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Sarah's Van Conversion

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While at the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous I took some interior pictures of different rigs to give you an idea of how some people are converting their vans into rolling homes. If there is one thing I have learned in my almost 11 years of vandwelling, it is that there is no right or wrong way to convert a van. Some are very elaborate while others are extremely simple and yet they all make their owners equally happy. The van becomes a reflection of the personality of its owner.
Their are two big factors that limit what your conversion will look like and they are 1) How much money you have to spend 2) How much handyman skill you have. Obviously, the more of either one you have, the nicer your van-home will be.  I get letters from people all the time telling me they would like to live in a van but they don’t know how to convert a van and they can’t afford to pay someone else to do it. In these posts about different van conversion my main goal is to show you that even with the absolute minimum of either money or skill you can create a cozy, pleasant little van home that you will love living in. We’ll start by looking at some very simple and cheap conversions.

Sarah's Astro from outside.

Sarah’s Astro from outside.

We’ll begin by looking at Sara’s Astro minivan. It is a perfect model of a simple and easy conversion. Let’s look at the many lessons she can teach us. In this picture we see her Astro from the outside. 1) In the door frame you can see her plastic drawer unit. I think that plastic drawers and totes are a vandwellers best friend! They are cheap, light and easy to install–you just buy them and put them in; nothing easier than that! 2) On the top you see her solar panel. If you can’t afford a a complete system, buy as large a panel as you can afford and place it on your roof during the day hooked straight to your house battery. Watch it’s voltage with a  voltage meter so it doesn’t overcharge, then put it inside when you are driving: simple, easy, cheap.
Sarah's microwave stand, porta-potti, bed and insulation.

Sarah’s microwave stand, porta-potti, bed and insulation.

In this picture looking in from the door you can see three valuable lessons: 1) The microwave stand she is using for a sink and storage. This is another cheap and easy way to convert a van. You just go to WalMart or Target and find a piece of build-it-yourself furniture or storage units, build it and put it in the van. Anyone can do it and it gives you instant organization and storage–two absolute requirements in a van. 2) You can also see her porta-potti. Again, just go to the store, buy it, and your biggest problem (how to go to the bathroom is solved. 3) you can also see the reflectix on the roof and styrofoam insulation on the walls. Sarah is from Canada, so staying warm in the cold is a very high priority to her.
In the rest of the photos, I will add my comments in the captions:
In this picture we are looking forward at the driving area. Notice that Sarah has turned her passenger seat around which gives her a very comfortable recliner to lounge in. To make a van a home it must be a comfortable place to hang around in and turning the seat makes that easy. The little cooler is her footrest. There's no way to be comfortable if you are cold so you can see her Mr. Buddy portable heater between the seats.

In this picture we are looking forward at the driving area. Notice that Sarah has turned her passenger seat around which gives her a very comfortable recliner to lounge in. To make a van a home it must be a comfortable place to hang around in and turning the seat makes that easy. The little cooler is her footrest. There’s no way to be comfortable if you are cold so you can see her Mr. Buddy portable heater between the seats.

Looking forward we can see the heavy, insulated curtain Sarah hung between the living area and the front driving area. This is extremely important in cold country but is also a requirement for stealth and privacy.

Looking forward we can see the heavy, insulated curtain Sarah hung between the living area and the front driving area. This is extremely important in cold country but is also a requirement for stealth and privacy.

Looking toward the back of her van we see the reflectix she is using as insulation. Notice also the duffell bag she is using as organization. Again, that is a simple cheap solution to storage.

Looking toward the back of her van we see the reflectix she is using as insulation. Notice also the duffel bag she is using as organization. Again, that is a simple, cheap solution to storage.

Here we see under the sink. She has a manual water pump that goes down into 5 gallon jug to give her running water in her sink. The sink drains into either another 5 gallon jug or straight out onto the ground.

Here we see under the sink. She has a manual water pump that goes down into 5 gallon jug to give her running water in her sink. The sink drains into either another 5 gallon jug or straight out onto the ground.

Looking from the back door, here we see her bed. This was a bed she bought from Ikea and cut down to fit in her minivan. Notice all the excellent storage it provides underneath.

