An Overlooked Goal
There is a natural excitement about the van building process and the avalanche of ideas and things to consider with a project like this. I believe what really matters is that the finished design still meets your expectations after you have been on many trips and used it regularly for at least a couple years. By this time, you should know the answer to these questions:
· Is it practical for your needs?
· What designs need to be changed or improved?
· What part has broken?
· What would you do differently next time?
Van builders and/or clients often have strong opinions in the planning stage, but are usually unwilling to admit mistakes after they are done with their project. So it is important to share the lessons learned!
It is helpful to keep things simple. A lot of camper van builders previous owned professionally built recreational vehicles and decided over time that they prefer a simpler set up. You may think you need all kinds of features, but they make for more troubles and maintenance. You will regret wanting a van with every feature known to mankind! A van is not as large as a travel trailer. You will need to make compromises on space and prioritize your needs and wants.
One excellent idea is to do a simple full-size mockup of the van interior using cardboard. A 3D CAD program helps a little, but there is nothing like a real mockup that will give a feel for what it is actually going to be like. Some people start with a very crude conversion and take it on a couple trips to get a better idea what they really want. This seems to be a good approach.
Look at a lot of alternatives for the interior before you commit. There are a lot of build threads on the ProMaster, Transit and Sprinter Forums. With all the sources to read, you will put a lot of time into learning because you want it to meet your real needs.
Creatures of Habit
If you have a history of going to one place for a week and camp in a tent, then you are likely going to go to one place and camp in your van, so don't plan on shore power, water and sewer hookups. If you go to campgrounds with hookups, then you are probably going to those places in your van conversion.
If you do driving trips, staying not more than a day or two in any one place, then that's likely what you will do in your conversion. Plan on a van that will have minimal work to set up and to break camp in the morning. A dining room table and bench seat in the van that needs to be converted to a bed at night to sleep may be a bad idea, since it's more work to break camp in the morning.
If you already carry a cooler with food, then you may want to consider a more complete galley or you may decide you are fine with what you already have. If you love eating out every meal, then maybe you don't need a galley.
Ask yourself what compromises you are willing to make, because you WILL be making compromises. You might trade off overhead storage for not hitting you head or having a better view out the van. Or trade off a full access through the side door for a full-size microwave and refrigerator. Or being able to see out the rear windows for a wet bath and marine toilet. But because you have been thinking about "how can I make this better in a conversion" you will have a vehicle that meets your needs.
How will you use the van?
A weekend visit to a park is very different than a month of travel in Mexico. Once you have a van that works for a month it can be a full-time travel home. If you plan to be where it is cold, heating should be considered. Hot and humid areas will make air conditioning attractive. Each come with cost and complexity. You need a very powerful and expensive electrical system, to run air conditioning with batteries and solar.
Decide if you want a view from the van or need the security of a “cave” and plan accordingly for your windows.
Can you and your partner deal with occasional showers? Do you need a “real” flush toilet somewhere each day? Think through your NEEDS and WANTS. Be flexible and ask how your issue might be solved.
Establish a budget. The recreational vehicle and camper van market is booming. Quality small business camper vans sell for $100,000 and the larger companies sell for $150,000 to more than $250,000. Since you are building an RV on wheels the value is much higher than a travel trailer. If you build and maintain a quality vehicle it’s value will last a lot longer than a travel trailer.
Low or High Roof
Consider how much height you need in your van as you decide how much, and where you will camp or travel. Consider a high roof van if you are taller than 5’6”. But realize that you will not be able to get the high roof van in most garages unless you have at a 9 foot tall door, but you can go in most drive-throughs. Avoid parking garages.
There are ProMaster vans ranging from the 118” wheel base, to 136” to 159” and even 159” extended models. The price increases with size. In a 118’ short van you can build into a camper, but you need to be short and single. A bed across the back and a tiny galley will be about all you can put in the small van. A 136 high top is the smallest van that will accommodate two and the bed across with perhaps a dinette table and galley with a porta potty for bathroom. A 159” high top van can allow all that and an option of bunk beds along the side, a shower/bath. The 159” extended has about 14 feet of internal length and can be purchased as a full class B or fitted out like one. Propane and water tanks under the floor have been done.
