Fuck the Banks, I'll Build My Own Damn House

or

How I Learned To Stop Worrying, and Build a Custom Camper Van

by @voidqk from syntheti.cc

Public Domain, July 2015

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Prologue: Getting Rid of Everything and Selling the House
  3. 60 Square Feet
  4. Recruiting Help
  5. Blank Canvas
  6. Design Considerations
  7. Installing EuroCamper Passenger Swivel
  8. Cardboard Layout
  9. Rear Vent
  10. Rear Panels
  11. Wiring and Insulation
  12. Solar Wiring, Fan-Tastic Fan, Ceiling
  13. Sub-floor
  14. Insulation and Framing
  15. Roof Rack
  16. Wall Panelling
  17. Awning
  18. Wall Construction and Wiring
  19. Mounting the Solar Panels
  20. Bed Cabinets and Platform
  21. Paint and Bed Drawers
  22. Intermission: What The Hell Am I Thinking, Anyways?
  23. Sink Cabinet
  24. Passenger Cabinets
  25. Finishing Electric
  26. Closet
  27. Paint
  28. Buckles, Panels, and Moving In
  29. Counter Tops
  30. Plumbing
  31. Desk, Shelves, and Trim
  32. First Night in the Van
  33. Flooring
  34. Finishing Touches
  35. The End
  36. Appendix: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Part 2: Six Months Later

  1. So: How's It Going, Mr. Van Man?
  2. My Route, So Far
  3. South East
  4. Van Modifications
  5. North East
  6. Mid-West
  7. North West
  8. Winchester Mystery House
  9. Work Accomplishments
  10. Thoughts on the Van Life

Introduction

Oh boy, there's a lot to say!

My name is Sean, and I'm a 32 year old software developer. Most of my career has been in web development, but ever since I was a young lad slinging code in upstate New York, I've dreamed of making games.

In order to realize this dream -- and, honestly, just to have some fun too -- I've decided to sell all my shit, buy a van, build it out, and travel around the United States.

Because, why not? Fuck it. You only get one life, so you might as well have some fun, and chase your crazy dreams. Does anyone actually enjoy being in a cubicle, all day?

About This Document

I have attempted to catalog the build process of the van, in hopes that it will be useful in some sense, to someone, somewhere. Even at the very least of curing your boredom, temporarily, while you sit in your cubicle and pretend to work.

I will be documenting the build process in chronological order. This means the pictures will progress correctly, and make sense. But it also means that if you're looking for one particular piece of information (e.g., how to setup a solar panel system), you will have to hunt down the appropriate tid-bits of information.

This document is long. You don't have to read the whole thing. Relax. Just look at the pictures, or skip around. It's not that serious.

Photos shot using my iPhone 5S, with an olloclip 3-in-1 lens.

Video Tour

Too long to read? Check out the video tour, on YouTube:

Questions? Comments?

Contact me via Twitter, @voidqk (pronounced "void cookie"). No, you can't e-mail me.

Check out my latest updates and games at Syntheti.cc.

September 2014 - May 2015

Prologue:

Getting Rid of Everything and Selling the House

This story starts in September of 2014, when I began to internalize the realization that my college loan -- my last piece of debt -- would be paid off in December.

Well, except my mortgage.

I would be ringing in the New Year a Free Man. The first time in my adult life with no sense of servitude.

I was certainly happy, for obvious reasons, but another part of me was truly terrified.

I was terrified because I no longer had an excuse. I had to take complete responsibility for my life. I couldn't blame my situation on the idea that I had to pay my bills, because all my bills were under my complete control.

"Paying off my debt" was my prime motivating factor for a large part of my adult life, and now that it was going to be paid off -- except for my mortgage -- I had some digging to do.

As a Free Man, what type of life do I want to create? What's important to me? And what is this nagging dreadful feeling of death and doom that I feel looming over me, all the time? :-)

My Sister

Around this same time, my older sister was going through her own self-actualization.

Her solution: Sell/give/toss everything, buy an RV, and travel the United States, with her husband and children.

"For those who understand, no explanation is necessary; for those who don't understand, no explanation is possible."

I thought the idea was genius. Not for me, I said, but genius.

With the impending New Year existential crisis, and the seed of minimalism and travelling planted by my sister, I began to explore the idea a little more seriously.

Testing the Waters

It does sound crazy at first... but damn it all, if it won't nag you, in the background...

"How would I shower?"

"Well shit, I go to the gym a lot already... I could just shower there..."

"How would I cook?"

"Hell, if I was travelling all the time, I could buy food fresh, every other day..."

"What about using the restroom?"

"There are toilets everywhere... Maybe not as clean, but not the end of the world..."

Slowly, my subconscious mind, sorting out all these little details... Until a question would bubble up to awareness, demanding a tiny experiment:

How big of a fridge would I need?

Off to Lowes! Buy a mini-fridge, 1.7 cubic feet. Throw away all my food, and cram what I need into the fridge. Does it fit? Does it work? Can I live this way? Try it out for a month...

Yes... it fits. This could work.

How big is a van, anyways?

Off to the dealerships! Look at the latest models. Take measurements. Nissan NV2500, Ford Transit, Dodge RAM ProMaster...

NV2500 was a bit small... Transit was a bit big... ProMaster felt good, actually!

Can I live without my precious possessions?

