That's a not-small van!

That's a not-small van!

What is this About? 

Inspired by several other Sprinter van buildout sites, we document the trials and tribulations of converting a 2016 Cargo van to a RV for use by a couple (and a a dog!) for boondock rock climbing trips. I learned so much on the internet preparing and executing our buildout. I hope to add to the growing knowledge base on the interwebs.

Some good resources

  1. sprinter-source. Lots of good threads, though it's on a phpBB which makes reading a real pain. I've been particularly impressed by a user 'hein' who has an epic van buildout thread. I've copied many of his ideas. He sells Sprinter upfitting products too.
  2. traipsing about has a similar use-case to ours, but a totally different take.
  3. Sprinter Adventure Van has some good details I've pilfered as well.
  4. The Sprinter Source Book: a self published PDF. You buy it once and get free new editions, which is pretty nice.
 

“I cut it twice and it's still too short!”

—ME, regularly

 
 

Our story begins with ordering a new 2016 cylinder 7 speed Mercedes Cargo van in Blue Grey. This is a special order item (nearly all non white/black sprinters are as I discovered). Given that we special ordered, we added a few extras: a factory backup camera, electrical harness for a trailer hitch (unlikely we will use actually), handles to ease stepping up into the van (should be standard equipment IMHO), and roof rails. The roof rails were added at the behest of AM Solar, who we contacted prior to ordering the van. They will be doing most of the electrical install.

We decided on a new van for two reasons: 

1. We plan on having the van forever. My read on the used car market is that there is very little difference in price between new and used when you consider the yearly depreciation in mileage for a car we should get north of 250K miles out of.

2. So much aftermarket work will be put into this thing. The difference between, say a 1 year old lightly used Sprinter in a color I'm not thrilled with and a brand new one exactly the way I want it put in term of how much work I will be personally spending outfitting this base is almost zero. This is not a trivial purchase--I'm willing to pay a little more to get exactly what I want given the duration I'll have it. 

 
 

How we plan on using our van

Behind the driver seat, there's a 13x5 foot rectangle of space. While that's a lot by car standards, it pretty small by house standards! The cost is approximately half of a similarly equipped Airstream, for example, but it's more optimized for how we live. Moreover, we get to choose where to sink our money. I don't care about leather, but I do want the best insulation I can get. Of course, we also are spending our most precious resource (our time) doing the upfitting--not everyone has the skills or inclination.  

Pre-converted, off the lot sprinter vans or small RV's of this class are designed around the least common denominator for the target market: typically older couples who spend nights in RV parks. Not our thing. We will be nearly always boondocked (meaning no plumbing or electrical hookups). Only rarely do we anticipate spending the night in an location designed for RV's. 

Since we will be living off the grid, our electrical and plumbing needs are sized accordingly. In addition, my ability to work remotely leads us to build an electrical system capable of handling sustained workdays with professional grade computer gear. 

As avid rock climbers, Jen and I spend over a month a year sleeping in a tent--sometimes more like two. While we have our tent camping down to a fine art, there's not mistaking even the best sleeping pads with a legitimate bed. I'm particularly vulnerable to a bad nights sleep. Thus, our van is in essence designed around a full latex mattress. No more anaconda struggles in the sleeping bag for us. I want to sleep as well in the van as at home.

We get pretty filthy with the kind of climbing we engage in, so design goal number two is a permanent inside shower. 

 

Goal #1

A real, comfy Bed

Goal #2

An inside shower

Goal #3

The ability to work out of the van in style.

 
 

It's really important to get clarity on design goals prior to a build out. a 13x6 foot box is not enough space to have it all: you have to double and possibly triple-use your space. Identifying what two or three things will make or break your satisfaction with your van is critical. For us, it's the bed and the shower, followed by a good workspace for writing software. This third goal is the most flexible of the three: in the worst case, I can always just use my standard laptop. Ideally, I'd like to plug it into a desk setup with a full sized monitor, a mechanical keyboard, and a mouse. 

One thing that became quite clear would not be obtainable given our first two goals is a dining space with enough space for more than three people, so no dinner parties inside the van.

