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Van conversion and electricity


jan50

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Hello All,

 

I recently purchased a high top passenger van with the intention of renovating it into an office/camper. The place that will do the reno has told me in order to get ac while boondocking, I would either have to keep the engine running while the ac is on or get a generator installed on the back. I don't want to do either of those things and I am wondering if anyone out there had any ideas.

 

It's a small van

(view here: http://www.discountcatholicstore.com/van.htm)

so I was wondering if something like this might work:
homemade cooler turned into a portable ac - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITtlxjvLQis

 

Any suggestions are welcomed :)

 

Thank you,

Jann

PS: I should add that the reno place said that if I added some deep cycle batteries and inverter, it would cost about $15,000 - $20,000 just for the electricity. I didn't want to spend that much on electricity. (I should have just bought a camper that already had a generator - ugh!)

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I would either have to keep the engine running while the ac is on or get a generator installed on the back. I don't want to do either of those things...

 

I was wondering if something like this might work:

homemade cooler turned into a portable ac

 

if I added some deep cycle batteries and inverter, it would cost about $15,000 - $20,000 just for the electricity.

 

I've seen a lot of variations on the homemade coolers and they actually 'do' work to varying degrees. If you are only in moderately warm climates and just looking for something to knock the heat back a little before bed, it might be an option. My personal take though is that they take up too much valuable space in a van conversion and don't provide 'enough' cooling to justify the hassle of having to keep feeding it store bought ice or producing your own (requiring additional expense and power requirements). It's a fun project, they can provide a little relief, and if cash is just "strapped" then it could be a viable option when no others exist. It beats spritzing your face with one of those battery operated hand fans. KWIM?

 

A/C. Without running your engine and inverter or a portable generator then solar would be your only other option. (I won't comment on the first two option in that regard since you said you didn't want to do either.)

 

$15k -$20k for a solar setup appropriately sized for your rig is UTTERLY RIDICULOUS! (And I rarely, if ever, "shout" online ;)) I never recommend buying the cheapest equipment you can find (It 'will' bite you in the long run), but modest and reliable equipment can be had. panels, controller, inverter, and battery bank would run well under $1k for a self installed basic setup that would give you a couple of hours of A/C (5000 btu, 500 watt 4.5 amp A/C) between charges. That's assuming you don't have any other heavy electricity needs.

 

If I were in your position, my first and best option would be to invest in a small inverter type portable generator. A 2000 watt portable can range between.. ohh.. $450 - $1000. They are fuel efficient, fairly quiet, don't weigh very much and can run continuously. AKA.. A/C power "on demand".

 

My next step (as I was able to afford it) would be to install a battery bank, inverter (secondary to the generators inverter), and "smart" charger to store excess power produced by the generator and prevent me from having to burn more fuel just to power a few lights/computer/TV/etc. Ready power "on tap".

 

My third step would be to install a solar system. Endless "free power".

 

If it was in my budget to do so, I would do the batteries and solar system all at once, but if I need to break up my expenditures, a battery bank would come before solar.

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First let me say that your converter is probably high on the estimated cost to power an air conditioner from electricity, but they are also may be emphasizing the cost because of the practicality side of things. It may be that they are not familiar with installation of solar systems and would have to subcontract all of that work, which would add significantly to the cost of it.

 

I have never attempted what you are asking about with the cooler, but agree with Yarome that it is not practicle for the reasons he gives.

 

Since I have very limited solar experience, I'll not suggest any equipment, but based upon my extensive RV experience and my career of electrical work, I will share some thoughts on the idea of enough solar to provide air conditioning. All of the RV type roof air conditioners require a 120V/ac power supply in order to operate. As far as I am aware, there are no 12V/dc powered air conditioners that would do what you need. The roof units that you see on RVs all depend upon such a 120V source in order to be used so the company is correct in that statement. The smaller roof units typically require about 8A of 120V electric power when operating and several times that when starting. To be practical a system to supply that electricity must not only be workable, but it also needs to fit into the space available, it must be of a weight the vehicle can carry safely, and solar panels require surface area to supply large electrical supplies.

 

The first issue to put solar on the van would be the amount of roof space to get the needed power to recharge your battery bank in the hours of sunlight available. If you want to get into the math of the problem, I suggest you start by reading Solar Basics to understand the problem, but to put it very simply, large RVs need to cover most of the roof with solar panels just to supply the power that they need when they do not use air conditioning. Your van my well have enough roof to supply your needs for electric power without air conditioning, but I do not see any practical way to get enough for air conditioning. Then add to that the weight of enough batteries to store that power as well as the space those batteries would require and the idea of air conditioning with solar is really not practical and especially so for a small budget.

