If you haven’t already met us, head over to our About Us page.
Now, it’s time to meet our beloved home on wheels, and get a detailed walkthrough of the what, why, when and how of our custom Ford Transit Van Conversion.
Throughout the whole process of building our van, we’ve been asked hundreds of different questions about the van conversion; why we decided to do it, the steps we took, and how much it cost us to complete, along with many more (like “where do you go to the toilet in your van conversion!?”).
Compiled below are the most common questions we get asked about our Ford Transit van conversion, and about vanlife in general!
Ok, let’s slide the side door open and get into it!
Why did you decide to convert a van into a tinyhome?
We can’t speak for everyone, but for us, it was for a very simple reason. To put our family first.
We had just had our first child, a gorgeous little boy, and were having an incredible time learning the ropes as new parents. Charles was able to take 10 weeks off work, and we revelled in the time we spent together as a family. It was absolutely magic, but, as with all good things, soon enough Charles was back at work, with long days, stress and the frantic pace of modern life.
Fast forward 8 months, and we were looking for a way to slow ourselves down and reconnect our lives to what really matters – family. At first we considered slow travel overseas, picking a few destinations around the world, and spending a few months in each. We loved this idea, but realised that to be away from extended family, such as our parents and siblings, would break our hearts. So we started looking at our own backyard so to speak.
We hail from a small island at the bottom of the world where the beaches are beautiful, and everything in nature is trying to kill you… Australia. Any Aussie is familiar with “The Big Lap”; where you pile into a home on wheels and circumnavigate the country via the road, seeing everything this beautiful land has to offer. You can go clockwise or counter clockwise – either way, you do one “Big Lap”.
This appealed to us. We could travel together, slow our lives down, and never be more than a few states away from our families.
All we needed was a vehicle. We hit the interwebs and stumbled onto #vanlife. It was love at first sight and we never looked back.
While we could have bought an already converted van, or a caravan or motorhome from one of the cookie cutter companies that exist, we decided this wasn’t the route we wanted to take. We had a series of very specific needs due to travelling with a small child (1 ½ years old by the time we hit the road), which were:
- We needed adequate storage for 3 people.
- We didn’t want gas in the van. We wanted to cook with electricity using an induction stovetop.
- We wanted a big fridge.
- We wanted this to feel like our ‘home’, with all the personal touches and flair that make us, us. Cookie cutter motorhomes tend to have fairly bland interiors and aesthetics which didn’t appeal to us.
- We wanted a vehicle small enough to maneuver around cities and have few (if any) issues parking.
The more we looked around, the more we started to realise that to get what we wanted, we would need to make it ourselves. Also, by this stage we were so far down the vanlife rabbit hole – looking at all the phenomenal builds out there – that there was no way we weren’t going to do a van conversion ourselves!
Why do a Ford Transit van conversion?
Choosing a model of van to convert is the first really big challenge you will face in your own van conversion journey.
For the amount of space we required, there were really only 3 main options for us.
- The Ram Promaster – a little known and little supported van in Australia.
- The Mercedes Sprinter – by far the most popular of the big euro style vans.
- Ford Transit – The underdog in terms of popularity.
The Ram promaster was out of the running from the get-go, mostly due to the lack of info (and inspo) available, so it was Transit VS Sprinter. You can read more about these vans exclusively and how they compare here.
When looking at the transit and sprinter vans, it quickly became apparent that there was one massive difference between the models. That difference starts with d and ends with ollars. Yep, the price difference between the options models was huge.
We quickly realised that we would not be buying a new van. No matter what model we went for, their price points were all out of our budget. So, we moved onto second hand vans. And our market research showed us that the value was heavily in the Ford Transit’s favour.
The way we devised exactly what “value” was in this case was simple.
Available interior space (square metres) / van cost = value.
In this case, the Ford was the better value vehicle.
We also had to consider the reliability of these vehicles, which is a little difficult as you need to rely on other people’s words and experiences.
We had noticed a LOT of complaints and stories of engine failure with the Mercedes Sprinter van conversions being shared on the internet.
This could be due to the fact that there are just so many more Mercedes Sprinter van conversions out there, but either way it didn’t sit well with us. We also saw so many mentions of the Mercedes Sprinter Black Death and that truly scared us away from the Sprinter.
The Mercedes Sprinter Black Death is a mechanical issue involving fuel injector seals. The reason it is given the name “Black Death” is due to the tar like thick black gunky residue that can be found underneath the injector cover. It is caused by a leaking fuel injector and causes a thick build up of carbon. It shows it’s face by causing rattling, hissing sounds or even by becoming so bad that your van can no longer start, turning your home on wheels into, well, a home.
We also decided to get another opinion about our van selection, so took a trip up to our mechanic, who has worked on all of our vehicles over many years, to get his perspective. He simply said “you couldn’t pay me enough money to own the Sprinter.”. He wasn’t exactly mincing his words.
To be fair, he didn’ think much of any of the van options, maybe he was just having a bad day. But, he did have a few positive reasons why we should go the Ford Transit route for our van conversion. His reasoning was that there were a hell of a lot of mechanics in Australia that would know how to work on the Ford Transit, due to it being a fairly common model in australia. Whereas the Mercedes Sprinter needs specific Sprinter mechanics in order to do any serious work to it. This would mean a lengthy and expensive tow if we found ourselves broken down in the middle of nowhere.
So the Ford Transit won in value (tick), reliability (tick) and mechanical availability (tick). Now we just needed to decide which one we wanted.
Why did you choose the Ford Transit Jumbo for your van conversion?
There are a few different Ford Transit models to choose from.
Transit Van 350L
Transit Van 350E
Transit Van 430E
Transit Van 470E
For each of these van versions, there are also other versions to choose from! Versions inside versions… confusing I know.