 
 

First steps

Ordering the van was a little more of an ordeal then expected. We thought we would be able to compare models that were close enough to what we wanted, choosing one based on price. Not so. If you want a white or maybe a black Sprinter, there might be one in inventory with the specification you need. Any other color: good luck. There were a few around in colors I could live with, but they all had way too many options that weren't worth the price to me. In the end, we ended up special ordering. It took four months for us to receive our van. I was hoping to have the rig more or less done in the spring, but we just received it here in early March. 

The first thing we did was remove the factory floor. We plan on installing some insulation and a single sheet of vinyl if we can, so the factory floor has to come out. Unfortunately, it's not re-usable as a substrate for Marmolium product we plan to use, but it will serve as a great template for the ply subfloor and cutting the vinyl sheet.

With the factory floor out, we put down some tape lines to check our drawing with reality. The back rectangle is the bed.

With the factory floor out, we put down some tape lines to check our drawing with reality. The back rectangle is the bed.

 

Inauspiciously, removing the torx head bolts holding the floor down became an ordeal: three of the screw heads stripped out: the metal quality was really bad, and they were in there pretty tight. My impact driver seized on one bolt, two others stripped quickly (yes, I carefully checked that I was using the correct sized torx head). I ended up cutting the bolts out with an angle grinder. Not the best way to start the project, but in the end, the floor is out and I don't really care about the bolt shafts in the floor. They will be covered up.

Floor Liner

I'm paranoid about the van rusting out so we are taking the overkill step of having the van plastic lined. This is basically a plastic coating bonded to the metal. Rhyno liner is a common brand, but it off-gasses for like a week. You see them typically in truck beds. If water gets below the floor, we won't know it--it could pool there for a long time & cause rust to start eating away at the floor. It's very unlikely this would happen, but I'll sleep better if I do all I can to keep van-killing problems like this at bay.  We had a different brand of plastic liner installed by xtreme coatings in Portland, Oregon that quits off-gassing in 12 hours. 

Back after getting Rhino lining applied. 

Back after getting Rhino lining applied. 

The application looks very good. I have found zero overspray. It looks like it was done in line during manufacturing. Nice job by xtreme coatings.

A detail of the Rhino lining. Looks pretty great.

A detail of the Rhino lining. Looks pretty great.

Mercedes applies tons of spray-on wax as a preventative measure against water. The liner product 'hot' spray we chose will not stick to waxed metal. We plan on taking it back to have a 'cold' product applied to areas where the factory sprayed wax. The image below shows the yellow wax sprayed in the wall space. This wax is wet at 50 degrees and bothersome. The white plugs you see there hold the exterior trim pieces on. They have a reputation of leaking, which would mean uncontrolled water in the van. yikes! Those will get sealed up either with silicone or when we have the cold liner applied.

a waxy mess in the walls

a waxy mess in the walls

Seat Swivels

Our 'dining room' is going to be the driver and passengers seat turned around with a little removable table.  There isn't strong opinion on the best swivel for Sprinters. We chose this one. It's most significant drawback is that it raises the seat 1.5". We will see if we can live with that. You can buy aftermarket pedestals which are shorter to compensate, but we won't be going that route at this time. This was a pretty simple project, removing a few bolts, putting in the swivel, then remounting the seat:

passenger seat removed to put the swivel in.

passenger seat removed to put the swivel in.

I put the passenger seat swivel in, but had to take it right back of too install the heater. No big deal, but the crappy factory bolts were troublesome. I was really worried I'd strip them out, but I didn't. I hope I don't have to pull the seat off again, though. It's disheartening that Mercedes uses such crappy hardware: I've had a bad experience with most of the bolts I've removed. I wonder if their luxury cars employ such questionable tackle. If so, mechanics must just hate life.  

the red tab under the chair is the swivel lock

the red tab under the chair is the swivel lock

Small problem: the plastic fascia on the sides of the chairs won't allow them to rotate freely. The driver's side is particularly bad--you can't even rotate the chair past the hand brake:

The break is in the way!

The break is in the way!

I zipped off the bottom of the fascia three inches of the sides of both seats so they will make it around:

The dining room

The dining room

If we can live with the 1.5" height increase, this project will be among the easier of all of them. It won't be very long before we get a table in: we just need to put down the floor then the table post receptacle can be bolted down. Since we plan on using our rig during upfitting, every little completed project makes a difference.