All the vans are nearly identical with stiffer springs and a sway bar on the higher numbered and longer vans. The designations of 1500, 2500 and 3500 are commonly used in the truck world, but they mean something different on the ProMaster. A 1500 vehicle is usually referred to as a three quarter ton, since 1,500 pounds is three quarters of a ton (2,000 pounds). But the ProMaster 1500 vans have a payload capacity of 4,000 lbs! That is not a three quarter ton and instead should be referred to as a 2-ton van! The ProMaster 2500 gives you a payload of only a few more pounds (4,256)! The ProMaster 3500 has a payload of 4,681 pounds. The difference is only an extra leaf spring in the rear suspension.
All ProMaster vans ride a little too stiffly. You can modify the rear suspension to get a softer ride. Many have removed the second "helper" leaf spring. Others have upgraded the front struts or rear shocks with Blistein or Fox. Others have added Suma Springs. The parts cost about $350, are easy to install and some refer to this as a $5,000 suspension upgrade!
A cargo van is usually insured as a commercial vehicle. After your purchase, it is possible to convert the insurance it to a personal vehicle. After the camper conversion is completed, it can be insured as a recreational vehicle. The criteria for a motorhome or a recreational vehicle is usually a bed, kitchen and a bathroom. For more information see this article: https://www.godownsize.com/rv-parks-allow-van-conversions/
If you have your van converted by a professional company, the cost of the conversion is simpler to validate by showing the invoice from the van conversion company.
All vans need insulation to handle both hot and cold weather. Here are “approved and tested” options. Don’t use standard fiberglass or denim insulation.
· Buy and install rigid sheets of polyisocyanurate foil covered in about 1” glued in with Great Stuff foam from a professional spray gun.
· Thinsulate batting installed with 3M spray adhesive and cut strips to fill at least some of the larger ribs.
· Rockwool or Havelock Wool.
A combination of all the above is common to complete the installation.
All Vans need Powered Ventilation. You can have a manually opened roof vent for about $100 or a remote operated one for $250.
Everything you add to your van should be designed to be safe in a crash. A crash will likely produce a force on everything in your van and propel it forward with a force 30 to 50 times it’s weight. If you have 50 pounds of gear in a cabinet, in a 30 g crash it will pull itself off the wall with 1,500 pounds of force. Many van cabinets are not designed for a crash and don’t protect you from flying debris. A lot of cabinets will have more than 50 pounds in them. Cabinets need to be well constructed. It is very important to both screw and glue every joint. Glued joints are so much stronger than just nailed or screwed joints. Build the cabinets out of high-quality plywood. Bolt the cabinets to both the floor (for floor cabinets) and to the wall frames.
Accessories, like magnetic strips holding kitchen knives in the galley, may be fine while parked, but the situation changes when the vehicle is in motion. Look at what is in the van and how is it secured, so no harm comes to the passengers of the vehicle.
Slow closing drawer guides are not adequate to keep your drawers closed. When you fill your drawers with contents and then make a sharp turn, the drawers will open. There are many options, but I this is the latch we use. https://www.amazon.com/Southco-M1-64-Flush-Thickness-Non-Locking/dp/B00GM5H27G/
The longer you camp the more storage you need. Many van layouts do not have adequate storage options, but they look nice. A weekend of biking might work with a nearly empty van, two bikes lashed down, a cooler, air mattresses etc. but carrying bikes on your trip to Western Canada is another thing. The most common storage area is when the bed is mounted crosswise in the back of the van, creating a storage “garage” below the bed. Many people build overhead storage along the walls and find ways to use every inch.
The cost and complexity of electric systems will be your biggest expense. It can be accomplished for as little as $1,000 and some people spend $25,000 on electrical components. Make a list of basic things you want such as: lights, computer and phone charging, vents, fans, cooking, heat, and cooling. Try to estimate how long each will get used. Many of those things can be done electrically or in some other way. It is difficult and expensive to have air conditioning or electric heat unless you plug into shore power at a campground or carry a generator. It is recommended to use cooktops and externally vented gas heaters using propane, diesel or gasoline.
Nearly all van conversions have solar power, shore power and a connection to the van’s starter battery to charge the “house” batteries in the conversion. Many use the solar almost exclusively with a switch to allow van recharging only when cloudy or rainy days repeat.
Almost every gadget used in a home can be found in a 12-volt version. Most van builds use the 12 volt refrigerators since they are efficient and practical. If you only use the 120 volt inverter when you need it, you can save a lot of unnecessary battery power.
It is possible to have a wash pan filled from a portable jug with warm water from a teakettle to wash, do dishes and bathe. Everything more extensive requires plumbing.