The key differences are the length and height of the vehicle. All of the above models come in a mid roof and high roof version.
In the mid roof version, standing fully erect is impossible, at least for Charles (6ft 1in). So we decided to scratch the mid-roof versions and only focus on high roof versions.
We also deliberated on the length of the van we wanted. The Ford Transit offers two lengths on most models – standard and jumbo.
We decided that we needed the additional length that the jumbo provided, over some of the conveniences a standard length comes with. See the table below for our thoughts on the positives and negatives of both.
- High vs Medium roof.
- Short vs long load space.
Because of this reason, we decided to focus on the Ford Transit High roof Jumbo. This is the tallest and longest model that Ford sells.
Finally, we needed to decide between the models of Ford Transit Van; the 350E or 470E.
The biggest difference between these two models is:
- Price – The 470E is about $3000 more expensive than the 350E – That’s a big chunk of cash.
- Availability – We were looking for our van in the second hand market. And in this market, the 470E, in good condition, with low kilometers on it, was pretty rare.
- GVM – Gross Vehicle Mass – the amount of weight the van could legally take on.
After studying the differences, we settled on the Ford Transit Jumbo 350E. It was the cheaper option and there were more to choose from on the second hand market.
Why did you decide to purchase your Ford Transit van second hand?
It’s a big decision as to whether you should purchase your van new or second hand. There are definitely pros and cons for both. And to be fair, there is always some level of anxiety about owning a second hand vehicle – you just don’t know what level of care the previous owner had with the van. We found some dodgy wiring that had been done by the previous owner that we had to get fixed at our own cost. This gave us some doubts about the whole van and what other dodgy fixes the previous owner may have made. This anxiety would have been completely avoided if we were to purchase the van brand new.
That being said, the decision was pretty easy for us. Our hands were tied by our budget – we only had a certain amount of money to spend for the van and the conversion, so we had parameters that made our decision making process easier.
The next step was to hit the classifieds and start looking at some vans. While we were in the market for an empty van, we still wanted to see some converted vans as well.
One reason was to get van conversion ideas. The other reason was to decide whether we actually needed to do a conversion, or if we could simply buy one already done.
But, every conversion we saw just didn’t feel right, nor did it offer what we needed in terms of bed space and storage space. We were going to travel as a family of three whereas most #vanlifers are couples or solo, so their vans weren’t arranged for our needs.
We never found a prebuilt conversion out there that we liked, that was a) for sale, or b) in australia. But we liken them to unicorns, it would be that rare to find one that ticked all of our boxes.
OUR VAN! WE FOUND IT!
As we started looking, we decided that our searching needed parameters. These were based upon both our budget and our needs.
Our purchase requirements were as follows –
- $30,000 AUD ($22,700 USD) or less. This was the ceiling of our budget, and even that was stretching it.
- Less than 100,000 kilometers or 62,000 miles. This made our search so hard as most of the Ford Transit vans out there were commercial vehicles, and therefore were being run 5-7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. This meant that they had done some serious miles. In fact some that we saw online were upwards of 350,000 k’s / 217000 miles.
After scouring all of the Sydney market for months, and inspecting a handful of vans, we widened our net and look further afield. It was then that we saw a listing we could finally feel excited for.
The listing was for a Ford transit 350E. They wanted $33,500 – steep compared to our $30,000 budget, but as with any second hand vehicle sale, we knew there would be a bit of wiggle room for negotiations built into the cost.
The most attractive part of the listing was that it stated the van only had 100,000k / 62,000m on it.
There was a downside though. It was 750 kilometers away. Not exactly the kind of distance you can drop by to inspect after work!
We decided to go for it, and have a look, provided we could get the price down before flying up the coast to see it. We knew that if Charles flew there and then tried to bargain with them, we’d lose any power to negotiate.
So, over the course of the next week, Charles went to work on the phone slowly wearing them down on the price.
We managed to get the price down to $31,000 drive away. This included any taxes and stamp duty. And we scored 4 new tyres. So, that was a pretty good result, and close enough to our budget.
There were a few extra costs that we hadn’t taken into consideration that would have to be paid.
These extra costs were a “Pre-inspection checklist” – this is essentially an inspection that a mechanic makes on the van prior to purchase. This pre-inspection checklist cost $330 AUD ($250 USD). Then, we also had the flight up there. This cost $300 AUD ($227 USD). And then there was the cost of gas to drive it back to Sydney. This was about $100. So in reality you could round the purchase price up to $31,730 AUD. A little steep compared to the budget we set of $30,000.
How did you plan your van layout?
Here comes the exciting part – planning the van conversion layout. It’s where the hours spent on instagram scrolling #vanlife finally pay off, and you combine the thousands of different inspirational conversions out there into something that’s truly unique and yours. Easier said than done.
There are a series of tools out there to help you plan your van layout. Some are paid software, like Sketchup and 3D Van Design Software.
While we dabbled in these, what we actually found worked really well was the following 2 tools.
- Google drawing – For a quick and simple way to put plans to paper.
- iPad. This allowed us to take photos of the empty cargo space, and then draw on top of the photos, to help us see how the van would look under different design layouts.
While we thought we knew what we wanted at the start of the process, it’s worth noting that throughout the build, what may have seemed like a good idea before you started the conversion, often turns out to be infeasible, superfluous, expensive or too cramped. That’s a natural part of the process and worth keeping in mind when you plan your build; don’t be too rigid or strict with your layout or plan. Stay flexible. Planning a van tiny home can be a fairly “organic”, chaotic process. Ideas fly everywhere and it’s totally normal to keep changing and pivoting your design as the build progresses.
That being said, if we were to put the process into steps, it would look something like this.
