Pandemic Woes, Everything Slows
By late March 2020, I was already feeling the financial woes of the pandemic. A Shelter-in-Place order was in effect, and small businesses began their inevitable economic decline. Most of my clients were thriving small businesses, non-profits, and independent professionals before the pandemic. They all took a huge hit. Which means, my business did too.
Faced with uncertainty, economic ruin, and 2020’s endless bingo-card disasters, I did what any red-blooded American would do — I drank a lot of alcohol. The next day I didn’t feel that great, so I devised a better plan. I had to rethink my life and do something productive with myself. So I rehashed all my recent dreams and ideas.
I have long had the idea to build a campervan and hit the road “one day”. But always had excuses for not doing it. Not enough money, not enough time, no place to build it, other things to do, etc. It’s always been “one day” that never gets started. I already had a cargo van, so there was no excuse!
Along comes the perfect opportunity and I took it; dumped my life savings into the project, ignored the collection calls, and within a few days I was knee-deep in debt and sawdust. Both made my throat feel scratchy.
But “Why” Build A Campervan?
The concept of living in a van is not new. Tons of people have explained VanLife in greater detail far better than I ever could. Suffice it to say that it’s not an easy lifestyle, but at least it’s interesting. Depending on the kind of person you are it can be more affordable than traditional renting or owning homes. For me it’s a chance to embark on an adventure. The fact that we’re living in historically significant times gave me the excuse I needed to break out of the “norm” and embrace the challenge.
I also had to find out if I could travel alone. I have both insecurities and curiosities about living alone on the road. I guess the idea of loneliness is the part I fear the most. But I figure if things don’t work out I can just sell the van and travel the world instead. Which gave me some ideas on what I might do next year, or the next…
Searching for a friend for the end of the world
I knew all along I couldn’t build a campervan alone. I didn’t have the tools, or, as I would later find out, the skills needed to build a well-engineered portable home-on-wheels. I was fortunate to be sheltering-in-place at my family’s property in California. My brother lives there and has all the tools and expertise to help me build my dream campervan. We discussed some of the basics and he agreed to help.
A little note about my brother who was deeply involved in every aspect of the campervan build. He’s a very private person. He’s not on Facebook and doesn’t have any kind of social media footprint. He doesn’t want any credit for helping me, doesn’t want to be named, and most definitely did not want to be in any of the photos of the van build. That made keeping photographic records of the build difficult, but there are plenty of photos coming — none of them with my anonymous brother in them. But I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my brother who spent the better part of Spring and most of Summer 2020 building a campervan with me. If you read “I” anywhere in this article, rest assured both my brother and I most likely did whatever that is together.
My brother is a skilled contractor and he has many construction talents that came in very handy during this campervan build. I could not have done this without him.
There’s No Cookie-Cutter Perfect Way To Do This
What follows is NOT a comprehensive story about how we did it. There are just too many details that I may have forgotten to include. This story is not a “how to” article explaining every detail. And it’s definitely not a blueprint for building a campervan. The way I designed and built the van may not be the best way; in fact, it probably isn’t. But there’s no specific ‘one-size fits all’ blueprint for building a campervan after all. You build a campervan kind of the same way you manage VanLife. You just do it and figure it out as you go.
Starting With A Cargo Van
I toyed around with the idea of getting several different types of “vans” before I found the one I ended up buying. I thought small school buses (called Skoolies once they’re built into homes) were ingenious. I also liked Step Vans or Bread Vans for their square layouts and sliding side doors. Passenger vans and small shuttle buses were also considered.
My main criteria included (1) the ability to stand up inside. Most standard and passenger vans required constantly bending over and getting dressed sitting down. You’d only be able to stand up outside. My second criteria was that it (2) had to be as close to 20 feet long as possible without going over that. I knew that I wanted the inside to be less crowded and capable of holding all my “stuff”. A 14 foot long by 6 foot wide van wasn’t going to work for me. I’m a minimalist with a minor hoarding problem. I wanted to keep the length 20 feet or less to broaden my options for campsites because many can’t accommodate RVs or Campers longer than 20 feet. I also didn’t want (3) too many windows. I wanted some “stealth” to the vehicle as I planned to park in towns, neighborhoods, and cities now and then. I didn’t want people to instantly think, “someone is sleeping in that van.” I’m still not sure I accomplished this, but we’ll find out soon enough. I settled on a cargo van.