Looking from the back door, here we see her bed. This was a bed she bought from Ikea and cut down to fit in her minivan. Notice all the excellent storage it provides underneath.

KoKopelli_EditI hope you got some good ideas from Sarah’s van, but most of all I hope you are motivated to see that if you can afford the price of a van, for just a little bit of time and money you can turn it into a great little home!


  1. LaVonne

    I’m so glad you’re doing this – thanks, Bob. I’ll be doing a barebones setup myself and I’m having a hard time figuring out what exactly I will need. Of course, it’s different for everyone but if you have any thoughts or advice about this, I’d love to hear it.

    • Bob

      Hi LaVonne, to me the secret to a bare-bones, simple, cheap conversion is plastic drawers/totes and used/build-it-yourelf furniture. You can have a remarkably nice home for next to no money or hanydyman skills. Your main needs are storage and organization. Everything has to have a place where it belongs and you have to put it away there every time you use it. Without that life in a van can be extremely frustrating, but with it it can be very satisfying!
      That’s a broad answer, so as you are working on your specific layout, feel free to ask specific questions. I am always available to all my readers!

  2. Stephen

    Nice work,it just goes to show that you don’t have to spend thousands of pounds to make a campervan.

    • Bob

      Right you are Stephen! In my experience the best thing yu can do is stat out with the simplest, cheapest conversion and then after a few months or years you will know a lot better exactly what you want in your van. Why build an elaborate conversion and then find out you never use most of it and could have done without it?
      Start with the minimum and then add to it once you know exact what YOU want!

  3. roger

    I like the idea of turning around the passenger seat for comfort. Could imagine mounting it to a swivel base so it can do double duty as a front-facing seat too.
    When parking in town that solar panel looks vulnerable to theft & would detract from stealth. Did she wire her house battery up to the van’s charging system too?

    • Bob

      Hi Roger, I am a big fan of either turning the seat around or removing it altogether. I’m glad you asked because I should have discussed this in the post. The Feds made swivel seats illegal for awhile so you couldn’t find them. But you can go online and find them now, but they are expensive, usually about $160 so Sarah just turned hers around. Generally the bolt patterns are the same turned so it is not difficult. HOWEVER you must be sure the seat-back does not interfere with your view of the side mirror!! Fairly often it does so you can’t do it.
      Your right about the panel, that is a boondocking thing only. However, she has found that this one is small enough to leave on her dash and she still gets a lot of power from it when she is in town.
      Good questions!!

  4. Michelle(She)

    This is great Bob!! I love everything she did. I like the ceiling the best. I am going to do that but paint the inside part.

    • Bob

      Thanks Michelle, she does have lots of good ideas, painting seems like a good idea too!

  5. Martin Hamilton

    Thanks for sharing. She did a fine job! Would’ve liked to have seen the power supply system. Nice sink area. I’m still using water jugs.
    For a bed some readers may want to consider buying foam from “Foam and Fabric” stores. Make sure if you go the foam way you purchase a cheap plastic mattress cover with zipper. If you don’t use one the foam will collect condensation underneath.
    Happy touring!!

    • Bob

      Martin, I did the same thing for my foam pad except there wasn’t a foam store in my area so I went to an upholstery shop instead. Be sure you buy “furniture grade” foam, or it won’t be stiff enough.
      I tried a plastic mattress cover to stop condensation but it was worse than the condensation so I threw it away.

  6. Vern Modeland

    Sort of parallels mine, Bob (and Sarah), but I worry abput safety. You don’t mention if, and how, the units are bolted to something. A rear ender or rollover could kill, if stuff is left loose.

    • Bob

      Vern, sorry I didn’t check with her if she bolted them down. I have to be honest with you and say that generally I don’t worry about it to much. If someone asks me to a will use “L” brackets and sheet metal screws to bolt it to the floor and wall. I guess it is the old “I’m immortal” thinking that it can’t happen to me. I’ve never been in a roll-over or known anyone who has so it seems unreal.

  7. Dazar

    Well she has a wood floor, so I think she could just use L brackets to screw or bolt stuff to the floor.

