If you are looking for a guide that explain how to convert a van into a camper or a tiny house according to your needs and tastes and you’re in the right place!
This van conversion guide will explain step by tep how to convert a van in a mini-house.
Here you will find every information you need to transform your van into a camper and in-depth articles for each section.
How to read this guide
You can read the van conversion guide like a book, from start to finish or as an encyclopedia, using the index to jump to the sections that interest you.
Why DIY camperize a van
While factory camping car vans are not often oriented to look beautiful, heavy duty camping trucks and pickup housing units are prepared to be functional. For this reason we wrote our guide inspiring on this kind of conversion.
So, why we didn’t wrote a guide on this kind of veicles?
Most of heavy duty trucks have prohibitive dimensions for European roads and it’s not uncommon for their prices exceeding half million dollars.
Equipped pickups are not so far from camperized vans, except that:
cell prices are prohibitive for many
important dimension can make driving more difficult, and doesn’t allow accessing places with motorhome safety bars (very common in European parkings).
appearance of the vehicle, very close to classic camping cars, encountering serious limitations in countries that declared war on camping cars, such as Portugal.
Try to immagine the satisfaction of traveling on ricreational veicle designed, set up and build on your own. And the wealth of knowledge and experience it can brings!
With a little DIY experience or a great will to learn, you can convert your van and spend wonderful holidays in total freedom at low cost.
Converting a van into a camper does not only mean financial savings but also creating your unique, personal, traveling house units. An ambitious project, but within everyone’s reach.
If you are not familiar with DIY?
If Doing it yourself is not your thing, you can contact a specialized craftsman for the realization.
Whether you want to take care of it personally or ask others to help you, if you are planning a van conversion, this article will give you all the tips and useful information for the RV-coversion of your vehicle, with every steps explained and illustrated in detail.
How to start the var conversion
How to choose the most suitable set-up? Start from your needs!
Why do you want to convert your van? Who will you travel with? Where you will go? Weekend use, adventure trips or vanlife?
Answering these questions allows you to outline the basics of your RV project, giving you an idea of the type of bed (single or double, in the cell or on the roof), of the kitchen (internal, with external access or mobile) and of the bathroom (with or without the shower).
Are you a digital nomad? You love road trips and want to experience van life? Or you just want to escape from the city noise and pollution for a nature’s full immersion?
In the first case you will need a full electrical system. In the second, a very basic one could be enough for your needings. In the third, you may even decide to avoid any kind electrical system.
Choosing the vehicle
When you are clear about your needs and the motivations that lead you to convert your vehicle, you are ready to choose the type of vehicle.
A very easygoing person who make short trips can opt for a small vehicle. On the contrary, if you think you live on the road, a big one is almost a necessity. But that’s a real personal choice: we live on the road on a medium size van!
Kind of vehicle
If you plan to travel on unpaved, muddy, sandy routes, an all-wheel drive is a must. They exist for all budgets and all sizes: cars, trucks and heavy-duty vehicles.
Let’s see the possibilities, except for heavy-duty trucks, which will be the subject of another article in the future.
Most suitable cars for convertion are minivans, off-road vehicles and station wagons.
Are the best solution if you have a really low budget, if you don’t need much space or if you want to convert the vehicle you use to move every day (and you don’t already own a truck).
Among the most converted European car models there are old 4x4 Land Rovers, Mitsubishi ad Nissan, SW Volvo and new Dacia.
Based on the size we can classify ultra-compact vans, compact vans and large vans.
Ultra compact van (mini van)
Ultra-compact vans category are more spacious than a car but still far from the common camping cars comforts. Perfect for moving around the city and easy to convert with very minimal removable camper kits. Similar in size to cars, almost as practical as a car, but more spacious.
If the small dimensions allow perfect mobility, the interior spaces are very sacrificed and unless you install a folding roof you will not be able to stand up in it.
Ultra-compact vans are suitable for who want a small van that can also be used for other purposes, like working.
Among the most converted mini van are Fiat Doblo and Scudo, Renault Kangoo, Citroën Berlingo and Peugeot Ranch.
Compact and mid van
Compact and mid van are a good compromise between space on board and mobility.
Generally they do not exceed 2 meters in height by 5 in length: spaces that allow you to adapt the interior layout according to your needs without having to give up too much comfort.
With a well planned conversion, like the one we choose for our Ducato, you could even find a place for a bath with a shower.
Some examples: Volkswagen California and Transporter (T1, T2, T3, T4, T5, T6), Mercedes Vito, Opel Vivaro, Renault Trafic, Peugeot Expert, Citroen Jumpy, Ford Tourneo, Ford transit and Fiat Ducato mid version.
Like for ultra-compact, even for compact vans is valid what has been observed about folding roof.
If you are looking for an agile vehicle without give up on comforts, the right choice is a large van.
Large vans are perfect for vanlife. You can live in it and travel the world. The height inside allows you to stand up comfortably.
If you want to preserve practicability, choose a vehicle no longer than 6 meters.
Among the most common and popular: Fiat 242, Ducato (with Renault, Citroën, Peugeot and Dodge versions), Iveco Daily, Ford Transit, Mercedes Sprinter, Volswagen Crafter, Renault Master.
That’s right, the camper.
I’m talking about the camper re-conversion.
The possibility of conversion does not only apply to cars and trucks, which in some places must by law have a completely removable set-up, but also to campers.
In fact, if you have an old motorhome vehicle, you can redesign the interior, inserting only what you need, what you like and how you prefer it.
If you opt for this solution, keep in mind that motorhomes and standard recreational vehicles have a project filed to the approval body in which are indicated the arrangement of the furniture and weights. For this reason it’s better to respect the main provision as much as possible.
How much does it cost to install a folding roof?
If your choice fell on a minivan or if you simply want to increase the available height of you veicle, you could - as we saw - have a folding roof installed.
But how much does it cost to install it?
The budget needed to install a folding roof is approximately 3.000 € or $
Where to find the vehicle to convert
Sice cars are not the best choice for a heavy and complete conversion, buses and big trucks RV are not very common in Europe - mainly due to the high gas cost and a different more specific driving licence required -, while the rest of the guide will also refer to cars and heavy-duty vehicles, this section, about choosing the model, is focused on minivans and vans.
On the first part we give some general advice, then we talk about used vehicles and finally we analyze the best solutions on the market today.
The old granpa’s van
Does your grandpa have a an old rusty smoky truck that he doesn’t start in the last 30 years? A friend keeps an old van in a field with a rust-eaten floor? That’s the right one!
If you’re on a really low budget, don’t want to invest a lot or you are not sure if life on the road is for you, I recommend you to use what you have.
This is also the best solution for those who - like me - decide to review and modify the veicle in every part.
A true story
It was a cool spring and we were spending the day in the countryside.
Shortly before 12 we headed, with a small detour, towards my mother-in-law’s new husband’s house.
Between a forkful of vegan salmon and the other, seasoned with a good brandy aged for 80 years, my eyes moved from the majestic wisteria that completely took the iron structure of an old sun umbrella, to the ‘94 Ducato abandoned at the end of the property.
The floor was corroded, the muffler was missing, the engine was running at 3 cylinders, beating on the head and smoking. The joints of the axle shafts were broken. The one on the driver’s side lost all bearings, so the van hung on the left side, screeched as screaming in pain. Steering arms partially bent, power steering pump gone and the water one with copious leaks. Mute horns and many other small and big problems under a black tar-like blanket that enveloped that engine with over 500,000 kilometers.
I remember asking Luca several times to let me help him with that truck, but I never managed to get my hands on that vehicle as long as it wasn’t mine.
I put down my fork
“Do you want sell it?”
“I’m thinking give it to a gypsy, a friend of mine, for 500 euros”
“I’m going to buy it from you! It’s super cool. We convert it and use to travel across Europe”
I have been wanting my own van for 13 years.
I had traveled by camping car, car and caravan, looking with admiration every single German guy old van. Transporter, Ducato, UAZ, other Russian and German military vehicles: ancient splendid jewels.
Those veicles were the main topic of our holidays.
My wife couldn’t stand my complaints anymore. I don’t want a motorhome anymore. it is big, goes slowly, does not pass the bars and there are too many prohibitions. Look, them with Transporter 100 miles per hour and us, no more than 70 with fully pressed accelerator. Watch that van safely get on that bay. If we had a van we wouldn’t be stuck here. I don’t want this caravan, why did we take it? I want a van. _ When we get home we get a van!_.
Summers passed by and by and we spent the days designing the configuration of our future van, sizing the electrical system, what was useful to bring and what was too much. We used mnemonic checklists and mental elimination processes.
But let’s go back to that afternoon.
The van was there. Rusty, low and super bad. Evil and angry. It was perfect.
“Really, I take it!” I said again.
“I would give it to you with pleasure but it loses oil gallons. It really has a lot of problems”
“I’ll fix it. If I couldn’t, I’ll take the engine off and put another. Just a couple of days of work”
Today, after 6000 dollars of material, 2 vans, a RV and an ambulance cannibalized, 60 days and several nights working with my wife on that vehicle it’s our beloved van.
