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How I spent my summer vacation, and lessons learned

9097 Views 25 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  EL34xyz
9 weeks total in van, over 7000 miles: TX to OR/WA. Mild, hurried, unfinished conversion to toyhauler/camper van.

MPG: Calculated 16.26 factoring tire size (larger than stock), approx 16.1mpg on trip up, nearly 18 on trip back, 15.35 short trips, slow (and fast) hilly driving "local" while up in PAC NW. I don't think this is as good as I used to get in GMC savanna 5.0 v8. The "local" driving would vary, but I seem to recall getting 18-19 on highway with the GMC. Of course, I got in that range on trip back in Transit, so maybe trip up the engine was just too new.

SOLAR: Somewhat under-sized solar did surprisingly well: 160W panel, PWM controller, and single 105Ah 12v battery. Only twice did controller indicate battery down to "mid-level" otherwise, always in the "green." Of course, the load was light, a fridge, a roof vent, and some LED's. Both times it got into the "yellow" had supplementary 1-amp fan running most the night. Weather was warm at times, and 1 of those times, I had parked in heavy shade all afternoon. If I could do it all over, I would have a larger battery, or dual 6v totaling 200Ah. MPPT might have helped a little, but i doubt much, since always was recharged fully (?) by early afternoon or even late morning; likewise don't think solar panel is grossly undersigned.

ROOF-VENT: Maxxair-air toward the front. Probably should have mounted at the very back. The back end of a Transit has no air circulation, and with front windows cracked open (I have mesh screens over the front door windows), and roof vent on, the "living room" could be quite comfortable, while the bedroom was like an oven. So additional fans will be required or an openable rear side-window installed. This was my #1 complaint.

SHOWER: I have the State Parks, Core of Eng parks etc scoped for showers, so was usually able to keep clean with coin-op showers. Also had solar shower, which admittedly was less luxurious; so some sort of hot shower is on my wish list...though will probably have to be outdoor (out the back doors??). I guess propane-fired, though also considering something like the Road Shower (permanently mounted solar & pressurizable) as alternative. I guess a sink with running water wouldn't hurt either.

COOKING: Had a basic propane-bottle based single-burner stove, which works well enough, though if I end up with permanent propane, I assume I would tie a cooktop into it.

TOILET: Bought a Walmart (Reliance?) foldable portable toilet, and had to use it only one morning. That was probably worth the cost right there, but luckily I was in a very isolated spot, and not trying to use it inside the van. Still, kinda weird to "make like a bear in the woods," sitting in the open air, on a plastic folding toilet. OK, I know, TMI. I'm sure if I had had a female traveling companion this would have been the most-complained-about aspect of the trip. All that said, it worked surprisingly well. Set-up was a non-issue, but using a pair of pliers to re-collapse it made a world of difference. There are plastic "locks" that do a good job of stabilizing the foldable legs, but without pliers to get the locks to release, I doubt I could have re-folded them. My guess is using it inside the van wouldn't be that bad, and odors would evaporate within a few minutes. The double doodie bags or whatever their called work fine. At least this one time.

INTERIOR LIGHTING; Need a dimmer for the factory LED lights, and some additional ones in better locations. I wonder if a dimmer reduces amperage draw, or just bleeds off the power before t gets to the LED's? Dimmer lights would be better much of the time, but less power usage could only help with such a marginal solar setup. Factory LED's are not all that low-draw. The good news, is I disconnected them from the slider, and they run off the house battery. Actually, I wired in a switch so the living room LED's can work off either the house battery or the factory open-door switching...or be completely off.

TIRES: With the 225/75r16 Michelin LTX tires, highway driving was fairly relaxed (MUCH quieter than Cooper Discoverer AT's or probably ANY AT tire). Factory Hankooks are probably just as quiet Luckily, had no muddy or otherwise slick conditions to deal with. Added a bit more ground clearance compared to stock. Off-road, I did not think the 1-wheel-drive Transit was the equal of my old GMC (which was also 1-wheel-drive). That said, I'm not in the right tax bracket to afford a conversion to 4WD. Probably not to convert to LSD either, though if you can get it, I would at least opt for that, and MIGHT put that on my wish list....if I can find a bargain LSD upgrade. If I win the lottery, not sure if I would convert the Transit, or get a 4WD Sprinter. But I would have to buy a ticket first.