Jerry Jugs - A basic electrical or hand operated pump can deliver water from jug containers to a sink, then drain into a similar container for dumping. This type of system is extra helpful for a van used for winter camping.
If you need a shower, the project becomes a much larger challenge. Under-mounted 20 gallon tanks, hot water heaters using the engines heat, propane, or electricity are possible but much more expensive and complex. These amenities often mean you have to stay in RV parks where you have access to water and dump stations. Don't forget that one common goal of camper vans is to get away from the other campers and dry camp or dispersed camping.
Very few van builders build a standard flush RV style toilet. In the older expensive and elaborate composting toilets, urine and solids were combined together. Most of that liquid has to be evaporated before composting can occur, so many older style toilets use powerful electric heaters. If the heaters fail to evaporate enough liquid, composting never occurs and you have a toilet full of raw sewage. The odor inside that toilet is horrifying. Depending on the model, there may be rotating drums, mechanical rakes or other complexities which can (and do) break down. If an older style 'all-in-one' toilet needs repair, and you need to take it apart, it is a very unpleasant job.
The urine diverting toilets have a simple urine separating design. It does not require a heater or complex mechanical rotating mechanisms. The off the shelf version is Nature’s Head and they cost about $1,000. Or you can purchase a few parts and build your own for $150 to $200. Here is an excellent article about dry toilets and why you need one.
Winter camping or bad weather creates long nights so you will be in the van for hours after dark before you retire. Campfires are great, but plan to be inside due to insects, darkness, cold, wind, and wildlife. Rainy days happen, bring a book, have great lighting, carry a video player, or your computer. Have you designed your van layout to allow space for this? If not, it is a mistake.
It depends on the size of the person, but beds with at least 25 inches per person can work. Wider may be better so 54” for two is nice, perhaps more in a large van. Bunks of about 30 inches wide seem about right. The van can have a bed 74” across the back even with insulation installed. If you are more than 6’ tall consider a bed running lengthwise of the van and or a 159” van too.
Seat swivels and lowered bases are available for the van and make comfortable seats. They make more space in the van overall by using the cab more effectively.
I recommend ordering from Leisurelines in England.
Thanks to Corndog Caravan for their excellent installation instructions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFY4kXsPrg0
Consider adding an awning, but think about the options first. It can be as simple as a tarp and tent pole with lines and stakes or as complex as the $1,500 Fiamma awning.
Cell and Internet Access
Many places you camp will be away from people and will likely not have cell service. There are ways to extend the cell range but plan for times you are not connected.
The stock front seats are linked to the airbag system. Changing to aftermarket seats is not recommended. The airbags system will be compromised.
If you want a factory installed second row seat, the most common approach is to install a Ford Transit seat (when properly installed by a professional shop). These seats that have the 3 point belts built in to them so all you are doing is properly bolting the seat to the floor. Van Specialties in Tualatin, Oregon installs Ford Transit seats in ProMaster vans for a reasonable price.
Do you want to be able to rotate the driver seat and have full access to the rear of the van, or are you okay with having the driver area sectioned off with a bulkhead and you have to access the rear part of the van via the side or rear doors.
There is a benefit to the latter layout, as you can gain a lot of usable space, if you give up being able to move directly from driver seat to cargo area.
There are also great layouts that you access through the rear doors and the slider door is negated, aside from opening up for storage access, light and air flow. All depends on how much storage you need, where you plan on parking (most campgrounds are set up that you park along side the site, so slider door access is most convenient) and how you want to move through your van space.
ProMaster Specific Issues
RAM ProMasters, Mercedes Sprinters and Ford Transits are all good vans for camper conversions. They all have repair issues and all of them need to be maintained. RAM and Ford dealers are more readily available in the USA than Mercedes. The average Mercedes repairs cost about twice as much as the ProMaster and the Ford repairs are a little more expensive.
ProMaster versus the Ford Transit. The Promaster has much more room with its boxy shape. You get nearly six inches more useable East to West space. An East-West bed is a big space saver on the interior build. The boxier shape means few curves. The ceiling in the Transit is really tough to build in. It was difficult at the front where multiple curves came together. The cabinets in back are difficult to match the van curves. The lower deck height in the ProMaster feels about right. The high-roof Transit is unnecessarily high, the low is too low, the middle is too low for an average height person. It’s missing the Goldilocks moment of “Just Right”. The front wheel drive is better than rear wheel drive for many things. Unless you need serious off-road capabilities, the FWD is quite effective on “back roads”. The FWD is outstanding in the snow, but make sure you have real snow tires. The 2020 Transit is at least $5,000 more and the AWD Transit is about $16,000 more than a FWD ProMaster.
