Van Life Design Choices Part 1: Personalization

Making design choices for your van conversion can be exciting and difficult at the same time. The popularity of van life has given us a wide variety of lifestyle options and brands to choose from, but your choices are limited. It all boils down to the interior square footage and weight limits of your vehicle. Once you have those factors, it’s a matter of need vs. want and then adding some personalization to match your budget.

Budget

Budget is a top concern, but functionality and comfort have to be high on the list as well In design choices. There are many van conversion stories that begin with “I only had $3000 for the conversion” and end with “now that I’ve had to live in my van for 6 months, I plan to make some updates.” My goal is to plan out a realistic conversion for my lifestyle and aim to raise those funds from the start. I want to avoid cutting corners on comfort and practical features.

Vehicle of Choice

The Mercedes Sprinter is my vehicle of choice as decided in Starting the Conversion Van Process. It has an interior square footage range of 59-86 feet (length range 123-180”, width 69”) and a height of 6’3”. A new Sprinter Cargo Van that includes some premium features starts the budget at about $64,000. This is a hefty price tag, but it is offset by reducing my living expenses. I plan to live in this van for at least six months out of the year for travel. If I keep it as my primary vehicle I won’t need my car. Six months of just rent and car payments currently adds up to $15,000 for me so I consider this a realistic budget item and investment.

Personalization

In my research to map out a floor plan, I realize I need to figure out my personalization first. Important items like plumbing, wiring, and framing need a basic map before you decide on the size and location of furniture modules. Here I include some items I plan to incorporate into my build and why they became primary decisions.

Weight

It’s important to know the weight of your materials, design items, and accessories. Your vehicle is designed to carry a maximum load for safety, fuel efficiency, and mechanical reasons. The Sprinter Cargo Van selected for this budget model has a payload of 5919 lbs. I need to know what I’m adding to this vehicle and where I can minimize the weight. The best case scenario is as little added weight as possible to increase fuel efficiency.

Radrunner Electric Utility Bike

I really love the idea of this bike for short local travel when my van is parked. It’s a great option for quick local stops and avoids having to find parking for a large vehicle. This fun alternative will also save me some fuel while enjoying the ride. This bike comes in a variety of options to customize for my needs.

  • This adds 128-146 lbs. for two bikes and about 50 lbs for the rack.
  • Total increase to the payload is about 200 lbs. with added hardware.
  • I will also be increasing my budget with two bikes and the rack by at least $3000.

Packing Cubes

I love the idea of using packing cubes for storing and organizing clothing. They are lightweight and come in a variety of sizes and uses. These will lower my payload by reducing doors and drawers in the built-in furniture. I can now plan an open shelf with an elastic net for keeping my organized packing cubes in place.

  • This will probably only reduce my payload by 10-20 lbs., but everything counts.
  • The cost of the packing cubes and the elastic net will most likely balance out the savings from the drawers, doors and hardware I am replacing.

Wiring

The wiring goes in with the framing so I want to make sure I have my added items planned before the furniture modules are added. Items that require large batteries, hubs, power stations or more need to be built into my plans right away.

The Cargo Sprinter Van I priced for my budget already comes with navigation, a multi-media touch screen, a 12V power outlet by the driver’s seat, and an AGM battery.

Wireless Internet

I will definitely want to add WiFi so I can work remotely, stay in contact with the world, and have access to entertainment. Using my phone as a mobile hotspot is not the best option. There are alternatives such as a Mobile WiFi hotspot and a built-in vehicle WiFi Hotspot.

  • Built-in vehicle WiFi Pros— offers the best signal strength and often offer other features such as vehicle diagnostics, roadside assistance, impact detection, and more.
  • Built-in vehicle WiFi Cons— not portable and will be limited to its immediate area. It is also going to be behind in technology updates as these items are more difficult to update.
  • Mobile WiFi Pros— portable for you to take outside of the vehicle and is usually up to date with the latest technology for better service.
  • Mobile WiFi Cons— does not offer any additional features and may not always have the best signal strength.
  • Both options require a device purchase and subscription to service, but a built-in vehicle hotspot will cost you extra for installation.
  • Neither of these choices will affect my payload.
  • The premium features selected for my van already include most of the additional features of built-in WiFi and I like the Portable option of a mobile hotspot. My choice will be Mobile WiFi.
  • My budget will increase by the cost of the device which can range from $0-$240 based on what my current provider offers. I will also increase my monthly living expenses budget by $25 for an unlimited data plan.