HIGHWAY STABILITY: Stability in crosswinds was abysmal. Absolutely scared the cr*p out of me a few times, and required way more attention than my previous van (not a high roof). Anyone used to driving Hwy 84 along the Columbia River in the summer knows what conditions can be like, and they are not friendly to the high-roof Transit. I will probably put a rear swaybar on my wish list, but keep hoping someone comes out with a 245/70x16 Load E HIGHWAY tread (or hybrid a bit quieter than the Discoverers). I don't see how people are getting away with 245/75's, and if you go to the "Alternate Tire" thread, there's plenty of discussion about that; I appreciate Vulf's honesty about his and his picture of clearance. I might mix the Michelins in the front with 245/70 Discoverers in the rear, which are probably close enough in diameter to not screw up the TCS or Stability control...I hope. Again, I would probably have punched my eardrums out to avoid hearing the loud tread noise from ANY AT tire in front...right under your ears, for 4000+ miles but maybe I'm being a wus'. I remember my parents used to say I'd go deaf listening to loud music all the time, but wonder if today's kids are doing the same with their AT tires...or maybe they're already deaf. That said, I better add a come-along to my wish list.

BASIC FLOORPLAN: Sorry, my set-up is unworthy of pictures. But, the basic set up is a full-width platform in the rear, approx 80" lengthwise (frt-to-rear), approx 34" off the floor, and a 22" deep countertop on the driver's side between the bed and the driver's seat. That leaves a small 4'x4' or maybe 4.5'x4.5' "living room" that the slider opens up to. Windsurfboards and a bike get tucked under the bed, accessible from the rear doors. The boards infringe on the under-counter space as they are long, and the fridge is at the forward edge of the countertop, but they barely infringe on the living room. The passenger seat is permanently reversed to face into the living room, though a swivel is on my wishlist. A stepping stool helps me get into and out of the high bed, but in a HR van, I still have plenty of headroom in the bed. I will build a short "bench seat" which will allow for 2 people to face each other (one in bench seat, the other in the reversed passenger seat, and allow for entry/exit to the high bed. There is the early stages of a "closet" along the drivers side of the bed, which still leaves enough room for a XL double-size bed or a slightly narrow queen (with corners lopped off against the passenger-side body panels. The rear window indentation adds something like 4" of width each side although it is not for the full 80" length. My wish list is for a double XL mattress, with a separate cushion to fill in the space between the double mattress and body within the "window" indentation. Together they would be ~ 58" wide in the widow indent. This is one benefit of having the bed so high...the window indentations add alot of width...76" total, if I'm not mistaken. The closet takes away 18" on the drivers side, but will be most all the non-toy storage capacity (well, some undercounter). Many people could sleep sideways if their bed is fully in the indentations, and didn't have this closet. I also hope to have cabinets above the countertop someday, covering up the black electrical wire channels everyone wants to remove, but few have.

FLOOR (covering): my van came with a texured rubber floor mat with the jute (?) backing. I filled in the metal floor corrugations with 1/4 x 1.5 vinyl strips from Lowe's( or possibly Home Depot??). Big mistake keeping the rubber. The texture fills up with dirt, and you will never get it completely cleaned out without a power washer. What a PITA that is going to be to take out the fridge and a few other things to replace the floor with some "smooth" cleanable linoleum or laminate. I haven't researched that at all because when I read about other people doing it I skipped over those posts. Now I wish I hadn't. I'll leave the rubber in the "garage," under the bed, maybe under the back of the fridge and counter, but the living room needs new flooring.

