After a Year of Living in a Van Part 1

On Scotland’s NC500 route

This post was originally posted on Wix dated 8th March 2018

I can confidently say that I’m still loving it but I took a moment to reflect on the experience and thought I’d share a few things over several posts. There are many bits that I’m glad I included in the build and some that I thought I’d need but didn’t. And then there are things that I should definitely have done differently. This part 1 will focus on the biggest things that I would do differently if I was to do it again.

Extractor

First one that I noticed quite quickly was that I should have chosen a bigger extractor fan/roof window. The extractor works well and my calculation of volume and placement was accurate, so cooking fumes go through relatively well and kept the vehicle cool in the summer sun. But as autumn set in, the extractor fan was not enough to keep the humidity low.

I suppose I was parked in a city for most of the time and couldn’t open the windows and doors freely. If I was out in the countryside where I could open windows and if I was actually driving the vehicle most of the time, I’d be able to circulate the air enough to control humidity. But better ventilation and a window to let the sun in from the roof would have made a big difference. I think it’s still possible to retro-fit one later if I get around to it.

Heat Source

I heard from a fellow van dweller once that if insulated well enough, our body heat is enough to keep the small interior warm, even in sub zero temperatures. It turns out this is not the case. Maybe my insulation was not sufficient or perhaps I needed another human or a dog to add to the radiant heat. But I ended up renting a lock up garage for £150 (electricity included) a month with a power point and used my small oil heater. This worked out well as I was stationary in Edinburgh with work, starting to get a little desperate for a heat source and needed some space to spread things, sort out belongings and fix my solar panel.

Many van dwellers go for Eberspacher diesel heaters, or a small wood burner. I originally planned to be hopping between farms so I thought that a long extension cord and a small oil heater I already owned will suffice (150W solar is nowhere near enough to power it). Eberspacher is reportedly quite loud and prohibitively expensive and I wasn’t so keen on the idea of having a wood burning stove for fear of carbon monoxide poisoning in such an air tight environment. Plus I didn’t have any space for it. Even a small wood stove requires a clearing around it.

I did, however, meet a fellow van dweller in Edinburgh who had the smallest wood burner I’ve ever seen and was tempted by the idea. It was about half a shoe box size and kept his much larger van toasty with a few twigs. I’m still not sure about having a chimney out of the top when stealth parking in cities and whether the wind blow back would blow the ashes everywhere when driving. A small stove will give a flash of heat but without mass to store the energy, I can see myself waking up several times during the night to relight the fire. But I intend to install one if and when I find a lovely piece of off grid land to stay on indefinitely.

Water

While researching for a suitable water system, I came across several options.

  1. A large water bottle and a bowl,
  2. A manual hand pump and a sink that drains into a bottle,
  3. An electric pump and a full grey water tank,

Foolishly, I went for the most complex, most expensive option which broke after a few months. Using a wet hand to switch on and off, the mechanism became erratic and kept the pump working for hours while I was away and burnt the pump. And having no energy or motivation to fix it, I reverted to the simplest option which, to my surprise, worked really really well. Below are some examples of why simpler is better.

  • There are plenty of water points, at least in the UK. So no need to add additional weight of carrying a huge quantity of water.
  • It’s easier to fill up a 2 litre bottle than to rock up with a 25 litre jerry can. They never fit in a sink anyway and it’s so heavy to carry.
  • Water is fresher.
  • It’s so simple that nothing can go wrong.
  • Easier to dispose of grey water if it’s in smaller quantities.
  • I’ve become more aware of my water usage, and came up with some ingenious ideas on saving water.
  • Having taken out the fresh water and grey water tank, it’s freed up valuable space for extra storage.

Solar

I would say that one of the most valuable learning experience from building this van was installing the solar system. I did a lot of research and calculations at the planning stage but still felt anxious whether the ratio of power generated to power consumed was correct. I now know for sure that a 150W solar panel and a 200amp hour battery is enough to power my every electrical need, even in the darkest months of British winter. That’s all the LED lights (of which I have many), laptop, speakers, phone, battery pack, electric shaver, blender and Bluetooth earphones with some room to spare.

However, I skimped on the solar charge controller and placed it in the wrong place. The solar panel broke in October, probably a branch hitting the connector, and stopped charging. But I didn’t realise, with jumbled Google translation of Chinese text, that the solar charge controller had a cut off fuction that can be programmed. So it drained the battery to nil and because I placed the controller behind my driver’s seat, I didn’t have an easily visible cue from the gauge. Draining a lead acid battery is detrimental to the capacity and longevity of a battery. Having spent a lot of money on a brand new AGM (absorbent glass matt) sealed battery, I was devastated.

Once I parked in the current lock up garage, I quickly bought a trickle battery charger and it’s now back online but I haven’t yet tested it with solar to see how the capacity has changed. (Update – the battery used to replenish to 100% by noon even in overcast winter and never had issues running out of power. Now, it may cut out at 50% after a day of grey and a single evening of power use, indicating a diminished capacity and the speed at which it can be charged.

When I ripped off the broken solar panel recently, I realised a few things.

1. There was a pool of water in the gap between the body and the panel. I thought that the Sikaflex glue was water proof but a some small section must have come loose and rain slipped in. Because there was no air circulation or a gap to let the moisture evaporate, the water stayed in the space and accumulated over time. A few small specks of rusts were beginning to form on the roof and now I’m glad the panel broke earlier rather than later.

2. The industrial strength velcro used in abundance was an overkill for such a lightweight material. I imagined driving on a motorway in a stormy weather and went safe rather than sorry. But it was a nightmare to rip it off and had to apply an insane amount of force which cracked some panels.

3. The entry point for the cable was intact and doing it’s thing. Water proof and solid. But because I didn’t think I’ll be replacing the panel so early into the van life, I placed the entry point quite deep into my cladded ceiling. I squirmed at the idea of having to remove the cladding to get the new cables through, but I ended up attaching a string to the old cables and pulled it up. Such a simple trick but worked really well.

Notice I’ve retained the old fluffy velcro already attached to the van but used far less hook side of the velcro this time. I think this will be sufficiently strong enough to keep the panel pulled onto the body. The outside rim of the panel is once again glued onto the body using Sikaflex but with pockets of spaces in the sides for any water to run out freely and for air to circulate. I’m slightly concerned if under certain wind direction, the holes will create a whistling effect or not. Hopefully not.

That’s it for part 1 of my review. Subscribe or come back in a few week’s time for the part 2 where I look at things that worked well.

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