Solar Power

Solar power seems like a very practical solution to a lot of the electrical needs in van lifestyle. The Goal Zero Yeti should be able to handle the lights, fan, fridge, and charging of my devices based on its specs and reviews. This power station has the ability to charge on solar power, the vehicle’s 12V power outlet, and a wall outlet.

This is a more expensive option to a generator or extra van batteries, but this is one item Van Lifers make a top priority or upgrade to. Generators are noisy, smelly, and require to be refueled. Running off of additional van batteries can be tricky and involves a lot more electrical wiring and knowledge. Van battery wiring can also be dangerous if done incorrectly and those batteries have a shelf life.

In addition, I am planning this van experience to spend more time outdoors and travel. Van Life practices self-sufficiency and reducing your ”footprint” on Earth. Solar power brings me one step closer to these goals.

  • Goal Zero Yeti 1400 Lithium Portable Power Station— $1900
  • (2) 160 watt Solar Panels (320 watt)— $350
  • Mount Kit $20, Wires & Etc— $20
  • Solar Power will increase my expenses by $2400 more and add about 100 lbs to my payload.

Framing

Windows & Fan

I really like the idea of having vented windows. These add more airflow to stay cool, reduce moisture, and keep the air smelling fresh. This van is a living space and open windows are a must-have for me.

The Sprinter models come with solid glass windows in a variety of options. The Cargo model selected has fewer windows which allows me to add some vented windows to my build. I have the choice of sliders, crank outs, and lifts.

Along with some vented windows, a roof fan is a priority. Roof vans help circulate air and also play an important role in keeping the van cool on hot days. The majority of Van Lifers were content with a good quality roof fan to keep cool versus adding the expense and clutter of an air conditioner.

  • These items range from $100-600 each
  • I like the larger open feel of the sliders and I’d like to get 3 if possible— $1500 total
  • Additional materials to install the windows (urethane, edge modeling, tape, primer)—$100 each
  • Maxxair 6200K Roof Fan Vent— $250 plus $100 for additional installation materials totals $350 (Note: this also adds a need for electrical wiring.)
  • I don’t have the weight on these items or the parts of the van body that will be removed for their installation. I’m going to consider it an even swap for the payload until I get closer to the build.
  • The budget will increase by $2150 if I can install myself (or with a little help from some friends).

Porta Potti Thetford Model 565e

The bathroom is one of the toughest decisions in a tiny van. I decided against a formal bathroom to maximize my use of space. With that being said, I was not ready to give up on a toilet. Many Van Lifers post about going ”au naturale” and only keeping a shovel handy for their relief in nature. They keep a Bio Bag handy in case of emergency. I am not ready for this kind of sacrifice, but I applaud their commitment to living free.

The Thetford Porta Potti Model 565e is a fresh water flush with two compartments that separate the clean water from the waste. The waste compartment is easily removed to dump into a standard toilet. (No need for a waste station.) It is rated as having a comfortable seat height and a large bowl. It holds 5.5 gallons of waste which is about 56 flushes.

  • Additional Features: battery powered electric flush, 3 yr warranty, level indicator
  • Height 17.6”, Width 15.2”, Depth 17.7”— Weighs about 14 lbs empty
  • Fresh Water Hold—4 gallons (8.34 lbs per gallon)
  • Prices ranging form $115-200 depending on the Dealer
  • This Porta Potti will add about 50 lbs to my payload and up to $200 to my budget.

Summary

Now that I have these personalized items selected, I’m ready to move forward on size and placement of the furniture modules. My next post will reveal my choices and their layout in my floor plan.

  • The total addition to my payload with these personalized choices is 390 lbs.
  • The total increase to my budget is $8,000 bringing the current budget total to $72,000

All of these choices are based on best case scenario and financial flexibility. The cost for this build is rising and I will definitely want to keep it under $90,000. This certainly sounds like a lot of money, but a professional converted van with similar features averages $200,000.

Do you have any pro tips or ideas that can improve my experience or budget? Comment below.

Classic Volkswagen Van, George Hodan on publicdomainpictures

Author: newyorkfamilyadventures

Momager, New Yorker, Travel Blogger, Actress, Martial Artist, Amateur Photographer, Writer, Conservationist

10 thoughts

  1. This is an awesome post Emily [yes l am starting the catch up reading process] – my Hippy partner would love something like this l feel are you taking orders 🙂

    Humour aside, Suze would love something like this and l can most assuredly see the appeal and sense your delightful enthusiasm.

    1. Thank you! It is always appealing to a soul like mine to live a more freeing lifestyle. 😉 There’s more to life than making the top 1% even more wealthy than they already need. You can’t take it with you, but you can leave the world a better place. 💖✨

Leave a Reply