Now it starts on the first touch (I installed a button that turns it on just pressing). It has a solar panel that heat the water and air and a 360 watt photovoltaic system that allows us to spend more than 8 hours a day with two computers on, listen to music on the stereo, watching movies and playing Play Station on a big screen, powering a fridge with freezer compartment, loads 3 mobile phones, a tablet, a reflex, a drone and a stabilizer. Not bad right? :D
If you are still not convinced - or you haven’t any old means to work on - you have other two options: 1. a used van, 2. a new van.
Buying a used van
To find the most suitable vehicle for you, you can search for it on websites that sell used vans (such as AutoScout24 and ReezoCar), selecting make, model, year, kilometers paths and many other parameters.
I recommend that you extend your search throughout Europe: you can find the best second-hand sales in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. If you are not familiar with the re-registration of foreign vehicles, you can contact a car handling agency, which will take care of all the paperwork usually for less than 1000 euros.
Regarding the kilometers of the engine, keep in mind that although the subtraction of kilometers is an illegal practice, sometimes the vehicles - especially those sold by professionals - have lowered mileage.
Once you find a vehicle that interests you, you can check its dimensions - height, length and width - through internet on the relative technical data sheets (for example: Fiat Ducato technical sheet).
If you are not familiar with engines or something does not convince you, I recommend that you request a thorough inspection from a trusted garage. This service is typicallyhis offered for a few tens of euros and avoids wrong purchases.
Buying a brand new van
If money is not a problem for you and you want a new vehicle, in this section you will find a ranking of those who - in my opinion - are the best models of suitable for a conversion vans and mini-vans that can be purchased today in Europe.
All the models I choose have not excessively sacrificed space, with an internal configuration that is easy to modify and rear windows that allow you to enjoy the view.
** Volkswagen Transporter **
Volkswagen Transporter is indisputably the most camperized van. Used as a base for the much celebrated Westfalia.
The Volkswagen Transporter basic model is at the current date (January 2022) available in three versions: classic Kombi, the most luxurious and equipped Business and my favorite, the Rockton, which has 4MOTION all-wheel drive, mechanical differential lock and raised suspension.
Prices range from 25,000 to 40,000 euros.
Excellent choice for those looking for a compact, reliable vehicle with many compatible accessories, such as bike racks, tow hooks, awnings. It could seem not really important but I assure you it is!
Ultra-compact van, Volkswagen Caddy is on the market in 7 models. Even if the dimensions are much smaller than those of the Transporter, it is a good basis for conversion. The prices do not vary much from those of Transporter.
Ford Turneo Custom
Ford Turneo Custom deserves to be taken into consideration because it offers a vast assortment of seats configurations and gives the possibility to opt for a click system that makes removal very simple and quick. Prices range from 21,000 to 30,000 euros.
Opel claims the Vivaro is the most versatile van ever. Of medium size, it has a load capacity that can reach 4,000 liters and seats 9 divided into three rows. Prices are around 30,000 euros. Personally I don’t really like the aesthetics of this van, but I must admit that the prices are really competitive.
Considered all over the world as the perfect vehicle for conversion (for the twelfth time it was awarded the title of best camper base!) It is the ideal choice for those looking for a van that allows you to stand up. The configurations, interiors, engines and options are so many and suitable for every need. The price starts from 30,000. The 4×4 version is really interesting.
How much does it cost to convert a van: the budget
Establish in advance the cost of a do-it-yourself van conversion is not easy, but we can work out a rough estimate.
You can create a simple and essential camper for a cost of around € 1,000
If you prefer a more complete set-up and are particularly practical in DIY, the budget could be around € 3,500.
For more elaborate or luxurious interiors, the cost can exceed € 10,000.
For our van conversion we spent around 5,000 euros.
Hours of work have not been counted in the previous estimate.
Furthermore, a lot depends on the availability of materials, what you already have at home, what you find on sale and at what price. Because of these variables you can create a setup similar to ours by spending more or less.
The best way to proceed, being able to keep costs around the estimates without bad surprises, is to start from your maximum budget and choose the best solution for your economic possibilities.
Camperizing a van: 8 steps for van-conversion
1. Openings: Windows for campers and ventilation
Are you planning to install windows for campers for more light and ventilation?
Unless your vehicle is a camper, any opening of the vehicle constitutes a modification of the vehicle structure and is therefore prohibited. This applies to the Italian legislation, but the other European regulations, with the exception of perhaps only the German one, are similar.
Law aside, I advise you to do not use windows of the type used on most motorhomes and caravans: I am referring to the snap windows that open outwards.
If is true that they allow more air to flow than the sliding ones (which open only partially), in return there is always the risk of forgetting some of them open, resulting in breakdown and danger for others.
Secondly, keep in mind that in most of European countries wild camping is forbidden and that keeping this kind of window opened is considered free camping. This does not apply to sliding windows which, even if open, do not protrude from the dimensions of the vehicle.
Some companies make bespoke glass with an outward opening system for the rear doors. Even if in this case open windows exceed the size of the vehicle, but, if you have a bicycle rack on the back of the van it is very difficult to dispute - or even just notice - that you have the windows open. With a couple of bicycles on the bike carrier covered with a tarp it will be truly impossible to notice.
My advice is to limit yourself to replacing those two rear windows with two opening windows and the side door with one with a sliding glass - if not already equipped - in order to remain in full legality and safety.
As regards the vehicle roof, the Italian legislation (but you should look for your country legislation, for example in Spain homologation is required) would seem to allow openings, as long as it does not exceed the maximum allowed dimensions. The best solution is the application of a opening square or rectangular porthole or a folding roof installation.
Since will not be allowed new openings on the sides, I recommend the purchase of a maxi-porthole, the largest you find based on the space you have available on the roof (taking into account photovoltaic and solar panels that you are going to install). The price of a maxi porthole varies from 500 to 750 euros.
If you are not satisfied with the amount of light and air you can get with this solution, there is - we remind you again - the possibility of installing a folding roof, which can be lifted only on one side (the most used in vans) or on both sides (solution adopted in several caravans).
If despite the regulations you decide to cut you van body, take the precise dimensions of the window including the gasket.
Cover the panel you are going to cut with parcel tape (this will allow you to reduce the emission of splinters, both to protect the van body and the person making the cut) and mark the exact shape of the window with a indelible marker.
The cut must be as straight and precise as possible, paying attention not to leave too much (or too little) space. Once done, the window must be fitted together with the gasket into the hole.
Do not cut the crossbars: they serve for the safety of the vehicle structure.
To correct any errors in the cut you can use metal putty, preferably two-component and with a certificate of non-carcinogenicity. If the errors are macroscopic, it will be necessary to weld new sheet and shape it again.
If you need to make a correction with putty, once it is dry you can scratch it with the orbital sander and paint it. For painting you can use professional compressor guns or the spray can. Keep yourself at a distance of about 35/40 cm from the bodywork and spray intermittently with a regular movement and always in the same direction.
When assembling the windows, be sure to seal the gaskets well using special black putty (you can find it in construction centers), or a special silicone for campers such as Sikaflex.
Spread a string of putty around the entire window and after putting on a thin latex glove, flatten it with your thumb without interruption. Do not go over it a second time or you will create lumps and imperfections.
2. Thermal insulation
Isolation: yes or not? This is one of the topic that most divides those who approach van conversion world.
In my opinion, the solution can only be in the affirmative, as long as you don’t intend to use your van only at above + 15° temperatures. For this reason, in this guide I dealt with insulation.
Once you have the final structure of the vehicle you can move on to thermal insulation.
Coating your van is the only way to keep its internal temperature livable even in winter and summer.
Even if it’s cool outside, a not insulated vehicle left in the sun can quickly reach 30 degrees. On the contrary, during the night, especially in the mountains and in winter, temperatures drop a lot.
If you want to stay cool in the summer and not suffer from the cold in the winter, you will need to insulate the maximum possible surface.
The goal of the insulation of an RV van is to limit excess temperatures by reducing heat flow between the outside and inside of the vehicle in summer and the dispersion of heat from the passenger compartment in winter.
If, on the other hand, the vehicle you want to camper is a car, you may prefer to skip this step, both because the time you will spend in the vehicle will necessarily be short and because to insulate it you would have to remove and replace the fabric of the roof, with an irreversible operation.
There is another reason that makes insulation much more important for vans than for cars: vans are normally intended to transport things and therefore not insulated.
What materials to use for the van insulation
Suitable for the insulation materials are many, with different prices, characteristics and effectiveness.
The choice of the van insulating materials is a fairly delicate issue.
Among the materials most used by those who professionally insulate vehicles there are:
- rock wool
- glass wool
- expanded polystyrene panels (EPS or commonly polystyrene)
- extruded expanded polystyrene panels (XPS)
- natural insulators such as sheep’s wool and cork
- Rock wool
Rock wool is a high performance thermal insulator that costs little. But I recommend that you avoid it. It is a suspected carcinogen due to the possible presence of asbestos (which also makes it expensive to dispose of at the end of its life) and it is very sensitive to humidity and vibrations, with a tendency to compression.