- MEASURE YOUR AREA
Take measurements of the van cargo space to understand the area you are designing. In any van, there are no straight lines, so you need to make sure you measure your width and length measurements at different heights, and in different depths within the cargo hold area.
For instance your van cargo measurements will be different across the floor of the van, across the middle of the van and across the ceiling of the van.
Then take the same three measurements again, this time half way along the cargo hold. Finally, take those same three measurements (floor, middle, ceiling) just behind the bulkhead.
- Research van layouts
Look at lots of completed van conversions online for inspiration to see how the various different layouts look. On youtube there are a tonne of Van Walkthroughs – these are priceless in terms of really getting a feel for the van layouts, and space utilisation. Also, the vanlifers will typically give some sort of commentary to what works and what doesn’t.
From our research, we realised that we wanted a bed that was fixed. This means the bed stays where it is and does not convert down to be a seat or seats and a table.
The idea of rearranging the bed into a seat everyday would personally have driven us crazy, no matter how simple the process was. Also, our son would still need his nap in the middle of the day, so we needed a fixed bed that allowed us to still use the van seating and kitchen areas during the day while our son slept. For this reason, we decided to build a fixed bed at the rear of the van.
We also found from looking at other van builds that we really liked the idea of the kitchen on the same side as the sliding door. This would mean that we could be cooking in the kitchen and looking out at the amazing view we happened to be parked up to.
Once we had an idea of our two main areas of the van, we were able to design around that. And our design tool of choice was a trusty pencil and paper.
What we soon some to realise is that you can’t have everything. A good design is really just a process of compromises. Drawing your ideas out will allow you to see what is and isn’t possible in the space you have.
This is how we came up with our L-sit lounge. We had seen a lot of vans that had sacrificed seating space for other things like internal showers / toilet cubicles. While a shower was appealing for us, it certainly was low on the list when other necessities such as seating and storage was considered. Our priority was a place we could all sit together and have our meals, regardless of the weather.
Once we had our sketch down on a piece of paper we then headed out to the van with a couple of different coloured rolls or electrical tape and started to mark out the layout on the floor. This is how we came to decide on exactly how big the kitchen bench should be, and how big the lounge needed to be. From there we could decide how big our storage bench needed to be.
We took a lot of our measurements from this too, such as the width and depth of our kitchen bench, and the length, width and height of the L shaped lounge.
We briefly used a program called sketchup, software where you can create a 3D layout of your van – from beds, windows, cabinets and drawers, to overhead cabinets and wall hangings. It certainly has its benefits, and the layout is much more detailed than what you could create in a top down, 2D planning blueprint.
That being said, after a few attempts to get our head around the app and the functions, we gave up. You really need to spend some time watching training videos to master the software, and we felt more productive using planning tools we already knew than taking time out to learn one we had never used before. After all, when we were doing the designing and planning of our van, we were still working full time, and raising a newborn baby. Time was precious. So for us simple was best.
We did the majority of our planning on Google Drawing. It was simple, and as long as we drew to scale, it was able to meet our needs and give us an accurate tool to plan our van.
Finally, To help us further visualise the layout in 3D, we got a bunch of cardboard boxes to help us determine how realistic our layout was when it came to the remaining moveable-space within the van. This was really worthwhile, as you can’t really perceive a ‘corridor’ as such with 2d lines on the floor. We realised our benches had to be much narrower than we thought once we did the 3D box mock up.
Note: There are some incredible examples of Sketchup being used to plan a van layout online and it is a very powerful and useful tool, so definitely check it out if you are planning on converting a van. We just didn’t have the time to learn the platform enough to become sufficiently competent at it.
How much solar does your van conversion have?
The next step in our van conversion was to choose what appliances were going to go into the van, and how we were going to power them.
The areas we focussed on were the following –
Personal electronics and appliances
- These include mobile phones, camera’s, computers.
- These include induction cooktops, kettles, toasters, blenders – any appliance you would typically find in a kitchen.
- Wired tools such as drills, jigsaws etc. It’s always good to have some tools on hand to fix or adjust your van as you go.
- Interior lighting in the van. Any additional exterior lighting you have created.
- Air conditioning
Once we had created a list of all of the electrical elements we would need to power, we could then determine what our power needs would be.
In the end it was our decision to use induction cooking instead of gas, and to run an air conditioning unit, that ultimately determined how much power we needed.
In the simplest terms we ran the following system.
- 400w solar
- 4x 100w panels.
- This was set up to run in parallel.
- 340Ah Lithium Battery system
- 2x 170Ah Lithium batteries from Renogy
- RedArc Manager 30
- This controlled our power input from 3 sources (Van alternator, Solar & mains power)
We absolutely LOVED this power setup. We always felt like we had a tonne of power to spare, and we were pretty heavy power users. We cooked on the induction cooktop multiple times a day, as well as used it to boil water for tea or coffee. The induction cooktop could use up to 2000w but still we would never deplete our batteries below 70% most days.
Charging it up was quick and easy enough. The RedArc could take 30Ah into the system, and we found that being parked in the sun would help generate more than enough energy to keep us going.
Why did you choose lithium batteries for your van conversion?
The best thing about having the Lithium (LiFePO4) batteries is the amount of usable energy that can be tapped into.
The best way to explain this is to compare it to your more traditional Lead Acid variety of battery. A lead acid battery can only ever be depleted to 50% of its theoretical capacity. Any lower than that and you seriously risk damaging the battery cells, to the point where they will no longer have the capacity to retain electricity, and will therefore be rendered useless.
Lithium (LiFePO4) based batteries on the other hand, can be depleted down to 92-98%. It is advised that shallower, more frequent depletions are better for the battery, somewhere in the range of 70-80%, but if on occasion you need to deplete lower, it should not cause permanent damage to the battery, unlike traditional lead-acid.
