A Dream Becomes Reality
Winters in Wisconsin don’t work well for me. Cold, snow, gray. Especially the gray was bringing me down. People said I got cranky. Really? Me? Cranky?
Dang, I had to admit that it was true. I need to be outdoors – hiking, bicycling (for my physical and mental health)…. ahh the mountain bike, road bike. Outside, in the sun, blue skies, warm weather. I needed to leave Wisconsin over the winter.
Easy solution. Buy a winter home in the Southwest. Great idea, problem is I couldn’t afford a second home (and didn’t want to leave WI permanently). A couple years ago while traveling the California Coast I first saw the Mercedes Sprinter at campsites. I never knew they existed before this. I was enamored, big enough yet small enough. Instead of crawling into a tent I could drive my tent and explore the West and Southwest during the winter. I had to have one of these babies!
When I got home from that trip I started looking. What I saw were $60 to $100 thousand dollar plus vehicles. Like buying a second home. There had to be a way I could do this within my meager budget. So here’s what I did.
I located a used 2013 Mercedes Sprinter at a Benz dealership with the 170 wheelbase and only (only!!) 170,000 miles on it. But really, after looking at extremely used overpriced vehicles for two months, this Benz was clean and had records of all service since it was first sold. As a bonus the dealership just completed a major service on it.
[click on pictures to enlarge]
It was an empty cargo van used by an expediter shipping pallets of product across the US. In the purchase price, I negotiated the dealership installing the must have C.R. Laurence screened side windows. These windows make a huge difference living in this vehicle letting you see the world outside and putting you more in touch with your surroundings.
The windows are tinted so you can’t see in from outside. To complete my privacy needs I had a seamstress sew some custom fitted blackout curtains with magnets in the hems to “stick” to the window frames. With all curtains drawn you see no light coming from my Sprinter at night – or sunlight during the days – or those harsh Walmart parking lot lights for those desperate moments looking to park for the night.
My plan was to keep it simple, no holding tanks or toilet, at least for now. Minimal electronics. House battery, solar charger. Insulated and vented. Comfortable without trying to carry everything including the kitchen sink. What do I really need to be happy?
First Things First
First thing I did was strip out the flooring as I wanted to insulate the whole vehicle including the floor. There was a tar paper like substance under the sub-floor that I wanted out of there. Saving the original flooring would come in handy to use as a base for the hardwood floors.
Next Came Insulation
First the floor gets Reflectex, don’t forget to cover the wheel wells. Not only does the Reflectix have insulating qualities but it also deadens sound.
Styrofoam squares were glued into the panel walls and ceiling of the van. There is some debate as to what materials and adhesive to use. The Dynamat (sound deadening) material is exceptionally expensive and originally I thought I HAD to have it… I didn’t. The styrofoam works great and I used 3M adhesive spending about $30.00 on the glue.
I got the styrofoam sheets from our local Habitat for Humanity’s Restore, cost me $21.12 and ended up having much more than I needed, so donated the leftover back to them. Other than tiny styrofoam balls flying around everywhere, the foam is easy to cut to the shape of the van’s panels. Besides insulating properties it also offers excellent sound deadening qualities.
Walls and ceiling are covered with Reflextix which offers great insulating properties and again, deadens sound, both very important. The Reflectex is easy to cut to size with a common scissors. Again using the spray adhesive to secure the Reflectix. The Reflectex came from several sources, some I had from a previous project, got several rolls through Craigslist for cheap, and had to buy from a big box store to finish things off.
I found some remnants of batt insulation at a big box. Pulling it apart I stuffed all the nooks and crannies with the insulation.
Also used spray foam insulation for some of the nooks (but not any crannies).
Laying the Floor
I found some great hardwood flooring on Craigslist. Actually it’s laminate which holds up better to water and liquid spills. Underlayment also came from Craigslist for 20 bucks. I decided not to put a water barrier in. From hearing different opinions about water barriers I decided it was more important not to chance trapping water under the floor. I have to admit, traveling over the winter I’ve spilled liquids on the floor. Thankfully my MB doesn’t smell like beer.
The flooring was a real pain to install. Especially since I didn’t know what I was doing. Not having a table saw I rigged one to make accurate (semi-accurate?) cuts. Leave space around the edges of the floor to allow for expansion.
After a couple do-overs I finally finished the floor install. All in all, it turned out pretty nice. Funny but as you’ll see in later pictures, it is completely covered by a Persian rug and the bed, you never see the floor.
It was a bit scary but I needed to cut a hole in my Sprinter’s roof for the Fan-Tastic fan roof vent. You need venting in your van. They have several models, from a basic fan to one with remote control and rain sensors. Mine is somewhere in between with three speeds and two way action… it sucks and blows.
Fan-Tastic gives you a stencil to lay on the roof. Place it in the “right” spot and outline. With your outline drawn, drill four holes in each corner then get a jigsaw with a new “fine” blade and cut the square out.
The hardest part was lining up, and cutting the interior ceiling hole. This was done before putting the ceiling/header covering on (more on that later). The unfinished header was mounted and marked using the square hole I just made in the sprinter’s roof. I marked the corners from above, drilled holes then connected the dots. Or should I say used the jigsaw to cut along the lines I made to each corner hole.
That was it. I lucked out and everything fit perfectly. Also, I was able to find the ideal spot on the roof that had no ribs and was flat. If you are doing this yourself, measure and fit 3 or 4 times before you cut. After the cut, file the newly cut surfaces to smooth them out then paint the edges to prevent rusting.