Pile up my crap. Anytime I need something in the pile, take it out of the pile and save it for later. Monitor usage.

Surprisingly, I didn't miss a thing.

What does it feel like to live in a small space?

Mark off a corner in the room. Layout something that is about right, and get a feel for it.

Not bad. Pretty fucking cramped... but not bad.

So: Can I do this? Seriously?

I would need to get rid of all my crap.

I would need to fix up the house, list it, and sell it.

I would need to buy a van and build it out.

...

Fuck it. Let's do this thing.

Sell All The Things!

It takes a long time to get rid of all your crap.

So much time, that I began to develop relationships with the local pawn shop owners.

Every weekend, I would stop by, with another load of items I was willing to get rid of. Things that I swore the previous week I couldn't live without.

Games, consoles, DVDs, watches, TVs...

Next, eBay and Craigslist... Old computers, couch, chair, bed, rugs...

I sold as much as I could. But at some point, you can't get money for what you're selling... No one wants it.

So, off to the donation bins. Garbage bags full of clothes, shoes, suits, ties... donated. Button up shirts, still fresh from the cleaners, into the bin.

Then the more rare items... Can I donate my books? Call around, no one wants them. Can I donate my cookware? No... Plastic containers? No...

Try to give as much stuff to friends... but they have their own crap they're dealing with.

Fine. Craigslist it is, then:

Everything else?

You would be sick to your stomach if you knew how much shit I failed to sell, donate, or give away. Unfortunately, a lot of my precious stuff wasn't so precious after all, and ended up here.

Fix The House, List It, Sell It

Don't you just love home ownership?

Had to fix the sewer pipe:

That was over $6,000.

Had to replace the water filtration system. Retile the bathrooms. Repair walls and paint. Powerwash the siding. Clean the windows. Landscaping. Repair scratched floors. Clean. And clean some more.

List the house.

Once listed, keep the house in a state ready to show, at any time.

Negotiate a contract.

Home inspection.

More repairs: GFCI, electric, plumbing, foundation, termite inspection, rodent inspection...

Until finally, the day comes. The house is sold, and the bittersweet feeling of driving away (with my truck completely overloaded). Saying goodbye to my home.

On May 29th, 2015, I officially had zero debt -- no exceptions! I was also homeless.

If I wasn't so exhausted from everything, I probably could have savored the moment a little more.

...

...No time. On to the main event...

60 Square Feet

How do you choose a van?

Obviously I can only give you my opinion. Here was my criteria:

  • New -- I am a software developer, not a mechanic
  • Solid walls all the way up -- not a fiber glass high-top
  • Must be able to stand up in it
  • Must look generic and boring on the outside to avoid attention

According to my research, that left three vans (ruling out the Sprinter because of the costs):

Nissan NV2500

Not bad. However, the ceiling was a bit short for me, and I couldn't stand up completely. A bit ugly too, but I suppose vans are an acquired taste in general.

Ford Transit

Tons of room, with a really high top! But also massive from the outside. This. Van. Is. Huge.

Dodge RAM ProMaster

I settled on the ProMaster. The biggest selling point for me was the front-wheel drive. This means the cargo floor is significantly lower than the NV or Transit, because you don't have a drivetrain going from the engine to the back wheels.

This shaves a lot of height off the overall size of the van, compared to the Transit. So you still get the standing room, but without the massiveness.

I closed on my house May 29th. I drove 650 miles to my father's house on May 30th. I traded in my truck for my ProMaster on May 31st:

  • RAM 1500 ProMaster, High Top
  • 136" Wheelbase
  • 3.6-Liter V6 Gas Engine
  • 6-Speed Automatic Transmission
  • 24-Gallon Fuel Tank
  • 220-Amp Alternator
  • Side and Back Windows
  • Power Folding/Heated Mirrors
  • GPS Navigation
  • Back-Up Camera
  • 8550lbs GVWR

Recruiting Help

Even though it's only 60 square feet, the entire build process is a lot of work, requires a lot of tools, and a place to sleep (since my house was gone).

Thankfully, my Dad and Step-Mom offered to house me while the van was being built. My Dad is a carpenter, and has decades of experience (and loves building projects).

Without his help, the van would have looked completely amateurish -- if I would have been able to finish it at all!

Plus it was nice to spend some quality time with my Dad. It was a bit weird to live in the house, where I had last lived 11 years ago, when in college. But it was great to work on the project with my Dad, and I loved every minute.

He did the wood work ("the fun stuff", to him), and I worked on the smaller projects in parallel (electric, insulation, painting, roof rack, solar, etc).

(My Dad's shop)

June 1, 2015

Blank Canvas

(You can see my Dad's massive car-port in the background, which was a great convenience)

(Notice the height of the wheel wells -- they are much taller in the ProMaster because the floor is lower)

Design Considerations

Form follows function.

I figured I would be spending most of my time in the van: 1. Sleeping, and 2. Coding.

The most obvious design choice (to me) was to use my passenger seat as a computer chair. Vehicle seats are designed to be comfortable for long stretches of time, because they assume you are driving. I might as well use that same comfort to sit and code.

Mounting my TV across from my rotated passenger seat would give me a dual screen setup for coding.

Bed size and placement changed quite a bit over time, as I experimented with different layouts.

