Transit Van Conversion – Tips and Details

I’ve set up this page to share information on the conversion of a 2019 Ford Transit cargo van into a 4×4 adventure camper van (aka The Traveling Cat Adventure Vehicle II).  We downsized from our 25 ft long, Sprinter-based RV, a Leisure Travel Vans Unity.  Our two biggest wishes were to 1) have internal storage for our mountain bikes and 2) have a smaller, more off-road-capable camper van that would allow us to continue down some roads that we would previously have to give up on and that would also allow us to park a little more easily in busy metro areas.

(Click through for the full gallery)

Van Haus Conversions did the bulk of the build out to a camper van.  The design features a queen-sized raised-platform bed that runs length-wise and creates a large “garage” space for bikes and gear underneath, leaving a living space with a galley (sink, refrigerator, cooktop) and a seating area surrounding the fold-out swiveling table between the two front swiveling seats and a small bench seat that hides a dry composting toilet.

I was originally attracted to Van Haus when I saw their “Watson” layout that incorporated a dinette seating area, a garage/bike storage area and a galley and hidden toilet into the smaller, non-extended Transit van.  However, I eventually decided that we just carry too much bulky stuff (mountain bikes and gear, inflatable kayak and gear, telescope and gear, camp folding chairs, grill, plus space for the cats’ litter box) to be able to get by with that layout.  Hence the switch to the platform bed arrangement with the large storage space underneath.

Van Haus was great to work with as they’re very open to accommodating any custom requests, unlike some more well known outfitters – and their craftsmanship looks to be very good.  (Here’s some pictures of the work as it progressed.)

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(and not complete yet)

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Vehicle Upgrades

Cab Upgrades

House Build-Out

  • Insulation/walls: sound deadening, radiant barrier, several inches of rock wool
    and Luan plywood covered in closed cell foam and marine grade fabric
  • Floor: closed cell foam, two 3/4″ plywood layers and marine grade decking
  • Awning-style front windows and bunk windows
  • Galley cabinet with countertop, under sink storage and four drawers
  • Overhead cabinets along both sides plus open shelf over cab area
  • Bench seat
  • Drop leaf swivel table system on Lagun mount
  • Fiamma Awning F45s with electric motor (10.5 ft) on van side wall, plus LED light strip
  • LED lighting throughout (overhead, under cabinet, garage, porch, awning, steps)
  • Bed platform (67″ x 80″) with Innerspace RV high-density foam mattress
  • Insulated window coverings for all windows and cab area
  • Bug screens for side and rear doors

Plumbing

  • Sink and faucet combo in galley
  • Shower head, hose and port in garage
  • Frizzlife MK99 under-sink water filter
  • Camco EVO Premium RV filter for tank filling
  • 24 gallon interior fresh water tank
  • 28 gallon under carriage gray water tank

Garage Space

  • Two L-track mounted on floor, two on cabinet walls, one on cat apartment
  • 2x RockyMounts Hotrod swappable bike fork mounts (on homemade mounting plates)
  • Removable cat apartment (w/feeding room and litter box room)
Appliances

Electrical

  • Battery System: 400Ah Lithium-ion (LifeBlue LiFEPO4)
  • Red Arc 50amp DC-DC charger, solar controller & battery management system
  • Solar Power
  • 2000 watt Xantrex Freedom XC 2000 120V AC inverter and charger
    • plus three duplex outlets (inside and out)
  • iSeries tank monitor
  • Victron battery monitor w/Bluetooth
  • Amp-L-Start vehicle battery maintainer
  • Shore power connection
  • Multiple USB 4.8 amp ports and 12V ports (inside and out)

Accessories

Maintenance / Tips

Wish List / Future Possibilities

Selecting a van and options

Over the course of a year or so, I must have checked out easily more than a hundred van builds from both DIY-ers and professional outfitters.  Eventually I settled on going with the gas-powered Ford Transit over the Sprinter or the Promaster.  The Promaster was out because of its low ground clearance and I steered away from the Sprinter despite its popularity because I was tired of dealing with diesel emissions issues on our Sprinter-based Unity.  (What I really want is a fully battery electric drivetrain in a van with 350+ miles range!  As of 2020, that’s not available from anyone yet.)

I wanted the non-extended long body (19.5 feet long, 148″ wheelbase) because I didn’t want to lose off-road maneuverability with that extended length overhang or the ability to park easily in metro areas.  I chose the high roof model to allow me to stand upright without hitting the ceiling (I’m 6’4″) and to provide more space above a raised platform bed.

I looked around for an available Transit in this configuration (either used or on a dealer’s lot) but all of the vans I could find were either very basic work vans with no options or they were maxed out with every option including dark paint colors and glass rear cargo doors.  I wanted to avoid any dark exterior color to help reflect heat in the hot sun and, for the same reason, I didn’t want glass windows in the rear cargo doors.  We found in the Unity that it was very helpful to park with the windowless rear of the Unity towards the sun to keep the interior relatively cool.  (It was also extremely helpful to partition off the cab area from the house area with a heavy blanket to keep out the heat.)  I also didn’t want to pay for the full featured 2019 radio/navigation unit as I was planning to swap it out with a better aftermarket system.  It sounds like the 2020 audio/nav system may be more worthwhile though.

