If you haven’t got the dosh for a T5, and you want something practical, hardwearing, bigger, and more importantly not overpriced – keep an eye out for a pikey Transit van. They’re brilliant base vehicles, and you can spend your time exploring in it rather than at work paying for a T5 to look nice on your driveway. Maybe I’m a little bitter because I couldn’t afford one of the pretty smoke machines but I’m happy with the Transit, and it’s all bought and paid for.
Ideally I wouldn’t have bought a blue one, but I was primarily concerned with the condition rather than colour when I was on the hunt. It would have been a lot cooler (temperature wise) to have a white vehicle, but this can be countered with good insulation.
The only real downside to the van is it only having 5 gears, and only having the 2 litre engine. An extra gear would have made motorway cruising that bit more economical, and a bit more grunt up a hill would be nice. Still I picked up this van with just over 30k on the clock, and for a bargain price. It’s medium height and medium length, which is invaluable as you can stand up in it, and Transits are a little wider so you can fit a wider bed in. Both of these features just add a little comfort that really makes the difference.
The install was quite a lengthy project. I spent around three years in total kitting it out inside, and it’s still not finished. This is three years fitting in around work though, not full time. I’m sure you can bash it out in a much shorter time if you have the luxury of not having to spend 8 hours a day slowly destroying your soul.
Insulation is pretty essential for your van. It keeps it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Also stops all the condensation from your breath, cooking, and items you bring into the van. This will pro-long the life of your van and stop it rusting out. I made the mistake of sticking the 2 sided foil to the metal panels of the van. Apparently, best practice is to have an air gap so you don’t get heat transfer between the metal panels and the insulation. Oops! Never mind, I’m sure it’s doing something to help. Don’t forget insulation under the floor, to stop heat radiating up from the hot ground. This can cook your van pretty quickly.
I’m good with metal, and I don’t have the finesse for wood, so I played to my strengths and made a frame out of 30mm thinwall box section. This worked out well, and I managed to cram an awful lot of stuff into a relatively small space. Space is key when you’re planning on living in your van, and you’re not just using it as a day van.
The Electricary, you want at least 200Ahr of juice, preferably AGM (absorbed glass mat) rather than your standard lead acid batteries. Spend a bit of cash on decent batteries as you rely on them. Also If you have your batteries in you living compartment then can only really have AGM’s as they won’t vent. Just buy AGM’s basically. Link them up to your van start battery via a split charge relay. This is a must, as you can charge your batteries whenever you’re driving. Don’t just hardwire them all together, as you need to rely on your van start battery to start the van, and you should discharge batteries of different types and capacities separately, charging in parallel is fine though, hence using a split charge relay arrangement.
Fit a main isolation switch in between your batteries and the distribution panel. If you’re running two or more batteries in parallel to create a bank only connect the loads to ONE of the positive terminals and then the negatives to the OTHER batteries negative terminal. This is massively important. As shown below:
Get the insulation out of the way, then you can start building things in. There’s a few different layouts, so decide which one suits your needs. I went with the rib bed, with slim units running down the side. Be careful if you order a rib bed from Kiravans as they have a custom design of rib bed which has less height clearance for the wheel arches. I made this mistake, measuring a standard rib bed and then ordering one from kiravans. I had to make a spacer to match the footprint of the bed to raise it up enough to clear the wheel arches.
Fridges flatten batteries, so try and think about the size you need. Chest type fridges are more efficient as when you open the fridge all the cold remains in the bottom, as opposed to the normal front opening type, where all the cold falls out. A gas fridge would probably be a good idea, as I have found that I worry about keeping the fridge on because in hot ambient temperature, having it on all day does take a bit of juice. You can definitely get by without a fridge, if you wanted a cheaper/easier build. Utilising cool boxes is also a good option, our fridge has mainly been used for luxury items like fresh milk, yogurt and chocolate. Even if you have a fridge, a cool box could be a good addition as fresh fruit and veg goes off quicker in hot ambient temperatures, and we’ve found we pack out the fridge and run out of room , where a lot of the items could also be stored in a cool box.