- Glass wool
Like rock wool this material has high performance and low cost, but I recommend that you discard this option as well. At the moment there are no studies that highlight its dangerousness but this material releases particles irritating for the skin (it stings and is itchy) for breathing, which spread throughout the environment. Like rock wool, it is sensitive to humidity and vibrations. Unless you apply it completely yawed and masked by overlapping immediately after a layer of polyurethane foam, perfectly isolating the passenger compartment (it is the same procedure that is used to insulate the attics).
- Panels of expanded polystyrene (EPS) and extruded expanded polystyrene (XPS)
They are probably the best choices for RV insulation.
They have high insulating properties, their rigidity limits infiltration and humidity, are easy to work with, do not release dangerous or irritating particles into the environment and when they have finished serving can be disposed without problems, since they are harmless and completely recyclable.
The biggest drawback is a higher price than rock wool and glass wool (especially XPS).
There are also natural insulators such as sheep’s wool and expanded cork panels. However, I also advise against these materials.
The sheep’s wool has a high cost, is an allergen that in the long run can annoy even those who have never presented intolerance, quickly takes on bad smell and due to its location in the insulation of the vehicle it cannot be washed.
The cork panels have the great drawback of retaining moisture, creating possible condensation with consequent rust.
- Wood, plastic, fiberglass, aluminum
Here with the word wood we refer to both natural wood and plywood. We discard chipboard and pressed cardboard panels, poor materials that rot in a very short time.
In the previous version of this guide I recommended (also for the protection of the environment) the use of fittings removed from old campers or from disused caravans. And according to the same philosophy, like many vanlifers, I made my van.
Unfortunately, although most of the RV (at least until 2000) use wood, the new homologation regulations no longer allow this material, as it constitutes a serious security risk.
In the event of a violent impact it can shatter into various sharp parts which could be projected towards those in the cabin and in the passenger compartment, causing injury or even more serious consequences.
The most suitable materials are currently plastic, fiberglass and aluminum.
EPS (or XPS) panels thickness
If, like me, you opted to insulate your converted van with EPS or XPS panels, the next step is to establish its thickness.
Do not beg on the thickness of the insulation, even if it takes away space. The insulation is the first operation you will carry out: if you want to go back and modify it you will have to disassemble everything and throw away all the previous material.
Isolate every part of the vehicle. Both the load compartment and the driver’s cabin.
Cleaning the vehicle
Before starting the insulation it is important to carry out a thorough cleaning of the vehicle.
Completely empty the passenger compartment. Remove any type of upholstery and, if present, the partition that separates it from the cabin.
Proceed with a thorough general cleaning, using a broom, brush, cloths and degreaser.
Once the vehicle is clean you can proceed to remove the rust spots.
If the vehicle shows rust and you do not carry out this phase correctly, the bodywork will continue to corrode and once insulated it will no longer be repairable without removing everything.
If the bodywork has brown corrosion spots or the paint has formed conspicuous bubbles, it means that the those spots are rusted.
For a first clean use a iron bristle brush, vigorously scrubbing rusty spots.
Immediatly after you can use a angle grinder with an abrasive disc - they are the thicker ones - and, after wearing eye protection mask, dust mask and long sleeves and pants clothing, remove all the rust-affected part.
Make sure the splinter guard is fitted to the angle grinder and check which direction the splinters are ejected. Try to prevent hot metal pieces from ending up on your arms, face, or worse, on your eyes. And that no person or animal can get close to your working range while you are using it.
It is not a very simple operation but with a little practice the splinters can be reduced to a minimum.
Better to do this job in a cool place.
If you don’t want to use the grinding wheel, sprinkle the rust spots with vinegar.
The next day add to the vinegar small doses of bicarbonate, proceeding slowly, until it stops reacting. At this point you will hava a paste. Rub it well over the remaining rust with a toothbrush and let it. Once dry, scrape the metal and remove any deposits.
Fill a container with rust converter (like Ferox). Cover all the treated area using a brush. Once it dry, apply a coat of rust inhibitor and proceed with the final painting. Use a white or gray anti-rust paint without metal parts (used to create antique effects or reflections) because they could rust.
This treatment only works if the rust is not passing affecting it on both faces. Otherwise, in order to block its action, it is necessary to proceed with the angle grinder.
Once all the rust has been removed it is possible that there are several holes.
You can proceed to make new sheet metal by welding or by gluing.
With welding you get the best results. I recommend that you choose this solution if you have a place where you can weld safely without creating danger. With a little attention, you can restore the bodywork exactly as it was originally.
If you use rutile electrodes with an electric arc welder and you are not an expert welder, you will quickly notice that the sheet pierces quickly. The trick is to choose a filler plate that is not too thin, use thin electrodes (not exceeding 1.5) and a voltage as low as possible but sufficient to strike and maintain the electric arc. Proceed quickly without stopping. If you miss a point, go over it just once it has cooled down.
Hold the electrode at a 45 degree angle and at a distance of 1 or 2 millimeters from the parts to be welded. Be careful because if you go too far the molten metal will splash all around.
To carry out this work safely you have to remove or completely isolate the tank and fuel pipes (as well as the interior to prevent it from being damaged). Do not weld near explosive or flammable materials.
If you can’t operate safely or don’t want to weld, you can opt for sheet metal gluing.
Once you have cut the sheets with the flexible giving it a shape suitable for the parts to be rebuilt, you can glue them in the missing points with special mastic for the metal. For cutting use a thin disc for cutting iron.
Once dry, smooth everything, apply body filler and finish with the sander. I recommend a classic small orbital sander with adjustable speed.
Ceiling and side walls insulation
If you start the insulation procedure from the ceiling and side walls, you can work by walking on the floor without damaging anything.
The vans have cross crosspiece supporting the body. Compared to the simple body you they consist of a sort of boxed with round corners that protrude towards the passenger compartment. They are often punctured. To thermally insulate them you can fill them with polyurethane foam.
Polyurethane foam is an excellent spray insulator.
When spraying, from its liquid state it expands reaching double volumes. It adheres to any type of substrate. It is very suitable for hard to reach areas and for filling cracks and holes.
Be careful handling it, like many materials used in insulation it is carcinogenic: cover up well and use a mask with suitable filters. Always use gloves and cover the work area since it is very difficult to remove until dry.
If you use XPS or EPS panels for the ceiling, I recommend that you choose the same thickness as the crossbars. In this way you do not reduce the height of the passenger compartment, and you will go to exploit an otherwise unusable space.
Shape the panels and snap them into the walls. Use polyurethane foam to seal any mistakes and imperfections.
To keep the panel in place while the foam dries, prop it up with battens. This process may seem a bit cumbersome to you but it is the only way to avoid making mistakes. You will have a lot less effort if you ask someone for help, especially when you work high above your head.
Floor and bulkhead insulation
If your vehicle has a high roof and allows you to stand comfortably, for the floor I suggest to choose polystyrene at least 4 cm thick. Otherwise, if the roof is very low and you have no other options, choose 2 cm panels with greater insulating properties.
The most popular panels are in 100 cm x 50 cm format. I recommend you to cut them into 50 cm x 50 cm blocks using a ruler, a square, a sharp utility knife and a permanent marker. Two blocks will then come out of each panel.
Build a grid (I used wood but you could opt for aluminum, safer in case of an accident) with 50 cm x 50 cm gaps, using separators of the same thickness as the blocks, making sure that the perimeter of the grille touches the walls of the van.
Inside the spaces insert the styrofoam blocks you cut. The grid is used to make the floor stable and walkable once mounted, minimizing the risk of breakthrough.
To cut the strips use a angle grinder with a circular blade for metal, the thinner the blade and the smaller the teeth are, the more precise the cut will be. If you find that cuts are bad, proceed to cut more slowly.
Take the internal measurements of the van and proceed to assemble the grill on the outside, preferably on a smooth, regular and clean surface.
Arrange the parts of the grid on the ground and join them together, you can drill them and use nuts and bolts or you can use a welding machine for aluminum.
Place the grille inside the vehicle and fit the blocks together. If there are gaps between them and the grille, fill them with polyurethane foam. Once dry, cut the excess with a cutter. Do not underestimate this step: you have no idea how much of the tiny openings can affect the insulation.
More often - as in my case - the shape of the airframe and wheel arches prevents the use of only blocks of 50cm x 50cm. If you need to make blocks of different sizes, you can number them and photograph their arrangement to remember how they should be arranged.
The grid, once completed with the panels and covered with the flooring, will remain fixed to the ground. If you want you can anchor it to the body using long self-tapping screws that will bind it to the iron of the van. If you do, pay close attention to what you are going to drill.
My advice is to avoid this step, both because it is useless and because if you do not anchor the floor, everything will remain removable and without permanent changes.
If the passenger compartment of the van is separated from the cabin by a bulkhead (as in older vans) you can use the same procedure you used for the flooring (a wooden grid with blocks made from the panels).