Anyway, I ended up having to configure a custom order from the factory and wait.  The ordering process with Ford was complicated by an incredibly long list of often conflicting and poorly documented options and packages.  I ended up with just the following packages and additions on top of the standard features:

  • Transit Cargo Van XL 250 High Roof with 3.5L EcoBoost V6 engine and 3.31 limited slip axle (seemed to be most widely recommended engine but ended up replacing the 3.31 limited slip differential during the 4×4 conversion)
  • cloth 10-way power seats with heating elements
  • push down manual parking brake (to allow for swiveling driver seat later)
  • AM/FM stereo with CD player (supposedly easier to upgrade than more basic model, however I didn’t realize this version didn’t include steering wheel controls)
  • front wheel well liners
  • AGM chassis battery (presumably more durable)
  • short-arm power-folding heated mirrors with turn signals
  • cruise control
  • power locks and windows
  • heavy-duty trailer tow package
  • 9000 lb. GVWR package (don’t know what changes with this or whether it was affected by my suspension changes done along with the 4×4 conversion)

4×4 conversion and suspension upgrades

I ended up ordering a Transit in June of 2019 with delivery expected in November – still a little before the 2020 version with all wheel drive would become available.  Rather than wait even longer for that somewhat unknown product, I made plans to have the van converted to four wheel drive by QuadVan in Portland, Oregon.

QuadVan also raised the low-hanging rear shock mounts, upgraded the suspension components, gave the body a 2″ lift, added both front and rear locking differentials, added protective skid plates, installed larger all terrain tires (see below) and switched out the gear ratio to 3.73 to better match the larger circumference tires.  (Here’s a gear ratio calculator.)  As a result, the van is certainly a more serious 4×4 vehicle, although many of these changes could also be applied to the factory all wheel drive build.

  • 4×4 QuadVan conversion w/manual shift high/low
  • Front axle: Eaton Detroit Truetrac Locker
  • Rear axle: Eaton Detroit Truetrac, ratio change to 3.73
  • Van Compass leaf springs
  • Raise rear shock mounts
  • Bilstein front struts and rear shocks
  • 2″ body lift
  • Skid plates under front and middle sections and under gas tank

Adding larger all terrain tires

As part of the goal of making this a 4×4 adventure camper van, I researched larger all terrain tire options.  From the factory, the van came with relatively small, highway-oriented Continental VanContact A/S 235/65R16 all season tires and simple steel wheels.

Looking over the Transit forum, I found lots of discussion of various larger, all terrain tire options but some of these sizes or models can require modifications to the van.  I settled on BF Goodrich All Terrain KO2’s at 245/75R16 which did require a little trimming to a corner of the front wheel well (which QuadVan took care of) and also which appeared to be the largest size that could still be made to fit the spare in the space under the van, albeit with the help of a ratchet strap.

I also got some really nice-looking, black-painted, 16-inch Ultra Toil aftermarket wheels from TireRack to replace the plain factory steel wheels.

However, it turned out that getting one of those KO2’s at that size in the spare tire carrier under the non-extended length van wasn’t so easy after all.  After trying various suggested tricks, I ended up selling the barely used KO2’s and getting the slightly smaller Cooper Discoverer AT3’s in LT 245/70R16 which fit fine in the spare tire carrier – no tricks with deflating them or compressing them with a ratchet strap.

Another option to handle those larger KO2’s would be to install a tire carrier on the rear doors, like this one from Aluminess.  I actually started going down that route at the suggestion of Erik from Van Haus Conversions, but then decided I really didn’t want the oh-so-rarely used spare hanging on the back door all the time and preventing the door from being opened all the way to the side of the van.

Adding a Rear Sway Bar

I did not end up driving the van again until after the 4×4 conversion and the camper van build was complete, but when I did I immediately noticed that the handling had changed and it had become very uncomfortable.  Even after it was fully loaded with our gear, we found that at highway speeds (60+ mph), any little curve or steering input (even staying within our lane) made the rear of the van feel like it wanted to swing out.  The van felt fine and normal maneuvering at slow speeds but at highway speeds it was seriously unnerving both behind the wheel and riding as a passenger.  It felt like you had to slow down below highway speeds even for very mild highway curves and, until you quickly learned to make very minute steering inputs, you’d easily fall into a series of over-corrections as the van wanted to swing one way and then the other.

