First is a fairly comprehensive list of system equipment and appliances. Most of these were installed by Sportsmobile (SMB) in Huntington, Indiana. Following that is some justification of choices and our experience with them.
Our systems and equipment decisions are based on the fact that we like to dry camp -- boondock -- for extended periods without hookups. We almost never park in a campground with full hookups. Even when water is available, we fill our tank rather than hook up to city water. We don't even bother to hook up electric if we are staying only one night and don't need A/C. We carry very long extension cords so we can plug in while parking in the drive or street in front of our grandchildren's homes. We can run the A/C when on a 100 ft 12-gauge cord.
Our extensive dry camping experience in our former big rig helped us decide what we needed. My physics background has helped me design some new features into our Vanessa.
It is a nuisance to have someone refill the propane (LPG) tank under the van. First you have to find a place that does it, then you have to find the person at that place to do it, then you have to wait for him to find the time, then you have to wait for him to fill (5-10 minutes), then you have to go to the desk to pay. An inexperienced person filling can damage the connector. In addition, since the propane system is expensive for Sportsmobile (SMB) to install, we considered going with all-diesel appliances. The problem with this is that diesel cook tops, although available, are expensive, slow, smelly, not hot enough, and have only one burner. Diesel water heaters have similar problems. So we have a propane system for these and for an outside portable gas grill. These three appliances to not use a lot of propane so we can usually go several months of camping between fill-ups. The propane tank size is labeled 7.9 gallons, but on a recent fill when almost empty it took 9.3 gallons. LPG is about 4 pounds per gallon (density 0.5 L/Kg) and so the tank is equivalent to about two 20-lb tanks. On our recent trip to Alaska, we used about 1/4 tank per month of camping. It is still 1/4 after the 3-month trip.
Our propane system has an electric on/off switch so it is convenient to turn off while driving and refueling. The switch itself draws 1 amp with the valve open so we turn it off at night when not plugged in. We also have an electric level gauge so we can tell when more is needed.
This European stove has two burners, one larger than the other, and a glass cover that is flush with the counter top. It boils water faster than our electric stove at home. The electric ignition mostly doesn't work but it is easy to use a butane torch lighter that we keep in the drawer under the stove. A good stove is important to us since we cook most of our meals in Vanessa.
We have a toaster from Camping World that sits on the large burner. We are often not plugged in and hate to use the generator or inverter for an electric toaster, besides having to store it. The gas stove toaster is slow and does not adequately brown the bread, so we mostly give up on toast. We keep bread in the freezer and 30 seconds in the microwave warms it so it tastes like fresh-baked. If cooking eggs for breakfast, the bread toasts pretty well in the frying pan.
One of the aspects of our design we like most is all the storage space in back, plenty of room for a gas grill. We read great reviews of this grill and so bought it before the van was completed. It comes with a mounting bracket that screws to the side of the van and a gas hose with regulator that ties into the van propane system. This grill has a large cast-iron plate with holes that sits over the burner and gets very hot. When cooking meat, the fat drips onto this plate making smoke that flavors the meat. Very little fat accumulates in the bottom pull-out tray, making clean-up easy. We replaced the pressure regulator with an adjustable one to get a larger flame.
SMB normally uses the Atwood water heater but it was too large to fit in the space we had for it. The 6 gallon Suburban heater requires a hole "only" 12 inches square in the side of the van. It was installed behind the driver seat above the black holding tank (the only place it could go). It has to be off the floor anyway because SMB does not cut through the black panels on the side of the van. The 6-gallon size is plenty large enough for us. These heaters are factory set to heat water to over 150°, hot enough to burn your hands in the sink. We had SMB install a hot water temperature control Watts L1170 tempering valve that automatically mixes in cold water to reduce the temperature to about 102° which is good for a shower. This way we do not have to adjust faucets to get the right temperature. Mostly we just use the hot faucet. The cabinet has some good storage room in front of the heater.
The Sprinter engine runs on diesel and has a 26.6 gallon tank centrally located underneath behind the driver seat. Auxiliary diesel equipment draws fuel from the van diesel tank. The tap into the tank is 1/4 up from the bottom so you can't run out of fuel when camping. It is possible to carry extra diesel containers with a hitch-mounted rack on the back, but we have never found the need for that, even in the remote roads in Alaska. This is much easier and safer than carrying extra propane tanks (needed if you use propane for generator or heating), and, as mentioned above, it is much more convenient to fill up with diesel compared to propane.
The van level gauge on the dash goes down based on the van engine use only and ignores our furnace and generator use. Before we understood this, the furnace ran out of fuel once when the tank read 3/8 full because we used 1/8 tank after it ran continuously for several days in the winter. Now we try to fill up the tank before camping where we will need the furnace and/or generator for a few days. The furnace uses about 1 gallon per day in very cold weather so the most it would use is 7/26 or 1/4 of a tank in a week. Running the generator a few hours a day might use another quarter tank.
There are two choices for the diesel furnace available from SMB: the Espar Airtronic D2 and larger D4. We were told that the D2 will give plenty of heat for our van. The only place to put the D2 in our design is under the dinette seat next to the dually wheel well. Other places are blocked by the gray holding tanks under the van, by the refrigerator and bath, and in the back by the electric equipment, water tank, and generator. We were worried the D2 with only about 5000 BTU/hr would not be able to warm the van enough in cold weather and so preferred the D4. However, there is not enough room for the D4 under the seat.
