Friday, 17 November 2017

CTP 001: Seven Things to Consider Before Buying a Campervan part 1

Several other 'bloggers' or 'YouTubers' have identified the freedom of buying a van and hitting the open roads of Europe. There are several things however to consider before you do. 

1. Converted or Not

Do you buy a van that's already converted or an ex-work van that you can renovate yourself? In most cases, the van that's already converted will cost you more so buying the ex-work van may be the cheaper option. However, there are all the hidden costs of converting it yourself. The main benefit of converting it yourself is you get exactly what you want and where you want it. For example, do you have a bed going longways so you can sleep without being cramped then loose room space? Or do you have it running perpendicular to the van to increase room within the van and sleep with your knees bent a little?

2. Summer or Winter Travel Plans

If you are planning to road trip during both winter and summer, then proper insulation will be key to controlling the climate of your van. We have had several problems with condensation in our van - the first time lead to us unnecessarily removing the roof vent and resealing it. Another thing to consider is that the cold will influence your batteries 'current capacity'. For every 1°C drop below 25°C, you will lose 1% in amp - hour (Ah) capacity. So at 15°C a 110 Ah battery will drop to ~100 Ah and at 5°C  it will drop to ~90 Ah. 

For summer road trips alone you can get by with minimal insulation if you have a well ventilated van i.e roof vent, fans and the height of your van will all assist with this.

3. Tall or Short Van

Both tall and short vans have their advantages and disadvantages. Taller vans will allow you to stand inside the van making general day to day things easier. It will also make your van feel like less of a 'hot box' during summer nights. 

Shorter vans have a huge benefit when it comes to parking as a lot of parking complexes have height restrictions from 1.9 - 2.3 meters, making it impossible for taller vans. In the smaller van however, you will likely have to forgo having things like roof racks or the storage pod on top. The negative of the shorter van is that because the roof is closer to your bed, you will get a good feel of the outside heat if the van isn't insulated properly.  

4. Leisure power or Alternator

It is possible to road trip only using the standard 12-volt port in the car. You will just need to buy a USB adapter and possibly a some kind of inverter if you need to power something above 12-volts. Although, if you have the cash to spend, there are a few options for adding additional electricity so you're not likely to run your battery dead.

The first option is connecting a leisure battery to the alternator via a split charge relay. It charges the battery whenever you drive and stores the power so you can use it later when the engine is off. Depending on the size of the battery, it is likely you can get at least a days worth of power without turning the engine on. A great use when you decide to go off-grid! This what we used and the only time it would go completely flat was if we tried to run the electric esky for 24-hours. Below is a video of our set-up.

The second option is to use 'shore power'. This involves installing an outlet on the exterior of your van so that you can plug into an external outlet (primarily at camp sites) and store that power in the leisure battery. We have something similar, but ours connects to a 240-volt system instead of the leisure battery. That way if there is an external power source we can charge our electronics without running out the battery. We can also use the inverter to power this system so we have more 240-volt outlets. Again, below I have attached a video of our set-up.

The last option is to attach solar panels to the roof of the van. This can be used to trickle charge the leisure battery during the day. Because we don't have solar panels on our van yet, I can't really comment on whether it is worth the money or not. Make sure you keep in mind about the desired height of your van if you are considering installing solar panels.

5. Fridge or 'Esky' (Cool box)

Unless you're willing to buy fresh meat or milk everyday, you will need to consider getting a fridge or esky for your van. In most cases this decision will be made for you if you don't have the appropriate leisure power set-up to run a fridge/freezer. For those who already have the power capacity, having a  fridge or an electric esky will surely save you from throwing away food every couple of days. 

6. Indoor or Outdoor Cooking

Again this may be controlled strongly by weather conditions. Obviously its easier to cook outdoors on warm sunny days, so if your planning on doing a summer road trip in Southern Europe, then an outdoor option works well. If you're planning to go further North or during the winter, an indoor option may be more favorable.

For cooking, you can decide to use electrical devices such as a stove top, microwave and oven or you can select from a variety of portable or fixed gas stoves. If you have a good solar set-up backed up with a strong battery bank then you could use a microwave or an oven. But for most vans who don't have that kind of set-up, a gas system may be the best option. You will need to consider however whether to use propane or butane gas. While butane will produce a greater energy yield per cubic meter, I have also heard that it is less efficient during low temperatures so it is likely less favorable for outdoor cooking or as a fuel source during winter road trips. For these reasons we selected a portable propane stove. Portable was the best choice for us because we have a short van and little bench space. But when you get views like this its not so bad.

