I often spot interesting little rigs while I’m biking around campsites. Then I get distracted by some ongoing situation and either I or they have to leave before I can get to them. This one was a squeaker, with my returning, camera and voice recorder in hand, one day before Richard’s departure.
What got my attention was his van’s tall roof, and the fact that it was not attached to a Sprinter van. Sprinters have become commonplace as the basis for conversion campers because of their high roof option, relatively high fuel mileage, and their prodigious towing and weight-carrying capabilities. Offered by Mercedes and Freightliner, the Sprinter’s former link with Dodge has apparently been severed when Chrysler’s Mercedes overlord changed to Fiat, which now offers Fiat’s version as the Ram ProMaster Cargo Van. Whether good or bad, the ProMaster is not even a distant cousin to the Sprinter.
Richard identified his van as a Nissan NV2500, one of several variations that Nissan has offered for awhile to tradesmen and other commercial users. I find that interesting because Nissan once had plans to go head-to-head with Ford, Chevy and Ram with a 2500/3500-class Titan pickup truck, but cancelled them when the US economy went south. So I suspect that this NV2500 is a commercially-viable backdoor into that heavyweight class, and is likely based on what would have been upgraded Titan underpinnings. Though its maximum ratings are slightly less than the Sprinter, it reverts to the more traditional old school approach of size and gas-engine power rear-wheel drive. And it’s more affordable as a result. Twin-turbo diesel engines and twin-clutch 7-speed automatic transmissions cost money. The NV1500/2500/3500 makes good sense as a knock-around trade van or camper.
From what I gathered, Richard’s life of thoughtful reflection and idle dissipation is based out of a commercial campground in New Mexico, where he resides in a 24′ travel trailer as his home base. That makes his van a very compact, versatile and livable means of traveling around the country as the seasons dictate. It’s a good way to go, as he has all the comforts of home when he’s home, can move his home if he needs to, and yet doesn’t need to lug the thing along with him when the heat sets in and it’s time to enjoy the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else. He can camp anywhere two-wheel drive can take him. So, let’s take a look at his van, already.
The first thing I noticed was the pair of unique screens slipped over each of the van’s front doors. Essentially window socks, they are slipped over the upper doors and allow the side windows to be cranked down while keeping both bugs and hot sun out. He told me that the material, available at Lowe’s and Home Depot down here, is specifically made as a shading material, sold by the linear foot from 6-foot and wider rolls. His fabrication includes a section that deals nicely with the side view mirrors, and it’s held tight with magnets.
“It has about a 70% light transmission rate,” he said, “So when you double it up it’s only 30, but that seems to be enough. So it’s just a big pocket. I was selling them, and this was the first one I made.” So, I was looking at the first prototype, of sorts! He went on, “I hadn’t done a very good job. Of course it has a story to go with it: I was up in Sugarite Canyon State Park in New Mexico, and right after I got done and put it on, this nice Hispanic woman about 60-something came and said ‘Oh, I wondered what you were doing,’ and she came up and looked at the seam. I said ‘It’s not very fancy stitching’ and she goes, ‘It’s not bad, for a man,’” Richard laughed. “It allows me to open the windows without the bugs coming in, and most people don’t even realize its open. It’s not very expensive.”
The second thing I noticed was the reversed passenger seat – not so much that it was reversed, which is common practice – but that it was a really plush, comfy-looking seat. Holy mackerel, if you wanted a superb place to plant it, this looked like it! Richard had just returned from the Nissan dealership in Yuma, and told me, “I didn’t get any comments yesterday about the reversed seat when I took it in yesterday. The service writer was so funny, he took me back out to it and he kept talking and talking, so I figured out he wanted to see inside, but he didn’t ask. So I said, ‘You want to see it?’ And he said ‘Yeah, yeah! I’d like to!’ Then he went back to work.”