Eventually I settled on a half-queen size bed, 30" x 75" x 8". I wanted the bed length-wise, because I sleep on my stomach with my toes hanging off the end. I also wanted a wall to lean up against, while in bed. Bed height was based off of sitting upright without hitting my head.

With those constraints, it was just a matter of arranging everything else around that.

I ended up with the foot of the bed facing out the back, because I liked the idea of having the rear doors open while laying in bed.

I opted for a gravity-fed faucet for simplicity. I figured I could use a portable propane camp stove for cooking (instead of a permanent fixture). No bathroom or shower -- just use public facilities and my gym membership.

Everything else would basically just be storage. Oh -- and I needed space for my guitar and folding bike, of course :-).

As you can see, I used MS Paint to layout the van. One square pixel = one square inch. Very technical, I know.

June 1, 2015

Installing EuroCamper Passenger Swivel

The ProMaster has an option on their website for a swivel seat, but no dealership actually has that option available in the real world.

After some searching on the Internet, I came across others who recommended the EuroCamper swivel adapter:

EuroCamper ProMaster Swivel Adapter - Front Passenger

It took some waiting for it to come in stock, but I pre-ordered it about a month before the build started, so it was delivered by the time I got the van.

The bolts holding the seat down require a T40 socket to unscrew. Just buy the damn socket! I tried using an allen wrench, but ran into issues with some stripping.

Make sure to disconnect the battery (per the instructions), so that the airbags don't go off.

Wait 10 minutes, then disconnect all the wires under the seat.

Rip the seat off.

Mounting the swivel adapter is fairly easy. We did have to re-thread one hole. The only issue was that a cross-bar would rub against the rotating plate. Not really sure what the cross-bar was for -- we just hammered it down a little bit, to give the swivel some more clearance:

Reattach the seat and wiring, pulling it through the middle of the swivel adapter, reconnect the battery -- and you're done!

The adapter works great. It rotates 360 degrees, but you don't want to sit and spin in circles, because it will twist and screw up your wiring. It locks in place when facing forward; otherwise, it rotates with a bit of oomph. The forward-backward movement of the seat remains functional, in alignment with the seat -- when flipped around, it's better to be all the way forward, so your head doesn't hit the top of the van.

Heavy duty and just want I needed. A+, would recommend.

June 4, 2015

Cardboard Layout

We thought it would be a good idea to lay everything out in cardboard, to get a feel for the flow of everything.

This turned out to be a good idea, because we learned two specific things:

  1. The wall between the bed and sink was originally completely vertical. This was very obtrusive, so we cut it at an angle.
  2. The planned location of the light switches was way too low. We moved the switch panel up as high as we could afterwards, and re-wired.

The bed platform represents the size of the cabinets. The bed would be another 8" above the platform, level with the other counter tops.

(Here you can see the original location of the wiring poking out -- far too low, considering the thickness of the mattress)

(My Dad, demonstrating how I will spend the majority of my waking hours :-P)

June 5, 2015

Rear Vent

After getting the van, one of the first observations was that it comes with a flattened spot on the roof, towards the front:

This seemed like an obvious location for the Fan-Tastic Fan.

I had originally planned on putting the Fan-Tastic Fan in the rear, and cracking the windows, allowing the fan to pull air through the entire body.

But with the fan towards the front, that plan wouldn't work quite as well.

So we decided to cut open a rear vent in the back door. This would mean the fan would pull air from the back, towards the front, (hopefully) circulating the air much better.

Plus it gave my Dad practice in cutting holes in the van (which he was a nervous wreck over).

We found a nice metal vent at Lowes.

The Fan-Tastic Fan came with a spongy material for sealing the fan to the roof. We used the scrap center piece to seal the vent to the door, along with plenty of 100% Silicone Caulk.

The vent was attached with metal self-tapping screws.

June 5, 2015

Rear Panels

We decided to use Lauan Plywood for the walls, ceilings, and panelling. Attached using the same metal self-tapping screws. We stuffed the cavity with regular pink insulation before sealing it up.

And don't forget the hole for our newly installed vent.

June 5, 2015

Wiring and Insulation

The wiring plan was simple:

The batteries would be on the passenger side. There would be 4 switches on the driver side (floor LED, bed LED, sink LED, and DC outlet). The refrigerator would be hard-wired to power directly. Additional lines were needed to run from the batteries to the solar panels and Fan-Tastic Fan.

As you can see, I also started stuffing insulation in all the channels.

June 6, 2015

Solar Wiring, Fan-Tastic Fan, Ceiling

The day my father dreaded: cutting holes in the roof of my new $33k van. I didn't see what the big deal was, but I suppose it was pretty easy for me -- I just watched, for the most part.

Start small. First, the hole for the wiring for the solar panels. We used a grommet to try and protect the 12 gauge wire from rubbing against the metal edge.

In order to drill it, we wedged a 2x4 with a wooden block on top, so my Dad would have something to drill into.

Sealed everything with 100% Silicone Caulk again. That stuff is great.

Ceiling Insulation

Quick side note:

We were happy to find duct insulation for the ceiling. It's thinner than regular insulation, and fit perfectly, without compression.

We attached it to the ceiling using 3M spray contact adhesive.