7. Water Storage and Waste

The easiest storage and waste set-up would be to buy a large water tank (we paid £5.87 for ours) and use bushes or drains to get rid of the waste. If this is the path you choose then you may need to look ahead at how easy it is to fill up your tank. I know from experience that there are plenty of places in France that are easy to get free water. There are some other countries however where you may need to pay for bottled water to top up. You can see in the photo above our water tank fitted under the bed and would slide just outside of the car. This way could easily fill up large containers.

Another method is to set up a 12-volt water pump and micro-switch tap so you can easily store the water tank in a cabinet somewhere. This way you can run a tap or hose outside the van in case you need to fill up large containers or want to have a shower.


  1. I didn't see mention of a couple options that greatly improved my life...

    A) Kerosene instead of propane or butane. (Much safer, cheaper, and dryer. Also safe to run for heat overnight.)

    B) A low battery protector or cut off. (Automatically cuts off battery before over discharging, also leaves plenty of juice to start vehicle.)

    C) Insulation in a camper van is a bad joke. Shade in the summer and sun in the winter is much more effective. One old timer simply stated "Ventilation, not insulation." .

    D) Lots of opening windows to provide a view and much better ventilation than a roof vent. (Not as likely to leak either!)

    1. Cheers for your feedback Camper_Bob.

      From what i read kerosene is more damaging to the environment, but ill look into it more. I'm pretty sure the split charge relay i have installed won't allow the leisure battery to jump the main when needed.

      As for insulation I'm not sure what you do during the cold when condensation builds up on your roof. I agree that ventilation helped a lot when the weather got above 30.

    2. Not sure about the environmental part of kerosene, but the safety factor, the dryer heat, and the fact that a 7 gallon jug lasts me about a year are good selling points to me. In comparison, a 20lb propane tank of about the same physical size, lasts under a month for the same usage.

      Your split charge relay is for charging your house battery, the battery protectors are a totaly different animal. They protect your batteries from over discharge, and insure you still have enough power to start your vehicle. They will greatly prolong your battery life too.

      Insulation only works in a sealed box, with a heating or cooling source. In a house, with the huge volume of air inside, opening a door for a short time will have little effect, and all the windows are typically closed. A house isn't as prone to condensation problems as a vehicle is and you can't stop condensation from happening in a vehicle. You can hide it, and/or trap it with insulation, but you can't stop it, and hiding it or trapping it results in mold and rust problems. In a vehicle, dry heat and ventilation are the only way to combat moisture problems. Due to a larger amount of outside walls to the lower volume of inside air, proper ventilation will totally defeat any temperature advantages of insulation. Just like in a house, if you isolate an individual very insulated room, and run an individual heater in that room, it will heat up very quickly. If you open a window, regardless of the insulation, it will take much more heat to achieve the same effect, because the insulation has now become worthless.

      For a real world example, I live in a window van, and I never insulate my windows. I have no added insulation, and have 24/7 ventilation. My yearly heating and cooking costs are under $30, and in the winters I spend months below 0f degrees, and -20f is not uncommon. I both live and work in my van, so I am in my van almost constantly, and I like to keep the temperature in the 70f+ range... My current window van came with a finished interior, which is still unmodified, so my cost to finish the floor, walls, and ceiling were $0. In a previous cargo van, it cost me $1500+ to insulate it, add two roof vents, and finish off the floor, walls, and ceiling. Using propane, it cost about $150+ a year for heating & cooking. Condensation and moisture were never ending issues, and it was always either too hot in the summer, or too cold in the winter. My window van is comfortable year round, with no added insulation or roof vents needed, annd since switching to kerosene instead of propane, I no longer have moisture problems either.

      If we compare costs, using my $30/year heating & cooking costs, vs. $1500+ to finish the interior of a cargo van, it would take 50 years to break even, and the cargo van wasn't half as comfortable as my window van and had all the moisture problems. We can't keep our vehicles sealed up because just living in a vehicle creates moisture, not to mention condensation, and ventilation is the only way to prevent that moisture from becoming trapped inside. With the need for constant ventilation, even on the coldest of nights, and the wettest days, the value of insulation in regards to temperature control becomes highly questionable. The only working solution I have found, after years of trial and error, is to have enough dry heat to compensate for, and overcome the necessary ventilation.

  2. Excellent, definitely some great points. I haven't considered trying to use ventilation during the cold weather so I'll keep it in mind. We are also now looking into kerosene heating.

    Do you have links to your window van so I can have a look?