His van certainly contains enough to amuse. The doorpost next to the passenger seat has a wooden mount added that includes an L-bracket. Richard grabbed a shaped cabinet door that also doubles as part of an outdoor table, and slid it into place on the mount to form a small table that spans from the mount to rest on top of a central cooler. With a drop-screw in place, it stays put. Voila, laptop table! Considering the limited space available, Richard is all for multipurpose items, and it shows.
The cooler that the board rests on replaces the elaborate factory central console. “The console had very limited space for its physical size,” Richard said, “It was real cute. It had a sliding top that slid forward, and a place to put your binder clip, so you could put your notes there. It had hanging files and a space for a laptop, and it had a DC plug inside that was live all the time. So I took it out, and I made this little platform, and I store the extension cords for 110V power in this cooler.” Another cooler nearby, a 5-day Coleman, does double-duty when the occasion warrants it. Richard stores the window screens in it most of the time, and when a party or other gathering looms, it’s pressed into service as the beverage cooler. Being versatile is a much-prized trait among boondockers, particularly within the arena of proper beverage storage.
Simply being able to stand upright in a van camper transforms simple features – features that would be barely usable in a conventional van – into genuine benefits. A worktable/kitchen counter with a hinged front edge suddenly makes sense, and the stove becomes usable inside as well as outside, and without stooping over it, or crouching and reaching over. I assume someone has explained that there’s a difference between spending a lot of time outdoors because you enjoy it, and spending a lot of time outdoors because being indoors is an ergonomic disaster with an escape hatch. Not so, this. For those of us with more limited funds who must buy used, the appearance of such high-top commercial vans in recent years will eventually trickle into the used market, making them hard to find instead of almost impossible to find. Just give it time. Tradesmen don’t like shuffling like turtles either, given an affordable choice.
The driver’s side wall is festooned with 50-cent Walmart shopping bags, their logos discreetly turned against the wall. They replace a cargo net intended for a pickup truck bed, and the two black knobs still screwed into the plywood hint at the legacy. He told me, “I had it up here and put the clothes in it, but it kept stretching and stretching. I put the bags up and figured they wouldn’t hold up, but they’ve been there for 3 years.” And there is no hint of a problem with them, by the looks of it.
Heat comes via two sources, an electric bathroom heater and a catalytic heater mounted over it. The fan-assisted bathroom heater was obtained from Lowe’s for about $150, and Richard says that it has a 4,000 BTU maximum output at 1,000 watts. It’s used at home, or when electrical hookups are available and priced right at commercial camps.
The catalytic propane heater is an Olympian Wave 3, a 3,000 BTU unit that can also be adjusted down to 1,600 BTU. Though rated for up to 130 square feet of residential space, a van, even insulated, is a different animal. Richard told me, “These little Olympians are not cheap, but I had one for ten years in my first van, and it worked beautifully. The only real trick with these is you need a cover, because if you get dust in that element, it stops working. You have to be really careful with it. It’s a 3000 BTU heater, but I’ve got it set for less. I would have been better off with the next step up. It’s a pretty big van, and if I had gone with the Wave 6, they call it, it probably would have been big enough to make this place balmy. This one is good enough to take the edge off, particularly when you’re sitting in that seat. It is a radiant, infrared type of heater, so anything it hits is going to warm. The 1-pound bottle will keep this going. If it’s like, 30 degrees out, I use it morning and evening, and not during the day, it will run it for a couple of days. So you figure these 1-pound tanks cost about $3 apiece if you buy them, but what I do is I take them home, and I fill them out of a 20-pound tank, so it really only costs about a buck. So I figure about 50 cents a day is not too bad. Cheaper than New Mexico State Parks charge, about $4 a day. You have to buy these little adapters, these are called BBQ Savers. Lots of people have them because if their 20-pounder runs out, they’ll use a 1-pounder to finish it. They’re available from Amazon. If I had a way to store it, I could have a big tank outside, and it would be a lot better, but I haven’t figured out where to store a tank when I’m traveling. You don’t want them inside, because they vent, and if they vent, they blow up. The stove runs about a month on one.”