This is huge, and needs to be accounted for when calculating how much power you need. You actually need to be looking at the usable energy that a battery holds, not just its total charge capability.
For example, 100Ah of Lithium, gives you a useable 90-95Ah of power. Whereas 100Ah of traditional Lead Acid (such as AGM) gives you a usable capacity of 50Ah. So even though they both state they hold 100Ah of energy, the reality is that the Lithium option has nearly double the usable capacity.
There used to be a time when Lithium batteries were priced at a severe premium to other traditional battery types, but they are now getting cheaper and cheaper. To the point where, when looking at the useable energy, they are not that much more expensive than other battery types such as AGM or Lead-Acid.
Why did you decide to use the Redarc Manager 30 as your battery management system?
The RedArc Manager 30 is a BMS – Battery Management System, which does exactly as it says, it manages the battery system.
Managing a battery system consists of
- Monitoring where power is coming from, and making sure it can be safely stored by the battery.
- Monitoring where power is being distributed to, and making sure that it does so efficiently, and safely.
So, let’s look specifically at the RedArc Manager 30 BMS.
This is actually advertised as 6 units in one. An incredibly convenient proposition.
It is a –
- DC-DC battery charger,
- 240 volt AC battery charger,
- MPPT solar regulator,
- Dual battery isolator,
- Load disconnect controller, and
- Remote battery monitor.
So as you can see, with one bit of kit you get a swathe of capabilities.
What really appealed to us, was the convenience of only having to install and wire one piece of kit to be able to charge our batteries from various sources.
Typically, most van builds have to buy the following units separately.
DC to DC charger – to allow charging from the van’s alternator.
AC to DC charger – to allow charging from a mains supply, such as a caravan park or home.
MPPT Solar regulator – to allow charging from solar panels.
We loved the idea that one unit could cover all three of these needs, and could actually work smartly to determine the most efficient, and greenest way of charging our batteries. The RedArc Manager 30 would always choose solar as it’s first choice of charge, and if that wasn’t available, or the charging it was receiving was low, the BMS would then utilise another source of power to achieve its maximum input. For example, if we were driving and getting 17A coming from the solar panels, then the BMS was smart enough to take 13A from the alternator. This would allow it to charge at its maximum rate of 30A.
We also LOVED the RedArc remote. It showed us every measurement we needed to know, simply and cleanly. The user interface was easy to navigate. Just brilliant.
Would we buy the Redarc Manager 30 BMS again?
Looking back at the RedArc, its convenience of install and operation, I can confidently say that we would look at purchasing it again. Without a doubt.
The most common pushback we get against the RedArc is the cost. Sure, they are expensive. But, they are of the highest quality, and when you add up the cost of buying all of its components separately, you are looking at close to the same price anyway – with a LOT more headache involved (wiring, fuses etc). Also, throw in the time you save on the install, due to simply installing and setting up the one unit, and I think the RedArc Manager 30 is actually pretty good value. I’ll concede it isn’t a bargain by any means, but you have to think to yourself, is this one area of the van conversion you really want to skimp on?
The best thing about the system is how ‘set and forget’ it is. Charge time is fast, and the BMS does a great job of efficiently using the solar panels through its MPPT system.
- 6 separate units in one
- The remote monitor is awesome! It gives readings on everything you will need in a clean, simple interface.
- Charges fast
- Keeps batteries healthy with multiple charging profiles
- One unit makes the install easier.
- A big unit, but compact when considering it does multiple things in one system.
- Excellent support from RedArc team.
- The price point on face value can seem excessive. But, it is worth considering how much the individual units would cost, and how much your time is worth, and how much the convenience factor is worth to you.
The highest energy output it can deliver is 30A. This is about average, but it would have been nice to get 45A out of the DC-DC function at least. This means faster charging.
The MPPT solar regulator can only utilise panels wired in parallel and not series. This was fine for us, but there is a real battle going on over the vanlife internet world about which is best, series or parallel. It may be worth researching this before committing to the RedArc.
Why did you decide to use induction cooking in your van?
During our travels, we would often be stopped by people who wanted to know more about our van. We would give them a tour and nearly always, when we got to the kitchen and showed them our induction cooktop, they’d be blown away. After they gathered themselves from the excitement of seeing a setup that wasn’t gas powered, they would ask why we chose induction over gas.
The answer is that we simply wanted to keep things simple.
We didn’t really want to install gas into the van, as we were unfamiliar with any sort of gas installation. And we were concerned with having gas in the van with our little boy travelling with us. This was probably unfounded, as we’re sure a properly installed gas system is as safe as any alternative, but this was how we felt, and it influenced our decision. Gas is a seriously combustible substance, and needs to be completely respected. We respected it by staying well clear.
Also, we didn’t like the idea of an open gas powered flame inside the van, as well as having pots and pans superheated by this flame.
Gas can also be a logistical headache. You can run out of gas when travelling, and if you are in the middle of nowhere then it might not be a simple matter of ducking down to the shops to swap a bottle. Also, with gas you have to consider such things as carbon monoxide levels in your van. You have no such concerns with induction cooking.
We had also heard how fantastic it was to cook on induction, with the superfast heating times, and precise control over the temperature. We were excited by the prospect of having induction cooking.
Now that we have travelled and lived in our van full time, we can give you the lowdown on induction cooking for van life and whether we would make the same choices again if we had the chance.
Before we go into it any further, it is probably worth just mentioning exactly how induction cooktops work. Induction cooking works by heat that is generated by the pots, pans and other cookware, and not the surface of the cooktop itself.
Without getting too scientific, the induction plate creates a powerful magnetic field which causes a magnetic reaction in specific induction compatible cookware. It is this reaction (actually a resistance to the magnetic field) that causes the heat to be generated.