It is common to remove the bulkhead to have direct access to the cabin and access it without exiting the vehicle.
I recommend you not to remove it, as with the cabin, the doors and the windows, is the largest thermal bridge: the greatest heat loss is created there. Having an insulated bulkhead really means a lot in terms of energy saving.
Keep in mind that its removal is illegal too and, in case of control by the competent authorities, it can result in the administrative stop of the vehicle with a financial penalty, obligation to reassemble and new revision.
For maximum insulation efficiency, you will also need to insulate the door panels.
Open them is simple: just remove the screws that anchor the panels to the bodywork. If there are rivets instead of screws, use a strong iron bit as large as the center of the thread to drill it. Don’t go too deep, just a few millimeters are enough to blow up the fillet.
Often the panel is held in place by special plastic pulsoirs. In this case you will have to go very slowly trying to move them away.
Under the panel you will probably find a plastic veil: try to lift it and move it away without damaging it: when you replace the doors you will have to reposition the veil by gluing it with scotch tape: you can use the wide brown one from packages.
Once the plastic veil has been moved, you may find insulation: rock wool, sheep’s wool or compact insulation material. In such cases, evaluate if the insulation is sufficient. If you think it is not, you can replace it with more insulating material, taking care not to damage anything.
Since these are the rear and the side doors there should be no window levers. But there could be various connections.
Once you have a full view of the contents of the door, enter the van and ask someone to open and close the door, turn the key, and lower and raise the safety. Observe all the movement of the mechanics and the electrical connections, certainly present in the rear doors.
Once you know how all the parts are arranged shape pieces of foam rubber with a cutter and put it in the door. Then open and close the doors and be shure the levers remaining secured and protected.
I recommend that you run any electrical wires through a black corrugated. You can find it in electrical or construction stores. Protect the ends of the electrical wires with shaped foam as previously done for the levers. When you are sure that everything still works, you can insert polystyrene inside the door, block it and fill all the cracks with polyurethane foam.
Once this process is finished, close the doors and proceed to reassemble the panels in reverse of how you removed them.
Coating with multilayer heat reflective insulation
Once the first and most important layer of insulating material has been made on the floor, ceiling and walls, you will have to overlap the whole with a layer of multilayer thermal reflective insulation such as Reflectix.
This flexible aluminum reflective material adapts to the shapes of the van and is very easily installed through a spray glue. If used together with ESP or XPS panels, it greatly increases the thermal insulation.
Once the insulation has been completed its the time for walls, ceiling and floor.
Ceiling, walls and bulkhead coating
For camper vans interior plywood sheets is very popular. In Anglo-Saxon countries wood is also widely used.
But these are heavy and bulky materials, unsuitable for an extended surface such as the one we have to cover. Furthermore, wood is banned from the new homologations rules because of is danger in violent impacts.
What are the best materials for lining the interior of an converted van?
For van , as for campers and caravans in my opinion the ideal coating for walls and ceiling are pressed cardboard panels (similar to briar) with a hard surface, suitably cut and shaped. They have an average cost of 10 euros but can also be found for less.
The briar-like material is easy to cut and shape, light, thin and easy to clean.
Once you have the material, you can lean it against the wall and fix it to the crossbars (ceiling and sides) or to the wooden grid (the divider) with self-tapping screws. Be careful that they are shorter than the thickness of the crossbars (otherwise you will go to drill the external bodywork).
It is better if you have someone to help you, better other 2 persons holding the panel while you put the screws. Complete the last few screw’s turns by hand, not to sink the screw too far into the panel, otherwise it will not support it.
If the panel needs to be reduced, take the measurements, bring them to the panel placed on equidistant wooden trestles (three are better than two) and cut it.
Use headphones and a mask respirator with dust filters.
For cutting I do not recommend jigsaw, fretwork, table saw, cutter or other manual tools. Best results are achieved by using a small angle grinder with disc for wood. If it is variable speed, it is better to set it to the minimum.
For a great work when you cover the ceiling, first place the entire panels in the center of the vehicle and then the reduced ones to the sides.
For color and fantasy, the choice is up to you. I only found very dark walnut panels, that in my opinion make the environment too dark.
If you don’t like this material or if is not a problem to spend a little more you can use thin plastic panels or VTR.
Motorhomes, caravans and equipped vans use self-adhesive plastic or vinyl tiles.
In the past, I recommended real parquet or interlocking wooden blocks. Here what I have already corrected regarding wood applies (danger in the event of a violent collision with the vehicle).
The best material is probably aluminum, which can be covered with pressed parquet or vinyl tiles. If we apply a layer of VTR between the aluminum and the insulation, we obtain greater insulation.
Once the aluminum sheets has been cut, they can be screwed to the floor grid. With an indelible marker you can draw lines that mark the layout of the grid since once the aluminum is covered it will no longer be visible.
For an aesthetically beautiful job placing them in a mirror-like equidistant way, choosing screws of appropriate length.
Insulation of windows
Once the your vehicle’s body is completely insulated, the residual heat bridges must be eliminated, i.e. those parts that continue to cause heat exchange, causing it to be dispersed in winter and its access in summer.
The main heat bridges of an RV - in addition to the doors and cabin - are the windows.
The most practical, efficient and least expensive means of blocking the flow of heat through glass are blinds. I advise you to choose thick reflective blinds with strong insulating power.
If you combine these with curtains you will have more privacy. For our Fiat Ducato we created curtains with a light-colored fabric, not to block the light.
Behind the rear blinds we have installed classic sliding motorhome blinds, which allow us to completely darken the passenger compartment from light, protecting it more from outside temperatures. However, we recommend only furniture and upholstered blinds, due to the greater insulating properties.
For the cabin windows we chose padded and reflective campers thermal blinds. Online you can find its specific blinds for each vehicle. We do not recommend buying the material and making them yourself since the cost is higher and the final result is hardly satisfactory.
Outfitting of the van: the furniture
From this section begins the real conversion of the van.
The time has come to think about the furnishing of your traveling room: bed type, kitchen, bathroom and other furniture.
Finally, especially if like us, you will not use the vehicle only occasionally - but plan to live there several months a year - crossing entire countries and perhaps continents, you will have to build the systems.
European legislation (except German and Swiss)
Can I legally convert a van into a camper?
In most of Europe (expect in Germany and Switzerland) the laws are quite prohibitive.
Italian law is probabily the most severe legislation. It leaves no possibility to convert a van into a camper if is over ten years old. In any case even if vehicles has younger it makes the procedure practically impossible if you are not authorized fitters.
The rest of Europe has complicated but viable procedures for a legal conversion with permanent modifications to the vehicle structure. Normally it is necessary to have a project drawn up by an engineer (or other professional figure) and carry out the work in a workmanlike manner (openings, system installations, etc.) and have the certifications for the systems.
In any case (in Italy and in the rest of Europe) it is forbidden to modify the structure of the vehicles without a new homologation (or an equal technical test with annotation in the booklet). Therefore, if the category of your van is not an RV, the furniture cannot be fixed to the structure.
Can I always convert a van with a removable set-up?
In many countries trucks are mostly commercial vehicles, purchased in the professional activity to enjoy tax advantages. Their use is allowed only and exclusively to transport things for that activity. If you live in a country where there is this difference and you want to camperize a van without incurring penalties, you must not register it as a commercial vehicle but as truck for own use.
How to convert a van according to law
Where is not possible to transform the category of your veicle into a camper you can convert your van in accordance with the law with a completely removable conversion.
Removable structures are structures that can be dismantled with no need of tools (not even a screwdriver). How to do? Through hooks and interlocking games. We used both.
So no problem if you opt for removable structures, which in effect are a load and nothing more.
This is the choice of those who want to travel with no risking disputes that can go as far as the withdrawal of the registration certificate.
The entire set-up must be removable and nothing can be fixed to the frame.
Solutions for a legal motorhome
You can buy an RV kit, build the furniture yourself if you have some DIY experience or use recycled furniture, perhaps appropriately modified.
Purchase of a conversion kit
The first solution is to purchase a removable camper kit from a builder. Searching on the internet, or contacting specialized centers, you will find camper-kits for all tastes and budgets, in every style and size. Most are made of wood, that as already written is better to avoid.
Self-construction of the stand
Another solution - not always the cheapest, but certainly the most personalized - is the self-construction of the set-up. Almost certain if you are on this page this is the solution you are looking for.
But how to find the right inspiration?
Design of the outfitting of the converted van
Where to find ideas for fitting out converted vans
Many people around the world have embarked on a do-it-yourself camper van project.
In addition to relying on this guide, you can take a cue from forums, social networks, blogs or buy e-books that deal with the conversion. Ask people like you who have a passion for camping, You can even give a look to camper vans you see parked. Vanlifers are almost always super happy and proud to share their knowledge and projects with others!
Pinterest and Instagram
Many of these solutions are great for American and Australian buses and large vehicles, but not for spaces and kind of vans we have here in Europe. Other ideas - especially folding and interlocking furniture - are really useful and worth taking inspiration from.