Our experience with the Espar D2 is good. It raises the inside van temperatures by about 40° above outside temperature. At 20° outside, the inside temperature will be about 60° in the upper half of the van as long as we place the insulating pads on the front windows and lower the blinds. If we are plugged in we can get another 20 or 30° using a small ceramic electric heater. We have slept comfortably in the van when the low for the night was 5°.
When the D2 is on high the fan noise sounds like a jet engine, somewhat more noisy than the propane furnace we had in our former big rig. The great thing is that cycling among low/medium/high is very smooth. It is the changes in sound that are most likely to wake you up.
An advantage of the D4 is that it would not have to run on high speed so much of the time. However this is also a disadvantage since these furnaces have more problems if they are run a lot on the lower speeds. So in fact we set the D2 to heat to over 80 degrees then run it on high until we are warm in the morning then turn it off. This worked very well for our trip to Alaska where outside temps usually got down in the low 50s at night. It might not work so well for winter camping.
The exhaust out the rear of the van smells bad for a minute or so when starting; after that we do not notice it. There are never any smells inside the van.
Our former big rig had a 7.5 kw Onan Quiet Diesel generator in an internal sound-proofed compartment. It never gave us any trouble and it was so quiet that we would often forget we had it on. So it was a difficult decision to go with the PowerTech after we heard how much noise and vibration it made. The only other option for the Sprinter is the Onan propane generator which is somewhat quieter. The deciding factor between these two is run time. With the small propane tank the Onan would run only 24 hours on a full tank (see propane discussion above). The PowerTech will run 80 hours at medium load on a full van diesel tank (that is 16 gallons from full to 3/8). The long run times are an issue mainly for hot weather when we want to run the air conditioner overnight. We will be able to sleep with the noise by wearing silicon ear plugs which are very effective and comfortable to wear. Our experience is that the air conditioner makes more noise than the generator inside the van so generator noise is not an issue for this application if in a remote place without neighbors to bother.
SMB at first told us that this generator would not fit under the rear of our van. After consulting with the manufacturer and the Texas SMB staff, they were able to modify the mounting brackets on the generator so it would fit.
The only problem we have had with the generator was when we ran out of fuel when the tank got below 1/4 full (the gauge read 3/8 full). After filling the tank, the generator would start but the rpms would cycle up and down every 10 or 20 seconds. We soon learned that air in the fuel line caused this and we had to bleed the injector. This is not difficult after learning how. Use a 17 mm wrench to loosen the nut on the stainless fuel line leading to the injector, near the bottom of the opening on the rear of the generator. Loosen it just slightly, have someone start the generator, then close it after cranking for about 5 seconds. You may have to do this more than once. After trying many times with no fuel bleeding out I realized the fuel pump had failed. PowerTech sent me a free one which I installed in about two hours (not an easy job).
The generator mounts under the rear where the spare tire is normally stored. We did not want to mount the tire outside the van behind the back door for two reasons. One is that this extends the length of the van which is already marginally too long to park in a single parking space. Also it makes it a little more difficult to open the rear doors for access to storage. So we made room for it inside the van under the base of the bed. If later we decide we need this space for more storage we could always revert to the back door mounting place.
Our main requirements are large fresh water and holding tanks, and the ability to camp in freezing weather. In addition we wanted a way to bring hot water to the faucets without losing the initial cold water down the drain, a tempering valve to deliver hot water at shower temperature, a pressure regulator to reduce flow at all faucets for water conservation and constant flow rates, a quiet pump, an accumulator tank to increase pump cycle times, and a convenient dumping system.
Our former big rig had 80 gallons of fresh water storage and was built to house 4 people, so we wanted at least 40 gallons for Vanessa. This is much larger than the standard tanks that SMB uses. I chose a 15x20x30 inch tank (about 38 gallons) to fit under the foot of the bed. This required raising the bed and dinette seats a few inches above the usual height. SMB said that this would not be a problem for seat belts on the dinette, although much higher than that would be a problem.
The tank has five ports: a large fill port on the top of the rear, overflow (the pipe for this goes back and forth across the top to keep water from sloshing out when driving), drain, fill from city water, and output to the pump. The large fill port is needed when the water source does not have a hose connection and anyway is more convenient than hooking up a hose to the city water inlet followed by opening the tank fill valve. A 1-inch tube on this port has a large ball valve on the end to keep water from sloshing out when under way. The fittings on the end of the tube hook over the upper hinge on the left rear door for filling. Any spilled water drains outside the van.
We chose the SUREflow Whisper King Pump because of its lower advertised noise, rather than the regular pump that SMB normally uses. It is indeed much quieter than the SUREflow pump we had on our big rig.
The 2 gallon expansion accumulator tank reduces the cycling of the pump. Without this tank, when you run water slowly the pump will cycle on and off continuously. With the tank you can run about a gallon of water before the pump will run. Then it will run longer, about 10 seconds, to fill the tank. We can turn off the pump at night and while underway and still get water to flush and wash hands. We find this is well worth the space it occupies under the port-side dinette seat. The accumulator tank can be mounted in any orientation and does not require any changes to the pink-liquid winterizing procedure since it is completely empty when there is no pressure in the system.
It took me a lot of research, experimentation, planning, and convincing SMB to obtain a system to avoid freezing pipes in very cold weather, zero or below. The first requirement here is to have no fresh water pipes under the van or under the floor. SMB normally places pipes going from one side to the other under the plywood floor in a groove above the steel van floor. With our platform bed in back we had a route to avoid going under the floor. However, there is no insulation in the floor and the run behind the bath and under the bed were not exposed to much heat from the warm air in the van. I placed a thermometer behind the bath wall and found that the temperature there was only about 10° above the outside temperature. Since we want to use the van down to zero degrees or lower, we had to find another way to keep pipes from freezing.
