We had laid the foundations for our new home but were still far from finished. The real, big, scary job in the whole process was electrics. Electrics was a must if the van was to become a home that we could really travel in for a long time. Not just some simple USB/12 volt setup to charge a mobile phone either but nice, efficient lights, sockets and power for a cool-box and water pump would all need to be catered for. It just so happens I’m very lucky. I know an excellent electrician who I knew would be more than happy to help us…my dad. This was a great weight off our shoulders. Many hours were spent going through exactly how we wanted things, all of my silly questions were patiently answered and the calculating of lengths and thicknesses of cables and the purchasing of all the materials, was something we no longer needed to worry about. Fantastic! However, before we get ahead of ourselves, there were quite a few things that we had started and wanted to finish and also things that needed to be in place before the sparky could do his magic.
As our light switches and sockets were to be fitted in the front panel of our bed, we needed to finish that off before my dad came over from England to help. Flights were booked so there was no time to waste. Building the bed was easier said than done though. We wanted to maximise the length of the bed and this meant going wall to wall but because we were, after all, building inside a van, there were complications. For example, the bottom of the bed has different measurements to the top and the front of the bed has different measurements to the back. To say building the bed was frustrating would be an understatement. It was a constant process of measuring, cutting wood, checking, remeasuring, recutting/filing, checking etc. Our skills got better as we went along though and it turned out really well. I love the design as it means that we have a big bed in the van but because it’s high, we also still have plenty of storage space. Another reason we wanted to build so close to the van walls was so that we could fix the bed to the metal framework at the side of the van. You learn from the experience though and in the end I would say if we were building it again we wouldn’t bother doing it like this. Fixing the bed to the floor would probably be sufficient and would mean that we could build the bed frame to stop just short of the walls. We wouldn’t have to build to accommodate for any wall curvature and this in turn would mean that the bed frame could have nice, standard, equal measurements all over. Oh well, like I say, you live and you learn.
Another important area that needed our attention before the electrics could be installed was the ceiling. This was a lot of fun to fit. Just as with the front of the bed we chose to use cladding giving the van a nice cosy, alpine cottage feel. We couldn’t yet fit the whole ceiling as we needed to still be able to easily feed cables through to the lights we had planned for the centre of the ceiling. However, we got the central part done so that the lights at least had a place to be inserted in to and we knew that it wouldn’t be difficult to do the rest when the time came.
Next up was the kitchen. After all, it would be a bit difficult to sort out the electrics for our cool-box and water pump if there was no kitchen in place. We didn’t need to have everything setup, it was just important to have the main structure in place so that switches and sockets all had something that they could be easily fitted to. We decided to make a very open, frame kind of design for the kitchen. We believed this wouldn’t be difficult to build but I have to stress again at this point, just how lacking in experience we both were. The kitchen became another headache. We just couldn’t seem to get things to fit nicely together. It always seemed to turn out in some way wonky or crooked. Let’s just say a spirit measure can be a cruel invention. If you’re not sure how to correct your errors and each ‘correction’ you try only makes things worse, then a spirit measure just acts as a slap in the face. Anyway, what we lacked in experience we certainly made up for in perseverance and after many alterations the kitchen worked out just fine. It’s quite funny now to look back on the pictures of our initial ideas, the bare bones of the frame. Over time it was adapted and added to, we painted it, cut holes for the sink as well as the tap and the hob, we hung a curtain to hide the water tank and cool-box and slowly but surely we built a kitchen. Albeit a camper kitchen. More from the kitchen and how it developed will be shown in future posts.
I have literally lost count of how many times we needed to visit the mechanic with the van while doing this conversion. So I can’t really remember why exactly we were there anymore but I know around this time while we were working on the kitchen, we needed to get some repairs done again on the van. This was a very bitter pill to swallow I can tell you. We started out with a small budget and really did not want to and could not afford to go much beyond this. However, the van forced us to. There were repairs we just had to have done. And there is a problem with a project of this kind, in that you reach a certain point of no return. Even though we couldn’t really afford to do the repairs we were obliged to go through with them anyway. We had already spent considerable time, money and effort on the project and although on paper, in pure economic terms, it possibly didn’t make sense to go further, we just couldn’t face giving up, selling the van and starting all over again. We had invested too much. Our planned date for setting off had to be pushed back considerably so we could work some more and make the money back that we had paid out for the repairs. We’re lucky I guess in that we even had this option available to us but it was still very, very aggravating at the time. It wasn’t only frustrating from a financial perspective that the van needed to have repairs done again either. By this point, we only had around 10 days till my dad would be with us to do the electrics. This was a concern but we thought it’s not too bad. The van will be at the garage maybe a few days and then we still have roughly a week to finish the work we needed to have done for the electrics. Then we get a phone call from the mechanic…He needs to order a part and it won’t be here for at least a week and we can’t drive the van until it’s done so the van will have to stay at the garage! Is this some kind of sick joke? Ok now we’re seriously angry! This is really bad news. My dad will only be with us for a few days, the flights are already booked and can’t be changed. But we’re not ready! And what if we can’t even get on with the electrics when my dad gets here because the van’s still at the garage? Oh no, this is not good news! If I were a smoker, at this point I would have smoked a whole packet. Fortunately for my health, I’m not though. So instead I made a cup of tea. I imagine if someone had have taken a picture of me at this point, they could have placed the cliche phrase ‘keep calm and carry on’ as a caption under me and it would have pretty much summed up the attitude of the moment. I mean, once the initial fury and frustration has passed what can you do but keep going? You’re not gonna solve anything by punching anyone or throwing your toys out of the pram. Though initially I would have been very happy to do so.