Van conversion: making the set-up
Once you have chosen the van, insulated and found the inspiration for the interiors, it’s time to convert.
The interior layout depends on 3 main elements: the bed, the kitchen and the bathroom. In the camperization of your van you can choose the layout you prefer.
The best way to tackle this stage without making mistakes is to prepare a paper draft of your campervan project. A drawing will help you understand the right proportions. Take the interior measurements of the vehicle and, after reading the rest of the guide on beds, cunine and bathrooms for RVs, start thinking about the future layout.
For the your campervan design you can use SketchUp, a 3D computer graphics application. There are many free design templates you can download.
Once you completed your layout project, you will need to reproduce the position of the furniture inside the van with paper tape both on the floor and on the walls.
Do you like the layout? You find it comfortable enough? If so, you can move on to the construction phase, otherwise you will have to go back to the design phase, making the changes you want.
Don’t skimp on the size of the bed! You can reduce the size of everything, but not the bed! Having a comfortable bed to sleep in after a long day traveling is the best thing!
You have several solutions to prepare the bed of your converted van: fixed bed, folding bed, sofa bed, dinette bed, foldaway bed, up-down bed, folding bed, bed above the roof (air-camping, Maggiolina).
If the spaces allow it, you should make a bed that can always remain open, because I assure you that undoing and redoing it every day after a while becomes heavy. Non-fixed beds, on the other hand, allow you to optimize space when not in use.
Folding bed and sliding bed
Widely used configurations are the folding bed and the sliding bed. The folding bed can be made to trasform it into a sofa when not sleeping. The sliding bed is similar to the folding one but the extraction of the part that contains the slats happens by sliding instead of overlapping the two parts that compose it.
The foldaway bed is none other than the vehicle version of the fold-away beds. It can be composed of a single part that when closed is hidden in a wardrobe (quite difficult to make if space is limited) or of 2, 3 or 4 parts that fold up against the walls.
Up-down bed (or tilting bed)
The up-down bed (or drop-down bed) uses mechanical systems (electronic or manual) to move the bed up to the ceiling when not sleeping, leaving the van cabin completely free during the day. It needs a high roof.
The pull-out bed is positioned in the folding roof. It can be fixed or removable. The removable ones leave more space but generally use very thin mattresses and therefore less comfortable.
Bed on the roof
Another solution is to use a roof tent. The space saving in the passenger compartment of the vehicle is significant and sleeping high solves humidity problems. You can also create a passage between the vehicle and the tent through a porthole in the roof and a hole in the base of the tent properly connected and insulated.
The folding bed and the roof tent are not suitable for too harsh climates (especially cold) and their placement - between us and the outside there is only a sheet - means less safety.
Halfway between the fixed and mobile beds is the dinette: one of the most versatile solutions also most used in camping vehicles such as campers, vans, caravans, tent trailers. The dinette is a bed that converts into a table with two sofas at either end.
Generally, European campers (excluding camper vans) have two dinettes, one in the center and one in the rear of the vehicle, to always have a table and a bed available.
In our midst the spaces were really limited and working on the computer we always need to have a table to lean on during the day. So we opted for the construction of a dinette.
The choice of the mattress
For the mattress I suggest you buy foam rubber with a thickness of at least 10 cm and medium density.
The expense for foam rubber is quite high (it can exceed 100 euros for a mattress-sized block), so if you manage to retrieve it from a disused camper or caravan you will set aside a certain amount that you can use for other.
I was lucky. I got it new from a frien because after making a change it no longer fit the bed of his camper.
Unlike classic mattresses, foam rubber is a plastic material that can be easily cleaned with water and amonia on sunny days. It hardly gets dirty or smells and only gets corrupted if it is very old and has been subjected to bad weather for a long time.
To cut it and build the cushions for the dinette I used a very sharp cutter and then I burned the parts that were uneven. Burning foam rubber is toxic (it produces dioxins and other harmful products) and danger for the risk of uncontrolled fires.
There is a special electric tool for cutting hot foam rubber, but I do not recommend it, as it produces a lot of smoke and the final result is not really satisfactory.
If you have a block of foam rubber and you need to cut it take it to cut to the appropriate companies. If you can’t find a company that takes care of the cut, turn to those who sell foam rubber, they can often also offer the cutting service at a very little price.
Hila took care of the upholstery of the cushions - like the curtains - with impeccable skill.
When we sleep we use common mattress covers, sheets and blankets for one and a half beds. We prefer cotton because it is cooler than terry cloth. If you live near markets or malls you can buy them there. Otherwise on Amazon you can find mattress covers in cotton and terry very affordable for all sizes.
For someone, the presence of a bathroom, with toilet and shower is not essential. In this way they reserve the space for other uses. For others, shower and toilet are essential. Especially if you plan on using the van for long periods, visiting crowded areas and not going camping, a shower and toilet are almost a must.
One of the most practical and popular solutions in motorhomes was (until recently) the chemical toilet. The chemical toilet is a mobile toilet or a toilet equipped with a removable tank that can be removed and discharged at a waste water collection point.
The most popular chemical toilets are the Porta Potti.
There are also chemical toilets with built-in bidets, even if it is not easy to find them.
Before this solution, campers were equipped with toilets similar to those of the house and with a fixed tank. However, having the drainage points for fixed tanks of dark water become increasingly unavailable in recent years, manufacturers have switched to chemical toilets with removable tanks.
In the last 5 years, many campers and vanlifers have adopted a much more practical solution that eliminates one of the main problems of nomadic life: the drainage of dark water.
The toilet is replaced with a very handy bucket-shaped tool that has an integrated toilet seat at the top. Inside this are placed disposable biodegradable plastic bags.
For liquids (especially urine) another tool is used, suitable for both women and men. Another solution is to use biodegradable bags with sawdust inside.
If we also use biodegradable toilet paper, once the toilet is used, the bag can be thrown into the waste bins, just like the bags used to collect dog waste.
Other people who live permanently in campers (especially groups of people) dig large ditches in nature which they commonly refer to as “shit pit”. If you are a hippie, this solution could probably be for you. However, we would like to advise against it as human waste that has not been specially treated, although biodegradable, can be a vehicle for serious diseases and even epidemics.
For the toilet location think about the space you have available. If you have a large vehicle you can create a separate room with bathroom and shower, otherwise you should reserve a hidden place for it that, however, allows you to use it at any time. Even when the bed is assembled.
In place of the bidet (as for the shower), a faucet with a pull-out hand shower is generally used.
For our Ducato we initially took inspiration from Pinterest, creating the housing for the toilet inside one of the two chests of the dinette, but this made it unusable at night. We therefore decided to come up with a different solution.
Inside it it is possible to insert a container for the water (from the shower) and the toilet, hidden for the rest of the time in a special housing but always reachable. For example, you can use a compartment with a sliding base at the lowest point of a wardrobe.
We realized after two months of full time vanlife that the use of this pool, although space-saving (when the pool folds up it can be housed without taking up any space), is quite impractical.
The fact that it folds makes it very easy to unintentionally close during use and given the very thin material in which the base is made, it is easily perforated.
We therefore decided to opt for the replacement with a plastic-rubble bucket, costing about 15 euros. Solution that turned out to be really functional.
We use the kitchen sink as a hand shower. Not having found a pull-out sink suitable for installation on our sink, we cut the last part of the kitchen sink and connected this hand shower purchased from Decathlon (at the cost of 9 euros).
Those with pressure specific for campers and boats are more uncomfortable but save a lot of water compared to those with continuous flow.
If space is not a problem, you could instead build a real bathroom with walls and door completely insulated towards the inside, and a shower tray.
In this case, a space must be reserved for the tank. Avoid making a hole in the floor and dumping on the street. Not only for the hefty fines but also because such behavior transmits to others a bad image of campers and van life lovers, fueling a negative feeling that many already have towards us. Furthermore, if not perfectly sealed when the vehicle is in motion, the exhaust gas will enter the passenger compartment.
Water heating will be dealt with in the appropriate section on systems.
The kitchen can be internal or, if the height of the van does not allow it, at the bottom with external access from the rear. But it can also be mobile.
Cooking in the open air gives a feeling of unattainable freedom. However, he considers that the weather is not always beautiful. This is why it is possible to cook inside as well.
Attention: If you want to use a gas tank in the van, you must prepare a ventilation grille completely open to the outside to allow any gas leaks to escape and isolate the tank from the passenger compartment. Opening that is not feasible for our legislation
The choice of the sink must be made taking into consideration your eating habits first and foremost.
For example, my wife and I have a mainly vegan and light diet, very low in oils. For us, lunch and dinner are quick breaks between one activity and another. We often eat out of the van and generally stick to very simple meals.
It is clear that with these habits, which lead us to dirty few dishes and to minimize the use of crockery, it would make no sense to install a large sink or even a double basin.
Completely different needs for those with a larger family or a diet that includes very greasy foods. In this case, if you have enough space, it would be better to opt for a larger sink.
