Since the last post, it has been very slow progress with the van build but in the last week we have finally seen significant change. Why slow? Well we have been doing other things. Dave has spent a couple of days helping Jason build a “rum shack” in his garden.
We also had a few days away in the van on a beautiful campsite in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire.
We had a quick but wonderful trip to visit Dave’s family…
…and and I spent 5 days with mine in Lichfield, as my nephew prepared to leave for uni in Glasgow.
We also had a great day out on the motorbikes in mid-Wales with Jason and Ali in stunning scenery.
I have been busy writing my other blogs and had a couple of articles published in magazines and I have been working on the garden. So we have no doubt been occupied but, in truth, there has still been plenty of time for the van. I can offer up no reason as to why the build slowed to a snail’s pace. After fitting the windows, we just seemed unable to gain momentum. However, thankfully that seems to have changed over the last few days and we have now turned a corner. So where are we up to?
One of the most important tasks in converting a van for full time living is to ensure it is warm. We plan to use Silver in Scottish or alpine winters so it needs to be cosy and free of condensation. This means that it needs to be insulated and also have heating installed for the coldest nights. Dave began the process of installing heaters for both water and air about two months ago. This involved a lot of discussion with Jason and pontification which, I have learned over the last 27 years, is what happens when you put two engineers together. I can sustain interest in the conversation for about 20 minutes before giving up the will to live and drifting into the kitchen to wash up or sweep the floor or something equally more interesting. Eventually, after considering al the options. they concurred that we would have gas heaters fuelled by a propane tank installed underneath the van. The waste water tank also goes under the van so they had to make sure there was space for everything and that it could all be installed safely. This also involved cutting holes in the floor of the van in order to bring the heaters partially inside.
All of this seems to have taken many weeks to get right as the correct brackets and different bits and bobs (technical term) had to be ordered and installed. As with most things on a van conversion, you don’t get it right first time so there was inevitable delay as Dave sourced or crafted the right accessories. However, after weeks of delay, we finally completed installation of the heaters last week and brought them through into the van ready to install ducting/pipes at some point in the future and so insulation and the laying of an impermeable vapour barrier (i.e. plastic sheet) could finally be tackled.
Insulation is a real pig of a job. When asked which job they would least like to do again, many van lifers mention insulation. The floor, walls and ceiling all need to be insulated, with either 50mm insulation board or soft insulation, the same as you use in your loft, and then a vapour barrier is secured. Now our van in only just about tall enough for Dave to stand up in metal to metal. If we laid down 50mm of insulation on both the floor and ceiling, as most do, it would be 10cm too short for Dave, so this is not an option for us. It took a while to decide how to resolve this but we decided to add 25mm strips of insulation on the floor between the ridges so there would at least be some insulation but no loss of height (as seen in the photo above). The ceiling will be fully insulated so we will lose 4-5cm in all. The floor is not fully insulated and it remains to be seen if this will be a problem with cold coming up through the floor but with a gas heater installed, I am assured it will stay warm. It took Dave a while to cut and secure all the strips of 25mm insulation board and in the meantime I made a start with insulating the walls, which turned out to be much tricker than we both expected.
Insulation board is flat but the walls of a Sprinter are not. They come with various indentations, where windows can be added, and other channels and gulleys, which make installing flat insulation board very challenging. After one attempt to cut and install the board, which took up a whole morning, we both agreed that our work was not up to standard and needed to be redone. This was hard to accept, as the board isn’t cheap but mostly because the work is filthy and not something you want to do twice if it can be avoided. Sawing or cutting polystyrene is easy enough but it creates bits and dust that get everywhere, including onto your chest if you forget to wear a mask, and on a windy day it blows around the garden and over into the neighbours’ gardens. Our back lawn has a white tinge, almost as if it has lightly snowed. I have no idea how to get rid of it and it might be there forever.
While accepting our work was shoddy, we were stuck as to how to make the board fit properly so we went back to the trusty YouTube videos to learn what others did. No-one seems to show the whole process, I suspect that’s because there is always an element of bodging involved that they don’t want subscribers to see. We picked up some tips though and started again the next day. I must admit that I had partly lost interest by then but Dave was dogged and did a stellar job sculpting and carving the board to fit the larger spaces.
Around this time I departed for Lichfield for the best part of a week and when I returned Dave had completed all of the larger sections of wall insulation. That was not strategic on my part but worked well for me.
Immediately upon my return to Wales, the weather became unexpectedly good so we decided to get away in Silver for a few days. Before we left we installed a sun canopy. Like everything else, the decision about which canopy to buy was not an easy one. We really wanted a Fiamma retractable awning, which is fitted to the van permanently and pulls out and retracts as needed. However, they cost around 800 quid and weigh 50kg. Although they are very popular, we decided that this was out of the question for us. We eventually settled on a Vango Sun Canopy, which we bought half price on eBay for 70 quid plus the cost of the awning rail which we had to glue to the roof of the van.
We now have a 4m awning which gives both shade and protection from the rain at a bargain price. It does have to be attached to the rail each time we set up camp, which involves Dave climbing on the roof but we are happy enough with the choice we made.
We had a great few days away. Most people would view sleeping in the back of a van on an inflatable mattress as quite squalid (and from the photo of the inside of the van posted above, you can see that it was) but it felt like the height of luxury when compared to a tiny tent and motorbike. We could take everything we wanted, boxes of stuff. We had a comfy bed. As you get older Thermarest mattresses lose their appeal, although we found that an air bed does not keep the cold out in the same way as a closed cell foam mattress. We had chairs and a table rather than sitting on the ground.