Fan-Tastic Fan

This:

Needs to go here:

(My Dad, looking nervous)

(We taped a box below the target area, so that the sparks wouldn't go everywhere and burn the cloth seats)

(See Dad? That wasn't so hard :-P)

Next, create a small wooden frame. Turns out the wood was a bit too skinny -- you'll see why, soon.

Goop up the fan with our favorite: 100% Silicone Caulk. (EDIT: bad idea).

Drill into the van using metal self-tapping screws. Missed our frame... oops. Oh well, the self-tapping screws are secure enough.

Careful not to damage your wiring. Oops again.

Silicone everything!

And we're done -- for now!

Ceiling Panels

We used 3 sheets of Lauan Plywood for the ceiling panels. The first 2 sheets were fairly straight-forward. A few notches on the side, but they mostly just went right up.

Again, we used the metal self-tapping screws to attach the panels to the cross beams.

(Don't forget to wire up the fan, before the third sheet...)

The third sheet was a bit harder.

First, how to mount it? We decided on cutting back some of the material in the front, uncovering a beam that we could screw to.

Next, how to cut the panel to fit all the goofy edges? We used cardboard.

Perfect!

June 7, 2015

Sub-floor

We used cardboard cutouts to get the right profile around the edge of the floor.

Cut the 3/4" plywood to size, then test to make sure it fits:

Easy peasy.

I decided to use a layer of Reflectix under the plywood. It probably doesn't provide much insulation, but I figured it would at least help fill in the gaps between the ridges on the floor. We used 3M spray contact adhesive to glue it to the floor.

To cut the last section length-wise, we put on our thinking caps. Roll it up, then one cut should do it...

(We also used window flashing for the wheel wells -- why not?)

To attach the plywood, we countersunk the metal self-tapping screws, so the floor would be flat.

Beauty, ain't it?

June 8-9, 2015

Insulation and Framing

Used more 3M spray glue and Reflectix as the first layer of wall insulation:

Framing consisted of cutting boards to the right fit, so that we would have something to screw the wall panelling to, without too much bending.

(The trick is to pick the right length self-tapping screw, so that it doesn't go through the side of the van!)

We used plain R13 wall insulation.

Start of Wall Panelling

More templating with cardboard:

June 11, 2015

Roof Rack

We tried coming up with different clever ways of attaching a roof rack... but couldn't figure out a way that was really satisfying.

So... I bit the bullet, and bought the EuroCampers VanTech H3 Style 2 Bar Aluminum Roof Rack.

The rack is well made, and installation is a breeze.

Please note, though: this rack is low-profile, and cannot be mounted in the front section of the van if you have a Fan-Tastic Fan -- they are clearly in conflict:

That didn't matter for me -- I wanted them in the back anyways, for the solar panels.

June 11-12, 2015

Wall Panelling

While I worked on the roof rack, my Dad continued work on the wall panelling:

It's a bit tedious, cutting out the exact sizing... but the great thing about building out a van is that every mini-project has an end in sight. There are only so many wall panels.

My Dad also made some hardwood decorative end pieces, to cover some of the exposed insulation, and to help hold up the ceiling panels.

June 11, 2015

Awning

Why buy an expensive awning, when you can just use a tarp and some poles?

But first -- I needed to have a place to attach the awning. So I bought some metal strips, painted them white, and bolted them to the roof rack:

Then, just a 10' x 10' tarp, with some tent poles, rope, and metal hooks:

Tada!

June 13, 2015

Wall Construction and Wiring

Next, the wall between the bed and sink. We wanted this to be strong enough to support me leaning on it, while sitting in bed.

Wiring

Wiring up the switches was easy -- once you know the trick.

The fridge is hard-wired to power. All the white wires go together. The switches break the black wire, for each circuit. Instead of providing a dedicated wire to each switch, you can use a single power line and connect all the black wires together.

Follow the diagram and you'll see what I mean:

(You don't need ground wires in DC circuits... I learned this later)

June 14, 2015

Mounting the Solar Panels

The solar panels came in a kit, from Renogy, which included an MPPT charge controller. They are 100 watts each.

I bought 4 metal flat bars to mount the solar panels to the roof rack. The flat bars are a bit wavey, but since the panels are mounted very close to the roof rack, the waviness isn't a big issue.

First, attach the bars to the panels:

Mounting to the rack was easy, due to the rack's design. The only hard part was doing this in 90 degree weather.

Things didn't line up perfectly, so we had to cut longer holes.

Wiring on the roof was easy -- connect the panels in series, then positive to white, negative to black.

June 14-15, 2015

Bed Cabinets and Platform

Meanwhile, my Dad worked on the bed cabinets. He insisted on a toe kick, which does make a huge difference, at the cost of a little extra space.

The channel in the back needed to fit my folding chair. The compartment at the foot of the bed needed to fit my Brompton folding bike.

I bought my mattress from Sleepy's. It's designed to be a platform bed, so no box-spring is necessary. The dimensions are 30" x 75" x 8" -- a half-queen.

And the true test -- can I sit without bumping my head?

(Notice the height of the switches -- good thing we moved them up after the cardboard prototype, huh?)

Last thing for today... biscuit joint and glue the frame together.

June 17, 2015

Paint and Bed Drawers

I picked some nice colors at Lowes -- "Pillow Talk" for the ceiling, "Paradise Blue" for the walls, and "Snowcap White" for the cabinets.

The walls turned out a little too baby-blue for my taste, so I might repaint them, but it is growing on me...