As an alternative to the fixed stove you can use a mobile stove that allows you to cook both inside than outside the vehicle. For a long time we have used the two-burner one from Campingaz.
However, it counts that these stoves force you to change cylinders on average once a week, involving further expenditure of time (in searching for the cylinder), pollution (cylinders are disposable) and costs, compared to a common cylinder.
This solution is therefore valid only if you plan to use the vehicle for a few short trips.
If you have enough space, you could opt for a fixed stove (even with regard to the classic cylinder there are very conflicting opinions on the legality of its transport) and take a mobile stove with you, to be used in an emergency.
The induction hob
Another option, which we plan to implement shortly, is the use of a induction hob .
The induction hob allows you to cook in a green way, at no cost and in complete safety (we will not have to carry any cylinder with you), it is very thin and less heavy than the classic cookers and if not fixed it can be removed with ease.
On the other hand, consumption is very high, it requires an inverter with a maximum peak capable of withstanding its absorption, very large accumulators and possibly a 24 Volt or higher system (instead of the classic 12).
We currently have a 12 volt system and a 200 Ah accumulator, which, although largely oversized for our needs, would be too discharged using a common induction hob. Our inverter is also not suitable.
If the problem is only the inverter, there are commercially available induction hobs with temperature regulations and hence wattage. The food will cook more slowly but with a much lower instantaneous power consumption. However, there remains the need to increase the storage capacity and preferably to upgrade the system voltage.
Having a fridge in your converted van is really convenient. There are all kinds and sizes. The choice depends on your needs and the space you have available in your van.
The portable fridge
They are the classic car refrigerators,powered by the lighter cable with top opening and fan. They are seen very often in summer, especially at the seaside.
They consume a lot, cool little and as soon as you open them they disperse all the accumulated coolness (to put it simply, it is actually the heat that is extracted).
The 12 Volt fixed fridge with fixed compressor
The 12 Volt fixed fridge with fixed compressor has, as the name implies, the built-in compressor.
Being 12 Volt it can be powered directly from the solar panel through a charge regulator that stabilizes and rectifies current and voltage.
The 12 Volt fixed fridge with mobile compressor
Identical to the 12 Volt fixed fridge with fixed compressor, the 12 Volt fixed fridge with mobile compressor differs from it in having a separate compressor.
A not insignificant utility, especially for camperized vans where space is always a critical issue. In fact, it means having the possibility to place the fridge under the kitchen and install the compressor inside a piece of furniture or a chest.
If the compressor is mobile, be careful not to bend the hose too much and to ensure that it flows into a sheltered place: it is under pressure and piercing it further damages the fridge and can be dangerous.
The 220 Volt fixed fridge with compressor
The typical home refrigerators, but there are also specific models for campers, caravans and camperized vans.
Operation is identical to that of fixed 12 Volt refrigerators with compressor, except that it is powered at 220 V, so it must be connected to the inverter or to an electric column.
Also in this case there are both with mobile compressor and with fixed compressor.
The trivalent fridge (12V, 220V, LPG)
The trivalent refrigerator has a switch that allows you to set the type of power supply. Generally, a 12 Volt power supply is used when traveling, with the leisure battery parallel to the main one, so that it uses the charging current that comes from the engine alternator.
The 220 V power supply via a wheel - typically when connected to an electric column in a campsite or rest area - and to LPG gas, again via a wheel and piezoelectric ignition - for when we are stationary and do not have a power source.
In the trivalent refrigerator a flame heats the refrigerant liquid of the coil (which in compressor operation is nebulized by this) to vaporize it and force its circulation. Circulation that serves to take away the heat from inside the fridge.
Like other instruments that use gas, trivalent refrigerators must be installed in a compartment open to the outside that allows the products of combustion and any gas leaks to escape, they consume enough current because they have fans powered at 12V which extract air and heat, must be revised periodically and cannot be powered by LPG while the vehicle is running - the law prohibits it. Furthermore, the flame tends to go out in the event of wind, turning off the fridge.
The freezer: freezer compartment, yes or no
All these types of refrigerators often have a freezer compartment, but there are also without one.
Generally on the body of the fridge or inside there is a wheel that allows you to change the power-temperature.
I recommend, if you opt to install a fridge, to choose a model with a freezer compartment.
In this case, be careful if the fridge has a single temperature selector for both the fridge and the freezer, if you lower the temperature too much the freezer will no longer freeze.
The fridge: the energy class
The energy class shown in the fridge specifications is scarcely representative of consumption as it indicates efficiency. To evaluate the influence of consumption on the battery, the interesting parameter to evaluate the consumption is the annual watt consumption.
The fridge: which one to choose
The best refrigerators in terms of performance and most suitable for non-approved camper vans are without a doubt the 12V and 220V compressor ones. They cool quickly and consume relatively little. Usually 12 Volt refrigerators are smaller in size and consume less.
We leave aside the trivalent refrigerators due to the problems related to gas and above all the impossibility of legally opening openings for the vent of fumes and heat in the bodywork.
The fridge: the location
In RV vehicles the classic position for the refrigerator is under the sink or under the stove. However, if the dimensions do not allow you to install it in that position, you can opt to mount it on the side or in a compartment inside the wardrobe.
Fridge compressor: how to reduce the compressor noise
You can reduce the noise of the compressor - annoying especially at night - by building around it a chamber lined with sound-absorbing and insulating material, and mount the compressor on springs stiff enough to withstand its weight and oscillations.
The fridge: do you really need it?
If you have a powerful sound system (600 watts or more) and a large storage (500 ah or more) and you are in a particularly sunny area, installing a fridge is not a problem.
But, if one of these prerequisites is missing, the fridge (even a simple 12 Volt fridge) is, (immediately after the induction plate, the hair dryer, the oven and the electric radiator) the most absorbying energy tool.
For someone living without a fridge may seem impossible. I assure you that it is absolutely possible. Although our system allows us to use the fridge, we like to know that, even on cloudy days, we can count on a good reserve of energy.
This is why we decided to experiment our fridge-free life. And it worked.
We initially excluded the fridge at night. Since where we stay temperatures never exceed 22 degrees during the day, the internal temperature of the fridge at night, even when it is turned off, never drops too much.
The next step was to get rid of the fridge and buy fresh food day by day. We have found that this is the best solution for our needs. I specify again, for clarity, that we do not eat meat, milk and dairy products, eggs or frozen products.
If we buy products that after opening would need to be kept cool (for example, I go crazy for gazpacho and my wife uses plant-based milk a lot), we choose recipes that allow us to use the entire package in the day.
Converted van electrical system: why it is worth having it
The installation of an electrical system is not strictly necessary if you use your van for very short trips and travel with the bare minimum and without appliances or heating.
It is certain, however, that lighting and the possibility of charging mobile phones, tablets and maybe your laptop really make the difference.
Be careful! Design and installation of an electrical system is a serious matter. In addition to the known danger of electric shocks, making mistakes can lead to fires, which especially while we sleep can have lethal consequences.
If you do not have the necessary knowledge to work safely, ask a professional for advice. If this expense falls outside your budget, at least have the process explained and request a final check with verification. It costs much less than having the system built and will allow you to travel safely and sleep peacefully.
How to make a converted van electrical system: the components
The main components are the storage, the inverter and the generator.
Electrical storage: the battery:
To have an electricity reserve that allows you to power the devices even at night, you need to accumulate the energy obtained from a generator (solar panel, wind turbine, generator or electric column).
The batteries perform the storage function.
In habitable veicles (campers, caravans, boats with cabs) is made a functional distinction between main batteries, which are used to start the vehicle or to operate the electric engine, and service batteries, which allow electricity to powering and recharging the user devices, as if we were connected to the home electrical system.
To power your devices you need to install at least one leisure battery.
I advise you not to use the main battery of the vehicle to power the devices, unless you are traveling (with the van in motion).
The battery: which type to choose
The main types of batteries are lead, AGM, gel and lithium.
The battery: the correct voltage
Which voltage to choose for the leisure battery of the RV?
The most common voltage ratings are 6 volts, 12 volts, 24 volts. There are also intermediate tensions. Actually the voltages are only indicative, but the charged battery when it is still fully efficient generally has a voltage higher than that stated. This I tell you only for your knowledge: it does not affect the system in any way.
The batteries used in standard-sized European motorhomes and motorized vans have, like those in cars, a voltage of 12 volts. A higher voltage system (24V, 48V) is safer - for several reasons that I will not discuss in this guide - but because of the wide use of 12 Volt on European RVs - I will take care of this.
The battery: where to house it
Electrical accumulations are a source of risk. If damaged, they can explode, catapulting the internal metal parts outward like bullets. If vapors build up and a spark is generated the vehicle can explode. It happens very often in boats. Batteries that are not hermetically sealed can then release harmful, even fatal, vapors.
For this reason, the correct use, the periodic checks but also the arrangement are aspects that should not be underestimated.
But where is the safest place to place the battery?
The best choice is certainly in special resistant lockers and with openings for the release of vapors (and any bursts) outside the passenger compartment of the vehicle. Solution that is exploited by many camper manufacturers, but often impractical in camperized vans.