First, your van has to be in decent working condition. There’s no point in attempting living full time in a van that’s going to break down often. They all break down, but if you’re already looking at a questionable vehicle, you’re asking for trouble. Once you have a van that is in good working order, then you will have a list that looks something like this to tackle.
- Bed / sleeping and seating area
- Storage spaces, cabinets, shelving
- Cooking area and multiuse countertop
- Refrigerator (or a cooler)
- Sink and water system (fresh water and gray water storage)
- Toilet (lots of options and controversy in selecting toilets)
- 12v electrical setup, power storage, and solar charging system
- Propane system to fuel your stove (*see notes on propane below)
I started with a cargo van that’s 20 feet long, 9 feet tall, and 7 feet wide. The interior floorplan of the cargo area behind the drivers compartment was 12 feet long, 6.6 feet wide by 6.4 feet interior height. I’m 6 foot 2 inch tall, so it fit the criteria I was looking for in almost every respect. At the time I thought that it was exactly what I was looking for.
The Best Laid Plans
The Conceptualization begins somewhere. My humble ideas evolved from hasty scrawls on a cocktail napkin to detailed vehicle schematics, and then a carefully considered design process. This can easily be an exercise in analysis paralysis if you’re not careful. Don’t overthink it (like I did).
I had drawn a thousand different layouts and designs, and watched a few hundred VanLife videos on YouTube. I felt like an expert on layouts. But actually fitting those ideas into a roundish cargo body would prove a challenge. Where to put the bed, the stove, the frig, the toilet, and how to store everything I owned into the back of a small cargo van. There was a lot to consider before I decided on a final interior layout. Even then changes happened when I realized I didn’t need some element of the build, or that it wouldn’t fit right.
The Plan Went Something Like This (April through August, 2020)
Take everything out of the van and clean the empty shell. Then add sound proofing material to some areas that seemed to be potentially noisy. The create the internal framework that would be the engineered structure holding everything together. Then fit rigid insulation in between the framework and cover all exposed wall and ceiling areas. Go buy more materials.
Then install the foundations for the cabinets and the bed. Rip out the bulkhead wall and recut a better fitting wall. Then build and fit the cabinets, wall coverings, and the bed frame. Take everything out, sand, and paint. Install the electrical components, wiring, outlets, battery isolator, 200amp battery, and the solar system components. Install the headliner, complete the air ducting for vents, install the water tank lines, and prep the interior for the cabinets to go in. Go buy more materials.
Then create custom mounting hardware for the water tanks and mount the water tanks under the van (one fresh water and one for gray water). Connect the gauge and fill hatch to the water system. Install the propane lines, finish the electrical and water lines. Mount the duel propane tank setup under the van. Seal up the floor, and all areas below the cabinets are the bed area. Install the cabinets and the bed frame. Go buy more materials.
I had to figure out how to create a curved mounting medium for the roof solar panel because the roof isn’t flat. That was very interesting.
Then install the kitchen countertop, sink, fridge, and stove. Install the overhead cabinets. Finish the final coat of paint. Complete the LED lighting install inside all cabinets and the ceiling lighting. Install the wood floors and finalize all the electrical outlet covers, and switches. Go buy more materials. Finish the flooring by adding metal end cap thresholds. Install all drawers and hardware, latches, and hinges.
I think that’s the rough outline of the build process. I probably missed a few things, but that’s a general idea of what we did.
Flashback on the Van Build
It’s Spring of 2020; it is 66 degrees on a pleasant East Bay morning with overcast skies. I walk out to the back part of the yard and take a long look at the giant white marshmallow I call my van (See the gallery at the end of the article).
I set out the saw horses and unloaded the boxes of supplies, materials and assorted components. My brother brought out the heavy weapons (saws, jigsaws, drills, drivers, and power cords). After a day of doing a bunch of stuff I’ve never done before, I was tired.
My brother has a work truck that’s covered in solar panels. So the entire campervan was built with solar energy. We never plugged into the grid to build this van. I’m quite happy with that.
The next day we repeated the process. One day that first week I set out a solitary Hostess Cupcake for my brother. I joked that it was payment for a days work (since he had adamantly refused to accept any payment for helping me). It became a fairly regular tradition. I figured one cupcake a day isn’t going to hurt. I also did not know it would take months to finish the campervan. But I get to tell this story of how I was able to build a campervan with power from the Sun and the labor paid in cupcakes.
“I built a campervan using power from the Sun and labor paid for in cupcakes.” Not many can say that.