My own advice on these is to add that you should install a carbon monoxide sensor when using any propane heater. Although these catalytic units are relatively clean burning, the thin air at higher elevations and the aforementioned dust can cramp their combustion efficiency. A decent CO monitor will throw an alarm at about 25% of harmful levels, and prompt you to crack open a window or vent to minimize the problem. Opening some small airflow also helps decrease humidity, since water is a byproduct of the combustion process. No need to encourage condensation and mold growth in hidden areas. Products like the Mr. Heater have what is called an oxygen depletion sensor to kill combustion when the heater starts to compete with you for fresh oxygen in a confined space. The bad part of that is that they can fail to fire at all in the thin air of higher elevations, or kick in early. The Wave has no such sensor, and while it will thankfully still produce heat at 10,000 feet, combustion is not nearly as clean, so adequate ventilation to vent the CO becomes important. It doesn’t take much of a deliberate air leak to help.
Speaking of staying comfortable, Richard has spent considerable time and effort on insulation, which is the common weak point of van camping. Bare sheet metal, windows and deteriorating gaskets do not cope well with the daily temperature swings that living in the desert produces. A 30-degree variation is normal, and the hot sun can easily induce a 40-degree swing or more in cabin temperatures. Richard told me, “There is some insulation in the walls, but this is the big debate when you’re building something like this. I did a lot of research. I know the easiest thing would have been to take cans of spray foam and fill the walls, but it turns out, I think the most telling thing I ran across is that two of the largest home insulating businesses in the world stopped using green foam. They thought it was the perfect answer. But they found out that if you put it on too hurriedly and build the layers on too fast, the inside never stopped curing. And when it’s curing, it emits toxic fumes – just what you want in a van!”
He smiled at that point, and went on. “So, I know a lot of people do it, but in the end, I said no. Where I could, these walls are stuffed with sheets of this pink foam, which helps, and then all of it was painted, like this.” He pointed to the frame surrounding the door, which had a matte finish, unlike the usual factory gloss white. “Feel this, it’s slightly rough, as opposed to the door there. It’s a product called Hy-Tech Insulation Additive. It is made in Florida, it is made out of the same material that the tiles on the space shuttle were made with, and it is little tiny sand-sized grains that are hollow. How they get them hollow, don’t ask me. You add them to the paint. A really big problem with this process was to try to spray it. Most paint sprayers can’t pass it. If you use a commercial paint sprayer, you have to pull all the filters off it, because they won’t go through the filters. I tried to rent a sprayer at Home Depot, and I handed him the spec sheet, and he said, ‘I ain’t renting it to you.’ So I had to put it on by hand. The more layers you put on, the more insulation you get. They use this material in Alaska to put on quonset huts, and they do spray it. They have sprayers that will work on it. It’s not very expensive actually, I think I paid 60 bucks to get enough for 5 gallons of paint. I painted the whole inside of the van except for the doors three times. And it was amazing because at that time this was open, having this side pointing at the sun, you could put your hand on this section and it would be cool, and then on the door, and it would be hot. It really did work, it’s amazing stuff. If I could have sprayed it, I probably would have put 10 coats on. There’s two layers of 3/4” foam up here in the ceiling, and there’s one layer in the floor.”
Ah, the floor. It’s pretty, with squares that look a lot like gray slate. “I made a mistake in here,” Richard confessed without shame. “I took 1-bys to make a grid, since the floor was waffled, so I laid this grid of 1x4s so that they intersected with plywood, and I screwed them down. I should have bolted them, because there are screws sticking down underneath the van. I went back around and I put little plastic caps on all of them so a mechanic wouldn’t reach up and cut his hand, but it would have been better if I’d used T-nuts and bolted them up, but it was a little hard to do all by myself. I wish I’d done it, and if I did it again, I would do that. Once I laid that wood down, I laid all the foam in, then I laid one layer of plywood one way, and then finished off the other way. These are tile, again from Lowes. They’re the most expensive peel & stick, they’re about a dollar apiece, I think. On the recommendation of the nice lady in the tile department, I spread adhesive on the floor first, and then the tiles. It hasn’t come up in three years. Pretty amazing, I mean if you figure the stress these things go through, the heat and the cold, it’s pretty good!”
