After a Year of Living in a Van Part 2

Under the stars at the Nothern most point in Scotland

This post was originally on Wix dated 12th March 2018

In part 2, I will be looking at things that have worked really well. Ideas that I’ll take into the future, whether that’s building another van, a tiny house on wheels or a full-on house on top of a foundation.

Minimalism

Kitchen items

The process of moving into my van required minimising my belongings by a significant amount. It took months to sort though a house full of ‘stuff’ by looking at each item and weighing out their;

1. functionality

2. frequency of use

3. and emotional attachment.

Functionality is simple – you only need to ask if it is useful. But you have to set a context to it. Is it useful in my van? Can it be used for two or more purposes? For example, could a bin turn into a loo? And I had to set a time limit to the usefulness. After all, the house gets cluttered with unused stuff because the first thing that pops into my mind is – ‘it might come in handy at some point’. That might be days, or it could be years into the future. Most likely never.

Frequency of use was slightly more difficult because some items can be extremely useful but I hardly ever used it. Some items of clothing, tools, camping gear and a lot of kitchen utensils came into this category. I kept all the items that I used at least once a month and items which brought me happiness. Hiking in nature and camping brought me joy, so even though I only used it once or twice a year, I kept most of the essential gear.

Emotional attachment was the hardest. There were so many items that I had kept because of various memories attached to it. But it helped enormously to have a set limit on how much I could carry. It had to be done. I set my belongings into a hierarchy with the smallest items with the strongest attachment at the top and bulky items with fading memories at the bottom.

Then I thew away, gave away, donated to charities or sold everything from the bottom of my list of priorities. The process of minimising was a long arduous task but I don’t regret letting go of anything. I don’t even remember what I let go. And my van was filled purely with items that are functional, frequently used and full of fond memories.

However, after a year of living in my van, there were things that I hadn’t used for an entire year! All through the 4 seasons. I suppose that’s the difficulty of trying to judge the usefulness of something before living it. And so I’m currently in the process of shedding about 1/4 of my belongings yet again. And it’s a joy.

Gas and stove

I like cooking. I don’t cook much for myself, but I enjoy it if it’s a social thing. So the cooker was something I spent a long time researching. I considered IH cookers for it’s portability (only about a centimetre or two thick) and power. I’ve had the chance to use IH cookers and good ones are comparable in power to a full fledged gas stove. But it requires vast amounts of electricity and my solar was not up to the task. It can be done with a bigger array of solar and it will cut the use of fossil fuels altogether, so it’s something I’m considering for the future. The problem with it is that it’s far more complex a system than, say, a log burner stove, and there are many things that could potentially go wrong in it’s life time, and it’ll be difficult to fix myself. So I may decide against it, but I like the idea of using the sun’s energy to cook.

In the end, I went for a Gaslow 3kg tank and a 7.6kW NJ NGB-60 burner. Gaslow sells LPG tanks that you can refill at petrol stations that sells autogas. The setup was expensive. The smallest 3kg system cost about £200. But I knew the advantages far outweighed the initial cost;

  • I can easily refill at a wide rage of petrol stations all across the UK and Europe,
  • A fraction of the cost of getting a propane or butane tank per refill,
  • No clumsy change over of screwing the regulator and no heavy lifting.

The burner was another successful choice. It’s so powerful that I can boil 500ml of water in less than 2 minutes. A mug of water in a minute. And properly stir fry vegetables without it becoming a wet, wilting mess. It can also be switched to minimum heat which works wonders for cooking rice or brewing coffee. In fact, it’s better than the burner I had in the house. I’m very glad I paid the extra expense as the alternative would have had me waiting 15 minutes for a cup of tea. And that’s no good.

The only thing that I wasn’t sure about until I had lived with the system was whether or not the bigger consumption of the burner would shorten the life span of the gas. Would I have to refill every week, perhaps even every few days? Autogas is becoming more common in petrol stations but it’s still scattered few and far between. Having to drive to refill so often would counteract the savings I gained from going LPG. But it turned out a single refill costs about £3 and the gas can last a month and a half with frequent use. That’s brewing coffee, cooking 1 proper meal, toast, boiling water for washing up, cups of tea in the evening etc. every day. 2 months with intermittent use – some nights cooking at my girlfriends. Not bad at all.