With induction cooking in your van it is important to note that you need specific pots and pans for it to work. They need to be compatible. How do you find out whether your pots and pans are compatible? Easy, just grab a fridge magnet, and if it sticks powerfully to the bottom of the pot or pan then you should be good to go.
Induction also shines over gas when you consider what an open flame inside your van can create in terms of moisture. When gas burns oxygen, it creates moisture in the atmosphere. It is the methane reacting with oxygen – this when heated, produces carbon dioxide and… dum dum dum…water.
Moisture being created doesn’t really matter in most instances where gas is used. For example, in an open plan family home, or in the backyard at the bbq, the moisture is negligible. Well in a tiny area like your van, it most definitely is not. Condensation can occur, and this can lead to mould issues, which can be incredibly toxic and unhealthy, and to rust occurring in your van.
While induction requires electricity to power it, it is still a very efficient way of cooking your food. This is because so much more of the energy created goes directly to heating your food. Much more than gas. We found that it would cook our food incredibly fast. A good test was boiling water – with induction in our van we were boiling water in about 60 seconds! We were seriously impressed.
Our absolute favourite reason for having induction cooking in the van was the fact that the induction cooktop was portable. We stored it in a drawer with our pots and pans when it wasn’t in use – this gave us so much more bench space when we weren’t cooking. Also, if we wanted to cook outside then we would just run an extension cord outside and cook under the stars. It was super simple.
The only major drawback to induction cooking in your van, is your ability to power it. It is a total juice thief, taking around 2000w at the high end. So if your electrical system isn’t specced up enough you could find your batteries depleted pretty quickly. Also, if your wiring gauges aren’t correct, you could end up breaking your fuses, or worse, causing your wiring to catch alight.
We created an electrical system that could easily power up to 2600w constant power, so a 2000w induction cooktop was well within our margin of safety. This had implications in other ways though, primarily in the cost of our electrical system. We had 340Ah of Lithium batteries and a beefy inverter to be able to deliver the power. If you have a lower specced system, you will have to rule out week long stays in the wilderness, unless you are generating serious amounts of solar power.
Don’t let this discourage you though, it just means planning in the design stage, so that you adequately wire your van to carry its load.
Where did your son sit while you drove?
One of the most beautiful parts of our van life experience was the actual driving between places. The main reason for this was where our son sat. In our van, we all sat in the front cabin, across a row of three seats. Our son sat between us in his child seat. This made the driving experience so much richer when compared to what we were normally used to, which was him strapped into one of the rear seats of our car, completely disconnected from my us in the front seats.
Now, in the van, we were all next to each other. We were able to chat with our son, share the things we saw out the massive front window of the Transit, play I spy and just take pleasure in each other’s company. It was amazing.
If you’re wondering if this was legal and safe to have a traveller travel in the front seat of our van, the answer is yes and yes.
Is it as safe as putting a child in the backseat of a car – not necessarily, but in the van, we didn’t have the luxury of a back seat. Where the backseat would have been was where our home was built!
We did have to have a child safety seat anchor point installed, and an engineer sign off on the install, and also the integrity of the Transit middle seat – where the “child seat” was going to sit upon. This cost us a pretty penny for what couldn’t have been more than 10 minutes work. All up the engineer certificate and the install of the anchor point cost over $1000 Australian dollars, or around $750 USD. Crazy I know. But rules are rules, and with our most precious possession we weren’t going to take any chances.
It’s worth noting that if this is an option you are considering, you need to ensure that airbags aren’t able to be deployed where your child seat will face. Our Ford Transit middle seat had no airbags fitted, hence it was legal and safe for the child seat to be fitted there. If the centre seat had airbags, though, the position would be a deathtrap and would cost thousands of dollars to remove the airbags and reconfigure the airbag deployment mechanisms for the driver and passenger seats. It’s worth being aware of this if you are considering travelling with your child in the front seat, as you may be forking out more than your vehicle budget allows if you need to make these changes.
Why did you install a van air conditioner?
When you step into our van and look up at our amazing tongue and groove radiata pine ceiling, one of the real talking points of our van stands out. Our Dometic IBIS 4 air conditioning unit takes pride of place in the middle of our ceiling.
We chose to install a Dometic Ibis 4 Airconditioner into our van because we knew that our trip was going to take us into Australia’s Top End; the Northern Territory. Even in winter it can get dang hot up there. Days above 35 degree celsius / 95 Fahrenheit are not uncommon – in the middle of winter!
Our biggest sticking points that we had to overcome for the air conditioner were –
- The cost of an airconditioning unit – these bad boys are bloody expensive. Especially when compared to your stock standard home air conditioning unit. We paid $1980 AUD / $1475 USD for our unit.
- The install process scared us a little bit, not gonna lie. Cutting a hole in the roof, getting the 40 kilogram unit onto our van roof, having the proper structural supports in place, sealing the roof correctly, wiring the unit correctly… The whole process seemed overwhelming. But, that’s kind of the feeling you have the whole time when building out a van conversion. We overcame our nerves by breaking the process of installing a van air-conditioner into bite sized chunks. This kept the overwhelming sense of doom at bay and allowed us to get on with it!
The coolest (pun not intended!) part of our air conditioner setup is that it could run completely off of battery power. We wanted this option, as we knew we’d be going into some really hot, humid and sweaty areas and we would likely be free camping, or staying places that didn’t provide power.
Because we were travelling with our little guy, who was 1.5 years old when we left, we wanted to make sure we could make a comfortable environment for his daily naps, and for our sleeping at night. The idea was that we would only need the air conditioner on for 15 minutes after returning to the van to completely dispel the hot air, and reduce the air temperature.
Our method when returning to the van on a hot day went like this.