Apparently this is body roll brought on by the higher center of gravity from the camper van build and perhaps the suspension changes. For what it’s worth, we never experienced this with our larger Sprinter-based, LTV Unity RV – but then it also had dually wheels and a rear anti-sway bar.  After talking to John at QuadVan and someone at my local 4×4 shop here in Scotts Valley, I’ve ordered a Hellwig rear sway bar to address this:

Looking on the Transit forum, I do see other folks have experienced excessive body roll and have installed either the Ford anti-sway bar or the Hellwig but also plenty of folk saying they’ve never had an issue and think it’s unnecessary.  (I’ve gone with the Hellwig version as it’s both adjustable and larger/stronger.)  There are reports of failures with the older design of the Hellwig on the Transit, but this has been supposedly addressed with an updated design that uses a pass-through bolt through the van frame now.

Update (February 2021):  After several months of waiting for Hellwig to ship the order, I searched around and found an online shop that had them in stock for the Transit.  (Apparently Hellwig shutdown their manufacturing due to Covid-19.)  My local 4×4 shop installed it and we got to try it out over a week of mixed interstate, highway, and dirt roads.  It definitely handles much better than it did.  It still doesn’t feel as secure as our larger Sprinter-based 25-foot RV but it’s definitely better.  There’s still some body sway in the rear pulling uncomfortably on highway curves, but it’s not so pronounced.

I still don’t like the steering on the Transit though – it always feels a bit loose and disconnected as you negotiate curves at highway speeds.  I don’t know if that’s an issue with all Ford Transits or not.

Powered steps (driver and passenger)

I opted for Amp Research’s really great powered/retracting steps or running boards.  These tuck up and out-of-the-way to give you better ground clearance.  This is apparently not a particularly easy install but Van Haus Conversions installed mine.

One thing to note is that they take over the OBD (on-board diagnostics) port under the dash for power and control signals.  This became an issue when I went to install my stereo/nav unit upgrade which also makes use of the OBD II / OBD 2 port for the iDatalink features.  However, you can install a splitter to allow both to access the OBD signals.  Amp Research sells an expensive one but I found a $10 version that seems to work just fine.

Upgrade headlight bulbs

We noticed right away on the initial drive back from Oregon that the stock headlight lamps are pretty pathetic – at least if you’re used to modern headlights.  I looked into getting some high powered LED lamps off Amazon but it seemed like there were mixed reviews on all of them with issues like fan noise, compatibility issues, early failures, etc. so I just ended up grabbing a pack of Sylvania SilverStar Ultra (paid link) replacement bulbs which are supposed to be among the brightest halogen bulbs available.  They do seem to be an improvement, though not as nice as some of the white, high intensity headlamps I’ve experienced on other vehicles.

Installation is straight-forward – just try to avoid dropping and losing a socket down into the engine compartment as I did – never did find it again.

Replacement antenna

The 2019 Transit came with a traditional, tall, flexible antenna in front of the windshield.  Unfortunately, the thing is a big source of wind noise at highway speeds.  I decided to swap it out with this short solid antenna just to eliminate the wind noise.  It’s a super simple upgrade: just unscrew the old one and screw in the new one.  Looking on the Ford Transit forums, I see that other folks have done the same, and some have just sawed off the bulk of the original antenna.

 

Shortening the antenna will probably affect reception of distant long wavelength radio (AM stations), but that’s no great loss to me as I typically stream music from my phone or radio/podcasts from the internet.

Swivel platforms for driver and passenger seats

As part of our Van Haus build, swivel platforms were added to both the driver and passenger seats to make it possible to sit around the table.  Van Haus chose the swivel platforms from SwivelsRUs.  I had ordered the collapsible parking brake from the Transit factory so that a driver’s swivel seat wouldn’t be an issue.  (Apparently it is possible to lower the standard parking brake – see FarOutRide’s instructions.)

When we first picked up the van from Van Haus, we noticed that the seats were a little difficult to swivel compared to our previous Sprinter-based RV but didn’t worry about it at the time.  However, in the coming weeks, the seats became almost impossible to rotate while sitting on them – it would take all the effort I could put into them and they were nearly as difficult to rotate when not seated in them.  It also became apparent that the plastic disc that was sandwiched between the two plates was getting rubbed raw and marred.  I pointed out this issue to Erik at Van Haus, but he merely seemed to think that we were turning them the wrong way or binding up the wires – neither was true.

Against Erik’s warnings, I ended up loosening the bolts that sandwiched the plastic rotation plate and spraying some silicon lubricant in between and this immediately freed up the swivel action.  It was now possible to rotate the seat freely while sitting or not.  However, this also seemed to introduce a bit of play in the seat – even after tightening the bolts back down.  The platform can now shift ever so slightly (with an audible clank).

Looking on the web, I found that the folks at FarOutRide.com had done a comparison of the four swivel platform options, including the ones we have from SwivelsRUs.  They found that all four had some degree of free play or wobble.  They actually used the SwivelsRUs model for over two years before switching it out for the Scopema model mostly because of how it’s 1-1/4″ lower and “went from a kind-of-awkward-but-that’s-OK driving position back to a normal driving position” and feel that it’s much better for driving comfort.  That sounds tempting and I may try it eventually.  I am certainly experiencing discomfort in my driving position but I think it’s because of how I can’t put the seat back far enough to extend my legs comfortably.  (More on that later.)

