(Heating and Cooling)
Our minivan camper conversion doesn’t require much, as far as heating or cooling. For one thing, we like to go where the weather is good. We try not to be in places where it is is too hot or too cold, and that’s the nice thing about being able to travel and do it affordably. But every once in a while, we might wake up to a chilly morning. As far as sleeping, we always stay nice and comfortable using covers, without extra heat in the van. But for getting up and taking a shower (provided we stay there instead of going to the public showers), it’s always nice to warm it up a little. For that, we have a small electric, dual range ceramic heater that is only about 8-inches square. We can start it out at 1500 watts to take the chill off, and then set it back to 750 watts, which is more than enough to maintain heat in the van, even at less than 40 degrees outside. Here are some that we recommend:
For boon-docking, we have a small propane heater that is only slightly larger and does the same job. But as safe and convenient as these heaters are, the one-pound propane canister will only last about five hours in normal use. That is easily remedied by also purchasing the extension hose shown below so that you can run the hose outside and attach it to a larger propane canister, such as a 20-pounder. (The heater has a built-in regulator, so you won’t need one on the hose.) With that, you should get two to three days of overnight heating. Many people don’t like to use the “throw-away” small canisters anyway, and the larger ones are refillable, so that is an added bonus.
Also, keep in mind that even though you have two settings on this heater, it will run constantly, no matter what the temperature. In other words it doesn’t have a “degree setting” thermostat on it. With that in mind, it is going to make a difference in your own comfort as to what the outside temperature is, how fast your quarters are going to lose heat (tents will lose heat much faster than a vehicle with interior lining or insulation), and where you place the heater for best effect. In milder overnight temperatures (above 40 degrees) you may find that a warm sleeping bag will get you by overnight, and then turn on the heater to take the chill off when you get up in the morning.
For personal safety, make sure you always read and observe what the safe clearances are for ANY given heating appliance, especially in front of and above the unit. Heat rises, so make sure you don’t destroy anything in front of or above the unit! Make sure it can’t have anything moved in front of it (like bed covers) during the night, and if you have pets, make sure that they can’t accidentally trip over the hose or the unit and knock it over. Even though it shuts off automatically, the front could still be hot enough to ignite something. This unit will shut off if it senses a low level of oxygen, but always allow for a little ventilation and use a carbon monoxide detector, a propane detector AND a smoke detector to be safe!
We also don’t worry about cooling too much, because we try not to go to places where it is too warm or the humidity is too high in the summer time. If we’re out boon-docking, and we just need a little bit of cooling off, there is an easy trick you can use to get some cool air on a 12-volt circuit, but you have to remember to pick up some ice before you come back to camp. Watch the video to see how it’s done (and no that’s not me!):
But for the rare occasions when we feel a need to have air conditioning, we don’t boon-dock. We make sure we are somewhere with power available. In those cases we can use a small portable air conditioner that sets on the floor behind the passenger seat and has hoses that go out through the front passenger window. If it gets in the way up there, we can set it in the rear tent and run the hoses out through special openings that are created in the tent especially for the hoses. There are so many different sizes and models, that I won’t try to recommend a particular brand or model, but give you some pointers instead.
For one, make sure you get one with TWO hoses, not just one. The portion of these units that does the work of cooling has to have a constant supply of outside air, and then has to exhaust hot air in another direction, the same as any home air conditioner, whether it be a window unit or central air. They all operate on the same principal. That seems like it would be common sense, but there are some units made that only have one exhaust port on them. They try to use room air to do the cooling, but when it is exhausted it creates a negative pressure in the room, causing outside air to be drawn into the room from wherever it can, which is usually warm air from outside. That makes the unit extremely inefficient. You need a unit that pulls air from outside, through the cooling portion of the unit, and then exhausts that same air back outside. That way, your room air stays cool, and the unit doesn’t have to work as hard to keep it cool.
Also, any kind of cooling unit is also going to draw the humidity out of the air. It has to go somewhere! Some of them have evaporator pans at the bottom and claim to be “self-draining” by blowing air over the condensate water to evaporate it. In reality, in very high humidity, the process may not keep up, and the pan could overflow on the floor unless you empty it regularly. Most units will have a drain connection of some kind, so that you can run a hose out the door, and that is usually the best option. On a window unit, you don’t have to worry about either one of these problems, since the outside portion remains outside the window, and all air transfer or condensate build-up remains outside.
The other advantage of a small window air-conditioner is that they are lot more plentiful, available almost anywhere, and are almost always less expensive. The only drawback is the looks.
