The building process in words
In January 2021 I bought a Fiat Ducato with the intention to convert it into a camper van, I call it my tiny house on wheels. It had to be a self-sustaining van regarding electricity with the option for wild camping for a longer period. That was my great wish after having a 'confection' camper for 8 years and having developed sufficient ideas to build one completely tailor-made. I prepared myself thoroughly and made a 3-dimensional design using the programme sketchup. I wanted to know if there was sufficient room for a bed, kitchen, toiletroom and sitting area. Sketchup gives me the possibility to design this in 3 dimensions, accurately up to a mm. Furthermore I had developed a good idea what kind of prices I might expect considering a specific mileage and age of the van. It was a matter of being alert and buying the van, as soon as the opportunity occurred. In the meantime, I had made a workbench and bought tools which are indispensable when starting such a project. I have a sufficient large parking place for the van and enough space inside my shed for the working bench. All these conditions are crucial if one wants to works without any thresholds.
It was a nice neat van for only €7500 from 2014 and 225 km on the odometer. At hindsight the airco proved to be broken, the timing belt and tires had to be replaced, and the sliding door did not function very well. Legally it was ok, but functionally it was sensible to replace these parts. Also, the unit that shows the faults in the system did not function well, which caused the battery to run down. So it was clear why the price was low, but I could spread it in time, so it did not cause any troubles. After all the van performes well, but it took some time.
The first thing I had to do was stripping the van in order to clean it and insulate the floor, walls and ceiling. In particular the plate which was covering the floor was difficult to handle as it is one piece of more than 3 m and 1,90 m in width. So, I had to bring in the help of my son removing it and putting it back when the floor was insulated. For the walls I ordered custom-made plates for this kind of van with pre-drilled holes for the screws on the right places. Between the plate and the outer wall there is a space of 6 cm that I used to insulate with sheep's wool. There is still a lot of discussion about what is right and wrong considering the materials to use, however, the testing of this questing is still inadequate, so I used my intuition. For the ceiling I choose slats that I cut to size with a table saw using bars of more than 3 m long to cover the length of the loading space.
The ribs of the van are a good base to fasten the inner wall. At the same time when I was insulating the van, I had to install all the wiring for the electricity, as the wires had to be installed behind the walls. Therefore, I had to know the exact locations of the users, so I draw the outlines of the bed, kitchen, toilet and sitting area on the floor in order to determine the position and the length of the wires. The thickness of the wires had to be deducted from a table as it is related to the maximal power of the users and the length of the wire. So, this was my first challenge as I had no clou how to handle 12V current. I had to read a lot and struggle myself through all kind of schemes. Very important is to use multiwire in a moving vehicle as it lowers the chance of fracture a lot.
After the insulation and wiring I made a framework around the wheel arches. The advantage of doing that is that these can be used in the building process. They were the starting point in building the base of the bed, which consisted of storage parts build around this framework. Without this framework the wheel arches obstruct the building and using it is a good construction base. Almost all wood I used is 12 mm birch plywood.
The first step after this was installing the windows. I have chosen for transparent fixed windows in the backdoors, the sliding door and near the sitting area. The outside wall is connected in such a way to the horizontal and vertical ribs that when removing the wall in between the ribs a frame is left to which the window can be fixed with special glue. A fold-out window is always smaller, but has as an advantage that is provided with blinding screen and insect screen. But it is not in line with the van and more or less looks like a pimple. That is why I choose for fixed windows, not dark but transparent, but of course that is a matter of taste. The windows are custom-made for the different types of vans and are usually used in human transport vans. However, choosing for a fixed window I decided to make a window frame instead of using needle felt to finish off the contours as I did in the sliding door. It was not a special devised plan, but pure intuitive. Afterwards I was glad with this choice, because I made an extra inner wall, which was useful to install sockets and monitor devices and to manoeuvre away the wires. It was a lot of hassle, but worth the while. It changed a little bit the contours of the toilet room, but it was still sufficient.
The central bar and the wiring
I made the wiring through the 2 central bars with branches to the ceiling, to the front and to the accu area. To get rid of the ugly central bar and the wires coming out I connected a plate to this bar, at one side linked to the base of the bed and at the other side linking to the sitting area and forming the edge of the window frame. To construct the window frame 2 horizontal plates and 1 vertical plate were connected with dowels and wood glue to form a rectangular alcove, the contours of the window frame. The (future) position of the dowels were marked with stickers and straight lines in order to drill at the right place. It was a perfect way to position the dowels.