INSULATION? Well, don't do what I did. Waaayy too labor -intensive, but if you must know: a layer of thinsulate against the outer body skin, and 1-2 layers of foam board (R-Max) toward interior, cut into a thousand tiny pieces to fit in between all the complex body bracing. OK, maybe only 100 pieces...certainly more than 50. Then some 5mm or 1/8' plywood inside that. THere's more thickness to the walls than 1 layer of thinsulate and the R-Max, but not sure if I want a bunch of cubby-holes or 5-6" of insulation...or some of each.

RUNNING BOARD / SIDESTEP: A "running board" under the sliding side door is a must IMHO. The factory one is narrow, but also provide more ground clearance than any aftermarket one I've seen. My suggestion is to contact someone who sells/installs the aftermarket ones, and see if they have a factory take-off. Installation still requires some futzing, because if you don't have the factory runnng board, Fords doesn't provide the studs or bolts it mounts to, and I certainly had a hellava time figuring out how to mount some bolts from the backside/inside. If you go to, then to the Transit page, there is a video of him removing the factory boards, and replacing with the aftermarket. You'll see what your missing if you don't have factory boards. That said, maybe you prefer the aftermarket...but, there was this day I had to pull a GMC conversion van which had become high-centered off the rocks, and the running boards were pretty screwed up by that. I think on the trip, I scraped my running board once, so certainly would not want a lower one.

HEAT; Well, if I do the propane, and if I win the lottery (which I may need before I get the propane), I would also consider a Propex heater. Of course, if I had a diesel, I would opt for an Espar / Webasto approach. I'm still bouncing around all the heater / water heater / propane / shower options. I'm not trying to troll Orton on this, but will look into his electric blanket. Regarding many of his wonderful ideas, I don't have his skills nor budget....but I would still like heat, water heater, shower, etc some way, somehow. Of these, heat is last on the list...but, hey, i live in Texas. More useful would be a coach A/C, but that means generator or shore power, and I want boondockable, and no generator (in my van, nor in my neighbor's).

WINDOW SHADES: Reflectix cut into window-sized pieces makes great privacy shades, though my velcro-attachments kept failing. That's fixable. For the windshield, those 2-piece, hoop-type twisting shades fit perfectly in their super-jumbo size. magic-shade? Is that what they are called? The good news is I wouldn't even try to fold them like a taco each time, I just left them "unfolded" and slid them into the space behind the countertop and the driver's side van wall. Future improvements to my galley will ruin that, so I may have to figure out how to fold / collapse them with muscle-memory instead of old-guy-brain memory and logic. All that said, the magic shades provide no R-value, so refectix or some $80 custom insulated shade would probably be better.

HEADLIGHTS: Low-beam headlights need improvement, big time, but I am morally obligated to not do something illegal on this. I hope you feel the same. There is an absolute epidemic of poorly-aimed bluish or bright-white headlights on lifted truck and the like which blinded me repeatedly sitting high in my Transit. I can't image what it must be like in a normal car. Sorry guys, but I REALLY wish the police would crack down on this. Its unsafe. This one time my "government should do something about this" reaction in me outweighs the libertarian in me.

STEREO: I don't know about your stereo, but my 4-speaker with CD SUX!!! Shame on Ford. I have no idea what the implications would be, but if I were ordering a new Transit instead of buying off a lot, I would get a radio delete. I wouldn't trust whoever designed this with $5, let alone an expensive factory upgrade...which this supposedly is with 4 speakers and the CD. Anyway, I will probably start with new speakers, and hope a hi-level-in amp (fed from speaker wires instead of "line-in") will sound sufficient...unless someone knows if the factory unit has line-outs???

This could go on and on. The TOW-HAUL feature was absolutely AWESOME!!! I did a lot of slow hill-climbing / descending, paved and gravel. The Tow Haul resets the shift points, and makes the engine / transmission much more responsive than when it is shut off. Of course I would only turn it on when in those conditions, as I'm sure it hurts fuel economy, but once I discovered what it does, I can't imagine a Transit without it....though I will probably never tow anything. Doesn't upshift too early & downshifts much more readily when needed uphill, and downhill, helps with engine braking to control speed.
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Espar makes a gasoline fired heater:
Yeah, I'm all over the place on this.