In relation to minimalism, I first started with a frying pan, a big sauce pan, medium sauce pan and a small cast iron sauce pan. As months went by, I realised I do most of my cooking with the two utensils pictured above. It can boil rice, pasta, potatoes etc. while I cook whatever I can cook in a frying pan. It’s all I need for the moment – the most I cook for is for two people. But notice the lip on the sauce pan. It can pour without dripping! How wonderful, I thought. Such a clever design, I thought. And then I remembered that it’s a bloody sauce pan. Why hasn’t anyone added a lip to a pan specifically designed for liquids for so long? Decades, if not centuries of people wiped sauces and water off the table and not a single designer thought – oh hang on, why not add a lip?

Cleaning

A fellow van dweller once told me while I was working on the design that I’d be surprised how much dust accumulates in a van. I took his advise and designed the entire build on what are essentially series of stilts. No divisions, no indentations on the floor and gaps were filled with silicone.

It meant that any dust can be cleaned with a humble brush and can be swiped out of the van with minimum effort. I’m glad I designed it this way because my god does dust accumulate. Everyday I brush and everyday there’s a visible layer of fluff, stones, ground coffee beans, skin, hair and other particulates that settle. And having a single continuous floor makes cleaning quicker and easier. If I blocked out the area under the bed, for example, it might have strengthened the structure a little but I would have had to purchase a small vacuum cleaner to lift the dust out of the crevice.

LED

LEDs have become so much cheaper and widely available compared to even a few years ago. They use very little electricity and it’s become a lot warmer in colour than the predecessors. I knew that I would be spending a lot of time in my van and it’s a relatively small van compared to other self-built camper vans. So I wanted to make the space warm, comfy and well lit. I purchase 6 flat under counter LED’s, 6 counter sank spot light LEDs and LED fairy lights. I thought it might have been a bit too much for such a small space but I use all of them regularly and they light up my space very well.

I have 4 spaced over the cooking area, 2 over the laptop for reading light, 2 over the book shelf for general lighting and 4 placed close to the entrance for easy entry, plus the fairy lights that circle the circumference of the interior. Having multiple light sources means that I can switch some off and adjust according to my needs. But more importantly, it allows me to create dynamic visual changes to the interior and stops it from becoming a static confined space.

The most common solar panels and batteries generate and store electricity at 12V. So it made sense to design the electric system at 12V too as you lose a lot of energy converting to 240V. 12V does have a problem of losing power if you have to transport it over a longer distance (and requires thicker cable to compensate) so people generating wind or solar power far from the house often converts the 12V output to 240V and transport the energy to the house in a more efficient manner. However, my van is tiny and so I didn’t need to worry about losing power or having to use extra thick cables which can also be ridiculously expensive.

There are many electrical appliances that can run on 12V these days. I opted out of having a fridge but many van dwellers have it. If you are looking for a 12V fridge, companies that design for yachts and other marine environments seems to be the best. They’ve been doing it for far longer, they’re designed to be shaken around and be robust and reliable in the most isolated environments. I bought a cigarette adaptor for my laptop and installed multiple USB charging ports all around the perimeter which serves most of my needs. I do have an inverter to charge my shaver and power the blender but they’re plugged in only when I need it.

I wrote this in Part 1 but installing the solar electrical system was one of the most useful learning experience. It took a long time researching it and configuring the design but it can be replicated in a new house build or even in an existing house. Say I rent or purchase a small house, I can easily retro-fit a solar system capable of powering my current use at under £400 if I purchased every thing new. Clean free energy there after.

Finally

I once posted on Facebook for suggestions over a name for my van. Many people responded with great ideas from Sir Vancelot, Vanessa, Bertha, Tardis, Horis Bonson to my favourite Nigel Garage, and I swang between my own favourite Vanny McVanface and Lyra too. I just couldn’t make my mind up, and so I left it open for a year. But I recently re-watched Westworld and I saw in Dolores, the main character, a somewhat similar transformation. My van is a mechanical being that facilitates the transformation from ignorance to knowledge, from order to chaos, from helplessness to power and from confinement to freedom. So I name it Dolores.

She does kill it’s creators in the narrative (that’ll be me in the real world) which kind of lingers heavily in the back of my mind but let’s hope she’s revealed as a force for good in the coming season…

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