Having made these choices, the rest followed automatically. I did not really think about alternatives and when this plate was connected, there was to my opinion only one solution. Probably I will solve it differently in the next Fiat Ducato, as there are probable much more options, but I was satisfied with this solution.
When this extra wall with window frame was constructed, the next step was to connect the wires to the battery. 2 distribution blocks, one for positive, one for negative, had to be installed. The positive wires run from the users and the providers through the fuse box to the distribution box and with a thick wire to the positive pole of the battery. The negative wires run directly to the distribution box and a thick wire to the negative pole of the battery. The positive wire coming from the starting battery and through a relais to the other battery has a fuse connected to the starting battery.
The 230V current has a separate fuse and is ground connected separately. The framework around the wheel arch is the perfect place for the battery. Very useful is the battery monitor that is measuring the in- and outgoing current, the voltage and the percentage of being charged. The fuse box and monitor are installed in the toilet room. The wire of the red distribution block to the battery has a separate fuse and the black distribution box is connected to the ground, the chassis. Considering the expected energy use I choose for a 150Ah gel battery, which is sufficient for two days without driving, charging or light for the solar panel. These conditions are extreme and until now it never happened that the refrigerator stopped cooling because of a too low voltage.
The storage parts and the bed
The part where the electricity is installed, is separated by a plate from the rest of the storage part. This plate is attached to the floor and the framework around the wheel arch. A piano hinge allows it to fold it down, making the electricity more accessible. The whole storage part is 60 cm in width and 90 cm high. To the left and the right there are 2 identical storage parts, only the compartments inside are different and the one to the right is 140 cm in length and the one to the left 120 cm. Because they are so high, I allow them to fold down using piano hinges in the middle and thus making the storage parts more accessible from inside the camper. The sides at the back are accessible by doors. In the storage part to the right I made a closet for 2 propane containers. It was convenient to use the framework around the wheel arches. Between this framework and the side, I needed to provide only one extra side and on top a cover. All junctures had to be covered with rubber tape and I needed to make an opening in the floor in order to give the propane (heavier than air) the possibility to go outside in case there was a leak. The storage parts are closed on top by 2 bed panels, that are connected with piano hinges and can be folded up. In the middle they are supported by 2 rods, that can be inserted in 2 recesses, glued to both sides. The edges of the bed panels (12 mm birch plywood) are rounded by a wood cutter. The mattresses are custom-made and for the sake of aeration I insert a special layer of 1 cm in between which makes this possible. If there is no need to change a propane container or the battery, the bed can remain its position as the storage area can be approached by doors at the back and two small doors from inside.
The toilet room
The room that is available for the toilet is 60 by 60 cm when the room is closed, but when the door is open the available space (in particular for your legs) is much greater. The toilet is a Porta Potti with a rinsing reservoir of ca. 10 liter and a collecting reservoir of ca. 20 liter. The sitting part and the reservoir below can easily be divided by a lever at the back. The upper part can be hung up on a hook, while the reservoir is being emptied. I have chosen not to install a shower, because it takes proportionally much room, whereas it is relatively little used. Being economical with water and space means that installing a shower is not really sensible. A washcloth creates miracles too. The toiletroom is made in such a way that when it is closed in front and on top it looks like a washing stand with mirror. A washing-up bowl can serve as a real washing stand. During the night and during a long driving journey the toilet is indispensable. Also for doing a big errand the toilet can be used via the plastic bag construction. A 20 liter bag is placed in the sitting area and secured with the toilet seat. Filled and tied up it can be deposited in the nearest garbage can. It works very well, the 'housemates' can make a detour when wanted.