 

If air conditioning is vital to your plans then I also suggest one of the small, portable generators that are readily available, compact, light weight, and far more cost efficient and practicle. Any system based upon ice would create a whole new set of problems such as where to get enough ice, where would you store that much ice, and the cost to get it since it requires just as much power to make ice as it does to supply air conditioning.

 

How vital is it that you have air conditioning? Most serious boondockers do so partly by minimizing their use of electric power and also water. You've not said where you plan to go to do this boondocking, but perhaps you could spend time where weather is better and so don't require so much electrical use?

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RV A/C draws a lot of power. Even though I had a lot of solar and batteries I never tried to run the A/C in my van on solar. Since I didn't have a generator, I used my 12v fan a lot. Or I moved to someplace not quite so hot.

 

For van dwelling questions I like to send people to Bob Well's site at http://www.cheaprvliving.com/blog/. He has pages of information about lots of van dwelling specific stuff and he is trustworthy.

 

Linda Sand

former van dweller

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I installed a 750 watt solar system & 450 amp hour battery bank for less than $2000. While this system does a great job of running my coach that also has a residential refrigerator I would NEVER consider running my air conditioner(s) from the batteries. Even a small 13,500 btu roof top air conditioner is going to pull 13 or more amps at 120 volts (shore power or generator). This translates to over 130 amps at 12 volts - you would need a LOT of batteries and solar panels! Air conditioner on batteries is just not practical!

 

 

Lenp

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I purchased a 2005 Chevy Express 2500 cargo van for this purpose. My first move was to install a Fantastic Vent in the roof towards the rear and put screens in the drivers/passengers door window. Takes care of most cooling needs below 90 deg, particularly if you can get in a little shade. Installing an RV ac unit on the roof usually requires additional bracing, and a generator to run it. Haven't needed that so far.

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1000 watts of solar- $1000. Midnight classic solar converter - $700. Magnum 2812 inverter - $2000. 4 each 6 volt batteries- $400. Wiring and brackets - $500

 

Total around $4600 complete. I don't think you can fit 1000 watts on your roof or need that larg of an inverter.

 

I agree inverter type generator, inverter, batteries, solar, all interior lights need to be led. Find another person to do the converting.

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Thank you everyone for your feedback and suggestions! :) I like the idea of a fantastic fan in the roof and some screens on the windows. I think that might be the most realistic option. The reno place told me that a generator would add 4' - 5' to the length of the van, which is something I would never do because I bought this van because it just fits into a normal parking space.

 

Actually, the van just fits under my car port with 2" to spare so a fantastic fan may not work for me unless it is flush with the roof.

 

The reno place I'm using does rv remodeling for big companies so they are expensive but I am afraid to go with just a carpenter. (This I the reno place: https://goldengait.com/) It probably would be 1/2 the price though with the carpenter. A friend of mine said it is best to go with the reno company because the job will be done right. I want a bed in the back and a dinette installed.

 

The reno place suggested a perforated wrap for the windows for privacy. The quote they gave me for that was $1,500 - $1,700. Does anyone know if the perforated wrap offers privacy at night as well? If it's dark outside and lighted in the van, will perforated wrap still offer privacy?

 

Thanks again!

Jann

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The reno place told me that a generator would add 4' - 5' to the length of the van

 

Actually, the van just fits under my car port with 2" to spare so a fantastic fan may not work for me unless it is flush with the roof.

 

The reno place suggested a perforated wrap for the windows for privacy. The quote they gave me for that was $1,500 - $1,700. Does anyone know if the perforated wrap offers privacy at night as well? If it's dark outside and lighted in the van, will perforated wrap still offer privacy?

 

What I'm picking up from your conversion folks.. while they might know their stuff about van conversions (which I would question), they don't seem to know "jack" about portable power systems. The generator that's been suggested, and similar, don't require "mounting". Little portables like that would more than suit your needs and are less than 1 foot wide. The one in the link is 19.3 x 11 x 17.9 inches. Store it inside when not in use.

