DIY Conversion vans are always a prototype

pro·to·type (ˈprōdəˌtīp/) noun: 
(1) A first, typical or preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied.
(2) A DIY conversion or adventure van, from which new layouts are continually developed or evolved.


We “finished” our conversion about a year after we got the van. By that point we had all the systems in. Either to our original design or to the design that we made up as we went along that reflected our real-world usage better. We didn’t necessarily have everything tidied up (we still don’t!) but all the components worked.

Now though, after using the van for a while, we want to make some changes. We don’t know quite what we want to change, or how we’ll do it, but we feel there’s potentially a better layout, a better storage setup, a better way of stopping water tanks from freezing over the winter, and a better way of freeing up cargo/bike space in the rear of the van.

Decisions, decisions

Part of the issue is the factory 3-person bench seat. It’s heavy. It’s hard to move in and out. But, it’s secure, crash tested, and has seat belts for three passengers. The thing is, in a year and a half of ownership we’ve driven with passengers a total of two times. We could replace that bench with a storage chest that has a foam cushion over it. We could move our battery, water tank, and inverter into that space and give ourselves a ton more room in the rear of the vehicle.

But then we might be giving up the potential to remove the seat and carry long/large items in the van. A thing which, again, we’ve done only twice in the year and a half we’ve owned the vehicle (and then only because we *could* rather than because we had to).

We love our cabinets, but they’re heavy too. Weight is always an issue in a conversion van and re-building the cabinets with 80/20 aluminum extrusions would give us a lot more headroom before we reach our Gross Vehicle Weight.

Our floor insulation is great for reducing noise, but not so good at keeping the heat in. It’s also heavy. We wonder what would happen if we replaced the rubber stall mat with extruded polystyrene or PolyIso foam board.

None of these things are easy fixes. Re-building the cabinets would be time-consuming and expensive. Changing out the floor would mean removing absolutely everything from the van – hardly an afternoon job. Replacing the seat with a built-in chest style one would take some serious design work to fit things in properly.

That leaves us living in a perpetual prototype state. We know we want to make changes. We’re just stalled by the size of the changes and uncertainty about exactly what we want them to be.

Maybe we should just sell this van and start again. But there’s so much we like about the van and want to keep. Also, replicating the hours we put into this van wouldn’t be much fun. We want to use the van, not keep working on it.

So we’ll probably be prototyping for a little while yet.

6 Replies to “DIY Conversion vans are always a prototype”

  1. I’m loving the steady flow of new posts. I hope you can find the right balance between mods/posts and actually using your van.

  2. You guys are awesome. Wow, what a lot of work sharing your knowledge. Just to read it all was an investment. Thank you, really. Your design is clean, functional, livable, handsome. Quickly, I bought a Ford extended sleeper van on ebay 4 years ago, dream van but not 4×4. Worked year round in it for three years around the country, hot and cold. Made it work. Ordered a dually, 4×4 extended Mer Sprinter. All, no all the bells and whistles, empty from the swivel seats back. 5 days after I picked it up I got sent to southern California in November, 2016. Queen bed platform and National Luna frig in the back. Aux battery factory installed. Doing pretty well but wanted longer sit time. Was looking for adding batteries and how to charge the batteries from the alternator and found your site. I have high idle option on this rig, thought I could utilized that to charge batteries using engine. Purchased Magnum Inverter to use with additional batteries I wanted to add 500 ahr and have engine charge them. Thought 200 amp alternator, not running everything, it should be able to give 100 amps charging. Wow, so much for intuition. So, Sterling, 55 amp seems to be my best hope, still with the possibility of frying my alternator. I drive every day I am working for a few hours. I sit at night to sleep for maybe 6 hours. Depending on the cost of the alternator and how long it would last that could be doable for my circumstances. I read what you have shared about the lithium batteries. I did not see where you stated which ones you bought. I have looked into Smart Batteries and was not comfortable with reviews and conversation I had with them. Long lag time from money spent to acquisition of batteries. What would you think about the 55 amp Sterling using the engine alternator to charge a battery bank under the circumstances mentioned above. My understanding is the Sterling would isolate the current aux battery from the new bank I would be adding. Is that correct thinking?

    1. Joe, it’s possible that Mercedes are just being very conservative when they specify a 40A maximum load on the alternator. Quite a few people on the Sprinter forum are using the alternator to charge their batteries. But it’s not ideal for many other reasons. The Sterling is a great way to give your house batteries exactly the type of charge they need.

      We bought a Balqon battery but we would’t recommend them. Here’s a post we wrote about our battery. We have a list of battery vendors in this post. I can’t recommend any particular manufacturer because I haven’t used any of them.

      Your existing aux battery is completely separate from anything that the Sterling does. So, if you run your fridge, etc. from the batteries that the Sterling charges, the fridge won’t be drawing power from your aux battery.

      If you find that you’re spending a lot of time in sunny locations, solar might be a good option for you. Once you’ve got it installed it just recharges your house battery without you having to do anything at all. Depending on how many solar panels you install and what your daily consumption is, you might find that you can meet quite a lot of your recharging needs just from the solar panels.

  3. We totally hear you!
    We are at least 4 (probably 5) complete rebuilds in and this is only our second van! 😉

    This time we made sure to make every single component modular/plug-and-play so that when the (unknown but certain to happen) changes were needed we could easily remove what was needed and reconfigure without too much work.

    Now that were in the middle of another set of tweaks and templating things off our build its proving absolutely invaluable!! =)

    Hope our paths cross one day on the road!

    1. I’d love to swap ideas. Your build(s) are looking very nice now that you’ve ironed out most of the issues. It’s amazing how much you learn after living in the van for a while.

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