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Old 11-02-2008, 04:38 AM   #1
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Default My miniVAN pseudo-conversion project

Well, after taking a quick look at my financial situation (and especially finding out that I'll owe money even after a short sale on my house), I've come to the conclusion that I won't be able to get my Class B RV (Sportsmobile) for at least a year or two (probably longer), and I won't be able to "upgrade" to a newer minivan.

SO, in the meantime, I've decided to try a little "experimentation" on my minivan. I have a 1998 Chrysler Town & Country LX, FWD automatic, w/ a 3.3L 2-valve V-6 engine (158@4850 hp, 203@3250 torque). Lately, as I'm driving around, I imagine some of the things that I could maybe do to my minivan to make it a half-decent weekend camper. I've resaearched countless RV's over the past year, so I kind of know what should be included. I'm hoping this project (once completed) will help me decide if RVing is something I want to do regularly (before I drop a ton of $$$ on a Sportsmobile).

Since I'm an architect (by schooling and earlier career), and I do CAD for a living, I started this project off by taking measurements of my van and drawing the thing in CAD. This will serve as a base where I can design my ideas, and eventually produce "shop drawings" for any piece of construction I need to do. This will also help me space plan things, so I can be sure things will fit, not only inside the van, but also fit me and my fiancee (who hopefully will be joining me on my camping trips!). Maybe I over-think things, but CAD is fun to me, and this "RV" project should be fun, right?

Here are some of my ideas as to what I want to do to (put in) my van, and how to use the space:

Overall:
The RV modifications will be temprary removable components. Camping for two is one thing, but I still need my minivan to be able to handle my three kids when I have them, so nothing in the "conversion" will be permanently installed. The middle two seats are removable by design, and will be removed to maximize the interior space for camping.

Driving:
Basically, I'll be leaving the two front seats (driver's and passenger's) the way they are. I was hoping the passenger seat folded forward and down (like the middle seats do) so I could use that as a table (or something) while camping, but it does NOT fold past vertical. It's a bummer, so all I can do is slide the passenger seat forward more to maximize space (length) in the back.

Living Room:
This is also a simple thing to set up, since I'll be keeping the rear seat in the van at all times. I'll just use it as my couch. This will be good for reading or just relaxing.

Sleeping:
This is also sort of an easy setup (I hope). I plan on using the existing rear seat as a "base" for the bed. By laying it flat out (open toward the rear), I have a 40" long, 48" wide "bed" area. All I would need to add is a platform of some sort w/ a padded top, to slide up to the edge of the seat, to create an extension for my legs and feet. I figure an additional 24"-28" would be plenty, since the headrests help make up another 6" of length for my head.

I do have a few ideas as to how to construct the supports of this extension, but I'm not yet sure exactly how the base platform will be constructed, or how the overall bed "system" will work. The rear seat, while folded down, makes a relatively flat surface, but I don't think it'll be flat enough for comfortable laying for long periods of time. It dips dmwn in the middle where the seatbelts are, and the edge of the seat part angles up a little, too. NOT good for when you're used to a FLAT mattress.

Maybe I need to construct some sort of flat board base that easily sits on top of the rear seat, and is supported at the foot end somehow? This would need to be easily folded into a smaller size for storage, too. Hmmm....

Storage:
Like real RV's, storage in the minivan will be an issue. I think getting one or two of those hanging organizers (w/ pockets) for the back of the passenger seat (and maybe driver's seat, depending) would be a good idea. This would keep smaller items in-place and easily accessible. Also, there is plenty of room for stuff in the "trunk" while driving, but when it comes time to lay down w/ the bed contraption, the cargo area is significantly reduced, so where would the stuff go then? There is some space for things right in front of the passenger seat (on the floor), and under the rear seat. But that's much less than the regular cargo area in the "trunk." My van does have a luggage rack, so an easy solution may be to get one of those Thule bin things and toss it onto the roof.

Entertainment:
Ah, here's the tricky part. I'm a big computer geek. And I also enjoy watching movies and listening to music. As for ideas as to WHERE to set up entertainment options, here are a few:

- vehicle system. My van actually came w/ a VCR "built-in" under the passenger seat, but there never was any monitor or screen. Perhaps I could rig something to utilize this piece of hardware. Or, maybe it's not worth it and I should remoive it? But, how would i watch this? Buy and install a separate screen? on a 10-year old van? Probably not.

- portable DVD player. My fiancee has one of these, and I have a travel case for it that hangs on the front seat for watching movies from the back This would work perfectly (until the batteries are dead).