 

To put things in perspective in more familiar terms... and others can correct me if I'm exaggerating too much, but the quotes and sizes they are giving you would be similar to going some place and telling them you need a new apartment size washing machine. In turn, they tell you you'll need a 10'x12' space for it and cost $10,000-$15,000 for parts and installation. It's not "a little high" or "you pay a little more for quality"... it's beyond ridiculous.

 

From what you've been relating... If it's their business to do RV remodels... I would get my van away from them as soon as possible and RUN! Even if the job is incomplete. Pay them a fair price for what they've done so far.. load up any materials you've already paid for and run. I hate to even think about what they are charging you for your conversion and am afraid you're going to end up with a worthless and unsafe living space.

 

Fantastic fan. Unfortunately, it would not fit under your 2" allowance, however, it's also possible, and nearly as effective, to mount it through the side or rear of your van.

 

Perforated wrap. As you suspected, it will not offer you much privacy at night with the lights on inside. Tinting your windows would be a better/cheaper option, but my suggestion would be adding cloth covered mini blinds inside or just a pull down shade. You can let in as much or as little sun as you like and have complete privacy at night. They also won't break your bank. I suggest cloth covered so they don't 'rattle' against the windows while driving.

 

If for no other reason not to get perforated wrap is simply the weight factor. You're van has a limited amount of payload capacity. You'll, more than likely, already be having a difficult time staying within load limits. Clothing, food, water, fuel, dishes, bedding.... it all adds up very quickly.

 

Some others posted some of the costs of various solar setups. The numbers of watts and battery sizes may not mean to much to you, but all of those are illustrating full size systems for a 'large' RV, but are still just a small fraction of what you were quoted. You're van wouldn't require or even be capable of holding the size of systems listed above. Solar system components come in all sizes. Ie., a decent solar controller for a 400watt system could range from $50-$500... a 1000watt inverter could run $100-$1200... 2-6v batteries with similar capacities could be $150-$650.

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We own a custom van that we converted ourselves and have camped in for many years.

 

I agree with what Yarome, Jack and others have said. Go with a small generator. One of the problems with solar besides having enough space for the required amount of panels is you need yo park in the sun to get the most out if it. Guess what happens to the inside of a dark colored van in the sun. It heats up. You will find you will be looking for shade. Also what happens yo your solar power if it is raining. And guess what, you can't open your windows on van when it is raining. Hopefully you are going someplace where it doesn't rain much and doesn't get to hot and has a nice breeze from the ocean. Sounds like maybe San Diego!

 

We have used small portable window air units mounted on a shelf at the back doors but had to leave the door open, but we had 120 volts available at campsites. We also had window screens for the front windows that allowed use to still roll the window up if we needed to. The best thing we had was a 12 volt fan that circulated air inside along with a second battery so you did not drain your starting battery.

 

Also, we agree they seem to charging you way too much and don't seem like they know what you need.

 

Dave

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A friend of mine converted a step van into an RV. Rather than a rooftop air conditioner, he installed a floor model similar to this which he vented through the side wall using a household dryer vent. There are also models available that have a dehumifying mode and some that will provide heat or air conditioning. All those windows in the passenger van may make heating and cooling a real challenge so I would not under estimate the size of the AC or heater unless you will always be where you will not need either.

 

If you add additional batteries for the coach section and they will not fit in the engine compartment, they should be in a ventilated space which will require some body work on the van.

 

Good luck with your project!!

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Thank you to everyone for offering feedback. It is much appreciated.

 

I don't know anyone who can do this work for me or even advise me on it so I am sort of forced to go to the "professionals" (ie renovation place). I spoke to a couple of carpenters but they said this project was out of their league. Just removing the metal brackets that anchor the seats down is something the carpenter said was beyond his ability. I want to get a lot of work done to the van: put a wood (or wood looking) floor in, install a bed and dinette, get some electric set up so I can use ac/heat, lights, tv/dvd without taxing the car battery, etc. The electric has been the most tricky but today the reno place said that they can install 3 AGM batteries (these are the type that can be drained to zero and it not affect their longevity) - each will be 100 amps. They will wire the tv, dvd player, a portable ac/heater unit, and some new installed led lights to this new power source and set it up so that the car battery will charge the 3 AGM batteries while driving but if the driving isn't enough to fully charge the batteries, there will also be a power cord I can plug into my house so it can fully charge overnight. They said they'll make it so that the 3 AGM batteries won't drain the car battery.