Prime...

Paint!

Bed Drawers

We talked about a bunch of different ways to access the storage under the bed. Eventually we settled on drawers, so that I wouldn't have to be digging under the platform for items.

Box-joint for the drawers.

We added a bit more support on the bottom.

Attach the framing...

Notice that the drawers need to be finished before we work on the passenger side cabinets. We won't have room to remove the drawers once the other cabinets are in place.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Simple latch system:

There is some wasted space that could have been put to use if we had used shelving and sliding doors -- but I think it was worth the sacrifice. This way I'm not on my hands and knees every time I need something from storage.

Intermission:

What The Hell Am I Thinking, Anyways?

"Fuck it" is a great reason. But I obviously put more thought into something so drastic. Impulse only goes so far.

There are two primary motivating factors:

1. Mortgages are a complete rip-off

The average American household spends over a third of their take home pay on housing... For 30 years.

This is utterly insane.

Let's put that in perspective:

If you work 40 hours, 9-5, then Monday and Tuesday are dedicated to paying for your house. Every week. If your housing was paid off, your weekend would be longer than your work week.

You will spend 2,600 days at work to pay for your house.

I built my van in under 40 days. The money used to fund the build only took about a year to save up.

I could purchase and build a new van every two years, and still pay less in housing!

Do your own math. Calculate your cost in terms of time spent at work. For some reason, we give special exception to mortgages... we would never spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on anything else. Why does housing get a pass?

We should be building houses that can be paid off in 5 years max -- not 30. Instead of using our innovation to build bigger houses, we should use it to build less expensive houses.

2. Corporate life feels like a zoo

You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss (emphasis mine):

I was in Africa last year and saw a lot of animals in the wild that I'd only seen in zoos before. It was remarkable how different they seemed. Particularly lions. Lions in the wild seem about ten times more alive. They're like different animals. I suspect that working for oneself feels better to humans in much the same way that living in the wild must feel better to a wide-ranging predator like a lion. Life in a zoo is easier, but it isn't the life they were designed for.

My corporate job was easy. It paid great. The people I worked with were smart and talented.

I should feel lucky to have such an awesome job in the middle of a recession... right?

Yeah... but I didn't feel lucky. I felt like I was in the human zoo. Predictable, boring, lazy... sitting behind a desk, while watching the outside world through the window of the Internet. Trapped, because I needed my paycheck to pay my mortgage.

Day by day, year by year. All the comforts -- big screen TV, nice house, fast Internet, big bed, three bathrooms (for one person!). No risk taking. Steady and safe.

What's the point?

Yeah, life isn't easy now. Yeah, so what. Who fucking cares? At least when I get up in the morning, it's because I'm exhilerated at tackling the next task. At least I can see the world with my own damn eyes -- not through some glowing rectangle.

Yeah, I don't have all those comforts. But you know what I do have? Freedom.

Sure, it's cliché, but it's cliché for a reason -- this subconscious drive for freedom is hard-wired in our DNA. No modern comfort or toy can take the place of true autonomy.

And unless you win the lottery, you basically have two paths to freedom:

1. Work your life away, acquire lots of money, and enjoy your freedom when you hit 67.

or 2. Live frugally today. Sell all your shit. Say "no" to modern comforts. And enjoy your freedom now, when you have the capacity to fully enjoy it.

Is having a couch and TV worth being stuck in a cubicle for the rest of your life? Is showering at the gym so terrible that you'd rather spend your waking hours pretending to work so you can have your own bathroom?

Let it go.

June 18-20, 2015

Sink Cabinet

Same process as before -- measure out an area, leave room for a toe kick, frame it out, and build a drawer:

The only thing that goofed us up was trying to figure out which drawer glides to use... The drawer has to come out quite a bit, so the fridge can open. We found some that were long enough, but they didn't fit without mounting them to the bottom of the drawer. A little strange, but it works.

Instead of wiring the fridge directly to the power, I used a DC socket instead.

You can see we cut out squares from the side of the drawer, to help the fridge air out.

June 20, 2015

Passenger Cabinets

Once again -- the same process.

June 20, 2015

Finishing Electric

It was getting late, but I realized I had all the pieces to finish the electrical system -- so I excitedly put it together :-).

First, cut all the 0 AWG wire. Why 0 AWG? Because I had a 1500 watt inverter, which meant I could be pulling 150 amps (1500 watts output / 120 volts output * 12 volts input = 150 amps input).

By the way: 0 AWG wire is a pain in the ass to deal with. We soldered the connectors on the end. Yes, those are bolt cutters.

(Working into the night... "This ain't no union job!")

Here is a diagram of the inner workings:

It looks more complicated than it is... Basically, just hooking everything up, but with fuses on the positive wires. 20 amp fuse to protect the charge controller, 30 amp fuse to protect the batteries, 150 amp fuse to protect the inverter. 0 AWG wire between the batteries, and connecting the inverter; 12 AWG everywhere else.

Not shown, but I also had to attach the power line from the driver side switch box directly to the batteries, along with the fan power line.

Our reward? Switching the LED light on and off :-).

Checking the next morning -- yes, the solar does charge the battery :-). It's a 250 amp-hr system, with 200 watts of solar panels.