1. Open the side door, and open a window.
2. Turn maxxfan to extraction. This will suck all of the built up hot air out of the van.
3. Turn on the air-conditioner.
4. Once it is producing cold air, run it for 10-15 minutes.
Doing these 4 steps would completely change the room temperature to something much more manageable.
How long could you run the van air conditioner off your batteries?
It’s pretty darn cool to be able to run the van air conditioner completely off of the batteries. In fact, in our whole travels we didn’t meet any other travelers who had that ability to do so. It felt like a pretty special thing we had created. But, it is definitely a double edged sword, as it can be a massive power suck on our battery and needs to be properly considered before using.
In our travels we were comfortable running the Air Conditioner in our van for up to an hour. We could have run it longer, but we always erred on the side of caution when it came to our battery system and it’s capacity.
Let’s do some quick back of napkin mathematics to find out how long the batteries can supply power to the air conditioner.
Before we continue, it is worth noting that in Australia we use a 240v system (well actually it is 230v but still called its legacy 240v name).
All the figures below will be in reference to 240v power as this Air Conditioner has to wire into a 240v system. In the US this will be 120v system.
Dometic IBIS 4 power draw
Cooling – 6.9A
Heating – 6.5A
Tip – To find the watt usage during cooling simply take the Amps and multiply them by the voltage.
So in cooling mode – 6.9A X 230v = 1587 watts.
To find out how much this will draw on your 12v van battery setup, simply divide the watts by the volts – this will give you the power draw in Amps.
In this case it is 1587w / 12v = 132.25A
Add 10% for loss of power efficiency during the inverter stage and you get 145A.
This is a good conservative number to work off, as the 6.9 A is the top of their expected power draw, and 10% efficiency loss through the inverter is also likely more than the reality.
Now we simply take our Battery capacity and divide it by the Amps needed.
Our battery system was 340Ah of LiPo 4 (Lithium).
Ideally we would never drop below 10% of battery power. So that gives us 306Ah to work with.
306Ah / 145A = 2.1.
Therefore – we could run our Air-conditioner for a total of 2.1 hours if we were willing to run the battery down to 10% (which is possible with Lithium batteries).
We only selectively ran it off of the batteries. But, when we were plugged into mains power, there were no worries, and we could run it all night long!
What fridge did you choose for your van?
There are plenty of options on the market when it comes to choosing the right fridge for your van. Two main styles of fridge and freezer dominate the market. These are the stand-up front door style, like you would find in most family kitchens. The other is the top loading fridge. Essentially a large coolbox that is powered by electricity.
Both of these styles have their own positives and negatives. For instance, the front loading fridges are typically able to fit more food, and it’s easier to access the items within the fridge and freezer. The tradeoff is that they are typically taller and need more vertical space within your build plans.
Top loading refrigerators for vans are the opposite. It can be a pain getting to the items in the fridge you want, as you have to also remove whatever else is on top. But, their size can be utilised more efficiently in most cases. They can be stored under seats, and built onto slide out rails. Also, they are substantially cheaper at the entry level. Though once you start looking at sizes up around the 100L mark, the prices start to align a little bit more.
We settled upon going down the road of a front loading refrigerator. We did this because of the following reasons –
- We knew we would need at least 115L of size, as there were three of us travelling. And at that size we found that the best looking and most functional options were the front loading fridges. If we were looking at a smaller capacity, like 70L then the choice would be a lot harder.
- We didn’t want to live with the hassle of moving things around to get to the items we wanted. This is a common occurrence in top loading fridges that we were looking to avoid.
The front loading fridge we decided to go with was the Vitrifrigo C115I Fridge & Freezer 115L.
It gave us a large 115L capacity. It had a freezer compartment and it had a really stylish black look.
The front door had a clasp lock that was easy to operate, and never once opened on us while travelling. We travelled through bumpy rough tracks many times, and the Vitrifrigio C115L took it all on the chin.
We decided that the fridge should be installed under our fixed bed frame. This meant that at night, we were lying right above the fridge.
This meant that whatever refrigerator we decided to go with had to be quiet. The Vitrifrigio shined in this aspect, and was barely noticeable at night. Also, sometimes in our travels, depending on the climate, we would simply turn the fridge off overnight to save energy. The fridge was designed well enough that all items would still be cold to the touch come morning time.
What kind of table did you have in the van?
Our seating arrangement in the van was a real priority in the planning stages. We knew that we wanted a dedicated seating area, we didn’t want to transform any furniture into seating; we wanted it all to be fixed and able to be used at any time. We also needed enough seating so that the three of us had enough space to comfortably sit down for meals and in any relaxing downtime. We had seen lots of vans online that didn’t even have seating arrangements, they just sat on the bed, or outside.
Although we can definitely see the merit in this, as it gives you additional space for other functions in the van such as a shower or fixed toilet, it just wasn’t the right option for us.
We built an L-sit lounge out of light wooden pine, and the seats were plywood topped with cheap yoga mats. Charles cut and glued the rubber foam yoga mats together and then glued them to the plywood surface. Rissy then upholstered the seats with a blue stain resistant fabric that was easy to clean but pleasing to the eye.
We made sure the seats had the ability to be lifted to give us access to the space underneath the seat. Any extra storage in a van is a good idea!
We then bought a Lagun Table for our van. This was a game changer.
A Lagun table is not really a table at all, but rather we should probably refer to it as a Lagun Table-Leg system. You actually have to bring your own table top.
The Lagun table leg system is in simple terms a swivel table that allows 360 degrees of rotation from two different locations along a single table leg structure. These swivels can then be locked in place by turning simple hand locks.