- laptop computer. We don't own one yet, but a laptop would pretty much be a necessity for me for camping, since I want to eventually have a mobile office for my side business anyway. That way, I can watch movies, play mp3 lists, do my CAD/GIS work on-the-road, etc. This would require internet access as well, which is a whole other thread somewhere. Also, how would the laptop be powered/recharged? The cool thing is that I could set up the laptop to be my navigation, entertainment "system," and work computer for the RV.

I was thinking that, for when the rear seat is up as a couch, I could make a small portable table to use when working on the computer. Think of the small mobile table in hospitals, that slide right up to your lap. I think something DIY like that for the van would work.

Also, between the front seats there is abut 9" of width to build a little console area, sort of like what the upfitted van conversions have.

One thing I was considering was adding a "house" battery to supply all my electrical power. That way, I'm not draining the van's starter battery while camping. A small AGM may be a good investment. This would supply all the power for the camping trip, and I could maybe even install a small solar panel to charge it back up. More research into that would be necessary, but it's an idea.

Kitchen/Cooking/Washing:
I plan on keeping things simple in my minivan RV. There isn't enough room for a refrigerator to be installed anywhere, so I'll probably just use a small cooler for semi-perishable items, and just buy what I need at-the-time to minimize the amount of "stuff" inside.

I was considering building a small removable "base cabinet" that would fit in the "corner" in front of the rear seat, behind the driver's seat, and in the door "nook" complete w/ a countertop. This could be a simple cabinet, and would house a small wash basin and have a hose connecting the drain to a 5-gallon container under the "sink" as a gray water tank. The supply water could be gravity-fed either right on the countertop somewhere (the tank being raised a bit), or hung on the hooks in bladders near the ceiling. Running water, with a pump, etc, is simply not... well, simple enough.

Along w/ the sink in this countertop, I had been considering a one- or two-burner camp stove that runs on propane cylinders, but really... I don't really want to mess with propane in my minivan. I think that if I truly want to cook, I should do it outside in nature! I also considered a tiny mocrowave, but then I'd need an inverter, and then my electrical system would get even more complicated. This would leave a little more room in the cabinet for storage I guess (or maybe that battery?). And depending on the size and shape of this cabinet, the bed platform would have to be shaped and formed to install around the cabinet. A little width around thefeet would be lost, but I don't think it would be a big deal at all.

Bathroom:
Here's another tricky part. Sure, my fiancee will be with me for the camping trip, but still... privacy and "odors" will still be a big problem. I've read about the "bottles" to pee in, or using a 5-gal bucket w/ special seat on it (like an emergency toilet), and even thought about buying a Thetford Porti-Potty. My Sportsmobile would have the Thetford option, so maybe I'll just buy one early. Obviously, if we're in civilization, we'll hit the Wal-Mart or Mall or wherever and use the facilities. But for boondocking... we'll have to come up w/ a solution! One problem w/ the Porti-Potty is.. where does it go (both for storing it and using it)??

Privacy:
I've seen plenty of solutions that others have done in their vans to solve the privacy and "room darkening" issues. I'm considering a simple curtain-and-rod option to hang a black curtain all around the inside of the rear of the van. I also considered some sort of window treatments that would keep nosy people (and the light) out. The rear windows are already tinted, but the front ones are not. The curtain idea is probably going to be the easiest and cheapest, instead of cutting and making 8 separate window covers. That way I won't have to worry about the front windows and the windshield.


Well, that's all I have right now (I think). I am trying to think way ahead before doing anything on it, and the weather is getting cold, so I have plenty of time until the Spring to figure it out. Besides, it'll be a nice little winter project for me to focus on.

Eventually I will be able to afford to buy my Sportsmobile, or maybe I'll Buy a cargo van and do some DIY mods. For now, I'll mod my minivan!

Please let me know your thoughts and/or better ideas!!! You all have more experience than I do, so I'm all ears!
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Current Project: Design Phase of a DIY "Sportsmobile" in Ford E-350 EB, to include: L-shaped sofa/bed, Storage cabinets, Sink, water heater, porta-potti, 2 AGM, solar, hydronic heat, attic fan, propane, portable frig...
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Old 11-11-2008, 03:03 PM   #2
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Default Re: My miniVAN pseudo-conversion project

Well, here are the first 4 CAD production drawings/sketches. I have the basic floor plan of the van drawn in CAD, which you can see on each drawing in black. My design ideas are in red, and they were sketched (to scale) onto the base plan printouts.

