Case study: 4 obstacles to vandwelling

This is an interesting case.  The poster has some of the usual beginner questions and misconceptions but she also has a laudable amount of self-awareness.  She pays attention to how things work for her, and understands that a thing can be good but not necessarily good for a given purpose.

In the intro she brings up a couple big picture obstacles.

Pre-obstacle A - in a minivan with no roof vent

I would absolutely install a maxxfan roof vent, because they retract flatter when not in use.  I’d spring for one of the 10-speed units because they consume less power at low settings, but I wouldn’t buy the remote setup.  I’d mount it near the rear where it will disrupt airflow less and preserve MPG.   See below for what will be up front.

In the past one might think that cutting the roof would devalue the vehicle, but in the current #vanlife frenzy it might actually increase the value to a hopeful.

I would also encourage lisa to get help installing the stuff she wants to install, rather than paying someone to do it for her.  There is powerful satisfaction in building something with your own hands that gives you shelter.

Pre-obstacle B - will be in Massachusetts for a couple more years

This will lead to some climate control issues below.

So now we can start the numbered obstacles.

Obstacle 1 - refrigeration

She had a peltier cooler;  that is not practical without a lot of panel and bank.  I do it but I am an edge case.  But she added a Dometic 18qt compressor fridge, which is about perfect for her.  It’s still going to require more power than she has.

Yes, you can do this from the starter battery if you do some planning and agree to add some solar or other charging source.  Solar would be easiest.

Obstacle 2 - house power

She is considering an AGM battery install at some point, charged an isolator setup.  The isolator will handle Bulk charging but almost certainly will not fully charge the battery unless she drives for hours each day.

I’d put 200W of solar (one big residential panel) forward on the roof, as it is relatively low profile.

I would not put an inverter in the van.  Inverters are, IMO, the easiest way for newbies to lose control of their power consumption.  It looks like a wall socket, right?  So you can plug anything in and power it for free, right?

Obstacle 3 - heating

The main problem here is a misunderstanding:  she believes that breathing in cold air made her sick before.  This makes her think she needs a heater that she can use while sleeping.  But breathing cold air does not cause illness.

There is a reason the standard answer is “warm the van before bedtime, turn off the heater and sleep in a decent sleeping bag.”

The buddy is fine for knocking the chill off before bed and also in the morning.

Electric space heating is not practical off grid.  This becomes obvious when one does the math.  Is this a bummer?  Maybe.  But it’s better to encounter the bummer before spending hundreds or thousands on a system that won’t (can’t) work.

Obstacle 4 - ventilation

The roof vent will pull air, but the air still has to come IN somewhere.  In some cars the ventilation system can be left in a position which allows air to be pulled through.

I’d put window vent covers on the front windows, crack them an inch, and use magnetic netting to keep the bugs out.  The window vents will hide the fact the window is open and will also keep out rain.

This will pull bug-free air through the length of the van and out the roof vent.

Summary / Advice

  • roof vent at the rear

  • 200w panel toward the front

  • isolator

  • house battery:

    • AGM behind the seat like she plans; or

    • shallow cycle the starter battery until it dies, then wedge the largest AGM that will fit in the starter tray.  Run the guts out of it and repeat as needed.

Here’s the video.  Props to lisa for asking good questions and experimenting.  Now if we can just get her to install her own roof vent…