The End Goal
There is a natural excitement about purchasing a van and the avalanche of ideas and things to consider. What really matters is that the finished design meets your expectations after you have been on many trips and used it regularly.
It is helpful to keep things simple. A lot of camper van builders previous owned traditional 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. It is important to make compromises on space and prioritize your needs and wants. A camper van is a compromise in size from a larger RV. What compromises are you are willing to make? You might trade off overhead storage or having a better view out the van.
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.
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 buy and maintain a quality vehicle, it’s value will last a lot longer than a travel trailer.
All vans need insulation to handle both hot and cold weather. Here are the tried and tested techniques used at CampMaker. We installed rigid sheets of polyisocyanurate foam glued in place with "Great Stuff" foam from a professional spray gun. Between R7 to R14 insulation value. Thinsulate batting installed with 3M spray adhesive and cut strips to fill at least some of the larger ribs.
Everything in a van should be designed to be safe in a crash. A crash will likely produce a force on each item 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. CampMaker cabinets are well constructed out of MDO plywood with both screw and glue every joint. Glued joints are so much stronger than just nailed or screwed joints. The cabinets are bolted through 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. We also build overhead storage along the walls and find ways to use every inch.
CampMaker vans have solar power, shore power and a connection to the van’s starter battery to charge the “house” batteries in the conversion.
120 volts versus 12 volts
Many van buyers and builders assume a 3000 watt inverter is necessary, but we have found a 1200 watt inverter meets the needs and significantly reduces the safety risk and complexity of the system. It also improves the reliability and function. If you only use the 120 volt inverter when you need it, you save a lot of unnecessary battery power. It is difficult to have air conditioning or electric heat unless you plug into shore power at a campground or carry a generator. Almost every gadget used in a home can be found in a 12-volt version. We use efficient 12 volt refrigerators. Our vans use gas cooktops and a externally vented heater using propane.
RV plumbing is known to have problems. One of the goals for CampMaker vans is to create systems that consistently work. This especially applies to plumbing.
We mount a 22 gallon over the wheel well fresh water tank. This has a small submersible water pump inside the tank. When you turn on the faucet at the kitchen sink, it starts up the pump and provides water. It has only two water connections, versus other van plumbing systems that often have more than 25 connections.
If you need a shower, the van systems become significantly more complex. Under-mounted black and gray water 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. One common goal of camper vans is to get away from RV parks and enjoy dispersed camping away from other campers, therefore, CampMaker vans don't have showers.
Very few van builders build a standard flush RV style toilet. For many RV toilets, urine and solids are combined. The odor from the toilet is extreme and the process to dump the black and gray water tanks is unpleasant. 50% of the products sold at RV stores is just to deal with the mess of dumping RV septic tanks.
The urine diverting toilets have a simple urine separating design. It does not require a heater or complex mechanical rotating mechanisms. This is the type we build at CampMaker. 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 you will be inside due to insects, darkness, cold, wind, and wildlife. Rainy days happen, bring a book, video player, or your computer. The CampMaker van layout is designed to allow space for this.
The east west bed over the garage is a standard double or "full" sized bed. It is possible to add sleeping space across the bench seat or two front seats. Included is a suspended cot bed for a smaller child. For many families, the older kids will do better sleeping in a tent.
A seat swivel and lowered base are installed on the passenger seat. It makes more space in the van overall by using the cab more effectively. The drivers seat has only the lowered base and not the swivel because it helps the driver have a better view of the dashboard and out the windshield.
The most common way to install additional seating in a camper van is using a Ford Transit bench seat . These seats have the 3 point seat belts built into them so all you are doing is properly bolting the seat to the floor. Van Specialties in Tualatin, Oregon installed our seat, since they do this in ProMaster vans regularly.
A cargo van is initially insured as a commercial 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/
ProMaster Specific Issues
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. We have modified the rear suspension to get a softer ride and removed the second "helper" leaf spring. Some have upgraded the front struts or rear shocks with Blistein or Fox or added Suma Springs.
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 a more 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 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 Transit is at least $5,000 more and the AWD Transit is about $15,000 more than a FWD ProMaster.
ProMaster Engine and other Mechanical Topics
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 made anymore and not recommended. The Ford and Mercedes diesels emission components can be very expensive to repair. Sometimes over $8,000! A Pentastar engine can be replaced for about $5,500. ProMasters Only in Ohio is an excellent resource to help people understand how to troubleshoot repair issues. https://www.youtube.com/@promastersonly1419
Under the hood is a ProMasters Only sticker with many of the fluids, schedules and common issues.
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.
It is important to consider the overall weight of your van camper. 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 over 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, equipment, pull a trailer, etc. Many van builders are not concerned about weight and it is very likely that they use up all 4,000 lbs. and max out the vehicle weight capacity. Marble counters, full bathrooms and water tanks and too many cabinets 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. The current van when loaded with gear and people, has 3,700 lbs. (53%) on the front wheels and 3,300 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 more for 4X4.
The ProMaster is sometimes referred to as the SnoMaster because of it’s excellent traction in the snow.
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 ideal, so we include a 24 inch breaker bar to the tool set. Use the 19mm deep socket.
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:
Helping people move - You can get a lot of things in a van. For instance, I hauled a huge couch to a relative across the state.
Emergency Supplies - A van build is a great emergency vehicle. A lot of stuff can be put in the “garage” area under the bed. The Oregon fire season has shown how helpful RV’s are when you need to evacuate.
Tool chest – It is helpful to have a set of tools and equipment that is readily available. The van can be a rolling tool-box.
To find out more details on CampMaker business build philosophy see this presentation.
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