Advantage propane: cook, heat, and hot water solutions
Disadvantage: 2nd fuel source, 2nd tank, 3 separate solutions ( I think): cooktop, heater, separate water heater (tankless??) not sure if heat & hot water can be combined economically.

Advantage gasoline: heat, maybe hot water solutions; single source fuel...maybe, except for cooking though 1 lb bottles are workable for my cooking needs.

Disadvantage: possibly heater is more expensive up front, pretty sure gasoline hydronic would be expensive, and has different purpose than I do (warm engine vs hot shower) still need cooking solution (propane?)

Thinking outside the box: DYI pressurized solar shower like Road Shower, except lower profile and less expensive; cheap heat, even use the cooking burner(s) in a pinch, otherwise, do without (or use electric blanket like Orton), alcohol cooking??; really outside the box: if you are going to carry 2 fuels, maybe diesel for the heat, hydronic, and even cooking.

Like I said, I'm all over the map on this. Kind of leaning toward propane tank, cooktop, tankless propane shower, Propex. $Kaching$ Also real estate is an issue. I think tank & Propex can go outside underneath, but not sure where to put the tankless water heater.

*** I lost > 100 cu ft to the toys in the garage.***
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Can be simple.

Heating: A 12 volt DC heating pad. Not an electric blanket. Let van get cold at night and stay warm with the heating pad. No noise and less refrigerator cycling. Very stealth. In morning use remote start to the engine to warm the van. Vehicle powered inverter also runs the rear 750 watt electric heater. Will also experiment with insulated curtains to partition off the sleeping area in an attempt to retain some of the body and heating pad heat in a smaller volume.

Cooking: Portable two burner 17,000 btu propane camp stove. Use inside, outside on a fold down table out the slider opening or on picnic table. Also have one burner butane stove. 600 watt microwave that runs off 1000 watt house inverter. Counter space is more important than a built in stove. Stove located on counter inside at slider door so steam and smells can exit an open slider door.

Shower water: Unpressurized fabricated SS tank with a 600 watt 120 volt AC heating element with a thermostat set to the water temperature you want. All the water in the tank is the correct temperature so no plumbing or hot/cold mixing required. Get water to 90 degrees in about 30 minutes powered by vehicle powered inverter. Option is to use excess solar power to heat the water. Get water out of the tank with a cylindrical 12 volt DC submersible pump that discharges to a garden hose and nozzle.

Sink water: Fresh water tank inside van with outlet plumbed to a small quiet solar centrifugal pump located at back of slider step below the tank. Pump started/stopped with a switch. Pump outlet to the sink faucet or to a ball valve in step. Ball valve used to drain the tank or provide pressurized water to a hose.

Drains: Sink drain through a 1" rubber hose to the bottom of the grey water tank located under the floor. 1" hose shower drain tees into the sink drain hose. Tank has a tee inlet at bottom of tank. Sink and shower drain enter the tee and the other side of tee is the 1" ball valve tank drain. No traps required because hose fills with water on first use to provide a "trap". To winterize drain the tank.

Just some thoughts about ways that have worked for me. We all have different requirements so they may not be appropriate for you.
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Disadvantage: possibly heater is more expensive up front, pretty sure gasoline hydronic would be expensive, and has different purpose than I do (warm engine vs hot shower) still need cooking solution (propane?)
I have an Espar Airtronic B4 which is a gasoline fired area heater (small furnace). It does not heat the engine. For my needs, this works perfect. For cooking I replaced my old single burner Coleman white gas stove for a single burner propane stove. I also carry my old Little Buddy propane heater as an emergency backup to the Espar, just in case.
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Espar makes a gasoline fired heater:
Talk about delayed reaction.