The swivelling nature of it is great in a small space such as a van or RV because it allows the table to easily and quickly be swivelled out of the way to let people pass it, or to access things around it. This is much better than a fixed table as a fixed table in the wrong place can become a massive nuisance really quickly.
Installation of the Lagun table was quite easy. We just had to make sure to add another backing plate of wood to the 9mm ply the leg would be attached to, as we didn’t think the 9mm ply would be thick enough to stop its rigidity being compromised and the table then leaning.
After three months of solid use, multiple times a day, we can say confidently that we would purchase the Lagun table again, without a hesitation. The only real downside we noticed was that after about a month and a half we found the Lagun table was starting to lean, and not sit truly horizontal. Obviously there is no real horizontal in a van, as it all depends where the van is stationed and how horizontal the actual van is at the time, but we still found it to lean when aligned visually against the L-sit lounge it was attached to. Lagun give you wedge shaped plastic inserts that you can use to mitigate this effect. But Charles threw them out once he had successfully installed the table (woopS!)… IT would have cost us nothing just to hold onto them, but as they say, hindsight’s a bitch.
A wedge could easily be made out of wood, if you had the right gear.
Another negative to the table is the price. We paid a cool $330 AUD. Though it looks like it is cheaper in the States at $200 USD.
For the table top, Charles cut to piece of Beech table 18mm/ 0.7inch table top panel to size from the local hardware store for $40 (here is the link for PICTURES********* – https://www.bunnings.com.au/specrite-1800-x-405-x-18mm-finger-jointed-beech-panel_p8330198) and coated it with a laminate to protect it. This did a marvelous job as our dining table for months on the road, with multiple meals a day eaten on it. It also doubled as our son’s primary place of play, and stood up to all the rigours that a toddler could put on it. The table even became an impromptu office when Charles took on some freelance work during our trip.
Why did you install a Max-Fan Air in your van?
When planning your van conversion, you seriously need to consider installing a rooftop fan. It is an absolute necessity. They are brilliant.
We went with the most popular model of van rooftop fan on the market – the MaxxFan Deluxe 7000k. We chose this brand and model because we had only ever heard good things about them. Nearly all of the reviews we found were raving about them, so, while expensive compared to some other options, we preferred to just install the best, and be happy, then constantly think “what if”.
The MaxxFan deluxe is good for a few reasons. The first and foremost reason is the Rain Dome. This design feature means that even when it is pouring rain outside your van or RV, the fan can still work as normal, without letting any water into the van. This is a godsend on rainy days, because, in some climates, more rain = more humidity. That humidity can be disastrous for the inside of a van – it needs to go somewhere.
Also, when it is raining you will typically need to be cooking inside your van, as outside in the rain is not an option. In this case, the MaxxFan deluxe can be run, helping to exhaust any of the smoke and smells from cooking out through the roof.
Another reason for the MaxxFan is it’s 10 speed options. These are good as it gave us more flexibility not only in the power the fan used, but also how much noise it created in the van. The MaxxFan is a quiet unit, there’s no doubt that a lot of development has gone into keeping the noise down, but it is still a fan, and will still make noise.
But, at the lower speeds, the noise was totally negligible. This was perfect for nights, as the fan could run all night without disturbing our sleep.
At night, we found the fan worked best to keep the van cool when we cracked the back window slightly, and then set the fan to exhaust mode. This would essentially draw air in through the window, through the van and then out the fan, giving us a beautiful cool breeze on hotter nights.
If you do go down the route of a rooftop fan, definitely make sure you are installing it where it will be most beneficial. You really need to make sure that it is installed as far away from any windows you have as possible. The further away the fan is from your window, the longer the breeze can be carried through your van, therefore cooling more of your van home. If the fan is installed right near your window, then the fan exhaust will simply suck the air from the window and out the fan without that fresh, cool air that has been drawn through the window interacting with any of the air already in the van. A massive loss if not planned correctly.
WHY DID WE INSTALL A MAXXFAN DELUXE AND AN AIR CONDITIONER?
In our van conversion we also installed a Dimetic Ibis 4 Air-conditioning unit. You may be wondering why we decided to install both, and the answer is quite simple. They both do different jobs. The fan is brilliant at creating a breeze through the van, and helping to exhaust cooking fumes. The air-conditioner on the other hand is better at actually conditioning the air within the van to a much more comfortable temperature.
Another reason we have both is that they each have much different power draw profiles. The Air Conditioner uses about 135-145 amps on a 12v system. This is a LOT of power consumption and means we can only run the air conditioner in the van for short periods of time, up to 2 hours with a fully charged battery.
The MaxxFan Deluxe on the other hand only draws 5 amps max. That is a massive difference of 140 amps per hour! In fact, most of the day our battery system was charging at between 15-20 amps per hour through our solar configuration. This means that we could likely leave our MaxxFan Deluxe running full time in our van and its impact on our battery’s charge would be negligible.
There is definitely a place for both the MaxxFan and our Dometic Ibis 4 air conditioner. They both serve similar purposes of creating a pleasant living environment, but they go about it in vastly different ways.
If you could only have one, the air conditioner or the MaxxFan, I’d choose the MaxxFan any day of the week. They are so handy and get used nearly all the time, whereas the van air conditioning unit costs a shit-tonne of money, is a beast to install and only gets used on the rare occasion that the temperatures get really hot.
One feature that the air conditioner does have which a MaxxFan can’t compete with, is the ability to heat as well as cool.
When we travelled to colder regions of the country, it was so nice to wake up and use a remote to switch on the heating mode of the air conditioner, all while staying rugged up in bed. Then within a few minutes the whole van was toasty warm and getting out of bed was a much more pleasant experience.
WHY DID YOU ALSO HAVE A WALL MOUNTED FAN?
On top of our air conditioner and MaxxFan installations in the roof of our Ford Transit van, we also had a wall mounted fan installed.