I should note that Van Haus decided to move the jack that was originally stored under the passenger seat to a cabinet in the garage portion but after investigating it, I found that it was no trouble to insert or remove the jack from under the seat by merely adjusting the seat fully forward.  So, to save space elsewhere, I moved the jack back and added a couple of other related items under the seat, like the tire repair kit.  There’s lots of space there and it’s easy enough to get into – shame to use precious cabinet space elsewhere.

Replace radio/receiver/navigation unit

In 2019, the available factory options for the radio/stereo/navigation unit weren’t great and the display screen was rather small.  (The screen size is particularly important for easily viewing the rear view while backing up.)  It sounds like the 2020+ models have a better option now, but for the 2019 build I chose the just-above-base AM/FM/CD w/screen model which was supposedly easier to swap out for an aftermarket system than the absolute base unit.  Unfortunately, this base build didn’t include steering wheel controls.

By the time the van conversion was finished, several aftermarket car stereo systems were just coming out that provided large, oversized, “floating” displays that could be mounted from a normal single or double DIN opening.  Sweet!  I decided to go with a Kenwood model that offered a 10″ screen, wireless CarPlay as well as built-in navigation support (in addition to that provided through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto) and integration with Kenwood’s separate forward dash camera unit.  It also supports iDatalink Maestro which provides access to vehicle information (engine temps, tire pressures, etc).

  • Kenwood DNR1007XR nav/stereo head unit (via Crutchfield)
    w/10″ floating screen, iDatalink Maestro, Bluetooth, Wireless Carplay, Garmin navigation
    or via Amazon: Kenwood DNR1007XR (paid link)(There’s also a cheaper model that leaves off the built-in Garmin navigation but you still have access to navigation via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.)

Crutchfield is really nice for ordering car stereo upgrades since they’ll also identify and package up all the necessary fascia and wiring kits for your particular vehicle.  Most of the provided kit worked well except that the replacement fascia (Metra 99-5835G Dash Kit) has a terrible clip system for securing the piece to the dash.  Many of the clips were very difficult to secure and fit poorly, many of them even popped out and were lost to the innards of the dash in the process of test fitting things together and one clip point broke entirely.  I ended up adapting some of the clips from the original dashboard pieces and jury-rigging others to get things to secure in place.  It was quite the unnecessary pain.

You’ll find that initially the screen won’t fit the Transit’s dashboard in its factory configuration but the unit comes with an additional, extended mounting bracket (and instructions) to allow the screen to be installed with room to spare.

I secured the GPS antenna underneath the replacement top dashboard piece that fits behind the display screen to give it a clear view of open sky through the windshield.

For the provided microphone, I routed it up to the overhead console.  There’s a slot for a factory microphone inside the overhead console and I secured the microphone in there pointing towards the air holes in the slot and sealed it off behind the microphone. Testing the microphone in this location proved that it worked well for phone calls – I was easily heard even while driving.  I routed the microphone wire (along with the dash camera cable) along the ceiling fascia, down the A pillar behind the air bags and just under the top of the dashboard to the mounting location for the receiver.  There’s an easy to open access panel on the top of the dashboard behind the steering wheel for doing this.

Removing the A pillar covers takes mostly a lot of force but even so, the driver side was extremely difficult to fully release because two of the clips are unlike all the others and seem to be designed to not be able to be removed once clipped.  I don’t have any advice here even after looking for help online – others have had similar difficulty.  I had to mess with it for a long time trying to get fingers and other tools in there to get those two odd clips free.  I wish you luck!

Unlike the A pillar covers, the overhead console should not just be pulled off forcefully.  The side closest to the windshield is hinged.  You have to open it from the front side, towards the seats.  The two clips in front that hold it in place can easily break – I broke one and had to repair it.  (I used crazy glue and a bit of metal as a splint to give it strength again.)

One surprise during the installation was finding that the Amp Research powered step installation had taken over the OBDII port completely.  This port is also needed for the iDataLink Maestro.  I was able to get around this with an inexpensive splitter cable for the OBD connection and it’s working fine.

 

Dash cam installation

While installing the Kenwood receiver/navigation system, I also chose to put in a forward-looking Kenwood dash camera.  The Kenwood DRV-N250 provides 3 Megapixel recording with high dynamic range and includes a number of additional features like collision warning, parking recording/monitoring, GPS integration and auto-save on sudden motion.  Most helpful though is that the unit integrates into the radio/navigation system display.

I mounted it about where the rear view mirror would be and ran its cable (along with the receiver’s microphone, see description above) along the top of the windshield behind the overhead cover, down the A-pillar behind the air bag and under the top of the dash to the radio/nav system location.  One tip on doing this: remove the cover on the top of the dashboard in front of the steering wheel for easy access to threading these cables.  It’s an easier and shorter path then going down under the steering column and back up again.

