Home » camper van » Recent Articles:

Freewheeling: Upgrades

August 25, 2012 Freewheeling 2 Comments

As I mentioned, Greg worked tirelessly to get The Van ready to go for our trip to Penticton, BC for Ironman Canada. He comes home from his day job and goes immediately to work in the driveway. He has a vision of what he wants and sets out making it into reality. A few of these ideas have been “fine” for a first attempt, but we are on v2.0 with several things.

I have been pleasantly surprised with all of the seemingly minor things he is doing that really make traveling in The Van more comfortable. Here are a few of the things he has been working on:

Bed 2.0: The original bed setup was kind of an “accordion” mechanism that folded into itself above the cockpit. This meant we were sleeping on camping-style sleeping pads and it was a real hassle to set it up and take it down. He upgraded the sleeping quarters to a much more comfortable solution, complete with a custom-cut 6″ memory foam mattress. It stays intact and half of the bed slides out on tracks to make it the full length. He even installed a “pull-up bar” to make it easier to get into and out of. Luckily we are fit people. Maneuvering in this van takes a fair amount of athletic ability in itself…

Cabinets 2.0: He installed the cabinets a few months ago using pre-fab frames and custom-built interiors and doors. They look sleek and are very functional — they open up and stay open, and they lock shut. He recently upgraded them so that the ones on the right side extend all the way to the back wall. This added more storage space and cleaned up the space above the countertop/stove. He also installed three electrical outlets, perfect for charging devices and powering the immersion blender for smoothies.



Toilet 2.0: He upgraded the toilet to a compost model. The clean-up is MUCH better. I’m taking his word for that one… I’ve (luckily) never had to do it.

Skylight 2.0: He added a wind deflector to the skylight to help with noise and aerodynamics. It also improves the look of things up there.

Sink/Stove/Fridge: We have running water in the sink thanks to a 26-gallon tank + on-demand pump housed under the van. The two-burner stove runs on propane, which is housed in a nifty little box he designed as part of the countertop system. The fridge is probably my favorite feature of the van. It locks into place under the countertop when not in use, then slides out and opens like a chest cooler.

Roof Rack: He designed, built, and installed a roof rack to accommodate for extra storage. Since we are transporting a third bike for Kidder to use at the race, he also attached a fork mount on the rack. Not only is it functional, it looks pretty bad ass with all three bikes on board.

Nav/Media Center: He designed and built this tablet holder + phone mount to have his music and navigation tools at his fingertips. The audio system is set up for Bluetooth integration, so the phone can be streaming Pandora or playing his personal music through the stereo speakers while the tablet is navigating. Pretty handy.

It was a 23-hour trip to Penticton from San Mateo (longer than anticipated because of swim breaks for Miles and because we drove 130 miles out of our way. I’ll save that story for another time…). The Van performed flawlessly and made it pretty enjoyable. When we got hungry, I’d make my way to the back to fix sandwiches or grab a beverage. We rolled into a campsite on Diamond Lake Wednesday night at 8 PM, I heated up dinner in about 10 minutes, and we slept under the stars (under the skylight) until 6 AM the following morning. It took about 30 minutes to put everything back together and we were on the road again.

I just love it when a plan comes together!


Freewheeling: Skylight

May 25, 2012 Freewheeling 3 Comments

So, what else is new in the van? Pretty much everything. Greg figures out what he wants to accomplish, does his research on the Sprinter van foums, writes out all his plans/diagrams/sketches, procures the supplies, and begins work. Midway through, he figures out a better way to do it and starts over. Doesn’t that sound rewarding?

The skylight is no different, but he hasn’t started over… yet. This took too much time (and money) for him to scrap it. And honestly, it’s pretty much awesome so we should enjoy it for awhile.

Before showing you the new windows, we left off with the sleeping quarters finally being finished. Remember?

But before he could sound-proof it and do all the finish work, he had to build the skylight. You can see here where he’s left a space to cut it out:

Greg designed the skylight, then welded together the frame and figured out how all the hydraulics will work (WAIT FOR IT). He had the Plexiglass custom-cut for the job.

And then he checked his plans a bazillion times. And then he measured. And measured again. And measured again, just for good measure (<— I’m funny!). And then he cut a hole in the fiberglass top.

Gearing up to cut

First cuts

He installed the frame that he designed and welded.

And then installed the final piece of “bubbled” Plexiglass.

Meanwhile, he was upholstering the entire topper area to make it nice and cozy.

The man is nothing if not detail-oriented. He stands 6’3″ and spent many, many hours in that sleeping cubby making things perfect. Here’s how it looks when the bed is folded up:

And here’s our view from the first night we slept up there (on our way to Tahoe one weekend):

Pretty great, right? It really is quite comfortable. I did hit my head on the hydraulic arms in the night a time or two, but it only hurt a little. And honestly, when you have something as awesome as this, who cares about a bump on the head?