  8. Kim

    Excellent! Sarah has a great space there and I’m sure she is thrilled with it. Thanks for sharing so we can all learn.

  9. Linda D.

    Thanks Bob. I have been waiting for you to show us some interiors of vans. I like the way she has hers set up. Looks cozy and do-able. I hope you will continue to show us some more. I’m loving your newsletter! Linda

  10. CAE

    Thanks Bob,
    This is great to see what others have done and why.
    Keep it coming.

    • Bob

      You ae welcme CAE! More to come!

  11. west

    Hi bob, i was just wondering if you knew the dimensions of sarah’s bed? I’m thinking of doing an astro conversion as well, but at 6′ i don’t think i can lay across the back.

    • Bob

      West, Sarah is fairly tall for a girl, I’d guess 5’8″ but she may be able to sleep across, I’m not sure. But at 6 foot I’m sure you couldn’t. Your best bet is to make the bed wide enough to sleep across it diagonally. For that it would need to be at least 48 inches wide. Another option is to put the bed along the side but that is going to use up a lot of your room.
      To be honest your best choice is a full size van. They give you so much more room that whether you sleep diagonally or along the side you will still have enough room to sleep and live comfortably.

  12. Karen

    Thank you! This is super helpful to me, Bob. Can a microwave be run on a battery charged via solar? I didn’t think that was possible but it would totally solve my cooking needs. Also, does Sarah store the 2 5-gal containers for the water system under her bed? Is that white bulbous thing under the sink a diverter to send waster water to ground or container? TIA for answering these newbie-type Qs!

    • Bob

      Hi Karen, yes, it is possible to run a microwave off solar, but it does take a lot of solar and a big battery bank. 400 watts and 4 golf carts should do it and that will cost you about $1000. You will also need a 2000 Pure Sine Wave inverter and they are more expensive; the cheapest is about $400. For $1000 you can buy a Honda 2000 generator which will run the microwave and charge your batteries. But you have to be able to lift it in and out of the van and carry gas for it. It is also impractical in the city.
      The sink is still a work in progress so I don’t think that has been worked out. Many people just drill a hole in the floor and run the gray water straight out to the ground. It’s just dish and wash water so it doesn’t do any harm.

      • Karen

        Thx, Bob, for such a thorough and clear answer. You’ve given me a lot to think about that I hadn’t even begun to consider before. These detailed and illustrated posts on van conversions are awesome. I hope to revamp an old Eldorado Class C diesel that I bought 2 years ago. My plans are to gut the trashed interior, insulate well and rebuild very simply and lightly, but I keep losing my nerve. The more I learn, the more confident I feel, but I have a whole lot to learn.

        • Bob

          Karen, that sounds like a large project! I’d say loosing your nerve is very reasonable. Time to go back to the old saying, “How do you eat an elephant” One bite at a time.” The total project might be too difficult and overwhelming. But TODAY you only have to get this one thing done. That’s easy enough to be do-able. If you have the budget for it, you might hire a handyman or finish carpenter to give you overall guidance on the whole project to give you direction and keep you on track. With you doing the work and him just advising, it might not be too expensive.

  13. Dan, Phx.

    HI Bob, I to was wondering about the microwave, I didn`t see a generator. These are great Bob, I would like to see more interiors. Thanks.

    • Bob

      Dan, I answered the microwave question previously so check it out. More interiors to come!

  14. Calvin R

    Thanks for the pictures and inspiration! I hadn’t thought of assemble-it-yourself furniture; I can do that. The water setup looks simple and workable, too.

    • Bob

      Calvin, sometimes it is amazing how we can miss some simple and easy solutions until we see someone else do it. Like I have said many times, I’m no genius, I just talk to a lot of people and I’m willing to learn from them. Every so often I come up with a new idea, but it is pretty rare!

  15. Izaak Diggs

    She did a great job, proof you don’t need a full sized van to have a home on wheels. I am just curious about the reliability of the Astro/Safari, I have heard some bad things about them. Great conversion, though, very well thought out.