 

I am using this van for short day trips in populated areas. Its primary function is as a mobile office. I will be in parking lots most of the time so having the 3 batteries installed under the van will be preferable to a gas generator because there will be no sound.

 

I think this is the best solution for me and I like the idea that TCW mentioned re a portable unit that will offer heat and ac. I found a unit here. It is 8.6 amps. Since my trips will probably normally be 2 - 4 hours, I think the battery bank will be more than sufficient. Since the batteries offer 300 amps and my trips will be short, I may wind up being able to put a 2 amp fridge in there. :)

 

I think many of you hear about how much the reno place is charging and realize you can do it yourselves for a fraction of the cost and understandably balk at the price, but for me, I really don't have any other choice. There are no other companies around me that do rv remodeling. I'm trying to give a more comprehensive picture of the situation.

 

Thanks again! :)

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AGM's can NOT be fully discharged without harming them. They may be sealed, but they are still "lead acid". A full discharge will do significant damage and should never be discharged below 50% and only on occasion (generally, you want to keep them @ 70%soc or higher for the longest "life"). From the sounds of it, they are recommending 3 - 12v AGM's. By size, weight, cost, and capacity... 6v AGM's will likely give you more performance to cost. I say that because, generally speaking in the AGM market, your $ to amp cost would be lower and require less space than 3 - 12v's. 2 - 6v AGM's would give you 220ah's (110ah@50%). For some of the 'very best' AGM's on the market would run you around $600 for 2 if you want to compare against the cost of the 3 - 12v'rs they are suggesting.

 

Did I mention.. AGM's can NOT be fully discharged?

 

Solar installation. You're correct. The above examples are largely DIY projects, however, as a general rule of thumb, you can expect to pay about 50/50 for an installer. 50% in equipment to 50% cost of installation. Ie., a $1000 system would run $2k-$2500 for a full install (generally, the larger the system the better the labor percentage). I would suggest contacting AMSolar for an estimate. The are one of the most recognized RV solar installation companies in the U.S. They are NOT inexpensive, but are known for quality. They cut no corners. It would give you a comparison against the "cadillac" of RV solar installers against what they are quoting you.

 

(Note: People often travel across the country and schedule several months in advance to get their RV in to AMSolar for an install.)

 

Using your van's alternator to charge the "house" batteries is possible, to some degree, as it sits, but not well without modification.. and then only "well", not "good".

 

The portable A/C unit is a good option. You need to realize though that the 8amp draw is on 120vac. Drawing off of your batteries would translate into close to 50amps of 12v. With 150ah's "available".. that give you a max of 3 hours of A/C. That is with no other loads and assuming your batteries have a 100% SOC (state of charge). It is extremely difficult to maintain 100% soc with an alternator. Realistically.. you shouldn't expect more than 1.5 - 2 hours with no other loads and would, more than likely, require multiple days of driving for your batteries to be restored to 90%ish SOC.

 

Realistically, other than running your A/C for just a few minutes at a time to beat back the heat a little, it just isn't practical with the size of battery bank and charging system you're considering.

 

You mentioned a small fridge. With a 2amp 120v fridge you are looking at pulling a bit over 20 amps on 12v. You can do the math....

 

That the folks you are talking to don't know these things should be throwing up red banners for you.

 

If I didn't say so before... AGM's can 'not' be fully discharged without doing damage. :)

 

You might consider having the rig gutted by an automotive shop THEN take it to a carpenter to construct the insides. If the carpenter you take it to tells you it's beyond his ability to use wood to construct a cabinet, a dinette bench, and a sleeping platform... you certainly live within the twilight zone. :P

 

It 'is' of course your money and your rig. You can do as you please, but it does pain me to see someone so incredibly taken advantage of. If they don't even have a fundamental understanding of power, solar, battery, weight considerations, sizing, and on and on, I don't see how you can reasonably expect that other aspects of the conversion are going to be any different.

 

I stand by my original recommendation. Get your poor van and pocketbook out of there. If you give your approximate location and distance you are willing to travel, someone on the forum might be able to help put you in touch with someone in your area that could do this conversion for you.

 

I'm not trying to be an "alarmist" or the type that would tell, "why buy a cookie sheet when a piece of tin foil will do". Buy the cookie sheet. Buy the best one you can afford, but 'no' cookie sheet is worth $1000. ;)

 

 

'nough said. I'll leave it alone now.

