In this episode, VanDOit’s cofounders talk about some of the most important parts of outfitting a custom van to handle any environment. We start off with insulation and sound damping, two things that can create real headaches for DIYers. We also discus A/C and heat, toilets and showers, and which other creature comforts you really need (or don’t) to make your #Vanlife super sweet!
How should I insulate a custom van?
Check the forums and comments on any custom Sprinter and Transit site, blog or YouTube channel and you’ll almost certainly see horror stories around insulation. From moisture to mold to really overdone (and overly expensive) methods, it’s something you don’t want to do wrong.
VanDOit puts just enough, and just the right kind, of insulation in to do the job right. And by right, they help set expectations. Remember, you’re not building a house, it’s a car, with doors and windows that open up a very large percentage of their total surface area. So, some insulation is important, but so is the air conditioning, heater, air gaps, and type of insulation.
Using a non-absorbent material is key. Hydrophobic insulation prevents moisture buildup, because trapping moisture behind panels means you’ll get mold. Which can smell bad at a minimum, but make you sick at worst.
They use a medium weight open-cell foam-based insulation with a foil lining between layers. They do NOT use the standard pink batting you’ll find in home improvement stores. Not only do they say it can actually pull the exterior temperature into the van, but it’ll mold quickly.
Instead, their insulation uses a closed cell foam that can’t trap moisture and creates “air space” between it and the middle foil layer. Not only is this lightweight, but it won’t transfer the outside temp to the inside of the van.
Where should I put the insulation in my van?
Insulating the roof and the floor are far more important than the sides. Heat and cold can radiate off the ground and move up into the cabin. Sun or snow will send it down from the roof. Get those right and you’ll most of the way there. Add some around wheel wheels and along easily accessible parts of the sides and that’ll deliver about as good a level of insulation as you can expect in a van.
And don’t worry about R-factors, they say it’s an irrelevant measurement for this application, because as soon as you open that side door, it’s all “out the window”…literally.
What should I use for sound damping?
The goal with sound deadening material For insulation between the exterior walls and interior panels is to reduce vibration. Because that’s what you’re really hearing inside the van. They say covering about 30% of a panel or surface will provide 95% of the benefit. And it’s heavy, so overdoing it can add a LOT of weight to your vehicle.
They use a heavyweight asphalt based foiled-backed material against the metal (They use Hushmat, similar to DynaMat), with a lightweight foam-based layer against the interior panel. This lighter layer also helps with insulation.
Do you need a rooftop A/C unit? Floor heater?
The answer is, it depends. If you’re only using it in cooler, northern areas, you can probably skip the A/C unit. If you routinely drive and camp in the south, it might be worth the expense…unless you’re converting a passenger van that already has the extra ceiling vents to push the van’s stock A/C throughout the rear of the cabin.
The other consideration for adding a rooftop unit is that you’ll need shore power. Which means you’ll need to add the electrical systems to be able to plug into external power, and then convert that to DC.
For heat, there are a couple options. A Heat Pump is part of the rooftop A/C unit, so would require all the same stuff as that would. The alternative is an S-Bar heater, which pulls from your fuel tank, and can provide a massive amount of heat. This one has to be plumbed into your van’s fuel line, which adds a different type of complexity, but won’t require external power.
So, if you’re only camping in RV campgrounds with hookups, the rooftop unit is your best bet since most of those places won’t let you run your vehicle through the night. If you’re going off grid, an S-Bar Heater the better option…though, if you’re not headed into seriously cold conditions, you can probably just use the stock vehicles’ air conditioning systems to both heat and cool your interior.
What about electrical? Solar? Picking the right type of van?
If you missed Parts One and Two, they’re definitely worth checking out. In Part One, we cover the basics of the van itself, which model and engine you want, how to pick the right transmission, etc. In Part Two, it’s all about the electrical systems, and we go super, suuuuper deep down the rabbit hole on batteries, switches and solar.
Huge thanks to VanDOit for taking the time to explain it all! Curious how they make their vans? Want to see how they wire it all together? Check out our factory tour in the video above, and check the full tour post here.
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