A First Weekend Away
The tiny home on wheels debut this weekend on a trip out to central Oregon. While no where close to done, sleeping for two nights in this work-in-progress revealed quite a bit about our design as well as some obvious overlooked niceties. The biggest issue we are still struggling with is where the hell to put the hot water heater. We have an appointment with Van Specialties, a local upfitter specializing in Sprinters on Tuesday. We will need to decide in concert with them where that thing will go. We were thinking of placing the heater behind the drivers seat, but as we used the sprinter over night, it became apparent that we would like to put in a small bench seat in that location--something that would be comfortable enough to sit at for cards or that sort of thing, but not legit enough to travel in. Hopefully we can get the tank low enough in that location to build a bench seat over it.
It's a really important step, we learned, to take the van out in a do-it-yourself job like this during the rough stages. We haven't hemmed ourselves in too much yet--there isn't too much we can't undo. While we've run some electrical, insulated a good deal, and installed the bed platform, we still have a lot of latitude to possibly move the hot water heater without too much rework. It's one of the great plusses of doing yourself: you can change things on the fly to a degree, helping inform the decision making process to come up with the design best suited to you. If you are thinking of building out your own van, definitely take it out overnight during the rough stages. We learned a lot by doing so.
Besides the water heater placement, we are having second thoughts about two windows. The plan was to have a window installed in the sliding door with one opposing it. We want the OEM glass look, so that means there is about 28" or so of wall below the glass. I don't want anything cover the glazing on the inside, which means that the counter height must be below the window, making for a really short counter. After using it over the weekend, we are seriously considering not putting in the drivers side window--only one in the slider. It just seems like more window than we want. This would allow us to build standard counter height cabinets behind the driver. The final decision on this will have a lot to do with the hot water heater placement and our discussion with Van Specialties. We will know in a couple of days.
In the above picture, you can see the cooking table we have set out. We want the option to cook outside, keeping the oily smoke outdoors should we choose to cook such stuff. It became apparent that a nice light source would be really helpful. I'd thought about this before: now it it's something we are sure to do. The plan is to mount a light bar that overhangs the slider slightly so we can beam close to straight down. I ordered two of these. One for the slider, one for the rear doors.
Speaking of lights, while we were really happy with the amount of space in the rear of the van below the bed, as soon as we opened the doors at night it became apparent we need some light down there! As you can see, that cavernous space would be pretty dark at night. That was another lesson learned by actually using the van!
To The Upfitter
The van is out to Van Specialties for the week getting a window in the slider as well as the propane tank and hot water heater installed. I'd purchased a 10 gallon hot water heater which they laughed at: they typically put in just three or six gallon units. We are changing to a six-galloner. The plan is to build a little jump seat / bench over the water tank. Having a smaller tank will certainly help with getting that bench height correct.
I'm hoping to put in the roof vents this weekend after we get the van back. I'm glad I waited and did more research before cutting into the roof as I discovered that Hein over at impact3d makes a nice little shim that eliminates the issue how to handle the non-flat, ridged roof. These are sometimes available on his ebay store, or just call them directly to get them. That will make the roof cuts a straighforward affair of cutting a square. Much less of a hassle.
We picked up the van today. Much like when receiving the Sprinter back from AM Solar, it's a great feeling to have a good chunk of work done without having to do it directly ourselves. Below, you can see the hot water heater external grill as well as the propane system doohickies. This is on the drivers side of the van. On the passenger side below the slider, we had an external propane outlet installed as well. If you've been following along, you might remember some pictures of a painted grill. Well, we downsized the hot water heater from 10 gallons to 6. This grill is smaller. I'll have to paint this one. Van specialties built a flange/shim piece to mate the grill to the van which I want to paint DAP black as well.
Here's the hot water heater on the inside:
with the fridge sitting next to it basically in the location we plan on install it. The heater will be covered with a bench seat.
Adding a Roof Vent
With the van back, we can get moving on the rest of our rough work. Today, I'm planned on installing both roof vents, but it turns out I mis-ordered my rear adapter plate, so only one went in. The front one fit like a charm. In the picture below, you can barely make out the little chamfer taken out of the spacer that makes it fit in snug between the van ribs. This item is, to me, a must-have for installing roof vents.
In the picture below you can see the fan base installed incorrectly: the holes need to be left-right, not front-back! Panic! abort! abort! well, first dump a tube of Dicor sealant over the whole thing then wait a few minutes, then drag the fan up to the roof, notice the error, freak out, curse, scrape the goop off, unscrew, reset, pause, relax. Ok re-Dicor the thing and mount the fan. Crisis averted.
So one fan down, one to go. Now to the rear vent: oh noes! the space is meant for a location I don't want to put the fan in. Well, there goes that plan. I'll have to get a spacer made that fits where I want to put the fan. So no more fan install for today. At least one is done. Probably way too much Dicor slopped on there, but I want a good seal.