Well we looked at all our options, made some calls and arrangements and the drama died down. It was still a very inconvenient time but we at least had a plan of action. We borrowed a car from a family member so we could get around to work and collect parts and materials that we still needed to get. We were lucky in that our mechanic is a family friend and he agreed to let us work on the van at his garage while we waited for the part to turn up and the repairs on the van to be done. This was a real big help as it meant we didn’t really lose any time and could take care of the final and arguably most important job still to be done before the electrics could be fitted, namely the solar panels. It is amazing what deals you can get online these days and really for us solar energy in the van was simply a no-brainer. We don’t want to be forced to go to camp-sites to get our energy. This is because firstly, we don’t have the money to stay on a camp site every night and secondly, it’s not really the experience we want to have while travelling either. It’s much nicer to be wild. Our 2 solar panels are both 100 watts and we found a deal on eBay where we paid less than 200€ for the two. Obviously solar panels aren’t the only factor when it comes to a solar system but nevertheless, you can see how reasonable the price is. Also, when you consider we so far have constantly had enough power to do everything we need, you could probably say it was the best investment we made. Anyway I’m getting ahead of myself again, before we could enjoy the benefits of the panels we first needed to install them. This was fortunately not very complicated and was one less job for my dad. The panels weren’t connected up to any equipment or the leisure battery till my dad was there but we fit them to the roof and fed the cables through from the roof ourselves. To fix the panels to the roof we used a mixture of screws and super strong industrial glue (sika flex 252i). To be honest this method was probably overkill. Many people just use the glue but at least now we have no worries about them being secure. They are, as the Germans would say; “bombenfest”. In essence, it’s no longer only cockroaches that would survive a nuclear holocaust but also our solar panel fixings.
A few days before my family landed in Berlin we received a very welcome phone call. It was the mechanic, ringing to inform us that the part came earlier than expected and the work had been done. We could come and pick the van up whenever we wanted, with our wallet present obviously. Now the only remaining jobs were to tidy up the flat, wash and organise bedding and go to the supermarket so we had enough food and drinks for everyone. My dad brought a big bag of goodies with him. All the switches, sockets, cables and fuses we needed, plus a split-charge relay system. This is a really cool device that charges our leisure battery off of the van alternator while we’re driving. Most of the time the solar panels are good enough but occasionally, especially in winter, it will come in really handy to be able to top up our battery while driving. We spent the next 4 days getting work on the van electrics done and the April weather didn’t make it easy for us. We constantly experienced a miserable mixture of wind, rain, sleet and even snow but overall, it was a really nice time. In the day we worked on the van and in the evening we had some nice food and watched Game of Thrones season 5. We also got some valuable woodworking tips from my dad and while he was running cables and connecting things, we managed to build a cupboard for the electrical hub and a sealed gas-tight box for the battery. The cupboard also doubles up as a place to store coats, shirts, jackets etc, so that’s very handy. All in all, it was a very productive and enjoyable time. We had originally considered doing half the electrical work ourselves and then just getting my dad over to finish things off but it became quite clear to me when watching him work that this would have been a big mistake. We probably would have made errors that he would have needed to correct. Better to let the professional deal with it when it’s not costing you anything.
By the time my family flew back home and my dad’s work was finished we knew we had reached a massive point in the project. We had a fully functional electrical system. I still find it so cool that we just get free energy from the sun. And when we want to have light we just flick the switch like we would do at home. Some scary jobs were still laying ahead though. Apart from furniture and further woodwork that needed to be dealt with, we also needed to install gas and water, two areas that can become a disaster if you don't do them right. Oh well, we’re half way up the mountain now…There’s no way we’re looking back.