Fuses:

June 21, 2015

Closet

Frame the passenger side, affix a pole, and hang the door:

Plus a little shelf on the bottom:

June 22-23, 2015

Paint

June 26, 2015

Buckles, Panels, and Moving In

I decided on using plastic buckles and straps to keep things secure while driving around. It was pretty easy to cut the straps to the right length, burn the ends to prevent fraying, and screw them into the wood.

My Dad worked on finishing off some of the other panels -- the panel in front of the inverter and the two panels under the closet. He also attached the hardware (handles and knobs), and made the platform beneath the sink, to hold some extra water.

With everything so close to being done, I started moving in.

June 27, 2015

Counter Tops

Counter tops were made out of MDF and laminate:

(Some laminate on the wall)

June 27, 2015

Plumbing

Plumbing was a bit hard -- only because there wasn't a lot of clearance between the drain and the fridge. We had to figure out the correct sequence of pipes and hose... but we got it, in the end.

June 28, 2015

Desk, Shelves, and Trim

The desk has legs on one side, that fold up. This allows me to slide the desk directly behind the driver's seat.

I can flip the passenger seat around, and use the desk as an office... or I can stand on the other side, and use the desk as a kitchen counter top.

Shelving

Paper towel holder:

Shelving for more water:

Propane holder, below the closet:

Trim

Some small trim to tighten up the look:

June 29, 2015

First Night in the Van

With all major work completed (except flooring), it seemed like a good time to get acclimated to van life.

The first night was "ok". The air became stuffy, and I was hot, so I slept on top of the blankets.

Throughout the week, I tweaked my routine, and now it is quite comfortable. I bought an extra fan to help circulate air, and I learned not to sleep on my blanket -- the mattress is designed to dissipate heat, and works quite well at keeping me cool; the blanket just aborbs the heat and makes things worse.

One thing I noticed is that it would be nice to have a night stand... so we made a slot where a board can slide out from under the mattress:

July 1-2, 2015

Flooring

First, a layer of lauan.

The laminate was 13 feet wide... we only needed maybe 5 feet. Oh well.

We laid out the lauan, traced the profile, and cut out the shape with fabric scissors.

Nailed down the lauan:

Then glued down the laminate:

Lastly, my Dad made some hardwood thresholds for the side and rear:

July 2-3, 2015

Finishing Touches

Linseed oil the desk and wall trim:

Attaching the last piece of trim:

Mounting my TV so that I can use it as a second monitor:

(I am in heaven :-P)

The End

And... we're done!

(Yes, I wore the same shirt on purpose :-P)

The van cost $33,750, and the build cost $5,555. It cost more to replace my sewer pipe at my old house than it cost to build out my entire van.

Thanks for following along on the build -- it's been great, but really, this is just the start of the adventure :-).

I'm thrilled to hit the road -- I have a lot of places I want to visit, and a lot of code I want to sling.

If you want to continue following me on my journey, follow me on twitter @voidqk, and my website Syntheti.cc.

Appendix:

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

How will you go to the bathroom?

Public facilities. Grocery stores, book stores, Wal-Mart, etc. For emergencies, I have a pee bottle and a 5 gallon jug. Line the jug with two trash bags, and cover the poop with kitty litter. Then toss it in a dumpster. Hopefully I won't have to do that too often!

What do your friends and family think?

I keep good company -- my family and friends have been awesome. No one has told me I'm crazy (to my face :-P), and most have expressed excitement for me.

How will you support yourself?

I have some money saved up. I also work part-time as a freelance programmer, which can be done anywhere. Hopefully I will launch a successful indie game development business with all my extra time -- afterall, that's the whole point!

How long are you going to do this?

Two years. Of course, I reserve the right to quit early if I hate it... or go longer, if I love it :-P. But the initial plan is two years.

Who does this...!?

Actually, a lot of people! If you look around online, you can find tons of people who have done exactly the same thing. This might seem like a bizarre idea at first -- but look around on YouTube and Reddit, you'll see how common it really is.

In fact, if you go to your local Wal-Mart in the early morning, chances are you'll see lots of vans and RVs in the parking lot, off to the side. There are people in there, living their mobile life.

So... you're living in your vehicle. Are you okay? Do you need money?

Yes, I am okay. No, I don't need money. (In fact, I probably have more money than you... how much is your mortgage, by the way? :-P)

Some people live in their vehicle because they are in a bad situation, lost their job, have some sort of drug or alcohol abuse, etc.

But many people are just regular folks, not in a desperate situation, and choose to live a mobile lifestyle. Like I said: look around on YouTube. Search for "van dwelling" or "full time rv". You'll see what I mean.

I certainly feel bad for those who are going through a hard time. But I choose this lifestyle, at least for now, in order to free up my time and adventure on life :-).

Where do you plan on going?

I don't have a fixed schedule or route. I do have some key destinations I would like to see. My first target is the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. That just gives me something to look forward to... I'll be taking my time and visiting lots of locations.

What did X cost? What model of X did you buy? Where did you buy X?

Good news, everyone! I kept a detailed cost log, with links to specific items, that you can download here:

Download Cost Spreadsheet

Short answer: My total out of pocket cost: $23,205. The van was $33,750, trading in my truck got me $16,000, and the build cost $5,555 (and a $100 gift certificate).


Part 2: Six Months Later

(read Part 1, above)

So: How's It Going, Mr. Van Man?