I also mounted the outdoor light. This guy has three light settings: white, red, and both. I really like my wife's headlamp 'tactical' setting (red light only), so I thought having a red overhead light option pretty cool. Red light doesn't kill your night vision or cause pain if you are dark-acclimated like a blast of white light. We typically camp far removed from anyone else. It's nice to just flip the red light on for a quick sec and turn it off. We like gazing t the stars on warm summer nights.
I mounted the light to some 1" 8020 bar. A couple of stainless steel bolts in the roof rack attach it to the Sprinter. While it seems sturdy enough, an errant tree branch might ruin our day. The unit only protrudes right of the van by about four inches (quite a bit less than the side view mirror), but it's up and out of sight. I wouldn't be surprised to hear a sickening tearing sound up there some day. Here's to hoping.
This picture gives a pretty good idea of how the new lightbar will shine over the cooking area outside. If you look *really* carefully below the van, you can see a propane outlet. That will allow us to tie our camp stove to the house propane system should we choose to cook outside.
A first Cabinet
With the fan in, I turn my attention to the galley cabinet. There will only be two cabinets in the van: this one (16 x 57" x 35"), and the one containing the fridge. I suppose there's the little bench seat enclosing the hot water heater if you want to count that too. Speaking of which, I ran the pex into that guy, along with the rest of the water tubing through the van.
We are using 3/4" bamboo ply for the cabinets. Even though it's about $250 a 4' x 8' sheet, the fact that the edges look just as good as the surface makes building cabinets out of it a breeze. I really like working with it: I've used it in many applications. For the galley kitchen, anything that doesn't show I'll use Baltic birch or Appleply. This too is a little expensive, but the quality to my eye is worth it.
Deciphering square and level is quite the challenge in the van. Nothing is quite right. The wall is rarely flat enough to get a bearing. The floor is not flat enough to rely on with a square. I've come to the point where I just do a lot of eyeballing with a square, moving it around and walking to and fro to see what looks 'right'. This sheet defines the back wall of the galley cabinet, extending about two feet into the slider space. I'll leave that slider step open--it looks a nice place to tuck two pair of shoes.
We will be putting in two drawer banks and a door with a shelf under the sink. I always forget how long it takes to make a silly little cabinet like this, compounded by the fact that I keep lugging it in and out of the van to make sure I haven't screwed anything up too bad.
...and the view from outside
With this weekend work done, I really needed to pause and think about the steps that need to happen next. We are getting into this meta-stage that's sort transitioning out of rough and into finish. For example, we are discovering that the slider finish panel must go on before we do final placement of the galley cab. The finish panel above the galley must go in prior to the galley cab as well. In addition, we will need to drill the drain line from the sink through the floor before final placement of the cab. There's a big jigsaw puzzle going on here that needs to be carefully though through. Luckily my wife and I can be good sounding boards talking this through, but there is no sugar coating the fact that there is a decent amount of planning and thinking that we still need to process.
There's a number of electrical components that need to get installed in the panel above the galley cab. Additionally, the water lines need to get routed into the cabinet as well.
We routed all the wires needed for the wall above the galley cab, including a 110v outlet, then I spent some time actually connecting up all the 12v wires I had spaghetti'd down there. I'll be doing some more wire clean up back there as well. I'm really sorry that we didn't make one solid panel down there before the electrical went in. For the DC wiring, there are two busses, the one nearest the orange tape on the right is the neutral return, the one to the left of it with the red wires running into it is the positive side with the fuses. Between the two is a blue box that junctions the 110v lines. We only installed two 110v outlets: one above the galley cab, and one behind the drivers seat.
One thing I wasn't aware of with automotive electrical: you use crimp connectors for everything. You want to ensure that these connections stay tight even with the many miles of vibrations they will undergo.
We will be putting up fabric covered panels for the majority of the van, but we decided that behind the galley we should put a solid surface. We will be using 1/4" bamboo ply in a few other locations too, so we here's another use case. It took a little messing around to get the holes located and everything fed through and wired up. I won't lie: I was a little concerned that I messed something up until I tested it all. Once I was sure the wiring was good to go, we could mount the panel for real.
We have a friend who is an expert in building skins. Living here in the pacific northwest, a buildings performance in regards to repelling water is a big concern. He mentioned a potential issue mounting wood directly to the metal van panels as we have done here. Condensate will appear on the metal surface, transferring to the wood which will eventually rot or provide a nice warm and wet environment for smelly moulds to fester.