Moot, 2 questions:
1) did you buy from proairllc?
2) assuming you've had multiple chances to use the b4, do you think the smaller 7000 btu version (B2, b1lc, or Webasto Airtop2k) would work okay for use below the Arctic Circle? I don't have the Ext length van, but don't have state-of-the-art insulation either.

I might have ventured into the lower mountains of New Mexico this week had I had heat. Beginning to talk myself out of propane, except for cooking. Appears one advantage of Espar / Webasto over Propex is variable fan/variable heat. Not having to buy an expensive propane tank & gas plumbing is another. Tapping into my gas tank doesn't sound too easy though, and the gasoline heaters aren't cheap. The one quote I got for professional installation left me gasping.
Moot, 2 questions:
1) did you buy from proairllc?
I purchased it and had it installed at Espar of Michigan:

2) assuming you've had multiple chances to use the b4, do you think the smaller 7000 btu version (B2, b1lc, or Webasto Airtop2k) would work okay for use below the Arctic Circle? I don't have the Ext length van, but don't have state-of-the-art insulation either.
Ya, hey dare! I'm from Minnersota and cold is relative to what one is accustomed to, don'tya know? Okay den, for me 0 - 32° range is cool. As the mercury drops toward 0°, cool becomes "a bit nippy". Below 0° is cold and past -20° is F'ing cold. I have a walk-through bulkhead separating the cab from the cargo area. A double curtain covers the walk-through opening. My van is insulated and I have insulated coverings for the windshield and door windows. The Espar B-4 is more than adequate for keeping my long and tall Transit nice and toasty even in below zero temps. Ya, so to answer your question, for occasional camping in above zero temps a B-2 or similar heater may be enough.

Prior to my Transit I had two extended Chevys which I heated with a propane Buddy Heater. When I slept I would turn the Buddy Heater off. The thought of waking up dead interfered with a good night's sleep. I wish I would have gone with an Espar years ago. I toy with the idea of a D-2 for the Chevy and adding a small tank for diesel inside the van (both Chevys were gassers) but never did. That might be an option for you. The diesel fired Espars are quite a bit cheaper than the gas models.

Tapping into my gas tank doesn't sound too easy though, and the gasoline heaters aren't cheap. The one quote I got for professional installation left me gasping.
Ford did provide a port on the gas tank that accepts a fitting for an extra fuel line.
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Thanks for all the awesome info
Just throwing out some of my ideas

I use one of the portable on demand tankless propane water heaters outside at my house for washing my dogs.
they are light weight, small and just hang on a hook wherever you need them
I am thinking this could be used outside the RV in private areas.
You would need to use a 12 volt pump to supply the water.
I think you can use them on a small bottle tank with a converter?
They are under $90 at amazon

I use 12 volt LED tape lights that have a silicon dome over the LEDs.
The dimmer for these is pulse width modulation and so, it's not like a resistor that burns off excess voltage with heat
You can cut the roll every 3 leds onto any length you want
Amazon hase these in 16 foot rolls for cheap

On my floor, I first sprayed undercoating to combat spills/moisture/rust under the flooring
Then I installed Bituthene 3000 rubber as a sound deadener
Then the factory rubber mat went on top of that
I went to Lowes and got some of the cheap office carpet
It's $3.?? a running foot x 6 feet wide and I used the factory rubber mat to cut the shape
So for around $30, I have carpet that I can just toss and replace for cheap

I bought a Mister heater that I can use in my shop or in the van.
Have to see how that works out, but I ran into a couple that were camping in a van and they loved it
I got the one bottle 9000 btu model and a valve that lets me refill the small bottles from my big tanks

I have the AM/Fm radio with a input jack for other devices
It does not sound bad. I was surprised
But then again, I am not going to set up a sub woofer and 6 speaker system like I have in my Subaru

When I am stopped, I would use a blue tooth device that plays from my phone
You can move them around to where ever you are including outside
I have heard some of these small devices that sound pretty good
Ear buds work great for just laying in the bunk or walking around
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