Don’t go mental on the inverter. What do you really need to run in your van? All I use mine for is laptop charging. I have a really good 300watt pure sine wave inverter. If you go big, you will drain your batteries faster, it will be less efficient on smaller loads, and you will need bigger cables/batteries and more room to fit them all in. Don’t over spec your van, design it for what you need. If you have excess money, spend it on the safety and convenience. If you have 240v output, make sure you have RCD protection, and also you can buy really great mini circuit breakers that are the same fitment as automotive fuses. I hardwired in a battery charger too, so if you can plug into shore power, you don’t need to faff about, it just starts charging.
Note – When you’re setting up your batteries, be really careful when attaching cables to terminals. EG if your negative is to the vehicle chassis, then be careful with the positive touching any metal in the van.
I would love to install a solar panel to the roof of the van. Possibly half the roof space with a solar panel, half with a roof rack and possibly a solar shower arrangement. Maybe a black PVC tube that I can fill with water. If you’re fitting a solar panel do a little research before hand. As with everything there are cheap Chinese ones available and there are good ones available. Try and get a European built panel and a controller with enough capacity to expand if you needed. GB-sol in the UK were very good but a little pricey. I would definitely spend the cash if I decided to proceed with it as if your fitting a flexible panel to the roof you would only really like to do this once, as changing a panel adhered to the roof would be a right faff.
You can get panels that are suited to more cloudy environments, and you can get panels that only really like direct sunlight. So if you are mainly travelling around the UK you should consider the cloudy type as this will be more efficient for you. If you are venturing out to sunnier spots of Europe you may consider the other type.
Rigid Glass panels can be cheaper and if you rubber mount them to the roof this could be a good option, but be careful as a decent jolt to the vehicle and you may crack the glass. Technology is changing so fast, but when I was researching panels I found that Mono-crystalline were the ones to go for. They are the most expensive, but highest efficiency. These can quickly be identified as they usually have rounded corners to the cells, whereas the less efficient and cheaper Poly-Crystalline cells a perfectly rectangular.
Renewable energy sources are great and definitely worth looking into. Other things to consider are gas. This is great for cooking, there’s a lot of great meals that you can prepare with a two burner gas hob, and gas is readily available in most of Europe.
I personally like to only build things once, so generally like to get good quality products and make things very durable. I was a little put off from Smev dual burner/sink arrangements as they are small and have plastic fittings/taps. So I built my own hob/sink construction using a dometic hob and large stainless sink with regular house fit metal tap. This is feed by a Jabsco water pump with a pressure limit switch to cut off when the tap is closed. I have two water containers under the sink, one fresh and one waste. Alternative arrangements that could be to only have one fresh water tank and plumb the waste straight outside the van. This possibly could be an issue if you’re in a concrete environment, but may be ideal if you’re on grass or similar. Also something that I would change would be to have a larger fresh water container and a much smaller waste container, as most of the water used is either drank or used to wash up. This would usually be done outside and thrown into a bush or on a grassy area nearby when done, so you don’t have much waste build up in the van.
I’ve installed an Eberspaecher D2 Diesel heater. This is a really good bit of kit, it has worked faultlessly so far, and can be quite a neat install. It is fed by the vans main diesel tank, so there’s no need to have additional fuel tanks etc. I opted for a seven day programmable timer/controller so can set it to come on at various time during the day. This was particularly useful for cold mornings. Waking up to a warm van was delightful. In a transit I found the passenger step into the cab was an ideal spot to fit the heater, as it’s right next to everything you need, and it’s protected by being inside the van. You can easily cut out the circle needed to mount the heater without too much hassle, and it’s all easily accessible which is another big tick for me. I love building things to be open and easily worked on rather than tucked away giving you problems should you need to access them. Make things easy for yourself – why not? I made a custom wiring harness to perfectly suit the van, and where it was installed. You get meters of cable in the standard supplied harness, that is untidy in my opinion if you don’t need the length, but it is fully useable.
Windows and vents are really great for hot days, but also to help with moisture build up. On the roof would be the best for security, but the Transit roof isn’t flat so it’s harder to seal hatches and cut outs. Also consider having mesh behind the windows and hatches as mosquitos and flies are a real issue in places.
To be continued…
Keep track of how the van is doing along the way: