This is Vanifest, my beloved year 2000 Dodge Ram Van 3500. When you live in a van it must be named. Vanifest is the longest model of Dodge Ram Van (19 feet) and had been converted to 4×4 before I purchased it. It also has a 3 inch lift. It’s big and creepy, and it keeps people away when I’m parked at night. I have only been approached twice while boondocking in my van, and I’ve been sleeping in random places since 2010.
When I bought Vanifest, I wanted to create a rolling, off the grid cabin. I designed a solar power system and picked out all the components online. I then had a local shop install the components since I don’t have the skills to tackle an electrical project like this (although I hear it’s not that difficult). Below are the components I chose.
130 watt solar panel. This panel is designed for a house, but it also easily attaches to the van roof. It was a good price for the large amount of wattage it provided and that was why I chose it over a specialized vehicle solar panel which tend to be smaller and more expensive. Click on the photo at right to see the solar panel.
200 amp hour, sealed, agm battery. This battery is a beast and weighs over 100 pounds. I had a custom plywood box built for it to enclose it, but for smaller batteries plastic boxes are available. Once again, the plywood box was the cheaper solution. The plywood box is bolted to the floor under my bed and vented to the outside through a small, plastic vent. In the unlikely event the sealed battery offgasses, the gasses go outside through the vent and not into the sleeping area. I didn’t want to take any chances with this huge battery right under my bed.
2000 watt pure sine wave inverter. Being a computer geek, it was important to me to keep my electronics safe while plugged in. The pure sine wave is safer for electronics.
Battery isolator. This is a small box which goes under the hood of the Vanifest. It charges the battery from the van alternator when I’m driving.
The solar system is spectacular! I can power a 1500 watt appliance for about 5 minutes each day, such as the electric kettle at left which boils water in just a couple minutes. Boiled water is handy for coffee, soup mixes or rice noodles. It allows me to use my propane camp stove less. I also have plenty of power for smaller items like my laptop (and curling iron, blow dryer, haha) whenever I want. The amount of power available is highly variable based on the sun and amount of driving I do, but for my lifestyle it has worked out well. I like to spend time in sunny areas and tend to move around every couple days. I did a lot of calculations to decide how much power I needed, and I recommend you do the same. Then, get twice or four times the battery you think you need. There are two reasons for this.
Using up all the power in the battery will damage it over time. It’s best to just sip 50% of the power and only on rare occasions take it lower than 50%.
Sometimes you need more power than anticipated. Maybe the sun isn’t strong, or you haven’t done much driving lately to charge the battery from the alternator.
In addition to the solar power, I got a few items to make the van experience more comfortable. These items have made the van lifestyle so much better for me and I think most van dwellers would benefit greatly from these items.
Engel Refrigerator. This is a wonderful, tough 12 volt refrigerator which uses very little power. I have it hooked up to my sealed battery and it’s draw is so low I hardly even notice it. Click on the picture at right to see the Engel. Ice is expensive and so is ruined food, so I feel this expensive fridge was a good investment.
Thetford Portable Toilet. I don’t have any desire for the stress of searching for a bathroom early in the morning, hair rumpled, looking homeless. This porta potti is always ready when I need it, doesn’t smell at all when properly closed, is easy to empty in an outhouse and fits right under the sleeping platform.
Mr Heater Buddy Portable Propane Heater. Yes, you can sleep with this heater on but I usually just turn it on in the morning or evening when I relax in the van. It doesn’t use much propane and quickly warms the interior of the van. It has some neat safety features, too, like automatically shutting off if tipped or if the CO2 sensor detects that there is too much CO2 due to the heated area not being vented enough. I just crack a window open in my van and this has never been a problem.
Six Gallon Aquatainer. I went through some other inferior water containers before finding the perfect one. This one seals completely and doesn’t leak, is easy to pour from, and has a flat surface for food preparation. In my Dodge Ram Van, it’s easy to position the spout at the side door over the plastic step. This allows for easy water pouring while cooking or cleaning up.
After three years of heavy use, I can happily report that the van is perfect for me and makes my lifestyle pretty comfortable. I have power, heat, water, a refrigerator and a toilet. The van is a pretty self sufficient little home. I do rely on dump stations or outhouses to empty the toilet, faucets to refill the water, and propane to run the heater and camp stove. I only need to worry about these things once per week at most, and could go much longer if needed.
Now, to decorate the van and make it girly and comfortable. You can read about how I did that here.