Speaker upgrade

Not surprisingly, the factory speakers that come with these base radio/receiver units are very basic and sound correspondingly terrible.  A speaker upgrade was definitely needed.

Crutchfield has a slick new system for previewing the sound of car speakers using one of a number of known headphone sets.  I don’t know how accurate it performs but it definitely let me hear differences and helped me to choose one set of component speakers among many possible options – and I’m happy with the end result.  I went with these Focal 6.5″ component speakers which had the added promise of being able to fit into the factory speaker locations without too much trouble. However, the speaker installation and wiring ended up being the biggest hassle of all.

The factory configuration puts a tweeter in each of the two A pillars and a woofer down low in the door panels.  These are wired together at points deep inside the dashboard that are pretty darn inconvenient.  To install a decent pair of component speakers (with separate tweeters and woofers) you’ll need to change the wiring somewhat.

One option is to use the existing wire run to the woofer in the door panel, connect the crossover here and mount it on the door panel and then run the wires to the tweeter back through the wire channel and pin connectors through the door jamb and up to the A-pillar.  (This is what the folks at FarOutRide did.)  I wasn’t keen on messing with that door jamb connector and drilling it open, and besides (darn it), there are already wires running to the tweeters!

I couldn’t find anybody on the web who had located where the tweeter wires were spliced into the wires leading back to the receiver, but I was determined to do so.  It took a little bit more removal of dashboard pieces on the passenger side, but sure enough I was able to locate the splice point buried in a friction tape-wrapped bundle of wires just to the right and behind the glove box.  There’s plenty of room to mount the crossover in there.  There wasn’t really enough room in there for my hands to do normal wire crimping, but these fantastic Posi-Twist or Posi-Lock wire connectors worked well in that tight space. (Amazon paid links)

The driver side splice point proved even more difficult to locate and eventually impossible to actually reach.  I found it, way up behind the dashboard against the firewall but there’s no way of getting to it without completely disassembling the dashboard – which I wasn’t going to do.  Instead, I decided to install the driver side crossover behind the receiver itself, connecting the factory wire run to the driver side woofer as is and running a new set of wires for the driver side tweeter under the top of the dashboard (following the same path as the microphone and dash cam wires described above).

This is what I would recommend as easiest to do: mount the crossovers behind the receiver in the center of the dash using the existing wiring for the woofers and then run two new sets of wires to the tweeters from the crossovers, routing them just under and through the dash.

After wiring, the Focal RSE-165 tweeters can simply be slipped into the factory openings in the A pillar cover and secured with some friction tape.

As I described during the radio receiver upgrade, removing the A pillar covers takes mostly a lot of force but the driver side was extremely difficult to fully release because two of the clips are unlike all the others and seem to be designed to not be able to be removed once clipped.  I don’t have any advice here even after looking for help online – others have had similar difficulty.  I had to mess with it for a long time trying to get fingers and other tools in there to get those two odd clips free.  I wish you luck!

You’ll need to remove the door panels to access the woofers.  There are a few guides on YouTube for removing the door panels as well as a nice written guide from FarOutRide.

  

The next bit of trouble came from fitting the woofers into the door panels.  The Crutchfield-supplied speaker adapters are just a lot of trouble.  They don’t fit as is and I had to shave off a bunch of plastic bits and then find some different screws and then cut the tips off those screws to get them just the right length so as not to dig into the door frame.  I eventually got them installed but screw all that.  Use these speaker adapters from Hein instead (impactproducts on eBay) which are specifically fashioned for our Transit vans.  I’m sure they’ll work great, just as their other adapters did for my old Sprinter-based RV.

 

 

 

Add sound deadening and insulation to cab doors

Van Haus Conversions had already applied sound deadening material around the van, including to the cab doors.  However, we had some leftover Thinsulate insulation from my speaker installation years ago on the Sprinter-based RV, so we decided we might as well use up the rest of it here on the inside of the door panels.  The idea is just to reduce road noise and resonance through the cab doors and it probably helps a bit with insulating from heat and cold.

For the insulation, it’s just a matter of cutting it to fit the removable door panel and spraying adhesive before pressing it in place:

For instructions on how to apply the sound deadening material, refer to my write-up on our Sprinter-based RV.

All-weather front floor mat

This one-piece all weather floor mat from WeatherTech works well and fits well in the cab area.

 

Awning-style front windows and rear bunk windows

While I opted for no windows in the rear cargo doors to provide better insulation from the sun and the cold, we did have large windows added to both sides up front around the gallery area and much smaller bunk windows in the rear along the bed.

Both the front and rear windows are awning style windows from CR Laurence.  While they don’t open very far and probably don’t provide as much ventilation as slider windows, they can be left open in the rain and they’re more secure from forced entry.  The amount of ventilation isn’t really a problem though since the MaxxAir fan in the roof can push or pull enormous amounts of air through even just a single partially opened window – and of course we can open the sliding door and cargo doors if we want things to be very open to the air.