Three options are extra insulation around the pipes, electrical pipe and tank heaters, or a hot-water recirculating system. The extra insulation takes up a lot of space and would probably fail in the cold areas of the van. Electric heaters would use our limited battery power and are impossible to maintain in the unaccessible area behind the bath. So a hot-water recirculating system was our only option.
I investigated using a small 12V recirculating pump to bring hot water at the end of the line back to the water heater. This would have warmed all cold water pipes that are next to the hot pipe, but would avoid the fresh water tank and the water pump, both very prone to freezing under the bed. My next idea was to run a water pipe from the end of the line (under the galley sink) back to the fresh water tank. The main water pump would provide the flow. This would dump hot water into the tank and this warm mix would then flow into the pump and cold line going to the hot water heater. The cold line to the galley sink is warmed by the hot line next to it and by the furnace duct under the cabinets.
For this system to work, the flow would have to be slow enough to not overheat the fresh water tank and and to not waste propane heating the water. I could limit the flow rate with a regulating valve under the galley sink, but it would be tricky to get it just right. So my idea was to place a second tempering valve at the end of the recirculating line near the hot water tank. This time I would blank off the cold water inlet, so the valve would allow full flow until the water reached the set temperature, then it would reduce to a dribble, just enough to maintain a reasonable temperature in the hot water tank. The tempering valve I chose, Watts L1170, has an adjustable temperature range from 60° to 120°. For this purpose I set it all the way to the low 60° end of the range. I tested this system on a night with a low of 5° above zero and had no freezing pipes. The pump ran for 10 seconds every 8 minutes. After a week of very cold weather and two weeks in Florida we used only half of our propane tank.
The recirculating system is operated by a ball valve under the galley sink. Since it is hard to reach, I installed a remote cable actuator with a knob to pull on the panel below the sink (see photo page).
A major advantage of this system is that it is easy to bring hot water to the sinks without waste any time of year by opening the ball valve for a short time. For summer use we will increase the shut-off temperature of the under-bed tempering valve from 60° to 90°. If left at 60° it would never open when the temperature under the bed is over 60°. So before washing dishes or taking a shower we open the valve for a short time. No big problem if we forget it for a while; pump noise and the knob protruding from the cabinet will remind us to close it.
For a new vehicle, parts and labor for this system is under $500. I am surprised this system is not already an option on all RVs. If you want to add to an existing vehicle, you need pipes above the floor, the hot water heater needs to be at one end of the line without a tee to separate sinks, and you need access to run a new pipe from the far end of the line back to the fresh water tank.
This system adds one extra step to winterizing. You have to open the recirculating ball valve to fill that line with pink liquid. Unfortunately some pink liquid then gets into the fresh water tank which will need to be flushed out in the spring.
The water pump supplies more pressure than needed for conservative water use while dry camping. In addition the pressure varies over a wide range. To solve this I installed a Watts 560 pressure regulator. It needs to be placed after the accumulator tank for that tank to serve its purpose. The best place for our accumulator tank was under the port dinette seat and unfortunately this is after the tee that sends cold water to the two sinks. By placing it as shown above, the pressure is regulated for all hot water and for the cold bath sink and toilet. Since we normally run hot water at the galley sink, it is fine to have a faster flow of cold there.
We had the old version of this Thetford marine toilet in our former big rig and were quite happy with it. You can press the lever part way to add water to the bowl before using the toilet. After adding chemicals to the black tank we have not yet been bothered with smells. However this can be a problem in hot weather since there is no trap in the drain. If the smell gets bad, we adjust the roof fan vent to blow into the van, then open the bath window and close the van door. We had extra vents placed above the bath door to allow this air to enter the bath when the door is closed. Then when you flush, the air will go down the hole and up the black tank vent to the roof.
Our van is optimized for dry camping for a week with two people. For the 16 gallon black tank to last that long we need to flush for a very short time. The tank will last over a week if we turn off the water valve to the toilet and pee elsewhere when convenient. Because of this and because of the pressure regulator (see above) the water does not rinse the whole bowl. We solve this problem by waxing the inside of the bowl so nothing sticks to it and by keeping a squirt bottle of soapy water handy for a quick manual flush. Used toilet paper goes in a trash can under the sink.
Our kitchen stainless sink is about 11x11 inches and 6 inches deep, and the white bath sink is 11x13 inches by 5 inches deep. The kitchen sink has a typical one-arm faucet. Both faucets are on a pull-out hose. The kitchen faucet will reach outside for filling a pail or washing feet.
The bath faucet has a very convenient lever on top for turning on and off the water and it doubles as a shower head. You can turn on by pushing down on the lever and holding it, or by raising it in which case it stays on. It always has a spray pattern which is great for both washing hands and showering. As you can see on the photo page we now always leave the hose pulled out and I made a holder for the faucet centered over the back of the sink. Thanks to the tempering valve on the hot water heater, we always leave the hot faucet turned on and the cold turned off, so we run the faucet only with the lever on top. There is a very slow drip (less than an ounce overnight) which I could probably fix by taking it apart and cleaning it.
For showering we need to close curtains over the window, under-sink cabinets, and main door. Since there is no room to hold the shower wand over my head, I have to do most of my showering sitting down. This was new to me, but not a problem. Showering is also a good time to wash the toilet. All water drains into the basin floor drain. The curtains do take some time to dry out or we dry them with a towel.