For the utmost convenience, the skylight works with a remote control. Although it’s a little loud (he has a replacement in the works, naturally), it really is a great solution to add a little light and keep the air moving in the back of the van.

Stay tuned for all he’s done to enhance the interior. So many amenities, we are considering selling our house! (I kid… kind of)


Freewheeling: Heat Systems

March 24, 2011 Freewheeling 1 Comment

Beyond the electrical work that went with the audio system upgrades, Greg pulled out the big guns to fix the heating systems in the van. Cold weather camping, here we come!

The next project was to engineer a more effective auxiliary heat system. But first, some context.

The van has two heat systems on-board:

  1. Residual air heat system: This system draws heat from the engine to heat the interior of the van, even while the engine is off.
  2. Auxiliary heater: Engages the auxiliary heater unit, auxiliary water pump, and fan to heat the interior of the van AND the engine — even while the engine is off.

The purpose of Greg’s project was to be able to heat the interior of the van and heat the engine without the key being in the Run position. Pre-heating is particularly important for a diesel engine in cold weather. How does it work? With the engine off, push the button –> water pump runs, heater turns on, fan runs. This is ideal for us since we’re planning to sleep in the van, often in cold/winter conditions.

The button for the residual air heat system was there and was working, but was ineffective because the auxiliary water pump (an electric pump that runs in concert with the other one to assist in distributing the fluid throughout the whole coolant system) was barely turning. To remedy this, he replaced the water pump. More engine work!

Then he took the switch panel out and brought it inside. Greg went to work wiring in relays that would send the signals to the proper places, even with the engine off. The van was not wired up for this prior, even though it was an option. There is a Mercedes-Benz technical bulletin that goes through this option, so Greg put his know-how to use.

Unrelated to the on-board systems, Greg is also working on a third heat source. This is a portable propane heater that he is rigging to make it safe for indoor use. It will hook directly into the on-board propane tank that will be stored on the under side of the van, similar to the way VW buses/vans are. He is planning to wire in the thermostat, giving us the ability to turn it on and off from inside the van. The particulars of this are not entirely figured out yet…

Practically speaking, if we are camping in Tahoe in the winter, we will use the propane heater to heat our living quarters overnight, then turn on the auxiliary heater in the morning to preheat the engine. Lots of options!

You may also be interested in:
Freewheeling: Audio
Freewheeling: Exterior Aesthetics
Freewheeling: Under the Hood
Freewheeling: Sound Effects
Freewheeling: The Adventure Begins


Freewheeling: Audio

March 24, 2011 Freewheeling 5 Comments

Greg earns his (our?) living as an electrical engineer, and it’s paying off on his hobby as well.

It’s a good thing he knows what he’s doing, because the van needed a lot of upgrades in this department. He designed several improvements and then went to work making them happen. At this point, he pretty much has the cockpit of the van finished according to plan. Of course, there will be more to do when he gets the “living quarters” installed. The captains chairs and couch have been ordered and should arrive within the week!

The first order of business was to upgrade the radio.

The van came with a primitive radio; the factory model left a lot to be desired. Literally — my 1996 Cabrio has a stereo more advanced than this… For the kinds of adventures we are about to embark on, upgrades were needed. While I felt it was perhaps an early project and expense, the new system is definitely impressive. Greg had ample opportunity to test everything out on his inaugural road trip this week: he drove the van to Long Beach so the fiberglass workshop can begin the structural roof changes. Exciting!

The new model he chose is a Sony multimedia receiver with lots of bells and whistles including Bluetooth integration with his phone (through the car speakers) and several USB auxiliary inputs to integrate with satellite radio and other devices. Once the new device arrived, he began work removing the old model and installing the new one. This was pretty straightforward, all things considered. It wasn’t his first time replacing a radio, so he knew what to expect.

Then came the custom work. He wired in an external antenna and behind-the-dash power for a phone mount. This will allow for mostly-eye-and-hands-free tinkering with the phone while driving: navigation, Pandora/podcasts through the stereo, phone calls. There are additional benefits to this as well — the mount will charge the device while in use (a must-have for use with the HTC EVO) and the external antenna puts the signal outside the car, providing easier access to cell sites, less phone radiation inside the car, and less battery drain.

There were no speakers in the doors in the van; the only speakers were in the dash. We’re talking about a 19.5′ vehicle with ONE set of speakers. Therefore, Greg installed new speakers in the doors. Of course, he did the requisite soundproofing first.

He then used a hole saw to cut the space for the speakers and got to work fashioning his own mounts using 3/4″ oak. He got the first one done and went to install it, only to find that the new speakers were too deep for the door panel because of the window… so he had to double-up on the oak mounts. They look very professional!

Beginning with the end in mind, he has also run the speaker wire to the back of the van where there will be additional speakers once the living quarters are installed.

You may also be interested in:

Freewheeling: Exterior Aesthetics
Freewheeling: Under the Hood
Freewheeling: Sound Effects
Freewheeling: The Adventure Begins