    • Bob

      Izaak, like most vehicles the Astro has some problem areas. The one I am familiar with is with the fuel pump. The V6 in it is a cut down 350 V8 which is a legendary engine. I have known quite a few people who live in Astros and they are almost all very happy with them.
      The problem I have with them is that the mpg is not all that great. You give up a lot of room and you may not get any more mpg. It could actually be worse. However, they may have better stealth because no one thinks someone would live in a mini-van.

  16. Arlon

    Neat van setup. May try a few of these ideas with my AWD Astro. I only use it as a camper for long weekends but a lot of what goes into living in a van for an extended period may be applied to just being more comfortable for a short time. Maybe when I retire I’ll stretch it out into some longer photo jaunts.

    • Bob

      I think you are right Arlon, taking trips is very much like living in a van. The difference in living in it for a few weeks versus a year is not much. After you have done that for awhile you may fall in love with it and decide to do it for longer time-frames. Be careful, this life is very addicting!!

  17. Bodhi

    Thanks for all the information you put out here. I am constantly being alerted to some situation that I would have never thought about on my own. For instance, condensation and bedding… I am not much in need of a lot of heat. I have a camper top and a tiny area mostly just used for sleeping cold (0* mummy bag that I just used for the first time and I am impressed by the warmth of it) Is condensation a possible problem just from breathing and minimal heating? My camper leaks a lit when it rains hard so my bed will have painters plastic draped over it when not in use… will that cause condensation?

    • Bob

      Bodhi, condensation can be a big problem. Your body looses about a quart of moisture overnight while you are asleep. In serious cold that moisture will build up inside the sleeping bad first and then collect on the inside of the vehicle. A wet sleeping bag isn’t warm so you will need to get it dried out every day. If you have ever spent the night sleeping in a vehicle when it is cold, you know the next morning all the windows will be frosted over in the morning. You literally will have to scrap them off on the inside in the morning. If it isn’t below freezing, then the windows will just frost over in the morning which ruins your stealth.
      Bodhi, in the long run a lot of your bodies moisture goes down into the mattress. I have found mold growing on the plywood underneath my foam pad, but it takes awhile for that to happen. Preventing it is tough. I tried sleeping on a plastic cover but hated it. Now I have a backpackers sleeping pad under the foam pad which acts as a vapor barrier solving the problem.
      Heating with propane produces a lot of moisture which was a really big problem for me in Alaska in extreme cold. But in normal temperature isn’t much of a problem. The heat dries out the moisture and makes your life much more comfortable.
      You must seal those leaks!! Water will greatly damage the whole rig and mold and rot will eventually make it uninhabitable.

  18. David Thoreau

    I’ve been urban/stealth vandwelling fulltime since January 4. My minivan conversion was unfinished when my home was foreclosed on. In many ways, it was a blessing. My conversion plans have radically changed since actually living in the van. They are simpler and more basic now. Fancy (and complicated) were cool in the planning stages but now I see I was just making things unnecessarily difficult for myself. My advice is to spend some time living in your van, even if it’s just extended camping trips. Your conversion plans will be more practical, more affordable and more doable in the long run.

    • Bob

      David, I couldn’t agree more!! Enough but not too much is the key to the good life as far as I am concerned and I think you have stated that very well. Enough conversion to make your life life organized and pleasant (A place for everything and everything in its place) but no more.
      If you are willing send me some pictures of your van and I will post them. That goes for everybody, send me pictures of your vans and I will post them. If you would rather not show too much, just send me your best ideas and features and I will post those.

  19. Patrick

    Hi Bob,
    I have two AGM Batteries and parallel connected it. I will use the alternator to charge it and connected it Van starter battery positive. Do I have to ground both AGM batteries? or just ground one AGM battery, because it parallel connect it. Thanks

    • Bob

      Hi Patrick, the best way to think of a multiple-battery bank is that once connected they stop being multiple batteries and become just one battery. So you only need to run the ground wire from one battery to the frame. However, no harm would be done if you grounded them both, you would just waste wire. The ground wire should be as large as the largest positive wire in the system.
      When you connect wires to the batteries from other things, connect the positive to one battery and the negative to the other battery. For example, when wiring in your inverter, the positive wire will go to battery A and the negative will go to the negative of battery B. If you don’t and you have many batteries connected together, the last battery in the bank will get corrosion in the posts and connecting them this way is supposed to stop that.