The trap for the shower floor drain does not properly stop gases from entering the van, so we we need to make sure the drain stays closed.
We chose not to have an outside shower since the inside one works fine and so others can't draw water from our system when we are not around. Later, we decided it would be nice to have an outside hose connection to fill a bucket or wash the van. So I tapped into the hot water line and installed a hose connection with a valve inside the rear doors. I keep a short hose with a nozzle on it for a convenient way to wash feet or hands (it would also work as an outside shower). It is locked inside the doors when not in use. We have not washed the van yet with it, but it should work fine for that in combination with a brush and bucket.
There are several situations when you might want to pump from other than the fresh water tank. In a campground there may be a water source such as a well hand-pump some distance from the van and without a hose connection. We carry a 5-gallon pail in the back for this purpose. I can carry water to the van, pull out a hose from under the bed, place it into the bucket, change the valve to this line, open the valve that fills the water tank, then turn on the pump. No second pump is required. This is also useful when filling the tank in freezing weather when you can't open an outside spigot on your house. Finally, you can use this to pump pink liquid into the pipes for winterizing (see below).
With a 38-gallon fresh water tank, it would be nice to have gray tanks (sink and shower water) that size or larger, especially for campgrounds that have a fresh water supply but no sewer connection. The standard holding tanks that SMB uses on Sprinters are two 10 gallon tanks, one on each side. On looking under there after the build there seems to be room for larger tanks. Oh, well, maybe next time. So we will have a very convenient dumping system for gray water (see below).
Since the gray tanks are outside the van, they will freeze in the winter. I suspect that this will not cause damage as long as we are very careful that they never get full. Of course we can't dump when they are frozen, but if we are on our way south, we can dump when it gets warmer. We could also dump some bottles of pink liquid down the drains.
We use our toilet regularly without bothering to go to the facilities in rest areas and campgrounds. After our experience with dumping a black tank in our big rig, we would never consider a porta-potty or cassette toilet system.
For convenience we do not want to dump our black tank often. With our experience we each add approximately a gallon to the black tank per day, with short flush times, less when we turn off the water to the toilet. The standard SMB black tank is 5 gallons, much too small for extended dry camping. Our build has no room under the van for a black tank. We were told that the black tank could be larger only if it can extend under the cabinet behind the toilet next to the bath. After considerable research I found a 16 gallon black tank that easily fit in our design. This will last us one week.
We considered a macerator but some research indicated that there are often problems with them getting stuck, such as when you by mistake drop a pill bottle down the toilet. Fixing the problem is very messy and unpleasant! The advantages of a macerator are a small diameter dump hose and the possibility to dump uphill with a long hose such as into a toilet in the house or campground restroom. These advantages were not important to us. There is little to go wrong with a gravity system and dump times are shorter. On our 3-month trip to Alaska we had little trouble finding dumps and almost never paid extra. Most towns and many government campgrounds had free dumps (free for campers or when filling with fuel).
The messiest part of dumping is connecting the 3" slinky hose to the exit port of the holding tanks. The valves usually leak a few drops and that can get on your hands when you remove the blank-off. I was able to construct a system that avoids this step. The dump hose stays connected all the time and stores in a PVC pipe that starts about 6 inches from the port and is long enough (about 3 feet) to hold 15 feet of slinky hose. To keep the hose from coming loose from the exit port flange I screwed it on through the side of the connector.
To make this work, SMB had to make sure the exit port pointed toward the front of the van where there is space for the storage pipe. To do this the 3" valve for the black tank had to point towards the center of the van. This required a special Valterra valve that had a cable extension. I added the storage pipe after delivery since this system probably does not meet RVIA specs. It extends to just behind the left front tire.
I have added a short piece of pipe to the end of the slinky hose. This helps it stay in the dumping hole. I also always put a zip-tie on the black dump valve handle to keep kids or whatever from pulling it in the campground.
Here is the dumping routine which takes under 10 minutes:
Since the fresh water tank is larger than the gray holding tanks, we sometimes need to dump gray tanks at other than a dumping station. We exclusively use biodegradable soap in the van and so there is little environmental impact. Nevertheless campgrounds usually disallow this so we prefer to dump elsewhere along the highway or on a dirt road (it decreases the dust for us an others!). It is hard to be discrete with the above procedure, so I have added an additional gray water dump valve which leads to a hose fitting and a length of hose that goes to the rear center of the van. I have a cable-operated valve routed to behind the driver seat inside the van. Now I can drive slow on a dirt road or pull off the side of the road and open the valve, all without leaving the van. When parked in someone's drive, with permission I can run the hose onto the grass and leave the valve open for the duration.
To keep pipes from freezing in the winter we need to either blow them out with compressed air or pump pink anti-freeze liquid into the pipes. We use the latter method to be sure we reach all parts of the water system and also to fill the traps. The cost is about $3 for the pink liquid that is available from most homeowners and camping stores. We do have compressed air at home, but we don't always winterize at home and I don't think that method is any faster.
We travel several times a year in freezing weather so it is important to make this chore easy. Here are the steps we use to winterize:
To use the water system next time I flush the fresh water tank a couple of times to clean it and purge any pink liquid. The pink liquid is not toxic but has an unpleasant smell. We do not drink the water from the van water system so we do not bother to sanitize the water tank. Rather we carry gallon jugs of fresh water that we fill from our reverse osmosis system before leaving home, then refill them with city water or if necessary buy drinking water or distilled water at grocery stores while traveling.
I did not do the same research on the electrical system as I did on the water system, figuring that the standard SMB configuration would work well for us. Mostly we are happy with it, but a few issues are noted below.
