The "Vansion" Journal THE BUILD

Six months ago I sat in amazement as I zipped through Death Valley on my BMW 1200GS motorcycle. The hot wind blasted in my face and I felt as if I was sitting inside of a convection oven. Nearly a week had gone by since my departure and I thought about the adventures up to this moment. The emptiness and golden light of New Mexico's eastern slopes, the twisty roads of Colorado, the abrasive wind of Arizona and the colorful carving that was the Grand Canyon. All had amazed, inspired and moved me. As I daydreamed in the solitude of my helmet, I thought how cool it would be to have Mariana with me on this great adventure. However, the bike was a machine designed for solo travel, already stacked with camping gear and provisions for a two week moto adventure.

Cue California's scenic State Highway 395 and the journey from Death Valley to Yosemite National Park. While weaving along the Sierras I began to notice Sprinter vans of all shapes, sizes and colors. Some were tricked out for adventure while others simply looked like delivery vans. Yet, it was clear that they were meant to explore, to venture off the grid and maybe even to get lost. They are the Volkswagen bus of the Millennial generation (*disclaimer: I'm a Gen-Xer...just really hip) ready to roll wherever and whenever wanderlust beckons.

Upon my return, I pitched the idea of converting a Sprinter into a "urban escape vehicle" to Mariana. The fundamental concept was to use it to get away at least one weekend a month and to spend our next summer road tripping across the western United States. She didn't hesitate and jumped at the idea. I knew I was in trouble when I noticed her binge watching episodes of "Tiny House" on HGTV! Thus, the "Vansion" was born. Within a week, I had purchased a new 2016 Mercedes Sprinter and went work!

The first step was a stroke of luck. The dealer told me of a local Mercedes up-fitter who needed a rear bench seat for a build he was doing. I had one I wouldn't be needing, but I also wanted to replace the 16" steel wheels and budget tires that came standard with something a little larger and nicer looking. We connected and a day later I had some nice 17" wheels, heavy duty 10-ply truck tires and front window tinting to match the rear. My wallet was a little lighter, but the bench seat was out of the way and we had room to attack. Next we removed the headliner and all of the wall panels to get down to bare metal. Now the van sounded like driving on the inside of a drum. We strategically installed sound deadening tiles (Rattletrap) and prepped the van for insulation.

Next came the insulation. We started off with 3M Automotive Thinsulate and spray adhesive to keep the 2" thick insulation in place. After that, we sealed everything up with Low-E, a foil covered foam radiant and vapor barrier. Almost immediately, the interior temperatures of the van dropped and the van became noticeably quieter on the road.

Once the insulation was in place, I started the first of many electrical tasks. I measured and cut holes in the headliner for eight LED light fixtures and the ventilation fan. I was much too much of a chicken to cut a hole in the roof of a brand new Mercedes, so I forked over the money to the up-fitter to install the vent fan. I ran wiring through the ceiling to the walls so I could tap into it later. Headliner and wall panels went back up and it finally started to look like progress was being made. Next, we started the bed frame build. I decided I wanted a floating bed that would flex with the van body and not have supports taking up space underneath. So, I used a Rivnut tool to install support beams along the wall and then used Ikea adjustable bed frame supports to act as the cross members. While I was at it, I installed a swivel for the passenger seat so that it would turn around into the living room area!

Once the interior shell was in place, we replaced the rubber flooring in the living room with vinyl planks from Home Depot. Then the electrical research and implementation began in earnest. We started with two 100W Renogy Solar panels and MPPT solar charge controller tied into two Lifeline 300 Ah 6V AGM batteries. Additionally, we wired a Sterling battery-to-battery charger into the system to provide alternator based charging to our house batteries, an expensive but necessary device given Mercedes modern regenerative braking technology. In order to keep an eye on power usage and battery capacity, I wired in a Victron Energy BMV700 Battery Monitor and added a Blue Sea kill switch for emergencies or maintenance. All of this ties into a Blue Sea Systems SafetyHub 150 fuse block. Ultimately, our power needs should be met for 3-5 days with no sun and no driving, while only discharging the batteries to 50% of their capacity. As of now, our power needs include the 8 LED lights, the Maxxair 6200 vent fan, a small Bestek 300W inverter for charging camera batteries and laptops and our ARB 50 quart refrigerator. I installed additional USB and 12V outlets around the van for convenience. Given our current needs relative to our power supply, we should be able to stay off the grid indefinitely, limited only by our ability to carry food, water and whiskey!

Mariana chose some funky fabric reminiscent of the tiles we collected in Sevilla to adorn our homemade side panels.

Next came the hard part. Hours and hours of internet research, studying pictures on Pinterest and Instagram, following Sprinter Van Diaries, #vanlife, and many more. In the end, we settled on a slight variation of the simple and clean functionality developed by Jakob and Nikki from Sprinter Van Diaries, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Mariana was the one who found their site. We sketched out some ideas, debated the pro's and con's of doing this or that and ultimately just started doing it.

Here's where things get way beyond my expertise, experience and ability. Building things from wood is not one of my strengths. So, I asked John Frost, our wood and metal teacher and an exceedingly talented sculptor and designer to help build out the interior. After several months of begging, pleading, and coercing we finally got down to business. We went with cabinet grade Russian birch plywood and determined that the counter-top would be the signature piece. John cut strips of plywood and then we put them on edge and glued them to make our own butcher block counter top. The alternating stripes of the plywood was so nice that we decided to leave all front facing plywood edges exposed in order to tie them into the countertop. Once the countertop had cured, Mariana sanded the bejeezes out of it and I spent a week adding multiple coats of a food grade oil finish. The cabinets got the same treatment but to a lesser degree and flush fit locking latches were installed throughout. Next came a small bar sink and hand pump faucet from Amazon with two U.S. Army 5 gallon water jugs underneath, one for fresh water and one for grey water. We carry an extra 5 gallon jug in the back of the van and between the two, should be good for about three days. The trunk under the bed is on casters and rolls out to act as a bench seat and a step to get into the bed, while providing ample storage for a week's worth of clothes.

We still have a few finishing pieces to install, including a control panel for switches and plugs and a hidden cubby hole storage area, but that will be finished very soon. At this point, we're going to use it for several months before deciding whether to add overhead cabinets at the foot of the bed. While the storage would be nice, I suspect that overhead storage will make the space feel a bit cramped and less open than it is right now. I can't tell you how excited I am with the way it turned out. John did a fantastic job and after our first weekend outing, I think the layout will fit our needs perfectly.

Aside from little improvements that will likely never end, I'd say our build is largely complete. Now its time to get down to the task of equipping the van for our big adventures!

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