How to do it then?
If we have a bike carrier or towbar carrier that sticks out, we could make a compartment for the leisure battery above it.
If we do not have this accessory and we want a good compromise between safety and practicality, my advice is to house the battery in an easily ventilated compartment and as far as possible from where we sleep, at least from where we keep our heads. Even better if a thick metal plate adequately insulated from the battery is interposed on the three sides of the battery facing the passenger compartment.
The inverter: from 12 V to 220 V
To use the appliances that you connect to home plugs (those that cannot be powered by a USB socket or by a lighter cable) you will need to convert the battery current from 12 V to 220 V.
The device that performs this function is called inverter. Connect the positive (red) cable to the battery positive and the negative (black) cable to the battery negative. Once connected, if the battery is charged, you can use the electrical socket on the inverter as a normal house plug.
Attention! The inverter can withstand the maximum load for which it is designed and which is declared on the data sheet. Exceeding the load capacity can burn the fuse, damage the inverter or worse, cause fires. The inverter, especially with high loads, heats up, it is always good to provide good ventilation (possibly also through accessory fans) and turn it off when we move away from the vehicle and when we sleep, in order to prevent fires. Do not use extension cables!
Current generators: photovoltaic panel, wind turbine, generator, electric column
Once you have positioned the battery and connected the inverter you will have the possibility to charge both the 12 V devices directly from the battery (e.g. mobile phone, tablet, smartwatch, water pump, 12V fridge), and other users from the socket inverter (computer, vacuum cleaner, etc.).
After a while, however, the battery power reserve will run out. If you want the battery to continue to supply current you need a generator to recharge it.
The power generators used on campers and camper vans are essentially of two types: from non-renewable sources and from renewable sources.
Old, wasteful, polluting and usually noisy the most used non-renewable energy generators are the petrol power generators (a diesel or petrol engine that produces electricity when turning) and the charging columns present in the campsites (similar to those for electric cars).
Renewable energy generators, on the other hand, are ecological, silent and produce electricity at no cost. The most used on motorhomes and converted vans are photovoltaic panels and wind turbines.
The photovoltaic panels have a lower efficiency than wind turbines and take up much more space. However, they can be used in any condition as long as the camper is exposed outside. In order to obtain energy from wind turbines, however, we must necessarily be in a place subject to wind.(Unfortunately, we did not find a professional motorhome wind turbine on Amazon, from the reviews it seems to us that those on Amazon are not efficient enough).
If we are close to the sea, in the mountains or in other windy places then no problem, but in the city and in the plains it is better to also have photovoltaic panels.
Other ways to keep the battery charged
If you are at home and use renewable energy generators but the weather conditions do not allow a full charge of the batteries you can use a car and motorcycle type battery charger. The higher the amperage the faster the battery will charge.
I do not recommend that you charge the leisure battery directly from the alternator. Better if the battery of the services is always charged by a stabilized current.
In fact, to be able to charge the leisure battery from the alternator without risk of damage you should use a parallelator combined with a charge regulator dedicated exclusively to this purpose.
The best solution is to use a “parallelator” between the leisure battery and the engine battery, but mounted in the opposite sense, that is, using it to charge the engine battery from the solar panels once the leisure battery is fully charged.
How to make the converted van electrical system: calculation of energy consumption
Now that you know the main components of an electrical system for a converted van (or camper), it’s time to estimate energy consumption.
Take a pen and paper and list the devices you plan to use and indicate their consumption for each device. You can find them on devices - for those that run at 220 - or on the power supply - for those that need to be charged and run at 12V -. Once you have the list of electrical loads that you will use, and their consumption, you can proceed with the sizing of the system.
- For devices without transformers, divide the Watts indicated on the appliance by 220 Volts (the domestic voltage) to obtain the Amps. Multiply by the number of hours of use to get the daily amphs.
- For devices with transformer, multiply the Amps by the Volts indicated on the transformer to obtain the Watts and proceed as above to obtain the daily Amph.
How to make the electrical system of the converted van: The electrical panel and the control unit
Once you know the consumption and based on these you have sized your generator, your battery and chosen the appropriate inverter, you will need to create the electrical panel with all the connections.
Then, if you want to carry out a work of art and safety, you can take care of the construction of the control unit with differential switch (life-saving), magnetothermic, battery switch (from solar panels to battery), second battery switch (from battery to users), fuse to protect all 12 volt users, and anything else you may need.
When positioning the electrical panel, take into account the path that the cables will take, trying to keep them as short as possible, to avoid electrical dispersions and overheating.
It is very important to use cables of the correct section because otherwise they can heat up and generate fires. The section of the cables is written on the product sheet and is also shown on the insulation that surrounds the copper.
The cables of the lamps must have a minimum diameter of 1.5 mm, but it is always better to over-tension. I recommend you to use 2.5mm cables.
For electrical sockets 2.5 mm cables are suitable. I have used them since 4. Do not exceed in making plugs inside the van, you will not need them and connecting several tools in series on a single main cable involves high risks of fire.
For users with high absorption (fridge, water pump and the like) 4 mm cables should be sufficient but for more safety you can use the 6 mm ones.
Lighting and wiring
The best solution for lighting is to use LEDs. They have very low energy consumption and heat very little, reducing the risk of fire.
Once you have arranged the lights, the wire will go through the electrical conduits. I recommend the external ones in white plastic with a rectangular or square section. There are both adhesive and screw. The adhesive bands do not hold, so even if you use these, drill and screw them.
Place the conduits and connect the electrical wires.
Another tip I want to give you is to not attach anything to the van structure (ceiling, walls, floor and doors), not even lamps, but use the furniture as a support. In addition to keeping you in full legality, this allows you to avoid any type of intervention on the vehicle, keeping a cell that is always new and intact.
So if you want to replace furniture or mount it on another vehicle, complete with lights and systems, you will have everything ready and it will be a matter of a few minutes.
Air heating for your converted van
In order not to suffer from the cold during the winter - or in the mountains, especially in the evening - you can set up a stove or another heating system for vans and campers in your converted van.
The most used heating solutions are: portable electric stove, fixed oil heating, fixed gas heating, heating with solar panel.
Portable electric heater
It heats a lot but consumes a lot. It’s dangerous. Especially low-priced and plastic ones are at risk of fire (first-hand experience). The new electric heaters are safer, but even if you choose this option don’t fall asleep and don’t leave the stove running if you can’t control it.
Fixed diesel heating
They use the fuel present in a special tank (or in the vehicle’s tank but in this case it is necessary to insertion of a tube inside it). They cost between 500 and 900 euros (the branded ones, while the Chinese versions are around 200 euros).
It is important that the installation is carried out by a competent person.
If we want to do it independently and we are sure we are capable of it, we follow the instructions in detail, especially the safety warnings.
The best known are Webasto, Eberspächer and Planar.
In our van, after using only the solar panel for months, we decided - on the advice of a dear French friend - to install a diesel heater. More precisely, a Chinese-made diesel heater, better known as Chinasto.
Unexpectedly valid choice. Although he is by no means a supporter of non-renewable energies and much less a fan of Chinese imitations, this type of heating allows you to obtain a lot of heat practically without consumption or costs.
If the vehicle is small and well insulated, in about 20 minutes you get a temperature that allows you to sleep warm all night. In areas with mild climates, we spend about 5 euros on fuel per month in winter, lighting it every evening. Seeing is believing.
Fixed gas heating
By gas heating we mean the LPG stove (the most used in motorhomes and converted vans are the Truma).
The stove must be installed by a competent person. Even more than for the risks associated with the gas supply, for the danger of any leaks from the exhausts. And the number of deaths due to carbon monoxide from this type of stove is so big.
In fact, in addition to the need for ventilation grids, the exhausts towards the outside of the vehicle of the combustion products, including carbon monoxide, must be absolutely functional and sealed towards the inside.
In addition to having to go to a competent and certified installer, get a serious toxic gas detector that will - hopefully - warn you in case of leaks.
Warning! Some use portable gas stoves powered by butane cartridges. Avoid, the consequences can be tragic! As is always indicated by the manufacturers, they should only be used outdoors (e.g. in a lawn or on a boat) because they burn oxygen, produce carbon monoxide and have no combustion exhaust pipes.
Solar panel heating
Have you ever thought about it? You can use a solar panel even on a van.
Solar panels are not the ones we talked about earlier when dealing with power generators: those are photovoltaic panels.
Solar panels are commonly referred to as panels that heat the air or water through the sun.
The principle behind solar panels is that of the greenhouse.
In fact, the solar panel is nothing more than a rigid and flat greenhouse consisting of a black box (in metal, wood or other material) with a transparent rigid lid in which the air, or water, coming from the outside makes a path to spiral, labyrinth or other type, so that by lengthening its stay inside the panel it heats up.
The sun’s rays are captured by the black but cannot escape because they are held back by the plastic cover.
A solar panel of 50 x 50 cm self-built in summer allows the air to be brought from room temperature to temperatures exceeding 70 degrees.
