“If you were to do it all over again, what would you change?”
I’ve gotten this question a few times, and I usually find it to be a head scratcher—not because I think I’ve built the quintessential, perfect camper van, but because a) my memory sucks and b) most of my goofs are beneath the surface. As the old adage goes, out of sight, out of mind.
But I know that for all of you out there hoping to build your own vans, this is kind of an important question. Photos of my van are all over the internet now, and I certainly wouldn’t want to lead you all down the wrong path. So let’s buckle down and get this question answered!
Keep in mind that although I would want to change these things, others might disagree, or would change to something completely different from what I’ve noted, and that’s totally cool. You have to do what’s right for you.
1. I would have inspected the van more closely when I bought it and demanded a steep discount for a number of defects.
First of all, I am not a demanding type of person. I was raised to be obedient, non-confrontational, and, for lack of a better term, spineless. Before buying my van, I had also never purchased a car.
So, did I notice that the van I was buying didn’t come with a spare tire? Nope.
Or that the wheels weren’t aligned? Nope.
Or that the paint was peeling off in a number of places? Not at all.
The takeaway: Be highly critical when you purchase your van, and don’t be afraid to bargain.
2. I would try harder to find a cargo van.
The reason why I ended up with a passenger van was that I couldn’t find a cargo van with low mileage in my price range. For some reason, passenger vans seemed to be much more reasonably priced than cargo vans for the same year, mileage, and condition.
Although I do like my passenger van, I find that it has more windows than I need. I have covered one of them up, but a cargo van would have been easier to build with because of the consistent rib structure. Plus, if I wanted windows I would have been able to install them exactly I wanted them.
The lesson: Don’t poop out on your cargo van search too early.
3. I would go with a sliding side door.
The one downside that sliding doors have is that they are noisy. However, I think that’s a small price to pay for their one big upside: they don’t flap around in the wind.
This is one of those things that you don’t find out until you’re actually living in your van. Although barn doors do have their merits, sliding doors are much more conducive to lounging at the beach or hanging out in the desert with your doors open. The wind easily catches barn doors and slams them shut—which can actually be very dangerous.
Barn doors vs sliding doors: I vote for sliding doors.
4. I would have framed my floor with plywood that I cut myself.
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, then you know that I created storage under the floor. That storage area is framed with 2” x 6” Douglas Fir ripped down to 4” in width. I had asked the people at the lumber yard to do the rip cuts for me. Not a good idea. The cuts were sloppy, which made my framing wonky. If I were to do it over again, I’d use 3/4” or 1″ thick plywood, and I’d cut everything myself on a table saw.
The lesson: Buy a table saw and cut your own wood.
5. I would not have used so much sound deadening material.
I used a lot of sound deadening material. A LOT. Way more than necessary. I used 200 square feet of FatMat Mega Mat, and I really could have gotten away with about 100 square feet. According to Sound Deadener Showdown, for noise reduction specifically, you really only need to cover about 25% of a panel’s surface area, distributed over the central 50-75% part of the panel.
For the average camper van conversion, 50-100 square feet of sound deadening material should be plenty.
6. I would not have stuck EZ Cool insulation to the walls.
Ah, insulation. I strongly dislike talking about insulation. It’s a contentious subject among van dwellers, and, being a non-confrontational person, I prefer to avoid the subject altogether. But at least I have science on my side, as well as a quote from a manufacturer.
I’ll eventually do a big long post about insulation, but the gist is that there are three different types of heat transfer:
- convection (movement of a fluid, and believe it or not scientists say air is considered a fluid)
- conduction (touching)
- radiation (no touching)
Radiant heat barriers, such as Reflectix and EZ Cool, are only effective against radiant heat transfer. From a distributor of EZ Cool “One layer will block 98% of the radiant heat”; from the makers of Reflectix “installed in a residential attic, it ‘blocks’ 95% of the radiant energy that is being radiated by the hot roofing materials”.