 

~ Safe travels

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I think many of you hear about how much the reno place is charging and realize you can do it yourselves for a fraction of the cost and understandably balk at the price, but for me, I really don't have any other choice. There are no other companies around me that do rv remodeling. I'm trying to give a more comprehensive picture of the situation.

Have you considered buying a van conversion that is already completed or getting a custom one? Reading this thread it sounds as though you will be spending enough to do so but not have the warranty and support that comes with a factory built one.

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I am in Marshville, NC 28103 if anyone knows someone in this area I can go to.

 

I wish I'd already bought a camper van instead of a passenger van to convert. I wanted something small enough to fit into a normal parking space and low enough to fit under my car port. Even the smallest Roadtrek wouldn't fit under the carport...

 

Here is a quote from the reno place "What we can do is add a large AGM battery, this style of battery is different than the traditional vehicle battery and will fit with this application. The battery will have to have a charger wired to the vehicle for charging and also an isolator, so that it does not drain the chassis battery when the new battery is drained. This setup will separate your car battery, so if the new battery does run out of power, you can still start your vehicle and begin charging the dead battery. The benefit of using the AGM battery is that it responds better to being drained and then charged over and over, whereas a traditional battery begins to lose its ability to store power if it is fully drained." If I remember correctly, they said (on the phone) there are different types of AGM batteries and this one can be drained all the way without creating problems.

 

 

You mentioned a small fridge. With a 2amp 120v fridge you are looking at pulling a bit over 20 amps on 12v. You can do the math....

This concerns me - I thought if a fridge was 2 amps, it would only use 2 amps per hour but from what you say, it is not as simple as that. How do I learn how to calculate that?

 

Yarome, would you be willing to speak with the reno place over the phone for me? I don't like to impose but maybe you could find out if what they're planning is ok or not.

 

Maybe I should just sell the van (someone offered me $3,000 less than what I paid for it) and just get a camper van.

 

Jann

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The seat rails are usually bolted from underneath the vehicle. You could also leave the rails, fill in between and outside with the download foam board. Then install the plywood floor and attach to the rails. This will add indication where there is none.cut a cardboard template to match the wall and cut your cabinets to match. Use construction glue to fasten backers to exterior walls and screw the cabinets to those and the floor. Install allure flooring over the plywood. Install an rv sofa sleeper. Find someone at a campground to help you with the wiring. If you install an inverter with a transfer switch you only need to wire up the inverter. When you need 110 and don't want to use the batteries you plug in the cord from the inverter. Go to a marine store and buy a 110 volt passthrough. Then you just plug the generator or pedi stall into the passthrough. Let the inverter charge the batteries. If you have a brakes on the back you can run the generator while traveling down the road. You could do it all for probably around $5000. Use it for a learning experience. You can always remodel in 5 years for less than $1000

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If I remember correctly, they said (on the phone) there are different types of AGM batteries and this one can be drained all the way without creating problems.

 

This concerns me - I thought if a fridge was 2 amps, it would only use 2 amps per hour but from what you say, it is not as simple as that. How do I learn how to calculate that?

 

Yarome, would you be willing to speak with the reno place over the phone for me? I don't like to impose but maybe you could find out if what they're planning is ok or not.

 

That would not be accurate. AGM (absorbed glass mat) 'is' the type. Regardless of the maker.. the physics remain the same. AGM's have many benefits, but being able to fully discharge them without harming them is not one.

 

Ball-parking it, you can simply divide watts by the voltage to get a decent idea of the amp draw. So.. 250 watts / 12vdc = 20.8 amps. Since the fridge would be using 120v current... 250 watts / 120vac = 2.08 amps. Of course, that is not taking into account of the power being used by the inverter itself to supply the 120v current needed.

 

I wouldn't have a problem talking to the Reno guy for you. PM the phone #, the name of the person you are working with, and your name so he will know who's rig I will be asking about.

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I am in Marshville, NC 28103 if anyone knows someone in this area I can go to.

 

This is fairly hidden within the thread. You might want to start a new thread in the 'technical tips & tricks" section. Something like "Electrical installer/Van conversion needed Marshville, NC" might get more attention.

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  • 2 weeks later...

 

Maybe I should just sell the van (someone offered me $3,000 less than what I paid for it) and just get a camper van.

Taking a $3000 loss now for what they will end up wanting to charge you and then going another route AFTER doing a lot more research sounds like the best plan mentioned so far on this thread.

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