Some people will think it looks “tacky” to have a window air conditioner installed in a vehicle, no matter where you put it. But let’s face it… you aren’t going to need it all the time, if at all, and for the rare times when you might have to resort to using it, there are some things you can do to make it look better. The very easiest is to make sure that it blends in with your vehicle. If your vehicle is “cream color” you shouldn’t have a problem, as that’s what most air conditioners are. But if your vehicle is dark green, as ours is, all you have to do is get a spray can of matching paint from any auto parts store and paint the metal or plywood plate that holds the air conditioner into the window, as well as the outside portion of the air conditioner itself. Although the expandable wings are handy for normal house windows, you may not have room for them on a vehicle window, or the shape of the window opening will not be square, and you’ll find they probably won’t work.
That’s why I recommend a filler plate to fit the window opening, with a hole in it cut to fit the air conditioner. But be sure that when you paint, you don’t paint the aluminum fins of the air conditioner unit itself, as any paint on those surfaces will take away from the efficiency of the unit.
There are also small, very thin air conditioners made for truck campers that are only a few inches thick. We have one of them on our own truck camper, and it is very efficient. If an air conditioner like that would fit in the side window or possibly a rear door window of a van, it could be mounted there. An aluminum or plywood “plate” could be made to fit the window opening, with a hole in it to fit the air conditioner. As long as it fits tight at the top, a simple metal strip or tabs at the bottom, to fit in the slot for the window glass, and a sliding strip at the top to raise into the upper glass track is all that it would take to mount it in place where you have roll-up windows. On a side or rear window, some kind of “clamp” mechanism might have to be fabricated, but is entirely do-able. A couple of wing nuts (preferably on the inside for security) is all that it would take to hold it. Just be sure to measure your window as well as the air conditioner, to make sure that it will fit!
But again, with space at a premium, if you can get by without one, that’s probably best. If you are out and about during the hottest part of the day, it will probably cool off enough by the time you park for the night, that you can get by with just a fan. After all, the whole idea of freedom is being able to go where the better weather takes you.
As a standard part of the gear for your minivan camper, a small box fan is an absolute necessity. The fan doesn’t have to be any more than a 10 to 12 inch diameter size, and usually a “box” fan works better than a round “wire-cage” style fan. Try to get one with at least two, preferably three speeds on it.. They draw very little power, and are easy to store. A 12-volt fan can also be used in lieu of a 120-volt fan. The decision might be based on where and how you plan to travel with your van, and how much battery power to have.
We recently discovered a type of fan which is very “power friendly”. A Fantastic vent fan, for instance, draws roughly a full amp (on 12 volts) even at low speed. But these Hella fans are smaller, quieter, and draw only about 200 milliamps, which is 2/10ths of an amp, or only 20% of what a Fantastic vent fan would draw. Some smaller ones draw even less. The mounting is considerably different, though. Instead of going through a wall or roof, these fans have a “U” shaped bracket that can be mounted almost anywhere. The bracket can be swiveled, and the angle of the fan can be tilted within the bracket, to direct the air wherever you need it. Although the size is also smaller than a Fantastic vent fan, one of the users of these fans says that he uses two of them in his truck camper, and they circulate plenty of air without draining the battery. He boon-docks a lot on the beaches of Mexico, and his solar panels have to keep up with usage, and he claims these fans work very well.
Hella makes many different models, some in white and some in black, but here is one we highly recommend:
Another similar type of fan that we recommend is the “O2 Cool Fan”, which is much less expensive, and comes in several different models of both powered and battery models. One slick piece of ingenuity with these type of fans is laying them flatways across a cooler filled with ice, so the air blows upward. The fan will pick up the chilled air and circulate it within your vehicle or tent, like an evaporative cooler… well… until you run out of ice, that is! Rather than show them all to you here, we will show an example, and if you want a different model just search the Amazon web site when you get there through our link.
Another way to cool things down, if you happen to live in a drier climate is an evaporative cooler. In the southwest, they are typically called “swamp coolers” because even though they do cool things down, they also introduce humidity to the air. The operation is simple, and doesn’t need as much power. A small motor drives a fan which pulls air through a fiber mat that is constantly drenched in water. On larger, home units, they may also contain a small pump which pushes the water to the top of the unit where it is dispersed through a tube with many holes in it, to drip over a fiber mat. Smaller units may have a “squirrel-cage” type drum with a mat on it, which is also driven by the fan motor, and it simply “dips” into the water at the bottom of the unit. The fan draws air through the mat, and the evaporative action can cool the outbound air by as much as 20 degrees. However, the ambient humidity in the air affects the efficiency of the unit, and if you are above a 55 dew point temperature, you might as well forget it.
These units come in all sizes, including littlehand-held units. Truckers that operate in the southwest sometimes use them instead of regular air-conditioners in their trucks when stopped for rest, and many of the portable units are sold by truck stops and trucker’s supply sources. However, just like an air conditioner, they lose efficiency when recirculating room air that is already getting saturated with moisture. They work better when they can pull dry air from the outside, wtih a way to move it through the space and push it out at the other side of the room. We’ll show you a smaller unit, that could be well-suited to a small RV, and if want to see more, just search “evaporative cooler” when you get to the Amazon site.