We also had a fire pit for the chilly evenings.
We loved it all and it made us realise just how great it will be when Silver is eventually finished.
We returned from the trip with renewed purpose, determined to make more progress so we could enjoy more short trips away in the coming weeks (this was before we were placed into local lockdown but more about that later). We finished fitting the heaters under the van..
and insulating the floor, allowing us to put down the vapour layer and restore the original floor as a base for the vinyl flooring. It turned out that my sewing skills in making 2D materials fit a 3D body finally came in handy and I was able to lay the vapour barrier, which is a sheet of plastic, around and over the wheel arches without too much difficulty.
We then set to completing the insulation of the walls using a soft insulation material made from recycled plastic bottles, which is much nicer to work with than the traditional glass fibre stuff and more environmentally friendly. Both walls were then covered with more sheets of plastic, definitely a two-man job but fairly satisfying to complete.
Silver was now ready to have walls installed. The nature of these walls has been the topic of much debate. Factory built motorhomes use board covered in wallpaper to achieve a professional finish, whereas the use of what is called 4-way stretch carpet on top of plywood is much more popular with VW owners and converters. However, the new breed of millennial van lifers much prefer to finish their walls with tongue and groove panels, which give a nice finish when painted or varnished and are easy to install. The drawback is that they are heavy. A Sprinter van has a maximum legal weight of 3.5 tonnes. Exceeding this weight, once the build is complete, and the mass of two adults, all their stuff, fuel and water is added, not only impacts on the safety of the vehicle but is liable to a hefty fine and impounding of the van. Many campervan owners dismiss this issue as not important but as motorcyclists and old duffers, we are always safety and legal first so we have committed to keep the build as light as possible. This precludes us from using tongue and groove and leaves us with the plywood option to create our walls and ceiling.
We discovered a couple of weeks ago that there are companies that sell ready-cut ply linings for Sprinter vans at a very reasonable price so we took delivery of the 6mm ply panels ready to install. The panels are not perfect but they are good enough and as 6mm ply retains some flexibility, they fit snug to the shell of the van without wasting crucial space.
We still have to decide what finish we will use but, given the visible joins between the panels and the visible screw heads, we are unlikely to paint them and more likely to use a neutral wallpaper. The jury is still out on that one.
With the walls installed we were ready to lay the flooring. We decided on industrial sheet vinyl flooring which is non-slip, waterproof and very hard-wearing. The design we chose comes with sparkly bits in show catch the light when the sun shines and prevents it from looking too much like the stuff used in mental hospitals. What we hadn’t bargained for is how hard the vinyl is to cut, especially when cold. It seemed to defeat the ordinary Stanley blade and the special hook-shaped Stanley blade but we soon discovered with the help of Google that heating the flooring with a hairdryer softened it and made it easier to cut.
I have laid vinyl a few times before but this was much harder to manage and manipulate and took us several hours to get it how we wanted it. It is great to see the first decorative finish of the van take shape though and the first indication that it is more than just a cargo van.
Our next job is to batten out the layout of the van interior, starting with the bed and then the shower, seating area and kitchen. Work begins on this tomorrow. But you haven’t insulated the ceiling yet, I hear you say. Well there is a reason for that. Before insulating the ceiling, we need to install a pair of MaxxFans in the roof to both suck and blow air, and keep us cool and ventilated. One of these fans will go directly over the shower cubicle, as there is already a hole in the roof and a small fan installed in that area and we do not want to cut an extra hole. However, we need to ensure that the placement of the MaxxFan is 100% accurate over the shower, rather than part in and part out of the cubicle but we cannot do this until the shower cubicle is battened out. This means that installation of the MaxxFans and insulation of the ceiling will take place after battening out the layout. This is a bit arse about face but was the best solution we could come up with. As I said, nothing is straightforward with a van build.
The MaxxFans have been sitting in the garage for 2 months but in preparation for the next exciting stage of the build we also now have the shower tray, Nature’s Head composting toilet, fridge and cooker purchased and taking up space in the bungalow.
I have also bought the materials to make blackout, insulating blinds for the windows and the foam for the seat cushion, which I will cover with old curtain fabric. So there is plenty to be getting on with as the nights draw in and the days get chillier. Hopefully I will report back more quickly next time as we continue to make more rapid progress.
Since Thursday, we are longer allowed to leave the county or mix indoors with anyone that we do not live with, under the new COVID restrictions for North Wales. It seems a bit daft that we cannot legally visit the garden of friends who live 20 minutes away in a different county but people from England can travel here freely. We don’t have a major DIY store within the boundaries of our county so that may pose problems in the coming weeks. Dave is also very upset that while he can visit Toolstation in Denbigh, he can no longer go to Screwfix in Mold, which is only 10 minutes further away…how will he cope? More importantly, a much looked forward to visit from Dave’s family to celebrate a birthday has also had to be cancelled. Nevertheless, we support the measures taken by the Welsh assembly to keep us safe and we will abide by the new rules despite the confusion and inconsistencies. We like our own and each other’s company and we have plenty of hobbies and interests to keep us occupied and plenty of food in supply in case things get worse. We also have the whole winter to finish and dream about using our van again.