SMB highly recommended the electric Norcold refrigerator. The DE 61 7 cu ft is the only choice for an electric RV refrigerator with separate freezer. Unfortunately it recently changed from American made with a large cooling coil in the back to China made with a small coil and a fan. The repair cost is so high that it is considered a through-away unit if it has a coolant leak.
The propane refrigerator that we had in our former big rig is not as efficient on space, uses up limited propane (not a major factor), requires the van to be level, and should not be run while traveling. However, we had been quite happy with it, never ran into the leveling problem, and did in fact use it while traveling. Nevertheless we went with the electric Norcold. Electric use is small but significant. Experience with it has make us unhappy on two fronts: The temperature is not even; it is hard to make the freezer cold enough without freezing food at the bottom of the refrigerator compartment, especially in cold weather. We did ask SMB to add extra insulation around it which is supposed to help. The other thing is the noise: It makes a loud (noticeable at night anyway) click when the relay starts and stops the compressor, and the fan noise is pretty bad. Our propane fridge was completely silent. Experience has shown that in the summer we can turn the temperature control down all the way and still not freeze things in the refrigerator. When turned down all the way the compressor runs most of the time which helps with sleeping. After 4 years (about 500 camping days) the fridge would not cool below 40 when set to max cooling. We removed the microwave from above the fridge and blew dust off the condenser coil with compressed air. This fixed the problem and we should do it every year.
We specified the SurePower 1314-200 separator rather than the more usual 1315 so the house charging system will not charge the van battery. The trouble with the 1315 is that the solar power will close the relay and this will use 1 amp, as much as 10% of the solar energy, just to close the relay. We do not need to charge the van battery since we power the radio and other dash items I have added using the SMB house batteries rather than with the van engine battery.
We had a momentary contact switch installed on the dash, next to the engine idle control to the left of the steering wheel, that closes the relay. If the van battery gets low, we found we can close this switch and it will stay closed until the battery is mostly charged from the house batteries. It will normally not stay closed so you can't run down the starting van battery when camping. However pay attention to this:
Because we had an old model UltraGauge (see below) it ran down the van battery while SMB was working on it over a week period. This caused them a lot of problems, for which I feel bad since it was my fault for leaving it plugged in. When they pressed the dash switch and tried to start the engine with a dead engine battery, it blew the 150A fuse in the very large 2/0 cable that goes back to the house batteries. This is a fuse supplied by Mercedes and costs $30 every time you blow it. The solution here is to press the switch and hold it for some time to charge the van battery with the generator going or when plugged into city power, then release it when starting. Anyway, this should happen only in very unusual situations and we do carry a spare fuse.
The standard Magnum MS2012 used by SMB seems to be fine. The inverter that provides 110V power from the batteries is useful for occasional microwave use but this runs down the batteries quickly. It is not so good for long-term charging of cell phone or other device batteries since it draws more battery current compared to 12V car chargers.
The Magnum ME-RC50 has the control to turn on and off the inverter and monitors the charging current and current drawn from the batteries.
We had two 92 amp/hr AGM batteries installed by SMB. When we watch TV for an hour or two in the evening then run the refrigerator and furnace overnight, the voltage drops to below 12V in the morning. The number of recharging cycles before a battery dies drops from about 500 times if you usually discharge the battery below 12V. If we watch more TV or use the microwave then we would drop well below 12V in one day which we do not want to do. The problem is mostly for winter camping when we are inside in the evening and need the furnace.
Therefore I have added two more batteries under the van between the generator and rear axle. They would also fit in the rear storage compartment but would use up valuable space there, and would also fit in the engine compartment but this would make it very difficult for MBz to service the van computer which would be under them. I built a steel cage to hold the batteries and use a hoist to lift the 150 lb cage into position where it is bolted to the frame. More info and photos on the Sportsmobile forum here.
With 4 batteries we find that we can keep above 12V with significant computer, stereo, and TV use for 1 day. For longer periods of camping at one spot we need to run the generator for about 1 hour per day (perhaps longer if no solar charging).
Solar energy is a good way to charge batteries when dry camping. Once installed there is little maintenance and they automatically start charging when in the sun. Our two 100W panels will provide up to 12 amps of charging current when the sky is clear and the sun is overhead. We got these mainly to cover the energy used by the refrigerator.
The solar panels are fixed to the roof and cannot aim at the sun. Unfortunately, the sun is low in the sky in Alaska, low in the south in the winter, and in hot weather in the lower 48 we seek shady camping spots.
We read reviews of small combination microwave/convection ovens and many of them said that the microwave power for these was too low even to make popcorn, so we decided on microwave only. We chose a fairly large one with 1,100 W so it will fit a 9" casserole dish and a tall drink container. We find that with our 4 batteries, charged from driving during the day, we can use the microwave on the inverter for 5 or 10 minutes and not fall below the 12V limit in the morning.
The Dometic Penguin works well, although we have used it only a few times. If the van is 90 degrees inside in the sun, it takes about an hour to bring it down below 80. It makes more noise than the generator inside the van. When it cycles the fan continues to run so the compressor turning on and off is not a big issue for sleeping.
This is a great fan that runs off the 12V system. It takes a while to figure out all the controls. It will automatically close and stop when it rains or when the van cools down enough. We did not get the remote-control version. We usually run it blowing into the van when we use the toilet to keep black tank smells from entering the van. We used it often in Alaska. It works best with the sliding door closed and windows open only at the rear. We blow in when sitting up front or using the toilet and out when sitting in the back.