One issue with the front split pane awning windows that I wasn’t aware of when we decided to go with them is that the passenger side only has one of the two panels that can be opened.  This was apparently done because the Transit has an old-style door pull lock immediately below the window.  This is unfortunate as I’d prefer that they both could be opened even if it means you would not be able to leave one of them open if you wanted to securely lock the van.  However, the Transit’s door pull lock is really hard to grip and pull up to unlock because of the installed window anyway!

Another issue we noticed right away with these CR Laurence windows is that the front windows have very poorly sized bug screens.  All three of the panes that can open have screens that leave a large gap on either one side or the other of the frame.  This would be quite the nuisance when parked somewhere warm that’s filled with no-see-ums, gnats or mosquitoes – as we’ve certainly encountered in previous travels.  I was able to fix this with some black window insulation but I think it’s ridiculous that CR Laurence doesn’t make their bug screens fit properly to their windows.

Bug screens for side door and rear cargo doors

I opted for some magnetic closure bug screens for both the side door opening and the rear cargo area.  There are a few different varieties available from VanUpgrades and we went with the 4.0 version of their magnetic sealing screens and the stronger, heavier “no-see-um” screen in case Pan or Hera try to climb on them.  The screens work well and, most importantly, it’s super easy to prop them open when there are no bugs to worry about – which is of course most of the time.  However, in the evenings, with the lights on in the van, it’s really nice to be able to leave the van’s side door open and make use of the bug screen to keep out moths and other bugs attracted to the lights.

  

 

However, I’m now thinking that the screens for the rear cargo area aren’t really necessary.  If we’re ever in an area with lots of bugs, we simply wouldn’t leave the rear doors open anyway.  For now I’ve taken them down and stowed them away.

Here’s a little video demonstrating use of both screens:

Toilet: Waterless/Composting Toilet

I decided to go with a waterless/”composting” toilet mounted out-of-sight under a bench seat.  I was originally looking at the Nature’s Head just because it’s so commonly reviewed and referenced by others.  (There are also models from Air HeadSeparett and Sun-Mar.)  We ended up with the C-Head toilet because even its standard basic model was short enough (18″) to fit under a bench seat. The C-Head is probably the simplest design of them all and it’s crafted almost entirely from readily available hardware store parts.  I got the “Basic C-Head” in matte white with the “slow close white” lid/seat and the add-on “P-tank” container which is recommended for off-road travel.

Like all of these urine-diverting toilets, the separation of urine and solid waste prevents the creation of nasty sewage and odors.  And unlike the common cassette-style toilets, you don’t have a nasty tank of sewage to pour out somewhere.  The solid waste is mixed with a medium like aspen wood shavings (as you would find at a pet store for small animal bedding) to absorb moisture, control odor and start the composting process.  Urine is collected in a separate container.  Here’s C-Head’s frequently-asked-questions page for more detailed explanations.

     

The C-Head being only 18″ tall allowed for it to be easily hidden within a small bench seat which ends up 21″ tall including its cushion:

We can report that the system works well and the convenience is well worth having a toilet onboard.

Now it’s true that our arrangement without a dedicated bathroom doesn’t provide any privacy if you’re sharing the van, but we don’t feel it’s worth giving up a lot of space for a full bathroom closet in such a small van.  (It certainly can be done though.)  For peeing, it really doesn’t feel like an issue anyway.  As for doing #2, we prefer to make use of public restrooms like in a campground whenever possible.  However, when public restrooms aren’t available, it’s nice to know you have access a place to go though.

As for privacy, one option is just to vacate the van for awhile to give one person some time alone, or when that’s not comfortable (like caught in stormy weather), hang a partition temporarily to give a little privacy – as we’ve done a couple of times already.  It’s doable.

Ventilation: Maxxair 10-speed reversible fan

There’s two best known brands of roof fans for RV’s and campervans: Maxxair and Fan-Tastic fans.  We previously had a pair of Fan-Tastic fans in the LTV Unity RV and while they did work and could definitely move a lot of air and keep the RV cool, we were missing a few features.  The models we had provided three fan settings, the thermostat control (to automatically open above a set temperature), and a rain sensor to automatically close in the rain.  What we were missing was the ability to operate the fan even in the rain and to run the fan at a quieter, slower speed.  Even at its lowest speed, you were very much aware of the noise of it spinning.

The Maxxair 10-Speed Reversible Fan addresses both of these issues.  The Maxxair fan is a bit larger and includes a permanent hood over the top so that it can remain open and still operate while it’s raining outside.  And its lowest speed settings are truly silent while still providing good air flow.  Very welcome.