Also pretty good is Richard’s ample solar setup. Most people with vans use gutter-mount ladder racks, but that can be an issue with high-tops. The Nissan NV series comes to the rescue here, as the van virtually bristles with pre-threaded mounting brackets inside and out. That includes the roof, which even on the high-top is configured to accept a dealer-installed ladder rack. “They actually welded little brackets up there in that hidden rain gutter. I did use standard bolts. I was going to get stainless steel and said the heck with it. They haven’t rusted. There was a commercial ladder rack available for it, but they wanted $300-some dollars for it. And when I looked at it, I realized I’d have to build another rack on the rack to make the solar panels fit.”
As a result, Richard’s solution is elegant. With two aluminum extrusions running fore and aft, he added his cross-members where needed, and attached his panels. “The rack for the solar I made out of square aluminum stock. You can buy those plastic end caps. I put a little tiny screw through the top of each of them so they wouldn’t fall out. They go in pretty hard, but I think eventually they’d vibrate out.” No whistling in the wind here. The end product is a place to mount antennas and solar panels. For now, he has two “small” panels up there to power a PWM controller that feeds a 100Ah 12-volt battery up front. In turn, that feeds an inverter for 110VAC devices. In an almost-separate system, three 100W panels feed a more sophisticated MPPT controller, with the charge going to a couple of 6-volt 225Ah AGM batteries. “One of the 100W panels, I’ve got wired with a transfer switch so it can be directed to the smaller battery and its inverter if I’m doing something that needs that.” Tricky devil, this Richard, but one tour through makes it plain that he’s a resistor-worshipping electronics buff. Not the soft-core kind that flexes his credit card at Best Buy, but the hard-core variety that tears something apart and modifies it to suit.
The supply of brackets extends not only to the inside, to attach plywood walls, but also to the ceiling in a setup meant to accept a suspended interior ladder rack. In Richard’s case, it neatly holds up the foam sheet insulation and support strips right along the centerline. “Nissan spent a lot of time trying to listen to what contractors and other people wanted before they came out with this van,” he said, and showed me the 270-degree rear doors, which are no longer unique and of no particular use to him, but are handy for tradesmen in certain situations. They stay in full-open position with rare earth magnet stops to hold them. Naturally, having only ever used 180-degree doors, I keep thinking someone has sideswiped a van when I see these. Then, I think of what a handy improvement it represents, nearly ending the battle with doors that want to tilt or blow closed on you while you’ve got your hands full. That “office on wheels” multifunction center console that Richard so heartlessly tore out is another example of targeting a certain market by designing for it, rather than blindly following the leader and competing on price.
Richard’s rear windows are a story in themselves, a multi-year, thousand-mile quest for the perfect window. That perfect window was an awning-style piece of glass that would crank out from its top hinge to allow being left open in the rain. And it would have a screen to keep out the bugs. Simple, right? Try and find one. “I had some nice ones on my previous van that I’d bought from an RV dealer who subsequently retired and went out of business, so I couldn’t get them from him. The next time I wanted to find them, I was in the Atlanta Georgia area. I went all over. I would say I want awning windows for the side of pickup caps, and they’d say ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got those’, and I’d get there and they’d be sliding windows. So I called this one guy, and I told him he was over a hundred miles away, so I said ‘you’re sure’, and he said, ‘Oh sure, I got 3,000 of them!’ He had just bought somebody out. Frank Bear is the owner, it’s a company out of Michigan that is on the Internet, and they sell kits for teardrop trailers. I looked for 2-1/2 years for these windows.”
