat is roughly equivalent to the space in-between trailer crossmembers! Who would’ve thunk?! Furthermore, one of the more reputable water tank makers makes a tank just for this size. With this location constraint, it turns out that I can store 25 gallons. With a 3 gallon per minute (gpm) pump and 2 minute showers, I’ll be able to take 4 showers (from a full tank). With a 1.5gpm water heater in the middle, I’ll be able to take 8 showers! Awesome!!!
  7. Learning where to get freshwater. Of course, with a freshwater tank, I’ll have to learn how to keep it topped off. The most obvious place would be at gas stations. I might be able to get water at campsites and RV stops too. But I feel that I’ll have to pay for those, and I’d like to minimize how much I have to spend on water. The main protip I’ve gotten so far is to get a Sillcock key, which should grant me access to many trailside or roadside spigots. But in case I run low on water, the fallback might have to be a cheat day.
  8. Learning how to responsibly dispose of greywater. Because I won’t be installing a greywater tank, at least for now, I’d like to learn about what I can do to dispose of dishwater, shower water, and possibly laundry water in an environmentally friendly way. I suspect that it’ll be similar to backpacking: dispose waste at least 200 feet away from water sources and use biodegradable soaps. 
  9. Installing a propane cooking system and learning to cook. One of the first questions I’m asked (when I say I’m going to live in a van) is “what are you going to eat?!” For the most part, I’m going to keep it simple. I’ll be eating a lot of dry food and re-hydrated meals, similar to what I’d do on backpacking trips. That said, that’s not healthy in the long run. So the idea is that I’ll be keeping fresh fruit and vegetables in a DC fridge, and a cooler, as well as cook from time to time

    What will I cook? I don’t know yet. But I suspect it’ll be similar to camping food. But hopefully healthier.
  10. Installing a toilet. Having a toilet in the middle of the van is going to look kinda funny. But the option of having an “indoor” poop, and really, a place to poop anytime I want, is absolutely worth it. Interestingly, portable toilets can be rather pricey, up to state-of-the-art $1000 composting toilets. I’m a basic person with basic needs. I’m getting a $70 toilet in the mail soon.
  11. Installing a desk. Since I’ll be working inside and outside the van, I got a mobile standing desk as well as a 4-foot, folding utility table with adjustable legs. They’re also coming in the mail soon. Will update when I figure out a good work configuration.
  12. Finding the best blanket, comforter, and/or pillows. Along with making the van an office, it’ll also be my home for a few months. Having a blanket and comforter that’ll keep me warm and comfy, while staying fairly dirt-resistant, would be nice. But if this turns out to be a three-month car camping trip (i.e. sleeping bag and hard surfaces), so be it. It’ll suck, but it’ll be training for similarly long thru-hikes I want to do in the future.
  13. Installing an air quality sensor and/or purifier. Good air quality would also be nice. My main concern here, probably unfounded, is that I might accidentally get carbon monoxide poisoned while sleeping in the van. It’s unlikely because I’ll always be outside, and I rarely leave the van on when I’m not driving. But on a broader level, I would prefer not to breathe fumes. Again, just a nice to have…
  14. Deciding how to best keep the van clean. Apart from all the necessities, I feel that keeping the van tidy will improve my experience overall. My personal living space has always been rather messy (I hope I’ll be able to KonMari my way out of it soon!), so I wonder what it’ll be like living in a much smaller, constrained space. For sure, I want it to feel as spacious as possible; I’m already discarding things I don’t need. In addition to  possibly taking my Roomba along for the ride, I’d like to create a plan to keep things organized in my moving mini-studio.

And there we have it! Projects galore. Now that I’ve written all these out, it seems like a lot on one hand, but also oddly manageable on the other. As long as I get power and signal, I think I’ll be fine. In the end, I’m prepping for the ability to live on my own power and water for as many days as possible, to enjoy the tail end of the Social Distancing Era. But in case that doesn’t work out, I’ll still have fun visiting and seeing new cities, and maybe make life much easier for myself by spending more time at random roadside hotels and AirBnBs (oh well!).

I’m excited!

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