Jensen has a line of RV electronics that are popular and economical but probably are not considered to have exceptional performance. Mounting them on the front wall of the large rear cabinet makes them very convenient to the dinette and bed area.
I provided 6 antennas for SMB to install on the roof: CB, GPS, 4G, Sirius/XM, FM, and TV. Counting the Sprinter FM antenna we have 7 antennas. They all work well.
This wall-mount receiver Jensen AMW975 is loaded with features that suit our needs well. It has AM, FM, CD, DVD, USB mp3, weather band, and is iPod ready. It has stereo input on the front for iPhone or Sirius/XM. It has HDMI output that gives the best possible signal on the TV. It has a remote control that we can use from the seats up front. The CD and DVD player work well while driving. One of us can sit in the back with grandchildren and watch DVD movies with a seat belt on. Uses only 1.3 amps.
This Jensen TV made for RVs uses only 2 amps and has a great picture. It is made to go with the above stereo so the remote control works both. It has great sound by using the 6" speakers. We found a very strong and space-saving mount at Home Depot.
For digital broadcast TV reception we have the Winegard Sensar IV crank-up antenna RVW-395. This antenna works really well and we usually get about 10 local stations, including the four major networks when not too far from a large city. It turned out to be rather involved to lay out the roof to find room for it, since it folds down when not in use and has to be mounted at a wide place between the ribs on the roof. To make room we had to move the A/C towards the starboard side and somewhat forward of the dinette. We made the overhead storage cabinets deeper on the port side to make use of the extra space there.
These Jensen 6" waterproof speakers sound great mounted in the cabinet wall. I also have a pair of small outdoor speakers with cables that go through the rear doors and I plan to hook up the Sprinter speakers up front. The stereo has three speaker outputs that can be selected individually.
We had a receiver that we used in other vehicles and in the house, so I purchased a docking station for Vanessa. We pay one annual fee and can transfer it back and forth from the van to the house.
I replaced the simple radio provided by Mercedes with the Kenwood 955. It connects to our iPhones and laptop with bluetooth and hands-free talking on the phone. You can control it with the steering wheel buttons. It is connected to the Jensen in the back both ways so all four speakers can be powered by either unit. The Kenwood is powered with the 4 house batteries.
We find that listening to the truckers channel 19 on a CB while on interstates is both entertaining and informative about how to avoid tie-ups. I chose a Sprinter option to have a 1 DIN slot above the rear view mirror. I did not find a CB made for the US market that would fit in this slot, so I purchased a very popular small one that had great reviews, Uniden PRO520XL. I put the external speaker on the left side of the storage space above the visor.
Wilson makes antennas and associated amplifiers for boosting 4G data and voice signals for both AT&T and Verizon cell phones. We use our iPhone 5 as a local hotspot for our iPad and laptop. We had high speed data recently when dry camping 3 days near the center of the huge Apalachicola National Forest in Florida. No signal for either data or voice without it at that location. We have an AT&T shared family plan for 8 people and 130 GB shared data per month.
When near to a hotspot we like to save our shared cellular data, especially when uploading lots of photos or upgrading software. The trouble is that the signal inside the van is usually too weak at campgrounds and when parked in someone's driveway. To solve this I installed a Ubiquity Nanostation M2 together with a Ubiquity AirGateway access point. The Nanostation, called a CPE, is an outdoor directional antenna together with electronics needed to provide the digital ethernet signal for the internet connection. It mounts on a mast above the van in a way that it can be rotated towards the Wi-Fi source. The AirGateway goes inside the van and acts as a router to provide Wi-Fi as WAN so all of our devices (computer, iPhones, and iPads) can connect to our internal Wi-Fi that is making use of the remote hotspot. The signal is strong enough to reach 20 or 30 feet outside the van. Find more details of this setup on our blog. The mast is 11 feet high at the low position and can be raised another 6 feet to 17 feet high, so it looks over the top of other RVs in a campground.
We use our iPads mainly for reading books, maps, satellite photos, and finding camping spots with the app Allstays. I use my iPad for the live view from my DJI Inspire quadcopter.
We use our AT&T iPhones for local hotspots as mentioned above, for email, phone, text messages, surfing the web, weather reports, keeping lists of things to do and buy, and calendars.
We use my Dell 15Z on the center post up front for email, Delorme GPS routes, to keep track of my home-based printing business, and photography. I have a wireless keyboard and mouse which I get out when I have serious work to do. It is accessible from either the driver seat or passenger seat. When camping I turn the driver seat 90 degrees and then have a counter surface on my right for drinks and papers.
The hard drive space on my laptop will not hold all my photos, so I installed a 6 TB drive in an external enclosure with a fan on the Sprinter storage shelf above the dash on the driver's side. It powers with 12V battery power (house batteries) and I hid the USB cable in the A-pillar. I carry a second identical drive for a mirror backup. We mostly turn it off while driving although some use while driving has not turned up any problems.
We use Delorme maps for travel. It is great to have the large map display always up front next to us. We can plan trips in advance and easily enter vias and stops, a capability not easy to do on an iPhone or self-contained GPS. It talks to us and corrects the route when we make a wrong turn. It helps us find places to stop. I imported a list of government campgrounds for the US (Ultimate Campgrounds for lower 48), Canada, and Alaska.
I use the Canon 6D with Canon 24-105 mm zoom lens. It is a great SLR camera with a full-frame sensor to give low-noise images in low light. I made a storage place behind the driver seat so it is convenient to grab when we stop at a scenic vista. I also store my 70-300 mm Canon zoom there.