Richard’s take on the factory windows was poor. “They have factory windows that fit in here, but the way those windows work is that they were fixed and they were glued into this space, so you’ve got a window THIS BIG and an opening just that big.” The indent for a window in the door sheetmetal is a huge, swooping affair, while his indication of the actual opening size was puny. It simply wouldn’t do. But the thought of taking a saber saw to brand new, pristine body sheetmetal makes me queasy, with visions of the Animal House denizens butchering a perfect suicide-door Lincoln Continental with a power chisel and mallets. Richard was nonchalant. “With the sabre saw, what you do is tape everything up, mark it, and then you’re cutting on the tape so you don’t scratch the paint up. There was a strip down here that kept the outside panel from rattling. I broke the welds and got that out.” Mind you, I like the results – I just wouldn’t be able to watch the process. Too squeamish. I felt bad enough from carving a 3″ hole in the bottom of my pickup’s bed as a passthrough for the Tankmin’s drain hose, and nobody can see that. Richard topped off his windows with a rectangle of metalized Reflectix insulation, which is held by strips of Velcro so it can be mounted and removed at will. That eliminates the heat gain without affecting airflow or rain entry. He then mounted a curtain rod over the inside of each rear window to allow it to double as a curtain and towel drying rack.
But Richard’s rear window story soon led to the front window story. “When I first got it, it was a little bit scary driving it without any rear window. There was no rear view mirror on the windshield. Got that at Walmart. But there was no pad on the window to receive it.” As it turned out, that would not be a problem. A rock from a car in front broke his windshield two hours after he got the van near Phoenix. “The first thing I did was, I called my insurance agent I said, ‘Brad, I just got a new van! …And Brad, I’ve got a claim!’ And he had broken his windshield the day before, too. So when they put the new one on, it had the little metal panel glued on. We’re now in the third windshield. I lost one last summer. This the real problem with vans. They seem to be rock magnets. I think pickup trucks have some of that trouble. They’re so high for one thing, and two, there seems to be this airflow. I’ve talked to several people about it. They make a spoiler that fits on the front, they said don’t waste your time, it doesn’t stop the rocks. All it does is protect the very front. The one last summer, I was up in Northwest Colorado and there’s a lot of oil fields going on up there, and one of the big service trucks pulled out of the oil field right in front of me and spit up a rock. And I drove right into it at 55 MPH or so. And it was like, WHAMMO, and it hit above the mirror and again I thought, oh boy, it’s just a little nice round hole, I can get it fixed. And then it started traveling. And this time the insurance company didn’t pay for it because in New Mexico, there is so much glass breakage that they won’t cover it. It’s under comprehensive, but my deductible is too high.”
One of the potential issues with vans is their dependence on either portable toilets or au naturel living, using the vast beauty of nature as your toilet. Richard likes to include long-term BLM campsites in his stops, which dictates that any vehicle lacking a permanently-mounted 10-gallon waste tank must stay within 500 feet of a restroom. That grates against him in two ways. One is that he has a perfectly good toilet, but cannot camp outside those very confined bounds. Two is that many people who do have big rigs with full bathrooms clog up these areas, making it needlessly crowded. But, this being America, he accepts the lack of fair play and is plotting an escape from the regs. “I’m working on another idea,” he told me, “You can’t use a blue boy, they don’t count that. So, you can buy these big black rectangular holding tanks, they come in a million different sizes, and now that that battery near the back door is going away, I’ve got this concept that I could probably build it under here and put the refrigerator on top of it, and hook the porta-potty to it or something. And then vent it. And have a drain down there or something.” It’s still up in the air, obviously, but I suspect that the sheetmetal-slashing solution will evolve over time. As I recall, he’d earlier explored an under-body holding tank, but was stymied by the space already taken up with mechanicals. It’s not an easy thing.
Like the Mighty Defiant, Richard’s Nissan van is easily identifiable within a campsite. Unlike the Defiant, its identifying features look more factory than factory, instead of jerry-rigged Rube Goldberg. Just look for a tall white van that isn’t a Sprinter, and that has a slick aluminum solar rack tucked neatly onto the roof. Also unlike the Defiant, if an amiable, presentable and talkative guy comes out to greet you, that’s Richard! Enjoy!