What’s radiant heat transfer? It’s when you can feel heat radiating from an object without touching it.
So, if that’s the definition of radiant heat transfer (albeit paraphrased and in layman’s terms), it follows that radiant heat barriers work when they are not touching the source of heat. There must be an air space between the source of heat and the heat barrier. If the heat barrier was touching the source of heat, then the heat would be transferred via conduction. And radiant heat barriers aren’t effective against conductive heat transfer—they’re only good for radiant heat transfer. Maybe the Reflectix website explains it better:
Why are Air Spaces Required (in every application)?
For either a reflective insulation or a radiant barrier, an air space of a minimum thickness is required on the reflective side of the product. (Most Reflectix® products are reflective (shiny) on both sides.) The reflective insulation benefit is derived from the interaction of the highly reflective surface with the air space. If the reflective surface is in contact with another building material, it becomes a conductor (transmitting the energy by conduction). An air space may be specified on one or both sides of the product (always on a reflective side). Enclosed air spaces, when instructed, are required to provide the stated R-value.
As you can see, by sticking EZ Cool insulation directly to my walls, I done screwed up! Now, I could fix this by adding another layer with an air space, but honestly, it hasn’t seemed necessary. Maybe in my next dwelling I’ll do it right.
The best way to use a radiant heat barrier: Leave at least 1/2″ of air space between the insulating material and the wall.
7. I would have used a different kind of insulation for the floor.
This goes hand-in-hand with #5, but I used two layers of EZ Cool insulation right on top of the metal floor of the van, and underneath the subfloor. Mind you, this was at the suggestion of the EZ Cool distributor! (Liars! False advertising!) I wondered why I could still feel the heat from the exhaust under the van through two layers of insulation, and it wasn’t until I did a bunch of research that I discovered the information mentioned above. Extruded polystyrene would have been better. Live and learn. (Oh, and by the way, polyisocyanurate doesn’t work well in cold temperatures. We’ll cover that in a later article on insulation.)
What’s the best material for insulation? My current opinion is that of the options available at big box stores, extruded polystyrene is probably best (disclaimer: my opinions may change as more data and anecdotal evidence is collected).
8. I would not have used Monstaliner to coat the floor of my van.
I’d still like to protect the metal in case moisture accumulates somehow, but Monstaliner is really expensive. It’s about $145 for a 1-gallon kit on the Monstaliner website. If I were to do it over again today, I’d probably use a cheaper product such as Chassis Saver or POR-15.
Is it necessary to paint the floor of your van? Not always, and take the time to find a product that suits your needs but doesn’t break the bank.
9. I would’ve waited two years and purchased a Ford Transit with a raised roof.
Okay, so this may not really count because the newest generation of the Ford Transit wasn’t available in the U.S. until several months after I bought my van. However, if I knew back then that the Ford Transit would soon be available with an interior height of 81.5 inches, eliminating the need for a high top and a special roof rack for solar panels, it’s certainly possible that I would have made some very different choices!
Now, this isn’t to say that any of these things are regrets. I firmly believe that in order to have any real regrets, you had to have had some doubts in the first place. And let’s be honest, I didn’t have any doubts because I was too ignorant to have any. I forged full steam ahead in blissful ignorance.
But today I’m a little more knowledgeable, a lot more experienced, and I’m not above pointing out my mistakes to others. Luckily, I’m a pretty positive person. What other people call “failures”, I call “learning experiences”. I mean, nobody’s perfect. You know what real failure is? It’s when you keep failing over and over in the same ways, never learning how to do things better.
So, I hope this list was helpful. I’m sure there are a few more things that I would’ve done differently that I’m just not remembering right now. Oh, I definitely would’ve purchased a table saw and a pair of clamp-its from the get-go, but I’m not sure that everyone would find those tools useful.
Now I’m curious, if you’ve already built your van, what would you do differently?