My Top 3 Van Build Tips

Don’t touch the Aluminum!

This is probably the most common mistake I see when I’m scrolling the endless feed of van build videos and tours. I’m not sure why reflectix became so popular with the DIY camper van community. My best guess is that it’s popularity sprang from it being relatively inexpensive, easy to apply over uneven surfaces, and just being so dang shiny. But the way most people use aluminum in their van builds is physically incorrect.

Reflectix is plastic bubble wrap, faced with aluminum foil. It’s sold as a radiant barrier, specifically designed for HVAC systems in homes. Aluminum is a truly amazing material. With the exception of gold, aluminum is the most reflective material in the known universe, being able to reflect 97% of radiant energy directed at it, and conversely it only emits 3% of its own thermal energy. This means that it does a great job of keeping temperatures separate… with one HUGE caveat.

You can’t touch it. There has to be an air gap between the surface of the aluminum and the surface you are insulating against. If you sandwich aluminum between two materials without an air gap, you are preventing radiant energy transfer in favor of conductive energy transfer. Just as aluminum is great at reflecting, it’s also great at conducting. And so where you once expected to prevent the transfer of heat, you are now INCREASING the transfer. Without an air gap, aluminum becomes anti-insulation.

If you’d like to learn more about this, leave a comment and let me know. Should I do an article on insulation?

Are you sure you need a full bathroom?

It’s amazing what people are able to build into their van-homes. I’ve seen indoor/outdoor heated showers, radiant flooring, a bathtub, tiled showers, composting toilets, and more. The DIY campervan community is extremely talented and what I’m about to say is not at all a dismissal of this talent. But… Do you really need a full bathroom?

Here’s why I ask: I’ve never—in years of cross country travel, and across hundreds of thousands of miles—never have I been in a place where I had to use the bathroom and couldn’t find a public one. If you’re traveling near a city, there are gas stations, fast food places, 24hr nationwide gyms, department stores, and sometimes just plain old public restrooms.

When I’m away from a city, I use some cupped hands, a water jug, and maybe a small bowl to do all my washing without the need for grey water systems, water pumps, and lost counter space. For $12 you can buy a solar shower bag and hang it from the side of your vehicle or any tree or post you find on your adventures. I’ve used one extensively and found it to be exhilarating and easy to use. And to round it off, I personally keep a disposable backpacking toilet bag on board just in case. It was $10.

I think a lot of people are worried about using a bathroom on the road, but I can assure you, the public option is easy, extremely affordable, and cleaner than you might expect. It’s not perfect and can be less clean than a private bathroom, so if you feel you need an on-board bathroom and plumbing, go for it, but don’t forget you have affordable public options.

How toxic is your van?

Having worked in the construction trade in the past, I knew building materials could be very toxic, especially if they aren’t handled properly. Insulation, adhesives, and paints can be particularly bad for you, especially during the construction phase, but can also off-gas carcinogens for years.

That new car/ new carpet/ fresh paint smell? That’s off-gassing. In a passenger car, most people are only driving 30 minutes to work and back, so exposure is going to be pretty low. However, when you’re living in your vehicle and sleeping in an enclosed space for hours a day, I think it becomes more important to consider the materials you’re using.

When you’re looking at sustainable building options for a 2,600 sqft home, the costs can be quite large, but in a 50 sqft van, the cost increase can be negligible. The difficulty can be researching the options, considering what’s right for a van application, and finding a supplier. I spent months sourcing non-toxic materials before I started building the VITRUVIAN VAN. I built this website and blog to help you make your own van more eco-friendly — check out the Blog and Resources page for more tips or to set up an appointment to chat with me.

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