Consider that you will have to plan ahead to wire your fan. The Fan-Tastic fan runs directly off 12 volts. In my case I ran directly to the “house” battery (through a fuse of course).
The fan comes with a gasket. Lay the gasket under the fan and tighten down with screws included. When done, fill the seams AND the mounting screws with waterproof sealer/caulk. After a year and several nasty rain falls, I have had no leaks.
Raising the Walls
The walls must go in before the bed frame otherwise it is too hard to move around in there. It’s tricky because nothing is square, the van’s walls are curved so it is narrower near the roof than at the floor.
The walls are planks from Menard’s. I didn’t want to create a frame to mount the walls to because that would squish the interior space. That meant I needed 12 foot planks to span the structural bracing of the van. This was a special order from the store and my biggest expense. Around $250.00 including several in stock 8 footers.
I didn’t need to mount planks all the way to the floor as the bed and frame would be covering all the lower parts of the van walls. Above you see that the insulation was covered by the original paneling that came with the van.
Thankfully a friend had pity on me (thanks Glen) and insisted that I borrow his portable table saw. My home jig was okay… well not really, but better that trying to cut freehand as I’m not that good. For those of you attempting a project like this and not being a carpenter (asked, “What’s the opposite of a carpenter?” – the answer would be – “me”), borrowing or renting a table saw can make all the difference in the world. I should have gotten one from the beginning for the flooring.
I used stainless steel sheet metal screws as I was screwing into metal. Using a jig made from a small block of wood with accurate holes in it allowed me to install the screws and decorative washers so they all uniformly lined up.
The ceiling/header is made from lauan, a light weight type of plywood. I have mixed feelings about lauan because although it is light weight and easy to work with, it tends to have ripples along it’s longer edges, so the long 6 foot sides can have waves. Most won’t notice it, but I do and so would a finish carpenter. The lauan is cut to size and covered with duck canvas sourced from Joann’s fabric store.
The duck canvas is glued on with a “made for fabric” spray on glue. The LED lights are mounted and the wires are routed before mounting the header.
Using two different coverings for the header gives the interior a feeling of having two rooms; living room and bedroom.
The “bedroom” header is a wall mural mounted to the lauan. Yes I like trees (I do recreational tree climbing) and love waking up in the limbs of a mighty oak .
My plan was to carry my mountain and road bikes under the bed frame. This evolved as I realized that I would have to give up head space above the bed. Beside being afraid I would wake up in a start and bash my head on the ceiling, I would have needed a ladder to get into bed, ugh.
Below you see the second of my early bed frame designs.
The final bed frame design came from my carpenter friend Kevin C. who mercifully rebuilt the frame I had in about 1/2 hour making my rickety warped frame solid and stable. The frame is finished with 1/2 inch plywood adding even more stability to the frame. It is all screwed not nailed.
There was enough room along the side of the bed to build in more storage. Again my friend Glen came to my aid building the roomy storage box you see here.
It has three separate compartments. The rear section is open so that the right side handlebars of the mountain bike slides right into it (along with a collection of shoes).
I Need a Desk
Forget the built in stoves and such, I needed a desk. The desk came cheap from a salvage joint in Milwaukee. Had to replace the desk top, stain then cover with polyurethane. Did the same with the dirty ugly white adjoining cabinet. Came from the Restore for $5.00. Stained and covered with poly. Holds pots, pans, plates and other kitchen and household items.
The desk draws are deep and hold everything from my coffee and pour-over outfit to electrical gear and dominoes. Above you can see the Persian rug I found at an estate sale for $10.00. Love having a rug rather than the hard floor.
The first time I road tested the van, all the drawers flew out after a left turn. Child proof locks were a temporary solution. I’m working on a better system. The desk and cabinet are bolted to the van walls, my roller chair gets bungeed to the desk.
A deep cell marine battery is used for the house battery that fits perfectly under the passenger seat. I don’t use much electricity, mainly using power for the LED lights and charging my laptop and phone.
I have a 75 what solar charger donated by my brother-in-law Jim (thanks Jim) after he saw the ridiculous 5 watt charger I was using. When my tiny power saving LED lights didn’t work (found this out the day I left on my first trip) it turned out the house battery was run down from just sitting and wouldn’t even power the meager lights.
With Jim’s help I wired the 75 watt solar charger to the battery. It’s connected through a regulator that protects the charger from over charging. We ran a wire from the house battery to the Mercedes battery so when I’m driving, the Mercedes alternator is charging both chassis and house batteries. We connected an isolator switch so when I’m parked and using the house battery, it doesn’t run the chassis battery out of juice.
A power inverter is connected to the battery that is used to run anything that can be plugged into it. Laptop, phone, desk light, etc. Ii is only a 400 watt (800 watt at peak power) inverter so it won’t run a refrigerator, heater or anything like that.
Finally everything needs to run through a fuse to protect the system from itself.
The idea was to keep it simple asking myself what did I really need. To cook I simply pull the stove out and the desk becomes my stove-top. Same with the cooler, slides out from under the bed frame. I’ve found that block ice keeps for a week or so when the cooler is kept under the bed. I keep a separate cooler for beverages.
The desk serves as a table, stove, game table… but mostly it’s a desk. I need a desk to work. The Sprinter is nimble enough to park in any grocery store parking lot but big enough for me to stand up in and I love having a queen size mattress.
There’s tons of storage under the bed. The biggest hassle is having to move the bikes if I need something from under the bed frame. Needless to say I keep what I use daily within easy access.
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