Hello, my curious audience.

I am sitting in a parking lot on the opposite side of the country, having travelled 13,129 miles over the past six months. I have my laptop with me, in bed, in the dark, listening to the soft roar of traffic outside.

Geez, where do I even begin?

My Route, So Far

Here's my basic route to this point, starting near Atlanta, GA:

GA → AL → FL → SC → TN → NC → VA → MD → PA → NY → ON → OH → IN → IL → IA → NE → SD → WY → MT → ID → OR → WA → CA (phew!)

South East

I have a lot of friends and family in the south east, so I started my adventure with visiting them and showing off the van.

This was nice too, because it allowed me to stay close to "home", and work out the kinks.

Panama City Beach.

While driving around in Florida, I stumbled across an Air Force base.

Some ducks and geese I bribed with chips.

Living the van life.

Van Modifications

During my short test excursion, I noticed two bugs in our build:

  1. The Fan-Tastic Fan leaked
  2. Solar was hit-and-miss

Some people pointed out that silicone is great for buildings, but is notorious for causing leaks in RVs and vans. Boy, were they right! :-)

The fan started dripping under heavy weather by the second week.

The fix? Butyl tape and Dicor caulk.

Scraping off the silicone was the hardest part.

Battery Isolater

The solar just wasn't cutting it.

It worked great when there was sun -- but if I had two cloudy days in a row, my fridge would drain the battery. This caused me to stress out over the weather and battery levels constantly.

The solution: a magical device called a battery isolater.

A battery isolater allows you to connect your auxiliary batteries to your starter battery.

When you run your engine, your alternator normally charges your starter battery. By connecting the auxiliary batteries to the starter battery, the alternator charges both.

Now of course, this isn't free: I am paying for gasoline. But the battery charges so quickly, I really don't think this is putting a huge dent in my budget. I never run the engine specifically to charge the auxiliary batteries -- just the few times I run it during the day to drive around and run errands is enough to keep me topped off.

Installating the battery isolater was no problem. Basically, hook the starter battery's positive (red) to the auxiliary battery's positive (red), with the battery isolater in between.

Then, hook the auxiliary battery's negative (black) to the frame of the van. This seems strange at first, but that's how vehicles are wired -- it's called a negative ground.

This $60 gizmo is worth it's weight in gold.

I haven't worried about my charge since.

Honestly, in my opinion, the solar is just a waste of money. There is something nice about having the free energy from the sun to charge your battery -- but gasoline is so much more practical.

Solar sucks for three basic reasons:

  1. Cost. I paid $783 for my solar setup. If I had skipped solar, I wouldn't have needed a roof rack.
  2. Stealth. People notice my panels. I have had a lot of people (including cops) remark to me about my panels. No thanks.
  3. Weather. Sure, solar works great when the sun is out. Guess what: the sun isn't always out. And you sure notice every cloudy moment when your entire energy budget is dependant on cloud coverage.

A battery isolater solves all three problems:

  1. Cost. The battery isolater cost $60.
  2. Stealth. The wire runs under the body of the van. No one sees anything.
  3. Weather. Who cares? If I need energy, I buy gasoline -- which I do anyways.

That being said, I do have a beastly 220 amp alternator. Not sure how much that affects my numbers, but it's certainly a help.

Back on the road...

North East

This is a typical morning in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Camping in New York.

Boy, I'm really sorry guys. Pictures just don't do it justice.

That's one thing I've noticed on my trip. The pictures are so pale and flat compared to the real world. Not just Niagara Falls either -- so many of my pictures, when I look back at them, just fall short.

Try to take a picture of the full moon, and you'll see what I mean. The real moon is massive. Thinking you can jam the real, immediate, world into 750 pixels is naïve.

You'll just have to see these places for yourself :-).

Mid-West

Chicago.

Mt. Rushmore was really cool. The park is well maintained, and it was awesome to see such a historic monument.

(This little guy let me get close for a picture...)

By far the most beautiful place I've driven through has been the drive from Butte, MT to Idaho Falls, ID.

Plus you get to see chickens at gas stations.

Followed by the most scary drive: between Boise, ID and Eugene, OR. You basically climb over a mountain... and it's like the only road.

One of the things that surprised me by the Mid-West (and West coast) is how spread out everything is, compared to the East coast. It's easy to notice on a map, but when you're actually driving the miles, and feeling the urgency of getting to the next town, the fear and paranoia starts to kick in :-).

North West

Seattle, from the Space Needle.

When the Space Needle was built, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Today, it is the 7th tallest building in Seattle alone.

I touched the Pacific ocean for the first time in my life. Four months prior, I was jet skiing in the Atlantic :-).

Bixby Bridge, down the west coast of California.

Driving down route 1 on the west coast was amazing. The views were stunning, and there were lots of areas to pull off and take pictures. Even on a random Monday when I drove down, people were pulled over everywhere, taking pictures.

The drive takes a while though -- I drove into the night, slowing to about 20 mph. The curves are intense, and you really don't want to drive off the cliffs :-P.

Winchester Mystery House

When I set out on my trip in July, my target was the Winchester Mystery House -- for no particular reason, other than to have a destination to aim for on the opposite coast.

It's a destination that represents why living on the road is so great: I would never fly across country and stay in a hotel just to see the Mystery house, but my lifestyle enables me to see things I would never take the time to experience individually.