In each plan, you should be able to see the front seats (on the right side of the paper), the third-row seat (which I call the rear seat) to the left, both in upright position and reclined (flat) position. The squares w/ the X's inside are the structural posts in the van. So, between those is where the sliding doors are.

This first drawing shows my ideas for a support system. This will simply be some sort of wooden members (2x4 or maybe 1x3) laid flat. The first slat will be right behind the front seats, sort of hooked into where the seat belt base compartment hits the floor. The second slat will be right in front of the rear seat's support (where the wheels are). To keep these slats in place, cross-bracing slats will be placed in between. These cross-brace slats can be positioned basically anywhere along the plane, depending on the size of my cabinet and bed extension platform. The support slats will allow stabilizing for the cabinet in both a horizontal direction (sliding) and rotational direction (tipping over) by providing a uniformed and rigid surface for fastening the cabinet to the supports. This also allows the entire system to be removed, since this whole project centers around portability and the need to "unconvert" the van for transportation of 5-7 people and cargo.


The second drawing ("Design 01") was my original idea for where the cabinet was going to go, and how it was going to be shaped. But after cutting a full-scale template out of paper and putting it into the van, and then sitting on the rear seat, I quickly realized that almost half of the seating area of the seat was lost to the cabinet. So, since there will be two people sitting and sleeping on the rear seat, a new design was needed. This setup would be pretty good for one person, though.


The third drawing ("Design 02") is an improvement on the original design, with pulling the edge of the cabinet back (towards the front) to allow foot room for sitting on the seat. The right edge of the cabinet will stop pretty much in-line w/ the edge of the driver's seat. This creates a 25" square corner for the cabinet in that "void" behind the seat and in the door well. The front edge of the cabinet will angle back to allow foot room and enough space for 2 people laying down in the bed.


The last drawing ("Design 03") extends the cabinet dimensions a little farther past the driver's seat, creating a larger cabinet. This, however, creates a slightly smaller bed extension area, which is a bad thing to me, since I'm 6'-0" tall.


So, I think I'll stick w/ Design 02 for now, and maybe tweak it a bit.

I also found a few different AGM batteries that should work for my electrical needs. Once I figure out how many Ah I need, I'll figure that size of battery into the design. It should fit nicely between the front seats, and there should be enough room to build a nice cabinet for it, complete w/ an inverter, battery monitor, etc.

Next step is to find support slat material, and build a cardboard mock-up of the cabinet to make sure it'll fit/work.
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Current Project: Design Phase of a DIY "Sportsmobile" in Ford E-350 EB, to include: L-shaped sofa/bed, Storage cabinets, Sink, water heater, porta-potti, 2 AGM, solar, hydronic heat, attic fan, propane, portable frig...
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Old 11-11-2008, 05:45 PM   #3
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Default Re: My miniVAN pseudo-conversion project

I like "Design 02"

Very clever use of space.
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Old 11-11-2008, 05:58 PM   #4
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Default Re: My miniVAN pseudo-conversion project

Thank you, Sir!

I'm trying to design something that will be functional, removable, portable, lightweight, aesthetically pleasing... AND work perfectly in a minivan's limited space. Not an easy task, but I think I'm on the right track....

More to come.
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Current Project: Design Phase of a DIY "Sportsmobile" in Ford E-350 EB, to include: L-shaped sofa/bed, Storage cabinets, Sink, water heater, porta-potti, 2 AGM, solar, hydronic heat, attic fan, propane, portable frig...
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Old 03-15-2009, 01:14 AM   #5
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Default Re: My miniVAN pseudo-conversion project

Im trying to do same with a toyota mini van. If you have sliders on both sides of the van youo could do two things. 1) but the cabinet on drawer glides so it can be pulled out 2) consider putting front seats on rv swivels at least the passenger seat. My third seat wont open flat but folds into a well so the floor is flat. Still working on how to make that all work.
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Old 03-15-2009, 01:10 PM   #6
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Default Re: My miniVAN pseudo-conversion project

A simple way to do curtains is to sew small magnets into the edges of the fabric and stick them to the metal around the windows. They are totally removable with no trace.
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Old 09-30-2009, 03:56 PM   #7
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Default Re: My miniVAN pseudo-conversion project

Well, as fun as this project was for a while, I've since decided to abandon it. The minivan is getting "up there" in mileage (154k), and it needs a few repairs, so at this point I just want to focus my energy into paying off the van loan and selling it.

I'll be converting a Ford E-350 van into a "real" RV when the time is right.

Thanks for everyone's interest in my project. It was fun while it lasted.
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