The water supply
Water is indispensable in a camper and if you want to make it user-friendly, then a reservoir, pump, sink, tap, and dirty water reservoir are necessary components. I put the reservoir next to the toilet room and build a seat around it. When choosing for a water pump there is a submersible pump and a self-priming pressure pump. The first is placed inside the reservoir, whereas the latter is outside. In my opinion the pressure pump is easier to install, but vulnerable for leakage, so therefore it is important to make it easily accessible. I have chosen for an 80-liter reservoir and an 80-liter dirty water reservoir. Apart from the pressure pump you need to install an expansion vessel to confine the pressure changes. Furthermore, it is convenient to have input of water from the outside, so you have to make a hole through the wall, every time very exciting. In my case I thought it was importnat to make it in line with the input for the 230V electricity. So, measuring at least three times or even more. With an angled tank lead-through I made the connection with the reservoir and the water level in both tanks is electronically monitored with 4 sensors for the freshwater tank and only one (full) for the other tank. The monitoring tool is installed below the window frame.
The kitchen unit
The kitchen unit has next to a sink and dirty water tank a refrigerator and three drawers for all kind of kitchenware. I had the drawers custom made and they are provided with a break mechanism to prevent that they shut hard. To prevent that they open at every turn when driving, I have mounted push buttons. I choose for a compression refrigerator instead of adsorption, because the latter needs a lot of ventilation, which cannot be provided at this specific spot in the van. It uses only the battery and is the greatest consumer of energy, but the battery and the solar panel are sufficient to provide this. The dirty water tank has a drain through the floor with faucet. I decided not to install a warm water tap, as I have no shower and if necessary, I can heat water with gas anyway (or electrically if connected to 230V). The kitchen worktop is 27 mm oak and 4 times sealed with varnish to prevent curvature of the wood. To prepare the installing of the sink, the tap and the gas burners I made a mold of plywood to be sure that the proportions were right. Most connections I made with the Kreg method, only the worktop I glued. For the edges of the worktop, I used a special router head to remove the sharp parts and give it a more friendly appearance.
In my former camper I had a Truma heater, that was fuelled by propane. In itself the heating is quite comfortable, but the consumption of gas is quite high if you use it a few hours per day. That is not a disaster, what is a disaster, is the absence of uniformity in gas containers in the different countries, which obliges you to buy a foreign container including a reducer. This is not convenient. LPG is more uniform, but legally it is not allowed to fill the container by yourself. So, not convenient as well. That is why I decided to install a diesel heater, a Planar, the Russian version of the German Webasto. The Chinese version is even cheaper, but the spare parts are more difficult to get. For the Planar it is necessary to drill 2 holes in the floor for the intake of fresh air and the release of combustion gasses. I connected the fuel line directly with the diesel tank by drilling a hole in the float cover. The hole and the fuel line must have exactly the same diameter and the line must cover not much more than 3/4 of the tank to prevent that the heater runs down the tank. You have to get used to the sound of the pump, but further it is a fine heater.
In the original van there is next to the driver's seat a twoseater. The chance of finding a van with two seperate seats is very small, so the best solution is to find to identical individual seats, left and right, and put them on of a turning table to make them part of the 'living' room and increasing your living area. Despite the high costs I think it is worth the while.
I provided all windows with custom made darkening roller blinds, only the windows in the cabine are pleated curtains gliding on a rail. The roller blinds on the backdoors have to be removed (which is easy to do) when the bed panels are lifted up for some reason. I had to adapt the roller blind on the gliding door because it got in the way when installing the insect screen door. Removing the cassette covering the roller blind was sufficient.
After I had finished the building process, I asked myself whether I would leave everything in the color of wood or if I would make it livelier by colors. I wanted to avoid the feeling of a sauna and decided to find colors matching the color of the birch and oak. Sand, ochre and green shades fitted to my opinion very well. Let the pictures speak for themselves, it will always be a matter of taste.
When the temperature is higher than 20 degrees Celsius, it is comfortable to ventilate. Opening the sliding door and the roof window will cause sufficient ventilation and opening the backdoors as well will cause complete ventilation. All these openings can be covered with insect screens in periods when this is necessary. In the roof window this is built in, in opening at the back there is a custom-made screen for this type of van to be attached with magnets and in the opening of the sliding door there is a sliding screen door, also a custom-made for this van. It took me a lot of hassle to install it, because there was a conflict with the cassette of the roller blind. But I could solve it.
I have chosen for an awning that could be installed at the eaves and that can easily be opened with a rod. It saves a lot of room and it is very user-friendly. The other side of the coin is the price, which is quite high compared to using a tarp connected to the three connection points at the eaves, keeping it up high with two or three rods and guy lines.