Plus it just looked cool.

So of course I did the full tour and enjoyed myself :-). Unfortunately, the tour guides ban pictures inside the house. They do allow you to take pictures of the outside, though:

The tour was a lot more interesting that I thought it would be.

The woman who lived in the house had gobs of money from owning the Winchester Arms Company. She was paranoid about the spirits of people killed with her weapons haunting her. So she spent the last half of her life spending all her money building out her mansion.

She intentionally had the house built in bizarre and confusing ways, in order to confuse the spirits. For example, one door on the second floor actually leads off the side of the house:

The house is a maze, with stairs leading nowhere, doors to brick walls, and obsession with symbolism.

The most interesting part for me was the actual enginnering of a Victorian mansion. It was built before electricity was common, so it used gas throughout the house for light. It had a boiler room in the basement to pump hot water through the house to keep it warm, and a primitive intercom system so the woman could call her servants from different rooms.

It was really cool -- if you're in the San Jose area, it's worth a day trip.

(That's it for the amazing pictures... :-P)

Work Accomplishments

It's awesome to see all these amazing places, but actually, most of my time is spent working.

And in fact, that is my primary goal: to create compelling games and hopefully launch a profitable business. The breathtaking views are just a nice side-effect :-).

So: how has it gone, so far?

My focus for the first 6 months was creating a programming language, which I call Kong. I've been working on the language for a few years now, but have never been able to get anywhere working nights and weekends.

I'm proud to say that I've reached my target: in the 6 months, I have created a compiler, intermediate bytecode representation, virtual machine, and garbage collector.

That means Kong is actually usable. I have a test suite that I run everything against, and I'm passing all my tests :-).

Why create a programming language, if my target is to create games?

Game programming is a behemoth of complexity. Traditionally, you have two basic approaches to manage that complexity: 1. use someone else's toolset and jump right in to making games, or 2. build your own toolset.

Using someone else's toolset is tempting... but I have been bitten too many times using other people's platforms. In many ways, living in the van is similar: sometimes, it's just better to take responsibility, and build it yourself.

So, just like my house, my work is also handmade. Sure, that means it's not as fancy, but at the end of the day, it's mine. No one else owns it.

There is a certain pride in building something yourself.

And now, I have officially moved on to building games. My target is to create seven games over the course of 2016. If all goes according to plan, the first game will be available in January of 2017 -- one year from now.

I plan on keeping a development log on my website, Syntheti.cc. I hope to post once a week.

If you're interested, keep checking my website for updates, and/or follow me on Twitter, @voidqk.

Thoughts on the Van Life

The last thing to address is what I think of this crazy lifestyle after six months.

Let me start by saying that living in a stationary building is better. If I could afford it, I would definitely prefer to have a condo. I think I would be more productive, and have a higher quality of life.

That being said, living the van life is pretty fucking awesome.

I mean, c'mon, get real:

  1. I wake up whenever I want.
  2. I exercise every day.
  3. I see cool shit all the time.
  4. I take naps after lunch.
  5. I work on whatever I want.
  6. I don't have rent.
  7. I don't have a mortgage.
  8. I don't have a power bill.
  9. I don't have a lawn guy.
  10. I don't have to worry about my water heater breaking.
  11. I don't have to worry about my sewer line breaking.
  12. I don't have annoying neighbors.

Every morning I wake up happy as shit. I have a huge smile on my face, and I'm just beaming with excitement.

That doesn't mean it's perfect; there are a lot of things that can be hard. But overall: I am significantly happier now than I was in my corporate job.

It's important to understand why, though.

The magic isn't in the van. The magic is in the freedom. The van simply enables me to experience that freedom.

If I could have the same level of freedom in a stationary building, I would absolutely do that. But given a choice between freedom in a van, and slavery in a house: I choose the van.

The biggest downside of living on the road is the loneliness.

Nothing sucks more than your friends inviting you over for poker night, but you're a thousand miles away, alone, in a parking lot.

I think when I get back to the East coast, I will spend more time over there, closer to friends and family. Still in my van, but close enough to hang out.


If I could describe living in a van with one word, it would be: easy.

Man, my life is so easy now.

Life is easy. Humans are fucking badass -- we absolutely dominate our environment and are so smart and powerful. But for some strange reason, we take those millions years of evolution encoded in our DNA and throw it out the door. We live in ways that are so counter to the flow of nature.

Let's take one simple example: why the fuck are humans mowing lawns. That is simply beyond stupid.

We are intentionally spending our money/time fighting nature, in a battle we are smart enough to recognize we can't win.

No other animal wages war against nature.

Here's another one:

We work ourselves so hard (usually accomplishing nothing), that we don't have time to cook or exercise. So we eat garbage and trade our health for money.

Then, when we get sick, we trade that money for healthcare.

This is insanity.

How about: people buy storage units.

How are storage units even a thing!?

What the hell is wrong with us?

We pay slave labor to build crappy products we don't use, then we pay for a place to put those useless crappy products, and watch over them.

Please, go lookup the history of diamond rings. We literally pay thousands of dollars for shiny rocks. Mind boggling.

...

So yeah: my life is easy, man :-).

My life is so easy.

The only thing I want can't be purchased. Self-actualization isn't for sale. I'm the richest man in the world.