He's probably right: but I wonder if it will occur in the life of the vehicle. The plan is for this build to last 25 years. It wouldn't surprise me to see these bamboo panels deteriorate in that timeframe. We applied a thick coating of finish to the back of the wood panels, but if we were really cool we'd put a minicell layer between the metal and the wood so there is an air gap.
A beautiful weekend granted some time to through the second roof vent up top. I also want to place the two antennas, which will conclude the holes I'll be poking in the roof. Actually, I don't anticipate making any more exterior holes in the van except the sink and shower drain.
Hein sent me the new back fan spacer free of charge. He didn't have to do that--it was my mistake ordering it incorrectly. The new one fit perfectly where I wanted it to go. I've said it before: if you are installing a roof vent, do yourself a favor and get Hein to fabricate the spacer for you. Doing this second vent was a breeze, taking all of about a hour to cut and place the vent, reminding me of how much more efficient I'd become doing a second van. No. No second van for me.
If you look right on the picture above, you can also see the little 4db gain antenna I've poked through the roof. This will feed the wi-fi booster. There's also another one up front behind the passenger seat that will power the 4G cell booster unit. The plan is to work on the road, so I want a few different options: the 4G boost will allow me to receive internet from a tethered phone, while the wi-fi boost will pick up a hotspot signal from up to a few blocks away.
Installing the Galley Cabinet
With the panel in, I can place the galley cabinet, then install the countertop and range/sink. The above image shows the work-in-progress PaperStone 3/4" slab. This product is paper impregnated with Phenolic resin compressed under heat to make a waterproof substance that acts a lot like a really soft stone, but is workable like a super hard wood. The pigment is the same through the entire thickness, so you can cut, shape, and sand it and it will look good throughout. The first cut you see above goes around the slider door jamb, then I cut the piece to width, then ran a roundover bit on the edges that show. I then sanded the slab to 220 grit prior to jigsawing the hole for the stove/sink. I think this product would take a really nice sheen sanded down to like 800. I might do that on the slab I'm putting over the fridge. For the kitchen work surface, I didn't want to put too fine a surface down--though with this product you can supposedly sand out problems.
Cutting the stove/sink template ended up a much harder task than I expected as that unit requires a precise fit. I wish that it would have come with a template. Jen spent a few hours fabricating one. Even with it, we needed some creative shaping to get the hole just right.
I screwed the cabinet to the side of the van, the floor, and the bedframe. It's really solid. We haven't set the sink in yet, but I attempted to run some screws up into the bottom of the counter. I used drywall screws against my better instincts, which promptly pushed up into the countertop (raising it a few millimeters before they started to catch), then promptly breaking. This left screws that push the countertop off the cabinet just a bit, resulting in a slight rise. What a mess. I'm going to need to recip saw the screws out, then do this over again. Next time I'll pre-drill and use high quality deck screws. I've had crappy drywall screws snap before: you would think I'd learn my lesson.
Hooking up the Outdoor Light
I finally took the time to electrify the outdoor light bar shining over the slider. This bar has three settings: white, red, and mixed. I messed up the wiring a bit (I flipped the pos/neg lead that pigtails off the main run), so it took me awhile to get it working correct, but I'm pretty happy with the choice.
White is pretty bright, and red really cuts the glare. I'm guessing we will use red-only quite a bit. Red/white mix looks basically white. Sorry for the blurry night photos--it's hard hand holding a night pic.
The red looks quite a bit better in real life compared to the photo. It's not at all garish as it appears here.
Set the Table
We are off out to Central Oregon in a day. I'd like to finish a few things before we go. One is to place that 'dining room' table I made. The receptacle needs to be bolted down, meaning drilling holes in the van. Of course when I drill the first pilot hole it goes right into a structural member (I really hate drilling through the deck). It's really hard to determine exactly where you are drilling through. Luckily that was the only problem and we got the table base installed.
The top three holes are filled with bolts through the floor, the bottom three are self tapping screws that plunge down through the (hollow) structural crossmember under the van.
The table still doesn't have any finish on it, but it will do for our weekend jaunt. The base ends up stable, but not bullet proof. I'm not concerned about a casual bump doing any damage, but a shove with intent could definitely give the screws a challenge.
There's several little electrical hookups to finish, and a couple I can put in temporary for the weekend. I hooked up a few puck lights above the 'dining room' so we have some light, including a switch. The pucks themselves will move, but the switch is now wired up in the final location, ready for the roof panel.
The hot water heater was plumbed for propane by Van Specialties, but I needed to finish the electrical hookup. Now all I gotta do is the the water.
This and the refrigerator switch will be located on the wall above the counter above the fridge.
Lastly, I ran a circuit powering up the rear storage bay light bars. This will be a big improvement when rummaging around back there after dark. I installed a switch over by the electrical panel. Eventually, there will be a removable panel wall a few inches away from that panel to shield all of that delicate gear.