However… we’ve already encountered a reliability issue with the Maxxair.  Ours keeps shutting down: a green light comes on and it starts beeping for 30 seconds, closes down, shuts off and refuses to start up again until you cut and restore power to it at the fuse box.  Looking online, it appears that this is an often reported issue where it seems their circuit board can’t handle voltages higher than about 13.6.  That’s really limiting as 13.6V or even higher are common charging voltage levels for campervans and RV’s – their specific usage!  The solution is apparently to install a voltage regulator to pull the voltage down lower – but it seems to me this is something they should build into their products!

After I reported our troubles, Van Haus sent me a voltage regulator to install (we’re not local to them), but it turned out we still had the Maxxair Fan shutting down on us and sounding its alarm.  I measured the voltage coming out of the voltage regulator and it was only 12.2V.  Too low now or what?

I tried to contact Airxcel through their online form but didn’t get a reply after a few days.  I then worked through their phone system to get a hold of a tech support person for the Maxxair products.  After he heard that the fan was failing even with 12.2V from the voltage regulator, he told me that the circuit board I would need to replace is on backorder and they don’t know when they’ll be getting them but that it should be “soon”.  He took my name and address and said they’ll send a replacement to me when they come in again.

I asked whether a voltage regulator was really necessary given how my battery system will tend to charge at 13.6V or so and he insisted that it was and that you didn’t want the voltage to ever get above that.  When I said that my “van builder” suggested the voltage regulator for their fans don’t seem to help or be necessary, he replied with a “your builder knows vans, we know our fans”.  When I suggested that perhaps they should build in voltage regulation into their product since 13.6V or higher is very common, he said something along the lines of “I just work here in tech support”.  He says he answers the phone everyday to deal with issues like this and he’s passed along suggestions many times before but apparently the engineers think they know better.

(sigh)  Pretty sad – and yet this is one of the two best, most popular brands for RV/campervan fans?

Anyway, it’s really important that we get the fan working reliably as we’ll be relying on it to keep the van cool in hot environments when we have to leave the cats inside while we go on a hike or whatever.

Temperature/Humidity Sensors

This is a direct carry over from our experience with the LTV Unity RV:

I was looking at a number of mountable weather/temp sensors when I stumbled on the SensorPush Wireless Thermometer/Hygrometer.  You drop these little guys wherever you’d like to monitor temp or humidity and they collect data over time and automatically sync to your smartphone via bluetooth. Unlike typical wireless weather sensors, you can view the accumulated data over time and set alerts to be notified if the temperature or humidity moves outside of a set range.  They can run on their little CR2477 batteries for over a year.

I’ve got one in the van to be sure that the temperature never gets out of hand when we have the cats on board, another mounted outside under the body and another in the fridge to be sure its keeping things cold enough. With the RV, I could monitor them even from across a parking lot and inside a restaurant but unfortunately with the metal-walled van, the signal doesn’t travel quite so far.  However, you can also get an optional SensorPush G1 Wifi gateway to monitor the sensors from anywhere over the internet.  For the van, that would mean setting up a cellular internet connection and Wifi router, which I haven’t felt the need to do.

Cellular Signal Booster

I installed a weBoost Drive X cellular booster in the Transit van.  A cellular booster acts as a relay between cellular devices in your vehicle and any accessible cell towers, boosting your available signal in places where you may have little or no signal.

The weBoost comes with a small external antenna that you mount outside, either on a metal roof or on a small sheet of metal (that acts as a ground plane), and an internal antenna that you mount near wherever you’ll be using your cellular device.  I asked Van Haus to provide a couple of 12V power ports (as well as a couple of dedicated USB ports) in the smallest overhead cabinet over the galley and also mount the external antenna on the roof and run it to this cabinet, where I then installed the weBoost.  (I actually had Van Haus to install two external antennas in case I ever want to use a cellular modem like the NetGear LB1120 to provide dedicated WiFi in the van.)

The weBoost Drive X instructions say you should mount the internal antenna to between 18″ and 36″ away from your device.  For now, I’ve got it mounted in the overhead cabinet over the cab area. With the older model (weBoost Drive 4G-X) in the LTV Unity, I had trouble getting it to perform well until I followed some online advice and started placing my phone directly in contact with the internal antenna.  Once I started doing that, it worked really well and I could then use the phone’s shared hotspot for other devices in the van, like my iPad or MacBook.  Note that these boosters aren’t useful (and can even give poor performance) when you already have a good signal.

So far it seems that with this newer model (Drive X) placing the antenna right up against the phone actually degrades the signal and it is actually best to have the antenna mounted a little bit away as they recommend.

I should add here that I’ve found Verizon to have the most coverage in very remote and rural areas across the western United States.

HEPA Air Filter

Given the increasing severity and frequency of wildfires across the western United States and the chances of encountering days of poor air quality even long distances away from the source of the smoke, I bought a compact HEPA air filter for the van for use when we just can’t escape the smoke.  This one is pretty expensive but it’s relatively compact, mounts to the rear of the passenger seat and runs off of a 12V plug: IQAir Atem HEPA air filter.  We keep it stowed away in a cabinet under the bed until it’s actually needed.  There are also plenty of less expensive and still fairly small units that can be run off of your AC inverter, like this one: Geniani Home Air Purifier with True HEPA.