With my daughter’s college closed due to Covid-19, she was a huge help in May and June (till she went back to college). She’s very talented and painted most of the cabinets like a pro. She helped in many ways but it was her company that was the best part.
Our build crew had grown. Every day was filled with a made-up list of things to do based on what we accomplished the previous day and whatever materials or parts arrived from Amazon.
Never A Dull Moment
We had more than our fair share of interruptions during the day. My brother’s cat would come by to assist — like all good cats do — meandering around the work site demanding attention. In June-July we had some record hot temps. And in August-September the devastating California Fires socked in the skies for more than 30 days. Airplanes and helicopters seemed to fly by regularly to provide something new to look at. Nearby airshows and planes towing large banners were a weekly sight that I usually wouldn’t notice if I was working inside. Just over the wall from where we were building the Campervan was a 4-lane main thoroughfare. Emergency vehicles and unruly people driving crazy would scream by every day. Wind and heat were always often working against us. We had lots of distractions. But the construction project endured.
The Quest For Materials and Components
I realize I am jumping around a bit. But It’s a lot to cover and I am doing this without notes. In the midst of a pandemic it’s difficult to gather building materials or to have items I needed to complete the job delivered. Weekly trips to the different hardware stores, social distancing, avoiding busy times, and ordering the right stuff for our build proven a huge undertaking. It wasn’t cheap either. A lot of the hardware and components like hinges and latches were easy enough to find on Amazon. But you took a chance on shipping, sizing, fit, and quality. I was lucky and nearly everything I ordered worked out.
I already had a CampChef Everest Camping Stove which is what I opted for use in the completed campervan. For the refrigerator, I had my heart set on a Costway 54 Quart top-loading fridge. But for some reason they would not ship it to California. As it turns out, California is the only state that held companies liable in lawsuits regarding the toxic coolant contained in these refrigerators. I had done my research and it wasn’t illegal for me to have one in California, but companies voluntarily refused to ship them to the state for liability protection. I knew most refrigerators had this coolant, so I created a workaround. I got the fridge sent to Oregon, and then shipped it from there to here. Since I had free shipping to Oregon, the shipping from Oregon to California was all I had to pay. The large box wasn’t cheap to ship, but it was doable. And the fridge is worth it. It currently runs whisper quiet 24/7 and doesn’t use hardly any power.
The Renogy 200 Amp Battery I ordered weighed 130 pounds. For those that don’t lift weights, that’s a LOT to pickup. When it arrived on the doorstep it took two people to bring it inside. And it’s huge too. Once we had the battery we could put it into place and engineer a secure compartment complete with breathing holes and a design that kept the battery secure even in an accident.
Rough Van Build Cost Breakdown
Here’s the part most people want to know. If you’re budgeting for your own van build, don’t forget to include Gas, Insurance & Registration. There’s a lot of little things that are going to cost you time and money. This is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s a rough estimate on what I paid for most of what I purchased during this van build.
Of course, there’s the cost of the actual van itself. Your experience is guaranteed to be different than mine. I purchased a rare, 2010 Ford E350 Super Duty Cargo Van with an Aerocell fiberglass body for $16,900.
After getting it home I realized my first unplanned challenge; the interior of the cargo area has curved walls and ceiling. That was going to be a gigantic obstacle to finishing my van build in a hurry. Curves take a lot more time than straight lines and perpendicular surfaces.
Primary Building Materials, $1,257
This is the cost of the materials we used to build the cabinets, internal components, and storage structures. I didn’t do a great job of keeping records of exactly what was purchased at hardware stores, but I have a good idea what I purchased and I know exactly what my costs were based on my bank records.
These items includes full sheets of premium 3/4 inch and 1/2 plywood, full sheets of 1 inch and 1/2 inch High-density foam insulation, 2 boxes of premium Wood Flooring, Adhesives for headliner and flooring, LOTS of Screws, some Nuts and Bolts, a few Brackets, a kitchen countertop, hinges, vent hoses, wire, metal for thresholds, hardware and metal to fabricate water tank mounts, and water lines. Total cost at all hardware stores combined was $1,257.
Some people building vans today are using 1/2 plywood for everything, and I recommend stronger materials.
In addition to the above mentioned hardware store purchases, the following is a list of the items I purchased on Amazon and directly from manufacturers in some cases.