We chose to install a Caframo Fan Sirocco 2, and I’ll tell you what, she is a little beauty.
It is worth saying up front that this nifty little fan was expensive as hell for what it is, a tiny swivelling fan, but it’s build quality is absolutely second to none, and it is handy as all hell.
The Caframo Sirocco Fan is a 3 axis wall mounted fan that allows for 360 degrees air flow. This means you can point the fan in absolutely any direction. We really took advantage of this, for instance, it would point at the bed at night, or at the lounge during the day.
This fan, when combined with our MAxxFan Deluxe, really provided the one-two punch. The MaxxFan created a current of fresh air throughout the van, and the Caframo Sirocco Fan enabled us to direct the fresh air where we wanted it within the space of the van. Brilliant.
We really suggest sucking up the price and getting one. It is one of our top 3 most useful device in our van for sure.
Did you use window covers on the windows?
Our van came with windows already installed on the back doors. We then installed 2 extra windows on the left and right of the van. This meant that during the day, we would have a lot of natural light entering the van.
This was brilliant, and exactly what we wanted to achieve.
But, it meant that if we wanted to nap in the middle of the day, or we just wanted a little bit more privacy, then we would have to cover up 4 windows.
So, we created a series of bespoke window covers. These were measured and cut to fit each window, 5 in total. Two windows on the rear doors, one window on either side of the van, and a small window that connected the cabin to cargo (home) area of the van.
The window covers consisted of layers
- Reflective silver aluminium tape
- Material for decoration
The layers acted as a thermal barrier for cold weather (carpet / felt inner), reflective insulator for heat (silver aluminium), and pleasing aesthetic for the inside of the van.
The covers were stuck to the windows using two methods: either magnetic tape, or velcro spots. The sticking mechanism needed to be able to be durable enough to attach and detach from their holds multiple times a day (since our son was having midday naps, we needed the van to be blacked out at least twice a day – if not more on warmer days).
We found that while magnetic fixtures were more discreet, the magnets weren’t very strong and it wasn’t a ‘first time, every time’ type of fixture. We’d often have to re-attach the covers as the weight of the cover was too much for the magnetic tape to handle. For that reason, we replaced the fixtures with velcro tape which was durable and never failed.
The only negative to the velcro tape is that the strength of the velcro attachment would stress the window cover over time, and while the attachment was secure, we had to be a bit more considerate when detaching them so that our covers wouldn’t come apart.
How did you install windows in your van conversion?
One of the most gnarly parts of doing a campervan conversion is installing your own windows. This is the kind of test that really tests your conviction as it is an area where if you screw it up, you can screw it up pretty good!
When we bought our Ford Transit van, it came with stock, unopenable back windows. These were great, but to complete the picture we wanted 2 more windows installed.
One on the back right of the van, next to the bed, so that we could, with the help of our trusty MaxxFan air, create a breeze to travel across us on the bed at night and keep us cool, and the other window to go on the sliding door of the van.
This second window needed to be installed so that we could not only have more natural light entering the van, but also so that we could see when anyone was approaching our van door when it was closed.
Once we knew where we wanted the windows to be installed we went about finding windows.
It’s worth knowing the two most common types of windows that are available for a van conversion.
- Bonded windows
Bonded windows are exactly like the stock rear windows that came standard with our van. They are by far the best looking and most professional option. They are also the most expensive.
They are attached to a van with an adhesive strip. This sticks to the outside of the van and then the window is put in place “bonding” to the adhesive tape.
Bonded windows have a super flush fit, and are typically a larger size than other options as they take up the whole panel.
- Clamp style caravan windows
Caravan windows are by far the cheapest option when it comes to windows in a van. They come in a range of sizes, styles and price points, but all attach to the van in a similar way.
They clamp to the side wall of the van, with the window on the outside of the van, and an inner part which goes inside. The two sides are then clamped together with bolts that go through the van wall. The pressure created holds the window in place.
A major consideration when looking at this style of window is that this option is designed for caravan installations.
Caravans have a typical wall thickness of an inch to inch and a half. A typical van wall is only a couple of millimetres thick. Therefore you will need to pad the inside of the van wall in order to install the window. We did this with 1 inch pieces of wood.
Both of the above window options will also come with different window mechanisms.
These tend to look a little more modern and sleek in our opinion. A negative is that they offer no rain protection at all when open.
Wind out hinged windows.
These types of windows are typically made of a hard plastic and not glass, because of this, they are usually a cheaper option. They have a handle on the inside of the window that you use to turn the mechanism. The window then opens from the bottom, tilting upward. This function allows them to be open, at least a little bit, when it is raining. This can be a good option in hotter, more humid climates, as you’ll still want air to circulate through the van when the weather has you stuck inside.
We were given a wind out hinged window by Charles’ cousin. He had recently finished a project of his own, creating a caravan from scratch, and now he had a window he no longer needed. We happily took it off his hands.
It was a Camec Odyssey Caravan Window. It worked using a crank handle to initiate the wind out function.
This was the first major cosmetic installation in the van. Nerve Wracking, but just remember… measure twice, cut once.
For the sliding door window, we wanted a sliding window, as this would be easier to open and close than the wind out option. We also wanted this window to be quite big, and if we chose the wind out option, when it was fully open it may become a hazard for anyone walking beside the van.
Our concern was someone unintentionally or intentionally hitting the window when wound out and damaging it.
For the window in the door we used a brand called AJ Plastics. They are an Australian company that manufacture, among other things, windows for RV’s and vans.
Building a van is a serious undertaking. We really didn’t know just how much work we were getting ourselves into when we did it. But, that being said, the build was the most rewarding period of our lives.
The feeling of accomplishment is something that stays with you for a long time.