The Pentastar 3.6 Liter gas engine is a good powerplant. Many engines can go between 300K and 600K miles before needing replacement. The diesel ProMaster engines are not available anymore. The Ford and Mercedes diesels emission components can be very expensive to repair. Sometimes over $8,000! A whole new Pentastar engine is about $8,500.
The transmission is the weak link, therefore drive the van carefully. Jackrabbit starts won’t help the drivetrain last. Be cautious how much weight you have in the van and how much weight you tow.
You can get good gas mileage. If you drive about 60 to 65 mph it is possible to get about 20 mpg on the freeway, if the van isn’t too heavy. Around town the gas mileage is often 15 mpg.
Change your oil every 5K miles not 10K. If you have a dealer or FCA warranty, it is helpful to have the dealership do the oil change. They will have good data on your van and be able to respond better if a warrantee repair is needed.
Use only the right kind of antifreeze, the wrong kind will damage the engine.
Avoid the diesel engine because of emissions issues. If you are traveling in South America, gasoline is more readily available than the correct grade of diesel.
It is important to consider the overall weight of your van camper build. You have about 4,000 pounds of payload capacity beginning with an empty van. It is very possible to use only 2,000 for the build and have about 2,000 left if you are careful with weight. This reduced weight helps improve your gas mileage, brakes, transmission and engine life. It also allows you the capacity to occasionally carry extra heavy items like lumber, concrete, pull a trailer, etc. If you are not concerned about weight, it is very likely that your van build will use up all 4,000 lbs. and max out the vehicle weight capacity. Marble counters, full bathrooms and water tanks and hardwood cabinets can add up quickly.
If you keep more than 50% of the weight on the front wheels, your traction will be greatly improved. When not busy with a trucking customer, weigh stations are available. It is good to weigh each wheel and determine your weight balance from front and rear as well as left to right. On my completed and loaded with gear and people camper van, I have 3,700 lbs. (55%) on the front wheels and 3,000 lbs. on the back wheels.
The ProMaster has excellent traction with the right kind of tires. It is recommended to stay with the stock size (LT 225/75/R16) which is a load range E and 10 Ply tire.
The front wheel drive ProMaster does well on 90% of the back roads. The ProMaster has about 7 inches of clearance. The 4X4 Sprinters have 8 inches of clearance and the Ford Transit has 6 inches of clearance. The ProMaster is not as nimble as a four-wheel or all-wheel drive, but it does surprising well on nearly all the roads you should take a camper van on. It also costs at least $15,000 more for AWD or 4X4.
Many people run highway tires in the warm weather and have a second set of wheels mounted with winter/snow tires. The ProMaster is sometimes referred to as the SnowMaster because of it’s excellent traction in the snow. When it is time to swap out the winter tires for summer tires. I recommend having both sets mounted on separate wheels/rims.
Be careful when you start changing from the OEM tires on the ProMaster. The OEM size tires are designed for this 9,000 lb. vehicle. The tires must be a load range E and 10 ply tires. The Stock size is LT 225/75/R16.
I would encourage everyone to practice changing a tire or two, if you have not done it before on the ProMaster. It is a lot easier to do when you are not on the side of the road, in the rain or a dark night. The jack lift point is easier to find near the front wheels, but the rear lift point is not as obvious. The stock lug wrench isn't strong enough, so I added the Gorilla wrench to the tool set. Use the 21 mm socket. Here is the link: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000CMJ2KU/
Don’t just park the van when not on a trip. It will last longer if you occasionally use it for everyday things. Consider these functions as you plan your layout:
Helping people move. You can get a lot of things in a van. For instance, I hauled a huge couch to a relative in eastern Oregon.
Emergency Supplies - One of the reasons we did the van build was to have an emergency vehicle. I was amazed at how much stuff we could put in the “garage” area under the bed. We could boon dock for weeks. The Oregon fire season has shown how helpful RV’s are when you need to evacuate.
Tool chest – One of the things I love about the van is the ability to have a set of tools and equipment that is readily available. It is a rolling tool-box! I’m regularly adding to the tools that I might need.
Philosophy on Costs
It is common to pay $1,000 for almost every item in a van project. It is also possible to find good solutions that are 50% less. It just takes time, research and a willingness to learn.
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