I cut 8x12 rectangles from a 3/4"-thick rubber barn mat. These are made from recycled tires and cut easily with a knife. Then I pile them under a tire, offsetting each layer a little to make a ramp.
This digital gauge plugs into the ODBII socket on the van to talk to the van computer. It shows up to 8 gauges at a time. I use it for speed, average speed, MPG since start, average MPG, time since start (so we know when it is time to switch drivers), battery voltage, fuel level, and engine temperature. You can also set a variety of alarms and read trouble codes. See photo on the photo page.
I built a wood table mount that fits into the Sprinter storage slot below the heating controls. It also has a post to the floor to support some weight without exerting torque on the dash. It has interchangeable tables, one for a laptop and a larger one for dining. On our maiden voyage we never used the larger table up front so I am dedicating it to the dinette and we will use only the laptop table up front. The laptop table together with the counter behind the driver seat works well for lunch.
The post to the floor is far enough forward that even with my long legs I can rotate either front seat while sitting in it. With the laptop in place either of us can get out of our seats and go the the back without rotating the seat (we do need to push them all the way back, however).
Our Mercedes dealer uses Mobile 1 ESP Formula M 5W-40 synthetic motor oil and recommends that we carry some in case we need to add oil. We looked at truck stops and auto parts stores and none of them stock this oil. The "M" stands for Mercedes so there are very few who use it. I bought a case of it on Amazon.com. I am sure the dealers will sell it also.
We find the awning very easily to set up and very pleasant to sit under. It is not supposed to be used in the rain but we have done that several times. Since it will collect water in the center, it important to raise one end much higher than the other to help it drain. The main potential problem is wind so we always crank it away when leaving the van for a long time.
As shown in the plans we have full-size windows on the sides and none in the back doors. The starboard rear window, and front and rear port windows have screened openings at the bottom. This gives us ventilation in the bath and in the rear and nice forced air when we run the fan. We can also leave the rear doors open for more ventilation. We have screening at the foot of the bed in the back.
After ordering the van we decided we wanted a full non-opening window on the sliding door. With the fan right above this window, there would be no point in opening it and it reduces visibility. Unfortunately, we then discovered that SMB cannot install a full window here, so we had to take the van back to the dealer to have it installed, at a greater expense than if we had ordered it that way.
SMB Indiana did not offer to install one and suggested simple options such as a split screen that you push aside when you enter. We had had good experience with the sliding screen on the Great West Van we rented (see here) and so wanted one like that. The folding screen style on that van is not available in the USA any more but the same company makes a role-up screen and sells it only through Lowes with installation included for about $360.
Needless to say, installation did not include framing for it; that was my job which took me two full days not including planning time. The screen door on a house is installed outside the main door with the frame facing out. Here it had to be the opposite, facing in. I cut the vinyl flooring and rolled it back, then removed the plywood back about 6 inches to make room to install the door. On the forward side I used 1" plywood to extend out from the B pillar. On the aft side I used a 1x4 to attach to the side of the cabinet. After I installed and painted the frame, I met the door installer in a Lowes parking lot, and he took about 1 hour to finish the job (he had installed thousands of these, and this was not his first in an RV).
To cover the opening over the counter we sewed the hook side of Velcro onto a screen then used a strip of loop Velcro with adhesive on the van. This will be easy to remove if we are camping where there are no bugs (but we have never done that). The Velcro strips came from Feiner Supply which has very good prices for large quantities.
Our experience with the door has been great with no problems and only minor annoyances. The screen closes with a magnetic catch which holds well and requires a jerk to open. When opening, if it slips out of your hand, it opens very fast with a big bang but does not hurt anything (except maybe kid's fingers that are in the wrong place -- this happened once without injury). The driver seat does not go as far back as it would without the screen. You can still rotate the seat 180 degrees and the door is not much in the way when sitting facing back. The new wall space was a welcome place to put my beer opener and lid catcher, and a great place for the fire extinguisher. The grab handle that came with the van still works.
We have used it now many months of camping, sometimes in very buggy campgrounds, opening and closing it many hundreds of times. When passing through I would open with my right hand, step through then reach around behind me with my right hand to close it. This would leave my left hand available to carry something. The opening is 25 inches which is not small. With the screen door in place there is no room for a counter drop-down extension.
We did not want running boards, and a portable step is a nuisance to store and place every time you stop, so I installed the Kwikee automatic electric step series 28. I had to weld together a custom mounting frame that bolted to the chassis. It needed to be as close to the side as possible and as high as possible. I couldn't get it as high as I wanted so I added some rubber pads on the step to make the step about half way from the ground to the van step, or about 9 inches above the ground.
The automation is very convenient. It withdraws back and up only when both the door is closed and when the ignition is on. It then extends as soon as the door is opened (ignition on or off). If it runs into a curb or your leg, it stops immediately. A toggle switch can be set so it retracts with the door closing and ignition not on, such as you might want in a parking lot. Ground clearance is 7 inches which is about the same as the waste plumbing.
There are several reasons for not wanting running boards. The fiberglass boards on a demo unit we saw at Sportsmobile had very flimsy mounting brackets that did not look like they would last long. The boards will get in the way of operating the dump system. The boards make the van more difficult (or impossible?) to raise on the lift at Mercedes dealers. The running boards are needed as a step only for the sliding door. Our Kwikee step makes a larger step compared to the running boards.