  20. Patrick

    Thanks Bob. There are total of three batteries; One is starter battery for the van and the other two (house batteries) are parallel connected. I want to use alternator to charge the house batteries. Do I connect the house battery directly to alternator? or Do I connect it to starter battery positive terminal? If I connect it to starter battery positive, would it consider be parallel connection? What are your suggestions?

    • Bob

      Patrick, most people just run a 6 gauge wire from the positive post of the starting battery to the positive post of the house battery. The house battery needs to be grounded to the frame. Don’t expect too much charging this way unless you drive a lot. Keep a close eye on your battery charge with a voltmeter. Don’t let it drop below 12.2 volts or you will damage the battery.
      You want a disconnect switch so you don’t run the starting battery down at night. The best choice is a continuous duty solenoid which does everything automatically. A second best choice is a mechanical on-off switch to separate the starting and house battery.

  21. stanw909

    Patrick you must use a battery isolator or you will run your starter battery down through parasitic drain from the house batteries.

  22. Patrick

    Stanw909, I don’t know how to install battery isolator, so I use the battery separator for now. I need to help the questions above. The easy way or prefer to connect to starter battery positive terminal. I don’t know if that will work or not. Thanks

  23. stanw909

    Separator is just fine.

  24. doris shanks

    I live in a 2000 Bounder36S but read all the van living blogs and videos. I think if you have house batteries, they should be installed in an enclosed box which is vented to the outside. This is because batteries give off gas which is dangerous in a small space.
    I see diy van conversions with exposed house batteries and I think this is a safety concern.

    • Bob

      You are right Doris, it is a safety concern and all the experts will tell you to never do it. And they are right!! But, I have been doing it for the last 11 years. However, I don’t think any one should do it!!

  25. doris shanks

    Regarding condensation, my 2000 Bounder36S has never has a problem. This is mainly due to good insulation and dual pane windows plus the heating system. My 1969 VW Westfalia camper van had no insulation on the ceiling of the fiberglas poptop. In cold weather, the heat from a small propane heater and cooker plus body heat produced visable condensation on the roof underside and frost on the windows. The 5″thick heavy plastic seating/mattress sections where ok with sleeping bags.
    I believe that insulating the van is the key for comfortable living.

    • Bob

      Doris, I agree totally, every van or camper I have owned I have added heavy insulation, especially the roof. My current camper is almost always 20 degrees warmer in the morning than outside temperatures, even though I do not run any heat at night. But I have inserts I push into the windows so they have never had any frost on them. Sounds like you have got this thing figured out!

  26. Steve

    Bob, I once owned an Astro Van and it got somewhere around 18 to 20 mpg. You mentioned that they might not get any better mpg than a full size van. Is that because of the extra weight that you be would be carrying around because of the stuff in it to convert it?

    • Bob

      Steve, that is pretty typical mpg for people who full-time in Astros. I assume you are right, the reason it is so poor is because they are loaded so heavy with full-timers stuff. I have lots of friend who full-times and they claim their full-size vans get 16-18 on the road. For the amount of space you sacrifice that s just not enough extra mpg to justify it as far as I am concerned. However, they may have slightly better stealth and if that is critical, take that into account.

  27. Les

    Toying with the idea of converting a handicap modified minivan into a small RV.
    The floor has been lowered 10″, the center row of seats removed, the passenger front seat can be removed and I plan to mount it on a swivel base.,
    A bed from the driver side front seat to the rear hatch with storage under it, including a spot for a chemical toilet.
    On the passenger side from the back of the sliding door opening to the rear hatch will be a small counter for small sink,(with cover to use the space as additional counter space), microwave and camp stove.
    The lowered floor and with the addition a raised roof (12″ – 18″) will give me adequate head room.
    A small cargo trailer for generator, propane, water and fuel tanks.
    Being a handicap access van and possible signage on trailer for wheel chairs or other handicap accessories would let it blend in and NOT appear as a van camper…. Optional awnings on both sides

    • Bob

      Les, that sounds like a wonderful rig that will make a fantastic home!! Keep us informed as you make progress with it.

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