With a single solar panel measuring 1 meter by 50 cm, huts and bungalows up to 40 square meters are heated.
An average converted van has an area of 8 square meters. If we consider the heatable surface, therefore the cubic meters, the gap from that of the houses increases even more. This is because the van has a lower roof than the ceiling and is largely occupied by the fittings.
The solar panel for air heating is ecological and does not even affect the battery’s electricity consumption, except for one or two fans that are used to channel the air that arrives from the outside towards the inside of the cockpit.
Solar panels have the disadvantage of costing a lot (even 2000 euros) and it is still difficult to find specific ones for campers. It is also necessary that they are made of light material and securely fastened to the roof of the van, even better if anchored to a specially made rigid structure.
For the construction of the handcrafted solar panel that I mounted on my van, I enlisted the help of a French fitter whom I was lucky enough to meet while on vacation in Turin
Using a solar panel for hot air does not only mean having a non-polluting and zero-cost heating system. behind electric.
What is the best heating system
The solution that we believe best - and for which we have opted - is the use of a solar panel together with a fixed diesel heating, to be used when the solar panel alone is not sufficient.
The hydraulic system of a converted van
Let’s now deal with the design of the hydraulic system for an RV.
For a basic system, a sink with tap and 2 tanks are sufficient: one will constitute the drinking water tank, the other that of gray water.
Complete hydraulic system
A complete plumbing system will also include hot water and therefore a double hose system, a mixer and possibly a shower.
Hot water: how to get it
To obtain hot water there are 4 main possibilities: water heater with electricity, gas, oil and solar panel for hot water.
Electric water heater (water heater or electric water heater)
If the sizing of your electrical system allows you to use it, an electric water heater is very efficient and takes up little space. Especially if you choose a 10-15l one. Some are ready for installation under the sink, just turn it on half an hour before ‘use to heat the water contained inside.
Gas water heater (boiler)
Installing a gas water heater (boiler) requires some care and must be done by a professional. Not only for the forfeiture of the warranty on the boiler itself, but also and above all because it is a question of gas systems that use large flames. So dangerous.
Gasoil water heater
As with the air heater, gasoil fired water heater also requires some manual skills for installation and the slavish observation of safety instructions.
Solar panel for hot water
The solar panel, the solution we opted for, is the greenest and cheapest there is!
Life on the road teaches you to be thrifty, especially with water, the most important element for self-sufficiency in a van. At the same time, however, we cannot fill the van with cans and bottles.
Motorhomes, converted vans and more equipped caravans use metal water tanks (in older vehicles) or plastic ones installed in the chests of the vehicle - with both internal and external access and a cap for external loading - or externally under the vehicle.
Water tanks placed outside have the disadvantage of freezing when the temperature drops below freezing. Metal tanks are heavier and subject to wear.
In our van we have installed a 200-liter metal tank by covering it on the outside with a layer of bitumen to prevent it from being affected by rust. We fixed it interlocking inside the main cabinet by creating a hole in the cabinet wall for the water load.
For convenience we have installed a mechanical water level indicator inside and we have equipped it with a cap on the surface that makes it easy to fill even with cans and bottles through a funnel connected to a tube. Alternatively you can use a submersible pump connected to 12V.
Our water reserve allows us an autonomy of almost a month by taking a shower every day: it is clear that these are showers that have the sole purpose of allowing us to wash and refresh ourselves, if we were in the shower to relax as we do at home the water would probably last no more than a week.
The water pump
Water pump: can it be avoided?
Those who do not have an electrical system and those who want to reduce consumption as much as possible often place the cans at the top of the tap in order to use the pressure to let the water out. This is not a good idea: keeping cans high up even if they are the size of a bottle can cause damage to people, animals and objects in the event of a fall. In the case of large tanks, they unbalance the epicenter of the vehicle, compromising its stability while driving.
An alternative solution is to use a hand pump. There are hand and foot operated ones. Unfortunately, however, they are really uncomfortable and break easily. If you really want to opt for a manual pump, buy a foot pump, they work better and allow you to have your hands free.
Water pump: which one to choose?
If like us you have discarded the idea of the manual pump and the possibility of using pressure to make the water flow, the electric water pumps remain.
There are two types: immersion and self-priming.
Self-priming water pump
The self-priming pump is the most used pump in recreational vehicles, especially older ones. Placed outside the tank, it extracts the water by suction. They last a long time and it is easy to intervene in case of failure, but they are very noisy, especially the older ones.
Immersion water pump
Immersion water pumps (or submersible water pumps) have better performance, are quiet, take up less space, because they are inside of the tank. They generally have a shorter life than self-priming ones.
Self-priming water pump: how to muffle the noise?
As with the fridge compressor, it is possible to reduce the noise of a self-priming water pump by mounting it on springs and a foam block and building around a housing that is as soundproof as possible.
Can a self-priming pump be replaced with an immersion pump
If my tank is produced specifically for self-priming pumps, can I replace the pump with an immersion one?
When the tank has the pump tube positioned high, replacing a self-priming pump with an immersion one is a relatively simple operation. It is sufficient that the tank has an opening that allows it to be inserted. Typically it will be necessary to extract the tube of the self-priming one and to pass in its place that of the immersion pump.
Things get a little more complicated when the tank has the connection to the self-priming pump hose at the bottom. In that case it will be necessary to modify the tank. If iron we should cut off the connection and seal the opening. Proceeding to pass the tube of the new pump from the top. If it is plastic the only solution is to fill the connection with plastic material. It will often be necessary to purchase a new tank.
Hydraulic system: the filter
To better preserve the water pump and retain any impurities that could pass the pump you can install a water filter.
Gray water tank
The gray water tank should be installed low down, in an easily accessible and that the extraction is simple, to be able to download easily.
To minimize the possibility of leaks, simplify your work and save on material you will need to place it as close to the sink as possible, so that the pipes are shorter.
If you plan to install a shower that will drain into that tank you will need to either raise the shower or drill the floor of the van to place the tank lower.
Again try to position the shower as close as possible to the gray tank and sink.
You have finished the implants. You have a bed, a kitchen, a bathroom and maybe a shower. Your converted van is ready, but it can still improve.
Let’s decide on the design of the compartments, that is, the spaces dedicated to storage.
According to many, a wardrobe dedicated to clothing is not necessary in a converted van. In my opinion, if you plan to use the vehicle for several months a year, a wardrobe that can hold as many clothes as possible - but also blankets, personal effects and tools for working - is indispensable. It is if you want full autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Whether you have a large vehicle or a compact vehicle. Clearly in the case of a vehicle like the Berlingo - without detracting from this fantastic minivan - it is an impracticable solution.
With a good supply of clothes suitable for various occasions, your van will have nothing to envy to a home.
How to manage the laundry and rinse water
After years and years of camping in the most disparate ways, we have developed our own technique for washing and drying clothes.
To always have clean clothes and avoid accumulating dirty ones, we have chosen to spend a few minutes a day (about 10) doing laundry. Every day, with no exception.
Taking a shower every day the water is clear. To soap the clothes - given the limited water reserves of a van - we use the rinse water, already soapy, combined with Marseille soap, completely biodegradable.
Instead, we use clean water for rinsing.
For drying we hang the clothes (few: a couple of underwear per day, sweaters and trousers every 2 days, towels and sheets once a week) on hangers. On the back of the van when the tail of the vehicle remains hidden or inside the vehicle, if it is cold in front, leaving the windows open, if it is not cold in the back, opening the sliding tailgate window.
The disposal of the water from the cloth washing is not a problem as it is only water and biodegradable soap, without greasy substances (unlike the water used to wash the dishes). Having two dogs, we use this water to rinse when they urinate in the street (which is mandatory in many places).
The drawers are really useful. Finding your items sorted inside the drawers is priceless. A small, well-organized drawer is often more useful than a large box.
The spice rack
Spice rack, just like that!
When I installed the home spice rack on the right side of the van cabinet I thought I had a original and somewhat bizarre idea. Scrolling through the photos on Instagram and Pinterest, reading blogs and forums of other van life enthusiasts, I saw that it is an accessory that everybody has!
Having what you use daily in sight - this applies to spices but also for example for soaps, detergents, toothbrushes - saves you a lot of time and effort compared to opening cabinets, drawers and chests every time.
As for the spice rack, also the storage boxes, hanging from furniture, seats and other points anchor, are very useful, especially for the storage of smaller items.
Choice of fabrics
I advise you to choose light colors, which create a good contrast with the furniture and which meet your tastes.
For the sofa - or dinette - covers, a resistant fabric that is not excessively light is better.
If you are able to sew you can take care of it yourself. If you have never sewed on the internet you will find many projects and tutorials. Alternatively, you can ask your mother, grandmother or some aunt for help (or why not your father, grandfather or uncle, if they know how to sew).
We are constantly looking for the best solutions! In our van the set-up is always changing! We invent. We try. We copy. We add. We remove,
This is why everything you are reading will be changed over and over again!
So, came back to check!
See you on the road!
Alex & Hila