The 2012 Sprinter dually did not have a TPMS system option which is required in the US for new 4-wheel vehicles. It is especially important for duallys since, when one rear tire goes slowly flat, you will not notice and will ruin the tire and endanger the safety of the vehicle. After considerable research I chose the TST 507 internal system. For installation on a recent model Sprinter special valves are needed. I installed the controller (with a repeater which was probably not needed) and had the sensors installed inside the tires by a local truck tire service. More info with photos on the Sprinter forum and Sportsmobile forum. It as worked perfectly and the alarm has already warned us of a slow leak in an inside rear tire damaged in a pothole.
We ordered the Sprinter with the highest GVWR of 11,030 lbs. When all packed for 3 months in Alaska and all tanks (except holding tanks) full, we weighed Vanessa with us inside: 10,900 lbs. Sure glad we did not buy the 2500 4-wheel van. We get 18 mpg highway, 17 mpg overall.
SMB Indiana makes all cabinets and doors out of 1/2-inch plywood with a manufactured smooth colored surface on one side. Options are a dark-wood look and light gray. We chose the gray to keep the interior bright, but have added lots of photographic prints to the walls and doors. If we scratch the walls or leave holes from things we mounted and later removed, we can cover these blemishes with prints. You can find out more about these prints at Redipix.com. When ordering, choose unmounted print (bottom of price table) and the print medium WallPeel.
We are extremely happy with the large rear cabinet over the foot of the bed, as far as we know a first for SMB. The rear doors close within one inch of the cabinet openings so we do not need additional doors on the cabinet. The side panels for the cabinet are well secured to the van at the top front and bottom rear and we added a steel beam under the rear so the cabinet will hold a lot of weight. The photo lists all the things we put in the cabinet. There is an adjustable light on each of the rear doors for finding things in the cabinet at night. On the inside there are two smaller openings to the cabinet that are very convenient to the dinette and bed. The large forward face of the cabinet is a wonderful place to mount the A/V system. The cabinet sides are not tight against the windows at the bottom so we can easily reach the window controls and the shades from the dinette area, and there is plenty of room for air flow under and behind the cabinet.
The split dinette and platform bed has worked out extremely well for us. We have not seen this combination on any other SMB. The bed is quick to make up at night and take down in the morning. We do not use the backrest part of the dinette as a backrest; rather, we store it on the foot of the bed during the day. At night the seat rides forward on a drawer slide and the "backrest" drops into place. Then we pull a fitted sheet over the dinette cushions leaving a 4" gap in the center for entry and exit. In the morning we push our comforter back under the cabinet, remove the fitted sheet from each side of the dinette, lift out the backrests and slide them aft, slide the seats back, put our pillows into the hole behind the seats, and place the small pillow against the wall. These seats are very comfortable to sit in since they support your whole leg. SMB made a large block to raise the floor about 3 inches so the seats are a standard 18" above the floor. We do not set up the dinette table until dinner time. The table fits in some slots under the rear cabinet. During the day we can store things like pajamas and coats under the cabinet along with the backrests and bedding.
The bathroom is 24x48 inches which is just large enough for its purpose. On the toilet my knees (barely) do not get in the way of opening the cabinet doors. We store the toilet paper and the wastebasket for used paper under the sink. The cabinet over the toilet has toothbrushes, shampoo, shaver, etc. There is a towel rack under this cabinet.
SMB usually puts a cabinet above the sink, but I found I hit my head on it when leaning over the sink so asked to leave that out. This gives space for a large mirror. There is plenty of room in the other two cabinets for the things we need in the bathroom.
The sink faucet is used for showering. It was difficult to pull the hose out all the way so I made a wood fitting to hold the faucet over the center of the sink such that the hose will stay out all the time (see photo).
When showering, we pull curtains over the window, front cabinet, and main door. The cabinet and main doors have a water-proof vinyl bonded to the wood only on the side that faces into the shower. The curtains are still needed to keep water from going around the sides of the door. Unfortunately the wood swells in humid weather making these doors warp and hard to close and the vinyl bulges out in places.
We cook most of our meals in Vanessa. We designed the galley to be a standard 36" above the floor (SMB usually does 32"). This does not block the windows significantly while standing allows more storage beneath. The backsplash extends the full length of the counter. To protect it from breaking by using it as a handle when entering the van SMB placed a steel plate where the counter extends across the open sliding door. The screening also helps with this potential problem. We have plenty of counter space and place a dish drying pad to the left of the sink.
Sportsmobile provided standard pleated shades on all windows except the sliding door which has a drop-down fabric shade with one snap on the aft end of it, and the front (see below). The pleated shades had a number of drawbacks. Even though they came in two densities for blocking light, we wanted something that was more room darkening and provided more privacy. In addition, the shades were a difficult to raise and lower and on one the strings broke.
We made new shades using 3 layers of fabric: cotton fabric with a pleasant design on the inside, Insulbright in the middle, and a white cotton liner on the outside. The shades are an accordion shade that is stapled to a piece of wood that replaces the metal header provided by SMB. There is a bottom board in a pocket to weigh the shade down. Each shade has three columns of grommets which the operating strings run through. The strings are attached at the bottom pocket, weave through the grommets, and are threaded through screw eyes in the header board, and then travel to the left or right side of the shade – whichever is more convenient for operation. When the three-string bundle is pulled the shade raises and will be hidden behind the valance around the windows. We installed a hook on the window sill and a ring on the end of the bundle to keep the shade raised. We are very pleased with the opacity of the shades and the Insulbright (a double-sided fabric made from hollow polyester fibers with a reflective, metallicized poly center – available by the yard from Joann Fabrics) does a great job of insulating the windows.