Cabinet Hardware & Interior Components, $243
Support Hinges, x8 $60
Push to Open Latches, $35 for 14
36 inch drawer slides, $48
Hood Fan cover, $13
Cabinet Handles, $20
Cabinet Hinges, $56
Propane System (mounted under van), $254*
Mount Bracket for two tanks, $41
Tie Down Strap for Propane mount 35ft, $24
Latch Clamps x2 for Propane, $13
12ft Propane hose, $22
1-gallon propane tanks x 2, $154
* Note on Propane: always mount your propane tanks upright, not on their side like we did. We discovered that mounting propane tanks on their side causes the liquified propane to travel into the lines and can leak into your camper. It could potentially mess up your stove’s regulator, and it might even ruin your propane lines or cause possible fire dangers. For me, it caused the stove to run improperly and I could smell gas now and then. So I researched and found that you need to mount the tanks upright with the valve at the very top.
Electrical System, $656
Battery Isolator 180amp, $162
Quiet Vent Fan, $20
5/16 stud lugs, $48
6ft electrical cord, $16
2/0 x10 feet wire, $43
Heavy duty 2/0 cable, $90
Terminal connectors & heat shrink, $30
Fuse Holders and Fuses, $65
12v Porch Light, $11
Fuse Block, $42
14awg wire red/black, $40
Interior switches, $34
Interior LED lighting, $55
Solar System, $1,135
Renogy Rover LI 30amp Charge Controller, $145
175 Watt Flex Solar Panel, $330
Renogy 10ft controller cable, $20
Renogy 1000x inverter, $230
Renogy 200amp Battery, $400
Entry Gland for roof, $10
Venting System, $151
3 12v 130cfm fans, $60
Air Vent Grill x2, $16
One-way backdraft dampers x5, $75
Water System, $367
Watts Quick Connect fittings x 14, $98 total
Copper Pipes x 2, $8
5 gallon jug for Shower, $30
Low flow faucet restrictor insert, $4
2 -Brass 1" x 1/2 inch fitting, $21
Campco Marine Water Filter, $18
Pipe reducer PVC x4, $32
Seaflo Pump, $80
Water Fill Hatch, $7
Water Gauge, $23
Water Sensor, $40
Water Tanks x 2, $60
Kitchen Sink, $62
Kitchen Faucet, $20
Misc Safety, Utility, & Convenience, $1,201
Narrow Twin Mattress, $70
Headliner material, $60
Privacy Curtain between Cab and Cabin, $22
New Wheel for Spare, $85
New Spare Tire for Wheel, $180
Smoke & Carbon Monoxide Detector, $30
Fire Extinguisher, $23
Dometic Cassette Toilet, $106 (from Overton’s)
Campchef Everest Stove, $130
Campchef Accessory Hose, $40
Costway Frig $279 +$76 shipping
Sound Proofing Insulation, $100
Interior Paint, $171
Highly Durable Satin Finish Whitish Paint at $60 per gallon. Total bill for brushes, rollers, and paint was, $171 from a local paint store
Total Estimated Van Build Materials Cost: $5,435
The cost of van purchase was $16,900, plus the cost of the van build which was, $5,435, which makes the total cost of this campervan, $22,335.
I didn’t keep track of our labor hours, but by my estimate we worked about 360 labor-hours on this campervan build. A lot of that time was having beers, chatting about politics, talking about the pandemic, etc. But overall I feel like 360 labor-hours of hard work was put into this van. Most days were only 2–3 hours of actual work, and only a few days were more than 8 hours. And there were many days when I ran out of money and had to wait for more to come in to buy materials.
The work began sometime in late March with buying some materials here and there. But the actual hard work and longer days didn’t start until late April. June and July were the busiest months on the project. August was just the finishing touches.
I’m counting total hours we each put into this campervan build combined. If we calculated an hourly wage into this you can see that it would have been a very expensive build. By my estimate, at $25/hour the labor alone would have been $9,000.
I am still working out the shower concept. I have two ideas that I can implement at the same time that I can optionally use based on the scenario. I already have water tanks and water pressure, so I just need to attach a shower hose and shower head to take a cold shower. But I am working on ways to take a hot shower in a shower tent of sorts for privacy. I can also take a shower inside the van if I set something up to catch the water and not flood the interior. So I am working on developing those ideas next.
EscapePod.One is Born!
Rising from the pandemic, EscapePod.One is a converted cargo van that’s been modified into a campervan. It’s 500 cubic feet of “wheelestate” that serves as my expeditionary vehicle, portable office, and my little home on Wheels. Come along and join me for the adventure.
The Campervan Build Gallery
Here’s what the van looks like after the van build.
Here’s the proverbial “before and after” (not much difference on the outside) #stealthy