Portable Electric Grill

My original intention had been to get another small propane grill, like we had in the Unity RV.  However, while the RV had a propane tank underneath that we could hook up to, with the Transit van that would be having to carry little camp propane tanks inside, which is not really ideal.  So I decided to look into electric grills, which I had never tried before.

After researching various models and reading lots of reviews, I settled on this Hamilton Beach Searing Grill which has turned out to be really great.  It’s a nice size with plenty of grilling space and yet still easy to store in the van, it has a cooking lid with a window, a temperature-based control knob and indicator light, it grills really well whether that be a pork loin, sausages or vegetables and of course there’s no propane tanks to deal with.  We’ve even used it inside the van on the galley countertop when we were stuck in a big wind storm.  And I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that it doesn’t take that much wattage to maintain normal cooking temps, leaving room with our 2000W inverter to still be using one of the burners on our induction cooktop.  The only downside is that it has a very short cord so you’ll likely need a short extension cord to use it where you want.

Storage Organization

Here’s a video walk-through of how we’ve made use of the limited space:

[TBD]

Here’s the garage area before and after fully loading:

That’s two mountain bikes and all of our biking gear, an inflatable two-person kayak plus paddles, vests and assorted kayak gear, a not small telescope (8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain type) with mount, tripod, eyepieces and other astronomy gear, my camera gear, lenses and tripod, folding chairs and table, shoes and boots, portable grill, portable solar panel, water supply hoses, leveling blocks, tool box and repair supplies, tow strap, jumper cables, air compressor, extra cat litter plus a sealable bucket for used litter and of course the cat apartment itself: one room for the litter box and another for the feeding area.

Trickle charger for starter battery

As with any vehicle that relies on a lead acid starter battery, if it sits unused for too many months the battery may be discharged to a point that it won’t hold as much charge and may even not be able to start the engine.  One option is to fully disconnect the battery if the vehicle isn’t going to be used for a long while but another is to hook up a battery maintainer / trickle charger.  Many battery maintainers are the type that you plug into a 120V wall outlet, but if you have a solar system installed on your van for your house batteries, you can also make use of that to maintain your starter battery.

The Amp-L-Start maintains a healthy charge level on your starter battery using your house batteries and their solar charging system.  It will also report if the starter battery is becoming over-discharged for some reason.  This unit also supports connection to lithium ion house batteries.

As it happens, our van’s starter battery was over-discharged during the build out process.  It sat for several months at QuadVan while getting converted to four-wheel drive and then for many more months at Van Haus waiting first to move through their build queue and then on hold due to the Covid-19 shutdowns.  When I finally took deliver of the converted van some nine months later, the Amp-L-Start was reporting a problem with the starter battery.  It’s not really surprising since it sat for such a long time without a battery maintainer hooked up.  I’m also told that Van Hauseven  had to jump start the vehicle when they first received it.  Anyway, I ended up going through the hassle and expense of replacing the factory starter battery – it’s a pain to get to since you have to remove the driver’s seat platform.  With the Amp-L-Start now hooked up, this shouldn’t happen again.

Rodent barrier

This is a carry over from my old Sprinter-based RV and the issues I had with rodents causing trouble and damage in the engine compartment and utility bay.  I live in an area surrounded by fields and forest and an endless supply of mice and other rodents.  I tried all the usual remedies from scented sprays and herb bags, dryer sheets, noise makers, etc and still kept having trouble.

The ultimate solution I eventually arrived at was installing a walled rodent barrier around the whole vehicle, plus a Wi-Fi enabled trap as a fail-safe.  It’s called the “BoxKat”.  It’s a flexible/collapsible barrier for keeping rodents out of a given area (like your car or RV).  It’s a little expensive but it actually seems to work – as in, I never find evidence of mice or other rodents in the engine compartment.

 

I did have a little trouble getting it to sit flush against the ground and not have any gaps in an area that isn’t perfectly flat due to underlying tree roots lifting up the asphalt.  I also had to take BoxKat inventor Tom Sharp’s recommendation to buy some steel rods and then I still had to add some hollow concrete blocks to get the pieces of the barrier to stay in place with the extreme gusts of wind I get around my hilltop home.

I also have an electronic WiFi-enabled rat trap (from Victor) in the engine compartment to make sure that if anything ever does get past the barrier, it won’t be likely to do any damage.  These are great traps in that they connect to your WiFi network and notify you if the trap is ever triggered so that you don’t have to make a point of regularly checking on them.

Anyway, the upshot is that this system of a physical rodent barrier around the whole vehicle with a trap as a backup has been working.  The few times I caught anything in the trap was during actual trips outside the barrier and during times when the barrier was disturbed before I secured things down with the rods and blocks.


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